Category Archives: Reflection

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.

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.

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.

An Altered Allusion

Last fall, a colleague came to me and informed me that Ray Bradbury’s book, Fahrenheit 451, had been edited. Ironically, a book against censorship and the dumbing down of society had been castrated. One of its primary allusions had been changed. The publisher changed the word from “cave” to “café.”

Did the editor even know this small editorial choice did this? Took away a philosophical reference? Did the editor consider that an author chooses his words with care? To any reader who cherishes Ray Bradbury, and his message, it was a slap in the face. I can see Socrates, Plato, and Bradbury shaking their heads in plain awe.

Did the publishing company even care to double check the edits? For the sake of making the reading easier, did they think for a moment that maybe that specific word choice was to jog the reader’s mind and have them question it’s placement?

It was a word. It was juxtaposed in the text to illuminate the point. It was an allusion to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

The number of times that I have thought about this edit by the publishing company could be enumerated by the same number of times I have thought about the very allusion to which the original word references.

To be “enlightened.” To walk toward the light. To adjust one’s vision. And more importantly, to consciously walk toward the light – knowing that life will never be the same once you have left the cave. To walk toward the light even if one experience’s pain and fear. To continue the walk toward the light.

As life continues to unveil itself as a series of opportunities to “leave the cave” and walk toward light, I am left asking:
-How can we teach students about complexity when the texts are being made simpler?
-How will future generations know the difference once all the old texts have gone away?
-How can the truths of Bradbury (and even that of Plato) continue to help develop society when they are sublimely being eliminated or dulled?

There are times when I have left a cave… seen the light. And realized in that moment how many people are left watching the shadows dance on the wall thinking they themselves have seen the light. I wonder if Aaron Swartz looked back and saw how many people were still in the cave believing in the shadows when it came to the laws of censorship. I wonder if he just felt overwhelmed. How great is this fight to retain a knowledgeable, articulate, free-thinking society… this democracy. The texts are changing right beneath us.

That’s why we teach, right? To help the individual decide if they want to leave the cave and see the light? At least give the reader the option… don’t take away that choice.

A word, a look, a moment – no matter how small the instance… sometimes occurs for a definitive purpose.

Photo/Image By: Kym Coutts

Socrates would be proud.

Kate Olson’s recent post, Digital Confusion, discusses much of what I have been reflecting on lately. I also have been wondering about the greater picture behind the blogosphere… Kate writes:

The great thing about opening up our worlds to comments is that we’re able to hear other sides of an issue and gain perspective – when people link to a blog post of mine and rant about why I’m wrong, it’s eye-opening to see how differently someone else thinks about the same issue (and links are always good, right?) and it’s great to be able to chime in on the comments on THEIR post to tell my side.

Kate continues to wonder what impact this is going to have on kids, as far as being open to scrutiny on the web. Here are some thoughts:

Maybe the blogosphere is supposed to bring us full circle. Socrates believed the best education was in the form of a question. Maybe the blogosphere in some strange way is supposed to bring us back to that same philosophy. The best answer is maybe another question. Maybe we don’t have it all figured out. Maybe we blog to ask the deeper questions about why we do what we do. Maybe we blog because we want to hear the other questions from a different perspective.

We get in trouble when we take things personally, and not academically. The bigger question, or idea, gets lost in the doubt and anxiety. Shift is happening because of a communal dialogue, not because of one person having all the answers. Shift happens because of the questioning, the requestioning, and the reflection behind the questions.

Our kids would be better off writing, blogging, sharing ideas, than believing there is always one right answer. Sometimes there isn’t, and for them they need to understand that’s okay. It’s what makes us human. What should we do with our children and the internet? Teach them how to question, requestion, and reflect. That’s the best any of us can do.

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After reading Will Richardson’s post “On Twitter and Balance,” I had to sit back and reflect for a second. I have been twittering for a relatively short period of time, and yet I am completely hooked. I sign it at school. I sign in at home. And my big question was why?

Gary Stager said in his preso yesterday how nothing substantial is ever gained in Twitter. Is this true?

Helen Keller’s famous quote personifies my need for Twitter at this point, “Keep your face to the sunshine, and you cannot see the shadow.” Twitter has become the community of teachers that most don’t find in a school. A community of positive communication, true empathy at times, and a constant sounding board. And what makes it great is the idea of giving. In order for this educational community to exist there must be a certain amount of deprivatization of the classroom and personal practices. However, the current reality of the local HS situation leaves much to be desired. I wait for the day when my colleagues at the HS will be okay with exploring each others’ practices and presentations. Where dialogue is open and ideas are shared. Until then I have my twitterverse. Twitter provides an environment for system change that one cannot find in a local school on most days. It provides the climate of open-curriculum and community through which constructive dialogue, criticism and applause can be gleaned. At this point in our educational system, while trying to catch up with years of innovation, is there a thing as too much twittering – when the potential of a seamlessly small webapp could bring inherent change to a static antiquated system? I think not.

I tweet therefore I am the change I hope to bring to the system.

Head is FULL.

After sitting through sessions all day… there is one thing I know. Every attendee should also receive a play day right after this conference. What good does it do to learn all of these great technologies, if one can’t take a day (or two) and put pieces together?

Today I heard a session on using cellphones in the classroom – which isn’t new, but NEW was the amount of tools created specifically for the cellphone and collaboration. (all links are posted on my delicious acct.) I was actually excited again about revisiting this tool. Now, I just need the time to sit down and put a plan of action together.

And, let’s face it, I let a year or two pass- did not update my Moodle version. Same goes for other software… and now, I am burned by hours of time. Time to install, time to set up preferences, time to restart the whole program into the classroom. Back-ups and restores.

So, as I sit here excited about everything I can take with me today, there is also a heavy sigh that comes with the renewed interest.