No One Like Me

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I was born in 1972, shortly after the Civil Rights Movement ended. While schools, businesses, and neighborhoods had been desegregated for some years now, there remained residual resistance toward “justice and liberty for all”. I didn’t much understand this back in the late 70s and early 80s, but something has now stimulated these latent memories.

I don’t remember too much about my toddler years. I recall my father’s job moved us around somewhat frequently. Well, more so for my brother’s than for me.

My parents left Atlanta shortly after I was born. My mother maintains that I was the best thing that came out of her experience there! Well, I absolutely agree with that, of course! From there, we moved to Maryland. I can recall only a few things from my life there. One experience in particular was the time my mother cooked LIVE crabs for a family get together! “Oh no!”, I protested. “I don’t want no “craps”!”  I can remember how terrified I was by the sight of the crabs trying to escape the pot!! Ugh! I’m still a bit disturbed at the simple thought.

I was four years old when we moved to Minnesota. As I entered my formative years, my memories became more imprinted. I remember our home vividly. A three bedroom, two bathroom home. My brothers had to share a room while I had a room to myself. The front door led directly to the family room, with steps up to the kitchen, dining area, and living room. Here is where I have clear memories of the friends I made on my street, however, memories of my schooling experiences are few. In my quiet time, I often try to think back to see if I can draw out any memories. I’m never successful and I often stop to ask myself why this is the case.

While many of my friends and family have clear memories of their primary school years, mine are so very murky. I don’t recall my teacher’s names or those of my classmates. I remember I was very athletic and I did enjoy school, but what I remember most is that there was no one like me. I can see myself seated in the center of the room, surrounded by my white peers, whom I believe were as oblivious to the race issues around us as I was. Of course, I credit that to my parents who taught me to be kind and respectful to everyone, but to be aware of how others perceived me as well. What in the world does that even mean to a second or third grader who just wants to go to school to learn, then come home to go outside and play?! I hadn’t a clue.

After our six year stint in Minnesota, my father’s job moved us to Cleveland, Ohio where I still reside. It wasn’t until we moved here to Cleveland that I really realized there was no one like me in our old neighborhood or schools. As I reflected, I realized I was literally the only black child in my elementary school! My older brother was the only one in his junior high (until another young man came right before we moved) and our oldest brother was the only one from our neighborhood to attend the high school. He remembers some other black students being bussed in from a neighboring city, but he was the only one from our community. We all have at least one recollection of being called the “N” word during our time there and I later heard stories of a neighbor who thought it clever to dress up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and leave a burnt cross in front of our home for Halloween. I suppose it’s safe to assume that some were not pleased to have us there and still did not believe in equality for all.

My parents did well shielding me as much as possible from the degradation they endured during their lifetime and, parenthetically, still existed after the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’ve now been exposed to a very diverse school here in Cleveland and I’m not quite sure how to respond. I want to make friends, but I find out quickly that I’m not “black” enough for them. “Why do you talk ‘white’?”, they’d ask. They’d taunt me with comments like, “You’re an Oreo!” and “You’re a white girl!” Well, what is this? Why are these kids being so mean to me! I’m just being me! I had no idea how to handle this at all!

imageI couldn’t help but think of my scholars in that moment. Remembering how ostracized and alone I felt going through elementary school, I wondered… In a school that is just about 80% minority (60% Hispanic, 10% black, and 9% multiracial),  are my students impacted by the fact that, other than me, there is no one like them? I should be clear that, yes, we do have paraprofessionals that speak Spanish and we have other staff that are minorities, but working in the classroom, right on the front line, responsible for making certain all standards are mastered…there is no one like them. I wonder if they feel understood? I wonder if they feel valued? I wonder if this impacts how they receive their education?

This is not the first time I’ve had these queries. In fact, I have them quite often when I walk into my classroom where 18 of my 19 students are minority and 13 of those are Hispanic. Now, I took Spanish in high school and passed, but I am by no means fluent in the language. But, oh, how I wish I were. Can you imagine the connections I’d be able to make with my scholars? Even though I know a little bit of Spanish, it’s certainly not enough to have a great impact on my instruction.

Not only am I unable to speak the language, I cannot relate to what it’s like to be living as a migrant, I’ve never been enticed to be in a gang, I wasn’t born into poverty, and I never wondered where my next meal was coming from. At first glance, I know they look at me and think, “She’s not like us. She won’t understand.” Little do they know, I recognize the feeling more than they, or anyone knows.

It is for these reasons that I’ve made it my business to try to protect my scholars from having the same experiences I’d had. I’ve made it a priority to fill their primary school experiences with positive memories that they will enjoy recalling as opposed to the converse of which I can attest to. So, I compensate for my lack of cultural knowledge and understanding in other areas so that my scholars do not have the perception that there is no one like them.

As with all scholars that enter my room, I take the time to get to know each one of them for who they are. I want to know their favorite subjects, the activities they like, their favorite foods, what makes them happy, and what makes them upset. I get to know them so well that I can generally tell when something is wrong, even when they try to hide it. Likewise, I share my interests, my likes and dislikes. I include them in parts of my life like my children’s birthday celebrations, when a family member is sick, or like the time I was in a car accident. I care about them all immensely and am very protective of their feelings because I get it. I’ve been (and still am) the only one.

As a result, my scholars open up to me about their family living here locally and their family in Mexico. I learn about the different foods from their culture, music, and what school is like for them in Mexico. They love to tell me stories and they do not withhold anything! We have great conversations about our different cultures and I am always genuinely intrigued to learn more. My scholars sense that and I know they appreciate that!

My scholars are more than just a number that identifies them. They have young, immature, yet creative and innovative minds that are thirsting for knowledge! Some are more thirsty than others, but I acknowledge that. I share the difficulties I had in school when I was a youngster, mostly in reading. They look at me with big, bright eyes in wonder. “But, you’re a teacher! You’re smart.” , they say. I explain that it didn’t come easily. You see, what came easily for others, has taken twice as much effort for me. I explained that when there are barriers that seem to get in your way, that’s when you have to work harder at getting past it and getting past it is possible. I assure them that they are smart too and is the reason I refer to them as “scholars”. I want them to hear that they are smart and to embrace it. It may not seem like I’m doing a lot, but I guarantee, through my experiences and my management, my scholars have made a connection and have a vision of hope and a belief of greatness.

I’ve made a commitment and as long as I am alive and able, my scholars will never feel alone in their challenges, nor alone in their sorrows, nor alone in their successes. None of my scholars will ever feel targeted, ostracized, or left out while in my classroom. They won’t see race, religion, or ethnicity as a barrier from the greatness that awaits them, but will know that it exists beyond the walls of our class.

Although I know first hand what it feels like to have no one like me, I also realized later in life that this was not an excuse not to try. I’ve learned that one cannot allow their circumstances to define who they are or to determine their destiny! This is the mantra I live by and that I share with my scholars. So when they leave the reins of my classroom, it is my hope that they do so believing in their greatness. I want them to look back on their primary school years knowing they were not alone because there was, after all, at least one in the school that was…just like them.

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A Special Thanks from Transitions

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A year ago TODAY, I launched this educational blog. Twenty-eight posts later (24 of which were written exclusively by me), I continue to transparently share my educational experiences and life lessons. It remains my incessant hope that through my sharing, I will incite other educators to reflect upon their own instructional practices and, in turn, result in a change or modification of those current practices as well.

I have grown a great deal through writing this blog. Opening myself has not been easy, however, it has helped me to learn more about myself as an educator and as a person. It has helped me to look at my instructional practices differently. It’s helped me become a stronger educator without a doubt.

So, today, on this one year anniversary, I want to say thank you on behalf of Transitions Educational Consulting. Thank you for engaging with me through my blog. Thank you for following and offering comments of support and encouragement. Thank you for sharing my experiences with others. Thank you for helping me grow and opening yourselves to new opportunities for growth as well.

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Your support is very much appreciated! Keep reading, keep following, keep sharing. Thank you again.
#Transitions #ExpectGreatness

 

Transitions

The 27th Line

Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

Tomorrow my students will take their first round of STAAR testing in Writing, a subject I teach twice a day. The test is scored by their responses to 40 multiple-choice revising and editing questions along with 2 essays—one narrative and one expository.

Although the Writing test is one of three they must pass in the 7th grade (along with Reading and Math), it was important to me to communicate to my students that it doesn’t mean that much to me.

Allow me to explain. I have known my students for 8 months. I spend more time each day with them than with anyone else. I teach some of them for 3 hours a day (the lucky ducks who have me for Reading, AVID, and Language Arts).

They are more aware of my quirks than anyone else (including myself—apparently I have an “about-to-go-off” face). They have taught me more…

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Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

morning. What a surprise.

November 4, 2013…the day I published my introductory blog. It’s been 7 months since I decided this blog would be the way I would impact social change in education. Eight months after I successfully defended my doctoral study and 6 months after I was conferred my degree in Teacher Leadership, I wrote that very first blog. Contrary to what some may believe, a principal or superintendent is not the dream I pursue. Instead, I would rather find a position working in curriculum/professional development in which I could work with teachers in and out of the classroom or in a higher education setting teaching pre-service teachers. However, that is currently a dream deferred and I am okay with that because I have since been led in another direction. I have prayed for direction. I have prayed for God to order my steps.

Allow me to take you back to the months preceding the inception of this blog. At the beginning of the school year, I was very much out of sorts. After finishing my degree, I was confident that I would receive the position I desired whether it be in my current district or an outside district. I had applied and interviewed for many positions. Rejection is ALWAYS difficult to deal with, but the one that was most upsetting for me was the one I received from the very district that helped me complete my doctoral degree. When I received the news that someone else had received the position, I was crushed! Not because of who was chosen, but because of who wasn’t! What in the world?! I knew there must be something else for me to accomplish in the classroom, but I certainly didn’t like this fate set before me. As a result, I started the year filled with anger and resentment. I wanted no parts of anyone or anything! Everyone felt the disdain expelling from the air around me. My grade level team especially. Very unfair, I know, but I didn’t know how else to deal at the time. Somehow, I had to find a way to release and regroup. So, in an effort to keep myself immersed in leadership roles, I chose to fill my plate with leadership opportunities. I thought it was a good idea at the time. Yeah…it didn’t quite play out the way I envisioned. Not at all.

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It probably took me until early October to end my itty-bitty pity party. I was helping my sister in law develop a blog for her early education class when it hit me like a ton of bricks! That’s it!! It was at that moment that I decided I could do what made me happy whether I was in a desirable position or not. It was at that very moment that my blog was created. Shortly after that, in December, I made the decision to work towards starting my own business and in January, 2014 with the support and encouragement of my husband, my family, and some great friends, the foundation was laid to establish Transitions Educational Consulting, LLC, dedicated to providing professional development for all educators by focusing on current issues in education and school improvement. Maybe this was what I was intended to do. The problem would lie in the fact that developing the business would be especially difficult while working in a classroom. None the less, there had to be a reason that I was still in the classroom and developing a business at the same time. God has a plan, right? So, I continued with my plans and took on several leadership roles in an effort to continue obtaining as much leadership experience as I could. In return, I would share my many experiences (highs and lows), my lessons, and my reflections with other educators across the nation! At the risk of exposing my imperfections, flaws, successes, and/or celebrations, I became transparent in that moment, in every conceivable way, in order to help other educators, like myself, grow. I have to say, this blog has been the major high point of my school year. I enjoy sharing with you all, learning from and engaging with so many of you about our profession. It is what has kept me going.

In an effort to further grow my leadership skills (probably more so to sooth my aching ego), I volunteered to sit on the Building Leadership Team, the District Leadership Team, to lead the Climate Committee and to be a Resident Educator Mentor for two first year teachers! Yeah, I pretty much took the plunge! In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was trying to prove or better yet, whom I was trying to prove it to, but this is the road I chose to travel. With my plate filled to capacity, it ultimately became more than I could handle. As with any full plate, some things receive more time and attention than others do and some things simply get left behind. But, I chose to do all of this, so I had to continue to try to manage it all. The one thing that I claim as my passion, educating and developing effective teachers, became my greatest let down of the year! Of course I am my biggest critic, but it is what it is. I found that, while working with teachers is exactly what I intend to do with my future, it turned out that it was not my current focus. It’s difficult to explain or even understand how that could be. I just knew that I had to release something, and soon! Next school year, something has to change in order for me to continue to reach other educators.

The year has been filled with vicissitudes, as is every year. I’ve made great strides and I’ve endured some intense disappointments. I’ve been told I was unsupportive on the low end and awe inspiring on the high end. I’ve heard that I take things personally and am sensitive, but also have been acknowledged for my strength, courage, and reflective insight. I have even been told that the completion of my doctoral degree would elicit appreciation from some while others would do their best to depreciate it! I have let a few down, but have lifted and motivated SO MANY more! This year, there have been a whirlwind of emotions and changes! All of which, I might add, have made me MUCH stronger and wiser.

As with everything, I have learned a few things along the way. I cannot even begin to share the number of applications I have submitted, the number of interviews, and the number of rejections I’ve received. I know there have been many, MANY jobs. JOBS! Let me pin this here for clarification purposes. A job is a noun, a thing. In particular, a job is defined by the qualifications someone else determines and is subject to change based on someone else’s needs at that time. Let me be clear in saying that this is my perception, my personal reflection, my personal experience with…jobs. A job may or may not align with one’s long-term goals or passion, especially on paper, but because other people determine what “the job” is, there seems no certainty that one will ever truly be a good fit for “the job”. What a profound realization that is.

I have learned that even though I have made mistakes, I am not lacking in knowledge, value, or worth. It amazes me that once you receive a doctoral degree, some expect you to be omniscient in knowledge. When, in actuality, it is my opinion that this degree has made me more willing and open to learning even more than ever before. A doctoral degree is not the cake topper of education. On the contrary, it uncovers an unyielding need to explore the depths of all there is still to learn. Knowing this, I will not allow anyone or anything devalue my worth or my degree another day! No way!

Lastly, I acknowledge that change is ALWAYS occurring and I know that change is difficult. It seems that this year has been filled to the brim with change! I have learned so much about myself as a person and as a professional. I know that I will no longer allow “jobs” to define my future. I have committed to continuing to create my own opportunities through Transitions! It may take longer than I anticipated, but I am pressing on. I AM the creator of my future! I will make adjustments where necessary and changes when needed as I continue on the path that God has set for me. I have come to realize with each new understanding, each opportunity, and every new day…nothing changes, if nothing changes.

 

From Deliberate Ignorance to Intentional Awareness

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The bottom line is that most U.S. schools have no plan to provide the sorts of classroom instruction that at-risk kindergartners need. Neither high-quality, extensive professional development for kindergarten teachers nor expert tutorial instruction for at-risk kindergartners is on the agenda at this point. This means that most schools deliberately create a pool of students who will become struggling readers. I say deliberately because, unfortunately, that’s just what it is— deliberate ignorance of what we should do to address the problems of at-risk kindergartners. (Allington, 2011)

In a recent staff meeting, we read the article “What At-Risk Readers Need” by Richard Allington. The above quote stuck with me and elicited some great discussion among a group of us during the meeting. The article discussed the lack of instruction at-risk readers receive within the classroom. Allington asserts that children leaving kindergarten not knowing their letters and letter sounds will more than likely become struggling readers. In fact, at the time of this research, he stated that 66% of students were reading below grade level. Take a moment just to consider that. That means, two out of every three students in your classroom, are reading below grade level! Astounded by this realization, I had to stop and consider my own students and actually found the statement to be consistent with what is happening in my classroom!

My thoughts cling to these two words, “deliberate ignorance”. Who, in their right mind, would practice ignorance, on purpose?! Well, according to Allington, many of us tend to fall prey to this particular form of ignorance. You see, when we know that we don’t know a particular instructional process or strategy, we choose to deal with our ignorance by purposely overlooking those struggling students and focusing on those we know we can help instead. Why? Because it’s the easiest thing to do! It’s just as compelling as it is true, isn’t it? It was for me and, after some thought, I found, and consequently owned the fact that I, myself, have apparently been practicing this “deliberate ignorance” for much of the year!

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Okay, so, what exactly does this “deliberate ignorance” look like? I’ll explain by sharing my personal experience and perception of what it looks like in my own classroom. Earlier in the year, I acknowledged my fear of literacy instruction and development. I mean, I have enough knowledge of how to teach reading and comprehension skills to get by, but, when it comes to grammar, spelling patterns and conventions, this is a struggle for me. It has been for some time now, and although I continue to seek help and guidance, the mere thought of being responsible for the facilitation of my students’ literacy development, scares me to no end. If I fail, they fail, right? Well, with deliberate ignorance, that is exactly what I have already done…failed my struggling readers by providing surface level intervention.

Additionally, when it comes to guided reading groups, although I know and agree with the differentiation of instruction, the actual process of implementing 3-5 small reading groups a week, AND attending to my most bottom three readers, five times a week, during a separate intervention time during the day, along with collecting weekly data for all, has proven to be very overwhelming for me. Because of my overpowering insecurity, rather than attacking the issue, rather than researching, watching, and working to implement a new process, a new strategy, a new routine that would benefit my students…I did what benefited ME instead…and deliberately ignored the developmental needs of my lowest reading students. Listen, ignoring it was a lot easier than addressing it, so, I did what was comfortable. I KNOW I’m not alone in this, so I’m okay with this public admission. In fact, for me, this public realization and disclosure signifies my personal commitment to transform my deliberate ignorance into intentional awareness.

For me, choosing to become intentionally aware is a resolute, determined, uncompromising shift in paradigmatic thinking which will help me truly attend to the individual needs of my students. That means being intentionally aware of how students acquire and develop language, being intentionally aware of how students construct the meaning of vocabulary and being intentionally aware of how students construct meaning from what they are reading rather than simply labeling this with a quantified number or test score. It means tackling the areas of my practice that I fear so much with confidence and purpose. It means getting beyond the surface of my students learning and putting their needs ahead of my own, even when it feels uncomfortable. As I sit and reflect on my students and this year, I believe that becoming intentionally aware will do nothing less than further align my passion with my purpose. My students deserve nothing less than my all, especially when they so often feel that no one else will.

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Well, there you have it. That’s my take on deliberate ignorance. What about you? Is there an area in your practice that you can admit to being deliberately ignorant? If so, turn it around, become intentionally aware instead, and further align your passion with your purpose. Two-thirds of our students depend on it!

How Do You REALLY Feel?

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“These kids…they just don’t get it! They have no respect and they just don’t want to learn! I don’t get paid enough for this!” I would venture to say that we all, at one time or another, have heard, spoken, or had similar thoughts. I’ll be honest…after this last week of school, I may have been liable for walking away from all of it at a moment’s notice. Spring fever has set in and these babies are rambunctious as ever! Is THIS what my life has come to? Several days during the past month, I have reflected on my practice and my approach with my scholars. At this moment, they appear cold and uncaring of their behavior, level of effort, and will to learn. I’ve lost them. They no longer care. “Well, then…if they don’t care…I don’t care.” I think to myself. Then, I question myself. Is this how I’m really feeling?

You see, for the last few weeks, I have been leaving my school and my scholars exhausted, agitated, frustrated, and discouraged. I admit these feelings hover above many of us as a desolate cloud around this time every year. Winter has been long and cold. The students have had no true release of their pent up energy other than however they release it at home or during their P.E. classes since temperatures have been too unbearably cold outside to take them. I would like to consider myself one who works diligently and desperately to make learning fun, but being confined to a classroom for several hours a day, every day, can unsettle even the most knowledgeable, creative teachers and their students. And right now…for me, I’ve thrown my hands up in accepted defeat, saying aloud to my husband, “I’m done! They’ve given up and I just don’t have the energy.” He shakes his head in disagreement, and says, “No. That’s not the type of person you are. That’s not the type of teacher you are. So, what is really going on? How do you really feel?” I look away to hide my frustration, unable to answer.

https://i0.wp.com/www.simplyoasis.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/BangHeadHere.jpgLike the unconditional love I have for my own three children, I find myself wretched with guilt over my current emotional uncertainties and copiously overwhelmed with the amount of love and care I have for this particular group of scholars. I have love for every one of the students that has crossed my path, but this particular group is different for some reason. Different in ways I can explicitly identify, but also different in so many more ways I cannot. Differences in race and ethnicity are the most obvious the moment you walk in my classroom. Learning styles become apparent with daily instruction, which ultimately draws out the differences in students self esteem and self worth. It’s the unseen and unknown differences that probably make what we do the most challenging and, as I’ve come to realize, is the primary source of my current aggravations. As it goes, I am only in control of that which occurs within the walls of my classroom and the school environment, but, oh, how I wish I could control more.

While they are in my presence, I talk to them about hard work, challenging themselves, settling for nothing, changing their thinking, and believing in themselves. I show them what empathy for others looks like, good manners and respect as well. We are a family, so we practice lifting each other with supportive words and gestures, as well as further strengthening our bond by not only learning, but by having fun in every aspect of our instructional day. I guess this is why seeing them out of sorts, rejecting everything I have worked so hard to instill in them, hurts so very much. You heard me refer to this earlier as “Spring fever”, as most educators do, but my humanness calls it disrespectful and inconsiderate! This past week, they have shown nothing but ungratefulness and I, for one, have had enough! I am done! I have other things I could be doing and focusing on rather than going the extra mile for a group of unappreciative “other people’s children”! This…I don’t need it! And…yet…I can’t get any one of them off my mind, out of my every thought, or the depths of my beating heart. I just cannot shake them.

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Ok. Fine! You want to know how I really feel? Alright then, I’ll tell you.

I am in complete and total awe of the growing potential I see in each of my scholars, not only as individuals, but also as an entire group. I believe that every child has a gift and that every child can learn. I take full responsibility for making certain that each one of those babies, my scholars, believes the same before they leave me at the end of the year. I have tough love for them, but also a gentle love that some of them may feel only when I give it to them. Reprimanding or strong correction, strong encouragement, fist pumps, pats on the shoulder, or even a hug are just some of the ways I show just how much I love and care for my scholars. State and local policies strongly discourage physical contact between teachers and students for reasons I am aware and do understand. However, when mine may be the only source of love and nurturing my scholars receive; there is no question about whether or not to relinquish the gestures. Quite frankly, the thought never persisted very long. Simply put, I will not be an added source of rejection for my scholars.

How do I feel? When my students are upset, it makes me upset, especially when I am unable to determine the root of the problem. When they are crying or someone hurts their feelings, I respond very much like a mother bear with every intention of protecting them from all hurt and harm, in and out of school. I feel strongly that my scholars’ circumstances, whatever they may currently be, do not have to be the determining factors of the future they wish for themselves. My passion for my scholars runs deeper than it has any year prior. So, even on the days I want to throw up my hands and give it all up, I know that my inability to get them off my mind tells me that I need them as much as they need me. It is confirmation that for this particular moment in my life, at this particular moment in time, on this particular day, I am right where I am supposed to be, and really…I would not change a thing. And that, my friends, is how I really feel.

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That’s INSANE!!

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By now, you have gotten to know your students pretty well. You know when they are sick, when they are happy or sad, when they have mastered a skill, and certainly, when they are struggling. By now, you should know their areas of strength and their areas of weakness. You are also probably looking at your own instruction and comparing the predicted success of this year’s class with that of your last year’s class. Ok, well…maybe that’s just me, but it seems to never fail. I always seem to compare my current practice and outcomes with past practice and outcomes.

You may be looking at this side-eyed, thinking this isn’t you at all. You might be thinking that there is no need to compare because you are doing what you have always done and, well…that is precisely my point. I know you have heard the saying, “you need to work smarter, not harder” at some point during your training. Don’t you remember the half-day teacher in-service you attended to help you put together your instructional strategy “tool box”? Or the professional development suggesting that you refrain from “reinventing the wheel” because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” I have heard them more often than not! I have always interpreted these phrases to mean, do nothing more and do nothing less. Use what you already have and don’t tarry too long on any one skill.  How incredibly insane is that thinking?

For the life of me, I cannot see how any of that makes any sense. I’d like to think it was the many opportunities I had to obtain an array of practical, constructivist approaches and experiences that helped me to realize how truly insane those phrases were. In the end, I learned that there is no growth, personal or professional, in this complacent way of thinking.  Every year, we receive a new group of students. They look different. They act different. They learn and process differently. Yet, we reach into our bag of “tricks” and teach these different students the SAME WAY we always do, expecting different learning outcomes. This IS the definition of insanity as defined by Albert Einstein. If our students continuously change, why wouldn’t we change our instructional practices right along with them? We think it is because using what we already have and what we already know makes what we do easier, don’t we? But, how easy is this really?

When I think about “easy” and not “reinventing the wheel”, two skills come to mind that my students seem to struggle with every year and the tools I use every year to address them. The first skill that comes to mind is making an inference. When practicing inference, I have always used a set of inference cards I obtained from my time working in my previous district. The cards provide a short scenario and then a few guiding questions which allow students to infer (guess or draw a conclusion) what the scenario is really about. For example, a card may describe a scenario similar to the following:

Three brothers lived in the same town not far from each other, each with their own residence. They each built their own homes, but they each had different tastes in design and only one built his home with the best of the best materials. The brothers worked hard every day to outsmart the town bully who would never leave them alone. The bully always followed them around trying to ransack their homes.

Now, you may recognize this short piece as a rendition of the fairy tale, “Three Little Pigs”, but I found out quite quickly that when students have not been exposed to these early literature pieces (and there are many that have not…you would be surprised!), my inference cards are no longer useful. Yet and still, these cards make the list of activities to do every year! Why is that? If kids are unfamiliar with the literature and the cards bring confusion, why do they continue to make the list? That’s insane, right? Using the same strategy, with a different group of students; using the same instruction, with different learning styles and experiences; expecting a different outcome from the lesson when it is clear that following through with the lesson in this manner does nothing but further cloud students’ understanding. It is, by all appearances, a never-ending and all too familiar cycle.

The second skill that comes to mind is teaching fractions. During this unit, I generally have each of my students color and cut out fraction bars to use as a resource. I use them to teach equivalency and comparing fractions. It has proven to be an excellent resource for students to have. Well, that is…when students cut them out accurately and are able to keep up with them in their desks. Yet, every year, I have those few students who lose their fraction bars or cut them out inaccurately. And, every year, this fraction bar activity makes the list of things to do for the fraction unit. Even though it causes me unnecessary stress and tends to be more of a waste of time, I continue to use this activity thinking it will be better this time around. When really, it is just…insane!!

Here is another example of insanity. Every year, prior to state testing, teachers in the testing grades practiced test-taking strategies by teaching to the test. It is, again, what we have always done. Many of you have probably done something similar. For my school though, lack of supplemental funding to pay teachers stifled any hope of an after school program. Therefore, it was necessary to use the time provided during school in an attempt to close the achievement gap that inherently existed in our school. The teachers practiced with their individual classes and the principal practiced with entire grade levels. Now, don’t get me wrong, this strategy has been successful in the past, but more recently, not so much. Even with the effort we put towards preparing our students for the state assessment, our scores have not met adequate yearly progress and as a result, we have been at the “Academic Watch” designation level for years. Placed on a school improvement plan, the approach to close our achievement gap has not deviated very far from what has typically been done, until this current school year. Year after year, state assessment practice and preparation has looked the same…teaching to the test. Well, it turns out that this process, for us…drove us insane! We were doing the same thing, every year, but still were not able to get ourselves out of Academic Watch! Have we made some progress? Well, yes, I acknowledge that we have. But, not enough to be recognized by the state, let alone our own district.

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So, how do you avoid going insane? You commit to making a conscious change. We often complain that change is so difficult, but I submit to you that this is only the case when we are not committed to the change. When you get tired of wearing your hair a certain way, you change it and wear it differently. When you get tired of eating hamburgers, you eat something different. When you get tired of watching television, you turn it off and do something different! When your workout becomes too normal and monotonous, you change it up and do something different! When it is something that matters to you, you change for your own benefit. We have committed ourselves to the lives of children and to the field of education. When we took those classes, completed our student teaching, and passed that test, we vowed that educating children was our passion. Why, then, have we fallen prey to the stagnated mindset of “why reinvent the wheel”? Metaphorically speaking, we “reinvent the wheel” in order to acknowledge and accept students’ differences and to meet them where they are when they come to us. Therefore, we are essentially making changes in order to refine our wheel, making it better and more suitable for our current needs, rather than reinventing it.

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The fact of the matter is, the state of education is constantly changing. We see this with the transition from state benchmarks and indicators to the new Common Core State Standards Initiative. We see this in the shift from the two-year field experience/student teaching of old to the 3-year Resident Educator and Mentoring program requirements of new. Even the teacher evaluation process has changed. There are always changes. Difficult or not, we have chosen this field of education and committed to educating all children. So let us get recommitted. Let us take a closer look at our “tool boxes”. Are the contents of your box providing rigorous learning opportunities for ALL students? Is it really preparing our students for college? Are the skills meaningful and necessary for life? If the answer is no, then it is our job to change what we are doing! Change your instruction. Change your approach. Educators…commit to a change. Anything else is simply INSANE!

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Check Your Approach

Approach

It’s 3:20pm on the Friday before winter break.  I’m driving home in complete silence, thinking. Every part of my soul wants to be thinking about the holiday parties I will attend, the fellowship with family I will enjoy, and of course, the rest I so eagerly have been longing for. However, this is not what consumes my thoughts.  A student has touched my inner core this week.  I will come back to this shortly.

As I drove along, encased within my own silence, I began thinking of the “Scholar Statement” I wrote over the past summer.  My students recite it every morning and it reads as follows:

2002 Doc Hurley Scholars

I am a Scholar.

I can DO anything, LEARN anything, BE anything.

I cannot fail and WILL NOT fail,

because failure is not an option.

I am in control of my future and my destiny.

I am a Scholar.

I am the FUTURE.

I wrote this after spending some time thinking of ways to help my students change the way they think about learning.  I had recently visited a local charter school and done some research on the Uncommon Schools. I was drawn to the approach the schools use to help students focus on a future filled with success. I found that inside the walls of these schools, student classrooms are typically named for colleges and students referred to as scholars, thus committing to reinvent students’ thinking from that of a fixed mindset to that of a growth mindset. In a 2012 interview, Carol Dweck clarifies the difference between the two mindsets as follows:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it (retrieved December 24, 2013 from onedublin.org).

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So, the approach of the Uncommon Schools now became MY approach. The Scholar Statement became our daily affirmation. I needed to empower them. I needed for them to embrace the greatness that many of them had yet to realize was within them.  They are all Scholars and are referred to as such no matter where we are or what we are doing in the school.  The Scholar Statement is a reminder of my expectations for them and the expectations for themselves and each other. There is greatness filling the walls of my classroom.

With that, let me share this interaction I had with one particular scholar during our last week of 2013 together.  I will call this young man Victor. On the Thursday before break, the school attends the annual winter program. This year, K-2 students, with the exception of about 17 of my scholars, performed the program.  The music teacher asked if this select group of scholars would assist the kindergarteners with one song during the program, as well as greet parents and act as runners for other classes in between songs. Of course, like a proud mother, I agreed to allow the scholars to participate. Victor was among the chosen.

Now, Victor is one of six siblings. He’s the third oldest. He is known to cause mischief and to instigate drama. He is also very bright, athletic, and funny.  You see, I found in his academic records that Victor has the documented potential of performing in the advanced level on the state’s standardized assessment.  His scores have been on the decline since 3rd grade.  His strength is in the area of mathematics, particularly with problem solving.  He especially enjoys the challenge of solving 6th grade problems. Reading is not his best friend, but he trudges through it, only to pacify me. However, this can all change if Victor is having a difficult morning. There are times when Victor refuses to work and instead pouts in protest to the daily assignments. That’s quite a difference from the description above, isn’t it?  His inability to process frustration often times blocks his capability to complete his work.  There are times when he is confronted with something that pushes him straight to the point of giving up.  He doesn’t believe that there is more to his mindset. It’s fixed! So, rather than exerting more effort, he reverts to behavioral disruptions instead.

Today, the Thursday before break, Victor is in his all too familiar mischievous mood. He is all over the place, excited, off task, and in somebody’s ear about anything insignificant (albeit significant enough to get under anyone’s skin)!  He has become quite skilled at doing things under the radar. Normally, I can detect even his slightest thought of becoming disruptive, but today with so much going on, he is two steps ahead of me.

As we waited for the other grade levels to arrive for the performance, I noticed one of my girls crying uncontrollably. I had been sitting in view of them and hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary, so I was aghast at the sight. I knelt down and asked what was wrong. She proceeded to tell me through each crying breath that Victor had been calling her names and how extremely tired she was of him messing with her. Victor is avoiding eye contact with me at all cost as I speak with her, so I know…something is up.  He’s even talking to himself under his breath and I know he’s trying to convince himself that he doesn’t care that she is telling me what he has done. My stare has now become a glare and Victor’s eyes finally meet mine.  I motion for him to take a seat on the bleachers and allow the young lady to go to the restroom to get herself together.

I am SO upset with Victor and I begin to scold him. “Scholars are respectful to each other and to other people!” I scolded. Then, I stopped. I had to approach this differently. He’s been yelled at and scolded enough.  Probably more than imaginable but that is an uncertainty and is irrelevant at this particular moment. What is important right at this moment is the manner in which I choose to address Victor about what has happened between him and his peer. I waited a few moments before speaking with him. We both needed a moment.

need new approach to IT,

Moments have passed and I think I’m ready, so I call Victor over to me and away from his peers. I ask him what that incident was about and he admits he called her names, but only AFTER she called him names first. Now, this next statement will seem a bit cliché, but I have to say it…she’s the student that never says a word and is never in trouble, so needless to say, it was difficult for me to believe this accusation. I shared my reservation with Victor and he understood my dilemma.  I thanked him for his honesty and understanding at that moment. It was at this point that I shifted the conversation from his admitted negative behavior to his positive and greater potential.

I told Victor that he was filled with greatness. I told him how smart he was, in addition to being athletic and humorous. I told him that he could do anything he wanted to do, but that he blocks his greatness with some of the choices he makes inside and outside of school.  I explained that hurting people is just a way of blocking the good that is inside of him.  I tell him that it’s ok to be smart and to show others that he is smart.  “You are and are allowed to be a great example for your peers! Don’t be ashamed of your ability.  Use your greatness to change the world around you.” I continued. Victor said nothing. Tears began to stream down his face instead.  I asked him why he was crying. He again said nothing.  I asked if he had ever been told that he was smart and filled with greatness. As he wiped his tears, he still said nothing. Only shook his head indicating he had not. My heart sank at that very moment. I have been thinking about Victor and that conversation ever since.

The following day, the last day before break, Victor was…different. This is the day we all expect shenanigans and over zealousness from our students, so I expected Victor to respond in-kind. This time, I was wrong. Victor came in reserved and stoic. Rather than sitting with the other young men that had congregated to work on a holiday packet, Victor sat alone. Don’t get me wrong, he did not withdraw himself entirely. I could, however, tell that he was making good choices, purposefully and consciously, throughout the day. It took my reflecting on the events of the day to realize what had happened. Victor had heard what I said and had begun thinking about his potential.  He even gave me a hug and wished me a Merry Christmas before he left. The best gift I could ever receive. I have to admit; I cannot help but wonder if this change in mindset will continue once we return from break. I expect that there will be more to be done with my Victor and more to this story after break, but for now, at least he and I both know that change is possible, there is hope, and there is a future for him.

My reflection reveals that our approach, as educators, matters.  What we say and how we say it, what we do and how we do it…matters.  Our choice of actions and words can have a transformational affect on our students’ lives. They can be interpreted as s/he cares or s/he doesn’t. One word, one phrase is all it takes to make or break them. One word, one phrase can change the mindset of our students in the blink of an eye. That’s quite a bit of power and responsibility, wouldn’t you say? I agree wholeheartedly. However, I also realize that this duty comes with the territory.   We have committed to taking the good with the bad. It is my opinion that we have changed the meaning of that statement. You see, what we frequently find ourselves doing is taking the “good” and the “bad” and using them to label our students as such.  Yes, you’ve done it! We’ve all done it.  “He’s good.” and “She’s bad.” But, let’s be clear, we should not consider “good” and “bad” to be definitions of a student’s behavior but rather an indication of a students inability to communicate their needs and/or the lack of guidance they may or may not receive outside of school.

As I conclude, stop and think about YOUR Victor…or Victoria.  Think about what s/he does and says, the choices s/he makes, the challenges s/he takes you through on a daily basis.  Now, think about how you have responded.  How did you intervene? What was your approach? Know that while you think you may be emotionally connected and have developed a trusting rapport with your students, there may be something buried so deep down that they don’t even realize there is pain inside. We have been charged with the task of helping our students work through their confusion in order to help them realize their potential and free their minds. It is imperative for us to keep this in the forefront of our minds when disruptive behavior outweighs productive behavior. So, the next time YOUR Victor is under everyone’s skin…take a moment…and check your approach.