Sunday, November 22, 2015

Community should be a verb.

This past week, I resorted to an oldie but goodie elementary school technique -- "The Class Meeting."  Yes, I teach high school now, and yes, I did completely abandon the intended lesson and the be-all-end-all ESSENTIAL QUESTION posted on the board, because, quite frankly, the EQ in my world instantly became,

"How can you go to school with someone DAY AFTER DAY, YEAR AFTER YEAR, and have NO CLUE what that person's NAME is? 

Being your basic neurotic teacher, who is completely convinced that somehow you forgot to teach the most simple building-block skills, one can imagine the sense of shock, surprise, and - yes - GUILT, that I had somehow failed this class of freshmen.  And I wasn't even IN the room when it happened.

We're well into the second marking period, and we've started the "BIG" research paper assignment.  For freshmen, the thought of writing a FIVE PAGE research paper is beyond paralyzing, so we model, we teach, we reteach, we graphically organize, and we bring in guest speakers to assist in the overall success of what appears to be the "first big paper of high school."  On this particular day, my librarian friend was teaching a lesson on In-text Citations, MLA Formatting, and Works Cited Pages.  Riveting, right?

I had stepped into the hallway to talk to the five upper-level kids who are working in a less structured environment, to make sure that their thesis statements were sound.  I was out there less than 90 seconds, when Sara came to the door, reporting that one student had referred to another student with a racially inappropriate name.  We were both pretty dumbfounded at this behavior.

And then it happened.  Somehow, I FELT RESPONSIBLE for letting this class down.  Despite my first day of school anti-curriculum strategy,  these kids haven't bothered to get to know each other.  I thought I had given THEM  a chance to build a sense of community that day -- along with allowing me to get to know them -- but it hadn't happened. I assumed they knew each other, but the truth is that  they enter my classroom every day in small cliques of friends,avoiding other groups in the room.

I get that this class had been through a weird year so far, given that I have been out of school more than I've been there, given my concussion recovery.  Perhaps this is why the guilt I felt caused me to initiate the class meeting. (Or, more likely, the idea of trying to "write up" the entire incident in an electronic reporting system that is less than friendly, leaving the ultimate admonishment to parents and/or an administrator, caused me to go the more time-efficient path.) Regardless of the reason, we got out the green chairs  and got out from behind the desks.  

We sat in a circle, and people were uncomfortably forced encouraged to ask specific questions about each other.  "Where were you born?" "How did you get that scar?" etc.  And then there was a quiet, yet disgusted, voice.

"YOU don't really know her.  And you don't care. She's amazing.  She makes jewelry out of liquid metal.  She draws anime better than anyone in the world."  It was the voice of a supportive classmate that pushed the conversation to a new level.

I owned it.  I told them I had let them down, by not creating the sense of community they needed in my room to be successful.  It wasn't a line -- it was something I truly felt.  

In that one class, we learned that we have a rising singing star and a metalsmith.  We have athletes, and compassionate listeners.  We have people who trust, and people who doubt.

The conversation continued, and went to discussions about fear of ISIS attacks.  One kid asked whether I thought they'd try to attack the US.  Sadly, I said, yes.  Because CVS is sold out of green chairs, and nobody is working to foster a sense of community in the world.

As they waited for the bell at the end of the period, new friends admired the hand-forged ring, and listened to the process used to create it, and a voice said "this was the best class we ever had."  The response?

"The world needs to be more COMMUNITY."

Grammatically perfect, I'd say.  Imagine -- just imagine -- if COMMUNITY could become a verb.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Decisions, Decisions...

This morning, a smiling face walked into my room before the bell rang.  "I feel so RELIEVED!" announced the voice behind the face.  Quite honestly, the announcement was unwarranted, as the entire face, demeanor, and body language was one of someone who had finally HIT SUBMIT on the application to the college of his dreams over the weekend.  The stress is gone -- and now he waits.

I have full confidence in this particular kid's abilities to go to the gorgeous school where he already imagines himself walking through the leaves in the fall of 2016, playing soccer on the quad, and forging his path in this world.  He already loves the school, and I am confident that the admissions panel will instantly love him as well, as they peruse his application, submitted for EARLY DECISION.  Yes, he's made the decision to commit to this relationship -- now he waits for the binding invitation from the college to join them for a four-year commitment.  He described his desire as one of a "pit bull on a treadmill with a steak tied to the handle."  He just can't wait to catch the juicy prize.

Decisions, Decisions.

For guidance counselors, college advisers, and teachers of the gifted, every fall seems like Ground Hog Day this time of year.  The best and the brightest scurry around, surveying, visiting colleges, comparing deals, filling out FAFSAs, and hoping for an invitation to the perfect school at the perfect price, for the following September. Pulling together transcripts, writing countless letters of recommendation, completing applications, with careful writing, proofreading, and rewriting of essays, and a bevy of ability checklists analyzing the strengths of our students. Yes, we're about 12 weeks into this school year, and we're already focused on the next.

Does Early Decision help?  I'd argue that the simple possibility of choosing a college and KNOWING which college is waiting, possibly as early as before the first snowfall, has real impact on stress levels of high school seniors.   Some colleges and universities accept a significant percentage of their incoming class during this early decision period -- topping the list is Cornell, with a whopping 41% of its newbies knowing by Christmas that they'll need UGGS and woolies on their lists for Santa, in anticipation of an Ithaca winter - or four - in their impending future.  In addition to the emotional aspects of Early Decision, is the indisputable statistical proof that "agreeing to agree" early has its advantages.  The college admissions site, "In Like Me," provides valuable data that favors the Early Decision applicant. 

For a Teacher of the Gifted, it's especially difficult to answer the questions on the Common Application.  Who the heck are the "Top Few I've Ever Encountered"?  Clearly a TOG's "Top Few" is truly the gold standard in the student realm, compared to teachers who might be answering the same question having interacted with fewer of the best and the brightest in the school.  This has bothered me for a number of years -- wondering whether those on the other side of the application see a rating and consider that I get to see the true cream of the crop, and that the TOP FEW I'VE EVER ENCOUNTERED is truly an accomplishment.  Especially when I've known some of these kids for more than ten years.  

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine in higher education, who assured me that admissions panels DO look at the relationship and roles that recommendation-writers have with the students, and recognize that those of us who spend much of our day with AP, Honors, and Gifted students certainly hand out those "Top Few" ratings to mean exactly that, and honor that recommendation as intended.

So yes, my dear student, rest easy.  Turn off the treadmill, stop chasing that steak, and enjoy your senior year.  Life is about living, and you've done your best. 

Keep Calm.  You've Already Hit Submit.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fiddlesticks! (AKA "Can I borrow your brain?")

I'm still working half days at school, with the other half of the day reserved for closing my eyes or neurological therapy.  It's an interesting life, but not nearly as interesting as the "normal" life of Susan Heydt, Teacher.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel, although oncoming lights tend to make me rapidly close my eyes in a manner something akin to Dracula at dawn.

My day started with therapy, and I arrived at school before 2nd period ended.  One of my 9th graders came up to me and asked, "Can I borrow your brain for 3rd period?  I really need it to make it through English."

I must admit, it took more than a few seconds to translate the request, and then I realized he was pointing to the brain-shaped stress ball sitting on my desk.  A quick nod and toss, and he was on his way.  He promised to explain to his English teacher why he had it, and how he thought it would help him.  And he promised he wouldn't abuse it and get it confiscated.  He knew I had 3rd period prep, and didn't want to see it go unused.

As promised, it was returned to my room before 4th period began.

No Stress.... 

There are very few of us that are entirely focused all the time, when in a learning environment.  We doodle, zentangle, daydream.  We chew pen caps and fingernails, we fidget and tap.  From a teacher's perspective, it can be downright frustrating to watch the scootching, rocking, and wiggling of students in the classroom.  The societal expectation used to be "feet planted on the floor, straight backs, hands folded "- signifying the "ready to learn" mentality.

There's an increasing understanding among educators that a successful learning environment may not be rows of students arranged alphabetically, facing the front of the room.  I've talked before about the Green Chairs, standing tables, and other seemingly unusual classroom arrangements, and the reality is that teachers are looking for anything that will motivate and encourage learning.  

Check any office supply store -- the same motivation applies to corporate business.   There are ball chairs, finger gizmos, and all sorts of distractors/focusers.  Remember those metallic
balls that click together on the desk of every executive in the 60s?  Or Silly Putty, rubber bands, even baseballs, that are transferred from one hand to another to stimulate focus, creativity and innovation.  Heck, Google, and other big companies, are putting in entire playgrounds for their employees to kick back and chill, while working on the task at hand, building a sense of purpose and community.

Julie Beck talks about the value of stress toys in business in the July issue of The Atlantic, in her article entitled Stress Toys:  Mindlessness with a Purpose?   Interestingly, the business world is looking to educators, and educational research, to defend the use of the very fidget widgets teachers have seen in their classrooms for decades.  (Don't kid a kidder -- even if you weren't GIVEN a token to play with, there was SOMETHING in your desk, or on your body, that you snapped, chewed, twirled, or flicked.)  Simultaneously, educators are drooling at the creative and free environment that seems to be evolving in the business world.  

Do I mind lending my brain, my cow with the bulgy eyes, or my UHU tacky putty to kids to help them focus?  Absolutely not.  As long as they keep all four legs of their chairs on the floor while they're in my room (personal pet peeve, but I digress...), and return the toys at the end of the class, I'm one happy camper.  

And maybe, just maybe, they've learned a little bit more because of their attempt.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Grading without rose colored glasses.

It's four am.  I've been awake since 3:15, and finally succumbed to accepting the awake-state for the day, as my head continues to process all that needs to be done, and all that has been left undone over the last five weeks -- even after attempting four rounds of 4-7-8 to go back to sleep.  Usually it works.  Apparently today/tonight is not destined to be usual.

It's been a bit of a bumpy ride over the last five weeks, starting with the BUMP on the head, followed by learning to "not think" in an effort to improve.  Talk about oxymorons for teachers.  Early on, I was given orders by one doctor to improve brain healing:

1.  Decrease calories, eliminate artificial sweeteners.
2. Increase fish oil, Omega 3s
3. Limit screen time (tv, computer, smartphone) to a total of less than 2 hours  a day)
4. Wear earplugs
5. Rose Colored glasses.

Yes, it's true.  Rose colored glasses are supposed to have improved my brain functionality.  Unfortunately, my sunglasses choice is determined by the pair's ability to fit over my reading glasses, and sunglasses are sold in places with fluorescent lights -- which hurt my brain.  So despite my having secured written documentation for new eyewear in a color symbolizing optimism, I haven't actually made the purchase. 

Fortunately for me, I am light years better, and thinking more clearly every day.   I am back to half days of teaching -- shhh, don't tell the doctors that a half day of teaching for a teacher is really closer to 6 or 7 hours when you include the work at home.

In just about 36 hours, grades for the first marking period are due, with report cards scheduled to be printed and mailed next week.  25% of the school year is gone, leaving many of us scratching our heads wondering how the Fall of 2015 could travel at the speed of light.  (In my case, it sped by me, I believe, while I was under doctors' orders to avoid looking at lights, but I digress...)

Late Penalties?

There is nothing more motivating to a high school student than the impending doom of the end of the marking period.  "A flurry of activity" in my email inbox is an understatement:  it's been a downright blizzard of submissions of outstanding assignments and re-submissions by authors "hoping to regain some points" to improve the almighty grade for the quarter. (And, presumably, keep their rights to play on videogame systems, go hang out with friends, and talk on their cellphones, instead of being grounded for the foreseeable future.)    I've been out for two full weeks, and only in half days for the last three weeks.  I know that this is an unusual situation, and I've been more flexible with my assignment due dates than ever before.  (And I've always been pretty flexible -- my motto has always been "Talk to me BEFORE it's due, if you're not going to hit the due date -- not after!" , attempting to foster some executive function and communication skills that might be helpful in the real world down the road.)

In a recent blog entry, Tom Schimmer, and educator and fellow teacher, waxed philosophically on the ideas associated with grade penalties for late work.  More than a decade ago, our district pushed the philosophies of Ken O'Connor, HARD, encouraging us to grade on the quality of the work, and not the punctuality.  O'Connor's theory,

The punitive nature of the penalty is a powerful disincentive for students to complete any work.” 

 in theory, makes for a good argument for increasing student achievement.  It also does nothing to prepare students for college expectations or the real world.  I'm certain that if I failed to keep the lines of communication open with my administration and my substitute, simply shrugging my shoulders with a "I'll get to the work when I feel like it" attitude, there would be unpleasant repercussions.  

I'm not talking about "do-overs" here.  I'm talking about students who just plain fail to turn in assignments for WEEKS on end, and then expect full credit (as in 100%) for their efforts, or are choosing the 11th hour to realize that they actually DID care to prove competency at a higher level on that assignment that was due last September.  Let's face it.  In the real world, there are penalties for lateness.  Go ahead, mail your mortgage or credit card payment after that deadline, and see what happens.  Choose to ignore April 15th for the IRS.  Shrug your shoulders at your boss the next time that big report is due.  Chances are pretty good that none of those intended recipients are thinking of you as a 100% effort individual.

Tom Schimmer claims he never received a deluge of work, not penalizing students for lateness.  I beg to differ.  My earplugs and (metaphorical) rose colored glasses have given pause to much flexibility on my part this semester, and there are more holes in my gradebook than ever before.  

In theory, I have 3 hours of screen time, maximum, to allocate over the next 36 hours, to still be following the recommendations of my physician.  It's going to be darned tough to read and grade all of the assignments I anticipate receiving today and tomorrow, and still follow doctor's orders.

Fortunately, my syllabus contains a late work policy AND the suggestion to open the lines of communication BEFORE there is a problem.  I may be concussed, but I am still more flexible than the IRS, when it comes to deadlines.  There will be grades -- but they won't be anywhere near 100%.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Were you FIRED?

For the last couple of weeks, there have been two invitations sitting on the island in my kitchen; one is for a wonderful wedding of a former student at the end of the month, and the other for a 90th birthday celebration for my first cousin, once removed.  I've spent the last two weeks in limbo.  Mental limbo, not knowing whether I'll be able to ride in a car with my eyes open, to attend either one of these events, both of which are very important to me.

If you've never been the recipient of a blow to the head that resulted in such uncertainty, and the diagnosis of a concussion, you probably don't understand the turmoil that has been occurring in my brain - wanting to deal with "the pile" on the counter, and feel normal again.  Today I was labelled 80% normal.  Great, a B-.  Not the usual standard I hold for my academic self, but definitely better than the failing grade of two weeks ago.

So I made a phone call to 2nd cousin, Emily, whose mother is turning 90 this month.

"It's the middle of the day.  Why aren't you at school?  Were you FIRED?"

Thanks, Em, for the incredible vote of confidence in my teaching abilities.  "No, not fired, just resting, blah blah blah, pudding, lunch duty, " etc.  We'll connect again in a few months, but I know that 10 days from now my brain will not be firing at the rates necessary to follow the fast-witted banter of my very humorous family as they celebrate 90 Years of Doris.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that 1.6 - 3.8 million concussions occur each year in the U.S.  My 3 lb (approximate size) brain hit two sides of my skull, in a traditional contrecoup concussion, and that females are twice as likely to be concussed as men.  Teachers are directed to Reduce Cognitive demands, Educate themselves about concussions, Accommodate the concussed, and Pace the demands for the concussed to allow for full reentry.  Yes, I'm REAPing the benefits of my first-hand experience.

In the last seventeen years, I have received more than a dozen notifications of students recovering from concussions, while assigned to learn in my classroom.  I've been sympathetic, in a maternal, concerned, way.  The Banana Pudding Incident of 2015 has offered an additional, first-hand perspective, that has changed my understanding in a most personal way.

So here's the plan:  Next week, I get to go back to school -- if the stars align, and I hit the B+ range of normality.  I'm starting to read books, five pages or so at a time, and spend a little bit of time online.  Scrolling on the computer and watching HDTV is brutal, and high-pitched instruments and clinking plates and glassware are still awful to listen to.  My brain has taught me to slow down, and not think for a bit.  I'm going back -- partial days at first.

And I've learned a whole lot about anti-metacognition in the process.  (That's the idea of intentionally not thinking about thinking.)   And no Emily, I'm not fired.  They're going to reactivate my badge and let me back in the classroom, probably with raised eyebrows as they watch my non-traditional teaching practices, green chairs, and dark glasses on my face.

And I'll hold a whole lot of sympathy for any concussed kid who stumbles into my classroom, with a hoodie half over his or her eyes after colliding with a ball, a helmet, or banana pudding.

Friday, September 25, 2015

"I'll send you a toenail..."

I've been good -- all day.  I've avoided screens of all kinds, except for three phone calls to doctors and professors, attempting to reschedule my life. Asking people with scrambled brains to make decisions is just plain cruel.

I stayed home today -- and unless there's a miracle between now and Monday, my sub is already lined up, as I have an appointment with the neuro dude.   Of course, I guess the miracle might be possible, what with the Pope coming to town, and all.  He seems like a decent guy, who might be willing to overlook my departure from his church 21 years ago.

In any case, I am not fit to wax philosophical on topics related to education -- or life.  I knew this yesterday, when I told a colleague I'd shoot the information to her in a toenail.  Oh the images that must have conjured -- I meant email, I swear.  It's just that my head doesn't allow the actual word I'm thinking about to come out of my mouth, and I cause people to laugh hysterically at me.  (Or at least Andrew Erb relayed a good tale, I'm told.  I am sure I will enjoy the retelling when I'm sane again.) 

In the meantime, I am binge-listening to PARENTHOOD on Netflix, with my eyes closed.  I've learned that high pitches, spinning and scrolling, and hammering and drumming, all cause me to feel it in my brain.  So right now, my happy place is a dark room and a soft pillow.

I may be off for the weekend, after 390 consecutive days of blogging.  It's tough to look at anything scrolling, and thinking is off limits.  It's also the most frustrating thing  to lie around waiting to not be confused anymore, with no idea when that will be.

But I know that there are stories out there to be told -- and I've extended the offer to some guest bloggers.  So stay tuned.  There are lessons in all of this -- I'm just tiring of being the student in the front row in Understanding Neurology 101.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Scrambled Eggs for Brains.

There used to be a commercial that went something like this:   "This is drugs."  (cue picture of the hot frying pan.  "This is your brain on drugs."  (cue picture of the egg being cracked into the frying pan.)  "Don't do drugs."

Never have I been more aware of the metaphorical connection of the almighty egg to a brain as I am today.  I'm scrambled.  I'm searching for words, and I'm typing with my eyes closed, to save my precious 2 hours of screen time.

I "taught" today, if you can call it that.  Pretty much, I sat in a dark room with very understanding students, wearing sunglasses, and occasionally humming "I wear my sunglasses at night..." to myself, wishing for the day to end quickly.  Two sections of self-motivated higher-level thinkers was more than I could handle, and I'm sidelined for tomorrow.

One student suggested that I write my blog, and change the font to Wingdings, because it would pretty much symbolize what my day, and attempts at communication, seemed to me.

I know it takes time.  I don't do well lying in a dark room and focusing on NOT thinking.  

Heck, it's my job.  But for the next three days, I'm officially on vacation from that career I love so much.

I have a whole new appreciation for those helmeted warriors hitting the gridiron tomorrow night, and those soccer players who leap into the air, intentionally hitting balls off the tops of their heads.  Be careful, my little babies, or you'll be as cracked as your teacher is tonight.

Eggs are a great source of protein.  One of the few suggestions given to me by the doctor, as I attempt to return to my previous state.  The irony of the need to scramble some eggs to assist in unscrambling my brain is not lost on me.

After all, I'm the one who slipped on banana pudding.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

One foot in the grave, and the other on a banana...

Want to know more about me than you could possibly imagine?  Ask my 2nd period students.  Today was the day where the Information Literacy kids explore the power of the internet, by searching for as many facts about me as possible.  Understand that I am fairly visible, and pretty much not stalked by the tweens and teens crowd, so I feel safe doing this activity.  If I were 30 years younger and lived alone, it might be a different story.

The white boards were completely erased, computers were at the ready, and the researched their teacher, finding random facts including my address, my maiden name, my family members, my previous addresses dating back to 1983, my anniversary date, the color of my house, how many trees are in my yard, previous employers, etc.  They were smart enough to check their facts.  They deduced that I was NOT the Susan Heydt with the thriving Makeup Studio.  (A simple look at my eyeliner disproved THAT connection...)  

And then it came.  A still unknown voice said, "SHE WAS BORN IN 1869!"

Stunned disbelief.  Yes, I was born in the 60s.  But not THOSE 60s.

The scribe at the board wrote it, and then immediately erased it, questioning the validity.  Thank God that at least one kid had my back on that one.
The period ended, and I headed to lunch duty 15 minutes later.  15 minutes after that, I was sitting in the nurse's office, with ice on an ever-increasing golfball, growing on the side of my head, with a headache and whiplash, not to mention various bruises in places that do not see the light of day, still sporting a bit of the banana pudding on the sole of my shoe.

My friends, I must tell you now of the danger of spills on terrazo floors -- especially spills with the viscosity of pudding.  One step in the wrong place, and I did a perfect 3 Stooges move, feet flying in the air, bouncing first my posterior, and then my head.  Gravity is not kind.

Life is funny.  Especially mine.  Explaining the unexplainable, the ridiculous, and well, the just plain crazy things that happen to me has become the norm, so having to fill out Worker's Comp. reports, and visiting their doctor, was peppered with brutal honesty.

Description of accident:  Slipped on banana.  (I opted to add the word pudding, to allow for the full picture, and share, in complete disclosure, the truth.)    

What was the last thing to go through my head at the end of A Lunch today?  Uh, the FLOOR.  And despite the fact that I was able to do all sorts of tests that seemed like I should be performing in the side of a road in a sobriety checkpoint  for a Worker's Comp doctor with amazing precision -- or so I thought -- I am concussed.  Stay off of computers, avoid bright lights, and don't attempt HIGHER LEVEL THINKING for a week.

Seriously?  My job is higher level thinking.  And humor also requires a basic understanding of your HOTS. (Higher Order Thinking Skills.)

Fortunately my husband, Bruce, has a sense of humor.  Even if I now call him Bryce.

Bear with me, folks.  It's a scrambled egg for brains kind of week.  On the plus side, I was not born in 1869.   I just may walk as if I were, come tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reply Hazy.

A little more than a year ago, I posted an entry entitled "Reply Hazy, Try Again Later."  My daughter frequently insists that I tell her the same information more than once, and here it is happening again.  I sat down tonight, ready to entitle this entry with the very same title.

Maybe it's LATER, now, and I'm trying again, if only to reuse the title that has resonated with me since my childhood.  This time, the Magic 8 Ball has become a metaphor for the assessment of Inquiry Based Learning projects.

Yesterday I mentioned the ongoing discussion about the new roles of teachers as professional "un-stickers," and the resulting challenges that accompany the fabulous work presented by students.

Rubrics are  great, defining exactly the expectations for the student in a traditional classroom.  "Here's the material, learn it, apply it, regurgitate it on a test or in a project."  Kids have learned to expect this, and gifted and talented kids use this as their own glass ceilings, meeting the mark, rarely choosing to exceed the almighty column on the far right of the table.  So what does a gifted teacher, or ANY teacher, do to make sure that kids are learning and engaged and producing and creating at a level commensurate with their abilities, instead of hitting a target well below their full potential?

Here's my solution:  Don't give them a rubric.  (Or have them create their own, but that's another story for another day.)  Instead, assign the need for the collection or creation of artifacts -- much like Charlotte Danielson now expects from teachers -- and stand back and wait.

And then...

Ask the students how they did, individually. 

Concept to Classroom outlines this nicely on their website:

Individual assessment can reveal the student's perception of the following:
How the student views her individual effort.
How well she participated in class.
The quality of her work.
How satisfied the student is with her work.
Things that she found difficult to figure out.
Things she found interesting and enjoyable.
How she might improve her performance.
How she viewed her work compared to that of an expert.
How her skills, knowledge, and habits of mind improved.
What she viewed as important about the unit of study.

Perhaps one of the best ways to really assess student learning from inquiry learning is through a narrative assessment. This narrative becomes an important report for the student, the family, and the teacher. It is very important to see how integrated the process of inquiry learning and the assessment of inquiry learning are -- and narrative provides a way for students to demonstrate not only what they know but also how it relates to their other knowledge, their ways of seeing the world, and the ways they assess and analyze ideas.

Thinking critically, and identifying the potential improvements that could have enhanced the product, will usually be the biggest problem encountered by the teacher -- particularly with the perfectionistic minds of the gifted learner.  In the times that I've asked for student reflection, I often play the role of cheerleader, trying to get kids to embrace the goodness of their already-impressive work.

So yes, the idea of a perfect assessment system is hazy, requiring another shake of the Magic 8 Ball of Assessment.  Student self-reflection may be even hazier, as they muddle the waters with their own innate obsessions.  The biggest conundrum  very well might be that the work appears unmatched by any previous effort by the student, who now declares his work at a 75%, as the teacher pencils three figures into the assignment with tears in her eyes, wondering why the brilliance was squelched for so many years.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Best Twelve Minutes.

It's not that the rest of the day today was bad -- far from it.  But the twelve minutes between 1:08 and 1:20 today were magical for me. 

 Audra teaches down the hall, and despite our full generation age difference, we are kindred spirits when it comes to autonomy and Inquiry Based Learning.  We chatted, commiserated, and shared student work with each other.  We know that Inquiry Based teaching is causing kids to be thinking in ways previously unseen by either of us.  We KNOW it is good.  We KNOW it works.

And we are clueless as how to to assess the kids fairly, without squelching their newfound brilliance.

Mind/Shift provided me with the perfect support for our argument today in their article, "10 Tips For Launching An Inquiry-Based Classroom", affirming all that Audra and I have defined as the best way to get the best out of our students.

" To make inquiry-based learning work, teachers have to instead become experts at listening to how a student is thinking and then ask the one question that will “un-stick” the students’ thinking and set them off and running again."

Why yes.  My role in teaching is no longer instruction.  I am now a certified, professional un-sticker.

Who is still trying to figure out how to assess brilliance.  ( We see it, and it is blinding us!)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

No Buts About It.

Disneyland and Disney World are touted as being the "Happiest" places on earth.  I disagree, even though I really did enjoy the trip the three times I've wandered the Orlando park.  Happiness for me, however, is when I'm working on lesson plans, and the most amazing resource suddenly presents itself, giving life to my lesson, and contemporary relevance to the topic.  This semester, our focus is Disney, with a giant dose of student autonomy and inquiry-based learning.

So today, I thank the fine folks at Edutopia who have given me the golden ticket, this time in the article entitled "Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves."  Sure, there have been many a conversation about the value and/or harm of positives and praise, yet somehow Disney/Pixar has found a way to deliver productivity and motivational messages to their employees, while preserving self-efficacy and positive self-image.

Plussing is a HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skill) strategy  that hasn't made it to the district-distributed flipchart, and I may be adding a page to mine, just to keep myself in the loop of this brilliant strategy.  Here's the magic:  instead of offering constructive criticism, the discussion between employer and employee includes the words "what if?" , attempting to build on the project without the use of judgmental language.  In an article entitled "You've Been Doing a Fantastic Job. Just One Thing", the art of effective feedback is explored.  Within that article, you guessed it, is the dude behind the Disney/Pixar Plussing research, Peter Sims.

“Animators at Pixar freely describe how painful it can be to have directors plussing their ideas until the smallest details, say a sliver of hair, seems just perfect,” he writes in his book. “But plussing allows for both pointed critique and positive feedback simultaneously, so that even such persistent criticism is not deflating.” 

The next few days will be difficult for me, as I stand back and keep the "solutions" to myself, as teams of students work to solve the creativity challenge tossed at them last week.  When given a challenge like that, everything is fair game, AND nothing is incorrect.

Some things just might need to be plussed a bit.  So this week, there will be math happening in the English wing, as we add more to the already blossoming brilliance. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Maize Maze Master.

On Friday this past week, I "taught" a lesson to two separate classes that was anything BUT traditional.  This year's teaching is not unlike wandering through a Maize Maze, moving forward, turning corners, and backing up to retrace steps and find a different direction that will be more successful.  The cool thing is that we are taking tiny steps, together, experimenting with questions, and finding answers.

The reason for the quotes around "taught", is that I did very little of that.  My classes had already brainstormed questions they had about our topic, and had divided those questions by category, and then identified the category of particular interest to each of them, allowing the entire class to go deep in every experience, in a way more meaningful than if we'd all viewed or done the same thing, in the same way, together.

Here's the hardest part for me:  Not standing on the platform over the Maize Maze with the megaphone offering clues to the end.  

 On the board on Friday, totally by coincidence, was a quote from Dr. Seuss:

Sometimes the questions are complicated, but the answers are simple.

 I love when the plans align.  I had simply opened a book, 365 Days of Wonder:  Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts, and written Dr. Seuss' quote, from the page for September 18th, on the board.

For it is in the uncertainty of not knowing, that these groups of students will find their way AND own what they learn.  Once again, Terry Heick at Te@chthought has articulated what I've seen in my classroom.  Her recent musing, The Power of I Don't Know, certainly supports what I see happening in my little corner of the world.

Heick shares, 

I don’t know, then, isn’t just a starting point for finding an answer, or a ready-made template for some academic essential question. Rather, it returns the learning to the student, and restores the scale of understanding to a universe of knowledge.

Heick's universe of knowledge is a wonderful place to visit.  Often.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Doodle All Day.

"Singin' pollywolly doodle, all day."  The song has been rattling around in my head for most of this week, as we explored another way to help transfer learning into long term memory.  Last year, I tried, hard, to find joy in Zentangling, proving to find more frustration than relaxation in the process.  (To be honest, I dabbled, but didn't really finish a single experience.)  I totally understand, and agree with the idea of multi-sensory experiences increasing engagement in learning, though, so I was excited to find Sunni Brown's TED Talk about the metacognitive value of Doodling.

Given that this semester's topic is Disney, and focus is metacognitive strategies for learning and exploring creativity, doodling seemed like a nice fit.  But is it truly possible to use doodling to make memories stick?  The folks at Mind/Shift presented a fairly convincing argument in their article.  So this week, we tried it.

Imagineers are an important part of the creative and design processes used by the Disney Corporation.  The Travel Channel had a video about their work, which provided a nice opportunity for the class to try the skill of "Doodle Note-Taking."   For 43 minutes, the kids worked on creating visual images, instead of taking notes, to help them to recall the key points of the video.  For homework, they synthesized what they had written/drawn, and created a visual image or map, representing the salient points, from their personal perspectives.

For some, this was a huge struggle.  For others, it was a repeat of what is done in nearly every class, every day.  It is interesting to me that the students who felt that they "failed" in their ability to doodle-note seemed more fluent in their abilities to explain why they were seemingly incapable of doing what they had hoped, while those who are regular doodlers were at a loss for words to explain their integration of pictures into meaningful note-taking, because of its second-nature stance in their lives.

I'm still hoping to Zentangle  the entire front of my planner this year.  It faces me every morning, before I open it.  It's a process -- much like metacognition.  And trying new things works -- if you give it a chance.  So we'll see how I progress.  Meanwhile, my doodlers have moved on to bigger and better things, focusing more intently on creativity and the creative process, based upon the Disney process of Inspiration, Collaboration, and Innovation.  

Creativity is messy.  And it will be wonderful.  (Even if some can't draw a single recognizable figure!)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

No Pavement Markings.

It's a common occurrence on the roads of Lancaster County in the summertime; the partial repaving of stretches of roads.  This year, it was especially prevalent, and accompanied by the installations of some curious road signs, bearing the message "NO PAVEMENT MARKINGS."

My husband and I have commented, somewhat sarcastically, over the last few months, about the time and energy involved in erecting and installing so many signs, wondering if the effort was in any way commensurate with the obvious alternative -- repainting the lines on the newly-paved roads.  The true answer, and reasons for the signs, are still lost to us.

Those road signs are not without purpose for me these days, to my surprise.  They've become a metaphor for my teaching.  Sure, I have a road -- it's called Curriculum.  My job as a teacher is to get my students down that road in a meaningful way.  And by meaningful, I mean significantly important to each student, requiring differentiation strategies to represent the capability of each, engaging them in ways that cause the explicit use of higher order thinking skills (HOTS) as often as possible, to increase understanding, and transfer that learning into long term memory.

Two weeks into my intentional use of Inquiry Based Learning, I'm getting it.  More important than that, the kids are getting it.  They are starting to realize that asking me what I expect is less important than defining for themselves what they can do, and reaching for that goal.  

I am the scattered dots on the road, serving to "suggest" where the middle of the road is.  I am not a double yellow line, keeping kids in a steady stream of traffic moving at the same rate of speed.  

And I'm kind of hoping that the orange signs in my neighborhood are permanent, and that they aren't replaced by yellow paint on the road any time soon.  I'm getting used to the idea of self-directed driving.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Boxed In.

Colleagues have each others' backs -- at least in my department.  Case in point, the events of Easter Monday, 2014...

It was an unusual day from the get go.  The district had originally scheduled staff and students to be off, but the number of snowdays that year took that plan right off the calendar.  Unfortunately for us, the calendar had been loaded into the security system, and none of the teacher badges worked in the building that day, forcing those of us who park in the back parking lot to hoof it around the building to the front door to get in.   Once in the building, it wasn't too inconvenient, except when trying to access the office, as it is also a "badge-swipe" entry zone.

After lunch, I was sitting in my classroom working alone, as it was my prep period.  The wing was empty and quiet, as the English classes were all in the cafeteria.  John was across the hall in his classroom, eating lunch at his desk.  He wandered into my room with a quizzical look on his face, and asked me if I would step into his classroom.

An odd request, but okay...

"I'm pretty sure there's something alive in that backpack," he said, pointing to a student satchel on the floor.  As if on cue, a loud scratching noise was emitted.  Clearly something with toenails scratching against the ripstop nylon.  

Honestly, I thought I was being punked.  The scratching continued.  John looked at me, and indicated that he wanted to open it to see what it was, but wanted a witness -- as the backpack belonged to a student.  All I could imagine at that point was that there was a ferret, or some other rodent, in there, and envisioned it popping its head out and scurrying off down the hallway.

There we were.  Two professionals, staring at a backpack, problem-solving.  Curiosity was killing us almost as much as the fear of what would be discovered.

Just down the hallway was the back door to the parking lot.  It's basically a wide entryway  with two sets of doors to the outside, with a swipe point in between, forming a sort of vestibule between the doors.  This seemed like the perfect small area to contain the creature demanding our attention.  We scouted, and realized that the doorways to the open hallway were about 2 inches off the ground, and concluded that we needed either a hockey goalie stick or another person, to assure that the critter wouldn't get into the school.  Enter, Brian.  The only other living person within the two intersecting hallways.  We lured him into our plan, and entered the enclosure.

John took the backpack to the far corner, close to the outside door, and opened the backpack, as Brian and I braced ourselves to keep the runner from sliding under the doors.


Clearly, there was no longer a concern about an eminent escape.  We turned to open the doors, only to discover that we were locked in the glass cage between the doors.  Without another human being nearby.  

It was an odd cell phone call that was made, asking for our freedom.  Before the posse of administrators made it to the wing to investigate, a student on the way to the bathroom wandered by, and set us free.

I'm not sure, to this day, why we didn't consider EXITING the building and walking around to the front -- perhaps there was snow on the ground, or maybe it was raining.  In any case, we've gotten more than a few laughs over this unique bonding experience.

Oh, and the reason it was in there in the first place?  The kid had found the turtle, and wanted to sneak it into John's desk, to see how he would react.  He hadn't been able to do that before lunch, and spent lunchtime wondering whether he'd have an opportunity after lunch.  As it turned out, no.  There was no opportunity.  Instead, the principal drove him back to the stream where he had found the turtle.

And we all lived hilariously ever after.  Even the turtle.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Don't Say It!

2nd Degree Misdemeanor, punishable by two years in prison and a $5000 fine.  That's the potential ramifications of a single careless post on social media that is determined to be a terrorism threat to a school, according to Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, in a recent interview with Lancaster Newspapers.

Somehow, the prevalence of threats -- whether they are real or not -- towards schools in Lancaster County has spiraled out of control in the last week.  As an educator charged with teaching the responsible use of social media, I'm not sure where to even begin this year in teaching my freshmen about the fastest way to ruin the future through their use of social media.

What started allegedly as a student wondering whether anyone would react, posting a threat on an anonymous app, assuming his post would truly be anonymous, was anything but that.  In fact, within a little more than a day, the location of the computer and identity of the student was in the hands of the local authorities, with an arrest in the books.
But not until after dozens of administrators and police personnel, coordinating with the IT specialists, spent dozens of hours employing deductive reasoning skills to solve the mystery.

Nothing is anonymous.  Everything is recoverable -- despite what the IT specialists might tell you when your computer crashes. Especially when public safety is potentially at risk.  And that doesn't just apply to threats.  It applies to that stupid argument with your cousin, or the snarky comment about your boss, or the picture that paints you in a light less than favorable for a job you might want ten years from now.

In the "olden days," threats might have been phoned in, or sent in a hastily glued cutout "ransom note style" anonymous tip, or a message scrawled in lipstick on the school bathroom mirror.  These were only seen by a few people, and didn't generate the sort of mass chaos and reaction that happens with the instantaneous nature of social media today.

So think, talk to kids about thinking, and remember that once it's said, it's not going to be taken back.  Nothing is erasable or deletable, and everything is traceable.  And the implications of the lost time and resources spent in man hours by the  investigators are incalculable. 

A single post can change a life.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bubble Wrap

The news recently has been pretty grim, which is unusual for Lancaster County.  In the last week, in addition to the threat at my school, two other districts have had incidents warranting a police search and presence to allow school to open.  Over the weekend, a fifteen year old girl went missing in the next district over, with posts all over social media repeatedly forwarded hoping to aid the family in finding their daughter.  (Update:  She is "home safe" at this time.  Lord only knows how long she'll be grounded after three days on the news.)

It's a scary world, some days.  And we spend an awful lot of time trying to create the perfect protective bubble of an environment for our kids.  Does this help?  Are we generating an artificial society to protect our kids, or are we hoping that by showing them a safe and wonderful world, are we secretly hoping that they, as a generation, will adopt this philosophy and save the world?

Former student, Bryce, is now majoring in education in his freshman year in college.  This evening, he shared the Forest Kindergarten vimeo,  with the comment "Thought you might find this interesting...and probably a bit terrifying.."

Um, yes.  A bit of both.

A couple of years ago, I viewed a similar video, which made the Forest Kindergarten concept look like Romper Room.  The kids in Wales scaled what looked like the walls of a city dump to enter the "Land Adventure Playground" where most of the rules were unlike anything any sane parent would ever utter.

In a time when schools are searching for every possible minute for Common Core Teaching, often taking away from things like adventure, risk-taking, and recess, it seems unfathomable that places like Land Adventure and Forest Kindergarten exist.  Yet they clearly offer a chance for failure, and the opportunity to try again.

Do we do that in the classroom?  Do we even have time to let anyone do anything more than once, intentionally?

And what is the risk that we take for not letting kids take risks?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Still Breathing.

Last night, as I slept the best sleep I've had in a very long time, my daughter in law, Jennie, was breathing, along with her labor coach/husband Scott.  They didn't sleep at all, and have a tiny new human named Mia Cecelia to show for their efforts.  They really know how to pick gifts for Grandparents' Day, huh?

What do I wish for this tiny new granddaughter?  The very same things I pray for her brother.  Peace.  The ability to center and find themselves in the midst of a perceived -- or real-- storm.  The skills to center their focus, just as their mother did bringing them into this world, and breathe.

It's no secret that breathing is a theme in this blog. (A simple search in the bar above will yield many references during the last year.)  The fact that research now supports the importance of focused reflection to improve learning is a wonderful argument for slowing down and smelling the proverbial roses.  Sure there are storms.... (insert dancing in the rain or comments about rainbows of your choice here.)  Slowing down, doodling in the margins, opportunities for metacognition all translate to greater learning, and lower blood pressure.

This afternoon I'm going to smell the downy head of my new granddaughter, and pull a Frank Barone, breathing deeply and remembering this very perfect day.

"Let me get a few whiffs from the fountain of youth.
There it is.
I'm sucking in the youth."

It will be wonderful.  And much better than sniffing roses, I am certain.