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2016 - Bring It On!

I am a struggling writer. I struggle with topic selection, getting started and a lack of self-confidence. And, although I love to write, I r...

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

New Habits in the Making

Today is the second day of a ten-day break. I don’t go back to school until Feb. 10th, so I’ve had time to read and write a lot. This always leads me to reflect about teaching and life in general. I start to think about what I can improve, both on a personal and a professional level, and make plans to implement those changes. So, here’s a list of the changes that I want to make, in no particular order. 

(1) Big confession: I don’t look forward to recess duty. Usually I stand in one spot during the 20 minute lunch recess, look around to make sure everything is OK, and then go back to being annoyed at having to do recess duty. Not fun! It bears mentioning that there are at least three teacher assistants on duty as well, so the kids are adequately supervised. This is a golden opportunity to observe the kids in a more natural environment: at play with their friends. So, instead I will walk around the field and engage in conversations with as many kids as possible.  When I take the time to observe students from a closer angle, I get a sense of how they interact with each other, who may not have someone to play with, and where the trouble spots are. As a fifth grade teacher, this is also a good opportunity for me to get to know the third and fourth graders, some of whom will be my students in the near future.

(2) When I find myself on the verge of saying or doing something I might regret later, I am going to take a deep breath and take a step back from the situation before reacting or responding in any way. This is so hard for me! I am realizing that I am impulsive and I “lose” it more often than I’d like to admit, which makes things worse not better. This is a huge challenge for me, but I will feel so good once I develop this new habit.

(3) When I read a blog, I will leave a response in the comments section. I’ve tried committing to this in the past, but I haven’t been very successful. I want people to respond to my posts so it seems only right that I do this for others. Reminding myself of the learning that happens when a conversation gets started on a blog will help me to do this.  

(4) I will not take on any new books to review for MiddleWeb until I finish the ones I have. This one is also hard for me because it takes so long for books to get to Ecuador that I want to make sure I have a book waiting to be reviewed at all times. However, that isn't fair to the author since I end up stockpiling books because I can only write one book review at a time. I might be sitting on a book that another reviewer might get to right away. I love getting new books, so this is definitely a hard change for me to implement.


I am excited about making these changes. They may seem small or inconsequential, but I know they will make a difference in my attitude and well-being. 

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Changing Habits

I haven't written anything in three days and for a good reason: I was with my students on the grade 5 Outward Bound trip in Mindo, Ecuador.

Although Mindo is only 2 1/2 hours from Quito, it has a completely different climate than the capital city. Mindo is in the cloud forest and has a subtropical climate. In other words, it gets really hot during the day, cooling down a bit at night and in the early hours of the morning. Normally it rains quite a bit in Mindo, but we were fortunate that it only rained once, during the night, while we were all tugged away inside our tents.

So, after having written something almost every day for the last month - at most I skipped a day here and there - I realized how easy it is to go back to a habit of no writing. And, the thing is that there were the odd moments during the day when I could have sat down to write. I just didn't do it. I'm trying to think why that was. Maybe it's because I was in a different environment with students. But, this doesn't make sense since there were four guides in charge of students throughout this experience. Teachers were there mostly as chaperones.

Was it because I was with my two teaching partners? I didn't want to be on my phone a lot or appear nerdy even though no one would know what I was doing. No, that wasn't it. I could have also written inside my tent right before going to sleep or in the morning before breakfast. Either of those times would have been opportunities to reflect on the day's activities. But, it didn't occur to me to do that either. Really, there's no particular reason for why I didn't write.

Nevertheless, I am being so insistent on trying to figure this out because I am realizing how easy it is to break down good habits and slip back into less desirable ones. In fact, the first time I realized I hadn't written anything since the day we left - three days ago - was when I got home yesterday. Not once did I think about carving out a few minutes to write. And, when it did cross my mind, it was a fleeting, rather than an urgent, thought.

This is very profound to me though it may seem silly to others that I'm dwelling on this so much. It's profound because I am always trying to develop and maintain healthier habits and have never really examined how or why I haven't been very successful in the past.

Sometimes I try to do too much and am disappointed when I don't follow through. I guilt myself about failing and then in order to avoid unpleasant feelings, I push the failure out of my mind, instead of using it as an opportunity for reflection and growth. That way I don't have to try again. In fact, I can reinforce my feelings of inadequacy and not being good enough. I now know this is a copout. I need to be courageous and admit I made a mistake or slipped a bit, be kind to myself, and try again.

Now, that I'm cutting myself some slack when I don't always follow through on the changes I've made since the start of 2016, I'm able to continue with an exercise regime that I enjoy; watch my food portions and stay off sweets more; write every day; stay off social media more than before; take moments throughout the school day to touch bases with my students one-on-one; and be more patient with my youngest child.

And, of course, I stick to these new habits because they work. I feel better. I'm less anxious. I'm more productive. I'm being ambitious - my one little word (OLW) for 2016. I'm more content. I'm more present.

Not bad for a Saturday morning.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Temptations


What temptations would you be better off removing from your life?

This was a recent question from the Thought Questions website. It is a great one for me because temptations sometimes stand in the way of realizing some of my goals.

Although getting rid of some temptations (candy and gum come to mind) would make my life better, there is one that stands out for me right now: being connected for way too many hours of the day. There are so many things happening online that I want to be a part of and they seem to be multiplying all the time. Twitter chats, new apps, online book clubs, Facebook updates, Voxer groups and on and on and on. And, I want to be a part of all of it. So, I sign up or subscribe to all of them and then wonder why I can't keep up with everything. Well, duh! 

OK. So, I'll say it again: being connected 24/7 is my greatest temptation and removing it from my life completely would be disastrous as I learn so much from my virtual contacts. These social media connections are important to my engagement and growth as an educator. My dilemma, and probably everyone else's as well, is that being connected 24/7 is easy to do; my iPhone is always close by. However, it's not necessary to be connected 24/7, as tempting as that is, to get the benefit of what social media has to offer. Shutting down once in a while and powering off has helped me get clarity and allowed me to focus on the moment. When I do this and then return to social media later on, like an addict needing a fix, I find that I didn't miss anything that couldn't wait. There were no earth shattering updates on Facebook. I didn't miss any emails offering me a book deal. Nothing was so important that it couldn't wait. In fact, quickly realize that not every new gadget or digital initiative out there is worth my time. It all comes down to purpose. What is my purpose? What do I want to achieve? It's always about, so what?

The so what or my purpose for engaging with social media is to learn from others and to give back a little. And, my current purpose for disengaging on a regular basis is to focus on my doctorate. 

Now, recognizing this temptation and wanting to tame it is a good thing, but I've been there, done that. I'm ready to try something new by taking concrete action that works for me. So, I've tried disconnecting on Saturdays, like Angela Watson and that has worked on occasion...when I remembered to do it! Recently, I've been enthralled (tempted by?) the practice of turning off my device for 2 1/2 hours a night, like the new Canadian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. That seems doable and healthy...for me, which is a start. However if I want to use this down time to hang out with my family as well, then this wouldn't be enough; everyone at home would need to power off at the same time. This may pose a challenge for some of us at home, but it's worth a try.

So, I plan to set my phone down when I get home for at least 2 1/2 hours to do something else. That something else will probably be a combination of hanging out with my husband and son and spending focused time on my doctorate work. I'll write a blog post about how it's going in a few weeks.

What's your greatest temptation? Are you willing to admit to it and tame your temptation? Leave a comment below and let's have a conversation.

Cross posted to Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Rule Follower

In most aspects of my life I am a rule follower and this is particularly true in school. I was a good student, a "goody two shoes"; I never got in trouble. I always did my homework and turned projects in on time. My parents always went to parent-teacher conferences even in high school. I was rarely one of those kids who pushes the envelope, gets in trouble, and risks detention. 

All of that changed when I went to college.  But that's a story for another day. 

Once a decision is made at my school, I carry through with it even if I initially disagreed with what was decided. That doesn't mean I'm a pushover. If I feel strongly about something, I will argue to support my point of view, but I will also listen to the other side's perspective. And, before a decision is made, I will try to reason, cajole, and persuade others to make sure that whatever we end up doing can be justified because it's in our students' best interest. If possible, I don't negotiate. 

In the busy world of schools, the challenge is to remember that we teach students, not tests or books or standards. Once we recognize this simple truth it makes all the difference in the world.


Thanks to Teaching with A Mountain View for this image.



Like most teachers I trust and admire, I am passionate about teaching and learning. I have very strong opinions and I'm not shy about staking my claim. Yet, sometimes I feel unsure of myself. And, when I do, I seek out mentors through authors of professional books or social media. When I read blog posts by Pernille RippJessica Lifshitz and others I realize I'm not alone. When I go to my PLN -both new and old - I feel validated, but not in the sense of feeling self-righteous. Rather, I am reminded of what's important. 

When there are extensive disagreements about practice it usually stems from critical differences about pedagogy. Sometimes these can be talked through and a compromise can be made, but not always. As I get older I get better at listening and sifting through the rhetoric, mine and others', so we can meet halfway, but I also have less patience. When things get too hard, I take a look at what is happening in my classroom and feel encouraged about how far we've come and how much more we can still accomplish. I try to listen to my students when they speak and also when they're silent.

I make mistakes, more than I wish to admit, but I try hard to rectify them and move on. That's one reason why my new daily writing habit feels so right. I reflect on a daily basis about everything that is happening around me, both personally and professionally, and I feel calm and focused.

I have a purpose. I know myself. I know my students and I try to have their best interests in mind. I'm like a fierce mama lion who watches her cubs carefully and zealously. 

I make mistakes. I know. But I pick myself up off the ground, apologize if necessary, and fix the problem. If push comes to shove, I will do whatever is necessary to do right by my students.


Crossposted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday 

Monday, 18 January 2016

Changes, Changes, Changes

The first day back to school after a break is always hard. This is especially true if the vacation was a long one. First of all, not all of the kids come back at the same time and those that are present are either sleepy or just very quiet. And, even though I want to hit the ground running, that isn't always advisable because I might not get the results I'm looking for if I do. So, the second day is always welcomed because it feels like my students and I just passed a test and we can breathe a sigh of relief. The first round is over. Now, we're back in our groove. Nevertheless, I decided to try out a few new ideas I'd been reading about during the winter break. You can read about that here

First of all, I started doing some brief meditation exercises with a focus on breathing, relaxing and being quiet for just a minute or two. This is called the Core Practice in the MindUp Curriculum written by The Goldie Hawn Foundation and published by Scholastic. I think it has made a difference in my students' attention and attitude in the classroom. 

During MAP testing last week, I had students meditate right before taking the reading and language usage tests and most students improved their scores from the fall, even if by just a few points. The only scores that were all over the place were the math scores; it did not occur to me to have them meditate on that day. Coincidence? Perhaps, but as we delve into this curriculum and my students learn about the importance of slowing down and being in the moment, I will be looking for more examples of how this simple practice is helping my 5th graders be more engaged. Some are already thinking about how to apply it on their own. During MAP testing, one of my students asked if she could stop and do the core practice (meditation) if she was feeling nervous or anxious. YES! One instance, but that's all it takes. What I can say for certain right now is that since I started making this an established routine in my classroom I am calmer and more patient with myself and others. I can't imagine my students aren't feeling similarly.

Of course, there are always other variables that influence what we do in the classroom; there is rarely a direct correlation between one program or approach and the results we observe. Three of my students were absent on the first couple of days we did this, which may have had something to do with the mood in the classroom. Nevertheless, I think it was a positive start to the first week back after the break

And, of course, nothing ever goes smoothly all the time. Today, we meditated right before recess and a few boys started laughing before we were finished; they were not focused on their breathing. After I dismissed the rest of the class we discussed how although sometimes we find it hard to meditate, it's important not to stop others from finding their focus. We talked about what they can do - move to a different spot, face in a direction away from distractions, etc. -  if this happens again so that we respect everyone's space and time. Our talk wasn't punitive, but I hope it impressed upon them the importance of what we're doing. Tomorrow I will talk about how to get their focus back on breathing as a way to stay centered and calm. Look for updated blog posts in the next month or so about this. 

Another change I implemented was to give my students a new independent reading (IDR) log to keep track of classroom and home reading. They keep track of the time they spend reading and the number of pages they read in a day. This is not for accountability purposes. I have a mistrust of that word since it implies that somehow we're not doing what we are supposed to do and we need someone to monitor what we are doing. While it's true that some of my students are not reading at home and this is a way for them to do that, I don't grade this log or berate them about it. Rather, I'm approaching it as a research study of sorts. We will be asking the following questions: where are you reading more? At school or at home? Why do you think that is? How can you increase your reading time at either place? How long does it take you to finish a book? Why do you think that is? What kinds of books are you reading quickly? Why do you think that is? Is this log helping you read more? What questions do you have about your independent reading development? How can we revise this log so that it is more effective for you and/or so that you can use it to answer any questions you have about independent reading? 

Although, there was some confusion at first about how to complete the log - there always is when implementing a new routine in the classroom - now my students are using this tool independently. 

Finally, I stood back and observed my students during independent reading. I took notes of what I observed during increments of five minutes for a total of 15 minutes. I am using this information for one-on-one and small group conferences. I will write more about this at another time.

The first weeks back after the Christmas vacation often bring some surprises: my students are maturing and settling into routines more effortlessly than at the beginning of the year. It's a bittersweet feeling for me as June looms closer now than it did in August. We can really soar now, but it will go way too fast for my taste. As is usually the case, I won't be ready to let this group of kids go at the same time that they'll be ready to move on to middle school. And, as I look forward to the rest of the year I am grateful for the privilege of working with this particular group of kids at this time in their lives. 

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Professional Reading

I did a lot of professional reading and thinking during the winter vacation. And, although I started writing this post before school started and am only publishing it now, it details some of my thoughts on this professional reading. This is a good exercise for me now that we're about to enter our third week back to school and I've actually tried out some of these ideas in my class. This post is preceded by one tomorrow in which I describe in a little more detail how I implemented these ideas and what happened as a result.

(1) I am going to teach my students a 3-minute meditation practice during transitions. This is a precursor to implementing the Goldie Hawn Foundation MindUp curriculum that teaches kids about the brain and how to manage their reactions to a variety of daily events. I will do these 3-minute meditations for a couple of weeks before launching into the curriculum itself. This is the first time I'm teaching this so I'm a little nervous.

(2) I am going to try out yet another note taking system during conferences for reading workshop as described by Jennifer Serravallo in her books Conferring with Readers and Teaching Reading in Small Groups. It's a very simple system, but I think it will quickly and easily capture valuable information when I confer with students. This particular form has two columns - "compliments I can give the reader" and "things I can teach the reader". I can use this sheet multiple times by drawing a line under the notes I take for a particular day. I am going to adopt Serravallo's coding system for keeping track of the compliment (C) and teaching point (TP) that I use with a child on any given day.

(3) I will be implementing many more games in math. I'm going to start by using some of the games in Marilyn Burns' book So You Have to Teach Math? I am also planning to have my students write a math autobiography in the same way I will be doing a mid-year interest inventory for reading. Even though these are great activities for the beginning of the school year, I think they can also provide valuable information in the middle and at the end of the year.

(4) I am rethinking my assessment system in general as I read Serravallo's book on how to teach reading in small groups. For example, Serravallo talks about asking the kids to keep a read aloud monthly log with space for kids to respond to a prompt that reveals their thinking. I have been looking for a way to engage my students in quick thinking events during read aloud and this may work out well.

(5) I am going to implement a daily Independent Reading Log (IDR) log so that students can keep track of their school and home reading. I suspect that some of my students are not reading at home. And, some of these same students tend to have low stamina for reading in school. I plan to address this issue during this month in a more coordinated and intense way. If I think it's important for kids to be engaged readers then I need to take concrete actions to change some of these less than productive reading behaviors now. I have two students in mind that would benefit from more targeted conferences that teach them how to monitor themselves when they are distracted during independent reading. These two happen to be two of my most challenging students as well. Not behaviorally challenging, but in terms of attitude towards reading and writing. I think they've become so used to making themselves unobtrusive that they've been lost in the shuffle. I need to redouble my efforts with these two students.


How did you recharge over the break? What professional reading did you do or are you doing that will be making a difference in your classroom over the next few months? I would love to hear from you in the comments section.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Saying Goodbye

I can't get used to saying goodbye to my daughters even though we've been doing it for the past 10 years. You'd think it gets easier, but it doesn't. It still feels like the first time.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.*

At the airport, I watch families with their young children and try to remember what it was like when my girls were little. What I felt like. What I was doing at the time. What we weren't doing. Was I even aware of the passage of time? 

When my kids were little I lived so much in the moment that there was no time to reflect on the fact that our time as a family was measured. Sooner than we were ready, we would have to let them go. Send them on their way. Wish them an abundance of everything, but especially of love, health and joy. 

They come through you, but not from you.* 

I nod and smile, a little teary-eyed nonetheless, because I know just how fast it all goes. How quickly time flies. How much I now miss the time when my daughters were little. They were always nearby. Did we take that time for granted? Sometimes, I wish I could go back in time. And, although I know that's only possible in my memories, it is a bittersweet wish that has been gnawing at me lately more intensely than usual.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.*

If I could go back, what would I change? I would slow down more often. Talk more with my children. Worry less. Laugh even more because we did (and still do) an awful lot of laughing as a family. Slow down all the time. Spend less and enjoy it more.

This sounds like I have regrets, but I don't. It just goes so fast. My oldest daughter is getting married this summer. It's a big step for all of us; my baby is going to start a family of her own. I try to think back to when I got married and started my own family. It was beautiful, even with its ups and downs. Like most newlyweds and first-time parents, my husband and I really didn't know what we were doing. It was trial and error most of the time with a big dose of instinct mixed in. It helped that we were in agreement about what doing the right thing meant. 

We raised two beautiful, courageous, amazing daughters and our son is following in their footsteps.

Still, and yet, my heart aches: can't we keep them with us just a little bit longer? 

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.*


*Many thanks to Kahlil Gibran for his words of wisdom. I carry them with me wherever I go. Now that our family is growing, I reach out to his words for comfort. It is a wise reminder of what being a parent is really all about.