Need for Identity

I had an awkward moment yesterday. It was one of those moments where I just had to say what everyone in the room was thinking, but no one wanted to say it. The room was full of students. The elephant in the room was no one could articulate what makes our high school great. No one could identify with one particular thing. No one could come up with six consistent iconic symbols that would encapsulate our student body. And everyone felt uneasy for that one moment when we knew what thought was hanging in the room. We have a problem, Houston.

Then, in an effort to try and bring some resolve to this thinking, I described how it was when we opened this school. How different things were – and how the students were charged with the task of leading a school to become something. And they did. They owned the programs. As advisers of Broadcast, Newspaper, Theatre, Yearbook, and NHS, we would sit around and talk about how these students had grandiose ideas – and they worked to make them happen. How risk-taking was a norm. And as teachers, we loved it.

The students have not changed. They still come into this school with sparks of hope – wanting to own a piece of this experience. But something has changed. Whether it is the high stakes testing, the need for certain college acceptances, or the pressure to take a full AP schedule, something has changed how the students are committed to this school. They are consumers, not co-owners, not producers.

The thing about culture I find fascinating is how it is created off actions and behaviors. One can’t simply say, “Here’s the culture I want,” and POOF! it’ll happen. No, it must be intentionally fostered, watched, guided. When we, the staff, opened up Eastern, we were very cognizant of the culture we wanted to create. We took ownership of the school by fostering certain behaviors and opportunities for students, and by sticking to these beliefs that we were the ones making big shifts and leading.

Yes, something has changed. Whether as a staff we still believe we can make big shifts is an unknown. Whether we are standing together to create a culture is an unknown. Whether we trust the system to support us is an unknown. And with all of these unknowns, it is no surprise that behaviors have changed, and the collective identity has been shaken.

We have chosen to ask students daily if they are hearing us when we talk about learning goals… if they see our learning goals on the board… if they are “paying attention.” Oh, yes, last night’s conversation was very telling – the students are paying attention. Just not in the way most of us would hope.

And today, like most days, I am left with more questions than answers… Why are we telling them their learning goals? Why are they not articulating them to us? Or why are we not helping them to create them for themselves through guided conversation? How will we ever get back to the majority of students owning their school experience if we are still stuffing goals at them without their involvement in the process? Where is the ownership by the students? Why have we taken two steps backward in an announced effort to become a 21st Century school? And with our student demographics changing at such a rate, we are we throwing learning goals at every student as if a one-size-fits-all approach is still okay?

I don’t have the answers. But movement for the sake of movement leaves some things behind. These behaviors of telling students how and what to learn will most certainly create a school culture. Is this really what we want our students to become?

— My takeaway from last night is how I still get to work with amazing students. Their honesty and open involvement in the conversation was amazing. And I left being more committed to them and the success of our endeavor. They truly do want to own the experience. They do want to be amazing creators. And I still get to be a part of this.

Diving and Drowning… An exploration from under the surface.

It is Sunday night. A night wherein I sit and wonder what I am doing as of late, and if anyone will see the shift I am trying to make in my classroom.

This fall… well, I am certain these ideas were planted several months ago… I made a promise to just teach and do what I knew in my heart was right for the kids. So, I made the dive into the depths of collaborating around the globe, and set my sights on lofty goals, including a paperless, project-oriented English 9 classroom and a gamified computer-information-systems course. And things are going well. So much so that I cannot keep up. Students are engaged. They want more. Only with my current schedule… I cannot keep up.

I dove into great things because that’s what we do as teachers. We take risks. We want what’s best for our kids. And I stay under the water, submerged, by choice. Under the surface, in the depths of innovation and change, there is a brilliant scene unfolding.

And I wonder how long I will be able to stay here, without coming up for air.

Someone tell me I will soon develop gills. I don’t want to leave this adventure.

Sheila – Woman on a Mission

We went to Lelapa Restaurant in Langa township tonight. This is not your ordinary place to drop by on a random evening. Arrangements must be made, plans put in motion in advance. The restaurant is located in Langa township. It takes a small army to keep it safe, to monitor the cars outside, to prepare the meals, to supply the music, to provide a South African dining experience.

The restaurant’s owner, Sheila, has a life story that would make most of our lives look flat. She came from the townships, learned how to be an entrepreneur on her own and over the past 40 years has established herself and her restaurant in her community as a thriving business.
Her home, the restaurant, has gone through many renovations, including growing in size, having the walls redone, concrete floor poured, and being wired for electricity. It is hard to even fathom the amount of energy it took her to raise that much money in order to keep growing and sustaining her ventures. This transformation started over 40 years ago.
Working as a housecleaner, one day she discovered a receipt laying on the table for R39.96 (~$4). The receipt was merely to purchase wine and cheese, yet was the equivalent of her weekly pay.
As she stated, “At that moment, I realized I was being valued the same as wine and cheese. I was not okay with this.”
Her story weaves the tale of a woman balancing two jobs, night school, finding imbalance and the need for change, making her own way, becoming a business owner – traveling to Bangkok, Thailand to purchase goods and selling them back in South Africa. After numerous trips like this, she was earning enough to keep growing the home’s capacities. Sheila did all of this in the middle of social upheaval and political unrest.
The life story continued, and as she spoke, weaving in dry humor and life observations, I realized behind the food and community and home renovations was a woman of steel and an all-too-relevant life lesson. Her persistence and work ethic enabled her to build the life she wanted. Nowadays we all are facing hurdles and obstacles from all directions. Teacher morale has been shaken and some teachers are not sure how to move forward in the face of such seemingly unsurmountable adversity. The lesson is this… if Sheila can build this fantastic space and community cornerstone out of nothing but her intrinsic drive and hard work, we can make a choice to not let the obstacles in education define or steer us. We can rise above.

An overdue letter

Realizing this blog is professional in nature, the following post comes during a time while I am experiencing a multitude of new endeavors and people. While away, a few things from home reached me and significantly pulled at my heartstrings. I am a firm believer in signs, cause-and-effect, and how one event can trigger a ripple effect. For a couple of years now I have been meaning to write a thank you note to my parents. And, as always, something else came up – I got distracted – and the letter went unwritten.

As I sit 8,000+ miles away, a few text messages arrived that shook me. Knowing I have missed a multitude of inspired moments, this letter is lacking in many ways, but the time is now. It must get written.*

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I fly around with the day-to-day, I find myself in moments thinking “if it weren’t for my parents, this would have never happened.” “If it weren’t for their consistent expectation of this [insert one of many family values], I would not have been helpful in this situation.” “If they didn’t take the time to teach me this [insert any number of life and social skills], I would have been lost.”

And since I have had so many of these thoughts… and I mean consistently am so grateful to have you as my parents, I am starting to think you may feel under appreciated – mainly because I really have not sat down written a lengthy thank-you note. And while small thank-you’s here and there are nice, I don’t think it encapsulates my gratitude.

Dad, growing up under your guidance was a struggle. We both have laughed over this in the past decade or so, but the high expectations and the voice of “you can always do better” was hard. Sometimes really hard. Thank you. Thank you for making it tough to meet those expectations. Thank you for making me edit and revise. Thank you for catching for me when we both knew I needed to pitch… for reminding me of what it takes to reach greatness… for giving me your honest opinion, even when we clashed heads.

With all that seriousness about work, you also taught me how to laugh at myself. Dad, living with you meant having to be on guard for whatever jokes may fly. It meant my stomach might hurt after dinner, not from eating, but from laughing. It meant that I would need to grow a thick skin in order to survive just growing up in the house. 🙂

This past year as I was teaching Book Thief to my freshmen, I was reading aloud the part about Michael. For the first time – in front of 30 adolescents – I felt like I was seeing through your eyes maybe just a little bit of what it’s like to be you, a Vietnam veteran. I was so sure that this is what you must have been thinking, as friends have passed, that I was crying as I was reading to the class. Literally, tears running, and I had to stop and explain to them what was happening in my head. I’m not sure if it meant anything to them, but it was a profound moment for me. I only had this moment because you shared with me over time how you had been feeling and what happened in Vietnam. I carry these talks, lessons, and shared experiences with me – please know this. They are never lost. And while you may have found peace over the past several years, I am your child, and as observant as children are, have watched you struggle at different stages in life and have watched you try to make sense of the world. Thank you for modeling that patience and understanding that we may not always have the answers right when we need them. It has been invaluable.

Mom, I am quite certain you may not ascertain how highly I think of you. I am a tough daughter. I get it. We get on each other’s nerves at times. But I also think we flow very well when we are clicking. But there is so much I have not said, that even this modicum of gratitude will only scrape the surface.

Watching your face as I said that I was heading to South Africa, it looked as if you may not have fully approved. And for a moment I was caught with a sudden dissonance. I couldn’t understand why, but after several days now, it is clear. I didn’t understand why you would’t want me to go – you have brought me up to try new things, to reach outside my comfort zone, to break barriers, and to keep learning and sharing. Some of the very reasons I wanted, no – needed, to go on this trip. We both are aware of when people fall into “bubbles” in society and how the lenses we see through can get foggy. Growing up, you consistently took us outside the bubble and have us extend ourselves beyond the local neighborhood. Part of why I am on this trip is to continue to learn the lessons you began way back when, and in turn bring those back to my kids – both my children and my students. And this is the same as you have done for years for your kids – both your children and your students. You modeled being a great teacher, learner, and sharer.

As an independent child, I have very bluntly at times let you know that I didn’t want any “talks” or “lessons.” And, instead of fighting me on this growing up, you developed a very refined way of working the conversations in different opportune times. I never have articulated that I noticed what you were doing, and often challenged you all the more, but you were good – really good. You kept your patience, and still managed to parent even the most obstinant of children. Years later, here I sit – as a teacher and as a mom, and find myself looking at mirror personalities of that same independent child. Oh, how, I know what I put you through. And, while at times, it is entertaining, it is also emotionally and mentally draining. You are a rockstar mom, and I take many of the lessons I learned from you and apply them daily to my parenting practices.

Being a mom is the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s hard to live up to the child’s expectations, one’s own personal expectations, and even society’s expectations. Mom, this may be the hardest for me because you made it look so easy. You were such a good mom. (And, yes, I know while we were in the thick of adolescence I was a kid with tough expectations.) Thank you for living a life of goals and achievements, learning, and sharing, altered housing, and revised itineraries. Those shared moments have shown when to afford patience and acceptance, and when to adjust and make strides. It’s given me a first-hand perspective that we can reinvent ourselves at any time – and change the course of our own lives if needed. I owe my success to you and Dad. With you and Dad, without the open discussions of tribulations and celebrations, life would surely look different for me and my family.

Dad and Mom, I know this moment that I would not be where I am today without you. And not just because of what you did when I was growing up, but because I find myself consistently leaning on you for support. Whether it’s to watch the kiddos for a bit, or take Murphy, or just to let me stop over and sip coffee. Your openness and understanding has been a life-saver – more than you know. Thank you for continuing to provide me a place of refuge and reflection.

To the both of you – many times while you are playing with the kiddos, I find myself so happy. Overjoyed, in fact. My kids bring such joy to you. It’s those moments that I relish and keep close to my heart.

I cannot wait to see you again when I get home. I love you both very much.

Kelly Girl

*One never knows when a moment to share might be missed. If you have the need to send a message to a loved one, do it.

Arriving to South Africa

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about going half away around the world. My kids are 20+ hours and an ocean away from me. I’m traveling to a place with which I am unfamiliar. And this trip completes almost a month of being away from home. Did I mention the 16-hour flight with me confined to a seat? Yes, there are reasons for concern.

This trip to South Africa is a teaching trip. The paperwork at the end of the day says I am going to teach teachers educational technology. But as a teacher who uses a lot of tech… my heart has to justify traveling so far away from my family with the untouchables… It is never just about the technology.

What kept me coming to South Africa was a multi-fold reasoning. First, my kids. My own students and my children need constant modeling. By extending myself into new experiences, I am modeling growth, development, and lifelong learning. My students will benefit straight away with the connections being made, and perspective gained. My own two kids may not see the fruit of these labors for years, as they are little at the moment. In due time I expect they’ll come to respect my choices to take on challenges and opportunities.

The next reason is for personal growth. Much of my PLN speaks of spending the summer “filling up one’s cup” before returning to work. We expend so much of ourselves while teaching during the school year that our summer time is for learning, growing, sharing, and building up the good stuff – so that in the most difficult moments in the next nine months, we may remain grounded and patient because we have rebuilt our personal foundation during the summer.

I wanted to make the trip to be better as a global citizen. My students, at least some of them, live in a bubble – where the world they know is very sheltered or protected. The level of understanding of what the world has gone through is through an edited textbook or a tourist realm. If I can bring a small glimpse as to the reality of the human story, struggle, and strength back to my classroom then the work to get here was all worth it.

And, at the end of the day, as many of my colleagues from around the world have said, preached, recited, and sang – we are what we share. As a teacher, I am constantly amazed at my PLN. The teachers with whom I have connected and have worked are talented, passionate, caring, and invested in making the world better. They provide me with ideas, inspiration, and support. By going to South Africa, my hope is to provide colleagues, new and old, with anything they might find useful or valuable. Not only do I get to share with South African teachers, but I also want to share the trip itself. My pictures and videos, and stories, all to share. My newly connected classroom relationships to bridge continental divides. I am indebted to many individuals near and far. I stand on the shoulders of giants. We are all #BetterTogether.

I could not have done any of this without a team effort by my husband, family, friends, professional organizations, and sponsors. I feel very blessed and lucky to be going. With this opportunity, it is my goal to share as much as possible before, during, and after the experience.

Bringing Modern Media to the Yearbook Publication

Below is an example of the augmented reality we embedded into the 2013 yearbook.

Using Adobe Premiere Pro, my students created a movie to introduce our yearbook and show how we created the cover image. We then used Aurasma to associate the movie to the cover image as an aura. By opening the Aurasma app, finding/following user “fhe,” and holding the phone over the image – the aura loads and one can watch the content associated with the cover of the yearbook.

Learning. Roots and Wings.

Another week goes by, and another change. Spread Your Wings Into The Earth

Now I am not sure how to describe in any small modicum of space the journey I have been on in the last six years as an educator, or how messed up our school culture has become due to lack of attention, but I will say that some of this post is about coming back to what I know is right after a long road down a path that was very misguided. So, some of the learning this week has been about getting back to roots… and giving students wings.

It is the “research paper unit.”
It is an obligatory part of the 9th grade curriculum.
Only this time the other teachers and I looked at each other, and without words, knew we could not do it the same way as it has been done in the past. The final product will not be the same ole “research paper.”

So, we let all of the students pick their own topic. We let them decide from where to procure their research. And we let the entire process define the teachable moments.

And we have *finally* had good amounts of failure. And I say this enthusiastically. By taking away the “step-by-step how to write a research paper” lock-step, we allowed for stumbles. Students have made wrong turns when researching. Students have formed guided questions that lacked enough direction for adequate research. I could go on and on. It’s these failures and trip-ups that have given way to significant positive growth. Über cognizant of my role as a facilitator for quality research, quality inquiry and idea development, I am not going to answer the “just-give-me-the-answer” questions for them. And it’s working. They are getting better all the time.

We, my colleagues and I, know we have done the right thing shifting away from the assumed rote curriculum because the students are getting “involved.” Their brains are hurting. They are coming to us for questions, clarification… They are pushing (and at times begging) for us just to give them the right answer, as the current school culture has them trained to do… But we are not. Will not. The learning processes happening are just too good. And our students are in turn revising their thought processes, finding a way, making strides.

The unit is affording genuine conversations on topics to which students are drawn. The research practices opened up conversations on digital literacy, informational literacy, and time management. The students are learning more than just “the research paper.” The end product is simply a by-product of a thoughtful learning experience. Next week, the plan is to develop a creative way to present or promote their research; it may be an application, a digital story/documentary, a photo essay, etc. etc.

The “research paper unit,” one of the historically most dreaded units in 9th grade English. It’s not known to be adventurous like the Odyssey, or suspenseful like “Most Dangerous Game,” or creative like writing a personal narrative. It just was one of those things that has to be done. But this time around it’s different. A some-kind-of-wonderful different.

My Take-Away from Macul 2013

coffee mugMacul Conference 2013 ended about 10 days ago. While I have been attending and/or working the conference for over 13 years, I will say without a doubt – that this conference ranks right at the top. There were enough quotables, sessions, events, and memories to take with me for a long time. But the most powerful, moving idea that the conference produced for me was to take permission to do what is right for kids and learning. No. Matter. What.

For the past several years, my job (and its duties) has been spun around, renamed, reallocated, redefined, and flipped on end. For a while, I was a walking contradiction. Asked to just be a “teacher,” and then undercut when teaching. Asked to carryout specific tasks, and then not supported when doing so. And something got lost. I became so “obedient” to the system – I lost the perspective of what was RIGHT. My colleagues looked at me differently – I was looking at me differently.

So much change brought forth an uncertainty. To whom do I listen? To whom do I give my time? Do I leave the classroom? Do I stay? Do I try and make a leap somewhere? And I became unhappy.

I had fallen so far away from what I love to do that I was actually convincing myself that maybe I should leave. Colleagues have said, “You are too talented to teach.” What does that mean????? “Too talented to teach.” I was approaching my graduates with fervor, earnestness, and a desire to know what I did that made those past classes so great. Why they miss yearbook class… Why we still stay in touch… What did I do right, and why was it so fun? The graduates gave their feedback. But it was Macul ’13 that brought it home.

In the end, Macul 2013 reminded me that a good teacher has nothing to fear. We are a strong collaborative group of highly talented individuals trying to grow the next generation. To instill confidence and passion into our students. To be that change we want to see in the world.

To say the past few years have been difficult would be an understatement. But this past week or so was such a gift. To watch colleagues in action. To remind oneself of what really makes teachers, including myself, happy. I look forward going forth in confidence knowing that I may shake the system; I may be called on the carpet to justify my actions; I will be going against a culture of routine homework assignments, grades, and procedural practices to do what’s right for kids. I wholly and fully welcome that conversation. It is overdue. Way overdue.

Back to the classroom with cleaner goggles on. Clarity. Perspective. Rejuvenation. Affirmation. And a deep desire to connect with my kids so the last few weeks of school, I can push the envelope and challenge them to grow even more.

I will leave this post with a special thank you to the CUE Macul Roadtrip team. I am indebted to them for their collegiality and pushing teachers everywhere to be the best for kids. Thank you.