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.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Unshakeable, Chapter 7, 8, 9

Chapter 7: Do your part to create a positive school culture

Ah, my love language.  School culture.  It is so critically important.  I recall reading about school culture in my grad classes and getting fully behind how critical it is that we cultivate a comfortable place for working and learning.

For some of the administrators for whom I have worked, cultivating school culture has been low on the priority list.  For others, it was higher on the list, but there was little understanding of how to ferment the necessary elements.  I agree with Watson that teachers often need to make this happen themselves.  It is possible, because it happens with my colleagues.

When you teach students with abundant, intensive needs, you can get pretty emotionally beaten up. I understand when Watson said, "You have the right to seek out other teaching opportunities..." but in reality, that might not be a viable option.  I have tried. When in your 40s, it becomes harder, as you make a great deal of money for the profession, and some positions require a large pay cut. If you have taught for a district for a long time, some administrators are not willing to take you on, particularly if you are a strong leader and threaten their sense of leadership and self-worth. Politics abound. Going outside the profession is also hard, as other options see a teacher's skills in only one particular way, and do not see the skills can carry over in other ways.  I have had several teaching positions in my career. However, that seems to be stagnating.  Lucky for me, I am pretty happy where I am.

I agree with Watson that the teachers can take charge of school culture. My colleagues have "Pig Out" once a month, which involves an all-day grazing fest.  We have also instituted an "I Noticed board," as well as writing notes of encouragement to each other.  We have a "Pride" committee that does something special for the staff each month.  I try to give verbal compliments, or at least a pleasant smile and conversation, to colleagues whenever I can.  A smile and "good morning" to the custodian who has been there since 5 AM clearing snow off the sidewalks goes a long way.  So, with that part of the chapter, I felt a great deal of validation.

The first part of the chapter that discussed conversations served as reflection.  I think I am involved in all kinds of conversations.  I will say, when I cannot supersede constant negativity, work seems like a chore, and it's harder to be happy about teaching.  On page 95, Watson mentions being "mentally and emotionally on guard around negative colleagues, especially if they have a tendency to blindside you with hurtful comments...Keep negative co-workers at arm's length and don't value their opinions enough to allow them to hurt your feelings."  Not sure if my feelings get hurt or if they just piss me off.  But I know of what she speaks!

Chapter 8: Take charge of your own professional development

This chapter was preaching to the choir.  I love good PD, and I seek it out often, especially in areas where I feel I need some development.  Watson makes a good point that we must be in charge of our prof dev. "If you don't take the initiative to increase your teaching motivation, who will?"  Amen.  Two Master's degrees and NBPTS certs later, I have a clear prof dev addiction.

Teachers always seem annoyed at SIP days planned by others, as they typically miss the mark for what is needed.  Truth is, each person has a different need.  I have a dream SIP day that involves teachers choosing their own paths and proposing how they will spend their day.  Not just having workshops available, but truly letting everyone propose their day.  Who knows?  Maybe I should propose that?

I appreciate how she included social media as a way to develop professionally.  I have definitely seen Pinterest as a "player" in this movement.  I have found some fantastic ideas there, and I use it for business and pleasure.

Chapter 9: Let your vision define your value and measure of success

This chapter really made me think.  A vision is definitely an important thing to have.  I kept asking myself, "What IS your vision in 2016?"  I think it has changed over the last 25 years.

Several years ago when school choice was in full swing, I read an e-mail from my superintendent regarding the schools that had to offer "choice" to their parents.  Mine was one of them.  There is no way to explain how degrading that felt to our staff, particularly to me. What added insult to injury was that he noted that the district would do everything they could for the schools that were getting the additional students.  That actually caused tears, and I am not a crier.  Despite the fact that I knew we were being placed in an unwinnable situation--that standardized testing was never going to show the successes in our school-- it was such deep and public humiliation for our teachers, for our kids, and for me.  Logic was not winning over emotion.  Clearly, trying to meet the unattainable goals of ESEA ("No Child Left Behind") took over any reasonable vision I should have had at the time. Watson indicates a truth on p. 121 that I learned the hard way: "You cannot allow other people's actions to determine whether you feel good about your work, and recognition cannot be your primary motivation for working hard."

On p. 119, Watson shares the thoughts of a teacher in Milwaukee: "If I don't do my job, I'm sentencing these kids to either a prison sentence or a death sentence. Without an education, most of them have no hope of a better future. That knowledge is what drives us to do what we do.  It's about the vision." This is true of the situation in which I currently teach.

I appreciated her idea of having an articulated class vision. That can definitely anchor much of the conversations we have as a class.  I envision cutting it in vinyl and posting it on our whiteboard so we can see it. I like having the students play an active part in creating the vision.  We have a school code, yet it remains vague and forced on the students. This will definitely be part of my professional reflections in the coming months.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Unshakeable, Chapters 5 and 6

Chapter 5 Go the extra mile for families (but don't take forever to get there)

I know I was inadequately prepared for dealing with parents.  I began my teaching career in 1991, and I believe this was when the parenting shift was in full force.  Perhaps you have seen this cartoon?

I was more prepared for parents that acted the way I was raised.  If I got in trouble at school, I got in trouble at home.  It was my responsibility to get the best grades I was able, and it was my fault if I did not.  If I was going to be in activities, that was fine, as long as my grades did not suffer.  Then, something had to go.  Man, that pendulum has swung!  

I recall drafting a letter of resignation through tears in 1997 when I was about nine months pregnant.  The parents that year were ruthless.  I had been hailed by them when I taught their kids in sixth grade, and crucified (pardon the pun...Catholic school) by them when I taught the same students in seventh.  They were very social, so I knew their social gatherings had a moment or two of ripping me apart.  I was in my sixth year of teaching, five of which occurred at that school.  They were relentless.  They did not care why I was doing what I was doing, only that their children were not getting As.  And they made that very clear. Looking back, I was young and did not handle the situation the way I would have now.  But I truly believe they would not have picked the battle now.  I mean, one of them wrote me a scathing note the day I was to leave to have my baby.  Seriously.  I can't make this stuff up.  Luckily, I had a very supportive principal and great colleagues who told me standing firm was worth it. I am much stronger now in a lot of ways.

I always hold students to high levels. I realize that some of them can/will reach them, and some of them won't.  If it's a true learning disability that keeps them from achievement, I am in constant contact with their caseworkers to be sure I am accommodating their needs and modifying when appropriate. However, I learned something too late for my 27 year old self to benefit.  For a teacher to be successful with parents, you MUST LISTEN with empathy.  My younger self was listening to try to win them over to my point of view.  That is not what they were looking for.  I have learned to listen, to validate, to clarify, and to thank.  I have learned that a smile and pleasant tone will always help.  I have learned that you can talk an irate parent into being calmer, but you MUST LISTEN first. This mantra has served me well for years. 

I agree with many of Watson's points in this chapter.  Getting parents on your side, creating two-way communication (NBCTs unite!), being sensitive to the cultures which you are teaching, and taking the offense instead of the defense are all great, effective strategies.  Making parents your allies, your partners, takes solid commitment, and the time spent early in the year is worth it.

In my current employment, it is hard to get parents invested on the school end of things.  Some were not successful themselves, some do not want to hear bad things, some truly do not have time due to work schedules, and still others are dealing with abuse situations...substance, domestic, emotional...and are in crisis.  School is the least of their priorities.  Understanding that and loving on their children is vital.

Chapter 6 Learn to say "no" without guilt and make your "yes" really count

Oh my goodness. This chapter is so tough.  When you are a young, non-tenured teacher, you think you must say yes to everything and make a good impression.  We call it being "voluntold" when an admin comes to a newer teacher asking them to lead something or be active in something. You definitely do not feel like "no" is an option in those situations. You get into the "yes" habit, and saying "no" becomes very hard.  

One thing that struck me as interesting in this chapter was the idea of parents signing that they have read and agree to your policies.  Well, Angela, what if they don't agree?  For example, my son's high school had a late work policy I abhorred.  If something was late, the highest grade possible was a 50%.  Man, I cannot tell you how much that policy, and its effects, made me want to scream. I wonder if she offers parents an option that they read the policies, but disagree with some of them.

I liked her point on page 82, "Your job is not to treat everyone equally, but to treat them equitably," meaning some parents will require more of your time and resources than others for very good reasons.  We must differentiate our time use with parents similarly to how we differentiate instruction.

Watson's suggestions to soften the blow of "no" are really good.  In fact, the "I can't say yes" option on p. 88-89 is one I plan to try Monday with one of my students who gets irate when "no" is said.  She wraps up the chapter with a point it took me years to realize: 

When you start to feel guilty about saying no, remember what you have effectively said yes to. Saying no to a colleague means saying yes to time for relaxing that evening.  Saying no to a student's parent means saying yes to time with your own children. 

Unshakeable, Chapter 4: "...the kids are the most important thing..."

I decided to break my posts up for this week's reading, especially after reading Chapter 4.  This chapter is one I wish I had many years earlier in my career.  The title: Determine how to do what matters most and let go of the rest.

When in college, I had a vague idea of how to do "academic" lesson plans. I believe there is a place for these plans, but it was not made clear that I was not going to be able to sustain my well-being if I planned every lesson this intensely. A teacher can definitely think in this manner, but writing it all out takes an enormous amount of time in one's week.

What we did not discuss was prioritizing, which is the theme of this chapter. I believe it might be the early destruction of too many teaching careers.  I hope it's being addressed better now, but I doubt it.  As I am embarking on another student teacher's journey, this chapter reminded me that this is a topic I must address.

I see teaching as a marathon that one never finishes. I used to think there should be a feeling of being finished. Early in my career, it was not unusual for me to pull all-nighters in an attempt to get everything done. The last time I did so, three months later I was looking at a home pregnancy test and panicked as to the idea of not caring for my physical health at his earliest stages of development.  Luckily, that baby boy is in college, but it was a wake up call that this craziness had to stop.

Watson recommends a prioritized to-do list.  Some of what she mentioned reminds me of Seven Habits training, especially the subheading, Urgent and important aren't always the same.  It reminded me of the four quadrants Covey uses in Habit 3. That book was a game changer for me, and probably saved my life when I read it. Theme: not everything is of equal importance.

I find writing down my tasks to be very important. I am at my best when I write them on Post-Its or cute note paper and toss the Post-Its when I have completed all that is necessary. There's something about physically throwing them way that assists in the great feeling of getting them done.  Plus, Post-Its are mobile.  If something is an urgent action (as in something that must be done at the end of the day before the students leave), my colleague and friend, Maureen, places the Post-Its on her door so she can see them as she leaves her room.

I like the question Watson recommends to ask: What would happen if I didn't do this task?  I have a task on my list that I have placed lower in priority that is now gaining importance on my list because it is time-bound in nature. I have said to myself all week, "You don't need to do this now."  However, this weekend, it is top priority. Pushing it lower allowed me to get a great deal done that needed to be done.

Her recommendation about grouping similar tasks together is an interesting one.  I think there is a limit to that.  I used to be mainly an ELA teacher.  Grading a group of student writing at one time was NEVER mentally acceptable for me.  In fact, it drove me nuts.  I did not feel I was fairly grading student papers when I kept pushing through just to get the task done.  So, I think this depends on the task one is considering.

Watson makes a great suggestion when she discusses celebrating accomplishments.  When she said, "Celebrate yourself the same way you'd celebrate a student who persevered through a dreaded task..." I immediately thought of how many times a week I do that very thing for kids.  I must start doing it for myself!

I agree with Watson 100% when she states, "...the kids are the most important thing, and the work is secondary."  Ultimately, I don't care of my room is decked out like an apartment or if a bulletin board is in seemingly urgent need of being changed.  I need to be sure I do what is needed for the teaching of the students FIRST.  The rest is icing.