Thankful for All the Things: A Collaborative Blog Post Written by the #4OCFPLN

John Martinez, elementary school principal, Rowland Hts, CA @jmartinez727

http://betweenthejohns.com/

In 1963, my father Eduardo left his homeland to make a new life in America. At 31 years of age he arrived in New York leaving behind his wife Maria, four children, and all the people he knew.  When he arrived in New York he began the journey of finding work and earning enough to bring his family together. He didn’t speak English and did not have a trade. So he took whichever job he could find: work in kitchens, factories, and more. He worked two to three jobs at a time and left one job for another if it meant he could earn more or learn a marketable skill. In the meantime, my mom was caring for her children not knowing how the venture would unfold. In six months my dad had earned enough to bring the family from Colombia to the United States. Seemingly overnight, my family’s fortunes had changed. Opportunities and life trajectories for my siblings, for my parents, and for myself were transformed. My dad’s journey continued – finding different jobs, taking classes at night to learn English, and connecting with other immigrants for support. Then he did it all again. He packed his bags and traveled across the country to Los Angeles because he believed there were more opportunities out west. My mom continued to be the rock of our family in the way she supported my dad and nurtured her children. My dad found more jobs, continued learning English, and made new connections with others. Not long after, my mom and siblings made the cross country trip by railroad and began their new lives in Los Angeles. All of this happened before I came along in 1968. By then, the the tireless of efforts of my mom and dad had set the foundation for my family’s success. For the next twenty years, they continued building on that foundation. My dad worked as many jobs as needed. My mom got jobs as us kids grew a bit older and more comfortable in our surroundings. Throughout my childhood I saw countless examples of my parents’ dedication to their family. The way they faced and overcame adversity taught me to persevere. The way they modeled the the values of family, faith, and country taught me to be loyal and sustain my beliefs. I learned about teamwork, integrity, and courage from my parents.

I am thankful to my parents for emigrating to the USA. Who I am, where I am, what I am, and why I am would not be had my parents not had their their vision and their courage. I am thankful to America, the fertile soil where my family could boom.
Amy Storer, Instructional Coach, Montgomery, TX

“I am thankful for every moment.” Al Green

Every single moment that has occured in my life so far has led me to where I am today. Some of those moments were filled with love and laughter and some were blanketed in sadness and fear. But each turn taken and road followed has helped to mold me into the person that I have become today and who I will be in the future.  I am thankful for a mother that fought for her daughters to have everything that the world could give them and more. She sacrificed so much for us, and everything we do as educators today is because of her and for her. I am thankful for a dad, who found his way back to us. We are so glad that you did. I am thankful for grandparents and their love and endless amounts of cookies and candy! I am thankful for a sister who is truly my best friend. Thank you for giving me one of my greatest gifts, Nancy and Finn. They crawled right into my heart and filled in the hole that momma left when she passed away. I am so incredibly thankful for them. I am thankful for the love of my love, Tony. Thank you picking up the phone when I bravely called you in the fall of 1997. Thank you for being my biggest supporter and for loving me for over 20 years. Thank you to my campus family for loving and supporting me in everything that I do. I am so lucky to get to work alongside each of you! Thank to all of my former students. You truly schooled me on school. I learned all I needed to know from each of you, and I am a better educator and human being because of you.  

Louie Soper, 5th Grade Teacher, Philadelphia, PA

I am so thankful for the opportunity to teach in the city of Philadelphia this school year.  Albeit some challenges, each day is an opportunity to learn and grow. Learning blocks can be challenging.  Days can be challenging. Weeks can be tough, but I am so so thankful for the relationships I have been able to build with many of my students.  From Fortnite dances to slime, the fun doesn’t end. I am so grateful for this group of students I have this year.  We are all walking side by side daily in our journeys together in becoming the best versions of ourselves we can be.  Lastly, I am so thankful for the regular reminders from the #4ocfpln for pointing out these daily opportunities for growth.

Kristi Daws, @kristi_daws, Technology Integration Specialist, Region 9 ESC

I am thankful for my journey. So thankful for the support of Bob Johnson who offered me an amazing opportunity to practice my love of music. I left for college a music major switching to math after two wonderful years thanks to Dr. Linda Fausnaugh. She awakened a Math Teacher inside me I did not know existed. After twenty, YES 20!!!, amazing years loving my career I stepped into the unknown and became a Digital Coach under the leadership of Brett Thomas. I was so fortunate to work alongside a leader who pushed, encouraged, challenged, and supported me daily. I followed this leader into my current position as the Region 9 ESC Technology Integration Specialist. I have learned so much in my first few months at R9 and I could not be happier. I don’t know where my journey will take me next, but I have faith that it will be an adventure. #Thankful

Rachelle Dene Poth, Spanish and STEAM Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA @Rdene915

www.Rdene915.com

I am thankful for all of the opportunities that each new day brings. Time to continue to build relationships, to connect with students and educators from around the world. For so many years, I was teaching in isolation and did not truly understand the value of being a connected educator and the importance of relationships. A tremendous mentor in law school helped me to see what it truly means to be an educator and the need to focus on the relationships first. His guidance has made such a difference in my personal life as well as my professional life and I will always be thankful for his ongoing support. There are often challenges that come each day, and sometimes it is the challenges we face as educators or it is something that our students are struggling with. We need to connect. As much as our students rely on us to care for and support them, we count on them to lift us up at times as well. Knowing that together we are creating a welcoming and supportive classroom, where students are comfortable asking for help and where they are willing to reach out and help others, is something that I am thankful for each day.

KathiSue Summers, Educational Mentor for 1st and 2nd year Teachers, Medford, OR

Do You Believe Relationships Are Important?

When I started teaching in 1986 in public education, I was a Lone Ranger. I was the only female teacher out of seven teachers in the small high school where I taught Business and Computers. I didn’t think that being alone in the classroom  was uncommon in my educational career. Before coming to public education, I taught for several years in the private sector; there you were on an island.

What I learned quickly was that relationships with other educators and students was very important to me as a person; as well as a professional.  It was easy for me to develop relationships with students, but it was difficult when I was the only female on the high school staff. It was hard for me to relate to the male teachers on staff.

I made it a point to become part of the community my first year. I  developed many positive relationships and eventually, dear friendships that I still cherish after thirty-three years. There have been many times that a message, a visit or call have made my day. I am thankful that these individuals are in my life.

As years have passed, I have developed different relationships. I have relationships with professional people I never thought would be in my circle. I think about my Voxer group (#4OCFPLN), my Twitter #PLN and my local face-to-face PLN. These people have helped me to grow professionally.

Do I think relationships are important? Yes, Yes, Yes! And, I am thankful for all the relationships I have made along my journal.

Heather Young, Kindergarten teacher, Seattle, WA

@msyoung114

I’m thankful for my students, who come to school with wide eyes every day, willing to dive into whatever we are going to learn.

I’m thankful for the families, who trust everyday to grow their children as learners and humans.

I’m thankful for my in-building colleagues, always willing to give perspective when my thoughts might be off track.

Lastly, I’m so thankful for my PLN, a crew of professionals from across the US.  In close to a year, they have pushed my practice to new heights I never imagined reaching.

This list is full of people who believe in me, they are the foundation, the motivation and the joy in my life.  I am so incredibly lucky.

Sarah Fromhold

Digital Learning Coach

McKinney, TX

@sew1080

fromholdsblog@wordpress.com

“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”  ~African proverb

This quote sums up both my journey and my struggle, and I am grateful for both!  My personality is one that I prefer to work alone most of the time. Going through school, I preferred finishing projects on my own rather than working in a group.  Because of this, I usually turned in assignments early and had plenty of free time. However, looking back, I realize I was doing the bare minimum to satisfy the requirements of the assignment.  There was no motivation to dig deeper into a topic. I was good to simply get it done. It was hard for me to find people I trusted to work with because I honestly thought it was better for me to do it alone.

My family, friends, coworkers, and the #4OCFpln have changed my view on the importance of relying on others.  With two young daughters, a husband with odd work hours, and everything I aspire to do personally and professionally, I recognize I cannot do everything by myself (and that’s perfectly fine!).  My coworkers and my PLN are constantly available for my questions and to bounce ideas around. Without my tribe, I would still be moving along in life, but with them, I’m learning, growing, changing, and truly living my best life.

Don Sturm

Technology Integration Specialist

Morton, IL

@sturmdon

Thankfulness is something that is easy to take for granted. I am guilty of looking at situations and only focusing on those annoyances that get under my skin. This blog post idea came at a perfect time for me because I was getting stuck in the rut of not looking at the positives as much as I should. Honestly, I am thankful for those who are willing to make changes. I have learned that many teachers have a genuine fear of change and trying new things. It takes real bravery for some individuals to step out of their comfort zone and, as Tara Martin says, “Cannonball in!” My goal is to be more outwardly thankful to those who decide to throw caution to the wind and try something new for the sake of their students. These teachers and administrators need to realize that their willingness to conquer their fears sends a message to their students and staff that risk-taking is ok and necessary. Think about the domino effect of this risk taking. Relationships will be built, growth mindset thinking will become the norm, and an overall positive culture will emerge. All of this is needed for schools to be places of learning and inquiry.

Laura Steinbrink, HS English, Tech Integration, District Communications Director/Webmaster, Plato, MO @SteinbrinkLaura

http://www.rockntheboat.com

My life is busy. It seems like my family and I are always on the go, sometimes in separate directions, for at least two of the three sporting seasons during the school year. Yes, you read that correctly. I said sporting seasons because that is how my school year is divided in my mind. Besides the titles of my job that I listed above, I am also the assistant coach for our volleyball and softball teams, and this year my husband, the tech director for our district, became the head cross country coach. So for the beginning of the school year through this first weekend of November, we have juggled schedules for my volleyball practices and games, my husband’s cross country practices and meets, and our son’s junior high basketball practices and games. This alone is enough to overwhelm a family, but me? I’m thankful. I spent a lot of time with my volleyball team, making connections with those students, watching them struggle, succeed, persevere, break down, and get back up again. Did I miss my son’s games because my coaching duties? Just one. My district honored my desire to be a mom first and a coach second. Did my husband regret his choice to coach this year? He developed close relationships with his team as they struggled and pushed themselves to get up and down the hills around our school and in their personal lives. At our son’s games, we connected with families and students too. His teammates will be in my classroom in a few years, and when they walk through the door and become officially mine, I will already have a solid foundation for a relationship with them.

Did we still attend other school events during our whirlwind fall season? Yes. We supported as many students and staff as we possibly could. Did we make it to everything? No. But I am thankful for all the things we were able to do, relationships we forged or broadened, the impact we may have had on students, and the impact those same students most definitely have had on us. We may not always be able to do all of the things we want to do, but I am very grateful for all of the things we can do.

Matthew Larson, PE teacher, Trenton, NJ, @mlarson_nj

I am thankful for one, all-encompassing thing…my support network. This network includes personal, professional, and pseudo-family supporters.

My professional support comes from my place of work. I am entering my fourth year teaching in an urban charter school and it has been quite the growing experience since day one. Since beginning there I have started and finished a degree in Ed Leadership and been on the hunt to move into administration to pursue and accomplish my vision of education. My colleagues and supervisors know of my search and aspirations and have been in my corner supporting my attempts every step of the way from writing references to covering my class when I have to miss time at school in order to interview. For them I am thankful!

My pseudo-family of support comes from my PLF, professional learning family. This group came together as strangers around a book study in January of 2018 and has since stayed together, met in real life, presented at conferences together, and truly become a support network both personally and professionally. Everyday we continuously push each other to explain and rationalize thinking, challenge long-held beliefs, and grow beyond what we thought we could accomplish. They have truly helped my journey through the daily conversations as I have to constantly verbalize my beliefs, values, and transformations regarding education, children, and working with adults. I can honestly attribute the nearness to my professional goals to this collective group. They are the individuals writing this blog collectively. For them I am thankful!

My personal family is a group I am indebted to and thankful for beyond words. I have twin 11-month old girls, a four year old son, my partner Jackie, two dogs, and three cats. Four years ago I left North Carolina to be with Jackie and Hayden as they moved back to New Jersey to be nearer Jackie’s family. Since then Jackie’s family and friends have been the safety net for us young parents as we tried to build careers and roots of our own in The Garden State. Without Jackie’s family and friends neither of us could being doing what we are doing. Without Jackie I could not do what I do. Every day I am out of the house by 6am and don’t return until 6pm. During that time she is either at home with 2-3 kids by herself or she has childcare taken care–something she personally puts together because I have no connections within 400 miles to help with our children. Jackie knows and understands my professional goals and supports me through every interview and through every let-down. For her I am thankful.

I am also thankful for you, the reader, for taking time to read our collective work of #thankful thoughts.

Jennifer Ledford, 6th grade ELA teacher, Hammond IN

@MrsLedford6Eng

(https://theclassroomstage.blogspot.com)

My one word focus for 2018 has been “SHINE” and when I chose that word, I could never imagine the journey that this year would take me on. I learned through these last 11 months what it truly takes for me to shine. There are some days that my light is easy to find and I simply project it at others and I am good to go. Yet there are other days that my light is underneath a thick layer of grime and muck, which is caused by stress and negativity. This is not the dirt you can simply wipe away but the kind that takes back breaking scrubbing.

This year has had its share of muck that has attempted to cloud the light I have to shine, yet I am so thankful that in January, I met an incredible group of people that continually help me clean the grime away. They do this by helping me find the courage within myself to combat all the dirt and muck that may come against me in life.

Many who know me know that I am a HUGE Wizard of Oz fan and the way that the 4OCFPLN has helped me through this year can compare to that of the Lion. The Lion lacked the courage to do much of anything and was even losing sleep because of his irrational fears. He then meets a group that soon become his friends and along their journey, he is given opportunities to show the strength and courage inside of him. When they finally reach the Wizard, the Lion realizes he does not need the courage from the Wizard, for his friends have helped him find it in himself.

While I may have not been afraid of everything, I would simply stand back and let some things go even if I knew in my heart they were not what was best. I would let negative words seep in and not do anything to redirect them.  I was managing yet not thriving until I found my group, my tribe, my edu-family. They helped me discover the power within me to roar at the negative words (in the politest way possible) and to stand up for what I know is best.

As we enter this month of thanks and the last 2 months of 2018, I am very thankful for my 4OCFPLN and for all my additional support on Twitter and Voxer. These people have truly shaped me in the last year and helped me become a better educator and a better person. I am also very thankful for this new found courage. It allows me to do what I know should be done in all aspects of my life. While it is not accepted 100% of the time, others have said they have noticed a change for the better in me. As I look forward to 2019, I am excited for the opportunities that this courage can open for me.

I also want to encourage all of you to find your group. Find those people that will allow you to uncover things within that you never knew were possible. If you are open, these changes can impact your life in the most amazing way.

Maureen Hayes, K-6 Humanities Supervisor in Lawrence Township, NJ

@mhayes611 http://kidsfirst-passionateleadership.blogspot.com/

As we enter the month of reflection and gratitude, I am thankful for those who encourage and push me every day to be my best….teachers & staff, administrators, students & my PLN.

The teachers and staff members I have the privilege to work with each day continually expect my best as an instructional leader. My job is to support them as they plan for instruction and work to meet the needs of all students in our district. They hold me accountable for being a researcher and reader, and sharing the my knowledge with them.

I am fortunate to be a part of a district administrative them that is continually pushing the limits and asking “why not” when it comes to serving our students. Each of the building principals on our team are true PIRATE Principals, and my fellow instructional supervisor team is a supportive group of instructional rock stars, especially my elementary counterpart Kristin Burke (kburke4242) who is the peanut butter to my jelly, the carrots to my peas, the macaroni to my cheese…

I am continually reminded of my purpose as an educator, and that is the students I serve. Every decision I make needs to be in the best interest of the students in my district.

Finally, my PLN/PLF, the #4OCFpln has by far been the greatest influence on me as an educator and leader, thanks to the daily talks, monthly book studies, and ongoing push-back and support they provide me. Each day spent in conversation with them is the best PD I have ever had.

Kimberly Isham, K-5 Reading Specialist, Greenville TX   @Isham_Literacy

https://kimberlyisham.blogspot.com

This past spring, my mother spent 2 weeks in a Critical Care unit about an hour away from my home.  I am so grateful that we did not lose her. My parents have been some of my strongest supporters and most important critics.  They have modeled hospitality and generosity throughout their lives. Their example and encouragement has been a big part of making me the person I am today.

My husband is my biggest supporter, whether it be acting as my cheerleader when I take on a project I am not sure about, or letting me vent when I am frustrated with something at school.  He makes me laugh and lets me know in a million ways how much he loves me and our boys.

My children (biological and school) have challenged my thinking as I strive to give them the best of myself in helping them to be the best version of themselves.  

My co-workers have caused me to question what I know as I work within the box we know as the public school system.

 My #4OCFpln has been a serendipitous group that not only gets me, but also pushes me to do more, learn more, and be more.

I am thankful that God has brought all these forces into my life to help me continue on this path of growth to be the person He created me to be.

Cathy Hink, Kindergarten Teacher & Technology Resource Teacher

Washington @mshinksclass   Website: cathyhink.com

I am thankful for relationships with…

the Trinity that gives all of life deep meaning and purpose empowers me with a strong faith, sense of hope and teaches me everyday what it means to love and be loved.

a daughter who has taught me the meaning of true love, courage and joy beyond measure.

Boo my loyal fur baby,  who provides soft cuddles, smiles and giggles everyday.

family that has nurtured and shaped my character.  For a mom that taught me unconditional love. For a father who taught me to work hard and be a problem solver.  For siblings that have taught me acceptance and taught me the fine art of negotiation and compromise. ; )

friends who have added  laughter, compassion, support as they accept me as I am and encourage, support and hold me accountable to be the best me I can be.

young students who remind me of the power and wisdom found in wonder and play and who daily model what it means to be resilient and trusting.

My #40CFPLN (a.k.a. My Tribe) who live out the honorable task of educating, loving and advocating for the children of this great nation.  Their courage, intelligence, dedication, and passion consistently inspire, strengthen and motivate me.

Elizabeth Merce- Kindergarten Teacher Virginia Beach, VA @EMercedLearning EMercedLearning.com

As I reflect on all the things I am thankful for I keep coming back to the people.  Each person I meet has changed me in some way, they have left a part of themselves with me.

I am thankful for my amazing husband and daughter who have given me the strength to try all the things.  The unconditional love they give me allows me to dream big dreams and chase them. I have been blessed with an amazing support at home.

I am thankful for all the educators that have touched my life as a child and as an adult.  I have learned so much from them. Sometimes it was just as an example of what not to do, but more often than not it was what teaching can be.

This year I also get to be thankful for my #4OCFpln.  I have found my people in this group. I have had more support and growth in the past year than in any time period in my life.  There are no words to adequately describe how this group of strangers have become my second family, my teaching home.

Mike Messner — High School Teacher, Los Altos, CA

https://momentswithmike257577506.wordpress.com/

This year, my thanks goes out in many, many directions…

To my wife Nancy, who sustains and accompanies me on my life journey and my teaching journey, and who always reminds me what those journeys are really all about.

To my son Stephen, who calls me to reflect on the job I do as an educator, and who has unflagging faith in his old man.  Breakfast at Black Bear Diner this weekend, bucko.

To Snoopy, who is the single most loving creature with more than two legs that I have ever met or am ever likely to.  

To my closest companions at Los Altos High School, Seth Donnelly, Chris Phipps, and Katherine Orozco, who have seen me at my most distraught and exhausted, and still take the time to fellowship and collaborate with me.

To the teachers who touched me most deeply and influenced my practice most profoundly: Dave Squellati, Mark Shaull, Wynne Satterwhite, and Jerry Messner (save me a seat in heaven next to you, Dad).

To my students at Los Altos and at Skyline College for allowing me to try out new ways of teaching and who forgive me when they go awry — and especially the members of Future Business Leaders of America for letting me take a fun and exciting ride as your adviser!

To the members of #4OCFPLN for their support, their exhortations, and their relentless drive to make our education system better; I cannot imagine where I would be as a teacher without this group of voices, and I can’t wait to see you all in person.

And to my Father in Heaven: Thank You for allowing me to shed burdens that might have destroyed me, for giving me a future that I think I understand, and the promise of an eternity in Your presence.

God bless us, every one.  Happy Turkey.

Debbie Holman, Science 8, AVID, Wellington, CO.

I have so much to be thankful for.   I truly feel as if I am blessed by all those who support,  encourage me and help me learn.

I’m thankful for my family including my awesome sister my amazing parents my nieces and nephew and all of my extended family, that support me day in and day out and make sure that I am at my best.  I would not be who I am without these people who have supported throughout my life.

I’m thankful for my husband who deals with the frustrations that come with being the husband of an educator. He constantly supports all of my Endeavors and all of the things that I use our hard-earned money for to bring things into my classroom to support the Science Education of all my students.

I’m thankful for my colleagues who understand the way I work and work with me as I am always challenging myself to try new things to make the instruction in my classroom new and better.  

I’m also thankful for my tribe, my professional learning network, or my professional learning family, The #4OCFPLN They encourage, inspire, and challenge my thinking on a daily basis. I am so thankful to be part of such an amazing, brilliant group of educators.  

I’m also thankful for my two fluffy amazing Great Pyrenees dogs, Bear and Taos. No matter the day I have, they always listen and are available for a good snuggle if necessary!

 

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What’s A Connected Educator, Anyway?

“Well, we’re all connected educators.  We’re all online, you know.  There’s nothing special about that.  What’s the big deal?”

That’s the response I get from teachers who are unclear on this radical new thing called being a connected educator.  Apparently, the assumption is that since their classroom is now connected to a larger computer network, they must be connected educators.  And sure, on some level, they could call themselves connected.

But it goes deeper than that.  Being connected to the Internet for the modern educator, as important as it is, doesn’t make that educator any more special than a school having a copier 20 years ago .  Or one having a library 30 years ago.  Or one having electricity 50 years ago.  (I’m not singling out those districts who truly don’t have those amenities — they exist, and they do need help — but they are probably not the norm, and I daresay anyone who is reading this blog post doesn’t work at one.)

bandwidth close up computer connection
Photo by panumas nikhomkhai on Pexels.com

An educator who thinks he/she is a connected one simply because of his/her access to the Internet might as well believe he/she is an Olympic weightlifter because he/she has a pair of arms.  It doesn’t qualify.

“Well,” some others have argued to me, “I have a Facebook account.  I’m on Instagram.  I even have a Twitter handle.”  (In most cases, the teachers making this argument haven’t accessed their Twitter account since 2015, or think it’s ‘too confusing,’ but never mind.)  “I’m active on social media.  I’m connected.”  Yep, you are.  But to whom or what?

Being on social media is necessary to being a connected educator.  But how are you using those social media tools?  Are they part of your approach to education?  Are you using them to deepen your practices or discover new ones?  To connect with your students in a meaningful and appropriate way (if your district allows)?  Do you communicate with other teachers to share resources, or experiences, or to discuss the issues you each are facing with your students?

apps blur button close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Or are you doing what the majority of people on social media are doing: posting pictures of food or pets, getting into pointless flame wars over politics, or playing games?

“Well, then, what’s a connected educator?” my colleagues sigh at me huffily, thinking that I’ve got to be the densest or most esoteric teacher who ever came down the pike.

It means you’re making connections with other teachers and with students. 

It means you communicate with kids regularly, not just when you give the whole group instruction we all have to deliver with some regularity.  It means you let them know that you are there for them, to listen, to support, to clarify, to motivate, to assist.  It means you build a relationship with the students you’re teaching — not to be their buddy, but to be their lifeline of sanity and practical love in a world of confusing information and contradiction.  It means you use all the channels at your disposal to make that communication work, and yes, that includes technology if you are sensible and practical about it.

woman in black blazer looking at woman in grey blazer
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

It means you communicate with other teachers regularly.  Not at your department meetings; not at the PD that your administrators make you go to; not on Friday nights at the local watering hole, and not in your teachers’ lounge (where you’ll hear more pissing and moaning than constructive ideas, a whole lot more often than not).  I mean you communicate with teachers who want to grow, who know they haven’t arrived, who would rather light the proverbial candle than curse the proverbial darkness.

How?  Use that Internet connection you’re so proud of or that social media you think plugs you into the lives of others.  Join that Twitter chat.  Find that Facebook group and get in it.  Dive into that Voxer group.  Make contact with the other people who listen to that podcast about education.  Look around for that PLN or tribe of teachers that are as passionate about kids and learning as you are.

‘But I don’t have time for that,” my counterparts protest.  “I’m too busy.  I have the people here at school to talk to.  I don’t need that other stuff.”

Okay, I get it.  Take care of business.  But don’t call yourself a connected educator.

I know it’s hard to quantify educational enrichment, and I don’t want to put myself on any sort of pedestal; Lord knows, I’m nowhere near an educational rockstar, and I’m making up for lost time in my own professional development.  But I’d be willing to bet that I’ll be more enriched, ennobled, and empowered as a teacher, by virtue of being connected the way I’ve just described, when I get to my retirement age than my colleagues who aren’t connected.  Maybe I won’t the teacher they make movies about, but I hope I’ll be the one who knows what he has to do in order to get better every day he goes into the classroom.

 

Been There, Done That…No More, Thanks

I think we’ve all encountered it, more likely as students than as teachers.  It’s something that our own instructors probably made us do from time to time, perhaps to distract us while they scrambled to do something seemingly more important than teaching us.  Or maybe they just got tired, or they ran out of lesson ideas on short notice.

So we got it: crossword puzzles, word searches, repetitive worksheets, movies that were only tangentially related to what we happened to be studying, reading matter that was almost indecipherable, and on and on.

It was busy work.  And it accomplished what it was supposed to do…it kept us busy.  It gave us something to do, and it might have even amounted to some minor achievement — finish this before anyone else in the class, and you get a pencil/ sticker/ eraser/ candy/whatever tchotchke.  

But, that was years ago.  We know so much more now about teaching and learning than we did when my generation was in high school — one of the first things they told me in the hallowed halls of San Jose State University as I began my (not especially distinguished) credential program.  Oh yes, we’ve got it covered. Teachers today never give busy work, do they?

…Do they?

This defendant pleads guilty to past offenses.  In earlier years, I had a pile of crosswords and word searches in my file cabinet, ready for a (sometimes literally) rainy day when the power went out.  And I used them as competitive material, and to buy time while I took care of something that seemed very meaningful at that moment.

I know now, after becoming a reflective and connected educator, that those dead trees I used had absolutely no educational value.  I have resolved never to use them again during regular class time, at least while I can get electricity out of a wall socket. So what is modern busy work?  

Do we show films to our students, and then fail to then follow up on them and ask the kids to think and reflect critically about them?  Do we give a 30-problem assignment when 10 problems, completed successfully, would indicate mastery (or lack of it)? Do we give them a list of vocabulary terms to define from whatever ELA texts we may be teaching, knowing that those words won’t ever appear in our kids’ lexicons or even on an SAT?  Do we tell our kids to alphabetize their assignments in a paper notebook, after gluing those assignments to pages of binder paper?  (I thought about throwing in diagramming sentences to that litany of wasteful activities, but I didn’t want to insult my English teacher friends — besides, I don’t know anyone that is still practicing it.)

Some teachers, I guess, think that their students don’t know their time is being spent badly when that kind of assignment is lobbed at them.  But they do. They know that busy work is, at best, a mimicry of the subject matter you’re supposed to be learning about together. It’s like learning a bunch of French-sounding words that aren’t French and that have no meaning (or for which you don’t know the definition), and then showing up in Paris thinking that your linguistic prowess will improve the way people in the City of Lights regard American tourists.   The Parisians would be insulted (again), and so will your kids.

The damnedest thing about busy work, on an emotional level, is that you never get that time back with your students.  By assigning this stuff, you throw out a chance to do something truly meaningful. It’s a hollow feeling, to know you had a chance to teach something innovatively and in a fun and challenging way, and you fell back on a worksheet instead.

I do not want to experience that emptiness, thank you very much.

I’m not going to allow those golden moments to slip by.  I’m not going to pull something out of a file cabinet just to kill time.  I’m not going to make history-sounding noises when there is real learning to be done, and I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that an electronic piece of busy work is any better than a paper one.

Benjamin Franklin had a lot of deep things to say, but one of my favorites is this one: “Dost thou love life?  Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff that life is made of.”

Dost thou love learning, my friends?  

Then do not squander time on busy work, for that is the stuff that boredom is made of.

 

Hearing Voices

When I was in 8th grade, Russ Ballard came out with a song that was used as part of a multimedia presentation on the influences on human behavior.  The song, like the presentation itself, was entitled “Voices.” It was a fun, highly visual show that involved multiple video screens, laser lights, and clips of some actresses that, to the 14-year old male mind, were the hottest thing on the planet (yeah, there was some deeper message to the event as well, but I honestly don’t remember it.)

Years later, after having been a husband for 6 years and a teacher for 4, I heard that song again in the car on my way to the Napa wine country.  Anyone who was alive in the 1980s and has heard the song more recently would probably agree that the arrangement is dated: a synthesized horn section and a looooooooooong instrumental lead-in were the stuff of our childhoods.  But the song stuck in my mind, and it’s become more important to me in the past eight months for reasons that have nothing to do with music or overly-made-up girls.

The beginning lyrics of Russ Ballard’s song go like this:

If you could see my mind

If you really look deep, then maybe you’ll find

That somewhere there will be a place, hidden behind my comedian face

You will find somewhere there’s a house,

And inside that house there’s a room

Locked in the room in the corner you see

A voice is waiting for me, to set it free,

I got the key, I got the key

Voices

I hear voices

I have been hearing voices of encouragement, of reprimand, of support for the last 8 months now, because of my PLN on Voxer — #4OCFPLN.

The thing that makes a Voxer PLN so effective is the fact that you are hearing people’s voices and the emotion those voices carry.  If we’re excited, we can hear it in our tones. If we’re suffering, we can empathize in a way that we could never get in an email or a Twitter chat.  If we have a problem, we can offer suggestions in a way that we know our listeners (our friends, really) will take to heart. Because that is the power of voices.

At the risk of sounding apocryphal, I am going to state that Voxer is The Single Best Online Tool for an ongoing PLN.  Nothing else is its equal for continuity, for feeling, and for consistent support and motivation. Not Twitter, not SnapChat, not Instagram, not Facebook, not Blogger, not WhatsApp, not Google Hangouts.  Not even FlipGrid or FaceTime.

It’s a running joke amongst us “roguesters” that we should claim the hashtag #NotCaughtUp, because we almost never have heard all the messages that we leave for each other.  Even when the East Coast has gone to bed, the West Coast Voxers (myself included) are chatting deep into the night about all things educational. I can go to bed with 30 unheard Voxer messages and wake up with  80 of them…and they all have something I can add to my tool kit, or something that draws me emotionally closer to their authors.

Back to Mr. Ballard’s lyrics:

In my head the voice is waiting, waiting for me to set it free

I locked it inside my imagination, but I’m the one who’s got the combination

Some people didn’t like what the voice did say

So I took the voice and I locked it away

I got the key, I got the key

Voices

I hear voices

Voices

I hear voices

Yes, I have had real-life colleagues who haven’t paid attention, who have dismissed my ideas, who at their worst even told me I was doing everything wrong and that my lessons were bullshit.  Not the #4OCFPLN. I did indeed “take the voice and lock it away.” Now my PLN is giving me the key to let it out.

And now the chorus to the song…

Don’t look back, look straight ahead, don’t turn away, then the voice it said

Don’t look back, yesterday’s gone, don’t turn away, you can take it on

Voices

I hear voices

Voices

I hear voices

I am no longer beating myself up for all the things I did wrong in my early years as an educator.  I can look at the challenge of a new school year, and as the man says, “take it on.”

(As soon as I catch up on Voxes.)

 

Alignment: Blessing or Curse?

“Alignment.”  Sounds like a great concept, huh?  It means “arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative positions.”  Nice, sterile, stable, predictable. In a word, neat and tidy.  (Well, okay, that’s three words, but that won’t deter me from the rest of this column, so read on.)

I work in a district where alignment has been a buzzword for at least a decade.  Apparently, we started talking about it because often, students would transfer classes a week or two into the semester — that is, for example, they’d switch from Mr. Brown’s 4th period economics class to Mrs. Jones’ 6th period economics class.  It was usually because the students would want to take a certain elective at a certain time, but to do so would mean a complete rearrangement of their schedules. (Okay, occasionally it happened because a teacher simply rubbed a student the wrong way, but let’s not go into how some kids didn’t like me in my early years of teaching.)

But when those student got to their new economics (or math, or science, or English, or whatever) class, they’d find that the teacher in the new class was using a different textbook, going at a different pace, covering different curriculum, and generally providing a diametrically different experience than the old class did.

We can’t have that, said the school board.  So the policy became the following: teachers who teach the same course will go at a similar pace, use the same textbook and the same cumulative projects/experiences, and use the same grading scales (if not identical rubrics).  And that has been the experience of every teacher working in my district since at least 2007.

Now, I want to say right here that the problem our board was trying to solve was a real one.  Different teachers using wildly different grading criteria does indeed lead to an equity problem.  It leads to awkward conversations between parents and teachers, along the lines of “Well, Mr. Brown gave an A to most of his students on this assignment, why didn’t you give an A to my kid?”  It leads to administrators looking embarrassed and then to come-to-Jesus chats in the principal’s office, where teachers are told they need to align more with their colleagues.

Here’s the problem with alignment: it is (or can become) depersonalizing, and it can really make relationships with students difficult.  And that, in the opinion of this author, outweighs most of the possible benefits.

What happens when you go at a predetermined pace with a group of students who isn’t ready to go at that speed?  Do you stay the course and leave the students behind? Or have a room full of kids who disconnect from the material because they mastered it quicker than you’re teaching it?

What happens when you teach skills to kids who haven’t mastered those skills by the end of the unit?  Do you leave the students behind for the sake of keeping up with your colleagues, and abandon the quest for skilled students?

What happens if you clearly have to reteach some content to some or all of the students in your class or classes?  The hard-core alignment people will say, “Nope, no time for that, if the kids didn’t get it the first time, obviously you did something wrong, shame on you, but that’s the breaks, we have to cover all this other stuff, carry on (and be prepared for a meeting with your administration later this semester).”

And where do we draw the line and teach the students that are in front of us?  The real, flawed, anxious adolescents who are human beings, not an abstraction or a statistical model; the ones who need to be known more than they need to know things at this point in their lives.  When do we decide to teach those kids, not the kids in a different classroom, or a kid that doesn’t exist at all (except on some spreadsheet in a district office)?

Look, I’m not a school board member.  I can’t tell you what the pressures are on these men and women from the communities they serve, except that those school board members probably would like to be reelected.  I just know that alignment for its own sake, or taken to an extreme, means that we’re not teaching individual students and meeting their needs. Instead, we’re teaching Joe and Jane Averageteen, whomever they aren’t.

My intention this year is to be a good team member and a good citizen of my district.  But given the choice between teaching the specific children in my room during any one class period on the one hand, and teaching content that the students didn’t choose and a pace they didn’t know about on the other…I think you, dear reader, know what I am going to choose.

Those are the facts.  Back to the show.

 

My Biggest Fear…And What To Do About It

It’s now less than two weeks until the beginning of the new school year. For maybe the first time in my career, I am neither panicked nor nervous about the prospect of facing my incoming students and beginning our journey through United States history and civics.

What I am nervous about, however, has nothing to do with the students and everything to do with my fellow teachers. As strange as it may sound, I have a secret fear of collaboration.  Let me explain.

My tendency, when meeting with my colleagues, is either to acquiesce to everything they want in terms of curriculum or pacing… or to proclaim the rightness of a certain agenda or plan of action in a “take no prisoners“ manner. Neither approach has been particularly successful.

If I give in to what others want without making my own views heard,  I come away from the meeting feeling useless and something like a freeloader. If I come on too strong in expressing my opinions, I usually meet resistance or opposition.  And, since I’ve usually led with emotion rather than research or science, I get out-argued by people who have given some serious consideration to what they want to do in the coming school year or semester.

In my school, and in my district, we are required to be in close alignment with each other – – that is, we need to be going at the same pace, with the same textbook, the same cumulative experiences, and largely the same assessment at the end of each unit.  What that means is that there is relatively little room to innovate or to deviate beyond what we all “agree“ on as a teaching cohort.

So what’s a boy to do? Being a doormat doesn’t work, and neither does doing my imitation of a Sherman tank.

I think I know what I will do in my first meeting with my colleagues this year, and I’d like to share it with you here.

This time, I am going to assume that my fellow teachers of U.S. history want what is best for our students no less than I do. I am also going to assume that none of them is out to get me or to make what we are doing personal or competitive.  And I need to keep in mind that they are trying to meet their needs in what they are saying and planning in the same way I am… That is, they want to feel secure, acknowledged, meaningful, and appreciated. (Thank you, Abraham Maslow.)

This time, I am also going to work hard to counteract the self flagellation that I have tended to do in the past. Previous to this year, it was difficult for me to hear about what a fellow teacher was doing that was new and innovative without seething inwardly, beating myself up emotionally, and communicating a message of “Why the hell didn’t you think of that??“ to my mind and heart.

I don’t like starting the school year feeling bad about myself or my role in the school where I work. It has taken me several years to realize that’s not a good feeling, and that it is not natural or helpful.

Oh, I will come in with some ideas. Ideas that I think are good, that are backed up by research, and that I have have considered carefully before I ever get to that series of meetings.  And I intend to advocate for those ideas on that basis.

But this time, I will realize that this is not a competition. This is not about who’s idea is more prevalent on a generalized unit plan. This is not about being dictated to by people who don’t know the dynamics of my classes, and it is certainly not about “winning.”

If my colleagues don’t want to do the same things that I do, rather than act like a sore loser, I will try to find a middle way – – where we reach a compromise.    Like, for instance, I’ll teach that research skill your way, and you add in this review game or brain break that I came up with. Or, failing that, I will try to implement my idea in a small, non-disruptive way in my own classes. I win, the kids win, and my colleagues aren’t thrown off from their own lessons.

Last spring, I told my principal (whom I have known for decades, and whom I consider a friend) that I wanted to take my teaching to the next level. This is one of the ways I think I will be able to do just that in the next 10 months, starting next week when I arrive on campus to work with my fellow historians.

Wish me luck!

Becoming a Connected Teacher, Part 3 (Conclusion)

We begin our final episode in January 2018.  I’ve Gone Through The Motions, gotten my Wakeup Call, and become Connected. But the most dynamic part of my journey was still yet to come.

In the new calendar year, I was again feeling a little detached.  The slew of students in my classes were more difficult to deal with; several had no interest in school at all and plenty were being either disruptive or openly defiant during lessons.  I still felt supported by my Twitter friends and at least some of my colleagues, but I felt as if I had hit some sort of wall in my teaching.

I was listening to an episode of PodcastPD with my Twitter friend Chris Nesi (@mrnesi) one afternoon on my drive home from school.  Chris’ guest that day was a chap named Rich Czyz (@RACzyz), who had written a book on professional development called The Four O’Clock Faculty.  As I listened, I began to understand that there was a deep need at my school (and within my own psyche) to go deeper with my own growth as a teacher.  The books I had read, the chats I had participated in, those had been valuable…but I needed more.

I needed a daily, dynamic, personal group of colleagues who would be passionate about education and who would be there to talk about their experiences every single day.  I needed a PLN that didn’t meet as words on a screen once a week for an hour, but as a regularly devoted clan of educators who had the same deep-seeded desire to go further that I myself felt. I needed to join a tribe.

MTT 3.0: #4OCFPLN. I had heard about Voxer from someone I met at a Google Certification workshop, but I hadn’t really experimented with it until that month.  I found out that a group of teachers was starting a study of The Four O’Clock Faculty on Voxer, although I couldn’t tell you how I actually made my way into the group.  Me being an audiophile and one who was dissatisfied with my current online interactions, I decided to give this a shot.

Once I got to know these folks, I realized that there were worlds of progress I needed to make in my thinking about school and teaching.  The people in the book study group were uber-passionate: they ate education for breakfast, rubbed it in their hair, drank it on the way to work, snacked on it in the afternoon, dined on it at night, had generous helpings of it for dessert, and probably smoked it, shot it up, or snorted it in the middle of the night.  They were full-on devotees; I was a dilettante.

But this group had something more than passion.  They had compassion.  Listening to them made me feel like there was no great mystery to getting better at teaching.  There was no secret formula locked up in some vault somewhere. It was all about listening, reflecting, and implementing.  The message wasn’t “We know what is going on, and if you don’t know, we can’t tell you.” It was “None of us completely knows what is going on, and we want to learn what you know about it.”

When we’d all finished reading and discussing the book, we realized that we had not only learned a lot about professional development, we had grown to like each other and the conversations we’d shared.  We decided to keep the group going and to create a Voxer PLN, which we christened #4OCFPLN.

MTT 1.0 would have cowered and fled from such a group of educators.

MTT 3.0 remained behind to keep learning.

That decision brought me to where I am, professionally.  Every day, I get to talk to brilliant, caring educators from all over the country about our craft, our thoughts, and our lives.  #4OCFPLN is not just a group of colleagues, it’s a source of friendship, support, and wisdom. We talk about school, family, pets, books, movies, super-heroes, kids, vacations.  And the fact that I get to hear these people’s voices, as opposed to seeing their words in a Twitter chat, means we have that much more human closeness.

What of MTT at this point?  I’m not finished with my journey by any means.  I don’t have all the answers, and I doubt I ever will.  I’m still learning about what relationships with students mean, what the value of homework is, what role the students ought to have in voice and choice in the classroom.  And a hundred other things.

And I will keep journeying.  I will work, sweat, rage, think, reflect, smile, laugh, encourage, and love, this year and every year, and my companions will be there doing the exact same things and sharing their journeys right alongside me.

I can’t tell you what MTT 3.5 will look like yet.  But he’ll be better.