Saturday, March 11, 2017

Having Presence

I'm bummed. The last couple of mornings I have rolled out of bed with a headache and sinus pressure, my second big cold of the winter season.  But this morning marks the first time that I've had to pass on what has become a Saturday morning ritual - community yoga.

Over the last six months or so I've been practicing yoga two, three, sometimes four times a week.  I have my regular teachers at the local YMCA that I love, but I have also enjoyed community yoga, dropping in to take a class with a different studio nearly every Saturday. And here in Grand Rapids, also known as Beer City USA, I have fun attending yoga at different breweries.  Last weekend, 104 of us took to our mats at Perrin Brewery.  And this morning, I was planning to attend one of my monthly favorites, a yoga session at Founders Brewery with one of my favorite studios.  I have the tickets. I was ready to go. But I woke up this morning feeling knocked down by this lingering cold.


I am someone who pushes myself, always looking ahead, planning for the next lesson, next unit, next event.  Yoga has taught me to slow down, to be present for the present, attend to how I am feeling in the moment. So although I am bummed about not attending one of my favorite yoga sessions this morning, I also grateful and aware of just how practicing yoga has changed me.

Six months ago, I would have pushed myself and attended this morning's sweaty session, coughing and sputtering my way through, coming home tired, drained, and likely worse for wear.  Instead, I recognized this morning that I needed to slow down, take an easy morning at home with my family to nurse my cold.  And I am so glad I did.

This morning, my boys decided to dress in their suits for no particular reason.  My eldest grabbed his recent library find and curled into a corner to read.  My youngest announced proudly that he was dressing up in order to play a special session of Dungeons and Dragons with their dad. My eldest quickly agreed that this was the best idea his younger brother had ever had. The game is still going on. My boys are sprawled on the living room floor in front of the fireplace rolling die and talking about cobalts and hobgobblins. I love listening in on their conversations. They are building a world together, crafting stories.  My youngest is drawing a map. My eldest is contemplating strategies.  And I am grateful for this moment, for being present.

So often I find that I am rushing.  Rushing to get to work, to pick up my children from school, to get to practice, or the store, or the bank, or the... But this rushing around creates so much tension, so much stress both for me and for those around me, my family and my students.  I have learned through yoga to slow down, breath, and let the present be a present, a gift. Rushing around, being busy all the time, does so much more harm than good. Being present, having the presence of mind to slow down and be grateful for the moment I am in, takes practice.

I am reminded of a powerful video that John Spencer animated about a year ago asking teachers, really asking all of us, to stop wearing busy like a badge of honor.

This morning I am grateful to have the presence of mind to be present.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lucky to Love School

Wild winds whipped across the mitten state on Wednesday.  By 10:30 in the morning, I had received a text message and email that my sons' elementary school was without power, but not to worry, everyone was safe. A few minutes later, my high school's lights flickered, and we were suddenly without power as well.  A student handed me his cell phone. "My mom just texted me this. Apparently there's a portion of someone's roof in our front yard." The winds took off the roof of an elementary school in a neighboring county and left nearly a million people in Michigan without power, over 350,000 people in our area of West Michigan. Schools across our area were closed on Thursday due to the power outages, both mine and my sons' schools included.

By Thursday afternoon, many in the area had their power restored, including my home and my high school.  However, Thursday evening a friend texted me that he didn't think our kids would be going to school on Friday either because the elementary school still did not have power. Friday morning, it turned out he was right when I received a text that once again the elementary school was closed. Time to make alternative childcare plans.

So my two young sons packed up their backpacks and headed to school with me this morning. My first grader and second grader have been to my classroom many times when the big kids were not there. They have helped me set up my room in the summer and lug books up to my room on breaks, but today was the first time that they were in my class when it was filled with high school students.

My student teacher and I start each one of our classes the same way with a daily check-in that we call Lo-Hi's, an opportunity to share a low that has been impacting us or a high that we want to celebrate.  It is our way of learning more about what is happening in our students' lives outside the classroom as well as a way to build connections in our learning community. Students hear who needs support and who would like affirmations. Today, I shared that I was excited to have my two helpers in the class with me, and when students asked why my sons were in our classroom, my eldest would pipe up with an explanation of why their elementary school was closed.  "Lucky!" my first period chorused.  "Lucky!" my second period class murmured.  "Luck..." my third period class started to say when my eight year old broke in.

"Why does everyone say that we're 'lucky' because our school is closed.  It's not lucky. I like my school."

My third period class went quiet.

Flickr image by Matthew Hutchinson
The same thing happened in my other classes throughout the day, and I could tell that both my sons were getting frustrated each time that my students said they were lucky to be out of school. In later classes, my youngest son joined in. "We missed book fair today and library time."

My boys love school.  They love learning.  They love their teachers and talk about all the funny and amazing things their teachers share with them. At one point during the afternoon, my boys were starting to get a little antsy and asked me to print out some "homework" for them.  They wanted to be working on something like the high school students.  They came home today excited. Over dinner, my eldest told me that he can't wait to be a high school student because it looks like fun.

Today reminded me of a quote by Sir Ken Robinson (who coincidentally will be in Michigan next week!): "All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think." At what point in their academic careers do we educated students out this? Why do students start to say that they hate school.

I know that many of the students in my classes do not hate school.  Some do.  But I also know that for some of my students, school is the only place they can count on regular meals. School is where some of my students will find a supportive friend or teacher to comfort them through a difficult time. School is where some of my students will be challenged and told that they are capable of more than they give themselves credit. School is where some of my students are excited to be earning college credit or job training towards a career they are passionate about. For some of my students, school is the stable center of their lives. And yet, even these students chime in with "lucky." It has become part of our culture to hate school, specifically high school.

So how do we change this? How do we change the dominate narrative that school is a place we are lucky to get out of, lucky to have an unexpected day away from, lucky to leave behind? I know there are no easy answers.  My students' responses today are developmentally appropriate. By the time they are seniors, we want our students to think of themselves as confident, self-sufficient members of our community. They are ready to move on. They want to move on. This is what teachers want to hear. But I also heard in my students' chorus of "lucky!" that school is not a place they value. This breaks my heart.  I don't want my students to hate school. I don't want my sons to learn that school is something to be hated.  How do I create a classroom culture where students feel lucky to love school?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why My Words Matter

I've fallen off the blogging wagon.  This month I am participating in the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life blogging challenge. Each day during the month of March, participating students and teacher bloggers are sharing a slice of their daily life, writing a small moment to share with readers.  I have been so impressed reading the daily posts from educators and especially from students.  There are multiple classrooms - high school, middle school, even some elementary school students - who have written, posted, and responded to others every single day so far.



I have failed.

But here's the thing. I am okay with that.

There was a time when every misstep, every shortcoming, every time I fell short of my goal, I would spiral into an anxious little mess.  Self-deprecating comments easily came to my lips, and I would let the mantra of "good enough is not good enough" loop like an earworm through my brain.

Flickr image by Pierre Metivier
And then I started to see this type of thinking replicated in my high school students. Not all that long ago, I heard my six year old son call himself "stupid" under his breath when I corrected him on a math problem he was working on at home. I watch my young sons and my students fall into the same thinking traps that I do. I watch them let a missed answer, a missed grade, a missed honor snowball into a global sense of failure.

It took time for me to recognize how my own words and actions might be framing the thoughts and actions of the young people I work with.  How can I inspire and encourage resilience if I continue to be so critical of myself?

I had this same conversation with my student teacher just the other day.  She is an amazingly talented undergraduate who is working hard to take over my multiple preps and get to know my 150+ students. Having just finished our first unit in our honors tenth grade English classes, which she designed, she is in the midst of grading 57 elaborate multi-genre projects.  I hear her make fun of herself in front of the class when students ask if they are graded.  It is something that many of us do.  It is good not to take yourself to seriously.  However, I have learned that if you vocalize more self-critical comments than positive ones, it does impact how others interact with you.  We have talked about how to frame the instructions she gives in the classroom, how words really do matter.  Even in seemingly simply, seemingly benign situations, how we choose to use our words can frame how those around us interact with one another.

I have been accused of being overly enthusiastic, positive to the point of being Pollyanna-ish.  But here's the thing: I would rather my students, the world, view me as a positive force of good rather than a pessimistic, self-critical complainer.  If I want my students to view themselves as positive forces of change, then I need to view myself as one, too.  If I want my students to talk about themselves as strong, empowered, resilient learners, then I need to provide them opportunities to use language to reflect on how they have made changes and learned from mistakes.  If I want my students to succeed, I must be an example of how to make mistakes, acknowledge failure, and move on.


In January, I bought myself a gift, a bracelet engraved with a quote from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." I wear it every day as a reminder that I am resilient, that I am enough.

"I exist as I am. That is enough."

Friday, March 3, 2017

Interviewing History

I love how chatty they are when they come back into the common area at Green Acres Assisted Living facility. My Public Speaking students planned and prepared throughout our week together for this interview and have just finished recording their interactions with the residents of our local retirement facility.  Working in partners, they prepared questions to learn more about the childhoods of our local senior citizens. Then, my students used the StoryCorps app to record their interviews.  And now that their interviews are complete, they can't stop chatting about all they have learned.

"Did you hear that they have been married for 73 years?"

"Her husband died just a year after they were married."

"Her family's home burnt to the ground and her brothers, sisters, and parents all living together in a tent until they could afford to rebuild their home."


"He lived through the Great Depression."

"Did you see all the World War II medals he had."

It was easy to see they were nervous when we first entered through the double doors of the facility. They chatted nervously with their partners, a bit apprehensive.  But 20 minutes later as they emerged from their interviews, students could not wait to share all the surprising connections and stories they had heard. My high school students were excited to share the stories they had heard.

"Ms. Ward, I'm sorry we're late.  But when she mentioned that she had lived through the Great Depression, I just wanted to hear more, so I asked her a few more questions and lost track of time."

My students wanted to sit with our elderly residents and learn.

This is the value of connecting our local community to what is happening in our schools. We learn with one another, from one another. This is what school should be.

You can hear some of the stories that we've collected over the past year by rolling over the image below and clicking on the individual interviews you'd like to hear.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Mad About Books

By 8:00 this morning, already 30 students and staff had voted, and our poll had only been open for 15 minutes.  There is a buzz about books in our building.  Even the principal popped by to chat with me about books at the close of first hour. "Have your read Unbroken? So powerful!"

This is the third year I have organized a March Book Madness bracket for high school students and staff.  During the month of February, I sent out a Google form survey for all our students and staff to share their favorite books.  This year, we received over 140 suggestions.  The books that were recommended more than once made it onto our final bracket.  And then yesterday, March 1, our voting kicked off.

A large poster went up in the hallway outside my door to display the contending books and let our community know how to get in on the voting.  Our first day of voting, a choice between Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Paper Towns, was an easy choice for our community.  We are not a group of muggles at Ionia High. We're into some serious book magic.  Harry won easily among the 36 students and staff that voted.  And then we got to draw a name from those that voted to win a signed copy of Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist.  The winner? A special education teacher in our building.

And I think that's where the buzz began.  Because by the close of first period this morning, I had already surpassed the number of voters from the day before. Students and staff passed me in the hallway and tapped me to ask, "So you're really giving away signed books?"

Yup.

We connected with Jay Asher online who is sending us some books. And Ruta Sepetys is signing books for us. And Ernest Cline. And Tiffany Schmidt. How? Twitter! How have we built book buzz? Twitter!  I've been tweeting authors from my classroom account to ask if I can send them books to sign for our giveaway. When they've responded, I've read them aloud in class.  Students start talking about authors. About books. And then they've joined in, talking about authors and books online and in class.  We created a hashtag to talk about books online - #IoniaReads

So by the close of today, we were mad about books.  It seems quite fitting since today turned out to be World Book Day!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Connection between Innovation and Ignorance


It's the first day of March, and in addition to being the start of our March Book Madness challenge, it also marks the start of the month long blogging challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers.  The Slice of Life (#sol17) blogging challenge is in its tenth year and invites bloggers of all ages to share a small slice of their day.  Why a small slice?  As author and educator Ralph Fletcher writes, "The bigger the issue, the smaller you write," with the idea being that our voice becomes clear when we focus on a unique, peculiar detail. "Put forth the raw evidence, and trust that the reader will understand exactly what you are getting at."

In the midst of my second hour class, my tenth grade students working to peer revise their multi-genre writing projects, I received "the call." You know, the one that every parent dreads.  My son's elementary school was calling to let me know that he was sick at school. And so the scramble began to find subs and make arrangements to go pick him up.

That's how I found myself snuggled next to him near the fireplace watching TED talks this afternoon when we both should have been sitting in our respective classrooms. He would pick a talk, and then I would. I selected Sisonke Msimang's talk titled "If a story moves you, act on it," and my son picked Sam Kass's "Want kids to learn well? Feed them well." As we scrolled through the TED site, my son saw the picture and title for Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado's talk titled "To solve old problems, study new species." Mom, we have to watch this one! What is that even a picture of?! And by the time we got just a few minutes into the talk both of us were hooked, especially when Alvarado declares: "...if you don't feel like a complete idiot most of the time, you're just not sciencing hard enough."

Alvarado calls his audience to run toward ignorance: "We actually need to bring all of our intelligence to becoming stupid again - clueless before the immensity of the unknown. Because after all, science is not really about knowledge. Science is about ignorance. That's what we do."  Both my son and I loved this. His warm head resting on my arm, my son whispered, "We have to be detectives." And he's right.

Alejandro Sanchez Alcarado ends his speech saying, "We scientists need to teach our students to long for the endless immensity of the sea that is our ignorance."  I couldn't agree more.  Innovation will emerge from our ignorance.  We must teach our students to be comfortable with the unknown, to dwell in it, to question it, and propose interpretations and solutions.  Innovation comes from inquiry into our own ignorance.  Our students need more opportunities to develop their own lines of inquiry, and this means that teachers must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, with not having all the answers.  Because, to adapt the old adage, if we teach as we have always taught, students will only ever learn what they have always learned. That is not innovation. That is just tradition.

We, students and teachers, need to recognize the potential that lies in our own ignorance. It is our opportunity for innovation.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Why Project Based Learning?

Regular readers will recognize that I'm relatively new to the Project-Based Learning (PBL) method of inquiry outlined by BIE, but not new to the approach.  Looking back on the Cultures Projects my high school students completed nearly a decade ago when I asked them to research an issue currently facing a non-western culture, do something to help that issue by connecting with organizations working on it, and then present their research to our school community, I can see clear connections to the PBL approach in my earlier curriculum designs. Whether you call it project-based learning, authentic assessment, passion-driven inquiry, connected learning, or flipped learning - all of these approaches circle back to the idea that students are at the center of their learning. Students need choice in their inquiry topics and voice in how to share their work with a real audience.  Voice. Choice. Purpose.  These are the cornerstones of the project-based approach.

I have had the opportunity the past couple months to teach the PBL approach alongside my principal to interested teachers in my building during our faculty meeting time. We've crafted driving questions, discussed group dynamics, and brainstormed community connections for our authentic audiences. A number of teachers are getting ready to try their first PBL designed unit in the coming weeks. Excitement and anxiety are swirling. And not just for our teachers. This is not only a new approach for teachers in our building, but it is an entirely new approach for our students as well.

In anticipation of sharing the PBL approach with my colleagues, I designed a mini-PBL project for my tenth grade honors students as an example of what the PBL process looks like in action. In November, my students and I took a hike, circling around our school, wading through milkweed meadows and climbing pine trees.  Why? For our unit on texts focused on the theme of "The Natural World." We were looking for inspiration. Students read works by Barbara Kingsolver, Emma Marris, Walt Whitman, and more.  We used our texts as mentors to guide our thinking and inquiry. And then I presented our driving question: "What is a local environmental issue that you can address?"  We used our nature walks as inspiration to look carefully at what was impacting our local environment.  We noticed butterflies and bees, trees and bats, garbage and water pollution.  So we had to do something to help.

Why project-based learning?  Here's why:


Maddie, Camryn, Amanda, Trinity and Maddie researched and built bee hives with the help of their science teacher.

And, here's why:



Students have real purpose and real audiences for the research they took on. My students taught elementary school students, interviewed hunters, built beehives, made posters to stop littering and promote recycling, tested our drinking water quality, and so much more.

This is what learning should look like.

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