How to Find the Right Space to Create and Engage

Earlier this school year, I thought about how I could be more consistent in my classroom. When I say classroom, I mean all aspects of where I engage in my work and not simply my physical classroom space. Some areas that I wanted to focus on were the building of relationships, making better and more consistent connections with families, and designing a comfortable and welcoming classroom space for my students.

I think about each of these, I see them as “spaces” where we interact and exist together. I recognize that as educators, there are a lot of different spaces that we need to create and stay connected within. Being able to find the best ways to stay engaged in each of these spaces is important, especially with busy schedules and demands of the work that we do. Having the benefit of digital tools that can assist us also makes it easier to provide more for our students and their families, both in and out of our classroom space. So what are the spaces that educators need to create and engage in?

A Professional Learning Space

For educators, it is important that we really look at our professional learning space differently today than we may have in the past. For myself, having been an educator for many years, I did spend the first 15 years of my career mostly in isolation. While I engaged in opportunities for professional development within my school or attended a local conference periodically, those were the only types of professional learning spaces that existed for me—because I limited myself. What is worse, is that I also placed limits on my students by not putting myself out there to connect, to learn new ideas and methods to bring back to my classroom. Years ago, finding learning spaces and making time to engage in them was more time consuming with fewer choices available. Today, we have access to so many different and more accessible professional learning spaces. We can find something that meets our interests and our needs especially when it comes to time and place. What are some options?

ISTE offers Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) focused on specific topics related to technology and roles in education. It is a great space to become connected and to share ideas and connect classrooms.

LinkedIn is a social media platform for professional connections and professional learning. Educators are using LinkedIn to connect, gather resources and even help students develop their professional identities in this space.

Twitter offers many ways for educators to connect and learn via Twitter chats happening on a daily basis, and by following specific hashtags related to education. It is a great space to ask questions, to crowdsource ideas and to build a PLN.

Voxer is a walkie-talkie messaging app that promotes instant conversation with people from all around the world. Educators use Voxer for creating small groups for a PLC, having a space to share ideas and collaborate with educators from around the world, and even for participating in book studies and virtual learning events.

A Classroom Space, Both Physical and Virtual

The look of classrooms and learning today is so different from what it was when I was a student and quite different than even five years ago. We have the potential to learn from anywhere around the world and at a time that meets our needs. We truly have the capability to provide more for our students than we’ve ever been able to before. Through the use of digital tools and purposefully leveraging technology, we can provide the support our students need exactly when they need it. The world becomes our classroom when we include some of these tools and ideas in our practice.

The physical space can look quite different when we use station rotations in our classrooms, provide more flexible learning spaces for students to learn in, and also connect our students with learning that happens in our school community. We redefine the “space” of the classroom and can provide something to meet every student’s interests and needs. We can also explore different digital tools that help us create a more accessible connection with our students and provide ongoing support when they need it. Here are some of the tools that we have used to stay connected in our learning space.

Edmodo is a digital space for students and teachers to interact in a safe learning network. It provides access to resources, has helped us facilitate global collaboration and build digital citizenship skills.

Padlet allows us to create a wall of discussion and share audio, video, music, photos and text. It has helped us to connect with classrooms from around the world in real-time interactions.

Flipgrid is great for extending classroom discussions and providing students with a comfortable way to express their thoughts through video responses. Students build comfort that transfers into the physical classroom space by being able to connect with their peers in the digital space.

Kidblog provides many ways for students to build literacy and digital citizenship skills, as well as create their online presence. It promotes class discussion and collaboration and gives students a space to share their ideas and track their personal growth in the process.

A Space for Promoting Student and Family Engagement

Being able to connect with the families of our students is critically important. In order to provide the best for our students, we need to make sure that we are building and fostering true family engagement. To do so, we must rely on the traditional methods we have used such as exchanging emails, making phone calls home or holding meetings in the school, but now we have access to doing even more. Being able to bring families in to see and experience what learning looks like for their students, to share in the learning that happens in the classroom or to participate in a student’s in-class presentation is possible through digital spaces we set up. Events held at schools such as Open Houses, or STEAM showcase events, for example, are great for showing families the amazing things happening in our schools. However, not all families can participate due to time constraints which is why having digital tools available that enable us to share these events can make a difference.

Remind is helpful for messaging and sharing photos and files with families to include them in the school events.

ParentSquare facilitates better communication and collaboration and helps to build a solid connection between the home and the school community.

Buncee is a multimedia presentation tool that can be used to design a class newsletter with audio and video, or for students to share their work with families and include it in a Buncee presentation. Using a tool like this is helpful for families that cannot attend events such as Open House.

Seesaw is a platform that enables teachers to share what is happening in the classroom with parents. Teachers can record and directly share each child’s progress.

These are just some of the spaces that we need to consider as educators today. There are many options available for creating these spaces and the best part is that we can find something to meet the needs of our students, their families and ourselves.

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Find these available at bit.ly/Pothbooks  

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This is hard

Guest post by Deidre Roemer, originally posted on her site.

This is hard.  I was very tempted to have that be my entire post as that is how so many people, including me, are feeling these days.  I am always very solution focussed and generally very positive.  That hasn’t changed, but I am trying to adjust how I approach solutions and celebrations.  I am trying to listen to more, acknowledge that this is hard, recognize amazing work frequently, encourage everyone to take several deep breaths, and then offer as much support as I can to help. I have also been reaching out for help from my incredible support system. I need it. This is hard for everyone.

Our community has been asking questions about how we are supporting the mental health of our students right now.  It’s a question we should be asking every day all year long whether we are in a pandemic or not, but this time has undoubtedly brought the concern to the forefront more than ever.  As I compiled the list of what our team has done over the last several years to support learners’ mental health, it was staggering to see how much we have added and embedded across contexts.  We have added licensed therapists to each school site that see learners through their insurance and help families who don’t have access to insurance apply for it.  Some of those therapists also co-teach in classrooms and have office hours for staff so they can problem solve how to best help learners.  We have classroom teachers all over our district embedding social-emotional learning lessons and Mindfulness into daily instruction.  Our teachers spend a lot of time building relationships with our learners and offering them opportunities to build relationships with one another.  We have a school counselor, social worker, and/or a school psychologist at each school to work with staff, learners, and families.  We have Hope Squads at all our secondary schools so our learners have peer to peer support. 

Our professional development has also included training over the last several years in understanding trauma, culturally responsive practices, restorative practices, empathy and design thinking to solve problems, Zones of Regulation, Universal Design for Learning, innovative classroom practices, and many more.  The idea is that staff members (including teachers, administrators, secretaries, assistants, recreation staff, facilities, and food service) have a wide array of tools to use in our schools to understand and empower all learners.  They often get to choose sessions that are important to them or suggest topics on which they would like professional development as we want all staff to feel empowered in their work.  We have also tried to build a lot of support for our staff through coaching as they need to feel our support to make it all work.  

Now, we are trying to make education work in the middle of a pandemic.  Our learners are all virtual right now.  We are anxious to see them back in school and were optimistic a few weeks ago that we could start bringing them back a few days a week until our health metrics took a turn for the worse.  We meet regularly with our local health department to discuss safety and are furiously planning safety measures and logistics for the time when we bring our learners back into physical schools.  In the meantime, our recreation department has opened camps for elementary students and students with special needs that families who need care and/or support with virtual instruction can access.  The camps can be kept small and can spread out across large spaces while providing a needed resource for some of our families in the safest way possible.

Our teachers are more stressed than normal.  Our families are more stressed than normal.  Our learners are more stressed than normal.  Our administrators and coaches are more stressed than normal. Everyone is feeling disconnected from one another.  The unpredictability of the current situation is overwhelming for all of us.  The length of time this has gone on with no foreseeable end in sight is making it even more challenging.  We are also headed into the cold and flu season with the weather getting colder, which means fewer opportunities to be outside.  We have all had to adapt and do it quickly. It can be done, but this is hard.  It is okay to say that out loud and recognize it.  

I am really proud of the work we have done to shift the learner experience over the last several years, which is serving us well in virtual instruction.  It does not make this less stressful on our team, but many of them have been adapting and shifting for years so they have tools to do it. We have been very purposeful in finding ways to meet teachers and administrators where they are and encourage them to make small steps that add up to big ones.  As a district leadership team, we have tried to share the message that we are here to support our schools in any way we can to empower our learners to be ready to live life on their own terms when they graduate from our system.  We are now forced to make shifts at warp speed and shift more frequently than we would ever normally ask people to do. It means instead of just support to grow as professionals; we had to start thinking creatively about how to take some things off their plates.    

Our teachers have the option to teach from home or school during virtual instruction as we trust them to know what is best for them. We have built more planning time into the day at each level and shifted our professional development days to be planning and self-directed time for teachers.  Purposeful professional development with choice for teachers is still a key element of our strategic plan, but that needs to look different right now.  Instead of planning required sessions for all staff to attend, we shifted to self-paced courses that teachers could choose from and complete at their own pace and time. They could also choose not to select one at this time if they didn’t feel it was something they could take on.  We will circle back to those staff later and build professional development support for them when they are ready for it and as they need it throughout the year.

We have encouraged our administrators to give our teachers permission to engage learners differently and focus on their interests.  Academic content is an essential part of our work, but we can spend more time connecting and embed content as we go.  In a collaboration session during emergency remote teaching last spring, a staff member shared how a learner went to work with his dad each day and spent a huge portion of one day on Facetime with his teacher showing her his community and what he had learned about his dad’s job.  Others in that same session shared similar stories apologizing that they weren’t doing anything “academic”. My response was that what they were doing was building a sense of belonging and an academic mindset, which IS essential to academics and life success.  We worked all summer to be ready for virtual instruction that was more robust than what we were able to do in emergency remote teaching last spring, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be focused on the whole child and embed time to connect as people.  Teachers can find a balance synchronous time with some asynchronous time to meet the needs of learners. They can use choice boards, complete planned activities, write reflections, or work on long-term projects during the time they are asynchronous.  They know their families and learners best, and we trust them to make the right decisions on finding balance.

We always want to hear feedback from our learners, staff, and community as it allows us to know what we are doing well and where we need to improve.  We have sent out an employee engagement and parent satisfaction survey twice a year and learners complete a social-emotional learning survey so we can gauge how they are feeling about the development of their own skills in self-regulation, social awareness, classroom effort, growth mindset, and curiosity for the last several years.  This year, we had the opportunity to offer different surveys that were much shorter for staff and families.  While we still needed their feedback, we also needed a quick and easy survey for them to complete that gave us fast results so we can adjust resources and support.  We added a wellness survey for our learners and do empathy interviews to ask them directly about how they are doing, if they are connected to adults and peers for support, and what they need to feel successful. 

We have encouraged our principals to think about a shift in teacher evaluation as well.  Our teacher evaluation process is intended to be one of self-reflection wherein the teacher sets a student learning objective for the year and a professional practice goal.  The observations should be an opportunity to collect evidence towards those goals with time to check-in with the teacher to help them celebrate success and adjust the goals throughout the year.  We have not always approached teacher evaluation that way but have been trying to move to a more reflective process over the last year.  We get to take this unusual year to accelerate that process so observations can be done in short one-on-one meetings during which teachers can share the evidence they have collected about their own their own practice to share with us.  We want to take the pressure off the formal nature of teacher observation but still get at the intent of the cycle of self-directed, continuous improvement in a way that also gives us more time to connect individually with each staff member.  We have some schools trying this out in the next couple of weeks. I am anxious to hear how it goes and to find out if the change alleviates some stress for administrators and teachers.

Our teachers also had the opportunity to meet as grade levels and departments before school started to share ideas and create lists of resources they thought they would need to make this all work.  We have ordered thousands of whiteboards, music kits, art kits, sensory tools, apps, and online subscriptions. We want our learners to have access to instructional materials in addition to technology and hotspots at home.  We trade reading books and give out learning kits once a month in a drive-up system at most of our schools. We also added many supplies to schools as students won’t be able to share materials with one another as easily in classrooms once we are back.  We’ve added some new and adaptive resources for teachers that all still align with our strategic plan but make the work more doable in a virtual or distance learning.  Teachers continue to send us requests regularly as they plan engaging activities to do at home in the next few weeks.  Sometimes the requests make me wonder what will come next, but mostly they make me excited that our learners are still having interactive, hands-on opportunities in our virtual world.  

This is hard.  Saying so doesn’t make it any easier, but it does create space for us to rely on each other to get through it.  I want all our staff, learners, and families to know that we see them.  We see the efforts they are putting in each hour of the day.  We see that they sometimes need us to support them in new and different ways.  We see that they may feel overwhelmed by the world right now and sometimes need some space to feel that.  We see that we need to find even more ways to connect and listen to them.  Mostly we see that they are all doing the best they can each day, despite everything that is thrown at them, to always keep what is best for children at the forefront.  I love this quote by Todd Whitaker, “The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Not only does teaching matter, but the people who do it each day matter too.

I am a proud mother, wife, and educator dedicated to creating experiences for all learners that are authentic and connect their time in school to what and who they want to be well beyond high school. I serve as the Director of Leadership and Learning for the West Allis- West Milwaukee School District in West Allis, WI. The thoughts I share here are my own and my reflections on our work. View all posts by Deidreroemer

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**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Find these available at bit.ly/Pothbooks  

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If it ain’t broke, then break it

 

Guest post by Cory Radisch, Follow Cory on Twitter @cradisch_wc

Wait, that’s not how the saying goes! However, even though data still demonstrates consistent opportunity and achievement gaps in schools, there are many who think things are not broken. It doesn’t matter that the data tells a different story. In many places, if adults are satisfied and comfortable, many believe the system “ain’t broke”! My longtime mentor, Marc Natanagara, used the title of this blogpost with former staff, not only to inspire them to challenge the status quo, but also to let them know it’s perfectly acceptable to break the system! It was appropriate long ago and it’s even more appropriate today. If we are going to truly transform education, then we just may need to break it. 

  • We need to break the system that marginalizes students!
  • We need to break the system that perpetuates learning and opportunity gaps!
  • We need to break the system that disproportionately disciplines students of color!
  • We need to break the system that disproportionately has fewer students of color in AP and advanced classes!
  • We need to break the system where your zip code usually determines what level of education you receive!
  • We need to break the system that fails to recruit and retain teachers of color!   
  • We need to break the system that teaches a unilateral perspective of history!

 

Breaking the system is not blowing up the system. Breaking the system is about addressing and interrupting implicit and explicit bias in our policies, curricula, and procedures. It will undoubtedly cause discomfort. Then again, when has breaking something not created discomfort? We can either be comfortable or we can grow, but we can’t do both!  I would love to know what you will break in order to ensure equity in your district, school, or classroom.

This post is dedicated to my longtime mentor and friend, educator Marc Natanagara, who recently retired after 33 years of breaking things that weren’t broken!

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Find these available at bit.ly/Pothbooks  

CONUNDRUM SCHOOLING: PART DEUX

Guest blog post by Jillian DuBois  @JillDuBois22

When COVID chose to collide with our lives in March, teachers and educational leaders defied time and space by achieving more than we could ever dream of doing in our profession.

FOR our STUDENTS.

We gave up Spring Break. We sacrificed family time. We had sleepless nights. We KNEW what needed to be done, followed through, and gave it our all.

Some described it as distance learning. Homeschooling. Virtual school. These types of schooling require months, even years of preparation before taking on that challenge.

In the simplest of terms – it was far more than that. It was what I called CONUNDRUM schooling (conundrum – An unstable time or period, usually marked by intense difficulty or danger. Thank you to wordhippo.com for the explanatory definition.). Traumatic schooling that was disruptive, stressful, and anxiety-inducing, leaving little time for research + planning. Teachers sent up an SOS.

We grieved over what was lost. In just one critical moment, we somehow surrendered our community, fellowship, daily routines, and a predictable schedule that gave us satisfaction + security in our profession.

But we persevered. It was muddled, unpredictable, and often frustrating. We came out of it still breathing and somehow able to exhale, knowing that during our physical time away from our students we had gained meaningful pedagogy in our learning strategies and skills.

Thankfully, the #edtech platforms we chose provided excellent facilitation and reinforcement for the majority of our instruction and learning. In turn, that opened up a new path as to how to process + present our instruction differently and more efficiently. Teachers met via teleconferencing and innovatively collaborated together. We shared lesson plans, ideas, and exceeded what we assumed we could do – like superheroes.

So as I begin to conceptualize the next few weeks in preparation for the new school year…I am drawing a BIG, FAT…blank, that leads to…

CONUNDRUM SCHOOLING: PART DEUX.

The current space available in my head is not prepared for academics + curriculum planning AT ALL. I don’t even have the words to properly and politically respond to friends and family who ask how I feel about returning.

BLANK. NADA. NOTHING. (and if you know me at all, I don’t blank on anything, that’s NOT what teachers do. We are masters at improvisation.)

Moment of truth? I believe I’m a darn good teacher. The last semester drained every ounce of imagination + creative skill that I estimated I had. I’m slowly rebounding. What I DO know is that I WILL be brave + undaunted. I will NOT let fear worm its way into my tenacious spirit. I refuse to give in and give up.

WILL consider + celebrate the progression that I made as a teacher last year.

I have cultivated new ways of being FLEXIBLE + RESILIENT. I was able to give up control and allow my students unique opportunities to drive their own learning. They participated in the decision-making process by expressing their choices when given the chance. There was extended time for inquiry + building out their curiosities with enthusiasm.

They had questions that I did not have the answers for…and that was truly amazing. There was project-based learning alternatives that sparked many in-depth conversations, ‘a-HA’ moments, and periods of self-reflection. JUST this alone was worth the efforts. We honored the process of learning + accountability as a class…together.

There MAY not have been any stellar discoveries of new content during this time of conundrum schooling, BUT there was incredible facilitation of educational experiences that they will never forget. Neither will I.

What will I carry into this new year? These things I just mentioned. I will join tens of thousands of other teachers who will be using their newly-gained expertise to keep some semblance of normalcy + security for our students.

Unlearn the conundrum. Relearn confidence with conviction.

I will teach them honesty, kindness, empathy, justice, and inclusivity. THAT is where I will begin. I know I will get to the planning + academics, don’t you worry. But FIRST things FIRST. I love them already.

We need time to heal together.

We will get there. There’s still a steep learning curve ahead with no signs of caution. Education will now be in stark contrast to what was before comfortable + traditional. As we launch with students, we will crawl along slowly. Next, steadily we will learn to walk together as weeks go by. Possibly, we may even start to run again. GRACE + PATIENCE will be generously granted each day as we encounter new circumstances and ways of life.

We are in it for the beautiful mess that it is. It will be SUCH a monumentally great year if we allow ourselves to take one day at a time, appreciate our vision + mission, and lean into our passion for our students.

Oh, and don’t forget the #impartEDjoy.

Best wishes for an amazing conundrum of a journey.

Jillian

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Here are my books available. Find them at bit.ly/Pothbooks  

The Importance of Being a Mentor & Having a Mentor

Mentoring is a very important part of what we “engage” in as educators. Whether we serve as a mentor to a colleague or a student, or perhaps we seek out a mentor to help us with challenges or simply to have a system of support in our personal and professional lives, it has a tremendous impact. Whether or not we even realize it at times, we are all serving as a mentor to someone.

Recently a colleague stopped in to talk and confided in me that they were experiencing challenges with classroom management, student behaviors such as disrespect and keeping up with the responsibilities of teaching in general. Without a doubt, teaching can be tough sometimes. I’ve been in that same position more than once during my teaching career.

Having taught for the last 25 years, I’ve had a lot of experiences, some good, some bad, and some in between. At times in a position where I needed to improve, fearing I would possibly lose my job, and felt like no matter what I tried, that I just would not succeed. There were days that I left school feeling helpless and alone. I was embarrassed to confide in anyone that I was struggling. There were people who impacted my life, not because they were assigned as my mentors, but because they just took the time to listen, care, and support me to keep pushing through. Because of their impact on my life, I learned the importance of relationships, of being available to listen and to support, but also to give pushback and critical feedback when needed.

The Roles of Mentors

Mentors have a pivotal role to play in education. Whether you are enrolled in a pre-service teacher program, working as an intern in a school, new to teaching or to a new school, you often have a mentor to help guide you through any transitions along the way. Most of the time the “mentorship” is formed between a more veteran teacher and a newer teacher, to help to lessen any feelings of being overwhelmed when starting the teaching journey. Mentors can help newer teachers find their place in the school, establish their classroom presence and get into daily teaching practice. While I believe that mentoring for new teachers is critical, I think that an area that is often overlooked is that veteran teachers need mentors as well. For many years I thought that teachers were only assigned mentors as part of a school induction program, part of an improvement plan, or simply because it was part of the pre-service or teacher preparation program.

Teaching can become an isolating profession if we let it. Isolating in the sense that we don’t have enough time to connect with colleagues. We have many tasks to keep up with, but the most important part of our work is making time for our students. We must be available and invest our time to help them to succeed. Whether specified or not, everyone is a mentor and I believe that sometimes we don’t even realize it.

We mentor students. We don’t know everything that they might be experiencing when they leave our classroom. Students need a constant in their life, a relationship based on trust and support that they know is there when they need it. Our colleagues need to establish these same relationships as well. But how do we find time to seek out a mentor or to act as a mentor to someone else? For these mentorships, the relationships are critical for our personal and professional growth. We need to be intentional in serving as mentors for those we lead and lead with. Finding mentors for ourselves will help us continue to learn, grow and improve our practice each day.

Mentorships Today

Mentorships typically involve a mentor and mentee, with clearly defined roles. A mentorship is defined as a “wise and trusted counselor or teacher.”  However, I think the definition has evolved and within mentorships today, an individual can be both a mentor and a mentee. New teachers paired with more veteran teachers both bring unique skills, experiences, and knowledge to their mentorship. They each have something to teach and a lot to learn, which is why finding time to be part of a mentorship is critical for professional growth.

Colleagues within the same school can serve as mentors to one another, or even connect with a colleague from a neighboring school. However, finding the time to sit down in the same space or have a quick conversation can be a challenge on most school days. The lack of time is one of the most common problems facing educators. When we think about all of the tasks that we do in a given day whether, in school or home, there can be little time left for mentoring. But there are many options that can solve this problem of lack of time and assist you in pairing up with a colleague or creating small groups of educators to serve as mentors to one another.

And finding a mentor does not require, at least in my opinion, that pairing of a new teacher with a veteran teacher. Everyone has something to offer and as a teacher of 25 years compared to a teacher early in their career, there is a lot of knowledge and skills that can be shared between us. But how can we find time to connect? When used with purpose, technology can make a difference. The purpose being professional growth, avoiding isolation or having somewhere to turn when feeling frustrated or in need of support.

How to Connect

  1. Social Media – Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, enable educators to connect and share stories, ask questions, and to interact whenever is convenient. These platforms offer educators a space to learn about issues educators are facing and brainstorm ideas for making changes in their practice, or engage in conversations and foster some connections on their own. There are even focused communities available on Facebook to connect based on the content area, grade level or even topic.
  2. Book studies and Voxer groups – There are many book studies happening, many of which are announced on Twitter or Facebook, and focused on books related to education or specific trends in education. Personally, I have made some great connections with educators from around the world, simply by joining in a Voxer book study and building relationships in a supportive environment. The book study of “Four O’Clock Faculty” by Rich Czyz led to a #4OCFPLN, which has become a large part of my professional growth and reflective practice every day.
  3. ISTE: The International Society for Technology in Education is a worldwide Network that includes more than 20 Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). By getting involved in these networks, you have access to thousands of educators and can engage in conversations, post questions, and make your own connections that will help you to keep building your practice.
  4. School committees- Schools can offer different activities for teachers to engage in whether it be a health and wellness committee or a leadership council which gives teachers an opportunity to talk, share ideas, or bring school concerns to light. By bringing teachers together in a meeting like this, it is an intentional way to create time for teachers to collaborate and form those valuable relationships.
  5. Clubs –  Another option for establishing mentorships in your school that can be beneficial for teachers and students, is to create a club which has mentoring, building leadership skills and student confidence as its purpose. One possibility is creating a Ted-ED Club. where students get to know their peers, explore passions, build confidence and become mentors for their peers. All schools need to have mentoring in place for students and give students the opportunity to serve as mentors for their peers.

We all need mentors whether in our first or thirtieth year of teaching. At times it might be someone assigned to us, a friend or a member of our PLN. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are in a “mentorship,” we are just supporting one another on our teaching journeys. Veteran teachers need to seek out mentors as well, and that might mean connecting with a teacher who is new to your building or to the profession. How can we expect our students to interact and understand different perspectives, and to be accepting if we ourselves do not do the same thing and go beyond that? It starts with us. It always starts with us to take that first step.

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my Rdene915 site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Find these available at bit.ly/Pothbooks  

Keeping What Matters Most

 

Our son, Nick, sees an occupational therapist each week who does amazing work with him to help strengthen his core, quicken his response time to questions, practice his social interactions, and work on his fine motor skills. The best part is that she does all of that while he rides a horse around an arena. The horse provides sensory input and forces him to focus his core on maintaining balance, which allows his brain more freedom to work. As Nick rides, he plays Pictionary with a whiteboard, sprays water guns at targets, moves cones from side to side, identifies letters, and has conversations with the therapist and the other assistants as they walk next to the horse to make sure he stays safe while riding around. At the end of each session, he takes responsibility to prepare a bowl and feed the horse a snack to thank him.

His skills have grown tremendously since we started this therapy. We have missed going while we have been home, so we were so relieved that he was able to return last week. They had all kinds of new safety rules that we had to follow. His therapist met us in the parking lot; he had his temperature taken and had to thoroughly wash his hands as soon as we walked in. We all wore masks. We stayed distanced from one another as best as possible. They shifted the options for therapy so there were fewer clients in the facility at one time. We didn’t do some of the classroom-based exercises before he got on the horse, and he couldn’t prepare the bowl of snacks on his own. The most significant shift was that I was suddenly the volunteer walking alongside the horse. It helped to limit the number of people in the arena, but also allowed me a new opportunity to understand more about what he is working on in therapy and how he responds to the staff and the horse. I am not convinced that I am the best guide as it was much harder to hold the materials, keep an eye on his safety, and not get distracted by the beauty of the horse than I thought it would be, but we made it work.

I didn’t realize how much I needed to do something that felt “normal” to our routine until I walked through the doors of the arena. It was so comforting to do something that we used to do even though the process of doing it was different. Nick was excited to see the therapist, and I had the chance to help him share a little more about himself as we did the exercises and walked around the arena that she wouldn’t have otherwise known even though she has a great relationship with him.

As we start planning for school to look different in the fall, the first week of therapy had me feeling hopeful about what we can maintain when the process and school system may look really new for a while. A big question for me has been how to explain the shifts to staff, learners, and families. I read a great article by the Harvard Business Review that helped me to start thinking about communicating what’s to come.

The first point in the article is to acknowledge your own anxiety. I am nervous, very nervous about how we will make the process of school work in the fall while following the safety guidelines and still meet the needs of our families that need childcare. I am nervous about the gaps in learning or experience that may be happening for our learners. I’m nervous that they will miss out when we can’t give the reassuring hugs and high-fives we are used to. What I am not nervous about is our ability to maintain our relationships with our learners and grow them in new ways. We’ve bonded during this time at home, which has deepened many of our relationships with learners and families. Those get to continue and get to keep growing no matter how we provide schooling.

Nick’s relationship with his occupational therapist was not different. His ability to complete the tasks and work on his skills was not different. We just did it differently. He was super quiet in the arena, which honestly surprised me and helped me to learn more about him in that setting. He still talked the whole way home about his horse and the experience just as he usually does. I know I will be anxious as we drive there and as we walk in again this week, but I am hoping that goes away with time.

“Listen for the need underneath the question” is something I have practiced a lot recently. When a parent, staff member, or school leader gets frustrated, it sometimes takes asking many additional questions to get at the root of the concern or the reason behind the issue, which is almost always a genuine fear about something. To help build our skills in understanding one another and ourselves, we are working on summer professional development options for our staff that include having critical conversations about challenges, trauma training, mindfulness, and compassion resiliency. We all need to be able to see one another through an empathetic lens more than ever and give each other grace. Our stress as a collective society is high, and our composure tends to fail us when we are stressed. We need to prepare as best as possible for strategies to reduce stress in our schools, for and with our staff, as well as learn how to have more open communication about what is happening so we can acknowledge our fears and build hope whenever we can.

We have seen some absolutely inspiring efforts by our staff and learners that we continue to try and capture and share. It is hard to always stay focused on those positives, but they are also ways to find strength as we move into our next steps. I have seen teachers doing evening bake-offs with learners online, daily video announcements to celebrate birthdays and accomplishments, safely going to homes to drop off supplies or check-in, creating videos with shared books, songs, and poems, writing personal notes, sending “flat teachers” to each learner, and many, many more. We have worked to support our community and help our learners find their passions during this crazy time. I get to ask our leaders and staff about those moments to help them see all the positives and make sure we recognize the impact of those remarkable connections. The Harvard article said, “Asking, “What’s one of the worst things you’ve ever overcome or endured?” helps people tap into sources of hope and fortitude from their own stories.” Our stories of what our staff has done with learners and families during this time, as well as what our families have done on their own, are perfect sources of hope and fortitude to carry us forward through our next challenge.

As I start to find my way back to social events and daily activities, I think a lot about one of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” I certainly feel changed by much of what has happened and what I know is coming. Some days it really gets to me, but it has not reduced my desire to do the work we get to do each day with learners and families as I know how much it matters no matter the setting or the format in which we do it.

 

 

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Distance Learning, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

Serenity, Courage, Wisdom

Guest post by Charles Williams (@_cwconsulting)

I do not profess to be a religious man. A man of faith, yes? But not a man of religion. I could dive into my reasons but that is not the purpose of this reflection nor do I believe this is the proper space to have that discussion. Maybe another time in another place.

There are, however, three words that have consistently presented themselves to me during this pandemic. Three words taken from The Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian, Niebuhr (nee-bur), around 1932. Despite various renditions curated by various groups for their unique purposes, all centralize on three concepts.

Serenity. Courage. Wisdom.

I recently took my daughter to pick up her high school graduation items. It was a surreal experience as we drove along a nearly empty roadway through the school’s campus to various stations returning books and collecting items. Aside from the handful of teachers at each station, there were no crowds, there was no cheering, there was no … celebration. And, nearly as quickly as it started, it was over. The whole process lasted maybe 5 minutes.

Four years of high school. Four years of studying. Four years assignments and exams. Four years of late nights and early mornings. Four years culminated in five minutes.

As we drove away, my daughter sat in silence. When I asked if she was okay she replied that she never imagined that this is how it would have ended. She had held onto a feeble hope that maybe, somehow, this would all go away and that she would have a real graduation. After all, she had already lost prom and senior banquet.

I drove along contemplating how to best respond. Knowing my initial logical response void of emotion would only make the situation worse, I kept quiet while I attempted to formulate the right words. During that time, those same three words returned.

Serenity. Courage. Wisdom.

With them in mind, I delivered a response. I don’t know if it was the right one. I don’t know if it could have been better. She gave me that smile, you know the one. “Thanks Dad, I know you’re doing your best.”

So I will do my best to share those words with you. I know that there are other seniors out there dealing with the same frustrations, hurt, confusion, and sadness. I know that there are adults experiencing similar emotions for their respective situations. This is for you.

Serenity, the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.

Seek to find peace in your troubles by letting go. I know that this is easier said than done but when you attempt to control the uncontrollable, you will find nothing more than additional stress. Accepting this fact is not easy. I know. As a leader it was one of the toughest lessons that I had to learn.

A story I share is one when I was still in the classroom. I was attempting to teach a lesson to a group of students who were particularly talkative that day. Few were paying attention and I was quickly growing aggravated. At some point, someone decided to stick a small piece of chalk into the automatic pencil sharpener resulting in a persistent drone. I attempted to remove the chalk by tapping the sharpener on the desk. Nothing.

Chatter, chatter, chatter. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Tap, tap, tap.

Nothing. I tried again. Harder this time.

Chatter, Chatter, Chatter. Buzz, Buzz, Buzz. Tap, Tap, Tap.

Nothing. I tried again. Even harder this time.

CHATTER, CHATTER, CHATTER. BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ. TAP, TAP, TAP.

Silence.

The students stopped. The buzzing stopped. The tapping stopped. I had smashed the sharpener on the desk.

I was embarrassed and ashamed. I had allowed my emotions to take over. I focused on something over which I had no control. And I failed myself and my students.

I encourage you to reflect on your situation and categorize the various aspects as controllable or not. What you will quickly realize is that a majority of the external factors are uncontrollable. You cannot control what others think or do. You cannot control the passage of time. You cannot control the outcomes of your actions. Your best hope is to influence.

What you can control is how you respond to situations. You can control your thoughts and actions. You can control your beliefs and attitude.

Find peace in focusing on those aspects over which you have control.

Courage, the ability to do something despite the presence of fear.

Fear takes many shapes and forms. It is present in many situations. It has the power to control us. It is imperative, however, that we find the means to not only face our fears but to overcome them.

For so many right now, there is a huge fear of the unknown. We don’t know what to expect in terms of this pandemic. Are things going to get better? Is it safe to begin reopening? Will we be returning to a sense of normalcy?

My daughter has been sitting on a huge decision. Should she attend Purdue or IU. She has been accepted to both. She has wonderful opportunities at both. She has friends that will be attending both. Outside of distance, the two are virtually identical. And yet, she has yet to make a decision. Why? Because she is scared. She has no idea what the future holds. She was accustomed to the fairly predictive nature of high school. This is different.

Stepping into courage is the first step of battling fear.

I sat on my podcast for years. I was scared that nobody would listen. I was scared that I wouldn’t have the knowledge or skill sets. But as I listened to other educators, I slowly grew more confident. I can recall listening to Jennifer Gonzalez from the Cult of Pedagogy and finding episode 130 – Tips for Starting a Podcast. I started getting excited. This sounded very possible. Then I started listening to Tim Cavey’s Teachers on Fire Podcast. I found elements of myself in nearly every guest and started realizing that I too had something to share. Then I connected with Mike Earnshaw from the Punk Rock Classroom. He and his co-host, Josh Buckley, shared their experiences from their unique perspectives as punk rock educators.

That was it. I sat down. I started recording. And now The Counter Narrative Podcast exists. I have no idea where this will go but I challenged my fear by stepping into courage.

Wisdom, the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.

Both serenity and courage rely on wisdom. You need to be able to identify situations over which you have no control and those in which you need to step into courage.

Wisdom requires experience. Knowledge in the absence of experience is little more than facts.

Unfortunately many students, like my daughter, have not yet had the opportunity to gain the wisdom that comes from making mistakes. Instead, they must rely on family, teachers, faith leaders, or others to guide them in the right direction. Even as adults we do not always have wisdom and must rely on the counsel of others.

It is a humbling experience to admit that you do not know and even more so to ask for assistance. It means that you are vulnerable and thus you should seek out this advice from someone you can trust.

In time, you will gain enough experience to differentiate between those situations in which you need to let go and those in which you need to step forward.

For all of you reading who are experiencing times of difficulty, know this. It is okay not to be okay (thank you Traci for that one). Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What is not okay, however, is to give up. Giving up is not the answer.

Find peace with those things that you cannot control. Find the courage to deal with those things that you can. And find the wisdom so that you may know the difference.

Until next time.

_______________________________________________

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Using a Lens of “Gratitude”-

Guest post by Debbie Tannenbaum (@TannenbaumTech)

This past week was probably the best week I have had since schools closed for COVID-19 on March 13, 2020. I have felt more productive, more centered and most of all, more focused. As I reflected on the week, I identified lots of things that I did differently this week, but one really stood out.

During my morning walk with my dog Monday morning, I was listening to an episode of George Couros’ podcast, The Innovators’ Mindset. In this episode, number 18, he shared five ideas for improving mental and physical health. Idea #1 was to approach life with a lens of “gratitude,” but he shared gratitude using a new approach to me. He explained after reading an article by Tim Denning called the Most Important Way to Measure Your Day, he modified what Denning shared to identify three simple questions to ask yourself daily.

  1. Did I learn one new thing today?
  2. Did I help or inspire one person:
  3. Did I show gratitude to someone who had a positive impact on me?

Prior to this , I had been recording 3 things that I was grateful for each day in my journal. So I decided to experiment with this practice this week and from Monday on, I answered the three questions above. I have to admit that I was amazed by its impact. Suddenly, I looked at each day as an opportunity.

  • What was I going to learn?
  • Who was I going to help or inspire?
  • How would I show gratitude to people who had a positive impact on me?

It is shocking how when you specifically focus on or are more aware of something how it reveals itself more often. That’s what happened to me this past week and it was transformational.

What did I learn this week?

I began the week by learning about the idea of framing gratitude with these three questions. This led me to be more conscious of other things I learned. The biggest thing that I learned this past week was the awareness of how it felt when you needed to persevere through a hard task. As my Monday blog post shared, this helped me have not only more empathy for my colleagues as I asked them to try new things this week during trainings, but more patience. It made me more reflective as I worked with my colleagues and increased my sense of gratitude as many took risks and tried new things using technology.

I also learned this week how much I missed interacting with students. I had not seen any students since March 13th, but this week, I was invited in to model technology into three classrooms. Yes, I was happy to share new ways to use some of my favorite edtech tools, but seeing those faces I missed so much, it made me realize how important my interactions and relationships with students are.

Who did I help or inspire this week?

This past week, I provided four trainings and had eight hours of virtual office hours. I knew that I had been busy, but writing down who and how I helped people made me feel so grateful to have the opportunity to help and inspire some many people.

This past week, fifteen people attended one of my trainings. Nine of them learned about Pear Deck, while three learned about EdPuzzle and another three learned about Flipgrid. In addition, sixteen people came to my virtual office hours. But two people specifically shared feedback that warmed my heart.

  • “You are a life saver.” One of my colleagues shared as I helped her learn how to trim the end of her synchronous learning session.
  • The band teacher at my school shared at our CLT how she was using Flipgrid to have students share their instrumental practice in a moderated grid and then was able to give them individualized feedback!

How did I show gratitude to people who made a positive impact on me?

This question helped me to ensure that I shared appreciation for those who had a positive impact on me. As a result, I ended up sending emails and tweets that I might not have sent otherwise.

The first group of people I thanked for their positive impact on me were the teachers who invited me into their synchronous sessions to model edtech this week. I wanted them and their students to know how much it meant to me to connect with students again. I also wanted them to know how much I appreciated them giving me some of their valuable synchronous minutes.

I also thanked some people who had made a positive impact on me through their suggestions of healthier habits. Last Saturday at a WW meeting, a friend suggested taking more movement breaks. I ended up adding circles to my journal and filling them in as I took more breaks. This Saturday, I thanked her for inspiring to add this healthy habit to my day. In addition, last Saturday, during a #crazyPLN chat, Matthew Joseph discussed training as a way to be more positive. I used to train- last year, I trained for my second half marathon. But since then, I have stopped running. Until now- this week, I began and completed Couch to 5K Week 1. I am so glad that I did this.

Lastly, I want to let George Couros know the positive impact that his blog made on me this past week. That is one of the reasons I wrote this week’s blog post. Like George, I am a work in progress. His strategies, especially the first one, really helped me this week and I hope me sharing this will encourage others to listen to his podcast and be as inspired as I am. As I begin this new week, I plan to continue these practices. I can’t wait to see what else I discover as I view life more using a lens of “gratitude.”

 

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Words

Guest post by Dr. Kalum McKay (@DrKalumMcKay)

Opinions expressed are those of the guest contributor.

Words matter. 

Words aren’t just words, they are building blocks or a wrecking ball. Many things in life are made or destroyed by what we say. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This is straight-up false! Words are powerful. Broken bones heal, I’m not sure emotional wounds ever do. This isn’t just a message for kids, although it is an important one for them as well. This is a message for us all. The words we use determine so much of the successes or failures in our lives. When rolling out a new initiative, the words you use to present the idea can go a long way to determining buy-in. The way you handle a “growth” opportunity with a teacher or student determines how the information is processed. If you correct in a positive manner, you promote growth, if you correct punitively, you promote resentment and have taken a sledgehammer to the relationship. Our words verbally, in written format, and digitally have the ability to change the world. They can aid in growth or demoralization.

In today’s digital, social media-driven culture, our words can reach farther than previous generations could have imagined. This can be amazing and powerful. It can also be dangerous and harmful. Before you send that email, tweet that tweet, write that Facebook post, we must determine the consequences of our words. In Spiderman, there is what is widely known as the “Peter Parker Principle” that states, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Our words have great power, this comes with great responsibility. This is verbally, digitally, and everything in between. All of our words have power. Everyone. From the CEO of a company all the way to the intern. From the Principal to the PreK student. Our words matter. The tone, the context, the content, all matter. It is important to be purposeful in our choice of words. How many times have you seen a “leader” come in and completely demoralize an entire organization? On the flip side, how many times have you seen one energize and uplift an organization? This includes teachers in their classrooms. The words and the tone they use shape the entire atmosphere of learning in their classroom. Is it going to be an environment of love, connection, and growth? Or is it going to be one of compliance, fear, and resentment?  It is our responsibility to use our words as building blocks, not as the proverbial wrecking ball.

The wisest thing we could learn to do is to watch our words. We can learn to speak when it’s helpful and needed and choose our words wisely. We must take seriously the impact of our words. The right words can mean the difference between misunderstanding and enlightenment. They can mean the difference between being hopeful and supportive or judgmental and condescending.

The words you use are a choice you make constantly, as always, Choose to be GREAT!

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

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