With the bustle of April and all of the excitement that that brings, the end of the year is fast approaching. But with that end also comes an inevitable beginning; a summer that calls for reflection, relaxation, re-invention, renewed commitment, and also the energy to try new things. I do so adore summer for all of its passion and courage, and also time to just be a reflective practitioner.
It is therefore that I am pretty excited to share that there will be a summer book study of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students , which will kick off on June 1st and run for four weeks until June 28th. Why June? Because while I am still in school in June, I am also itching for some reflection for the new year. And then comes July, where I take time off in order to be a better person and I hope others do as well.
This book is what started it all, it reflects the journey I have been on, inspired by research and people who did the work before me, to create a more human and engaging experience for all of my students, particularly the kids who felt that school was not a place for them. The book is an honest view into what I did then and what I have learned from my students in order to be a better teacher for them while also working within the restrictions of a public school system. It is not meant as a step-by-step guide, but instead as a way for you to reflect on your own decisions and how you can change your teaching to allow room for your students to have more control and power over their learning experience. While the book study will take place in the Passionate Readers Facebook group, it is not a book focused on reading specifically, but rather overall student engagement.
So join the Passionate Readers Facebook group for a casual and fun exploration of the book, find a community of your own that is trying some of the ideas, or have already implemented them into their classrooms. There will be reflective questions, helpful resources, Facebook Lives, as well as ideas shared in the hopes to make this school year the best one yet.
In the book club we will explore how to:
Establish or expand a learning experience based around giving space for student voices.
Be attentive to your students’ needs and share ownership of the classroom with them.
Break out of the vicious cycle of punishment and reward to control student behavior.
Use innovative and creative lesson plans to get your students to become more engaged and intellectually-invested learners, while still meeting your state standards.
Limit homework and abandon traditional grading so that your students can make the most of their learning experiences without unnecessary stress.
So if you are looking for a way to re-ignite your passion, to meet new amazing educators, and find great ideas for how to engage and empower your students, join this book club. There is no commitment once you join, pop in when you can and share when you want.
Sign up: Please fill out the Google Form in order for me to email you all the details when we kick off. Don’t worry, I don’t use your email for anything else. Also, join the Passionate Readers Facebook Group in order to be a part of the discussion.
Thank you for wanting to be a part of this conversation, I cannot wait for this opportunity to learn together!
For many years, I was so thankful for the power of BYOD. Working in schools that didn’t have the capital needed to provide chrome-books or other computers for easy access to all, BYOD – or bring your on device – was a game changer. We could take pictures, film video, search up things and connect with the world. A few years ago as Chromebook slowly increased in quantity, I started to notice a trend with the way phones were being used in our school. While it wasn’t so much that they were used during class, after all, most students were engaged most of the time, it was more that the minute someone screwed up, which inevitably happens often in middle school, there was a device out to record it. To share it, to snap it, to make sure that everyone who was not present now had a front seat. And its effects showed. Our students started taking less risks, afraid that someone would film them. Afraid that the world would know of their mistakes rather than their attempts at success. Anxiety went up, social interaction went down.
I started to pay attention to my own phone habits, how my world seemed to be ruled more by notifications and interactions with people far away, rather than the life that was happening right within my reach. Digging into the research surrounding anxiety and the presence of phones, proved to be eye opening. While there are many benefits to the connectivity of phones, the noted increase in mental health related issues could also not be dismissed. At what cost, was our connectivity and the ease of BYOD causing our students anguish?
And so, we did an experiment. We took a quarter off from our phones in class, me included, and we waited to see what would happen. I wrote more about here in this initial post explaining our thinking and then as a follow up to how it went. It was eye opening but also anti-climactic. Many kids reported it was no big deal, that they were fine without their phones, they didn’t miss them, we didn’t need them because we had the privilege of having enough technology at our fingertips that didn’t require students to have their phones. A few kids grumbled, these were often the kids who were less engaged and more prone to use social media during class. And then there were the few; the kids were it made a huge difference. The ones that reported that they finally felt safe in our classroom. The one that told us of how they had realized that they were constantly checking their phone for fear of missing out and that they hadn’t realized how much time it took. The ones that appreciated how people seemed more present, less worried, more there. I was not the only experimenting with this and the results were similar in other classrooms as well.
And so as a staff, we started to discuss whether this should be a school-wide policy: ask students (and staff members) to leave their cell phones in their lockers from bell to bell in order to provide a safer learning experience, an experience that focused on meaningful technology integration, and also an experience that allowed them a larger opportunity for face-to-face connections, particularly during their lunch and recess time where we often saw kids have little to no interaction with those surrounding them because they were too busy using their phones. And while I am not one to dismiss the power of interactions between people using social media or gaming, we wanted them to have a chance to also interact live and face-to-face. After voting, we implemented it for this school year.
As I have had visitors come and see our classroom, they have asked about our noticeable lack of phones everywhere. And I have been asked to write more about it, thus this post. So today, I asked all of my students to give me the honest truth; how does it affect them to be phone-free at their school? Are they missing out since this seems to be a major discussion point in the phone or no phone debate? Are we doing them a disservice by not embracing the tool and teaching them how to use it well? Their answers were enlightening.
While most of my students own a phone, a few don’t, reporting everything from cost prohibitions to no desire to own one as the reason why. This led me to think of the equity aspect of expecting kids to all have a phone. Not every family can afford one, not every family wants to provide one to their child, yet when we assume that all students have a phone and then base our instructional experiences around using them, we are creating a noticeable gap between students that may lead to tension and awkwardness in the classroom. As one students said, sure, I could just use a Chromebook but that still makes me stand out and look different than the rest and that can be embarrassing.
I asked my students whether they cared about lack of access to their phones. Overwhelmingly they reported that it wasn’t a big deal, that they didn’t feel they needed them. That, sure, they would love to have them, but that they were not missing out on any educational opportunity in their eyes. I am not saying that phones can’t be used for amazing things, but in this case, the students didn’t see that. In fact, it was interesting to see how many students who did want their phones also reported that they would only use them for Instagram, Snapchat, and texting if they had them, nothing else. A few reported wanting to use them as calculators or to search up words. Not exactly deep reasons to bring them back as we can do all that with other tools provided for us.
Many students reported that not having their phones caused them to speak more to their friends. That while they missed out on some conversations that would take place on social media they were more likely to have more conversations with those around them. One student wrote, “I honestly enjoy it because it annoys me how often people (or my friends) are distracted by social media. I know social media is for “Socializing”, but you have people around you to socialize with. Even if you are not on social media and playing games instead, it still frustrates me.”
Another point often brought up is that we should be teaching students how to use their phones well. that much like all of the other tools the world has introduced us to, phones should now be a part of the school experience so that kids can use them well. I am not sure about this point. While I agree that as educators we adapt our curriculum to face the modern construct, I wonder whether the responsibility of teaching students how to use their phone well should fall on us? Should that not fall on those who provide the tool? That doesn’t mean that it can’t be supplemented in school, but I am not sure the main responsibility starts with us. And what is it exactly we can only do on phones that we cannot do with a Chromebook or iPad? A few things come to mind, and perhaps I simply don’t know enough about the amazing things phones are being used for, but I am not sure it is enough to warrant the blanket blessing of phones without thinking about the potential for increased anxiety, bullying, and overall distractibility that these powerful computers can also bring with them, even for the adults.
As I scanned through all of their responses, what really stood out to me was one common thread; that they wish they could have their phones in case “something bad happened.” That a major reason for why they wish to have their phones is in case of an emergency. Think about that for a moment. Our students don’t always feel safe at school, perhaps now more than ever, and so they see their phones as a lifeline to get help. It shook me to the core, because of course, I feel the same way; I need my phone in case something bad happens, but to hear it repeated again and again from 7th graders was startling.
And so we will continue to be cell-phone free for now. We will continue to ask students to leave them in their lockers so that we can be together. I will continue to leave my phone in my bag unless I need it for a specific purpose. To be more present, to think of the technology opportunities kids do have in order for us to connect, to become more than we were. Does this mean that phones in schools are bad or should never be there? No, it just means that for us, the learning experience we have right now, it makes sense to be cell phone free. That we have seen less phone-related anxiety and stress. We have seen less drama due to kids being filmed or ridiculed when they should have been safe in our classrooms. That we have been more thoughtful when we did bring out devices.
I share this in order to start a conversation, to perhaps plant a seed for others to explore within their own learning communities. Not to dismiss the power of technology, nor the power of what can happen when we connect with others. But as someone who knows the anxiety that a phone can produce, who is “one of those parents” that is holding off on getting a phone for her own kids, I think it is valid to have these discussions. That often in our eagerness to embrace technology, we forget about the mental health impact more technology and how it is used can have. That sometimes when we bring in more devices it traps our students rather than frees them, and that is not something to easily dismiss. I would love to hear your thoughts.
If I asked most of my students, they would consider me a great teacher for them. They would tell you how safe they feel in our classroom, how they feel respected, how they feel like what we do is worth their time. It is easy feeling like a great teacher if those are the only voices you pay attention to. But if you were to speak to a few, perhaps the ones who would need some extra goading, perhaps those who choose to remain mostly silent throughout our time together, a different story would emerge. They still hate English, they still hate reading and writing, they find little value in what we do, and some, probably, also see little value in me.
I don’t think I am alone in that. Our schools are filled with both kids who flourish and those who don’t. Those who see the value added to their lives in what we do and those who don’t. Those whose days consist of success and those who have limited success. But whose voices are being heard in our conversations? Whose voices are shared in assemblies? Whose voices are shared when we invite incoming families in to discuss what a school experience consists of with us?
And what happens when we don’t monitor whose voices get the most space within our school? When we once again select the few kids that we know will speak up, speak eloquently, and will stick to the message that we know reflects us best? It means that we create a false sense of accomplishment, as if student voice is something we can checkoff, as if everything we do is exactly right and all we need to do is just stay the course.
I worry about the echo-chamber we sometimes create, whether inadvertently or purposefully. How many of us purport to support student voice but then only give the biggest space to those we know will shine a positive light. How we assume that a child must view their schooling as favorable as long as their scores, grades, percentages show them as successful. How we squelch the voices of those who may have less than stellar experiences to share. How we dismiss their voices as simply kids carrying a grudge, or not understanding, or simply just being in a tough spot. How easily we dismiss their experiences rather than recognizing them for the incredible learning opportunity they are. A chance to dive into what we still need to work on, a chance to create a partnership with those whose experiences are not successful despite our carefully laid plans and best intentions.
When I ask others to make space for students to reclaim their voices, I don’t just mean those whose voices echo our own sentiments. I don’t just mean those who will present us in the best of lights. All means all and that includes those who will tell us the unguarded truth even when the truth hurts. This is why in all of my presentations there is truth that hurts, statements that made me grow, that felt like failures when I first was given them. It is important to model to others what real feedback looks like, to acknowledge that at times we will fail our students. That at times we will not be the teacher, or the school, or the district that they needed us to be and we now have to figure out how we can do better, with them. Because that is what the truth does; it gives us a chance to grow. To become something more than we were before, but we cannot do that if we only make space for those voices who will tell us all of the good we are doing without mentioning the bad. If we only select a few to represent the many without giving everyone a proper chance to speak up, to be heard, to shape their experience.
So survey all of the kids. Give space to all of the kids. When students are invited to speak at your training events, at your staff meetings, at your school board meetings, invite a broad range of perspective. Sure, invite those kids in where the system is clearly working, but also invite those who tell us through their behavior that it’s not. Who perhaps may be doing well but who really do not love it. Monitor who you give space to so that all experiences can be represented because if you don’t then it is really just a sham representation. And then ask meaningful questions, not just those where students will provide you with sound-bytes that will do little to move the conversation along.
Ask them if they feel respected.
Ask them if they feel valued.
Ask them if they feel represented.
Ask them if what we do matters.
Ask them how by working together we can make it better.
And then listen to their voices, all of them, and instead of dismissing their words take them for what they are; the biggest gift to do better, to be better. An invitation to create an education that matters to all, not just some, and who can say no to that?
Voting ends for the Global Read Aloud 2019 in two days. In two days, they will be tallied, I will sit and ponder, feel the gravity of the decision and finally, at some point, make it official. The weight of it is sometimes paralyzing. After all, I am not just selecting a book to read aloud to my own students, but making the largest recommendation to the world as I can. Holding titles, and with them the creators behind the work, and telling the world that these experiences are worth every moment of their time.
It is not much different, in a way, from the way we hold books up in our classrooms day after day. How we share our opinions on social media. How we give our blessings any way we can. The weight it carries is the same; we shape our students’, our children’s, our own reading lives by the choices we make. By the texts we give our time to, by the texts we don’t. We tell the world what we value within every choice, within every recommendation, within every ounce of time we give something. By ever instructional minute we offer up in order to dive in, dig in, tease out.
So when I am asked how to help someone like reading more, I keep coming back to the choices we make. The finite amount of time we have for any kind of influence. How it is impossible for me to change someone’s feelings about reading, but what I can do is provide them with an opportunity to change them themselves. So where does the work begin for us because, as we know from so many of our readers, it is not enough to simply find a book that may change their mind, even if that is where the journey may start.
Think of your environment. What are kids surrounded by as you promote reading? Is it books (I hope)? Is it comfort? Is it calm? Is it safe? Reading carries a lot of emotions and so for a child to immerse themselves in a text they need different things. Some need slight noise, others need absolute quiet. Some need to feel safe because reading does not feel safe for them, in fact, for some being surrounded by books just feels overwhelming rather than good. Some need a friend, some need a corner. Knowing how kids feel within our environment is key to helping them adapt to it in order to create a successful reading experience.
Consider asking: Where do you read best? What do you need to feel comfortable so you can focus on a book?
Think of your requirements. What are kids expected to do once they are reading? What are they expected to do while reading? So often, it is not the act of reading itself that kids want to stay clear from, it is all of the work that they have to do with it. Also, how are readers being limited? What may seem as no big deal to us, such as telling kids they can only select books that are over 100 pages or they can’t read children’s book if they are older, may be the exact obstacle that stands in the way of a reader.
Consider asking: What makes you want to stop reading? What obstacles need to be removed in order for you to have a better reading experience?
Think of your community. Do you speak books? Does your classroom or school community? When we speak book we speak in shared experiences such as read alouds or book clubs, we pass books and other texts from hand to hand, we share recommendations not because we are forced to but because we want to. We find as many people to speak books to, including all of the other adults in the building, and then we try to come up with ways to include those outside of our school community to speak books with us as well.
Consider asking: Who do you speak books with? Who are your book people?
Think of your emotional investment. We have to recognize that for some reading is a reminder of everything they have failed at, that unless we protect the hope of being readers in all kids, then we may be inflicting additional negativity when it comes to the reading experiences we create. Trust and honesty then are pillars of a functioning reading community, and that includes kids who identify as kids who hate reading to still have a space within our community. So how are all readers handled? Are their identities honored and given space to change and grow. Are the small steps toward a mores successful experience being honored or only the big ones?
Consider asking: Who are you as a reader and how do you know?
Think of your reasons for reading. Are kids reading for points? For grades? To pass levels? To avoid punishment? Or are they reading because they find true value in it? Joy even? While extrinsic motivators certainly can cause a sense of urgency within a child to read, they are often short lived, and research shows again and again that the only rewards that truly change reading behaviors long term is to have more books and time to read. Not trinkets, grades, or achievement boards. Why do we then continue to gravitate toward extrinsic motivators? Because for some kids they do work in the short-term (and yes, short-term can be a whole school year), for some kids they seem to spark a change, yet, how often do those kids then stop reading the minute the program/reward/grades are removed? How many of the kids who were motivated to read to get a high score on the test are also motivated when there is no test to be taken? We do this a lot in education; implement short term solutions that do long-term damage. So instead of going for the “quick” fix, invest in the long-term building of a reading community, which yes may mean kids are slower to change their reading identities but it should mean a more meaningful long-term change is happening.
Consider asking: Why do you read? If programs are implemented ask: How do you feel about the program? Do you plan on reading over the summer – why or why not?
Think of your timeline. Just because a child is not liking reading more half-way through the year or even by the end of the year, does not mean it has all failed. It might just mean that it is going to take a lot more time. That is why continuation of shared reading beliefs is so important for kids and for the educational communities they are are in. If there is a foundational right to self-selected, teacher-supported, independent reading in the early years then that right should be carried through until graduation. It doesn’t help if we merely implement best practices for a few years and then forget all about them as children grow older. In fact, it is awfully hard to change reading behaviors and feelings all by yourself, and it often leads to an artificial change, one that is not sustained after they leave you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but it does mean that you should be involving your broader school community in the work as well.
Consider asking: What are the reading rights of children every year?
So often when we really want kids to love reading, we forget to dig deeper into all of the components that go into creating meaningful reading experiences. In fact, this goes for so much in education. We implement and support short-term solutions that do not really change the foundational experience as much as they should and then wonder why it doesn’t work for all kids. But the change can start within the very questions we ask and we reflect on. So much of what I have learned through the years have come from our students. Have come from our team conversations. Have come from our community. So while all students deserve choice, access, time, and meaningful reading opportunities, they also deserve a safe community with an ongoing dialogue about how else their reading experiences can be shaped. And that starts with us.
I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness. Not so much forgiveness in the sense of feeling at peace with the world, but instead the forgiveness we sometimes lack in education; the forgiveness of ourselves. While we spend our days often forgiving others for the things they say, the things they do, the slights that are bound to happen when we work with and around other human beings, we seem to forget to give ourselves the same treatment. To realize at the end of the day that we, too, are only human, and that as humans the best we can do is the best we can do.
I think of forgiveness more often as the days tick closer to yet another break in an already tumultuous winter. With all of the days off, with the weather driving us inside more than ever, we never quite seemed to settle into the lull of the winter routine, where we find comfort in the small moments shared within our learning spaces. Where we find comfort in the trust we have placed within the community to allow us to be the people we are. Instead, it felt rushed at times, forced at times, and sometimes as if we had altogether forgotten what the community that we had painstakingly built up really felt like.
And so as the children we work with at times seem to push us away harder than ever before, I have spent many nights reflecting on what else I can do. What else we can do? What now? What next? And I will admit, there are simply nights where I have come up shorthanded. Where I have realized that my bag of tricks has run dry and that for right now, there is nothing more new I can try to re-engage a disengaged child. There is nothing new I can try to help a child stay engaged, help a child learn, help a child read a book. It is a hard thing to swallow. After all, we are supposed to work daily miracles within our rooms, never giving up on a child, never resting until every child is learning, every child is reading, every child sees value in what we do, what we are together.
And yet, sometimes we don’t work miracles. Sometimes even the best of ideas fail. Sometimes the team cannot brainstorm anything else to to try. Sometimes even what has worked for every child before this one, fails. And we carry that failure with us as yet another added weight in already heavy load. We carry that failure as if it means that we have failed all of the children we teach, as if we will never be a good educator again.
Those who work on the fringes of education, those who sit in power, may tell us that the fault lies within us, the educators. That if we only gave more choice. That if we only gave more freedom. That if we only gave students more space to be who they are and not who we want them to be, then, then….they surely would learn. That if we just brought in more technology, if we only let them lead, if we only gave them the reigns, then, then…they surely would thrive. And yes, those truths ring loudly, that has been the journey I have been on with my students for the past nine years. There is so much to be gained when we have freedom, when education focuses around the individual and not around the group, when the explorations we do are led by students, created by students, and valued by students. There is so much to be gained when we create equitable spaces that are focused on the humanity of each individual and not just tests, homework, and grades.
Yet to always fault the educator with no mind for what is already in place is to dismiss the larger problem. That true education is a collaboration. That for students to really be invested in learning, they have to first be invested, and yes, that means feeling safe enough to invest. That we can provide amazing opportunities for self expression and for some kids it is simply not enough, right now.
So this week, I realized that I am only human and that perhaps others needed to forgive themselves too. That at some point, stepping away from a child who has actively refused every single opportunity we have provided to learn, to change the system, to engage somehow, is the only next step we have at that moment. And that stepping away does not mean giving up. That stepping away, for now, does not mean that that child cannot learn, that that child cannot re-engage, that that child cannot find meaning. But it does mean that right now, I am not the teacher they need, I need time to come up with new ideas, and I need to be okay with that. That perhaps what we all need is a break once in awhile to remind ourselves that we are not meant to be saviors, but instead the bringers of opportunities. And sometimes that means stepping away and forgiving ourselves.
I have been thinking a lot about the way we show others that we trust them. About how we code switch between our different environments, how we let down our guard when we feel the safest because that is the only place we can truly just be without having to worry about the potential judgment we face within our uncensored self. How sometimes, when kids trust us the most it is when they show us the hardest sides of them. When they let us see their anger, their tears, their silence.
And I get it. We all carry our guards up, hoping that others will allow us to lower them enough and not reject us when we are the most vulnerable. I think of my journey on here, and how there have been times where I couldn’t believe I shared the thoughts and yet, somehow, somewhere they resonated with someone else.
I think of how long relationships take to truly form, even when we see the same kids every day. How some, right away, click with us and we move into comfort quickly, while others look from afar, not quite sure how to take us, to use us, to fit in with us.
I think of the ways students show us they trust us. How they let us into their identity and how they view themselves little by little. How they start to give us slivers of themselves in order to see how we will handle those parts, evaluating whether we will be able to handle all of them, if we will take care of them, or just use it as ammunition when they push us to our limits. When I tell my 7th grade students that I feel I have to earn their trust every year, I mean it. I don’t take it for granted, nor is it assumed. Yet trust is not always shown quietly.
I think of the kids who slam our doors. Who refuse every single trick we have. Who reject us purely out of determination. Who won’t even tell us how to make it better. How they are easy to see as troublemakers. How they are easy to discuss only in labels and incidents, rather than the child they really are. How despite their seemingly hurtful acts, how despite their sometimes loud emotions, they still need us there as a safe person, our rooms as a safe place to scream, to vent, to slam, to break.
Sometimes my students’ love language is yelled through clenched teeth. Sometimes their declaration of loyalty to us is written through swear words and exclamation points. Sometimes it takes us a moment to remember just what those emotions mask – kids who want ot be seen, to be heard, to feel safe. So the least I can do is recognize them for the full human being they are, even when the language they speak is at odds with what we would like to hear.
So every day, we say, “Welcome.” Every day, we say, “We’re glad you’re here.” Every day we remember that all kids deserve adults who remember that today is a new day, a new chance to continue to build something that wasn’t there before. That every day, no matter how it ends, marks the beginning of a chance to help every child feel safe, feel trust, feel home. And that every kids deserves that every day.