Bud to Bloom

I read a post on Edudemic written by Patrick Larkin called “How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.” The post got me thinking about all the different ways we make learning comfortable or uncomfortable for ourselves and our students.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

I don’t know who has a harder time dealing with discomfort: students or teachers. On the one hand, some of my students demand easy answers and rote assignments. They want to know precisely which details are worth memorizing or what one-right-answer can be found in the textbook. They like the comfort of worksheets with predefined limits. They demand “study guides” that are little more than veiled versions of the test. It takes us a while to move away from this mindset toward the open fields of intellectual risk, argument and counter argument, and original creations. More than once this year, a student has said to me, “Just tell me what to write. Just tell me how many sentences. Just tell me how many pages.” These students are stuck between anxiety and their own comfort zone.

On the other hand, teachers can be too quick to judge themselves and their practice, sticking to the safe paths already marked and traveled. It takes courage to experiment with new methods and when we fail to meet our own expectations, the sting can take a while to fade. When it comes to technology integration, it can feel like there is so much to know that even the smallest change feels like walking into a minefield. Doing things the way they have always been done feels safe and soothing. To upend our curriculum, examine our pedagogy, confront new research about how students learn best: all of these things can send a wave of panic in motion. No one who loves teaching wants to think of the work we do is less than our best, but often that’s what we are left to conclude. It’s even worse if we work in an environment that feels punitive or makes us question our own competence. Self preservation can make staying comfortable feel like our best option. It’s a fatalistic version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Just as students need to know they are safe to step outside the boundaries of what they know and find familiar, teachers need that support from one another and from our leaders if we are ever going seek a little discomfort over staying comfortable. Any learning endeavor has a curve. Many times it starts with a goal that seems daunting or just too far away. It demands patience, practice, and persistence for us to achieve it.

Just when the flower feels snug in the bug, it's only holding back the bloom. Gotta keep blooming and show your colors.

Bud to Bloom

As for me, when I first read the title of the article, it made me think of a rosebush. As the stem develops a bud, the flower develops inside a nice, safe, protected place, but it only fulfills it’s purpose once it splits open into a blossom. If we allow ourselves or our students to stay only where it feels safe and comfortable, we keep from blossoming to our full potential.

Processing My Pain

If I had known when I earned my teaching degree all of the things I would be asked to do beyond the scope of my role as a content specialist, I never would have done it. I’m not afraid of hard work or high standards. Judge me and my competence based on faulty measures in a flawed system. Fine. Teach me CPR and the Heimlich and how to wield an Epipen. Require signage on my door declaring my room a peanut-free zone. Train me to manage the psychoses of mentally ill children: the depressed, the traumatized, the oppositionally-defiant and violent. Fine. Show me the signs of abuse or bullying and make me legally responsible for the well being of all who cross my path. Yes. Fine. Ask me to modify what and how I teach for the physically, mentally and emotionally challenged. Of course. Require me to maintain records and contact with the parents of ninety students every twelve months. No problem.

But today I was asked too much. Today I learned and practiced tactical strategy to thwart an angry or deluded man intent on murder.

Schools are, by design, open spaces with little to no defensive ground. My classroom is designed with glass in the door and a side window large enough for someone to climb through-or poke a weapon through and spray bullets. There are fire doors that open in such a way that they cannot be blocked. We have no tools to break windows. No weapons but our textbooks or a cup of hot coffee to throw in a killer’s face.

I don’t want a sidearm or a Glock under my IEP folder either. Arming me against a nebulous threat isn’t an answer.

It’s not that I don’t like having officially sanctioned permission to run like hell if we come under fire, but I can’t shake the sadness I’m feeling.

In some scenarios, we run; in others we fight and some WILL die. Why is this ok? Why should I just accept this and let society off the hook? It’s too much to ask. Aren’t we in the United States of America–the greatest free nation on Earth?

Am I the only one who thinks this is too much to ask?

My greatest fear is not that I will be in a school that will see an attack like so many schools before us, but that there is a slow acclimatization to preparing a defense against angry or deluded young, white men (with guns and cold-blooded murder on their minds) and it is becoming business as usual.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

I’m restless. From the first time I set foot in an education class, I was looking and listening for anyone who saw education as a frontier worth exploring.

I dutifully generated bloodless lesson plans for phony classrooms populated with imaginary students. The veil between my imaginary classroom and my ability to teach remained a barrier until I began my career and awoke to reality. With each new group of students, I questioned my methods, learned and tested new strategies, and ever-hungry for more, joined professional groups.

Still, no matter what I did, I felt lonely and isolated. I felt transformed and renewed each time I grew as a professional in my practice through study and application or through the hard-knocks of teacher experience. Teaching was alchemy and each alchemist tested and refined her own methods for spinning straw into gold. We didn’t hide our conclusions from one another, but we didn’t share them openly either.

Parents and the general public questioned: What goes on in that classroom of yours? How do you know that what you’re doing works? Fear of judgement kept us from inviting colleagues or supervisors to visit and learn with us.

I realized our profession has often made us into mad professors hiding behind barriers of our own making. We can easily become the Great and Powerful Oz, obscured behind grade book averages and hidden behind closed classroom doors–mired in “the way we’ve always done things.”

I have sought ways to tear down that curtain, find other like-minded and restless professionals, and show what teaching and learning really looks like in my classroom. The future looks open to all kinds of possibilities: Twitter, Edcamp, Sanderling. These are the tools that will help bring professional development out of the shadows and into the noisy, energetic tumble of teacher professionals.

I’m off to be a Wizard and the journey all at once. It’s time to put on my walking shoes and put this restless drive for change into action.

(Cross-posted on Sanderling.)

My Kids -Your Kids

I started teaching in 2002, armed with a Bachelor of Science, methods courses, and a mentor. I was fresh out of college, single, and childless. I looked so young that I once had a colleague stop my class from going down the hallway because she thought they were unescorted by a teacher and thought, at first glance, that I was one of my eighth-graders. At the end of the year 7th vs 8th softball game, I wore my hair in braided pigtails for team spirit and a parent asked my partner teacher if I was a “new kid” in the seventh grade class.

It’s now over a decade later and no one is going to mistake me for a twelve year-old anymore, and while I am now married, I am still childless. According to an article by Sara Mosle on Slate.com entitled “Parents make better teachers,” because I am childless, I lack a critical perspective on child and adolescent development.

Mosle writes about her early career as a TFA grad, working for a charter school with the limited perspective that is part and parcel of being in your twenties. If you’re out in the world as an adult for the first time, you’ve got learning and living of your own to do. She writes, “To the extent I understood family dynamics, it was solely from the perspective of the teenager I’d been just a few years before.”

I can remember early entanglements with parents when I attempted to assert my authority in the classroom. A parent refused to have her daughter serve a detention because I could not prove that she was talking when I had asked her to stop. Her mother said, “Just because her lips were moving doesn’t mean my daughter was talking.” I talked with my mentor; I learned flexibility; I learned how to reflect on my actions; I became a more savvy classroom manager–but these skills took time and mentoring to develop. Now, my students rarely receive detention because I’ve learned how to engage them, guide them, and help them stop a problem before it gets to the level of a detention. It took experience and observation to get good at this part of the job.

I remember having a sophomore student who missed class frequently, didn’t bathe regularly, never completed his assignments, and often went to sleep in my class. In my early years, I would have seen this student as someone who needed discipline and strong consequences. Instead, I asked the guidance counselor what was going on. He lived with one parent who worked the graveyard shift. If his parent didn’t come home in time to take him to school, he would miss. This fifteen year-old only had access to the groceries and laundry detergent that was in the house. When supplies ran out, he had to wait until the next grocery trip. He spent most of his waking hours at school or alone at home. When his parent was home, the parent slept. They were on opposite schedules for school and work. He felt adrift and unmotivated. How’s that for “family dynamics”?

I’m not sure how having my own child would help me better empathize with students like him.

I agree with Mosle that charter schools who employ only young, single, childless teachers are being short sighted–but I reject her thesis that hiring teachers with children is the answer.

Enough. Enough with the oversimplification.

It takes a school community. It takes teachers like my mentor when I was twenty-three and starting out to help me learn from her experience and reflect on my management choices. It takes guidance counselors and principals. It takes parents and guardians who are willing to work with teachers and schools as partners. Charter schools who demand their teachers work 100 hours a week for the sake of their students at the expense of their own lives or own families are not sustainable. Teachers are human beings with a very real and important need for boundaries that allow them to be whole people with lives and families of their own. Teaching and caring for someone else’s children should not be all we are allowed to do.

I would love to have children of my own, but so far I can’t. I suffered a miscarriage while at school and had no choice over the following weeks and months to mask my grief and pain in order to protect my students. Don’t tell me I can’t be a good teacher if I’m not also a parent.

I buy school supplies for my students. I buy them lunches. I have held them when they’ve cried and talked them down from their feelings of betrayal and despair when a parent goes to jail or when there is divorce. I have held a student’s confidence when she told me she’d just worked up the courage to tell her parents and the police she’d been raped. I have walked students to the guidance office when they were facing the possibility of pregnancy. I have had a student steeped in his own depression lean on me to guide him to the help he desperately wanted but didn’t know how to ask. I have consoled parents who don’t know how to handle their child’s heartache, or addiction, or anxiety. I have been to hospitals. I have been to funerals.

It’s an old cliche that teachers refer to students as our kids. No one who says so does it lightly. I know when a new group of children are entrusted to me at the beginning of the school year that I have an obligation to provide each child with an intellectually and emotionally safe, motivating environment. They become my kids and I advocate for them; encourage them; and challenge them to see their potential even when they cannot.

I may not be a parent, but I have learned over the course of my career that I don’t have to be a parent in order to be a good teacher. What makes a good teacher? All those things I have been so blessed to find as I have grown and developed as a teacher: consistency, support, positive relationships with parents (their child’s first teachers), trust, and experience. Having a fertile womb hasn’t really entered the picture.

Essayer means “to try”

The essay as a writing form came into existence relatively late in the whole scheme of things. It wasn’t until writing could be easily reproduced (printed) and paper became an inexpensive way to share ideas that the essay was born.

The term for these focused pieces of nonfiction writing comes from the French verb essayer which can be translated to try; to experiment; to explore. That is because, from the start, the purpose of an essay is to allow a writer to try and explain something–to make her thinking visible–and to communicate her thinking to another human being.

Essays are:

  • both formal and informal
  • humorous and serious
  • playful and irreverent
  • academic and fact-bound
  • written to inform, persuade, entertain, and describe–Sometimes essays do more than one of these elements at one time!
  • written for an audience of one, an audience of millions, or an audience somewhere in between
  • supported with facts, examples, quotes and other kinds of details
  • communication
  • making thinking visible

Essays are NOT:

  • just five paragraphs
  • a report, article, or encyclopedia entry
  • meant for “regurgitation”–or simply repeating what another person has said or taught
  • flat or boring
  • for “the future”

Of all the misconceptions about the essay as a writing form, the one that bothers me most is that it is a form of writing that will help students “in the future” instead of right now. Learning how to sift through your thinking to arrive at a conclusion is a life skill that can help you be a better thinker and learner NOW. You don’t have to wait for some imaginary future before it’s all worth the hard work!

In the digital age, we are no longer limited by paper and place. We can share our essays with the world through social media sites or by email. We can blog. We can comment on the writing others do. It’s an exciting time to be a thinker because ideas are so freely available and every voice can be heard.

P.S. Did you notice? This is an essay!

(Cross posted from my private classroom blog.)

Saying “Yes” To What Scares Me

The first time I said yes to fear instead of what scares me was during a family trip to Kings Island. I was seven and old enough to ride some of the rides, but not all of them. I watched as cousins, uncles, aunts, and even my grandmother got in line to ride roller coasters with names like “The Beast” or “The King Cobra.” I spent my time with bumper cars and flying swings, secretly wishing I were old enough to ride the roller coasters and, at the same time, relieved I had an excuse not to go.

There was one small problem with my plan. In one area of the park–dedicated to kids–there was a reproduction of “The Beast” that was kid-sized.

The Beastie, image courtesy of Jay Hull on Flickr

I would be allowed to ride that roller coaster.

I watched as the filled cars inched their way up the first incline. Each click and clack of the cars sounded to me like the bolts breaking loose. For a moment, as the cars reached the top, they glided in an arc to the left before plunging down the first hill, washing over the crowd with a roar and a sustained, gleeful scream from those delighted riders. The shrieks would peak and fall with the hills and curves before the train rumbled back to the platform. Some riders’ faces were flushed, others were laughing.

I watched and was afraid.

I got as far as the top of the platform only to turn around when it was my turn to step into the waiting car. My fear told me that no matter how many times I watched others ride safely, it was too dangerous for me and I should stay on the ground. Weighted with shame and embarrassment, I plodded back down the ramp, going the wrong way past other riders and into the blinding summer sunlight while my father and older brother waved from the ascent. I watched with envy as my older brother and my dad sat side-by-side, throwing their arms up in the air. I could hear my father’s carefree laughter through the screams and cheers.

I held my breath, knowing they would be safe, but still afraid to trust the ride would not crash or fly from the tracks. When the ride ended and they came back to where my mother and I were waiting, my dad offered one more time to wait in line with me, but this would be my last chance before we had to leave the park. I stared at my shoes and said “No.”

My brother laughed and called me a chicken–because that’s what eight year-old brothers do–and I hated him for it. I was a chicken. A coward.

The rest of the day I followed along with my mother and brother, riding the kiddie rides and getting sunburned. I listened to the gleeful cheers and screams throughout the park, piecing my courage together to ask for one last chance to ride the Beastie. By the time I was ready, it was also time to leave the park. My parents would not be swayed by tears or protests. I’d had my chance and chose not to ride. Now I would have to wait until the next trip to Kings Island in a couple of years.

When to Say No to Fear and Yes to Opportunity

A few years later I visited another theme park but this time I left nothing to regret. I rode my first, second, third, and fourth roller coasters–wooden coasters and metal coasters and tracks with loops and cars that went forward and backward. I had learned my lesson. Was I still afraid to take the chance? Yes, but I wasn’t going to say yes to my unreasonable fear. In fact, the more coasters I rode, the more I conquered my fear.

It was a good life lesson for me. As I’ve grown older there have been more opportunities that have come my way and I’ve had to choose whether or not to go along for the ride or to stay safely in one place. I’ve learned to differentiate between good risks and real danger, and I’ve learned that those opportunities in my life that are tinged with the fear of the unknown are usually the opportunities that have the most potential for me to grow.

This summer, I am taking a chance and working in an administrative role for the first time. I tend to gravitate toward supporting roles when it comes to leadership, so to take on the responsibility for leading a staff as well as students is definitely outside my comfort zone. When the position was offered to me, there were so many reasons to say no: I didn’t know enough about the position. I had no administrative experience. I’m too young. I’m not young enough.

I had thousands of excuses.

The opportunity was there in front of me: a chance to grow and to test my leadership in a new way. It scared me, but in the same way all good opportunities come wrapped in a fear of the unknown. I knew I had to say yes and take the chance. It’s going to demand my best and I know the students and staff will test my skills as a leader, but in a way it feels like waiting in line for a roller coaster ride: anticipation, excitement, and nervous energy soon to be released in a gloriously wild ride.

How I Became a Twit(ter-er)

As little as six months ago, that’s how I referred to people on Twitter: twits.

When Lindsay Lohan, Snooki, and Lady Gaga have Twitter accounts and their every move is big news on Access Hollywood, that’s not something that gets me too excited. I don’t want to keep up with celebrity gossip and Facebook already kept me in touch with family, friends, and coworkers. I didn’t see the need for one more digital plate to spin, another digital identity or virtual self I’d have to maintain like a self-cloning Neopet.  But here I am, an enthusiastic proponent of social media in education. I consider myself to be open minded about technology and social media, but I am a late-bloomer when it comes to blogging and Twitter.

During an Edutopia tweetup while I was in San Francisco for the annual ASCD conference, I met Steve Anderson (aka @web20classroom) whom I had first “met” through #edchat. I’m definitely a newcomer (about 3 months) and he asked me point blank: Why? What was it that enticed me to start tweeting? What happened between month 4 and month 3? His questions made me pause. The change had happened so gradually, I hadn’t really paid attention. Around the same time, another educator I follow on Twitter, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a link from his blog, “Why Educators Should be Using Twitter.” Somewhere down in the comments, a person wrote a scathing post condemning social media and calling into question the motives one might have for participating in social media. After both of these experiences, I decided to give some serious thought to my transition, to share my reasons for joining the Twitter bandwagon, and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that may play a role in shaping the attitudes of educators, administrators, and parents who haven’t been drawn in to the social media community just yet. This isn’t a “you-should-join-’cause-Twitter-is-so-awesome” blog post. There are plenty of those around.

This is my story and I think others may see themselves in my experience.

In the Beginning

If I’m honest, my Twitter journey started about two years ago. I’d already created a Facebook account and made peace with the privacy/oversharing demons. I liked sharing interesting articles I read with my Facebook friends, but my posts usually didn’t generate any conversation or feedback. I wondered if maybe I was just annoying people. I read something in one of the blogs in my RSS feed that linked to a tweet. I wanted to read more.  Being an adventurous person, I thought I’d see what Twitter was all about. I made an account, looked for a few famous people, read disjointed conversations, and felt utterly bored and confused.

You could say I found Twitter to be confusing and overwhelming at first.

WTH was up w/@thisandthat #Blahblahblah RT #BeiberFever? What’s a bit.ly? So many acronyms and symbols! What did it all mean?

For once I felt out of my element with technology. These “twits” were speaking a different language and I didn’t belong with the cool kids speaking their secret code. I had no followers, except for AT&T who assigned someone to follow me after I complained about cell phone reception in my neighborhood. (Gee, didn’t I feel special.) I’m a huge fan of jazz musician Jamie Cullum so it was a natural choice to follow his tweets and get information about upcoming tour dates. I didn’t know anyone personally who used Twitter, so friends and family were off my list. I didn’t really want to use Twitter with friends and family, though. I had Facebook for that and I felt safer using Facebook to limit my contacts and guard my identity. After a day or two, I put a privacy fence around my tweets and promptly forgot my password.

Looking for a Place to Belong

In the second half of 2010, I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, severing myself from the only professional community I had known. I missed the teacher-leader and agent-of-change conversations I’d had in graduate school and my school’s program to develop teacher-coaches. I knew there had to be others out there who felt the way I did and could challenge me or teach me and help me stay sharp. I polished up my digital resume and joined Linked In. I wanted more professional conversation and hoped Linked In would be the place where I would find it. I attempted to contribute to professional conversations in the many available groups, but often days or weeks would go by without anyone saying anything–or I would simply be redirected to a magic-bullet educational product for sale. ASCDEdge proved equally limiting, but at least there were plenty of thought-provoking blog posts for me to browse.

NaNoWriMo and Blogging: Getting Warmer

In November I participated in my first NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The moderator encouraged participants like me to follow NaNoWriMo’s word sprints on Twitter. It felt nice to be connected to a group of writers who were all working hard on their writing like me, but the word sprints were broadcast posts. They didn’t invite conversation, they were commands. At this point, my impression of Twitter was like a platform in the mall where anyone could step up on a box and shout an announcement into the room. I read the tweets but didn’t post any replies.

At the same time I was working on my book, I started thinking about writing a blog. There had been so much conversation in the news about education and reform. I was sick to death of teacher cliches and misinformation and wanted to do something about it. I decided to start a blog (now defunct) based on a daily Google search using the term “teachers should.” I used a pseudonym and posted three times before I gave up. Who was I to write such self-serving fluff? Who would want to read it? Why did I care so much? I’d already tried (and failed) to have these types of conversations on Facebook and Linked In, so what was left?

I shifted tactics and started creating a personal website that would be a companion to my Linked In profile. I was dabbling more, playing with technology and Web 2.0 tools. I started looking for advice and test-driving different options for blogs. Before long I had “discovered” social bookmarking and was working up quite a list of useful classroom tools. That’s when I came across Edublogger, Richard Byrne (@rmbyrne), and Pernille Ripp (@4thGrdTeach). I subscribed to their blogs and started down the rabbit hole. The more I read, the more links I followed, the more blogs I added to the RSS reader. It was exactly what I had been looking for–smart people, great ideas, and a chance for me to learn something new. I dusted off my Twitter account, changed my handle, and added a picture.

I started seeing tips for educators to “follow” and before long I stumbled across Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) and my first #edchat. Before adding the hashtag, I had been tweeting into the ether. I knew what I was thinking, but I wasn’t part of the conversation. I watched the #edchat tweets roll in, saw the same names and faces sharing, questioning, linking, RT-ing (whatever THAT was). The mystifying code began to give way and I started following the conversation. I lurked for a while and decided to formally attend the next scheduled discussion. I stopped broadcasting and started engaging others in conversation. That decision has made all the difference.

In the last three months, because of the men and women I have met through Twitter I have:

  1. Started this blog.
  2. Commented on blogs to extend conversation.
  3. Challenged my philosophy of education.
  4. Participated in a webcast.
  5. Attended an #ntcamp as a virtual participant. Many thanks to Burlington High School’s principal, Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) for the Ustream window into learning. (Who knew backchannel tweeting and collaborating on a Google Doc would rank as one of the most valuable professional development moments in my career thus far?)
  6. Attempted Voicethread, Voki, Diigo, Evernote, Skype, and Prezi (among others).
  7. Engaged thoughtful people in conversation across disciplines, age groups, and backgrounds. (@lookforsun and @delta_dc)
  8. Been humbled to have my ideas shared and discussed.
  9. Connected to thinkers and writers I admire.
  10. Actively participated in shaping my professional footprint.

It’s not a stretch to say that Twitter has been my “gateway drug” to new educational technologies and ideas. It has forced me to define my professional beliefs and encouraged me to be part of a community of thinkers, writers, and innovators. (I’m glad they let me hang out–and I’m proud to be a Twit.)

Thanks again to Steve Anderson (@web20classroom) for challenging me to reflect and to Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) who encouraged me to write.