They Taught Me

I have taught children from the ages of nine to fourteen for the last nine and a half years.  I think I have taught them a few things, I hope I have, and if the comments I get from kids after they leave our classroom is any indication, then some of the things we dreamt up together did make a difference to them.

Yet, teaching was never about me.  This journey we are on every day, every year, was never about the adult in the room, but rather those kids that come every day.  Not always because they want to but because for some reason the universe has decided that we will be on this journey together.

So as another year winds down.  So as the calendar tells me only eight more days.  So as I finish my third year as a 7th-grade teacher, I cannot help but think of all the things my students have taught me this year.  Those things I don’t ever want to forget.

They taught me that being human would always trump being a teacher.

That a single story never has to define who we are, even if others refuse to believe otherwise.

That hugs can go a long way, even when said hug is to a child that towers over you.

That sometimes truths are not easy to share, nor easy to hear, and yet they can change everything.

That having faith in every child, not just the easy ones, will always take you further, even if it so hard.

They have taught me that I never know the full story and can only be grateful for the pieces that I get to know.

That choice in some way, even if tiny, will always lead to more engagement.

That I need to love first, teach second, thank you, Jed, for reminding me.

That sometimes kids don’t know how big of an effect they have on us even if we swear they set out to push ever single button they could find.

That the best part of my day will always be them, getting to teach them, getting to learn from them.

That sometimes teaching simply is preserving hope, more than anything else.

They have taught me that even when you want to shut your door, you should leave it open as you don’t know what you might miss.

That if we want real connections then we have to be real to begin with.

That even if something has worked in the past, there is no guarantee in the future.

That sometimes we don’t make much of a difference, even if we tried with every piece of us, and all we can hope is that we did not do further damage and that they knew we tried.

They have taught me that we are not perfect, that we can plan, and dream, and scaffold, and support, and yet still come up short.  That we are humans in the truest sense of the word and we are therefore inherently flawed, and yet, that should never stop us from trying to become better.

But the biggest thing, I was taught this year?

That I choose the narrative of how the year will be for me.  That I choose the way the story is told in our classroom.  That I choose whether this was a good year or a bad.

And that lesson was the lesson I needed the most.  I will miss this group of kids.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.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.


8 Ideas to Make the End of the Year Race Better

Have your students told you yet how many days that are left?  While it has been awhile for me, I can still feel it creeping up, sneaking up, whether we are ready or not; for many of us in the Northern hemisphere, the end of the year is near.  And if your students are anything like ours, then there may be excitement in the air mixed with a special kind of exhaustion that is threatening to derail even the best-laid plans.  So what can you, along with your awesome students, do to make these last few days or weeks better?  Here are a few ideas.

Make it matter.  And by this I mean; make it meaningful, make it count.  Now is the time to dig deep, to go personal, to make it something they will remember for a long time.  we end with out This I believe project, a student and teacher favorite every year and we work all the way up until the very last day.  I love how we end with something that ties us even closer together as a community, rather than just have us fade out in small to-do’s.

Teach with urgency.  This is not the time to slow down, instead, make every minute worth your time.  We start with reading, as always, and then we teach until the bell.  I want the days to go by fast, not drag on for everyone involved.

Increase student movement and talk time.  I love seeing the various projects our students are engaged in throughout our building, with many of them involving more movement and also more student agency.  Now is a perfect time to have students take the lead on projects if you haven’t before and also to incorporate as much choice as possible.  I was lucky enough to watch a PE class where students had to sit and write about their summer fitness goals, the kicker?  Every time they did a section they had to run and do other physical activities.  I loved seeing how even in writing, movement was incorporated.

Make memories.  Even if the students are ready to leave make sure you take the time to reminisce a little.  How has this year been?  What will they remember?  I try to have students write letters to the incoming 7th grade to offer them tips and ideas, these letters not only give me a way to welcome the new students but also to see what made a difference to my current ones.

Take them outside.  I used to shun the outside for teaching, after all, it was just so distracting.  Now we look for the days where we can get outside.  So far it has only been with my homeroom class for a quick walk, but the outside is calling all of my classes and I am thinking of a way to teach out there.

Survey them.  This is ripe reflection time for us as we start to look forward to next year so make sure you ask all of the questions you have.  While I have not finalized my end of year survey yet, last year’s told me a lot about which projects they loved, the ones they hated, and also how I could become a better teacher.  These kids know us so make sure you ask for their advice, after all, we have the best professional development sitting right in our classrooms.

Make plans for the summer.  I don’t think we should pretend that summer is not right around the corner, instead, we need to have some frank conversations about what their plans are and more specifically, what their reading plans are.  Many of my students told me today that they did not plan on reading at all, this is the reality many of us face, and yet I still have four weeks to showcase the most incredible books I can find.  Book talk with urgency and help them create long can’t-wait-to-read lists.  Partner with the next year’s teachers, partner with your school librarian, partner with those at home and help them remember to read.

Reflect on their growth.  I don’t think all of my students know how much they have grown, how much they can do, how much more they are now than when they began.  I think the is common for most kids, after all, growing smarter is a gradual affair.  So build in time for them to actual realize their growth, their successes, and also to goal set for next year.

Stay in the present.  Ah so that makes nine, but this one is so important.  It is so easy to get caught up in thinking about next year and even planning for next year, and yet; these are the kids we still have.  We are still in the current school year, so if we don’t stay in the present, neither will our students.  Love them, keep getting to know them, praise them, laugh with them, believe in them, and keep pushing them to strive for more.  After all, next year, you will miss them, we always do.  And just perhaps, if we are lucky enough, they will pop their heads in on that first day of school, just to say hi.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.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.

1 School 1 World – What Did We Learn #1S1W

Sometimes my crazy ideas get ahead of my own brain in all of the best of ways, such was the case of 1 School 1 World , a social media initiative that was meant to showcase schools around the world using a common hashtag #1S1W.  I wanted my students to see not just how we are different, but more so how we are all the same.  And so  I shared the idea with the world and today, February 22nd,schools around the world participated.

As I showed my students the stream of pictures throughout the day, we couldn’t help but marvel at so much.  The sun in New Zealand, the sheep in Australia, the gym in Denmark, the wooden tables of Serbia.  We saw the differences, sure, but we also saw so much of the same.  It turns out that many of our classrooms look like they could be in the same school.

Yet, as the day went on, we started to notice not just how alike we were but also the incredible differences there were in school buildings, activities done, and even technology showcased.  As we tweeted out asking people to show us pictures of their libraries, one person responded that their school did not have one due to money.  That was a sobering notion for many kids.

And this is what stopped my heart today and what continues to run through my head tonight.  While this day was meant to share our learning environments, it also inherently shared our privileges; schools that have the tools to share in the first place.  Teachers that have the ability to show off their environments without the fear of being in trouble with administration or school boards.  Buildings that were mostly well kept and learning environments that were inviting to students.  Yet, we all know that this is not what learning looks like for many students, not just across the world, but right here in the USA.

There were voices missing, which I expected, but I did not expect how hard it would hit me once again just how lucky I am to teach in a district that is well-funded and community supported in many ways.  There are so many teachers that do not have that privilege.  There are so many kids that do not have that reality.

So as I digest the many images together with my students, I plan to ask them to look at how we are similar, how we are different, but then I also plan on asking them to look for the missing images.  For the schools that are not represented in these pictures.  For the kids that are not represented.  To see if they can figure it out. To see what they will come up with.   This will be the seed for further exploration.  This will be the seed that somehow will carry us forward.  To what I am not sure, but we know that a change in society can start with us, but not if we don’t start the conversations.

And if you joined today; thank you.  Sometimes all it takes for us to get to know each other is a simple hashtag.  Keep connecting.  Keep sharing.  Keep discussing and then do something about what you see.  We teach the future of the world, let’s never forget that.

To see the Storify of all of the pictures I could find, go here.

Thank you Ben Wilkoff for pulling 400 or so pictures and putting them in Google photo.

How Do We Know Who We Don’t Even Know?

I think I teach 128 students this year but I haven’t done the math.  There is a lot of them.  I know all of their names, have since the first week.  I know their writing styles, their book preferences, I know who will avoid me and who will seek me out.  I teach 128 students but  am not connected to 128 students.  I have those that I am closer to.  That I joke around with, that come to me asking for help, that leave me notes, that I have nicknames for.  I have the ones I truly consider my kids, the ones I consider mine.

Call it the curse of teaching a lot of students, but no matter how much you try, not every kid will become connected to you.  That is why I am thankful for my incredible team; I know how much they care about the kids we teach, I know they have “their” kids too that they feel close to.

And yet, in all of those connections, we know that there are kids that do not “belong” to anyone.  That do not have a special relationship with a teacher.  And by now those kids that we haven’t quite built a relationship with are starting to fall through the cracks.

So what do we do?  How do we know who we don’t even know?  How do we as a team, whether school-wide, grade-level or in some other configuration figure out who those kids are that nobody is seemingly connecting with?  Well, there is a simple way to find out, and no, I did not come up with this idea but wanted to pass it on.

Put all of their names on a big piece of paper and hand every teacher a marker.  Put a dot next to those kids who you feel you have a closer relationship to.  Then stand back and look.  Who has no dots?  Who has just one?  Discuss those kids.  Pay special attention, make a list, and the next time you teach them, ask a question not related to school.  Not related to the work.  Not related to what you share already.  Do it the next day, and the next day.  Pick a few kids at a time if there are too many.  Invest your time, and not in a forced way, but in a human way.  don’t force a relationship, but dedicate time to giving one a chance.

As my brilliant colleague, Reidun Bures (follow her at @ReidunLee) pointed out today, “We don’t see our own patterns of who we speak to.  We get comfortable and then wonder why some kids don’t respond to us as well.”  And she is right; we all try to connect with all of our kids and don’t see the ones we haven’t quite connected with.  Not seeking them out becomes a part of our pattern.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  All kids should have at least one teacher that has their back, one teacher to fall back on.  And the first step is to grab a marker and make a dot.  And then do something with the result.

If you are looking for a great book club to join to re-energize you in January, consider the Passionate Learners book club on Facebook.  We kick off January 10th.  


An Easy Yet Powerful Method for Differentiating Instruction

Today was one of those days that gives you hope.  Where you feel like maybe we have been doing something all of these weeks together.  That perhaps the students are on their path to personalize, to take ownership of their learning.  To do all of those things I get a chance to tell others to try.  And it was not because I did anything revolutionary, but instead because I relied on an old method of differentiating, a method that I have not yet perfected, yet it gives us all greater insight every time.  This is best used with something the students have already tried.

It is simple; with whatever task you want students to do ask them to divide themselves into three groups; those that would like to work with support of a teacher, those that would like to work with the support of a peer, and those that would like to support a peer.  Then let them go into those groups, even if you think it may not be the right choice for someone.  Pair students up in the two peer groups and have them do the learning task while you work with the other kids.  That’s it for this time.

Here comes the best bit of this; once they have done the task and you have looked at it (I quickly glanced at their work today and assigned them a score according to the criteria we set), then the following day you regroup them based on their scores.  Why?  Because some kids inevitably need support that they did not get the day before.  Some kids are ready to support their peers and do not know it.  And others just need one more time with the same type of assignment but in a new way.

So why bother with the self grouping in the first place?  Because it gives you invaluable insight to the confidence (and ability) of the students.  This way you get a chance to see how they view themselves and it allows you to have some deeper conversations as to their skills.  Yes, I had to bite my tongue as a few kids made choices I was not sure of, but it turned out that some of them knew themselves and their needs a lot better than I did.

And there you have it, an easy way to gauge students’ skills, confidence, and needs.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

Don’t Go for the Best

No matter how many times I speak somewhere the process is always the same.  I barely sleep the night before, my stomach turning, and in the morning I wake up thinking I have nothing to say.  No words to share.  And that I certainly have no right being the one speaking in front of people.

But then I remember my students.  Those students who share their truths with me every day about why they are disengaged.  Why school is hard.  Why they just want to get school over with.  And I find my courage.  I find my purpose.  I don’t speak for me, I speak for them.

So when you feel a little overwhelmed.  A little like you have no right to be doing what you are doing.  A little out of your league, remember this;  it is not about being the best, it is not about being the only expert or having it all figured it.  It is about being better.  About making a minuscule change every day that will lead to a better place.  About finding your own path and following it, overcoming the obstacles that are bound to be there, including the ones you put in front of yourself.  My students taught me that. So for them I will be better today than I was yesterday.  For them, I will find my courage.  For them I will.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!