This was a hard post to write. I wrote and re-wrote it many times in my head before ever committing anything to paper. And then I re-wrote it another 100 times.
Why? Because I'm scared I'm going to screw it up. That I will, with the best of intentions, say something that offends and in doing so I will not be the ally I believe myself to be. I have seen this sentiment over and over again from many white people trying to do and say the right thing. We're terrified we're going to say the wrong thing. But that, in itself, is privilege; I can choose whether or not to say something. I can choose whether to stay silent or stand up. Not everyone has that privilege and so I write and I beg forgiveness and ask you to gently tell me if I get it wrong and how I can get it right.
I struggle with how to tell my daughters about the atrocities committed against the BIPOC community. They are young and curious and sensitive. They live in a Mr. Roger's world where, when things go horribly wrong, we say "look for the helpers" and they look for the paramedics and the firefighters and, yeah, the police. They have been taught to look for someone in uniform if they need help, so how do I explain to them that not everyone in uniform always does the right thing? That some people in uniform believe that there is hierarchy amongst people, a hierarchy predicated on colour and gender? That these people may not even really know that they hold these beliefs? That these beliefs are embedded in the very systems that support our communities? How do I tell them that some people are not safe, even when, - especially when - the police are there?
"How do I tell them" is my privilege. I can choose if I tell my girls about the hate and racism and violence in the world. I can choose how much or how little to tell them. And I can continue to tell them that the police will help them if they are lost or hurt or scared, because they will. It is a privilege that I have but that many mothers do not. It is a privilege that breaks my heart just thinking about it. It is because of this privilege that I have to say something, that I have to actively educate myself and my children on being anti-racist.
I have been actively educating myself about being an anti-racist for a while now, although I just learned the term not long ago while listening to Stamped by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi. But I haven't been actively educating my kids. Why? Honestly, because I haven't had to. We, as a family, have not been forced to confront racism head on and therefore we haven't. It's a difficult, complex problem with many unanswerable questions. It unearths some of the ugliest parts of humanity that I'm not sure I want my kids to know about yet. I don't have a clue how to explain any of it to my children and so I don't, kind of like some parents shying away from conversations about sex and body parts. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about, so I don't. That, I realize, is a problem. I am not a racist but I'm not an anti-racist either. It's hard to be an anti-racist and yet never say anything to your children. Once again, my privilege rears it's ugly head.
I don't think that my situation is unique. I think there are many moms and dads out there just like me - white, in a predominantly white town. Wanting to do the right thing, to be an ally, to be an anti-racist, but not knowing how. Sure, we've talked about residential schools around the dinner table when my daughter began learning about them in school. We expressly value diversity in the way we talk about others. We encourage our kids to examine their own biases and the biases of others. But nothing has forced us into a conversation about being an anti-racist; at no point have we ever been confronted with overt racism that forced us to talk about it with our kids. Privilege.
How in the hell do you broach the subject of systemic racism with kids who have almost zero context for it? Yet again, privilege.
We work hard to raise our kids to appreciate that human diversity- in skin tone, in sexuality, in beliefs, in interests, in life choices - is beautiful as long as it doesn't hurt yourself, other people or the planet. The absence of overt racism in their young lives, my friends, is my children's privilege. Racism isn't a thing in their world (yet) because it doesn't have to be (yet). I wish it wouldn't ever have to be but I know now that in order to be an ally, to be an anti-racist, it isn't enough to just teach my kids to be good, kind, people with wide-open minds and hearts. I must actively point out where the systems are flawed, where people fall through the cracks nobody even knew were there, where society holds up mirrors and doors for some and walls for others.
It's hard to figure out how to broach this difficult conversation in an age-appropriate way (not nearly as hard, though, as having to explain to your black son what he needs to do to not get killed today. Not.Even.Close.). I started this morning, by sharing this video of a young black man singing with my 8 year old daughter. "Why is he singing that mom?" she asked, opening the door to the conversation. I gratefully stepped through that open door and began explaining; as she has little context for this kind of racism her attention span quickly waned but the conversation was started. And so, I share that video here, in case it helps you too start the conversation in your house. We can all be allies, sometimes we just need to know where to start.
I continued that conversation this evening, with my 10 year old, with a slightly different entry point. She overheard my husband and I talking about the riots and wanted to know more. She had a lot of difficulty wrapping her brain around why a man, any person really, would kneel on someone's neck for any reason whatsoever. She could not fathom how someone could cause another person deliberate pain and suffering, could not make sense of such a horrific act. She could not understand why people would stand by and film and not step in. And while I cannot help her make sense of this act (because it doesn't make sense), I can help her understand how people can be led to believe certain things about certain people or groups of people, often with even realizing it. I can help her understand that we must be actively aware of what we are being told and check it against our own beliefs. For this, I used something that Trevor Mackenzie, an author and educator, posted on Instagram. I googled "five white teens" and showed it to my daughter, asking her to describe what she saw and the emotions that the images portrayed. Then I googled "five black teens" and repeated the process. Try it yourself and see just how thought provoking it is. (For the record, I have also googled "five indigenous teens" just to see what came up. Again, food for thought.)
As teachers, we can have thought-provoking conversations using structures like Trevor Mackenzie's provocations. We can actively teach about truth and reconciliation. We can avoid the crafts and activities that unintentionally uphold the status quo. We can fill our classrooms with books that actively center BIPOC characters, even if our classrooms are filled with white faces. We can learn and unlearn, question our own beliefs, closely examine what we're teaching to be sure that it reflects the truth of history, not just our history. We can teach kids to be kind, caring and empathetic, to value diversity, to be allies, to spot injustice and do something about it. We can find colleagues who are also doing the work and support each other.
I plan to continue this conversation with, not surprisingly, books. There is a saying amongst educators that books can be mirrors to reflect yourself, windows to peek through to the lives of others and doors to step through into other worlds entirely. We need more books in our classrooms that allow all children to see their own lives and experiences reflected back at them while also allowing the opportunity for windows and doors in to lives that are different from their own. Imagine never having a read a book with a main character who had the same colour skin or was the same gender as you; imagine what you would internalize about your worth if you thought that no one had bothered to center your life and your experiences in literature, despite there being thousands of books on the shelf. We need to actively promote, at home and at school, books that center diverse experiences so that everyone feels seen and everyone gets a chance to see.
While the conversation about anti-racism may seem hard, the steps that you can take to begin the conversation are there. Take them. For the sake of the mothers and fathers and grandparents and friends who don't have the privilege of not taking them, take them. For the kids who need us to make the world a better place, take them. Own your privilege and then do something with it. It's not enough to say I am not a racist. We must become an anti-racist.
A ton of book lists have popped up on the internet over the last few days. A few are pictured above. I have linked a few more here:
EmbraceRace.org has a list of primarily non-fiction or historical fiction for kids. It includes many books about race issues in Canada as well as the U.S.
This list of teen books about social justice from the Seattle Public Library is a comprehensive look at not just racism but many other social justice issues as well.
These lists, from Kids Books in Vancouver, help you start and continue conversations about racism.
Check out these tips on how white parents can open the door to conversations about racism from CommonSenseMedia.org (easily one of my favourite sites on the internet).
Finally, follow BIPOC authors on social media. Buy their books. Read their books. Give their books to everyone you know, especially to kids. Follow the hashtags #ownvoices and #weneeddiversebooks and you will quickly find a community that centers and highlights stories that need to be told.
Last week we hit THAT stage. You know, the one where the kids no longer think the whole "emergency remote learning" thing is fun any more, cookies have been baked, muffins have been baked, rocks have been painted, books have been read, yada yada yada and every afternoon starts and ends with "I'm sooooooo bored.". Yeah, that one.
Not gonna lie, at first those words were like nails on a chalkboard. "What do you mean you're bored?! You have schoolwork to do and toys to play with and grandparents to call, and and and!" In between Zoom calls and emails, I was not really in the mood to find them things to do (and out came grouchy mama, who, let's be honest, no one really likes).
But then, I sat with it a bit and realized that this was exactly where I wanted my kids to be. Bored out of their trees.
Yes, it was totally annoying at first and yes, it made for some tense discussions ("No, I do not know what you should do right now, just like I didn't know 10 minutes ago!") but once my kids realized that they were on their own, they began to get creative. They spent hours up a tree in the backyard, hauling up notebooks & snacks so they could design the tree house of their dreams (also, I'm pretty sure they were spying on the neighbours). They built Lego and made up stories and discovered stop motion animation. They built forts in the front yard and made up dance routines and re-read books and learned about science on Wonders with Charlie. In short, they got creative.
Research tells us that there are benefits to boredom. Among other things, it has been shown to spark creativity, develop problem-solving skills and enhance interpersonal skills. Coincidentally (or not?) these skills are what make up the so-called "soft skills" or "21st century skills" that schools are embracing and employers are demanding. By letting my kids be bored, I am literally preparing them for the future.
Let me repeat that - By letting my kids be bored, I'm giving them the very skills they need to be successful as adults.
In our hyper-scheduled, tech-filled lives there isn't a lot of space for boredom. We bounce from activity to activity, pulling out our phones any time we have to wait for even the slightest amount of time. Rarely do we just sit and stare off in to space, rarely do we have lazy Sunday afternoons where the kids roam the backyard while we pull weeds. Paradoxically, our attachment to technology is actually making us more prone to boredom, as we never give ourselves the chance to actually practice being bored (who knew it took practice?). By never letting our kids (or ourselves) be bored, we are preventing them from developing the skills that they need to be successful as they get older.
Boredom has also been shown to improve mental health, which is undeniably important in this day and age. Although it can seem uncomfortable at first, boredom allows our brains (and our children's brains) to process thoughts and feelings, instead of pushing them away by mindlessly scrolling our social feeds. It allows our kids to work through social challenges by encouraging them to seek out other kids and negotiate the terms of reference for play. And it gives us all a chance to rest and recharge by being alone.
So the next time your kid says "I'm bored", don't hand them your phone. Respond like we do in our house - "I'm sure you'll figure something out" or, my husband's personal favourite, "There are dishes to be done and toilets to be cleaned" (the kids disappear faster than you can say go with this one). Give them the opportunity to rattle around the house and the yard, picking things up and putting them down, bouncing from one activity to the next before they finally settle on something (and not the TV). Feel good about the fact that you are actually helping your kids by not entertaining them every minute of every day.
Because maybe we need to focus on letting kids be bored more than we need to "teach" them 21st century skills. Maybe our goal as parents in this time should be giving our children the gift of boredom so that they naturally develop the skills we have been relying on the schools to teach. Maybe the kids who are allowed to be bored through this will actually come out ahead, curious, creative and ready to take on the world.
Last week we fell off the bandwagon. The kids slept in later and later, my husband and I went to bed later and later, lunch was a maybe, dinner wasn't happening until 7 or 8pm...and we felt it. We were all out of sorts, not sure what to do with ourselves (even though there was lots to be done) and getting on each other's nerves because of it. So this week, we are pulling our socks up; we are dialing the routine back in so that we can be out best selves.
Now my kids haven't hit their teen years (yet) but I teach teens and I know that there is a lot of sleeping in going on these days. And while there's nothing wrong with a good sleep in, not having a routine is hard on the human brain. You see, we're wired for patterns - our brains seek out patterns (and connection!) all the time. When you remove familiar patterns, the brain isn't quite sure what to do and it gets discombobulated (I love that word). And, friends? Discombobulated brains are grumpy brains. Ugh. No one wants a grumpy teen (or tween, or husband, or toddler, really).
I created the graphic above to help you help your tween or teen add some routine in to their days. You might want to start by getting their butts out of bed a bit earlier, then feed them a healthy breakfast, before helping them set up their list of Need To Dos and Want to Dos for the day. I like this structure because it's basically a grown-up version of a "First...Then...Next" - first, I do something that I NEED to do, then I do something I WANT to do, next, back to another NEED to do. This helps teens learn healthy, productive work habits that will serve them well as they grow older and it provides a sense of control for those kids that are prone to anxiety. If you have a child who struggles with executive functioning skills (attention, focus, organization, planning), you may need to use a First-Then-Next structure or you may need to help them lay their day out in time blocks to be sure everything gets done.
I was up nice and early this morning and I can tell you that I already feel better - more energized and ready to face the day, rather than sluggish and searching for caffeine. My kids will be up shortly and we'll lay out our days together, building in time for work and time for play. Now that's a routine I can get behind!
This is Part 2 of a series about trying to figure out the whole work-from-home-learn-from-home conundrum that many families currently find themselves in. For Part 1, click here.
I get it. This whole work-from-home-learn-from-home thing is tough. I am currently trying to balance teaching from home while my two kids navigate online schooling. My husband is still working outside of the house, although he does work from home on occasion. Neither kid is particularly thrilled with the options they are being given online and both are spending significantly more time on devices than they have before. One kid gets pretty anxious if she doesn't know exactly what is required of her, while the other needs her learning embedded in play or she won't touch it. We have had meltdowns and outright refusal. Both kids have successfully submitted a few assignments, with some cajoling on our part. Thankfully, both of their teachers are very understanding and have given us the freedom to do what we like and leave the rest. Still, it's been a long week.
In my previous post, I talked about the mindset we need to have going in to this situation. I fully recognize, though, that mindset often isn't enough. Sometimes we just need someone to tell us what to do and how to do it.
That, my friends, is this post.
Below, I have 4 different examples of how you can set your children up to be independently learning throughout the day, every day. They are appropriate for a wide variety of ages, learning styles and home situations. Feel free to mix and match and add your own flair. Find a style & rhythm that works for your family and go for it!
My friend and fellow teacher created this fantastic system of choice for her son using coloured popsicle sticks and an empty picture frame. He chooses 1 popsicle stick in each category every day, plus "I-time", which are all independent activities so mama can work (cause, you know, work-from-home-learn-from-home applies to teachers too). I love that she has created a schedule for the day that isn't dialled in to the minute but rather moves fluidly around all-important meal times. Keeping meals and sleep schedules routine right now is so important for kids! Also, can we just take a moment to appreciate her kid-level command corner? So easy for her boy to feel ownership over his activities when the choice is at his level!
Next up, I was contacted by a literacy helping teacher from Delta school district here in BC asking if they could modify my work to hand out to parents. I just love what they have done with it and hope that parents & teachers in their school district find it useful. I am literate, I am numerate, I am curious and I am kind, indeed.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't share what we have done in my own household. I have two very different personalities for kids; one is absolutely a planner who likes to have a schedule to follow, the other is more of a free-spirit who wants to go where the winds take her (that and stay in her pyjamas every day, all day). The oldest has created a printable schedule for this week based on what her teacher has sent her, although she moved away from the strict times she had set for herself the week before. 5 things to complete a day, including outdoor time and free time.
For the older kids, I created a graphic with some tips on setting up your learning space and creating a routine that works for tweens and teens. You can download that here.
The youngest wanted the freedom to put together a different plan each day so we created this fun magnet board (based on this post from Craftaholics Anonymous). We spray painted a cookie sheet white but that was deemed boring so she added her own flair with acrylic paint. A little bit of washi tape divvied up the board in to To Do & Done.
The day's to-dos move over to the done side as she completes them, with no requirements for when they happen or in what order. The key to this plan is that my kiddo is in control of what her day looks like, from choosing which activities to do to when to do them. She chooses at breakfast each morning and then I check in with her throughout the day to see how she's doing on accomplishing her goals. We briefly discuss what each one is going to look like for that day ("What are you planning to read today?" "What is science going to look like? An explosion - oh...maybe you should save that for tomorrow when I can help you." etc.) but we stay flexible in case anything comes up during the day.
She gets to move forward one space on the "game board" at the bottom for every activity she completes for the day (I don't actually care if she gets one in each category tbh but if I don't put a bit of pressure on she will literally read all day. All. Day.). Since this one is motivated by incentives, we also put together a pompom jar; every time her mover makes it to the star (i.e. she completes all her activities for the day) she gets to put a pompom in the jar. When the jar is full, she gets a reward.
Here's a close up of some of the tokens. They are colour-coded to match the Literate, Numerate, Curious & Kind graphic that I created (download a copy here), with the addition of some free time and chores. We laminated them and the little one hot glued magnets on the back. Click on the download button below to grab an editable copy of the tokens & reward "game" board.
I highly recommend sitting down with your child and coming up with 2-5 activities per category that you know a) they can do independently, b) make sense in your household (no hogging the only iPad!) and c) are interesting to them. This doesn't really take long and practically guarantees a higher level of independence and interest when it comes to choosing and actually doing the day's activities. See "Learning At Home" for activities, tips and links to keep your child busy learning all day and have them choose with you!
Remember, these options are here to help you frame your child's day, not recreate a school environment. They provide a structure that is manageable for working parents; allowing your child to have voice and choice in what they do and when they do it gives you the freedom to work around Zoom meetings, phone calls or urgent emails. Empowering your kids with a sense of independence and control goes a long way to making them motivated to accomplish the day's learning goals. I can't promise that every day will be sunshine and roses with one of these systems, but my hope is that you find some ease and flow to your days and that you are better able to cope with, and maybe even enjoy, working and learning from home.
See Part 1 of this post - all about shifting your mindset as your family works and learns from home - here.
You guys. I have been completely overwhelmed by the response to my graphic support for whatever we are calling this work-from-home-learn-from-home hybrid. And what we're calling it is, apparently, a pretty big sticking point for many people. Stickler for language that I am, I get it. Labelling it homeschooling puts pressure on parents who are already feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped. Calling it distance learning puts pressure on teachers who are already feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped. Nobody wants to feel added pressure right now, especially not people feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped (seeing a pattern, yet?).
Over the last couple of weeks I've heard from lots of parents and seen several rants on social media about the amount of school work being offered/required; some saying it's way too much and stressing their families out and others begging for more in order to keep their children occupied with something other than Netflix while they try to put in an 8-hour work day. Sometimes these two perspectives are referring to the same teacher and the same class!
I get both sides. It's incredibly hard to work when a child is interrupting you every 5 minutes because they are bored; it's just as hard to see your kid becoming more and more anxious as the amount of work they are being asked to do overwhelms them. And none of us wants our kids watching 8 hours of Netflix a day. As a teacher, navigating these differences is incredibly difficult, since they are two very different ends of a spectrum.
What's a parent to do?
1. Don't try to replicate the curriculum. As much as we would like to believe that learning is this clear, linear set of steps to follow, it isn't. Curriculum differs province to province and state to state, with the same topics being taught at different grade levels depending on where you are. Getting mired in trying to figure out what exactly your child should be learning is an exercise in frustration. Do yourself a favor and just go buy one of those big books of curriculum activities that they sell at Costco; it will be close enough and way less frustrating (except, maybe if you have to wait in line. I've heard the lines at Costco are insane). Alternatively, let your intuition be your guide and get curious alongside your child; grab the "teachable moments" and ask questions that guide your child to deeper understandings.
2. Get comfortable with more technology use than usual. This doesn't mean being ok with hour after hour of Netflix or video games. It means that in the absence of an available adult to teach your child, they are going to have to get their learning from a device (or free play, that's always a good teacher). My kids spent a couple of hours straight on their devices yesterday while I was in a Zoom meeting; ordinarily, 2 hours of screen time would send me in to fits. Yesterday, though? I was ok with it, partially because one kid was learning German on Duolingo and the other was playing a math game called Prodigy, partially because it bought me the time I needed.
3. Find a rhythm that works for your family. Learning doesn't have to happen from 8:30 to 2:30. My kids have been good for a couple of hours of learning in the morning and then they fade. We usually try to get some fresh air together at lunch (a quick walk around the neighbourhood) and then they do their own thing in the afternoon. This might be playing, crafting, reading, watching a show or whatever else their little hearts desire as long as I don't have to supervise. Then, around 4 or 5, they find a second wind and finish off another hour of learning, often with dad home to help.
4. Offer lots of voice & choice. People are more likely to engage in something when they feel like they have had a say in the matter. Allow your kids to guide what and how they are learning right now, within a framework that you establish (may I suggest the graphic above as a guide?). See Part 2 of this post for examples of how to successfully set up a learning routine in your house so that it includes voice & choice.
5. Roll with the punches. Every classroom teacher knows that there are some days where you just push pause on the day's learning plan and head outside for an extra recess (that or risk losing your mind while the kids climb the walls). Take a page out of their book and allow some days to be more relaxed than others. Got a big meeting you need to focus on? Let the kids watch a show. Having trouble getting the little one out of her pyjamas? Hey, schools have pyjama day theme days don't they? Remember, routine is important but so is flexibility.
6. Let go of your notion of "school". As a teacher, I cannot tell you how hopeful I am that we come out of this with the understanding that school today should not be the school of yesterday. We have a real opportunity in this moment to see that learning - real, meaningful learning - happens all the time, in a myriad of different ways not bound by curriculum or led by teachers.
What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent - in the broadest and best sense, intelligent - is not having access to more and more learning places, resources and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill and judgment, and that makes an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them. - John Holt
School is not going to be school right now. It's going to be free play and reading books and drawing pictures and baking cakes and watching birds fly and wondering where they go. It's going to be educational TV shows and not-so educational TV shows and Facetime with gramma and making collections and building Lego and cleaning up Lego and maybe doing that worksheet that the teacher sent because she's finally bored enough to try it. All of this is learning; good, solid, quality learning.
In the end, try to remember that everyone (literally, in the entire world) is in the same boat. When life returns to normal and the kids are back at school, it will be impossible to tell who spent 3 months working through the curriculum that their teacher placed online and who spent those same 3 months reading books, playing games and exploring their interests. Do what you need to do to keep yourself and your kids sane. Try to get some learning in every day but don't sweat it.
Still not quite sure how to structure learning in your house right now? Want more of a plan? Check out Part 2 of this post for examples of how you can put together a system for learning that will keep your kids occupied and loving learning.
Wow! What a ride these past couple of weeks have been. School has been cancelled across most of North America, many (most?) people are working from home and businesses are closed everywhere. While it has been a trying time for many, I'll admit that I've stuck my head in the sand a bit, consciously focusing on the fact that I, and my kids, are actually on Spring Break and not yet subject to the craziness of work and learn from home. We needed a rest and I am doing my best to guarantee we are getting it, even if the world has gone haywire.
But. I've been watching.
I've been watching as parents take to social media to rant about how challenging it is to teach & work & parent. I've been watching as school districts scramble to figure out how to provide "continuity of service", manage equity and access issues and support our most vulnerable learners. I've been watching as teachers do their damndest to learn new platforms, adapt materials and connect with students in meaningful ways.
And I've been wondering how I can help. I've been wondering what this might look like in my own home when the time comes. Over and over again I've seen parents frustrated that their kids won't stay focused on the task at hand, that the work being sent home is too challenging/not challenging enough/confusing/in another language (literally. A friend posted that they were unable to do some of the assignments because the instructions were in Spanish and no one in their house spoke enough Spanish to understand them). Which leaves me wondering:
It's that last question that really got me thinking. What CAN'T wait until September? What do our kids, everyone's kids, need to be learning and doing every single day, even without a coronavirus-induced isolation? What can parents support with a limited knowledge of pedagogy and curriculum?
My answer came in the form of my main teaching mantra (you can read more about what a teaching mantra is here) - Literate, Numerate, Curious & Kind. This is what I want all kids to grow up to become and what I try to ensure I have targeted each day, each week, in my teaching. As you can see in the graphic below, I added Healthy to this list, as in times like these I believe it is fundamentally important that we also focus on our physical and mental health. I think that parents can support their kids in these areas in simple, fun and meaningful ways. It may not be what they would have been taught in school, but it might just be what they need right now.
So, without further rambling, here it is - things you can do at home that will help your child (or your students, please feel free to send this to parents) stay Literate, Numerate, Curious, Kind & Healthy, while simultaneously maintaining your sanity. Just click on the image to download a copy.
You can find links to a wide variety of high-quality on and offline activities in each of these categories by clicking For Parents above. My hope is that these activities help you navigate this work-from-home-learn-from-home reality in a way that gives everyone in your family the time, space and grace that is needed to keep doing what you're doing in the best way you know how.
I hope this helps! As always, but maybe more so now than ever before, I would love to hear from you. Your comments keep me from feeling like I'm shouting into the void.
Stay sane, stay healthy,
"These are unprecedented times."
I have read this statement over and over again, in my email, on my social media feeds, in the news. It seems to be the best way to explain the unexplainable, to lead in to cancellations of school and activities, to preempt questions with no easy answers. We, the adults, have never lived through something that has prompted this level of response locally, federally or globally*. We have no frame of reference, no past experience to reach for, no stories to tell. It is unnerving, to say the least.
Here's the thing, though. Kids don't understand big words like "unprecedented"; heck, most adults don't. Simply, it means that something like this has never happened before, sure, but that statement, the one at the top of the page? It means so much more than that. It means we don't know what this is. It means we don't know how to react. It means we're all swimming in murky, uncharted waters trying to make really complex decisions that may affect a lot of people, but maybe not, we're not sure, oh and by the way we also need to come out of this with some way to feed our families and maintain our sanity.
So how do we explain this to kids? How do we maintain some sense of normalcy when even going to the grocery store causes us to second guess ourselves?
Tell the truth...but not the whole truth.
Kids are incredibly perceptive little things. Teens are even more so. Hiding the truth or making up stories only leads them to wonder what you're hiding and why. At the same time, they may not be developmentally ready to hear the whole truth and nothing but the truth, especially when it is big, scary and pretty vague, even for the adults. Explain things simply and factually, without bringing your own fears, uncertainties or speculations in to it. Emphasize that for most people it is a mild, flu-like illness that everyone can help to prevent. Talk about the things they can do - washing hands, staying away from friends, coughing and sneezing into their elbow. Make it clear that the biggest challenge isn't that any one individual will get the disease but that so many people will get it at once that the hospitals won't be able to cope. The more people we can keep from getting it, the easier a time the hospitals will have helping those who do need help.
Use Videos and Demonstrations to help explain
This morning, I watched a couple of videos on YouTube with my kids that showed how germs are spread. It helped to explain why we needed to stay 6ft away from other people and cough into our elbows. One was a neat experiment that you could do at home (as long as you don't mind cleaning up confetti); fill a balloon with confetti, inflate it and then hold it next to your face as you release it. The confetti represents the germs and man, do they spread far and wide! It really helped my 8 year old understand why she needed to visit her friends from across the street!
Respect their feelings
When this whole situation began unfolding, my oldest daughter experienced a fair bit of anxiety around it. Although we didn't want her to panic, we also respected her wishes so that she felt she had control in a very uncontrollable situation. It meant we missed a dinner with her grandparents but it made her feel better and showed her that her fears and anxiety were just as valid as our fears and concerns.
Situations feel scarier when we don't have a sense of control. Although it may not seem like we have any control over the world-wide impacts of the disease, there is actually a lot we can do to help control the spread of COVID-19. Taking small actions, like practicing social distancing, washing our hands, decorating our windows and helping out our neighbours are concrete ways that we can control the situation. You can get your kids involved by talking to them about ways we can safely help out, from buying local to boosting spirits with messages in sidewalk chalk.
Talking to our kids about big, scary, nebulous things can be tough. It can be even tougher when we feel uncertain and anxious about them. Sticking to the facts, validating their concerns and finding simple ways to take action can all go a long ways to making this time feel a little less overwhelming.
*I realize this statement is not 100% true. WWII, SARS and H1N1 elicited significant responses world-wide. However, most adults of working age have never experienced closed borders, school closures or the quarantine of entire cities and countries. Pieces of it, sure, but not the whole kit and caboodle.
Twice a week I go to a 6am yoga class. I like to get there early in order to claim my favourite spot by the window, the one that lets me watch the sun rise as I practice. Once I've got my mat laid out and my body settled on it, I drift off a bit until class starts. Not sleeping, but not quite awake either. I'm usually awoken from my not-awake-yet-not-asleep stupor by the calm voice of the instructor, pulling us all together and giving us a focus for the class. Not too long ago, though, my instructor opened with a single word: Accessibility. Not a word you would typically expect to hear at the opening of a yoga class full of able-bodied individuals ready to move and sweat. But that's the word that my instructor offered up - accessibility. She followed up with the idea that we're all following the same set series of postures but we all arrive in different states, with different needs and different abilities. Some of us were maybe celebrating a bit last night and don't feel so fantastic today (wink, wink), some of us are feeling really keen and eager to push ourselves, some of us are a bit apathetic but know that this is the right thing to be doing right now. Some of us are uber-bendy, some of us not so much (hello!) and some of us are nursing injuries or other physical challenges. Regardless of how or why we are showing up, we can all be included in the same sequence of postures. By making use of more accessible offerings, slight or not-so-slight adaptations to a pose, everyone can participate. As I was lying there listening to this it resonated so deeply - 'Why can't school be more like yoga? It's basically the same thing...a bunch of kids following the same basic sequence but needing different accessibility options. YES."
The idea of school being like yoga ran through my head all day. I have a natural tendency to try to see things from all angles (a good and bad thing, let me tell you!), so I bounced this one back and forth for quite awhile. Is a classroom actually like a yoga class? Can we actually apply the same (or similar) strategies to kids? How exactly would this work? After rattling around in my brain for quite some time, I finally came to some conclusions.
Clearly, there are some pretty significant differences between a voluntarily-attended yoga class for adults and a required school day for kiddos. For starters, there's a fair bit more choice - choosing to attend yoga instead of spin or boot camp, choosing the time of day that suits you, even choosing the instructor that suits you. This aspect of choice leads to a group of individuals who should be more motivated to be there and improve. Secondly, these are drop in classes; while some of the students may stay consistent week to week, others may drift in and out. There is a different sense of urgency in this environment than there is in a classroom, where there is a constant expectation of growth and change. Finally, there is no singular goal or purpose for a yoga class; people come to stretch, to strengthen, to calm their minds, to center their souls. They take what they need and leave the rest. Not a perfect fit but I still think the idea fits. Read on.
So what works? What makes the idea of accessibility in yoga such a powerful one for our classrooms? Accessibility in yoga classes draws on a number of fairly simple ideas. One, the yoga class follows a standard set of postures, often called a series; some types of yoga have a very strict series that never wavers while others draw from a variety of poses to create something new each time. Either way, the poses become routine the more you practice, leaving space for individual yogis to adapt or modify them as needed. Even when I am introduced to a brand new pose, I can draw on what I know about how my body moves through other poses to consider how I might make this pose more accessible.
A second idea embedded in all the yoga classes I attend is the idea of taking what you need from what is being offered, which is different from taking what is offered. The first time I attended a yoga class where I saw someone lie in shivasana (corpse pose) for the entire class, I was dumbfounded. Lie there for an entire class? That's a thing? All of a sudden, I felt freed to stop pushing so hard and take rest when I needed it, a novel idea to a life-long competitive athlete.
Yoga also emphasizes both the inner and the outer worlds, encouraging us to practice in community (there is something magical about a collective sigh) but focus inward while we are there, moving away from the comparison that can come with being with others and into the support that is also there. Finally, and fundamentally, yoga is for everybody. Literally, every body. Everyone is welcomed, included and encouraged to participate to the fullest extent that they can. I don't feel shame when I fall out of a pose or take a modification; I feel encouraged, I feel supported and, most of all, I feel free to try again or take rest, whatever I need in that moment.
So, how does this translate to a classroom full of 5, 10 or 15 year olds?
As much as some of us balk at the idea of the routine, it serves a few very definite purposes. 1) It lets us, kids and adults, know what to expect, alleviating anxiety and energy spent on wondering what's coming. 2) When things become routine it actually frees up brain space, allowing for deeper thinking and learning. 3) Routines save time. No more explaining where the crayons go or what to do after lunch...it just happens. Magically.
Yes, setting up routines can seem to take forever...like, all of September and in to October forever...but the payoff is totally worth it. When the basics of your classroom run like clockwork you can really get in to the good stuff with calm, confident kiddos. Besides, no one wants to be explaining where the pencils are kept in June.
Accessibility is for Everyone
In yoga classes, the instructor never says - "Hey, Bryn, while everyone else is doing X, you'll be doing Y." Instead, they offer the adaptations up to everyone - "If you have bad knees or ankles, you may want to try X instead" or "If this is feeling good for you today, stay here. If you want to go deeper, try this." I can then decide which option I want to pursue without feeling singled out or less than anyone else.
There are so many fantastic websites these days that allow you to scale your reading and math tasks to a variety of levels. Using a site such as Newsela for example, you can print an article at 5 different reading levels and invite students to choose the one that best suits them today. Say something along the lines of "I have printed an article about ______ for us to explore together. On the front table you will see 3 different versions of the article; each provides the same information. The one on the right uses more familiar vocabulary and shorter sentences, while the one on the left will challenge you with interesting new words and a slightly more in-depth look at the topic. Please choose the one that suits you today." Worried that they might always choose an article below their reading level? Make a note of those students that seem to be doing this and set aside time for a conversation about this. Be curious about why they are choosing what they are choosing and champion their ability to try something a bit more challenging.
Allow lots of voice & choice
Being included means having a say in what is happening to you. Sometimes we forget how little of their day kids actually have control over; from what time to get up, to where be, when to be there, how to do things, kids of all ages lead fairly controlled lives. Inviting them to be a part of the design of the day, in whatever way you can, makes them feel like their thoughts and opinions matter, which means they matter. Allow them to choose their seating plan, their presentation method or their book club book. Already doing this? Dive deeper by bringing inquiry or genius hour into your classroom.
Offer opportunities for rest
There is this strange phenomenon that seems to take place in education, in which we expect kids to show up every single day, in the same mood and the same mindset as the day before and the day before that. In many ways we do it to save our sanity - planning for the known is much easier than planning for the unknown. It isn't fair to us and it isn't fair to students, though; if we don't acknowledge the fluctuations in energy and emotion that come with being human we risk an explosion. If we can shift to trusting kids to take rest when rest is needed we just might be able to get them further in the long run.
Acknowledge natural variations in ability
Not everyone comes to yoga being able to do handstands and side crow; heck, most people are working on just touching their toes. But you know what? The instructors know that and they plan for it. They incorporate blocks and straps, they provide adaptations, they break the poses down in to baby steps. You can do the same. Instead of going for a one-size-fits-none approach, plan for the natural variation in your class. Low-floor, high-ceiling tasks, literacy and numeracy stations, graphic organizers and Universal Design for Learning are just a few of the options you can try to meet the needs of every learner in your class.
As a teacher, your job is to make sure that each day, each kid makes forward progress on their path. Some days they will make huge leaps, other days they may seem to stall out; some kids may zoom ahead, while others make the tiniest little gains. It's all ok. As long as you, their teacher, recognize that learning and development aren't actually as linear as our school system would have us believe, you can meet their needs and keep them moving forward. And that, my friend, is the biggest and most important job of them all.
I have been diving deep, reeeaaallly deep, in to math lately. Anyone who knows me well (or knew me in high school) is probably a bit baffled at the moment. Bryn? Math? What?? Math was never my thing and to this day I still don't have my multiplication facts memorized (those 6, 7 and 8s are just killer. Anyone know why?). I'm learning to love math, but it's been a long, bumpy road.
To know where this animosity to math came from, we have to go back to elementary school. I have distinct memories of being the kid out in the hall with the parent volunteer and the flash cards, counting on my fingers not-so-subtly hidden under the desk. These memories are paired quite clearly with a feeling of inadequacy - as I struggled to memorize my math facts, as I lost the "math battle" in class one more time, as I tried to hide the fact that I still counted on my fingers, my inadequacies seemed to be on display for everyone to see. Interestingly, I don't have memories of anyone, student, teacher or parent, directly telling me I wasn't good at math; the unspoken message was just as powerful and damaging as a spoken one.
Fast forward a few years to junior high and timed math drills; by this point I had pretty much given up on ever being good at math. Instead, I chose to preserve my sense of self-worth by actively rebelling against the math drill rather than be beaten by it every single time. If I didn't care how I did then it couldn't hurt me when I didn't do well. This pattern, of me rejecting math before it could reject me, continued in to high school and I passed Gr 12 math with 57%. I don't remember what grades I got in any other class in high school but that one; for a long time I carried it as a badge of honor, joking about how little effort I had put in to the class, how close I had come to failing. The "pride" I felt in that mark didn't come from feeling successful, it came from having beat the system, from having put in pretty close to no effort and not failing. By turning the whole thing into a joke I was once again protecting myself.
Looking back now, I can see a few places where things went wrong for me. For one, I was discouraged from using my fingers at much too young of an age. I still needed the concrete (I don't visualize well) but was told I shouldn't be using it, so I took to hiding it out of shame. I was also being taught using the idea that math was an exercise in rote memorization when what I really needed it to be was an exercise in automaticity. I needed someone teaching me to use what I knew to figure out what I didn't. Finally, the pressures of timed drills and the shame that came with public comparison made me choose self-preservation over learning. Later, in high school, I encountered the notion of one right way to get to one right answer, which never worked for me and drove me even further from seeing math as anything but hellish torture.
Fast forward to when I moved to teaching middle school and met a whole bunch of kids just like me; struggling to keep up, feeling ashamed that they couldn't do it and copping attitude to hide it. Girls, in particular, seemed to be struggling the most. When I started sitting down with these kiddos, I realized that some of them hadn't even mastered subitizing, much less their basic facts, the distributive property or any strategies to help themselves figure out how to get to an answer. These kids had fallen victim to the same trap I had - a belief that math is primarily a practice of memorization and applying algorithms and they weren't good at it.
This belief, deeply rooted in our education system, needs to be changed. We need to allow kids to make connections between what they know and what they don't, we need to encourage them to use all the tools available to them and we need to give them so much more time to play with concepts before expecting/anticipating mastery.
I am not trying to shame any of my teachers in telling my story; they were doing what they thought to be best practice at the time. I would hazard a guess that most teachers nowadays are still practicing in a similar way, not through lack of desire to teach well but through lack of knowledge and understanding, based on a deeply rooted sense that math is, at its core, an exercise in memorization (a notion that curriculum and textbooks do little to dispel, but that's a rant for another day).
We need to do better for our little people so that they can grow in to big people who don't feel shame about math, who don't push math away in order to maintain their sense of self-worth.
Interested in learning more? Here are 3 great places to start:
Build Math Minds - Christina Tondevold dubs herself "the recovering traditionalist". She has a number of great free videos and tools, along with a membership-only community. Although her work is primarily aimed at K-5, I have found that I use a ton of her stuff to support my struggling middle-schoolers.
Gfletchy progression videos - Graham Fletcher's website has a great combination of information and cool teaching tools. His progression videos have been so helpful for me in understanding how we learn math.
Make Math Moments That Matter - Jon Orr & Kyle Pearce also strike a great balance between really useful information and inspiring math teaching ideas. They also have a podcast, which is great for listening to on the way to work!
If you teach math, to little people, big people or those refreshingly honest middle grade people, I encourage you to explore the why behind how you're teaching math. There's a whole world out there beyond the algorithm that your students need to see. My 13 year old self (and all the kids just like her) thanks you.
Me: What are you working on?
Student: An inquiry project.
Me: Cool. What's your topic?
Student: Well, I'm wondering...what if the way we understand things is maybe only that way because that's what we were taught but that we actually all see things differently and we just don't know it? Like, what if we all see the sky as different colours but everyone calls it blue because that's what we were told when we were little? But maybe my sky is actually yellow and your's is green, y'know?
Me: (stunned silence).
Conversations like this one are why I love teaching middle school. It's this sweet spot of budding self-awareness that makes them wonder the most interesting things about behaviour, particularly social behaviour, without irony or cynicism. This kid is wondering something so simple yet so incredibly complex that it colours (pun intended) our day to day actions every single day. Most of us go through life as if everyone around us sees the world in the exact same way. We are taught, implicitly for the most part, that our way, our family's way, our culture's way, of seeing the world, of interpreting the actions of others, of understanding those that are not like us, is the right way, the only way. And we fail to notice what my student noticed - that it's entirely possible that we are seeing the same thing completely differently, even as we call it the same name.
In order to help our students grow, we need to be willing to change our perceptions of who they are and why they're acting a certain way. As Stuart Shankar says "...consider whose trajectory needs to change. The starting point for changing a child's trajectory begins with our perception of that child." By allowing ourselves to develop a narrative around a child, without considering that our narrative might be inaccurate, are we helping or hindering that child's trajectory?
How can we change the narrative around a child? How can we change our own perceptions so that we see the child in a positive light instead of a negative one? When your interactions with a child are negative, day in and day out, it can seem impossible. You have to start by breaking the cycle of assumptions that can swirl around some kids, often growing to the point where it obscures the child themselves. We have to be willing to ask "What if I'm wrong about this kid?" and then dig in a bit. Sit for a moment with the idea that what you believe to be true about a student may be coloured by your own perceptions of that student. Allow space for that student's own voice to enter the conversation, as hard as that may be. Know that unless we change the narrative, unless we change our own trajectory, we feed the cycle of misperception and negativity surrounding that child. Move forward with the intent to change your own trajectory, not the student's.
So, what can we do today to build stronger, more positive relationships with our students? Here are 5 perspective-shifting practices you can start any time.
1. Stay positive.
It can be really easy to buy in to negative thinking around a student, particularly if they are very emotionally draining. It is so common, even necessary, to blow off our frustrations with other adults. Often though, blowing off frustrations becomes a bitch session with like-minded individuals, fuelling the fires that say there is one right way to see the world, one right way to be in the world. When you need to blow off steam (and you will), seek out colleagues who listen with empathy but don't add fuel to the fire. Seek out colleagues who will, at the end of the day, help you see the good in even the most frustrating kiddos. Do you have to be super positive every moment of every day? No. Not only is that unrealistic, it's also unhealthy. It's also unhealthy, though, to stay in a negative frame of mind about a kiddo long-term; find at least one positive thing about that kid and repeat it like a mantra to yourself when things get challenging.
2. Stop labelling.
Labelling students - people, really - is an insidious behaviour that happens constantly. It can be so subtle that you don't even notice it happening or it can be right up there in your face, unavoidable and constant. Sometimes labels can be useful - getting us extra support for a student, for example - but often labels serve more to keep people in their place than anything else. Stop using labels - good kid, bad kid, IEP kid - to define who a student is and start using them to inform how you might support that kid.
3. Try the 2x10 strategy
In a meeting the other day, I used the term "attention-seeking" to describe the behaviours of a student. Our counsellor leaned over and quietly whispered "connection-seeking" in my direction. Yes. YES. Yeeeeeessssss. So much yes. Kids who are seeking attention aren't really seeking 1-2-3 eyes on me attention, they're seeking connection. They want somebody to pay attention to them so that they feel like somebody cares about them, that they matter. Instead of reactively giving them negative attention, how about trying a proactive connection strategy instead? Make that kiddo feel like they matter for who they are, not what they do.
The 2x10 strategy is a quick, simple way to connect with kiddos in a positive way. Simply have a 2 minute relationship-building conversation with a student for 10 days in a row. Keep the conversation positive and focused on the student; talk about what music they like, what they did on the weekend, their pets, family members, sports, whatever as long as it stays positive and focused on them.
4. Ask a lot of questions.
Open-ended ones. Ones with no strings attached, no agenda, no preconceived end point. How often do we go in to a conversation with the intention to simply listen and learn? Surprisingly rarely. Your goal here is simple: to gather information, to learn about the child, to flesh out the picture you have of this child. My favourite way in to a conversation like this is Ross Greene's "I've noticed (behaviour). What's up?" followed up with "Tell me more about that" or "Go on". The key here is to listen without judgment; it's not about you and what you think right now, it's about how the child perceives the situation. You're on a mission to find out how things appear through the eyes of the child and to do that you do nothing but listen. Is it possible that they're not telling you the whole truth? Yup. Is it possible that what they're saying seems totally out of whack with how others perceived the situation? Yup. Have you gained valuable information that can help you help this child? Yup. When we are quick to jump to conclusions, when we are quick to dismiss the child's point of view we are missing a very important piece of the problem solving puzzle.
5. Accept their perception as their truth.
Sometimes a child's perception of a situation can seem outlandish or way off base. That's ok. If we accept the underlying principle that everyone perceives things slightly differently, then we also accept that their outlandish view is really and truly how they see the situation. Their perception is quite likely the result of years of learning things differently from you, years that you weren't present for and therefore can't really unpack. At this point, you don't need to unpack them, you don't need to convince the kiddo the sky is blue when they're saying it's purple. All you need to do is accept this piece of information as a gift, a gift that allows you a little more insight in to what is going on for that kiddo. File this piece of information away in two places in your brain - 1) understanding for next time a similar issue arises and 2) a starting point for some learning that needs to happen for this kiddo. If they have spent years learning that the sky is purple, you aren't going to change that view overnight and you certainly aren't going to change it without a plan.
As a society we have a legacy of discounting the feelings and opinions of children. Children were seen and not heard for a very long time. One of my favourite quotes is "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." (Maya Angelou). As we know more about kids, we can do better for kids. Take the time to listen to kids. Accept their perception, their reality. Use this information to inform, to problem-solve. Change your trajectory and in doing so you just might change a child's.
Have questions about what you read today? Interested in learning more? I'd love to hear from you! Connect with me using the social media buttons at the top of the page and let's get the conversation started!
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!