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!
The 57 Bus. This Is America. The Hate U Give. Joyner Lucas.
These are just a few of the perspective-shifting, heart-wrenching, incredibly powerful stories that have been shared with me lately and I wanted to share them with you. The first and last are probably less well known than the middle two (at least in main-stream media) but the social commentary is no less poignant and powerful.
The 57 Bus - A True Story by Dashka Slater. Oh man, this book was such a great read. Written like fiction but pieced together from actual events, The 57 Bus retells the story of two teens living in Oakland, CA; two teens whose lives might otherwise never have crossed paths save for one fateful day on the #57 bus. Using personal accounts, court documents and interviews, Slater retells a story of gender identity, race, justice and truth. Material that many would consider (and did consider) to be delicate, controversial and challenging is expertly handled by Slater, who weaves the story so richly that you instinctively feel for both parties and are left wondering what exactly defines justice.
This Is America - Childish Gambino. If you haven't seen this video, stop reading and hit play now. I have watched this video over and over again with many of my Gr. 8 students (yes, we turn a blind eye to the one, albeit pretty major, swear word; we talked about it, we know it's not school appropriate, we moved on) and have been amazed at their understandings of what it means. For context, I work with many at-risk boys who listen to a lot of rap and seem to idolize a lifestyle of expensive clothes, fast cars, guns and scantily clad women. I am always concerned about the messages their young minds are getting from the music they listen to, so hearing them dissect this video is really refreshing; they are thinking about the messages, a least a little bit! So many fascinating conversations have come from watching this video with them - thoughts about guns, race, the USA vs Canada, symbolism and more.
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas. Hot on the heels of the previous two recommendations is this wonderful book. Stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement and the work of Tupac Shakur (whom my students LOVE), this book is also an important social commentary on controversial topics like race, gangs, white privilege, money and more. Thomas does a great job of bringing the neighbourhood and people of (fictional) Garden Heights to life, creating vivid images and feelings for the reader. Such rich discussion and perspective-taking can come from this book, wow.
Joyner Lucas - If you haven't heard of Joyner Lucas, you aren't alone. I was introduced to him after watching This Is America with a few of my students; one of the boys brought his videos up on the computer just after we finished watching This Is America. Turns out, these videos are very not school appropriate - consider yourself warned - but so powerful (to be clear, I went home and watched them by myself that night). Much like Tupac and other rappers, Joyner Lucas is a contradiction - his commercial rap is highly offensive but his social commentary is on point. When I asked my student how he had heard of the videos he said "Well, I like rap music and this is rap, so I just checked them out." I highly recommend the videos "I'm Not Racist" and "Frozen" for their social commentary. Be warned, however, that the language and content is very explicit so if that is difficult for you, you might choose not to watch; then again, you might want to challenge yourself to get a bit uncomfortable as a way to understand what he is rapping about. *Note - the video below is about car accidents and is pretty graphic; please consider your own experiences before watching.
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!
The problem with working at a middle school is that I read far fewer picture books than I used to and YA novels take a lot longer to finish than a stack of picture books. So my It's Monday What Are You Reading? posts are harder to fill up with a multitude of books (and may not be exactly on time...). Hopefully you will be content with one good review a week (and hopefully I can read one good book a week!). That, or I can review any of the Harry Potter series, as my daughters are obsessed and that is all we are reading at home these days!
This week's non-HP read was recommended last week by Carrie Gelson over at There's a Book for That. The Goldfish Boy intrigued me right away; it fit perfectly with the stream of books I have been reading lately about kids with differences (see this post). As I walked in to my school library the next day, there it was, sitting on the New Arrivals shelf just asking to be read. So I did.
The Goldfish Boy (Lisa Thompson) - Perfect for the middle years, this book explores many of the same topics as Wonder - difference, kindness, understanding. The main character has OCD and anxiety, conditions which have trapped him in the house in recent years until a missing child begins to draw him back out into the world. At first, I struggled with the pretense - I mean, who doesn't seek help for their struggling child long before it gets to the point where they are cooped up in the house with crippling anxiety? But the more I read, the more I realized how these parents were probably like most parents - hoping for the best, unsure of how to deal with the worst. This family is much like many of the families I deal with on a daily basis - the struggling teen who believes that he can cope with it himself, the well-meaning but frustrated dad, who believes that this is something his son just needs to try harder to snap out of and the overwhelmed and uncertain mom, knowing that something is wrong but lacking the knowledge and support to do much about it. Unlike many books about struggling kids, where the parents are super accepting and understanding, this family might actually strike a chord for many young readers. For anyone who has ever lived on a cul-de-sac (me!) the portrayal of how everyone on the small street knows everyone else's business is very familiar as well. This book is well-paced, moving slowly but not too slowly, towards the climax and not so overloaded with detail that young or weaker readers will miss important parts of the story. I would pair this book with Wonder, The Honest Truth (Dan Gemeinhart), Out of My Mind (Sharon Draper) and Stargirl (Jerry Spinelli) for a powerful lit circle about differences.
Any other books in this same vein you'd recommend?
This time of year can be tough, for kids and teachers. As the end of term approaches expectations increase, workload is high and patience is short. Up here in the Great White North, it's often dark when we leave for work and dark when we come home; it's cold and snowy and everything - from getting dressed to starting the car - requires one extra step (or 5 - coats, snowpants, mitts, toques, boots...so.much.clothing). All of this comes together to equal the perfect storm of stress and pressure for all of us. This is the time of year when kids with challenging behaviours flare and teachers have less patience for their antics. So, what's a support teacher to do? Read, of course!
This week for IMWAYR I wanted to share two books I have been (slowly) making my way through in an effort to find ways to support some of our struggling students. They have both caused me to think deeply about my practices, my beliefs and the alignment between the two. They also have me pondering ways we can change our support systems as whole to ensure success for all students.
Children Who Fail at School But Succeed At Life: Lessons from Lives Well-Lived - Mark Katz - The title of this book grabbed me right away. I have always felt that educators revert to a doom and gloom, they're never going to make anything of themselves attitude towards students who struggle in school (which makes me so sad, but sometimes their struggles are so great that it is hard to see beyond the present moment). This book tells the story of these kids once they leave school and make their way in the real world. Katz shares 5 "erroneous perceptions" that are at once so obvious and so ingrained that you realize how much of an obstacle they present to changing out mindset around struggling learners. It also presents different ways that we can support students so that they are successful earlier (my favourite suggestion? More labels. We need to outweigh the negative labels - learning disability, behaviour problem, etc. - with positive ones - leader, friend, coder, artist, etc.). It isn't an easy read; although Katz aims for a conversational tone he often ends up striking a much more academic one. The case studies are fantastic however and the book is rich with ways to support our students on their paths to success.
Lost & Found: Helping Behaviorally Challenging Students (And While You're At It, All the Others) - Ross W. Greene This book is basically a roadmap for using Ross Greene's Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) method in schools. This method resonates with me on so many levels, so beginning to explore and implement it via this book has been wonderful. It is an easier read than Katz's book but is still so information-dense that I am finding I need to read it in chunks, practice a bit and then come back to it. The case studies and examples are extremely helpful and there are really nice chapter summaries at the end. I have always believed in involving kids in discussions about their behaviour, working with them to find solutions that are meaningful and mutually agreed upon. This book not only affirms that belief but gives me a way to structure it to be most successful (feel like I've used that word a lot!).
Both of these books are the types of books that I wish I could distill and make sure everyone knew and understood what they were all about. The next best thing is to share them here so that more people know about them, read them and begin to shift there thinking!
I have not participated in It's Monday What Are You Reading? in a very long time but lately I have found myself missing this community of readers. I have been following the lovely Carrie Gelson's blog (thereisabookforthat.com) for quite awhile now and she has been drawing me back with her wonderful descriptions of new books (and the way she shares them in her classroom; I would love to be a learner in her room). I have also been doing a lot of reading lately and want to share it. So, here we are, back to joining #IMWAYR.
I always like to have a theme to my #IMWAYR posts. Themes help me organize my thoughts and bring cohesion to my final product - whether that is a blog post, a birthday party or a new unit I am prepping for a class. While choosing a theme can sometimes be a process (I'm looking at you birthday parties!), more often than not themes seem to gradually make themselves known to me until they are so obvious that I can no longer ignore them. In this case, the theme comes from the recent movie release of Wonder, an adaptation of the book by R.J. Palacio.
Wonder (R.J. Palacio) - A truly transformational read, Wonder tells the story of a young boy who, due to a severe facial deformity, has been home-schooled his whole life. Now, in Gr. 5, his parents have enrolled him in public school. As Auggie negotiates life in middle school we learn not just about him but about all of the people around him and all of the ways that his condition touch their lives. Much like the books below, this book is a fabulous gateway to discussing differences, kindness, bullying and more. With the addition of the movie it becomes even more accessible to our young readers.
Highly Illogical Behavior (John Corey Whaley) - Just finished this one and really enjoyed it. I will put out there right off the bat that, although this is a book that could be read at the middle school level, there are a few swear words and a fair bit of discovering your sexuality (no sex scenes but lots of talk about it), so I wouldn't recommend it for general consumption below Gr. 9 (aside: we were chatting the other day at a district gifted/enrichment meeting about needing to allow some precocious readers to read above their pay grade. Some kids are ready for this material earlier than others and, with parent permission, that's a-ok). Anyway, back to the book. Highly Illogical Behavior nails the teenage characters in all of their awkwardness and enthusiasm; they are stereotypical but with just enough of a twist that they are endearing - the highly-driven keener (with a dysfunctional family), the jock (who loves Star Trek and is reluctant in the bedroom), the lovable Star Trek fan (who hasn't left the house in 3 years). The premise - that of an agoraphobic teen who hasn't stepped foot outside of his house in 3 years - and the journey the characters embark on together is rich fodder for classroom discussions about differences, mental illness, helping others, friendships and more. Definitely a book worth sharing!
A Mango-Shaped Space (Wendy Mass) - What a wonderful book! A Mango-Shaped Space takes a look at a young girl with synesthesia, a condition that causes her to see colours for letters and words. I loved the way this book explored the way Mia's feelings about her condition develop and change; nothing felt forced or awkward about Mass' portrayal of a teen coming to grips with who she is and who she wants to be. I can definitely see many kids making lots of connections to this book! Much like Highly Illogical Behavior, this is a great choice for discussing differences, loss and friendships.
Out of My Mind (Sharon M. Draper) - I've blogged about this one (and my I'm-not-so-sure-I-loved-it feeling) before. The subject matter was fascinating - the idea that a very intelligent person could be trapped in a body that prevents them from sharing their intelligence really makes you stop and think about some of the kiddos we come across. Are we underestimating them? If they could communicate, what would they say? How can we provide them with opportunities to show what they know? Definitely transformative thoughts to be had there.
At the same time, I just didn't really love the book. I found many of the terms used to be quite dated ("way cool", "that's what's up"), which made the book feel a bit stilted. I also think that many of my students would have trouble connecting to the students in this book; in many ways it felt like an adult's interpretation of how kids behave and what they say. Finally, the climax (which I won't spoil for you) felt forced; possible, yes, but not very likely. All in all, I loved the concept of this book and think it could spark some very interesting discussions; ultimately, however, it fell a bit flat for me.
The Honest Truth (Dan Gemeinhart) - This is a heart-breaking book (expect tears!) about a boy who decides that he is too much of a burden for his family and friends, so he runs away to fulfill a dream or die trying. Told from his point of view and that of his best friend, Jessie, we get a clear picture of two very different perspectives on the same event. Well-written for the middle grades but be aware that the content is pretty heavy and there are some dark scenes. Again, though, another great book for exploring friendships, differences, illness, dreams and more.
I can imagine using all of these books in a themed (of course) lit circle, along with classics like The Outsiders. The rich conversations that all of these books will inevitably spark are so enticing! Stay tuned for a differences-themed lit circle task cards unit that I am working on...any of these books would be a perfect fit.
Have a wonderful week!
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!