Think about a time when you had to do something complex. You have a plan, you know what it is you want to do, and you are ready to go. Now think about how that scenario would go if someone else was watching you. It’s a little different, right? Fear is real. Professional teachers learn quickly that their teaching will be on display from time to time. It is meant to help us reflect and grow. However, it is also tied to an evaluative end. We have skin in the game, so how do we get comfortable with discomfort? It ‘s one thing to feel uncomfortable, but we can power through it if we can set-up some conditions for a safe learning environment. 

A condition for safety is coming to mutual respect. When we focus on our strengths and use positive language overcoming those nervous feelings becomes a natural part of the process. Complex work, like teaching, requires so much risk because there are so many facets that go into planning.  Being uncertain about what another person believes about you, your values, or your performance undermines potential. However, we can take some control to feel safe. This is how it can be done:

  1. Know how to make your curriculum relevant to the real work of students.
  2. Have a deep understanding of how to support students’ developmental needs.
  3. Go into each lesson with a clear intention, with an array of potential outcomes. 

What’s true for us, is true for kids. Consider how you are creating a safe environment for your students to take risks. What would that look like in your classroom? We show students we believe in them by the way we speak to them, the way we show them respect and the kinds of expectations we set for them.  If we just look at what they can do we cannot go wrong. We are teaching them that they are safe, respected, valued, and only then will they take the really big risks

Welcome Back!  We were very fortunate to have had a two week break and today was our first day back to school. As soon as the kids came into the classroom there was so much energy, so many smiles, and so much anticipation for what comes next. New Years and hopeful beginnings are so closely intertwined, on one hand we don’t know exactly what really lies ahead, and on the other we feel like we can accomplish great work together.

An Idea to Share

To get us focused and talking about our time away, we began the day with a carousel activity. The children wrote and talked about the following questions:

After a long break, kids come in excited to share about their time away and this type of activity takes that into consideration. It is also a great way to get them focused and able to share what is important to them,  in a controlled environment. As I walked around, I could support their language usage, by asking open ended questions to spark elaboration such as “What did that feel like? and “Why did you pick that to share?” Kids were excited to share and when it was time to start our day, they were on task and ready to go. Here are some things I learned:

  • One child went to Florida to check in on her new house
  • Like myself, one girl got a new dog
  • Several students took the time to go see the tree and Times Square in New York City
  • Many students had special visits with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins from different states including Pennsylvania and Virginia

If we had just gone into the day without time to share the things that were a special part of our lives when we were not in school, things might have felt more disconnected, noisy and there would have been some untapped energy.  This activity helped direct the flow of energy into something productive for us all.

So keeping this in mind, we came up with our one word for the year.  Our word is “EMBRACE”.  

  • Embrace opportunities
  • Embrace imperfection
  • Embrace success
  • Embrace challenge
  • Embrace other perspectives
  • Embrace the humanity and emotional piece of teaching and learning

In some classrooms, the last day before a holiday recess tends to be a time to host a class party, watch holiday videos, or do crafts. We look at this day as our last chance before a prolonged break to spend some meaningful time with students. We want our students to go into their time off with energy and excitement around learning. Today was a day full of celebration, fun, and excitement, and it packed an academic punch.  We hosted our informational museum exhibits, and the students had great experiences. Children went to work setting up their displays and materials to get ready to TEACH other students. Our second graders taught first graders all about:

  • What dogs need to live
  • How volcanoes erupt
  • Different types of tornados
  • What different baby animals eat
  • Different planets in the solar system
  • What tigers eat
  • All about baby pandas
  • How whales use their bodies to survive 
  • Different types of clouds
  • Different things dinosaurs eat
  • What damage a hurricane causes

As you read through this list you get a little glimpse of who these students are and what they really care about. The topics all belonged to them, and how they presented it to their first grade students was completely their decisions. It can be done, kids really can take control over their own learning. When we allow it we will always be amazed because we will know them even better.  We want to make the most of every single moment in school and we want it to be joyful. 

We love @Twitter because any day we can hear @VickiVintonTMAP & @KellyGToGo is a good day.

We walked our students out to the buses as holiday music played throughout the gymnasium. We will be off for two weeks. It is important to us that we keep our blog connected to students, so we will be back on January 6, 2020! In the meantime, you can find us hidden away in a corner of Panera writing. We are deep into revisions with our book, WIRE for Agency Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning. We hope you have a happy and healthy holiday. Please take some time out to renew and gear up for all the great learning ahead in 2020!

This post is dedicated to our friend and mentor, Dr. Mary Howard. She inspires us everyday to move our practices from “Good to Great”.  Mary, who believes in the potential for all children and works tirelessly to encourage us to be worthy of them.

Jenn, Mary, Jill

After years of working with very young children one thing we can say for sure is that childhood is full of complexity. Children are learning about everything. They are not just learning how to read (which is really hard to do), or how to be problem solvers in math (have you seen how math has changed?). They are also learning how to be more emotionally secure, how to be independent. Yes, in their world that may be how to ride safely on the bus, how to manage a backpack, or even how to get along with others in the lunchroom. Think about everything children learn in comparison to us adults. It’s astounding. 

So when teachers use words like our “low students” they are not honoring all who their students are and hope to be. When any student is denied access to more sophisticated work, they are being robbed of opportunities and may be missing out on important entry points into their learning process. When this happens, teachers are making assumptions and in doing so are most likely creating significant gaps that will be extremely difficult to fill. Why do some educators do this to kids?  Teachers care deeply about students so it just doesn’t make sense. Maybe they do it because students don’t meet their expectations for where they “ought” to be. Maybe they do it because they feel so much pressure to get high scores. We understand that pressure, all kinds of people analyze our data. Maybe they call kids “low” or refer to them as letters, or numbers from a misguided understanding of data and its role in school. We don’t know. One thing we do know for sure, it’s a problem, if we are discussing a child and we are not using the child’s name. 

In the end, does the answer to the question, why, really matter? What matters most is that we put a stop to it. Make a vow with us here today, I will not refer to my students as “low”. I will respect them and acknowledge all of their accomplishments and I will not let my own fear of failure get in their way.  We all have to believe in them if we are going to teach to make a positive impact. Yes, acknowledge the hard work that has to be done, but do that work by leveraging their strengths. There is always something to hold onto and celebrate. Be that teacher, the one who trusts in students’ abilities and hopes for the future.

Leaning in to observe children at work is a sacred time. We get to see the evolution of their thinking unfold, as they grow more aware of their sense of autonomy, and power.  One of the happiest moments in the classroom is when students come to know something on their own. Their facial expressions change when that blessed “Aha!” moment happens. This is when they realize they’ve learned something new.  Teachers who have a ”light touch” when it comes to delivering instruction know how to support students just enough. Read this exchange from teacher to student:

“How do I spell the word trade?” a second grade boy asks.
“Try it three ways.”  I say as I place a Post-It in front of him. 
Observation in Action
The first time he writes, t-r-ae-d – note that he knows how vowel teams work 
The second time he writes, t-r-a-d and mumbles “No, that’s not it.” – note that he understands how closed syllables typically work. 
The third time he looks at the first attempt, he looks at the second, “OH! A broad smile spreads across his face, and says as he writes it, “t-r-a-d-e!”
I say, “See, doesn’t that feel great you figured it out on your own!” He smiles and nods his head in agreement.

When teachers come into a child’s learning process with a set agenda we miss opportunities. When we pose an open ended prompt like “Try it three ways” we leave the work up to the student. It is better for the student, and for us. The student grows more confident and we get a window into their learning process.  It’s a beautiful thing to be both a teacher and a learner at the same time.

Time Is on My Side

Time is not a teacher’s friend. It can be an unwelcome guest that comes to the classroom with lots of baggage. Teachers worry about time slipping away. We fret about lessons taking too long. If a student is taking too much time to share we may even start to sweat. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a single moment to spare, it is never a wrong time to listen to children.  Perhaps the most important way we take back our power over time is when we decide to be fully present and in the moment with students. We lean in with genuine interest, we show them that we are totally “all in” and ask, “Tell me about yourself. What do you enjoy? What would you say you are really good at?” These are generous questions that are implicitly positive. 

In many ways a teacher is like a biographer. We are writing narratives for our students to inhabit. Narratives where our students are the heros. As we watch our students day-in-day-out we are learning about who they are. We are telling them their stories back to them with enthusiasm and sincerity. “Wow! Did you notice what you just did? You said you liked to draw pictures, and now it’s completely clear to me! You are an illustrator.” That observation becomes another page in their book. Pages that are filling up as the year progresses and students grow more confident.

Meet J.C.

JC used to play soccer, but he didn’t like it because sometimes he didn’t understand what the coach was saying. Now, he really likes Karate and also wants to try basketball. The thing he likes best about school, is writing. He likes that he can write his own stories about anything he wants. He also enjoys  being an illustrator. He thinks drawing pictures is a lot of fun. He wants to tell his stories and have people read his books.

It takes time for students to grow into their identity. They are trying things on and learning about themselves along the way. JC sees himself as a writer and illustrator. That is very important to acknowledge before any academic work can begin. This is an entry point for us to build upon to nurture his sense of self, his identity.  It is our job as teachers to take the time to listen to our students, to honor what they say and to celebrate how they see themselves. Maybe we really misunderstand time. Maybe we should just unpack its bags and invite it to stay knowing it is well spent anytime we sit side-by-side with a child to honor who they are for this brief moment that is now.