Note: This is part of a series of reflective posts that form part of a university course that I am taking. I hope that you will find something valuable in my reflections as well.
In September I will be moving to a brand-new school. As in, construction isn't even finished yet. As in, everything will be shiny, new and untouched. See also: glass everywhere, very open-concept and approximately zero storage. This, as far as the architects have decided, is the school of the future.
There is no living wall at the moment...I'm curious to see if it ever happens.
It is gorgeous - light-filled, airy and welcoming. A far cry from the squat, cinder block rectangles I'm used to. Designed to facilitate collaboration, the classrooms are all connected with sliding walls and glass garage doors that open to common project spaces. We will be teaching in multi-grade learning communities with upwards of a hundred students in each community. Our teaching will be guided by the First Peoples Principles of Learning, the OECD 7+1 Framework and the Core Competencies of the BC curriculum. This, my friends, is what a 21st century school should be.
Or is it? Designed for a primarily digital learning environment, there is little storage space in the classrooms. Already, I am wondering what I will do with my beloved book collection, something that I have worked hard to build and feel is an invaluable tool in sparking and fostering a love of reading in my students (see here, from Pernille Ripp, about the value of classroom libraries). Where do teachers store the manipulatives that so many learners need to actually touch and feel as they move through their learning? How do we celebrate physical creations so that students who thrive working with their hands feel seen and valued?
These are just some of the questions that I'm sure will come up as we begin to welcome students into this beautiful new space. I trust that our staff will answer these questions as best we can, hopefully laughing as we learn.
As I move into this new experience, I am wondering about the need for balance - between the digital and natural world, between collaboration and quiet reflection, between online connection and connection IRL. For the first time in a long time, the educational pendulum seems to be swinging in circles, veering from centering technology to centering land-based learning, emphasizing collaboration to recognizing the needs and value of the quieter kids. Perhaps this is representative of a larger societal struggle with these ideas, families wanting what's best for their kids but not really knowing what that is in this rapidly changing world. My hope is that I can learn enough to approach my own practice with intention and purpose, to be able to support students as they learn to "successfully wield the abundance at their fingertips" (from Why School: How Education must change when learning and information are every where by Will Richardson. Emphasis my own).
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!
When I first started blogging, it was to chronicle the creation of The Lit Pit (you can see those posts here and here). As the Lit Pit came in to being, my teaching partner at the time, Kristi, and I needed a guiding principle, our "why", as Kristi would regularly say. As we tossed around ideas and debated possibilities, we kept coming back to the idea that learning (in this case, reading in particular) should be joyful. We knew that the Lit Pit was not just a place to come to learn how to read, it was a place to come to learn to love to read. Sadly, we had many youngsters who did not want to read, did not think they could read and certainly were not choosing reading for fun; how did we turn their mindsets around? As educators, we knew that they needed the skills to read; as passionate readers, we knew they needed to love to read. So which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
We went back and forth so many times as to the "right" order for our mantra - Choose to, Learn to, Love to? Learn to, Love to, Choose to? Learn to, Choose to, Love to? Gah.
In the end we decided that there is no one right order. Each learner comes to this process in their own way and from their own starting point. My husband, for example, decided that he would really like to play the guitar sitting around the campfire on summer evenings. He had never played the guitar before so he did not have the love to or the learn to pieces in place yet; he was entering the "love to, learn to, choose to" cycle at the "choose to" and has been working on the "learn to" ever since. What is driving him to keep going, struggling through the "learn to" (which, thankfully, is fairly easy on the ears), is the idea that there is a "love to" at the end. He knows that playing the guitar well will be enjoyable so he's willing to put in the time and effort to get there.
Others, like most kids in school, enter the cycle at the "learn to" stage. There is nothing inherently wrong with entering the cycle at this stage; without exposure to new things, how would we even know if we wanted to try them? But, and this is a big but, unless that exposure engenders a small degree of interest, an idea that this will be enjoyable if I keep learning about it, that learning won't stick and certainly won't keep the learner coming back for more. Struggle for struggle's sake is no fun; struggle because you know that something will eventually be rewarding? Now that can be fun.
Without the "love to" learning falls flat. Without "love to" people never move from "choose to" to "learn to" and vice versa. As teachers, it's our job to share our passions with kids, to show them that learning can be joyful, that knowing how to do something well is the end result of a combination of passion and work, often really hard work. For a struggling student, who watches reading come easily to everyone else, passion is the thing that will keep them going. For a high-flyer, for whom everything comes easily, passion will save them from death by boredom. Passion is, perhaps, the great equalizer.
That's what this mantra is for - to remind us to keep "love to, learn to and choose to" as our goal. This is where we want kids to be, moving iteratively through this cycle, no matter where they start. We want kids to have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful, for sure. In our quest for this, we sometimes forget to make it interesting, to make it fun, to have the end goal be "love to". So, today, in your classroom, pause for a minute and look around - are your students learning that this subject, this learning, can be fun? Where are they in the cycle of Love to, Learn to, Choose to? Are they going to choose to do this, whatever this is, later on today? What can you do to move all your students forward, no matter where they are in the cycle?
As always, I'd love to hear from you - comment below or on social media!
This. This might be my mantra of the year. I came across it on one of Shelley Moore's social media accounts and immediately wrote it down. Because, duh. So simple, so obvious and yet so often missed. I mean, how often do you hear "She's so far behind. Here are the assignments she needs to finish to catch up." or "He's so low. If you could sit with him and scribe for him, he might be able to finish this task." School should be about so much more than task completion, so much more than stumbling awkwardly down the same path as everyone else.
I've been doing a lot of learning lately about the path, the journey, that learners take as they learn. Listening to podcasts about reading development, watching vlogs about math development, reading articles about both. And guess what? Learning isn't this nice linear pathway our curriculum and textbooks would have us believe; and yet we peddle this lie daily. We follow the sequence the text has laid out for us, we compare young readers to norms and we insist that those that don't make the grade try harder, work harder, keep tripping and slipping down the same garden path as everyone else, even though their path might just be ever so slightly to the right, meandering through the flowers.
What if, though, what if we were brave enough to worry less about the task and more about the child? What if we could shift our focus from a linear learning model to one that looked more like a scatter plot - little tiny dots of learning happening at their own pace, at their own time? Even if we managed it only for those children whose path has clearly diverged from the others, we would be supporting students to reach goals instead of supporting students to finish tasks. What a powerful shift for those students; to go from trailing along behind the others, constantly trying to catch up and exhausted from never quite making it, to feeling empowered to go after the goal that is attainable and attractive. What if we brought joy back to the journey? That would be truly transforming learning for kids.
Identifying individual goals takes time. Shifting from the "learning is linear" mindset that we have grown up with takes time. Coming up with a plan and executing it takes time. In order to truly change, we have to make time for all of these things. We have to support one another in making these changes, as slowly or as quickly as it takes. We can shift from focusing on tasks to focusing on goals.
Want to see more Teacher Mantras? Click here for Teacher Mantra # 2 - My Job is To Create Desire.
Literate, numerate, curious and kind. Literate, numerate, curious and kind. In the wake of another school shooting in the USA, a rocky Friday afternoon in my own classroom and an interesting teacher book club discussion, I found myself running these words through my head on a loop.
Of all the mantras in this series, I can proudly call this mantra my own; although simple, it took a lot of thought and examination of my own beliefs to come to it. I knew I needed something simple - I love words but too many words just didn't seem right; I knew I wanted something memorable - the words had to flow easily and stick in my mind; and I knew that it needed to reflect the whole student, not just academics. I often think about changing it but always decide to stick with it as is.
To me, these words reflect all I want students to be when they leave school. Literate, numerate, curious and kind. Simplistic? Perhaps. But sometimes there is beauty in simplicity. Sometimes a simple mantra can help us guide students where curriculum fails. Sometimes a simple mantra gives us direction where curriculum clouds the path forward.
No one should graduate from high school unable to read and talk about what they've read. This is a fundamental right, not to mention a necessity, and I doubt anyone would argue with me on this one. Yeah, you might not enjoy reading (and that is a crying shame) but you need to be able to read a job application, a manual and a menu (have you seen the words on some menus these days?!). Sadly, I have a few grade 8 students who aren't able to do this and my heart aches thinking of them heading out into the world, so vulnerable because they don't have this basic skill. If I focus on nothing else during a day but helping students become literate, I count that as a win.
Our students deserve to graduate feeling like they understand how numbers work, not like they memorized a bunch of formulas. News flash: our brains aren't actually designed to hold information we rarely use. That's what the internet is for (there are actually apps that will scan your math question and give you the answer in real time). At this point I know some of you are getting all squirmy, wanting to tell me that students need to memorize their math facts and that the only way to do it is by practicing it over and over and over. Numeracy isn't (nor ever was) about memorizing facts; it is about understanding how numbers can come together to make more, be pulled apart to make less, used to figure out unknowns. Does having your facts memorized make that easier? Absolutely. Is rote memorization the best path there? For some, but not all. Knowing which numbers to use, how those numbers might come together and which questions to ask - that is the true definition of numeracy (side note: there actually is no agreed upon definition of mathematics. Odd, right?). As I always tell my students, I don't care if you got the right answer, I care that you know how you got it.
Click on the pictures above to download your own copy of this mantra.
Curious (Creative & Critical)
I have been asked more than once about this mantra. Most people feel it misses some pieces; where is creativity? Where is critical thinking? I feel that they fall here, under curiosity. I can't imagine a curious person who isn't also a creative and critical thinker. Kids are naturally curious; they wonder about the world around them, they ask a million questions, they stop to investigate the most trivial seeming things. This is how they learn (in fact, kindergarten, created in 1837 by Friedrich Froebel, was based entirely on the idea that children learn through an iterative process of wonder and re-creation). If we are not careful, however, this curiosity dwindles, replaced by a sense of obligation and requirement. Maintaining a sense of curiosity and wonder in your classroom is fundamental to developing self-motivated lifelong learners.
Kindness makes the world go 'round. As the world around us seems to get scarier every day our best way to fight back is to teach kindness, expect kindness, model kindness. In this HuffPost article, Peter Field points out that kindness is a habit that paves the way to a happy life, for both the giver and the receiver. Teaching kids that simple words and actions can have a big impact will lead to a happier society overall. Looking for lessons on kindness? Check out the educators section on the Random Acts of Kindness website. Life Vest Inside has some pretty rad videos, lessons and challenges too!
Click here to see the first post in the series - We All Need Teaching Mantras.
Click here to see the next post in the series - Teacher Mantra #2: Creating Desire
Do you feel a little lost right now? I mean lost as in "I really don't know what is most important to be teaching in a world that seems so turned upside down." I mean lost as in "There is way more curriculum here in front of me than I will ever be able to get through." Lost as in "Am I even doing this right?" We all feel that way sometimes, especially when the weight of things like school shootings falls so heavy on our hearts and minds. As teachers we can't help but feel responsible for the next generation and that responsibility can be a heavy, heavy load.
When I feel lost like this I reach for my teaching mantras. These mantras are statements that I have gathered over the years that keep me centred and focused on what I know to be true and important in education. I tend to write them down on random pieces of paper or pages in one notebook or another; if I keep searching for it, keep thinking about it, keep coming back to it, then it's worth becoming part of my mantra collection. When I feel lost or torn in too many directions, I return to my mantra collection to get me back on track.
Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be sharing some of my mantras with you. Keep what resonates with you and use it to help you get back on track when the way gets a little bit cloudy. I've created a set of posters with my mantras on them. Click below to download them to use in your own classroom. I'd also love to hear your mantras, so please share them in the comments below!
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!
The beginning of the school year is a time of hunkering down and doing your own thing in your own classroom but it is also a time of running in to people you haven't seen in awhile, at Pro-D, at school, at meetings. Making a big move, moving from the known to the unknown, has led to some very interesting conversations with people I run in to. Generally, they go something like this:
Other teacher (with a suspicious, this-can't-possibly-be-true tone) - "So...you're not in LAT anymore, right?"
Me - "That's right. Teaching Gr. 2 French Immersion now."
Other teacher - "Wow! What a change! How's it going?"
At this point, I have a choice to make - I can choose to smile and answer "Oh, great, it's going really, really well", which is the socially expected response or I can answer honestly, which sounds a little more like "It's good. It's hard, really, really hard. There's so much I don't know, so much I didn't realize about teaching little guys." It's a little too naked, a little too honest for most people, but it's the truth. So what do I do?
For the most part, I choose to tell the truth. This is hard, it is very new to me (it's still September, after all) and I'm ok with that. I think it's important that people know that this is a huge learning curve for me but that I'm working through it, that I'm ok with not knowing and learning as I go. To hide this process is kind of like trying to hide a cannonball in the deep end - everyone already knows I've made the leap, I might as well own the noise and the mess too.
What inevitably transpires after I own the noise and the mess is this - people jump in to save me: "Oh, so and so teaches Gr. 2 I'm sure that they have stuff for you" (love that word, stuff, as if more pieces of paper will help me figure this out); "Isn't ________ (name of very experienced Gr. 2 teacher) helping you out? I'm sure she would, you just have to ask!" (which leads to me backing her up because yes, as a matter of fact, she has been very helpful). Apparently, being in the deep end means I am drowning and everyone feels the need to throw me a life raft (a well-intentioned life raft, but a life raft nonetheless).
Honestly, though? I'm ok in the deep end. It might not be pretty and I may go under every now and then but as I struggle I am learning what works for me. Floating on someone else's life raft doesn't teach me to swim; I need to learn to kick, move my arms and breathe all on my own. I'll happily take a coach or two and some tools along the way but this is my process and my learning curve; my deep end.
In her book, Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton talks about our society's need to take the pain away when we see it in others. We aren't comfortable being uncomfortable and we really aren't comfortable seeing others in discomfort. The deep end is not comfortable; it is messy and deep, so deep. But it is in discomfort that we grow and so, I must work through this discomfort on my own. I must find my own rhythm and my own stroke in order to be able to feel good about swimming.
So to those who have offered to save me, thank you. Thank you for wanting to take the discomfort away, thank you for wanting me to feel more comfortable. I appreciate it. I'm going to be ok, though. It might not be pretty, it might not be smooth, but I will figure it out. I will learn how to swim in the deep end.
PS - to those of you who have offered to jump in to the deep end with me, who have jumped in to the deep end with me, I cannot thank you enough. Having someone swimming beside me means a lot.
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!