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.
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!
If you read my last post, you know that I tried out provocations last week with great success. With a gentle nudge from a colleague, I realized that this was actually not the first time I had tried out provocations (is a provocation by any other name still a provocation?) so, with a little reflection, I've come up with a few tips and tricks to make provocations go well in your classroom.
Provocations do not need to be complicated or grand. They are not "the big show". They are the nudge that sets your students on the path to wondering, thinking, learning. They are as simple as a great book, an interesting picture, an object out of place, a piece of art, a stick brought in from outside. Anything that sparks your students in to wondering, discussing or acting is a provocation.
Keep it simple.
If you've been cruising Pinterest or Instagram you've seen provocations that are, well, Pinterest-worthy. If you're in to spending several weekends sourcing items and creating elaborate scenes, by all means, be my guest. Want to know a secret though? The prettiest table was the last one my students were drawn to and they actually spent very little time there. I think they instinctively shied away from it because they didn't want to wreck it; they wanted to get messy and creative and that wasn't the place to do it. Keep your tables accessible and kid-friendly and save yourself some time in the process.
One of the greatest things about provocations are what you hear from the kids. The wonder, the awe, the questions, the aha moments - those are what you really want to capture. On your own, this is incredibly difficult. Even with an iPad or phone to record the action, you will have trouble getting to everyone. So enlist some help. Another teacher, your principal, support staff, parents; whomever you can find to help you record what the students are thinking as they experience the provocations. Not only is it fascinating to see what they think, these thoughts will guide your planning for the rest of the unit or allow you to see what your students have learned.
Be open to the experience.
I am pretty open to mess, noise and chaos in my classroom. Many teachers are not. During the provocations I sometimes found it difficult to check my instincts and allow things to continue despite the mess and chaos. Shaving cream and food colouring on the couch? Sure. In your hair? Why not? Dripping across the floor from one end of the classroom to the other? Ummmm....Often it didn't feel like my students were headed in the learning direction I had intended (or any learning direction at all for that matter) but their direction is the the direction that really matters when it comes to provocations. You plan the provocation but you don't get to decide where they take it. If you feel like kiboshing something, step back, wait for a moment and decide if you really need to step in or if you're just trying to control the situation.
Resist the urge to control.
Directly related to the last tip, resist the urge to control. As teachers we spend a lot of time controlling people and situations; this is not the place for that. Let things flow the way that they flow. It might not go the way that you think it will go but you can still learn a lot from it. Appreciate the learning for what it is, not what you wanted it to be.
Check your language.
Language is so very powerful; unintentionally, we can use it to control and guide a situation. A great idea is to ask questions instead of commenting on what is going on; "Tell me about what you're doing/what you see here", "What are you wondering about that?", "Are you curious about anything at this table?", "What made you try that?", "What are you going to do next?"
Start small, grow big.
I was lucky; I had lots of support in the form of people and already created provocation tables. If you don't find yourself in this auspicious situation, consider introducing provocations a little at a time. Start with a book, add in a picture (consider trying this technique from Making Thinking Visible), then move to one table in the back of your room. Allow kids to explore and move through each experience, loop back to one that worked well, then try the next one on for size. When you`re ready, go big (with help, see above).
In the end, the most important thing to remember is that provocations are designed to elicit a response from your students; you can structure the provocation to guide their thinking but you cannot control where they take it. There is beauty in that. There is freedom in that. There is so much to be learned and explored by following your students where they lead. Provocations are a reciprocal learning opportunity between teacher and student; be open to the opportunities and you and your students will reap the rewards.
If you are trying to figure out where to go after introducing a provocation to your classroom, consider having your students record their wonders. This will make their thinking visible to you and allow you to figure out which way to go next. To help you out, I created this simple freebie for them to record their learning on. Click on the picture to download (also available in French - click on the pic and then follow the link in the description).
Good luck, be patient, have fun and enjoy! Let me know how it goes...
It is no secret that I love collaborative teaching and learning (it's in my bio, over there ---->) and this week was one of so much fantastic collaboration with some pretty incredible people. I am incredibly lucky to have such amazing people around me.
What, you ask, was all of this fantastic collaboration about? Provocations. Water provocations, specifically. And man oh man were they amazing! Seeing my class exploring, experimenting, wondering and learning in a self-directed way was inspiring, to say the least.
This all started because I wanted to break out of the literacy centres, math centres mold and really try teaching in a much more holistic way. It's something I have been struggling with in Grade 2 and Grade 2 French Immersion specifically and will continue to struggle with for awhile, I'm sure - how to teach fundamental concepts like learning to read, write and do basic math without relegating social studies and science to cute little experiments and projects that are completely out of context. And before you give the standard "well, you just weave reading and writing and math in to your social studies unit" - which seems to be the pat answer from people who are either a) not primary teachers or b) not in the classroom day-to-day (and I freely admit that this has been me so no offense intended) - please take a moment to consider the resources necessary to do this effectively (lots of leveled readers on topic, in French, in my case; thoughtful, well-planned math assignments that are more than just decorated with pictures that fit the theme; mentor texts that lead to fantastic writing that fits the theme, and so on and so forth. And time. So much time.). Doable? Absolutely. Alone? Not without losing your mind. The amount of time, brain power and resources it takes to create a unit of study that effectively melds curriculum with student-interest and dynamic teaching is crazy high. Definitely worth the effort in the end, though.
Anyways. As they sometimes do, the stars aligned to allow me to bring together a group of incredibly knowledgeable educators who were willing to help me plan a unit that aligns with multiple areas of the curriculum, is responsive to my students' needs and interests and allows multiple subjects to be woven together in to some really rich learning opportunities.
Provocations are a Reggio-Emilia approach that are most easily conceptualized as anything that stimulates a child to wonder about, act upon or otherwise engage with a topic. While these often take the form of provocation tables, they can be as simple as books, photos, items from nature, a single object or an event that grabs a child's interest. So, in all likelihood, you are probably already using provocations in your day-to-day teaching practice and you just don't know it. Go you!
By the definition above, my unit is filled with provocations (go me!) but we specifically brought in some provocation tables to stimulate wonders (aka questions) that would guide the direction of the rest of the unit. Lucky for me, water provocations are apparently a hot topic this year (who knew I was so on trend?) so our district Instructional Leadership Team had a number of provocation tables prepared; I added a couple of my own that I thought would respond to the needs of my class and we were off.
So much excitement. So much curiousity. So much wonder. Although we cut them off after 45mins to allow another class to check the provocations out I think my kiddos could have kept going for at least an hour. They thrive on this stuff. I'm stoked to see where this takes us!
Teachers who teach from the heart make a bigger impact.
The best teachers I have ever met are amazing not because they have mastered the curriculum or the latest teaching techniques but because they understand children. They accept every child as they come, not as they "should" be, and they guide them gently along their own individual learning path. They are sensitive to the needs of individuals in their classroom and naturalize the idea that everyone needs something a little bit different to learn...and that's ok. They trust their heart and their gut and do what's right for kids, whether it fits within "the rules" or not. They are driven to learn because they want to meet the needs of the littles that they work with every day but at the same time they never want to be out of the classroom because they know that daily connection is so important. They connect, connect, connect and in doing so they make a big difference on kids' lives.
Starting with love, compassion, gratitude and kindness makes for a better community.
Too often in teaching we launch in to curriculum before teaching our kids that they are part of a bigger community - their classroom community, their school community, their hometown community, the world at large - that they need to look after. The blame doesn't entirely lie with us; there are so many outside influences trying to convince us that our kids need reading instruction, writing instruction, math instruction, academic hammering that will purportedly give them a leg up in the wide, wild world. But what world are we preparing them for? If we teach our children that the only things that matter are being better - smarter, faster, stronger - than those around them then we are actively destroying the only support system they will ever have - the village. Friends, if you can think of a moment where the village hasn't reached out to you, hasn't buoyed you up, looked after your children, made you laugh, made you cry, then you can think of a reason why we need to be teaching our kids to love and look out for others. Teach their hearts and souls first, their minds will follow, probably stronger than they would have otherwise.
Students come to us with a lot on their plates. They aren't really ready to learn until they feel safe & loved.
No matter how much we know about a student's background and home life, we can never completely understand what they bring to school everyday in their hearts & minds. All we can do is connect, listen and meet them where they're at, every day of the year. When we make our classrooms safe spaces for students to be their genuine selves - whether that means incorporating time & space for them to move freely, opportunities for connection, work that is engaging and individualized or simply an honouring and celebrating of differences - we allow them to feel safe and secure. This, in turn, calms their sympathetic nervous system and allows them to move forward with their learning. As anyone who has ever worked under stress can attest, it's almost impossible to be at your best when your head & heart are in another place. The best thing we can do for students is make them feel safe & secure in our rooms and in our presence.
We have to show ourselves love, compassion, respect and forgiveness and we have to teach our students to do the same.
Teaching is an exhausting, all day job (bonus points for knowing, instantly, where I stole that line from*). Even in the moments where we are supposed to be taking a break we are often working, often meeting a need other than our own. And then so many of us go home to our families to meet so many more needs. The potential for exhaustion, burn-out, mistakes, is huge. and don't we know it? We hold ourselves to the highest possible standard and often forget to give ourselves grace when we don't meet those standards. By learning to love ourselves, to recognize that we deserve as much compassion and kindness as we offer everyone else in our lives, we begin to learn how to teach our students to do the same. I am quickly coming to believe that instilling a growth mindset in children might just be the best way to teach resilience, self-respect and self-esteem all in one fell swoop.
Learning and development is a continuum and our students are at all different places on it. We need to meet them where they're at without judgment.
I have been in Pro-D workshops for the last couple of days and have been acutely aware of the recognition (or lack thereof) of the continuum of learning and development. Our school system is designed to fit children in to little boxes, boxes labeled "meeting", "approaching" and "not yet meeting". But, when push comes to shove, does it really matter if they're meeting, exceeding or not yet meeting our expectations? They will still be in our classrooms, they will still be who they are, where they're at. If we start acknowledging that all students fall somewhere on a continuum of development and learning, we start to see that we can move them along that continuum, regardless of where they started. Once we understand that teaching is actually about meeting students where they're at and moving them forward, not about students meeting prescribed learning outcomes, we free ourselves to teach kids, not outcomes.
Social-emotional learning is more important than curriculum. Dysregulated students can't learn effectively.
Teaching our students to recognize and regulate their emotions and arousal levels is fundamental to their learning. Some children are able to do this naturally and others need help. The fact of the matter remains that if students are dysregulated they cannot learn; if their bodies are constantly seeking or avoiding some kind of stimulation there is no way that their minds are ready to learn. With all of the pressure to teach curriculum, meet benchmarks and demonstrate student learning, it's easy to forget that we are teaching little humans; that is, until Johnny won't stop moving and Sarah won't stop crying every time you ask her to do anything resembling school work. Then it is blatantly, unavoidably obvious. And instead of blaming the kid, or the home or the learning challenges, we need to start looking how we can teach the child to self-regulate, to meet their needs in any given moment. Secondary to this, we need to accept that even we, as adults, are not perfect at self-regulation and that there are always going to be times (more for the kiddos that struggle in this department) where the wheels fall off the wagon. The trick is accepting this as normal, however disruptive it may be, and finding solutions with humor and grace, acknowledging all the while that it can be incredibly frustrating and finding a support system that helps you deal with this frustration. Just as dysregulated students can't learn effectively, dysregulated teachers can't teach effectively.
Awhile ago, I wrote about some books I have been reading that have really got me thinking about the language we use with kids (see that post here - you'll learn about one of the most influential professional books I have ever read. Seriously.). In addition to these books, a couple of other opportunities have continued to drive my learning in this area. The first was a professional development workshop I attended (about spelling, of all things. Structured spelling, which is phenomenal btw. But that's another post) where the presenter was a master at using great language. I couldn't stop noticing how empowering it was and how naturally it seemed to come to him. The second is an ongoing conversation with a good friend (and kindie teacher) about ways to talk to my daughter when she's upset because I sometimes just feel so inept in this area. She always knows just what to say, which never ceases to amaze me.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that a) words matter. A lot. and b) we are not all extremely skilled at using the right words. I am one of these not so skilled people. Sure, I know how to talk to kids, I know how to make sure that they understand me, absolutely. But what doesn't come naturally to me are the simple changes in phrasing that empower kids, that allow them to feel like they can do just about anything, that what they are doing is meaningful and important. Thankfully, although this skill doesn't come naturally to me, I believe that it can be learned (and I have that good friend who is wonderfully skilled in this area and willing to answer all my crazy questions). So, on that note, I thought I would share a few common phrases that we all use with kids and some powerful alternatives.
Instead of "What a lovely picture. What is it?" try "Tell me about your picture". This slight change removes the sense that the child's picture is unclear (which, if it's anything like my 3 year old's artwork, it likely is, but they don't know that) and puts the child in the driver's seat when it comes to their own art, giving them a sense of agency and accomplishment.
Instead of "Who can tell me the answer?" try "Can anyone offer a hypothesis?" followed by "Interesting hypothesis. Does anyone have another one?" Although you may have to explain the word hypothesis a few times at first, this simple change in phrase makes it easier for students to take a risk and offer an answer because you are implying that you are not expecting the correct answer, simply their best guess. Note that you have to be willing to accept multiple hypotheses and be open to the idea that an unexpected one may, in fact, turn out to be correct.
Instead of "Not quite. Does anyone else know the correct answer?" try "Oh wow! Great mistake! Here's why..." As with the word hypothesis, you are making space here for students to be willing to take risks and potentially be wrong. If mistakes are treated as positive things, students will be more willing to make them, knowing they lead to growth & learning, rather than to just plain being wrong. You will be creating a culture of inquiry in your classroom.
Instead of "This is how you will do ______." try "As scientists/readers/writers/historians, how should we approach this?" Aside from simply moving from a telling to an asking stance, this rephrasing allows students to see themselves as scientists/readers/writers/historians and encourages them to use the mindset of that particular role to solve a problem. Can you guide them along the way? Absolutely! Try saying "As a scientist, I think I would..."
Instead of "I'm proud of you." try "I bet you're proud of yourself" or "How did accomplishing that make you feel?" The purpose of this rephrasing is two-fold; 1) it removes the idea that the child is subordinate to the teacher and 2) encourages the student to seek an internal motivation for completing something. The more kids rehearse this, the more natural it becomes.
Instead of "Good try but..." try "Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?" or "I see that you got the first part right. How else could you spell that second part?" I love these two because they put so much emphasis on having the student use their knowledge to figure out the correct answer. They will also give you, the teacher, a ton of insight in to what the student knows and doesn't know and where you should take them next in their learning. Asking students how they went about figuring something out is incredibly powerful as it develops their sense of themselves as a capable problem-solver.
Finally, instead of "I see that you're feeling frustrated/overwhelmed/angry." try "How does your body feel right now?" followed by "Sometimes when our bodies feel like that, it means we are feeling ________________. Do you think this is how you're feeling?" This allows students to begin to internalize the process of recognizing how their body feels when they are experiencing a certain emotion, allowing them to learn to self-regulate over time. Of course, follow this conversation up with some things the child can do when they feel that way - breathing, visualization, reading, etc.
Hopefully you find these helpful. I know that I will be slowly working on using these phrases more and more in my teaching; I would love to hear how your attempts go!
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!