The True Power of Technology

He told me that this year he wanted a friend.  Just one.

That other kids didn’t like him.

That they made fun of him.  That they were mean.  That they went out of their way to make him feel less than.

That perhaps he had no reason to be alive because no one seemed to care whether he lived anyway.

I told him we did.

He told me that he wanted to be a writer.  That he had all of these stories to share.  To create.  But that no one would care, no one would read them anyway.

So we told him to write.  Write on your blog whatever you want.  Share your story and I will amplify it for you.  And so he did.  He wrote about a prince and his mission.  Asked me to please send it out.  “Will anyone like it?”

So I did and they did.  Teachers and students left comments urging him to write more.  To not leave them waiting for the next installment.  I approved every comment.

He came to me the very next day, “Did you see it, Mrs. Ripp?  They really like me…I must write more.”

And for that moment he saw himself as a writer.  As someone worth knowing.  Not the child that others found strange, or angry, or unfit to be a friend to.  A writer with words that mattered.

And so he wrote.  And he believed that he, too, mattered.

She came to us wearing cat ears.  Then a tail.  A big jester’s hat.

Her laugh was loud but you didn’t it hear it much.  After all, no one else seemed to get the jokes.

She would go on and on about games she played online.  Filling our ears with Minecraft terms that I had no idea about.  I saw the eye rolls from other kids.  The ones who chose not to be at her table.  The ones that whispered.

And we spoke about kindness as if the kids hadn’t heard it all before.

She asked if she could write whatever she wanted and we told her of course.

And so she wrote about Minecraft.  The place where she felt like others got her.  The place where she felt that she had value.  Where others saw her as indispensable and not just as that weird girl.

And so she wrote, Minecraft fanfiction, I had trouble following it and yet her passion, her creativity marked her words. And so I shared, the least I could do, and the very next day she had 85 comments from kids around the world telling her to write more.  To tell them more.  Asking her to be their friend.

She would come up to me to tell me about her latest installment.  About her newfound fans.  She knew that at our school perhaps many wouldn’t see past the hat, the tail, the laugh, but online, she was something.  I told her she was something to us as well.

At the end of the year, she wrote a speech detailing how friends found online were true friends.  How sometimes you needed the online world to make you feel found.  That she had found her community in the games she played, in the worlds she created.  That she would have never felt as accepted, as valued, as she did online.

That technology meant that she was more than what those face-to-face saw her as.

We bring in technology thinking it will add the next level skills to our classrooms.  That technology will help our teaching come alive, our curriculum have a deeper meaning.  That it may “hook” the kids as if they are fish, keep them engaged, get them ready for the future.

And yes, those are valid reasons.

But the true power in technology is not just the readiness.  The skills.  The playing around with tools to create something impossible.

It is the power to be seen.

To not be alone.

To feel that in the world, someone values you.  That someone out there gets you.

Our oldest daughter cemented her best friendship through Minecraft.  They play together, side by side, and it drew them tighter together as Thea faced the bullies at her school.

When I think of technology, I don’t just see it as a tool.  I see it as a way for kids to be seen.  For kids to be found.  For kids to not be alone.  And for adults too.

Someone out there values us.  Someone out there, who wonders whether they have worth, is waiting for all of us.  Technology means we don’t have to be alone anymore.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

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Unintended Consequences

“But I don’t have to read, Mom, it’s Friday.”

Our daughter looks at us with fire in her eyes, refusing the graphic novel I am holding toward her.

“What do you mean, it’s Friday, what does this have to do with anything?  Of course, you are going to read, we always read.”

“Not on Friday’s…”

“Why not?”

“Because my teacher tells me I don’t have to do any homework…”

And so my daughter, the reader, refused to read when I asked.  Every weekend, every time.  All because in her mind, reading was homework and if her teacher said they did not have to do any homework, then they did not have to do any reading.  Have I ever shared that my daughter is as stubborn as me?

Now the funny thing is, I know that her teacher did not mean to not read.  She had, instead, declared to the students that she did not want to give them homework for the weekend.  A policy we loved.  Our daughter just took it a step further, and no reading over the weekend became an unintended consequence of an otherwise marvelous policy.

And so the thing is, I find myself wondering about unintended consequences and how often do they play out in our classrooms and we just don’t see them? Or worse, we refuse to see them wrecking real havoc under the surface.  We refuse to see how these little decisions we have made with the best of intentions, actually end up doing more harm than good and then hope that maybe our experiences are simply wrong and at some point, students will, surely, be fine?

Take reading logs for examples.  I used to have students do reading logs with parent signatures, because I thought that’s what you did for reading homework.  The reading logs gave me a quick way to see who read at home.  To see their practice, or so I thought.  I used them as a way to reward, to praise, to even separate those who did from those who did not.  My intentions were noble; reading logs meant accountability and accountability meant more time spent reading.  This had to surely be a good thing, and yet, what I had failed to notice was how reading logs meant reading for some was now something they measured in minutes,  eager to shut the book once they got to the 20 minutes.  Eager to fulfill their duty and not read until the next night required it.  Reading logs now meant that if they didn’t have a signature then they surely must not have read, that perhaps parents were not as invested as I had first assumed they were.  Reading logs meant I had “good” kids who followed the requirements and “bad” kids who bucked the system.  Reading logs meant that our conversations changed; it wasn’t about loving reading, it was about why the reading log was not filled out or why they didn’t read more at home.  It was about how I couldn’t just take their word for it, I had to have the proof, even if I thought some of those signatures didn’t really mean what they were supposed to mean.

I had never intended for this to happen, but it did.  Unfrotunately, it took me several years of using them to understand the damage they were doing for some kids.

And that’s it.  

How many other systems and procedures do  we put in place without really examining the unintended consequences of these procedures?  How often do we follow the system rather than question it simply because we are not sure where to even start with our questions?  How often do we not pilot something but instead implement it as law, never to look back and examine whether it actually did more good than harm?

How often do we leave systems and procedures in place because they are not inherently, or glaringly, that bad, and so we may as well just leave them in place?

Our kids deserve more than this.  They deserve for us to ponder.  To question the very foundations that we put in place for our classrooms to function, for our schools to operate.  They deserve for us to start questioning everything, even if it takes time.  They deserve for us to realize that we are, indeed, just human and that as humans we sometimes make flawed decisions where we fail to see what we really have decided.

A constant factor of education is change, so why not initiate it ourselves?  Why not start the line of questioning with the very practices we implement ourselves so that we may uncover the truth about how they really work?  Why not examine our unintended consequences and do something about the things we already have in place, rather than always searching for the new?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

On Which Reading Program to Purchase

I was recently asked if I could give a 2-minute answer to which reading program would be best for a district.  While I was flummoxed at first; 2 minutes, that’s not enough time to discuss the needed components?!  I quickly realized that I really don’t need even two minutes to answer this question, because here’s the thing…

If a program does not leave time for independent reading every day – don’t buy it.

If a program does not leave space for students to self-select their books independent of their level or Lexile at any time – don’t buy it.

If a program does not leave room for teacher’s to adapt it to the needs of their students – don’t buy it.

If a program tells you that students should sit in front of a computer every single day to be successful – don’t buy it.

If a program is based on short segments of texts, filled with lots and lots of things to do, with no room to build stamina or to go beyond the obvious in their answers – don’t buy it.

If a program dictates that every single teacher must follow every single lesson with fidelity or their students will not be successful – don’t buy it.

So what should we look for instead?

A program that supports choice, independent reading time, small group, one on one conferring, as well as lessons for ideas.

A program that focuses on the needs of the individual as much as the needs of the group.

A program that leaves teachers and students alike thinking that reading and being a reader is something good.

A program that builds hope for all readers to be readers.  That balances out between reading for skill and reading for pleasure.  A program with an emphasis on developing reader identity as well as reader skill.  A program that doesn’t kill the love of reading but instead bolsters it.

That is the program you should buy.  And then don’t ever forget that fidelity should always remain to the students and not to the program itself to quote my Assistant Superintendent, Leslie Bergstrom.

And if you are not sure if that is the program you have; ask the very students who are forced to endure it.  Ask the teachers who have to implement it.  Ask the caregivers and parents who hear the stories.  They will always tell you the answer if you are ready to hear it.

Ps:  Wondering what research says about best practices in reading instruction? Here are a few articles; one from NAESP, one from ILA and one from NCTE

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

How Do You Reach Your Vulnerable Readers?

This morning I was asked what we do for our most vulnerable readers to help them be successful.  As I took a moment to ponder this questions, I realized a big thing;  what we do for the most vulnerable is also what we do for all of our readers.

We have fidelity to our students, not to our programs.

I work in a district that believes in fidelity to the students and not to the program.  Think about that for a second.  Oregon School District believes in staying true to what the children need and not what an outside purchased program, no matter how research-based it is, tells us what to do.  We use components from incredible programs, but they do not dictate our decisions; our students do.

We place them with amazing teachers.

We give them the best teachers we have to work on interventions.  These teachers know their research and use best practices.  They are given longer books, they have choice, they do meaningful work.  We make sure they work on stamina in books, not chopped up passages to just check their skills.

And we do not put them in front of computer programs.  We need our students to read, to think, to work through a text and then come out on the other side with a deeper understanding.  We need face-to-face interactions to gauge what they really know, not what a computer may think.  There is no replacement for a qualified teacher and so every child deserves one, especially those who are not where we would hope they would be.

We have them surrounded by books. 

We have a beautiful school library, staffed by a fully certified librarian, and we also promote classroom libraries.  As Neumann researched, having a classroom library can increase reading up to 60% and so we believe in the power of great books within their reach at all times.  As one student told me Friday, “Mrs. Ripp, I love that we have great books right here, I never have to go far to find my next read.”

We are also mindful of the books we surround them with.  Inspired by the word of Dr. Simms Bishop, Chad Everett, Nerdy Book Club, and so many other passionate advocates for better library experiences, we think of how our library shapes our students’ identities.  Can they see themselves?  Can they see others?  Who is represented, how are they represented, and who is not?  All of this pushes us forward as we purchase more and better books.

We are careful with our language. 

I flinch a little whenever I hear the term “struggling readers.”  As Donalyn Miller has taught me, there is little hope in that term.  How about vulnerable?  How about careful?  How about developing?  How about just readers?  Our language promotes a growth mindset so we have to be aware of what our language does to shape their self-image.  How do we speak about our readers when they are around or not around?

 

We cultivate patience.

It is really hard to not lose hope when you have implemented best practices (choice, time, books, and a reading community) and then see little results.  And yet, sometimes we are working against years of a negative reading identity.  We are working on catching up years of stalled reading experiences.  We are working against unseen forces that derail us any chance they get.  So we must be patient.  Patient with the child who is trying.  Patient as the teacher hoping for results.  I have said it before and will say it again; sometimes we are just the tourniquet that stops the growth of the hatred of reading or the negative reading experiences, not the teacher that will see the actual seeds of change grow and bloom.

We balance our purchasing decisions.

While we may be going one to one with Chromebooks, my principal will also tell you that she always has money to purchase books.  Our literacy coach asks us if we want more books because if we do then she will get us some.  This speaks volumes because if a district is spending money on technology without spending money on books there is a serious imbalance in priorities.   And if that is the case, a conversation needs to be started about what is more important?

So when I think of what we do for our vulnerable readers, I once again see the thread that runs through our entire school community; every child a reader, every single day.  Every child deserves the best chance.  Every child deserves the best teachers.  The best experiences.  The best, period.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

The 30 Day Unslump Yourself Challenge

If you are like me, January brings excitement, positivity but also exhaustion.  This quiet month is one where I sometimes find my energy running low, my creativity running out, and rather than take the time to take care of myself I barrel on as if that will do the trick.  So this year, I realized I needed to challenge myself.  Challenge me to take better care of myself.  Challenge me to slow down.  Challenge me to focus more on meaningful interactions, rather than hurried conversations.  And yet I know that as soon as I say I will do it, I just don’t.  Such is life.  Such is so many of our realities.

So I created a 30-day challenge to unslump myself.  To remember to take care of me.  You are more than welcome to join me or create your own.  My challenge starts on Monday.  I cannot wait.  To see the challenge document, go here.

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If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

On Flexible Seating

Our classroom, room 235D, is an open door classroom.  Anyone is allowed in to see us learn together at any time.  Our classroom is nothing fancy.  We have tables covered in whiteboard paper, that has seen better days.  We have chairs.  We have yoga balls.  We have ratty old beanbags that are definitely on their last leg.  A few pillows of varying sizes.  And we have books, many, many books.

That’s what you might see, but if you stayed awhile, you may notice something else; freedom.  Shared control.  Freedom to sit where we would like.  Freedom to choose who we work with.  Freedom to move the furniture around.  A sense of shared control over our shared space so that we all can feel comfortable together.  It is nothing much but is ours and you would think that the students would realize just how unfancy it is.  And yet, every year when I ask my students how I could change our classroom, the answers are similar, “It’s fine, Mrs. Ripp. Perhaps a few more pillows. We like it the way it is…”

While I have a milelong wish list of furniture I wish we could get, I find comfort in their answer.  The room is working for us, as well as it can.  The control that they have over what the room looks like is working for them.  The flexible seating that has been a part of our learning for years, works for us.

And I see it spread across the globe; the push for more innovative seating.  For yoga balls and wiggle chairs, pillows, and getting rid of desks.  On Pinterest I drool over classrooms I will never be able to recreate, and yet, I wonder; how often does the furniture actually match the teaching?  How often does the furniture match the educational philosophy that needs to be in place for this to truly be flexible?

Because the reality is that while many districts are gladly spending money on new furniture in order to promote innovation, the educational philosophy in many of those same districts is not changing. The students are still sitting through a scripted curriculum, where teachers have limited choice in how to teach and the students are expected to learn through the same process.

This is the problem in education; we so gladly throw money at new educational initiatives that look great, but then do little to think about our thinking.  And yet, our educational philosophy is what really determines the experience that everyone has within our schools, not the fancy new chairs.  Buying new furniture is easy, changing the way we educate is not, and then we wonder why the furniture ends up being used in the exact same way as the furniture was before.

So I wonder; what good is flexible seating if we don’t also have flexible thinking?

One of the central questions of our year together is for my students to explore how they learn best.  This includes the room manipulation and where in the classroom they need to be to access the learning.  They cannot do this if I am constantly telling them where to sit, how to sit, and also with whom to sit by.  There has to be room for experimentation, bad decisions, and reflection on what works best for them.

So before we invest more of our already limited funds into newfangled furniture, let’s look at what flexible seating should really encompass, here are a few questions to help.

Can the kids move the furniture?

Flexible seating should be flexible both in function but also in where it is used.  If students need to explore how they learn best then deciding where to sit is just as important, if not more so, than what to sit on.   Do they need to move tables into a corner so they can think or will being in the middle of the classroom work better for them?  Will they learn best sitting on the floor in the front or pacing in the back?  Where in the classroom can they access the learning best?

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Do they always need permission?

When permission is tied into flexible seating, we often tend to say “no” to the same kids; the kids who may have made poor decisions in the past.  And while there certainly can be different guidelines at times for some kids, they need to, at some point, go back to having the same blanket permission as everyone else.  Schools are meant to be safe places for kids to experiment with learning, to try new things, to learn about who they are and what they need.  If we constantly limit that for some kids, think of what will happen to their self-advocacy and also their sense of belonging.

Is it choice for all or just for some?

Are kids earning their way into the flexible seating or is it an automatic yes to all?  While there are times I have doubt about some of the choices my students are making, I will tell them to prove it to me.  If they do, then great, if they don’t, then we discuss further.  We have to be careful that flexible seating choices do not become one more way to segregate the kids.  After all, it is often some of my most challenging learners that benefit the most from having a different way to work in the classroom, but we won’t know that if they don’t get a chance to choose.

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Does it encourage new ways of working?

I have seen beautiful classrooms with lots of flexible seating where students work through traditional lessons; teacher-centered, and one process for all.  Where is the innovation in that?  One of the things I love the most is how my students move around the classroom and try new configurations when needed.  Not at all times by any means, but when they need to.  They know they have the tools at hand to move their group onto the floor or a table in the team area.  They know they can make the furniture support their learning rather than work around its limitation. They know to use each other as writing peers, reading partners, or project collaborators because they know that with their choices in seating also comes the choice in who to work with most of the time.  They think about how to work, rather than always look to me to make all of the decisions, thus growing their independence and once again their knowledge of how they learn best.

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Is there choice throughout?

Flexible seating should truly just be the outward indicator of the choice-driven learning that should be happening.  We operate under the five tenets of choice at all times, meaning that I try to give my students as much control and power over how they learn, what they learn, who they learn it with, and how they are assessed.  This is what matters most to me.  Not the yoga balls, not the pillows, not how they can move things around, but that the students feel like they have a shared power and responsibility for what happens in our classroom.  It is a work in progress every single year, yet, at the end of the year, I am always amazed at how far we have come.

So as a new year begins, it is time for us to really reflect on the educational innovation we are pursuing.  If we are looking at adding more flexible seating to our schools, are we also having the educational discussions that need to go with it?  Are we asking ourselves how this will change the way we teach?  The way our students learn?  Are we asking ourselves how this will be better?  Or is it just an outward show of supposed innovation that does not really change the educational experience our students have?

The choice is ours; it is not enough to have great new furniture if we don’t also have new ideas.

PS:  If you are wondering what the research says, here are a few great articles to get you started.  One that discusses the need for our classrooms to match the type of learning experiences we would like to have, so once more focusing on intentionality within our environment.  And another that is a conglomeration of research that discusses the need for students to feel empowered within our classrooms.  And here is another that while lengthy discusses how the way we have students sit can help them learn deeper depending on the activity they are engaged in.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.