Tuesday, April 11, 2017

We Are All Human

It has been quite a while since I have written a post. I have let life get in the way of my focus on reflection and I have felt myself at times this year struggle as a result of it. Starting this year in a new school with new students and new expectations was challenging but add on top of it behavioral issues and it creates a whole new level of challenges. I feel like I have spent the majority of my year establishing expectations, reteaching expectations, and continually dealing with minor and sometimes major behavior problems. What I finally came to realize was that I really had been focusing on all of the wrong things.

Our students come to school every day with emotional baggage that wears them down before their walk in the door. Our students come from all walks of life and all types of family backgrounds, yet they are expected to achieve at the same level of those with much better life circumstances. Our students come from broken homes, abusive homes, homelessness, etc... and yet they are expected to achieve and behave at the same level? This is what I finally have come to realize over the course of this year. Our students are not misbehaving because they are bad people, they are misbehaving because they are crying out for help. They are seeking out attention from someone who will listen to them, focus on them as people that are in need of support.

I have been doing questions of the day every single week since the beginning of the year but over the last several weeks I have focused them specifically on facing adversity and talking through difficult situations. I firmly believe that 12-13 year old students are unable to carry the emotional baggage that they are expected to on a daily basis. Why do I think this is true? This is based off the fact that us as adults struggle carrying less emotional baggage than our students do. 

In order for our system as a whole to improve I believe a greater focus needs to on that social-emotional component that rarely gets discussed at staff professional development. It's the concept of how to help children fight through challenges and struggles that you rarely see in any sort of post-secondary program or class. It's the idea that we are all teachers of life rather than just teachers of content that you will rarely find on anyone's job title. These are the life skills that we should be teaching kids. 

We all go through struggles and adversity. We all have emotional baggage, many times heavier than we can carry. After all, we are all human.

Be a Light!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Will You Be Here Tomorrow?

This past week I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City, MO for the What Great Educators Do Differently Conference and wow it did not disappoint. There were so many amazing things that were shared during the two-day conference that it was impossible to even keep up! I met some amazing educators, some that I was finally able to meet face to face after spending time being connected virtually. 

One of the biggest takeaways for me from this conference was the idea that Great Educators are different because they focus on building relationships first before any content is discussed. They also continue building relationships EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. It is not enough to say "relationships are important" if we don't model that on a consistent basis every day. Below you will also find some of my other major takeaways from the conference.

1. Great educators are great listeners

I can't tell you how many times I thought about this throughout the conference. On Day 1, Todd Whitaker talked about the differences between the average teachers and the great teachers in terms of how they greet students, work with colleagues, etc... Jeff Zoul and Jimmy Casas shared that great educators still understand that it's all about the 3R's, Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. Zoul mentioned the top 10 trust traits, paying specific attention to things like "showing you care" among others. It was clear that listening was a main emphasis of the conference.

2. Great educators care deeply about kids

Probably the session where this was most prevalent was Pernille Ripp's session on Passionate Learners. This was one of THE best sessions I have ever been to in my entire life, mostly because it was clear how much pride she takes in getting to know her students. I've never met someone who believes so deeply in the idea of truly putting students first. She talked about the fact that we rarely acknowledge students perceptions of our schools and that we should be asking the question "would I want to be a student in my classroom?" Probably one of the most eye-opening quotes of the session was when she stated "don't be someone's memory as to why school was a bad place." I'm being honest when I say I got goosebumps and even a bit teary-eyed in some parts of her session. 

3. Great educators are there every day

The question "will you be here tomorrow" came from a session featuring Salome Thomas-El, an educational leader from the Philadelphia area. He was discussing his journey as an educational leader and his focus on helping students achieve greatness through the game of chess. He shared that most students just want to know if you will be here tomorrow. I think this was powerful mostly because it's sometimes difficult for us as educators to push content back to make room for more relationship building and community building. My thought is that we can't afford not to do this...because we are not in the business of making robots. 

Call to Action:

We must be a shining beacon of hope for all of our students every day. Regardless of our own challenges, we have to be a champion for all of our kids. It's also important to remember too that it's ok to be vulnerable and show that vulnerability to students. Pernille Ripp states "it is not a display of weakness to admit that you need to grow- it is a display of strength." Remember that it is our responsibility to be the lead learner, regardless of what position you are in your school or district. Model this growth mindset and make sure that every decision that we make on a daily basis is always in the best interest of our kids!

Until next time, Be A Light!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Never Forget: Teaching 9/11 in the Classroom

It was 8:46 AM ET on September 11, 2001. I was sitting in the library as a 5th grader at New Boston Elementary School reading a book when a woman walked into the library and announced that a plane had just flew into the North tower of the World Trade Center. Our librarian immediately turned on the TV and allowed us to watch the events unfold right before of our eyes. By 9:03 AM ET the second plane had crashed into the South tower of the WTC and at that point everyone had realized that we were witnessing a devastating terrorist attack. As a 5th grader I was struck with one important question...why? Why in the world would someone fly a plane into a building? Why would someone intentionally try to kill other people? 

All of us have similar stories about "what we were doing when 9/11 happened" and our stories are intertwined with the moments we have lived as a result of this tragic day for the past 15 years. What's interesting is seeing how the conversations differ between those that lived this history and those that only read about it in textbooks or hear about it from the people that lived it. Of course I am talking about the young millennials (or Generation iY as I have heard it described), many of which were not even alive during the time of the attacks. My current 7th grade students were born two years after the attacks occurred, making it a much different experience and understanding of the events that transpired. 

There are many reasons to discuss the tragic events of 9/11 but I have highlighted a few key ways I have attempted to make it meaningful and powerful for my students.

1. Tell your story

  • I think it's important for kids to hear your version of the story and how you witnessed the events taking place. Every year I begin by telling kids my interpretation of the events and they seem to really become engaged...especially when I let me know I was only in 5th grade at the time. The questions I asked are usually similar to the types of questions they have right now. 
2. Tell their stories
  • This is probably the most important aspect of my focus on 9/11. I usually show parts of the History Channel documentary "102 Minutes that Changed America" in an attempt to show the students a real version of the events that took place. I warn them in advance of the possible disturbing content in the documentary, especially the parts where you can clearly see people jumping/falling from the WTC towers. This always shocks my students, typically because it may be the first time that they had heard or seen anything about this. We have a discussion about the reasons why those people decided to jump, knowing fully that they were going to die. This part in particular usually brings tears to the eyes of my students as well as myself. 
3. Allow time for reflection
  • Finally, much like in our day to day classroom, I allow students part of the class period to devote to reflection. Every year I am amazed at the conversations students generate during the documentary and after it is over. Surprisingly it has been a time to incorporate all content areas as well, discussing trajectories and speed of the planes, heat and its affects on building structures, etc... Every class I take a step back and just listen to these students bring new insights into an event that I lived through and have "remembered" for the last 15 years. It is truly amazing to listen to these students discuss an event that truly is history to them. 

The topic of 9/11 is never an easy one to discuss but it is a necessary one. It is necessary to discuss the sacrifices of hundreds of emergency personnel including firefighters, police officers, EMS workers, etc... It is necessary to discuss the multitude of decisions that were made during the 102 minutes from the time the first tower was hit until the time that tower collapsed. It is necessary to discuss how the events that took place have a profound impact on who we are today as a country and the steps we have taken to make our country safer. Most importantly, it is necessary to discuss how for at least one moment the United States was not a country of Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, black, white, or Hispanic Americans, but one country...united under a common purpose. 

If you have any other ideas/lessons/resources that you use to teach 9/11 and are willing to share please do so below in the comments. I would love to hear how you incorporate 9/11 into your curriculum. 

Until next time, Be A Light!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Write the Next Chapter

It is still amazing to me that after 20 years of a "first day of school," I still get those excited jitters. This year is especially exciting as I begin the year unlike any other in my 25 years of life. I will be starting the school year as a husband, a resident of a metro city, and a South Tama County Trojan. There have been plenty of changes take place throughout this summer, all I believe for the better. It's important to be able to sit down during these summer months and reflect on the job you did during the previous year and look forward to what you can improve on for the year ahead. 
With that being said, it's also important to realize that every school year is the beginning of a new chapter in the book of education. This new chapter will be full of ups and downs, highs and lows, successes and failures, but it's always moving forward. The new chapter is about starting fresh, with a growth mindset and a willingness to put yourself out there to do what's best for kids. Below, I have a highlighted a few keys ways that you can make your next chapter the best one yet!

1. Be a success seeker.

Recently I watched a TED talk by Scott Geller entitled "The Psychology of Self-Motivation" and it focused on the question of how do we get people and ourselves to be self-motivated? About halfway through the fifteen-minute talk, Mr. Geller posed this question to the audience; "How do we get people to be success seekers rather than failure avoiders?" This question struck me as odd for a moment simply because I had never thought of it that way. I began thinking about the things in my life that I had chosen not to do in the past and wondered if it was because I was trying to avoid failure? I also reflected on this past school year and asked myself how many times myself or my students "avoided failure" rather than chose to seek success? It's an important mindset shift, focusing on seeking success rather than avoiding failure. This will help you become a better educator or leader as it will allow for more risk-taking and innovation. Choose to be a success seeker this school year.

2. Bring the donuts consistently.

As I was taking part in the weekly #IAedchat on twitter one of the co-moderators, Dan Butler, was tweeting about the differences between climate and culture and posted that "bringing donuts for the faculty meeting may impact the climate, but not the culture. Culture established slowly." While this is true, he brought up an even greater point later that if you bring enough donuts consistently you can begin to impact the culture. I think this is greatly important in our educational systems. Don't be a one and done type of teacher that tries something once and either forgets about it or chooses not to do it again, regardless of the success of the attempt. Whatever "donut" you are bringing, make sure that you are bringing it consistently in an attempt to continually improve your school's culture for the better. Choose to bring the donuts consistently this school year.

3. Be the lead learner in your classroom/school.

As educators, we should be the lead learners in our classrooms. As educational leaders, we should be the lead learners in our schools. If our districts and schools goals involve raising the learning for our students then we must also spend time as educators learning ourselves. Everyone has something to improve on or something new to learn about. One of my favorite parts about this summer was being able to read the book Kids Deserve It and gaining a wealth of knowledge from it to take back to my classrooms. It's why I've also decided to read books about branding your school and shifting mindsets as a leader. I have made it a commitment to be a lead learner and challenge my colleagues both in my school and in others to do the same. Choose to be the lead learner in your classroom and/or school this year.

The great thing about these three ideas is that they are simple enough to implement as long as you have a growth mindset. As educators and leaders, we should always be looking to grow ourselves, our students, and our schools in any way possible. Implementing these three ideas in your classroom or school this year will help make this next chapter of your career the best one yet. Remember, we are in the business of helping kids reach their hopes and dreams and we can not do that if we are not at our absolute best! I hope everyone has a great school year and make sure that whatever you do or attempt to do, you do because #KidsDeserveIt!

Until next time, Be A Light!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Celebrate the Journey

It's hard to believe that we are just 3 short weeks away from the first day of school with students at STC. As this will be my first year teaching 7th grade at South Tama I am looking forward to working with not only my new students but my colleagues and administrators in the building and district. I have been busy this summer planning for the new school year as well as continuing my Ed Leadership program/courses through Drake University. I am also a new husband as I married by best friend on July 10th and celebrated with our friends and family. It has been an amazing summer!

As the calendar turns to August it's time to start thinking about the goals and expectations for the upcoming school year. As we all know, goal-setting can be both a benefit and a hindrance depending on your commitment to achieving them. This school year I'm laying out actions that I am going to be committed to rather than goals I plan on achieving because I feel as though I should be focused on these actions throughout my day-to-day rather than look at the end result. I plan on celebrating the journey this school year with myself and my students! Here are a few things I will be committed to this school year.

  1. I am committed to putting students first.
    • This summer I was able to read the book Kids Deserve It! by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome and it really challenged my thinking as an educator. I have made a commitment to never stop fighting for what's best for kids because "Kids Deserve It." This means being even more of an active educator, allowing for more creativity and risk taking, and being jacked up every day to be around kids! 
    • More important than just putting students first is being a champion for all kids, regardless of the challenges they bring with them or pose to you as a teacher. I am committed to reaching every student in some way and celebrating the journey with each of them. Every student has a story and it is important for them to share it.
  2. I am committed to growing as an educator and educational leader.
    • This has been an ongoing commitment since I started my Ed Leadership program back in January. I have gained valuable knowledge in just a few months but most importantly I have really started to grasp the idea of the growth mindset. I began implementing this in my classroom by creating activities and lessons centered around the idea of the growth mindset and hope to continue this in the coming year. 
    • As an aspiring educational leader, I also look forward to working with my school and district admin teams in various leadership roles to get a realistic vision of what the life of an administrator looks like. I will be piloting a Genius Hour component during our school's RtI/MTSS time and will be a member of our PBIS and SBG leadership teams. I also hope to have a role in a new Curriculum team that is being assembled at the district level.
  3. I am committed to taking time for myself and bettering my physical health.
    • This is a fairly new commitment for me and something I have always struggled with, even before my time as an educator. I have committed myself to taking time for myself as well as focusing on my overall physical health. A few years ago I made a strict commitment to this and ended up losing roughly 130 pounds over the course of 9 months. This was something that felt good at the time but over the past few years I have fallen off the wagon and gained much of that back. My plan is to incorporate time in my day for moderate exercise as well as portioned meals that are good-tasting and good for you. 
    • Along with taking time for myself, I plan on spending as much time as possible growing in my relationship with my wife. As we are newlyweds we still have plenty of growing left to do and a lot will be done unplugged in an attempt to spend some time away from the workplace. This is something I have also struggled with in the 2 years I have been teaching and hope to continue growing in this area. 
I challenge those that are reading this blog to make commitment statements for themselves for the upcoming school year. 
  • What are you committed to as an educator? 
  • What are you committed to as a leader?
  • What are you committed to in your life outside of school?
I plan on posting these commitment statements in certain places around my home as well as on my desk to remind me on a daily basis what I have committed myself to this school year. Part of the growth process is remembering that failure is just a part of the process and while the journey may be long it will be one that is filled with joy, love, and laughter. I am excited to get started on another new journey in three weeks! 

Until next time, Be A Light!


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Tell Your Story

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the current state of affairs in our society. These past two weeks we have been able to listen to both of our two main political parties lay out their plan for moving our country forward. Both parties have very different ideas of what that vision looks like though. Both parties have chosen candidates that for different reasons are more unpopular than any presidential candidates in recent history. This has definitely been an election season unlike any other I have seen in my 25 years of life. It will be interesting to see how this election plays out come November. 

The reason for my post today is to shed some light on a topic that I am very passionate about. We have heard throughout this election season a focus from both sides about inclusion and making sure that everyone in our society has a chance to do great things. It got me thinking about our education system and the idea that everyone has their own story to tell. Everyone has something good to contribute to our society. I believe it is important to recognize that this literally does mean everyone. Regardless of your own personal beliefs, people voices deserve to be heard. Whether you are black or white, gay or straight, latino or asian, man or woman, Christian or Muslim, you deserve to be heard. I think this is especially important to remember during this election cycle when SO much hatred is being spewed by both parties...conservative and liberal. 

When it comes to the classroom, the ability to tell your own story is incredibly important as well. We spend a lot of our time as educators letting students know what we expect of them, how they are meant to behave, as well as our expectations for them academically. We spend more of our time telling rather than listening to what students have to say. The same can be said for administrators who focus more of their time telling educators and staff members what to do rather than gathering input and listening to them. 

Everyone has their own story to tell. Everyone has something good to contribute.

During my first year of teaching (2014-15) I witnessed something that would forever harden my belief that everyone has a story to tell. I had a student in my class with a mental disability and throughout the year it was clear that it was a constant struggle for this student to learn the content of the course. Now as this was my first year teaching I was also learning how to best differentiate for all varieties of learners in my classroom. One day we were discussing the Industrial Revolution and all of the different inventions and innovations that were created to help America grow during the 1800s. One of the things we were discussing was the Mill System and how it operated. Every time I would ask a question about the Mill System this particular student would raise his hand and answer it. I was amazed but quickly realized that the student had a particular interest in all aspects of farming, including things like how mills work. I decided to let the student come up in front of the class and describe how the Mill System worked in his own words, as well as draw a diagram on the board. It was amazing for me to sit back and watch this student teach the class about something that he was extremely interested in. The rest of the kids really enjoyed it as well!

I also want to point out the fact that I did not mention the phrase "mentally disabled/handicapped student" but instead said "student in my class with a mental disability." We must define anyone by their physical or mental disability because that is not who they are. I decided that it was an important moment not only for this student but also for myself to realize that everyone has something good to contribute. He explained the Mill System better than I probably could have and made it much more relevant to his classmates. Bigger picture obviously is that this moment allowed the student to gain confidence in himself and the belief that he is able to do anything he sets his mind to. 

We must remember both in our schools and in our society that everyone has their own story to tell. Everyone has something good to contribute. We must have a growth mindset and break down barriers so that everyone has a chance to tell their story. You do not have to agree with every story nor do you have to follow their line of thinking but we must appreciate the fact that they were willing to share it. I still believe in the decency of our society and hope that in the coming weeks and years we continue to move our education system and our nation forward.

Until next time, Be A Light!


Thursday, June 30, 2016

#KidsDeserveIt Part 1

I recently started and finished the book titled "Kids Deserve It!: Pushing Boundaries and Challenging Conventional Thinking" by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome. This book is unlike any others that I have read, as it was first of all one of the first books that I was able to read front to back and be engaged in the entire time. It was jam packed with amazing ideas and stories from both authors schools and what they try to do each day as building principals. 

Over the next few blog posts, I am going to be highlighting some of the key important points of this book, one that I believe every educator should read at some point. It is a book that will get you jacked up for education as well as doing what is best for kids.

1. "What is we dedicated time each day to explore new ideas and took off our kids' training wheels to see how far they could go?!"

This first key point comes from the very beginning of the book in the chapter entitled "Go Big, Be Creative!" It focuses on the idea that learning does not always have to be planned or prepped out every minute of every day. There should be time in each day dedicated to learning something knew not only for ourselves but to help our kids. As someone who is planning on implementing a Genius Hour component in their classroom this coming year, I was especially interested in the idea of giving students time in the day to explore something new. Kids have big imaginations and the more we hinder that by planning every part of their school day the less creative and imaginative they become.

2. "When you are an educator, you have brilliant ideas. And when you are not sharing your brilliant ideas, you are doing a disservice to others in the field who could and want to learn from you."

This quote is actually from Angela Maiers in a discussion she had with Todd. It is has been about two years since I have been "active" on twitter and social media but feel as though my capacity for sharing and growing has really taken off over these last several months. I have been active in several ed chats on twitter including #iaedchat and #aledchat and I have also been introduced to Voxer as a way to communicate. I have been able to connect with educators such as Jennifer Hogan and A.J. Juliani through twitter/voxer and even got a shoutout from Todd Nesloney himself last Sunday on the live #iaedchat blab. That was an amazing thing to hear and really demonstrates the power of connectivity and being a connected educator. I have tried to model this by sharing out things on my blog as well as on twitter and voxer. I don't have all the answers and never will but I feel as though I have a PLN that I can always go to when I have questions.

3. "We have to view every child as a seed waiting to bloom. We may be the teacher who plants the seed, we may be the one to water it, or we may be the one who actually gets to watch it grow."

This is one of many favorite quotes from the book as it focuses on something I am deeply passionate about...reaching every kid. Todd and Adam discuss in their chapter "Never Slam the Door" that we should always be trying new ways to reach kids and help them get to where they need to be. The minute we shut down and give up on kids is the minute that those same kids feel as though they have been given up on. If a coach on a basketball team were to come to you and say "Derek, I know you are our worst free throw shooter so we will never have you shoot them in a game...ever" there would be no reason to practice right? If you knew your coach had no faith or belief in your abilities why should you? Every needs someone in their corner, someone fighting for them every step of the way. "Kids want to know they matter to you. They want to know you see them, hear them, and believe in them - unconditionally."

4. Hats Off to You

I was such a fan of this idea of Todd's that he started at his school. The idea between "Hats Off to You" was to recognize students making good choices in turn possibly limiting the amount of referrals and incorrect choices made. Staff members would get encouragement cards every week to hand out to kids making good choices. If a student received one of these cards they were able to go into the office and one of the administrators gets to call the students parents to explain to them why their child is being rewarded/celebrated. It was such an amazing idea and one that I feel could work at every age group, students and adults. He even mentions doing this with his staff members and calling home to their parents celebrating their successes. As a future admin and even teacher leader, I would love to be able to implement something similar to this in my building. What a great to build capacity, relationships, and culture all at the same time.

For those of you that have not read the book, I would highly recommend picking it up from Amazon, borrowing from a friend or colleague, or whatever other means of gathering the book there are because it is worth it. Listening to Todd talk about the book on Sunday it was interesting listening to him discuss the reasoning behind the book. He basically stated that you can't really come up with an argument against "Kids Deserve It" because how can you go against what is best for kids? I would have to agree that is a pretty sound argument...but one that has been developed over time and put to the test on numerous occasions. These are just snapshots of some of the amazing things discussed in this book and I will write about more reflections in the coming posts.

Until next time...Be A Light!