Thursday, January 12, 2017

Are You Happy?

A nighttime ramble--

Sometimes, people are just ridiculously stupid.  Oftentimes this stupidity is induced by the sinister tentacles of social media, or rather, electronic media...the fast food for our brain in the 21st century.  And its long-term effect is like that of eating a Big Mac meal every night.

As I near that half-century milestone in the next few years, I have come to realize that three words are all that matter: Are you happy?

These are the words said to me by my father over the phone when I told him I was engaged 26 years ago.

Him: Are you happy?

Me: Yes, I am.

Him: Then that's all that matters.  Did your train stop in...

And the conversation strolled on.

I now realize the power of that litmus test.

I have added flavor to it over the years.  When worrying about finances at 11 PM, I embraced the phrase, "It's [insert time here]. The bank is not open.  There is nothing you can do about it now.  Quit worrying."

To my family members who have done various things to automobiles over the years, my response has been, "Were you hospitalized?  Did you hurt anyone else?  No? Then keep perspective. Calm down."

We have before us a glut of information.  We hear from media outlets that are trying to break a story before checking their sources. We read opinions of our "friends" who might not think as we do.  We "converse," and then ask ourselves whose mind we are really changing by even commenting.  People "tweet" pithy remarks, like writing graffiti on a wall. And I have one question.  Do these things make you happy? Sometimes yes, most times no.

My soul is interwoven with a sense of righteous indignation.  Trust me.  I get it.  But I also know what it feels like to have torn my soul into so many pieces that I don't have anything left with which to fight the good fight.  I must now be choosier about that fight.

Enter the change of American President.  Wow. In my lifetime, there's been Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, Obama, and now Trump.  People, we have been through this before. No one human being will ever be perfect in that position. And I am a chick in Central Illinois on my computer at almost midnight.  Do you really think any of this "discourse" will make a difference?

My answer: No.  We are just pissing each other off.  Here's my action plan.

Pray | For those with whom I agree and disagree as well as the President-elect and his crew.  I did not do this enough during the Obama administration's 8 years.  I think it could have made those 8 years less contentious for me.

Love | One another.  Everyone.  Especially the seemingly unlovable.

Respect | Everyone.  Because none of us is really superior to the other. We may think we are, but that's not the way we were fashioned.

Discuss Issues | I am irritated by the presentation--the brand-- our President-Elect represents.  That has muddied my thoughts. I want to stick to issues instead of getting lost in persona.

Embrace | I get this day.  Maybe not even the day.  I get this minute. What am I doing with it?  Is what I am doing making me happy?

[end of ramble]

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Our recent experience with fraud

If criminals put 1/8 of their brainpower to something worthwhile, we would have a cure for cancer and an end to all wars.

The past few days have been harrowing. It started with a call to my son from our credit union's fraud investigation service. When we travel and use our debit cards, they usually call and make sure it's us making purchases in atypical places. I appreciate this service.  Since my son had just traveled back to school from IL to VA, I assumed they were calling about the charges on his newly activated debit card. [Note: The previous debit card was just deactivated as a precaution due to compromised information. This is not unusual, and is a safety measure. It also adds to the bitter irony of this tale.] So, I encourage him to call, feeling that it will be a check in.

It wasn't.

In the last week a variety of charges had been made at a Wal Mart near Indianapolis, each a little over $100, totalling almost $500.  $500 of his McDonalds-minimum-wage-job money.  $500 of his hard-earned money for books and incidentals at school.  HIS money. From the kid that, if you needed $100, he would give it to you.  The money has been recovered.  The feeling of being robbed?  That will linger for a lifetime.

Now, these criminals are quite smart.  So this blog post is more about providing fair warning to others.  Lessons from this situation:

1. It is believed that the criminal(s) skimmed his card at a gas station pump in Centerville, IN.  The local manager sent a person out to check the pump.  This person returned about 2 minutes later, saying there was no skimmer at the pump.  My husband spoke with the district manager, who took this VERY seriously.  They have complaints of fraud from 3 people that come down to that same station.

The pump was one that was fairly far from the entrance, yet still under camera surveillance.  The gas station pumps are also open 24 hours, even when the store is closed.  They are reviewing camera footage with local law enforcement.  He said that, having dealt with these things quite a bit at his level, he goes in and pre-pays for pumps that are that far away from human eye. Good advice!

2. The local WalMart management was marginally helpful.  Higher management assistance needed to happen.  They are scanning their cameras and working to determine what occurred.

Our first question was, "How can these purchases be made without his card?"  Apparently, the magnetic strip can be scanned, and a new card can be made.  Many times, they are made with a stolen pre-paid card, and criminals program the card to take money from the scanned account.  Then they sell the card for less than its value.  So a warning to those who might buy cards for less than their face value.  This might be a scam.

3. If you use a credit or debit that does not have the fraud alert that ours did, check your statements carefully.

All for now.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Unshakeable: Chapters 19 and 20

Chapter 19: Re-write the story you tell yourself about teaching

This chapter is one of the best ones in the book for what I needed to hear right now in my career.  Watson discusses what she calls "flip[ping] the script."  This corresponds well with another book I'm reading.

Watson focuses on our inner voices and what we tell ourselves about teaching.  I feel that this is true of pretty much everything in life.  She suggests positive affirmations of the things that are going right and well.  She offers many examples on p. 240-241 of negative statements we might say, new stories we can tell ourselves ("flip the script"), and new habits we can practice to make the new story come to fruition.  This feeds in to the problem-solving gene of mine.

I will say however, for those teaching with others who are struggling, we want to tiptoe carefully.  Exaggerating the positive can be as damaging as focusing on the negative.  Too much Pollyanna makes colleagues want to punch you if they are not in that space.  I think our job is to embrace our own journeys and support those who are having a rough go.  When they are ready, we can feed them little bits of sunshine.  

Chapter 20: Innovate and adapt to make teaching an adventure

The beginning of this chapter made me think of my colleague and buddy, Emily.  Her first couple years of teaching were spent at my school.  We always talk about things being an adventure, especially when we are faced with not so fun things.

I like that Watson stresses reflection.  We do so very little reflection as a practice in our profession.  We just seem to move on from one thing to the next because it's in the curriculum.  I usually go through curricular content slower than other teachers because reflection is a huge part of what I do.  If the students did not get the material, my teaching was not successful.  Why would I want to just move on if I screwed up?

On page 248, I felt like she was mentioning my resume.  Taking on different roles and responsibilities has definitely been a huge part of my career.  I agree with her point that we need to keep giving ourselves challenges.  This is definitely true.  My latest challenge has been to "flip the script" I have told myself about teaching science.  I have embraced NGSS before I was told to, and I have focused my PD this year on bringing the new science standards into my classroom.  It has definitely been a challenging yet fulfilling change.  I feel like this is what she reinforced on p. 251: "Don't just stand still and brace for impact.  Run toward the changes in education.  Be an innovator.  Be the one who looks at a difficult situation and figures out how to make the changes work to your benefit and the kids'."

I paused when she said, on p. 249, "you will never be happy as long as you insist on knowing what's going to happen in the future."  She was referring to the anxiety of the unknown and constant changes.  She also ends the chapter with an excellent point about rolling with "mandates."  We as teachers are SUCH rule followers.  If we are being told to do this, we must do THIS.  I have even worked with colleagues who have "tattled" to administrators when others were not teaching EXACTLY from a book as we were told to do.

I am not a robot.  My kids are not all the same.  I am a diagnostician.  I have to see where they are and take them from there.  Canned programs are not intuitive.  We owe it to our students to be intuitive to their needs and plan for them as individual learners.  Perhaps if others worried about their own students as much as they worry about what's going on in the classrooms of others, they, too, would have time for true differentiation.

I said in the beginning that I was not sure how I was going to like this book.  Now that I am finished I can say I VERY MUCH enjoyed reading it.  It helped me a great deal through some of the hardest months of school. I now have some practices, skills, reminders, and validations that will carry me through.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Unshakeable: Chapters 16, 17, and 18

Chapter 16: Connect with kids and gain energy instead of letting them drain you

This is, in my humble opinion, the #1 reason many of the teachers who want to or do leave the profession do so: the drain.  Again, I return to the people who claim they put as many "hours" in as teachers do in a week.  Fair enough.  The number of hours may be the same.  Are they breathing deeply trying not to scream in the face of a small being in front of them?  Until the next small being needs undivided attention?  And the next question: would they even begin to be able to handle it?  I believe and acknowledge that each job has its annoyances.  Truly.  But our "annoyances" are supposed to also be our raison d'etre.  And that is where the rub is.

I consider myself a "lifelong educator," as Watson uses the term on p. 196.  And I highlighted this very important point she makes: "After all, if you don't enjoy the kids, what's left?  The meetings? The paperwork? The testing? The kids have to be your greatest source of enjoyment as an educator."  This point resonates.

I enjoyed her discussion of Morning Meeting on p. 198.  It made me miss my advisory time at the junior high level.  I have become so embroiled with "getting in" all the content I can, that I have forgone the importance of that first part of our day.  My kiddos are jumping right into a math review sheet at that time.  Maybe I need to spend more time making that time a time for renewal and reset.

On p. 199, Watson suggests making a connection with 5 kids a day.  What a great idea.  I am sure I have heard it before, but it's amazing what one forgets after many years in this business.  I really liked this one. She offers a printable that will help in keeping track of connections.

I was really inspired by the idea of thanking students who do the right thing, as addressed on p. 202 and 203.  We have Mustang Money for reinforcing good behaviors, but, you know what?  I often forget to hand it out when it would benefit students most.  I give a "buck" to students for coming to school, because I sincerely am thankful for their presence.  After that, I need to become more conscious about focusing on those who do as they should, day in and day out.

On p. 205, I loved the idea of wrapping a child's desk for their birthday.  In fact, I enjoyed many of her suggestions for birthdays, because they did not necessarily involve huge, icing-laden cupcakes and craziness.  Having the student's picture as the background on the desktop, or whatever the student might like, is such an awesome idea.

I, like Watson, need my lunch time.  I used to try to get to extracurriculars, but I need my family time.  I need to be present to the people who lose so much of me to school.  So, at this point in my life, that is not happening.  I feel no guilt in that.

Chapter 17: Choose to love kids most when they act most unlovable

Watson makes some of the most important points of her book in this chapter.

  • Control the environment.  You cannot control the attitudes of a child.
  • Choose to raise yourself up instead of letting the kids get you down.
  • Don't take behavior as a personal attack.
    • "I have to consciously remind myself that children who are disrespectful, obnoxiously attention-seeking, or totally indifferent are not necessarily acting that way toward me." p. 214
  • There is a difference between off-task behavior and misbehavior.
    • When kids do "kid" behaviors at the wrong time, we must respond differently than when there is a conscious choice on their parts to misbehave.
  • On. p. 218, Watson states what my whole building knows to be true.
    • "The key to solving behavior problems is to figure out which unmet need the child is attempting to address, and then help him or her meet that need."
    • "Always make it your goal to respond in love."
  • She mentions the 2 x 10 method of working with problem behaviors in students.
  • Watson wraps up the chapter with my favorite mantra.  My friend Jessie and I have said this for years:
    • I can do anything for nine months.

Chapter 18: Be truly present and look for the light bulb moments

On p. 225, when Watson mentions, "When you're fully present with kids, you process interruptions and unwanted behaviors differently in your mind and attend to them rather than your own agenda," it reminded me of something that happened in my room the other day.  A colleague was telling me something.  A student came up to us.  I addressed him to see what he needed, and she sent him away, asking for him to "not interrupt and give us a minute."  I reflected that I must be giving her some idea that the students are not the main focus of my room.  I am NOT saying that students should not learn when to interrupt and when not to interrupt.  Trust that I spend a great deal of time working with them on that.  Truth was, she was not telling me some pressing information, and I really did want to attend to the child.  It reminded me that it is important for all adults to recognize the culture of our rooms and that the children are the reason we are there.

Same thing happens when my phone rings (either the vibration of my cell or my actual class phone).  I tell the students that THEY are the most important thing in the room, not the phone.  And I mean it.  Watson's points about being fully engaged with the kids are great reminders.

On p. 230, she admits to enjoying "having" to be at the copier, as it slows her down a bit and lets her have time to think.  I am like that at copiers, at store registers, and the like.  I enjoy things that make the world stop.

She ends the chapter with something that I realize I believe, but some teachers do not.  "Your work is important. Ultimately, whether someone else tells you that or not is irrelevant," p. 234.  Such truth.  I find that others who need our boss to acknowledge their importance are constantly scrambling for her acceptance, and, in the end, becoming colleagues we would rather not have.  We must believe in ourselves and our work.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Unshakeable: Chapters 13, 14, 15

Chapter 13: Build in periods of rest throughout your day

Before the start of the school year, I got a wicked case of plantar fasciitis, also known as something NO teacher should have.  It feels like you have rusty stakes in your heels as you walk.  I was not sitting down at all. I was working out and getting my room ready, averaging about 14K steps a day according to my Fit Bit.  That sounds reasonable to some, but not after a 5K/day summer.  Teaching with plantar fasciitis was almost unbearable.  I had to wrap my feet to do my job.  I'll repeat that one: I had to wrap my feet to do my job.  I don't know that others outside teaching understand its physical toll.  They'll say to me, "I work 12 hour days, too."  Oh, did you?  On your feet all day?  Because it is HELLA different at a desk.  When I say all day, I am including my lunch, which I was using as an additional prep.  I don't want sympathy, just acknowledgement that this is a job unlike others.  I believe a nurse might completely understand.

This chapter needed to be written, and I am glad Watson included it.  Every teacher knows that feeling when the admin pops in and you are sitting down or not enveloped in a fascinating lesson.  I had a parent walk in this week when I was sitting, and thought immediately of this chapter! I agree that permission is granted to sit.  Trust me, I have seen plenty of admins do it, too.

I liked the idea on p. 161 that, if you must sit, bring some of your "lovies" to a table with you.  In the rare cases when I must write an office discipline referral, it takes a while. There are also times when I must speak with colleagues, like the principal and the nurse.  I could be more mindful of sitting at these occasions, too.

Great ideas abound on p. 162.  I can't stress enough her "comfortable shoes" suggestion.  After having surgery to fix my foot after 10 years of teaching, I had to give up the heels and trendy shoes.  I also miss having a mic.  When I had a hearing impaired student, I had a mic, and it was a huge bonus.  Reading this made me think of researching for a cheap mic.  The culture of the students I teach can sometimes be loud, and a mic would help a great deal.  This one looks like an option.  I just ordered it, so I'll let you know!

Chapter 14: Construct a self-running classroom that frees you to teach

This chapter reminded me of this article I read about a decade ago during math training entitled, Never Say Anything a Kid Can Say.  I was also reminded of my NGSS training this summer in which we we were shown and reinforced the importance of using Talk Moves. I am constantly being reminded that the less talk I present to the students, the more thinking they do.  It comes down to what Watson says on p. 179, "Don't steal the struggle."

I am a huge fan of routines.  This is fortunate since I am the mom of two boys with ASD.  Routines keep us sane at home.  It is the same in the classroom. At the start of the chapter, I kept thinking how good these suggestions were universally, but how imperative they are for students with special needs.  Routines help students with special needs merge into a general education setting so much better than chaos.

The Ask 3 Before Me reminded me of my student teaching, where I had my very first complaint to the principal from a parent (yessssss, those who know me are laughing aloud).  Yup.  Student teaching.  A kiddo went home and told his mom I would not answer his questions.  Basically, he did not want to ask his peers, and the little sucker went home and asked Mom who asked, Why do you not ask your teacher?  See where that went?  I thought I was being empowering!  I thought I was making him think!  Oh yeah, I was making him think all right.  I was making him decide how to manipulate adults to get what he wanted.  Go me!  It is imperative that we explain to students (and parents?  and administration? and co-teachers/aides?) why we are doing these classroom management techniques so that there isn't intentional and unintentional undermining of our fantastic strategies.

The last thing I was made conscious of in this chapter was the ever-present teacher question, Does that make sense? Do we ever really give students time to think when we ask that? Sometimes we ask while they are processing, so they have no idea what to answer.  Other times, they ask us just to get us to stop talking.  I think that question might be recycled by Plato.

Chapter 15: Motivate students to take charge of their learning

If there's anything that I would say is close to my "vision" for teaching, it is placing learning in the hands of (sometimes resistant) students.  I have been having a hard time with the idea of student-led conferences, which I once loved, for the sheer time involved.  I wish that the system would acknowledge that, to do conferences well, using the word they love, "integrity," we need more than one day.  I do not shy from putting in extra time.  Far from it!  I just get agitated when the time something should take is underestimated by those who control scheduling.  I just wasted a week on conferences that I did not need.  I needed more time in October, but there is an insistence on having a day in February as well.

So, I shall focus on what is in my circle of control now that I got that out of my system.  I can say that I try in my everyday to hand things over to the kiddos whenever I can.  This chapter was a good reminder to persevere.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Unshakeable: Chapters 10, 11, 12

Chapter 10: Uncover the compelling reason for every lesson you teach

I find this easier to do with the younger students.  I have only ever taught one high school course, but I do recall there was a syllabus and there were things that were on common exams.  It did not matter whether they wanted to or not, or whether they knew why, the students HAD to know the material.  The better you know the curriculum (I only taught that class one year), the better you can facilitate a "why" conversation.  I pulled the "why" into the class conversations that year when I could.  Perhaps if I had taught it for more than that year, I could have gotten better at this.

I have disdain for our reasoning ever being "because you will need it for..." [insert class, or grade].  It might be true that you need your math facts for future algebraic pursuits, but you could also use them to figure out if you have enough money at a store or if you got the appropriate change back when paying a clerk.  I have always appreciated a bigger picture, although I KNOW I have probably said students will need something for future school endeavors.  It is my last resort.

On page 128, Watson states, "When we truly believe in the purpose of an activity, we enjoy teaching more and do it with greater effectiveness." I can't tell you how many times I have had that conversation.  I recall when CCSS rolled in, administrators/consultants were saying that some teachers would have to give up their preferred units because they did not fit the grade level anymore.  I thought to myself...why?  Why would you ask someone who is teaching their own "passion project" to give that up?  Kids know when we love something.  My teaching partner loves Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli.  I do not love it.  If he loves it, he teaches it well.  If I hate it, I teach it poorly.  We have to allow for teachers to be human--to be great at some things, and not-so-great at others.

I appreciated Watson's shout out to metacognition in this chapter as well.  Get the students thinking about why they are thinking.  Amen, sister.

My greatest takeaway from this chapter was on page 129 when Krissy Venosdale was quoted, "Posting a target before teaching a lesson is like announcing what a gift is before it's opened.  Post a question.  Bring curiosity and thinking back to the classroom!"  Sounds like a good change in the Plato Teaching Evolution Timeline!

Chapter 11: Create curriculum "bright spots" you can't wait to teach

This chapter was mentally exhausting.  I get what she was saying.  But, man.  Talk about work.  Yes, when you get lessons that are terrific, you can reuse them.  And yes, I try to be a pretty exciting teacher.  But 4 different subjects (if you count ELA as one big area) and millions of targets make it hard to have a ton of "bright spots."  But I hear her.  The subtitle for this book was "ways to enjoy teaching every day.."  Watson did not promise these would all be easy or effortless.

I appreciate her delineation of 21st Century Skills to include: Life and Career Skills; Information, Media, and Technology Skills; and Learning and Innovation Skills (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity). I am not sure I have heard them specified in this way before.

I like the idea of creating daily bright spots.  For example, on Thursdays, I co-teach social skills lessons with a colleague.  I look forward to that every week, because she lead teaches and does a marvelous job, and we get to discuss skills that are relevant to our kids and their future (and current)  success.  

Chapter 12: Incorporate playfulness and have fun with learning

Did anyone else read this chapter and have this picture in their heads?

Fo shizzle, Ms. Frizzle.

I really do have a great time when I teach (most days), mainly because I am a nutcase.  I am not sure I could work with adults all day after spending 25 years being a goofball with children.  On page 149, Watson mentions the risk of looking like an idiot.  If you have any intention of having a long career in grades 4-8, you better embrace that risk.  Students frequently look at us (and many times laugh at us) as if we have lost our minds.  Good times.

A shout out to KLew.  You know I thought of you and Jayme when she wrote about integrating music!  Every time I teach the Northeast in Social Studies, I burst out into Alicia Keys and JayZ's Empire State of Mind.  You're welcome.  It stays in my head for days.

We definitely have dance and movement breaks in my room.  I am intentional with them, as we have a really long morning.

Transform yourself into a different character and use different accents made me think of my buddy Maureen who pulls out her Irish accent, or when I pull out East Coast JoLynn on my babies.  We have a lot of fun with that. Humor is most definitely celebrated in my room.

I will say this chapter touches upon some things I don't think are comfortable for everyone at every grade level.  It made me laugh when she mentioned puppets.  Sometimes, when I am feeling my class is not listening, I will create two little puppets with my hands and have them talking to each other about, "Why Mrs. Plato is talking when no one seems to be listening?"  I keep up this skit until I have a room full of curious, partially scared, it looks pretty nuts when I am doing it.  I get my point across (and I chuckle to myself as well).  Success!

There was another day I remembered when I read this chapter that went SUPER well.  There was a student in sixth grade who just would not be quiet.  So, I decided that I would proclaim that day Aaron day.  I made a sign with his picture and wore it around my neck as a necklace that read, "It's all about Aaron!"  I also included a heart on my sign so he knew I was being playful and not a raving bi&%#@.  The other kids thought it was so funny that they wanted their own days as well.  This child is an adult now, but I still remember how humor saved my sanity, his self-esteem, and, well...that day.