Reflections on the Death of Robin Williams: When Our Students Are Sad

The death of Robin Williams this week has shocked the world, and for those of us Generation Y-ers, has left us mourning the man who filled our childhoods with laughter.  This tragedy, somewhat not surprisingly, has brought forth great discussion on the subject of suicide and mental illness.  Although it was known that Williams had a history of depression and addiction, it is still hard for many of us to believe that a man appearing to have so much fun could also be battling such demons.  The truth is, most of us do not understand depression and would not be able to easily identify or support someone who is battling the disease.  

As a teacher, I certainly do not have the ability or knowledge to assess or treat one’s mental health, and I feel blessed that I am fortunate to work with an amazing counseling staff who are able to support the needs of the students at my school.  I know that any concern I have about my students will be treated with great care and sensitivity, and that my students will get any help they need.  I was shocked (and clearly naive) when I was at a recent conference to hear that there were schools who just received their first counselor or employed one counselor for a population of thousands.  Upon further research, I was even more surprised to realize that nearly half of the states in this country do not mandate counselors in schools, and even those that do have extremely high counselor-student ratios.   Considering the high rates the CDC reports of students who have considered or attempted suicide, this needs to change and change fast.

Not only must we increase the number and importance of counselors in schools, but faculty, staff, and anyone working with the child need to be trained on the signs and symptoms of depression and the warning signs of suicide.  We need to talk about the difference between what might be considered “normal” behavior for a teenager and what needs to be reported.  We must encourage teachers to trust instinct and provide them with information on what to do when a student confides in them. We must constantly remind them that often the best way we can help a student having difficulty is to report the information, even when the student doesn’t want us to. 

Most importantly, as many people are pleading over social media right now, we must talk about depression and acknowledge the realness of the disease and the pain it often brings when left untreated, and even when treated.  We need to get rid of the stigma.  We need to talk openly about what it means to have mental illness and acknowledge that mental illness exists for kids.  We need to take our students’ emotions seriously. We need to let students see that a visit to the counselor’s office is not punishment.  We need to respect the role of our counselors and listen to their wisdom.  We need to stop eye rolling when we are told that a student is depressed, anxious, or going through a difficult time.  We need to remember that a student’s mental health has a significant impact on his ability to learn.  We need to treat our students with mental health issues with the same care, concern, and respect as we do to those suffering from physical health issues.  We need to continue the conversation even when the novelty of a celebrity death fades.  We need to face reality. 

I am a firm believer that with every tragedy, there is also hope.  My hope is that the tragic death of a man who brought smiles to so many faces will also serve to better the lives of those suffering from a similar disease, especially for our children dealing with sadness.

10 Learnings in a Decade of Teachings

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds

10 Years.  10 YEARS!  It’s amazing to think that I’ve been teaching for a decade.  When I think back to the naive 22 year old I was when I embarked on my teaching career, I chuckle.  10 years of working with middle schoolers certainly will give you some perspective.  It will also allow you the opportunity to learn a few things.

  1. Listen more; talk less.  At the beginning of my career, I was that teacher.  You know, the one fresh out of one of the best schools of ed in the country, who had four months experience as a practicum teacher, who knew absolutely everything about teaching and wanted to share that knowledge with all of her colleagues.  Yup, that one. Gosh, I must have been annoying.   Sure, I had a good background in “pedagogy,” but to think I knew everything was rather silly of me.  I quickly realized that people get very tired very quickly of hearing someone on a soapbox or worse – a know-it-all.  As I’ve grown as a teacher, I’ve worked hard to listen more – especially to experienced teachers – and talk less.  I have realized I don’t know everything about teaching and never will.  When I do speak, I rely on both my own knowledge and experience to guide me.  And what I’ve learned, people are often more likely to listen to your ideas when they don’t hear your voice all the time.
  2. Be wary of fads and companies trying to make a buck.  I’ll admit it.  This has happened to me a couple of times.  That amazing online writing program the publishing company is marketing?  Tried it.  Ended up hating it.  Apps that really have no educational merit but look really cool and are marketed at an edtech conference?  Yup, downloaded those too.  Through the years, I’ve learned there are a lot of people making a lot of money in the world of education. That does not mean that what they are trying to sell you is actually worthwhile.  My advice: always try something first before committing to it.  Really think about whether or not the tool or book or program will benefit your students and is not gimmicky.  Consider all the possible negatives or problems before latching on.  If it really is something that will make a difference for students, go for it.  Just be wary: many tools that look great on paper are quite ugly in the classroom.  And if you have doubts, trust them, or else it could be a very expensive mistake.
  3. Learn what works for you.  I’ll admit it – I am not a fan of the smart board; to me, it is an expensive overhead projector.  Yes, I know that it is a powerful tool for some educators, but it just doesn’t work for me.  I find it clunky and time consuming and have not found a lot of great uses for it in my classroom.  Although I have given it a try and still consider how it might be useful in my class and will use it if it makes sense, I’m okay with not being a smart board user.  I know some people might not agree with my approach, who believe if I have access to this expensive tool that I should transform my teaching to make it fit in – after all this is the 21st century! Expensive technology does not equal learning, however, something my experience has shown me. And I would much rather use techniques and strategies that I know will benefit my students than something flashy and expensive just because it is flashy and expensive.
  4. Sarcasm is not my friend. This is one I’m still working on.  My natural defense mechanism is to be sarcastic, always has been.  When my middle school students drive me a little batty (as middle school students are often prone to do), I have been known to respond in sarcastic, sometimes even biting ways.  This was especially true early on in my career when I didn’t really know how to handle the talking out or talking back.  I have since realized that firm looks, quiet re-directions, and talkings to about disappointment after class get the job done far better.  It’s not always easy to refrain from the sarcasm and it does slip in – sometimes the middlers really do bring it out in me – but I at least have learned that it isn’t going to get me very far.
  5. Risk failure. I want my students to take risks, to challenge themselves, to even fail from time to time.  As a teacher, I have learned that in order to get my students to do this, I have to model it for them.  I love to try new things and tell them why I am doing it.  Although I don’t love making mistakes in front of my students – who likes to be publicly reminded that they mixed up their and there on the board again! – I realize that by doing so, I am giving them the permission to do so as well.  When a lesson or idea I have fails, I’ll talk about it with them and together we can often find a way to improve it.  I am an educator who believes that I constantly need to be thinking about ways to better my teaching but doing so implies trying things that may not work.  And that’s ok.  Especially because those mistakes often lead to something even more amazing.
  6. Boston College was right to drive home reflection.  When I was an education student at BC, it seemed like all we did was reflect.  Written self-reflection was required after every lesson taught during our practicum.  As a student teacher, I really didn’t grasp the reasoning behind doing what we did, and honestly found it quite annoying.  Now that I’ve been teaching for awhile, I realize how important it is to self-assess what I am doing each day and each year.  Yes, failure is inevitable and mistakes will happen, but that doesn’t mean I want them to happen twice.  Taking the time to actually think about what is and isn’t working allows me to better my practice from day to day and year to year.  No one will ever get better if they don’t stop and take the time to think about what better might actually be.  So thanks BC, for teaching me that and for helping me become better each year.
  7. Respect is so much more important than being liked.  When I started my teaching career, I really wanted my students to like me.  I wanted to be that teacher – the stylish, hilarious, “cool” one that they would remember for the rest of their lives.  I wanted to be the teacher that everyone loved.  You know, the one from the movies! This didn’t get me very far.  Kids won’t always like you.  No matter what, there’s always that one or two students in the room who really don’t get you, who find you incredibly annoying, or worse nuts.  What I’ve realized in the past ten years however is that though it is great to be liked and it sure can help some in the classroom, being respected is far more important.  If my students don’t respect me, don’t see that I am there to challenge them, don’t value my role in the classroom, aren’t their best person in my room then their like for me means nothing.  When a student respects you regardless of their personal opinion of you, when they see that your role is to guide them and to never give up on them, that you are fair and hold everyone accountable and to high standards, they will work for you and they will grow.
  8. With that being said, be likable, be real, and get to know your students.  No, I’m not contradicting myself.  I would rather be respected than liked.  But, I also teach middle school students.  When they like you, life is MUCH easier.  I love to joke around with students and have a good time in class.  I also will talk to students (without oversharing) about my own life.  Kids need to see that you are a person who has good days and bad days and has a life outside of school.  They need to know that you are real.  I also want my students to see that I really, genuinely enjoy what I do and that, something bewildering to my elementary and high school colleagues, I love teaching middle school.  I work hard to get to know each one of my students, to know how many siblings they have, what their favorite activities are, who’s acting in the play, when their teams are playing after school.  Getting involved in the lives of your students helps build the respect I previously talked about and it ensures that students don’t just see you as someone who deals with them for fifty minutes a day but as someone who is invested in the persons they are to become.
  9. Plan, Plan, Plan. We’ve all been there.  You waited until the last minute to create the test, and it’s two minutes before class starts.  You head to the copy machine knowing you are going to be a few minutes late but thinking of it as an extra study gift to your students and then you see the sign.  “Copier will be down until Monday.” Yup, nothing better than Murphy’s Law coming through once again.  Whether it’s photocopying ahead of time, planning thorough lessons, or using templates to create units, one thing I’ve realized about teaching is that the more I am planned, the better the results.  Sure, I’ve had a couple of great off the cuff lessons and being willing to change things up at the drop of a hat is also an essential skill, but solid planning leads to more successful teaching.  Most importantly, being pro-active is a must.  Thinking about what could possibly go wrong and actively trying to prevent it saves time, aggravation, and energy – three essentials for a middle school teacher.
  10. Teaching is hard and exhausting. I won’t pretend I didn’t know this as a new graduate, but I guess I thought it would at some point get easier and less tiring.  Truth is though, teaching will always be hard work. Sure certain things have gotten easier –  I am more control of what I am doing in the classroom, and I have a better sense of what things will work and what won’t –  but it’s still hard.  Every day is a different day.  Every week brings a different challenge.  Every year brings a different way for middle school students to get in trouble.  It’s exhausting, it’s trying, it’s emotional, it’s sometimes even heartbreaking.  And I wouldn’t change it for a bit.

Here’s to the next decade!

The Power of Student Blogging: A Simple Reflection

My 8th grade students recently finished editorials.  Throughout the process, I had told them that these editorials would also serve as their first posts on our class blog.  After multiple drafts and a great deal of effort, students have begun to excitedly post their work, eager for feedback.  Today,  I had students reflect on what they learned about their writing process from the assignment.  If people still wonder whether or not their students should be blogging, I offer this comment from a student’s reflection:

“At times in my writing, I felt like giving up, but then I’d remember we were posting on our blogs and I became excited.”

The writing got hard, but she persisted.  Why? She knew her voice would be heard.  The power of an audience of many.

Student Choice Doubters – Read On.

There always seems to be debate amongst educators regarding how much choice students should have in their own education.  And although there has been plenty of research done by both psychologists and educators regarding how important choice to both  learning and motivation – Thank you, Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink! – there still remains doubters.  I’d thought I’d share three stories that have occurred to me recently that made me once again appreciate how important choice is not only for students but also for their teachers.

  •  An “Un-conference”:  I am a member of my school’s vision steering committee and one of our main purposes is to help plan and offer faculty professional development that will both inspire and move us forward as we delve deeper into PBL and begin using a block schedule.  Knowing that in the past, teachers have had little, if any, say in what would happen on these days, our committee thought we would shake it up a bit by using the un-conference model. An un-conference, as its name suggests, is not a typical PD experience.  Instead of having pre-determined sessions and speakers, the day is created by those in attendance.  Individuals share topics of interest  and the schedule is created from this list of ideas.  (My colleague Dana Huff gives a great overview of our process on her blog if you are interested in how we ran this.)  In a nutshell, our faculty members had a significant amount of choice what types of sessions they would partake in. As a result, people seemed genuinely more engaged in the process, those who tend to be more reluctant to participate had strong voices, and I can speak from personal experience to say that I found it energizing and inspiring to discuss ideas that I found important with colleagues who felt the same way.  My discussions would also immediately have an impact on my teaching.  Most of us as teachers have sat through uninspiring PD.  Many of us may have only gotten through these experiences by checking email or playing Words with Friends.   Neither helps our students.  What does help?  Giving faculty members some choice over their own growth and trusting that what they will choose will be worth it.
  • Adopting independent reading: I had the privilege to participate in a week-long internship at The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a school in Maine founded by Nancie Atwell, where I observed how to run a reading and writing workshop.  One of Atwell’s philosophies that is evident throughout the school and in any of her writing is the importance of choice in both reading and writing.  Students at the school have almost complete authority in choosing what they read.  In the middle school, where I spent most of my time, there are no class reads; reading skills are developed primarily through choice books and reading conferences.  At first I challenged this idea as I do see the value in having an entire class read the same book and think the discussion that results from doing so is important, I quickly changed my viewpoint.  The students there were incredibly well-spoken, had astounding analytical ability, and most importantly, loved reading.  And though I will not be giving up my class reads, I very quickly realized that I had to figure out how to also get my students to read books of their own choosing.  Though I had always encouraged my students to read on their own, I never required it, and their reading was dwindling. Using the CTL model, I  now expect my students to read for 20 minutes each night in addition to the 45 minute period we spend reading and conferencing in class once a week.  The catch?  They could only read books they found enjoyable.  Although at first some students balked at the idea, proclaiming that 20 minutes every day was far too much, it has not taken long to completely win them over.  My proof occurred this Tuesday, our first day back from a long winter break. As I walked up the stairs to my class, I realized my students were already present, so I got ready to settle them down, expecting them to all be conversing about their time off. Imagine my surprise when I see every student in the class frantically recording all the books they read over winter break into their reading log, proud of their achievement and eager to share their accomplishments. Not only did this happen in my first class but also my second.  Every student, even my most reluctant readers, finished at least one book.  One student finished as many as eight.  Books ranged from the latest John Green to a Tom Clancy thriller to Animal Farm.  Not only are they choosing books that are enjoyable but they are also picking ones with high literary merit.  During our combined reading workshop the following day, 10 of my students presented book talks; it is obvious they are starting to love reading and are not afraid to show it.  Their vocabulary is improving.  Their writing is getting stronger.  Their understanding of what makes something a valuable piece of literature is developing.  It is hard for me not to beam with pride.  I’m finally achieving what I sought out to do when I decided to become an English teacher: share my love of reading with my students and help build theirs.  I don’t for one second think this would have happened if I told my students exactly what book they had to read over vacation.
  • Allowing student choice in writing:  I have always been a firm believer in allowing students as much choice as possible in their writing.  I have had my students blog every year for the past six years and typically allow them to blog about any topic of their choice as long as it remains school appropriate.  In doing so, I am often amazed at what actually interests them, how they see the world, and how much better they voice their opinions and put together an argument when the topic matters.  In the past few weeks, my students have written editorials on topics of their choice which have ranged from the Richie Incognito scandal to gay marriage to child labor.  I was a little nervous when one of my students decided that she was going to defend Miley Cyrus – really, how can you defend her, I asked – but I was glad I let her go with it.  Her final product argued that although what Miley was doing at the MTV Video Music Awards wasn’t great, the focus was completely on Miley and not on her “twerking” partner Robin Thicke. She went on to discuss double standards and maintained that the focus should be on the demeaning nature of Thicke’s song, which many believe is about rape.  Many people might fear, and I’ll acknowledge I did a bit, that when an 8th grader decides to defend Miley Cyrus that their argument will be immature and lack substance.   This was not the case here.  I gave this student expectations regarding the assignment and she surpassed them. And because she was writing about a topic that mattered to her, her voice was strong and her writing sound.  Amazing.

What prevents us from allowing people to choose their own paths?  Trust.  When we tell people how to act or what to do, it is because we assume that they are not able to figure that out for themselves or that they are going to make the wrong decision.  They might not choose the best workshop or pick the best book or write something of substance.  They don’t know what’s best for them.  Therefore, we have to do it for them.

Now, I am not someone who believes that an 8th grader should determine every aspect of their academic career.  I, as a teacher, also know that I cannot control absolutely everything about my curriculum or job.  But I do realize how  important it is for me to have some choice in my learning process.  And how much more enthusiastic I am about the process when I do.   Honestly, my students are not that different.

A Must Read: A Letter to my Students

Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden

Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden

Dear Students,

Recently, I’ve asked you to read for at least 20 minutes a night, and not just any type of reading, but books, preferably fiction – novels.  Some of you have balked at this, rolled your eyes, sighed heavily, screamed bloody murder, and likely cussed me out behind my back.  None of this bothers me, by the way.  But I did feel like I should explain to you not just why this is so important to me but why it is so important for you.

I initially thought I’d overwhelm you with all the statistics that back up my point.  I’d share some of the research that proves the amount of pleasure reading done in the past 10 – 15 years has dropped significantly, directly impacting college readiness. I’d cite the information from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide that: “Reading for sustained amounts of time is essential for building the parts of your brain that think deeply” and discuss how online reading does not build these skills.

But then I thought to myself – you won’t care about the research.  That won’t make you listen.  You’d just think you’re the outlier – that this doesn’t apply to you.

So I knew I had to take a different approach. I knew I had to somehow show you the power a book can have, how 250 pages could, quite literally, change your life.  And then, as I was sitting watching talk shows with my grandmother, it hit me…Still Alice.

About five years ago, I picked up a novel at Barnes and Noble with this title. Now I’ll be honest, I initially picked up the book because it was on the buy three books get one free table, and I was short one.  Little did I know how consumed with the book I would become and how, five years later, it would constantly be on my mind.

In her early 50s, Alice Howland, a brilliant Harvard professor, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease – a quick-moving, insidious condition.  Alice goes through her daily life knowing that her memories are dying, knowing that she will not get to see the milestones of her family, and knowing that she may have passed on this horrific gene to her children.  This is Alice’s story told from Alice’s perspective.  It is her struggle to live, and it is heartbreaking.

Never have I been so connected to a character in all my life.  I felt what Alice was feeling; I laughed with her, and I cried with and for her.  It didn’t matter that I had never directly known anyone with Alzheimer’s.  The story was so heart wrenching and the character so vivid that it was impossible to finish without feeling like I was losing a friend.   In fact, I was so moved by the story that I actually remember posting on Facebook that everyone must read this book.  Yes, this is what English teachers sometimes post on Facebook, although it was the only time I ever did.

As many of you know, my grandmother was recently diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease and she has begun to lose her memory.   Like Alice at the beginning of her journey, my grandmother is still aware that something is amiss, yet she’s not completely gone.  She can’t understand why her memory fails her or why she cannot live the life she’s used to.  And although she remains good natured, I know that at times this is frightening for her, more frightening for her than for me.  I know this because of Alice Howland.

Alice’s struggle has helped me support my grandmother’s struggle, and ultimately my own. Alzheimer’s is a frustrating disease for all involved.  But when I find myself starting to get angry, or tired, or sad, I take a deep breath and remember Alice, what it was like for her, and what it may be like for my grandmother.  Sometimes I don’t feel like I picked up Still Alice off that Barnes and Nobles table.  Sometimes I think it picked me.

At the time, I had no idea what this novel would give me beyond a well-written story.  Sure, I could read loads of articles and message boards online about Alzheimer’s, and I do, but none will ever compare to Still Alice.  Alice gives me strength.

You see, novels don’t just build critical thinking skills; they allow you to fall in love and become friends with a character, help you see things from a different perspective, teach you about life in a way that an article cannot.  Novels can, as cliche as it sounds, touch your heart.  This novel, like many others, touched mine.

Will this happen with every book you read? Not likely.  But I can almost guarantee you it will happen with at least one.  Maybe you’ll remember Atticus Finch and Boo Radley when you need to be courageous.  Maybe thinking of Steve Harmon will help you make a better decision. Maybe reading Ishmael Beah’s story will ignite your passion.  Or maybe reading a book about a woman with Alzheimer’s will help you cope .

This, my dear students, is why you must not just read for 20 minutes, but must read stories…why you should try to find a book and a character that grabs your heartstrings and attaches to your soul.   This is why you MUST read.    Because, really, you’ll never know what book will pick you, until  you do.

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Growth Mindset and The Great Honor Roll “But”

As part of our advisory curriculum this year, I have been leading my advisees in conversations about the growth mindset and have been impressed by their candor and their willingness to reflect upon their own mindsets.  My students have acknowledged that it is often not easy for them to focus solely on the grade they receive.  Though  we talked about many reasons for this, one observation from an advisee really hit me:

“You say you want us to develop a growth mindset and that you value effort, but then the Headmaster’s list comes out, and no matter how hard I worked, if I don’t get A’s, I don’t make that list.”

I honestly did not know what to say to that, except that she was right.  Honor rolls often do not celebrate effort; they celebrate performance.  Sure, for many who achieve honor roll or headmaster’s list status, there are great amounts of effort put in to get there but do most of our students ever stop to realize or reflect on that?  Do their parents? When the newspaper publishes the names of students making the honor roll, is there ever an asterisk denoting the hard work that it took for the students to achieve this accomplishment?  And what will happen to that honor roll student next term if he struggles and doesn’t make the grade?  Will mom and dad then have to remove their bumper sticker?  Will they be less proud?

I am not necessarily arguing that there should be no honor rolls or that we should never take the time to celebrate achievement.  Although I have thought a lot about this, I honestly do not know how I feel about the matter yet.  What I do know is that we have to think about what messages we are sending our students.  What does it actually mean to achieve?  Is the student who puts in little effort all term but still manages to get straight A’s because of his innate ability more deserving of his name in the newspaper than the student who battles learning disabilities, works tirelessly, and truly grows but ends up with a C?  It’s a question that my advisee has definitely got me thinking about.

STRESS – Learning’s Mortal Enemy

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver

Stress: The Mortal Enemy to Learning

I’ve had a stressful summer.  I’ve dealt with knee surgery, a grandmother whom I’m very close to being diagnosed with dementia, moving, and coming a day away from putting one of my dogs to sleep (thankfully, I have a good vet).  The fact that all this happened in a one month span while I could do nothing but lay down and think about it meant that all I was doing was lying down and thinking about it.   The only thing I was thankfully not stressing over was work since – praise the Lord – it was summer.

John Medina’s 8th Brain Rule deals with STRESS.  We all have felt it.  We’ve all been impacted by it. Been exhausted from it.  Eaten ice cream because of it.  For some of us, the same stressors affect us differently, and it’s hard to predict just how an event will impact an individual.  What we can practically predict now though is just how much impact stress can have on the brain and on learning.  Stress – the bad, ongoing, terrible, uncontrollable kind – is not a friend to the brain.  It affects cognition, memory, and attention – basically anything you hope to foster in school.  And it’s not like you can go stress free when you are not in the stressful environment.  As Medina says, the brain doesn’t work that way.  If kids are stressed at home, then they are stressed at school, and vice versa.  It’s the same for adults.  Good thing I wasn’t working.

I know that what I was going through might not seem very stressful to many people, and at times I felt somewhat guilty for feeling so badly when people in the world are “actually suffering.”  But the truth was – these things were stressful for me, and, as we sometimes quickly forget, however minor or major something might seem to you does not mean someone else will have the same reaction.   I know this from the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon.  Most of my students watched the gruesome coverage on television; some of them were near where the bombs went off.  Needless to say, a few were quite stressed by the happenings.  But they didn’t all have the same reaction.  The majority were fine while a few needed to be supported to overcome their anxiety.  The reaction was exactly what would likely be expected from an event such as this.   What was unusual about this happening, however, was that I knew it had happened.  It was fairly easy for me to determine who was affected by it and how that might have impacted the school setting.  It was something I was looking for and ready to deal with when I returned to school that Tuesday.  Unfortunately, this type of knowledge is rarely the case.

Most of the stressors that students face are not obvious national headlines.  They are quiet, hidden stressors that are sometimes hard to figure out.  We might not be able to control these situations for our students, but that doesn’t mean we get to ignore them.  Whether someone’s grandmother is sick, his dog is dying, or her mom and dad are fighting, if it is something that causes great stress, it will impact the classroom and the student’s ability to learn.  This has been proven.  To combat this, I believe we must work hard to know our students so that they trust us to let us know if they are having issues with their life.  It is our job to point them in the direction – in most cases a school counselor (a must!) or their parents – to allow them to find coping mechanisms for dealing with their stress.

Sitting behind a desk or standing in front of a chalkboard with the perfect lesson planned will do absolutely nothing if we pay no attention to the fact that these kids in front of us are actually people who often have real problems.  If a student fails a test and we were blindsided by this, ask why.  What else might be going on for that child? If a student behaves atypically, acts out, or all of a sudden stops doing his homework, question it.  Why is the student suddenly acting this way? When we take the time to educate the whole person, to think about the student’s life beyond the classroom, to give students strategies for dealing with whatever is on their mind,  we may actually be able to battle some of the issues that stress can cause.  Our job, as a result, can become a little less stressful and a little more rewarding.

Photo Credit: wacky badger

Recipe for a Growth Mindset? A Growth Mindset

In order to switch to the growth mindset, you must be willing to grow.What If? That’s the question that seemed to enter my head most often as I read Carol Dweck’s Mindset recently.  What if students cannot move out of the fixed mindset or refuse to?  What if other teachers or parents value grades and the act of being “smart” so much that it prevents students from truly growing? What if parents or others battle you when you refuse to call someone smart or when explaining to them that grades are not as important?  What if I have difficulty moving in to the growth mindset myself?  What if students fail at something after they put in a lot of effort – will they still see the reward of this hard work?  Clearly, I had some concerns.

The fact of the matter is, helping students, parents, other colleagues, and even me start thinking more along the lines of the growth mindset will take a lot of effort.  In many ways, many of us – including our students – have come to believe that what matters most of all is the end result – the grade on the test, what college you get into, who wins the game, etc.  We might all know that Michael Jordan did not make his high school basketball team at first attempt, but we look at that as a “what was the coach thinking” kind of moment.  We forget that he might not have been good enough at that point in his career, and as Dweck notes, that he used his failure as motivation for the player he became.  Effort is often not as important as the end result.

But Dweck proves to us that it not just as important, it is more important.  In order for our students to fully grow and open them to immense possibilities, we must stop valuing individual performances, stop comparing them to others, and let them know that we care more about the process than the end result.  We must let them know that failure is okay, that in fact failure allows us to grow.  We must show them the importance of effort, in knowing one’s own shortcomings, what to do when things go wrong.  Once these things are valued, once students aren’t afraid to fail and embrace growth, the end result will most often be quite good, and in the process students will become more confident and willing to try new things.

There are a lot of what ifs that could come out of shifting mindsets, but what kind of teachers would we be if we didn’t make this attempt?  I know I don’t want my students to submit to cheating because they are afraid of what might happen if they don’t pass the test.  Nor do I want to add to the growing anxiety levels and lack of sleep many of my students face because they are so afraid of failure. I know there might be times when it is a battle, where it will take a lot of effort in order for my students and me to grow, and at times it won’t be easy or pretty.  But isn’t that what the growth mindset is all about?

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Summer Reading Blog = Writing Pre-Assessment

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Just Say No to Book Reports and Yes to Blogging!

I wish I could remember the name of the graduate school professor I had who facetiously made this statement about book reports – “Yes, the first thing I want to do when I finish a great book, is to make a diorama” – because that really struck a chord. Not that there’s anything wrong with dioramas per se, but like many, usually when I read a great book, I want to process it and talk about it.  I do not want to make a mobile of important characters and symbols (is it bazaar that I can still picture the mobile I made in third grade but have no idea what book said mobile was on) or run to find the nearest empty shoebox.  Thus, in my attempt to stop destroying reading for my students, I have tried to change up the dreaded summer reading project to hopefully! make it a bit more interesting.

In the past few years, I have asked students to write a book review of the various required readings that they have done, and although I don’t think this was a bad approach, it really only allowed me to view their writing once school had already started.  This was helpful but would have been more beneficial over the summer when I try to do a lot of planning.  So, in trying to work “smarter not harder,” I have dropped this activity and instead am asking my students to respond to some discussion boards via our classroom blog.

Although I firmly believe in having students create the content on the blog, for this summer blogging experience, I have asked students to respond to questions I have created, seeing as the majority of these students have not done any form of blogging before. Basically, I am using the blog as the means for threaded discussions.    Below, you will find my process for creating the posts regarding our summer reading book The Book Thief.  You can also check out our Summer Reading Page and feel free to add to our discussion if you have read The Book Thief!

Thoughts about Process:

  • Why a blog and not Schoology or something similar: If this were done during the school year, Schoology discussion boards would be a great tool, but seeing as the summer is a time to create new classes and archive previous information on the site, I felt this activity would be easiest with something I could easily control and that was also very simple to use for new students.
  • Optional “I’m confused” posts:  The Book Thief is a fairly long book that can sometimes be confusing due to the unique narration style.  I decided to create a few posts allowing students to ask questions regarding the book as I didn’t want them to continue reading not having any idea what was going on.  So far, these haven’t been used, and they may not, but at least the students (and parents) know they are there if need be.  I monitor all posts, so students can respond to their classroom’s questions but if there is an error in information, I can easily delete the post.
  • Limited number of discussion boards:  I will be teaching a small class next year of about 48 students.  I did not want to have so many discussion boards that there ended up being little discussion.  I also wanted to make sure my students responses to said discussions were varied and not repetitive.
  • Required number of sentences per posts: I’ll admit that this is something I hemmed and hawed about as I am not a firm believer in this approach.  However, I do not know these students all that well nor they me.  They do not know my expectations, and I do not want them to “mess up” because they didn’t understand what I was looking for.  Requiring a certain amount of sentences and providing models for what good responses look like makes sure that students are taking the easy out and also makes sure they provide enough information that I can use as pre-assessments.
  • More  required responses to classmates than individual thoughts:  I want my students to read what their peers are writing.  This will allow them to see a book at a different level.  If they are only writing down their own thoughts, they will never stop and read what their classmates have written.  So, I can guarantee that they will read at least four of their classmates thoughts simply by making this requirement.
  • Models, Models, Models:  It’s no surprise that I just finished Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like Us, a book that discusses the importance of modeling while teaching writing.  I have provided many models of both good and bad comments so that my students know exactly the type of writing I am looking for. (more…)