We’re All Counselors: Helping Our Students Navigate Their Way in a Wild World

Our kids/students need us (adults) more than ever right now.  I don’t just mean right now, as in this instant, but rather right now as in “this day and age”.  I’m not here to be a Chicken Little and tell you that the sky is falling but, because the digital age is well upon us, our kids are exposed to any and everything that becomes popular…anywhere!  While that can be a good thing, it is often scary and potentially dangerous.  Our kids need us, they need adults they can trust, talk to, and learn from…we have to be available for them, to listen and to provide guidance.

This isn’t new, it’s been going forever but the realities of what our kids see/hear/experience online each and every day are frightening, it’s not what we grew up with!  A few years back a frightening story came out of my hometown about two middle school age girls who tried to stab their best friend to death because they had been following an online character called Slenderman, it was crazy!  Guess what – HBO optioned it for a documentary.  This happened, literally, blocks away from where I grew up.  Where I ran, rode my bike, and stayed out until the street lights came on…then went back out after dinner for more fun!  The closest we came to this sort of thing was sneaking bootlegged scary movies (which were hard to come by!) into the basement at sleepovers.  Now this sort of thing is everywhere and our kids are gobbling it up!  

Recently I have seen a few more examples of the realities of what our students are facing on social media and on TV/Netflix.  Most popular right now, the television show “Th1rteen R3asons Why”  (based on the 2007 book of the same name by Jay Asher) has taken the young-adult world by storm, it is being watched by most of our high school students and a large amount of middle schoolers.  I haven’t seen this myself but Amy is watching it and has engaged me in some pretty deep conversations about the realities of what our kids are facing each day as teens.  According to Wikipedia, “the show revolve(s) around a student who kills herself after a series of culminating failures, brought on by select individuals within their school.”  There has been a lot written recently about this show.  Headspace (the same Australian group who produced the wonderful Mindfulness app I’ve used) has shown concern that people who have been exposed to the show may be at an increased risk or danger level because of it.  Like I said before, I’m not here to be Chicken Little but we most certainly need to work hard to understand all of the risk factors our students are being exposed to on a regular basis.  13 Reasons Why is just one example of what’s out there for our kids, it’s TV and fictional but no doubt gives our students ideas or reasons to further consider thoughts they’ve already had.  If they have no one to turn to for answers, conversations, or help then we’re not doing our job – we teach more than the content in the textbook!

Since I haven’t seen 13 Reasons Why myself I can hardly pass judgement on the show (or the book) but I am most certainly concerned that lines that have previously been respected are now being crossed.  In this show, the moment when the main character takes her own life has been shown and narrated in detail.  This sort of thing has previously been (unofficially) recognized as off limits for TV or movies but no longer does that seem to be the case.  What is yet to come is anyone’s guess but it will most surely be further away from this previously uncrossed line.  Even scarier than the prospects of what highly publicized media companies will produce next is the reality of what is spreading around the internet unsanctioned and unchecked, this is the part of the internet where our students live.

As I was planning and beginning to write this post it came to my attention that the newest topic of discussion for many of our middle schoolers is the “Blue Whale Challenge”.  I’ve done a little research (granted not all of the websites are the most reliable) but they all say the same thing, the Blue Whale Challenge (it goes by other names as well) is a “suicide game”.  Talk about scary!  It has taken hold in Russia and parts of Europe where people are extremely worried about the potential effects for teens and others who may be looking for an outlet or even a chance to “fit in”.  The fact that this conversation has spread to our community is extremely concerning but, as you can tell from my previous tone, not entirely surprising.  It’s out there, it’s on the internet and it’s popular with their age group – it’s going to find a way into their world one way or another.  Eeek.

So what do we do?  What is our role?  It’s a scary proposition for sure, especially for those of us who aren’t trained counselors, psychologists, or mental health advisors.  However, we still have a role.  We have to be good for our students, we need to build positive relationships with them so they know they have people to talk to.  School should be the safest (physically and mentally) place for our students.  They should know who they can turn to and feel comfortable approaching anyone.  It’s not our role to initiate discussions with them about 13 Reasons Why or the Blue Whale Challenge but it is our job to watch and listen for signs.  Kids cry out for help in many ways to many different people.  If you see these cries, or even suspect that you’ve seen one, then share it with someone.  Our counselors are amazing and we’re very lucky to have a school psychologist.  They are resources for us just as much as they are for the kids, don’t be afraid to approach them.  We’re on the front lines, we know these kids better than anyone (sometimes even better than their parents) and more than anything we care about these kids and would be devastated to see anything happen to them!

This is my cry for help, it’s me asking you to be the best for kids every single day in every possible way.  I know it’s not easy and it may not be realistic for us to be our best all the time but whatever we can give to these kids without sapping ourselves of our own physical and emotional health, that’s what we should be giving…please.

Dear Teacher, Thank You!

It’s Teacher Day in Ecuador.  I wrote a personal ‘thank you’ letter to one of my High School English teachers and sent it to him in honor of this day, a couple years late but better than never I hope!  I wrote another letter as well.  I wrote to you on behalf of your students.  You all deserve to receive a letter like this, perhaps you have or you will in the future but you deserve one today as well.

Thank you!

 

Good Afternoon,

I am writing to you today to say something that I, perhaps, have never said to you or any other teacher before…thank you!!  

You see, I know that I don’t usually show it and I rarely (if ever) actually say it, but I really appreciate all that you do for me and my classmates.  To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if I see much of that now or really appreciate it in the moment.  However, I know 100% for sure that I will realize how much I appreciate you and your efforts some time in the future.  It may be when I finally ace that assessment, perhaps it’s in a few years when I’m in college looking back at my High School experience, or it could be in 20 years when I’m in my mid-30s and reflecting back on my life so far.  Whenever it is, I will realize it and I will appreciate all that you do (have done) for me.

I know that when I go home at night and do (or don’t do) my homework, you are putting in more time preparing to help me be successful.  I realize that teachers go home at night and grade papers, correct tests, write comments, and agonize over their students.  I know that when you lose your temper in class that it’s not because you don’t like me but rather because you care so much about me and my success that you’ve invested a lot of your time, effort, and emotions into me and my classmates.  Thank you for all that you do to make my success such a priority, it means a lot to me (or it will someday in the future!!)

Do you remember the other day, when I came to your class and you smiled and asked me about my weekend?  That was awesome, I had a great weekend and really wanted to tell someone about it.  I really enjoy connecting with my teachers, it helps me learn.  Someone shared a quote with me once about the relationship between teachers and students, “Students don’t care what a teacher knows until they know that their teacher cares.”  Well, I know that you care about me and that is why I am invested in your class…thank you for caring!  

We’ve got a holiday coming up and I don’t plan on thinking about school too much.  I hope you are able to do the same, take some time away and relax.  It’s hard work being a teacher, I can see that from all that you do for me.  I’ve heard the jokes about teachers and all the vacation time, they’re not funny.  I know that the time and effort you put in is just as much as anyone else in any other job, because you care about my success and want the best for me.  During this next holiday I hope that you spend time with your family, travel, read a book, or do anything else that helps you to relax and recharge.  We don’t have much longer in this school year and I know that together we will finish strong.

Thank you again and please remember that even if I don’t show it or say it now, I will certainly (some day) appreciate all that you do for me.  You’re an outstanding person and an even better teacher, I’m lucky to have you in my life!  

Thank you,

Your student

The Power of Positive Relationships

We had a lot of conversations at the beginning of the year about the importance of relationships, especially in our school community.  I’ve been having a lot more of these conversations recently, both here at AC and on my visit to Indonesia, and then I came across a fantastic blog post this week…I’m not sure I could’ve stressed the importance of relationships any more than Joe Robinson, a Middle School teacher in Alaska.  Here are a few highlights of the blog post and then a link to the actual post, go have a look, it’s outstanding!

“While most educators would acknowledge the importance of relationships, I think there is often  a lack of understanding as to the power relationship creates.”

 

“As a teacher, the environment you create for students within your classroom is the single greatest tool you have for engagement, empowerment, and growth.”

 

“It is imperative that teachers leverage this truth and use it to create environments that students WANT to be in.”

 

“The teacher who still views their role as “delivering content” because they are the “professional educator” is in danger of fracturing relationships with students that cannot afford to be fractured.”

 

“At the end of the day, students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.”
Go read this post…it’s wonderful!!!

A Week of Tweets from my View of Academia Cotopaxi

Usually I write about something I’ve seen or heard around school over the course of the last week…or at least something inspires an idea that I end up writing about.  This week I wanted to share some of the things I’ve seen and heard around school in a different way.  I realize that many of you don’t get the chance to go around and see all the different things happening in our school each day.  So, here are a collection of my Tweets from this week that share some of the awesome stuff happening at Academia Cotopaxi this week, starting with snow-capped Pichincha on Monday morning – enjoy!

PS – It may take a minute for all these Tweets to load here…be patient 🙂

Wow, that all happened in one week around here!  I certainly enjoyed visiting classrooms and seeing all of the awesome stuff that is happening at AC, it’s a wonderful place for our kids!  Thank you all for everything that you do to make it a great educational experience for everyone 🙂

Igniting Passion Through Coaching

It’s been a few years since I’ve had the chance to coach a basketball game, almost five years in fact.  I can’t tell you how much I missed it!!  I’ve been a starter, a bench warmer, a referee, an assistant coach, a head coach, and a fan…I’ve even been the score book and score clock person!  As much as I love all those other roles in basketball there really is nothing like coaching.

How often do you find a class full of students who aren’t very good (relatively) at the skill/subject at hand, yet desperately want to get better and can have a lot of fun going through that process?  As an educator, whether teacher or coach, there is just nothing like the awesome energy that is created in this scenario…especially when, as the educator, the subject is something that you’re very passionate about yourself.

In my family there are three kids, me and my two younger sisters, and we all became educators despite the fact that neither of our parents are educators themselves.  People often ask us how this happened and the best I can figure is that our father (and sometimes our mother) coached all of us in basketball from the first day we tried to dribble until our playing careers ended.  It was his passion for helping create, not basketball players, but well-rounded young adults who happened to play basketball that really rings true with me today.  The energy was always positive, kids were always learning (not always basketball), and everyone was having fun!

Thinking about what makes a successful learning environment in schools, it’s no wonder my father was such a successful basketball coach.  He built positive relationships that combined with an engaging and exciting learning environment.   It’s really no different than the culture we’re trying to create within our own classrooms.  I know the context is different but the general concepts are still the same:  Provide a warm and welcoming environment, engage your learners, build passion for the subject (not always required), and make learning fun.

Coaching and teaching are really the same thing, especially when you think about coaching practice.  It can get boring and requires extra planning and effort to be engaging for my players.  It is especially difficult when it comes to fundamental skills that, in order to really improve, require repetitive practice.  However, some how, when it comes to sport practice coaches often find engaging ways to get kids practicing skills…games based on the skill, relay races using the skill, incorporating them into warm up exercises, or creating stations to break up the monotony of the practice.  No coach would ever give their players a worksheet to practice basketball.  Similarly, no coach would tell his players to be quiet and go dribble by yourself for 15 minutes.  Basketball is a team game, players learn and grow together…what if we approached each class the same way, as a team game?

I could go on and on about basketball and coaching but what I really want to leave you with today is the idea that teaching in the classroom doesn’t have to follow a certain (boring) pattern.  Many of you are coaches yourselves, or directors of plays or music, or mentors to after school activities, or members of teams and clubs yourselves.  Think about those experiences, what is it that makes those things so engaging and fun for you?  They are your passions, just like teaching.  Our passions excite us and sharing them is a joy, does your classroom feel the same way?

Fine Arts Rock!

Coming on the heels of an awesome Fine Arts Festival I couldn’t help but writing about all the amazing benefits of including the Arts in a curriculum.  Over the years Arts programs have ebbed and flowed as budgets and priorities have shifted.  I’m very happy and proud to be part of a school that gives the Arts equal footing with all the other subjects we offer.  We require our students to take music up through 8th grade and for middle school and high school students we offer Drama, Visual Arts, Graphic Design, and coming next year, Dance.  The range of opportunities in the Arts for a school of our size is beyond impressive and it couldn’t be better for our students!

There is a lot of research that supports the fact that we’re not only giving our students chances to explore their interests in the Arts but we’re also giving them a leg up in other academic classes.  One meta-analysis of more than 60 different studies shows that students who work in the Arts “do a better job of mastering reading, writing and math than those who focus solely on academics.”  While the Arts are not a panacea, the connections and benefits of being exposed to the Arts shouldn’t be doubted.  Improved social-emotional skills from Drama, cognitive improvements from music, improved communication and creativity from Dance, and organization and reasoning skills from Visual Arts are just a few of the many benefits of an Arts curriculum.  While I’m confident that our students would be successful without the Arts, there is no doubt in my mind that because of our robust Arts program our students are even more well prepared for the rigors of life beyond our walls!  

Our Middle School teachers, along with a number of Elementary, High School, and community members have stepped up to ensure that the Fine Arts Festival was a HUGE success.  Our Middle School students will, no doubt, benefit from the Arts program at Academia Cotopaxi but this Fine Arts Festival did a brilliant job of bringing the entire community together around the Arts.  Splitting my time between the High School and Middle School I often notice the fact that our students lose touch with the Arts as they continue into High School.  Considering that it’s been found that “Arts students” consistently outscore “non-Arts students” on the SAT in study after study, perhaps reconsidering how we make the Arts available to our High School students is worth some time and effort.  While the correlation is undeniable and we can’t be sure of causation, the facts should make us stop and think!  Making sure that all of our students enjoy the benefits of such an amazing program for as long as possible will be crucial to their continued success.

Beyond the classroom, the benefits of an Arts program continue to be seen.  Decreased rates of disciplinary action, higher attendance rates, and increased graduation rates were recorded in this extensive study done in the United States.  Walking around during our Fine Arts Festival and enjoying all of the amazing workshops and practice sessions, it is clear that our students are gaining even more from this experience than could have been imagined.  From “The Science of Art” to “Tapestry” and “Mosaic” workshops, our students have taken pride in the work they’ve accomplished during their exploratory sessions.  Capturing the curiosity that lies within all of our students is essential to their success, there is no doubt in my mind that the Fine Arts Festival has done exactly that!  

A HUGE thank you goes to the Arts department for organizing such a tremendous Fine Arts Festival.  I’ve been involved in similar events over the last six years and I can say, without a doubt, that this has easily been the most well coordinated, engaging, and successful Fine Arts Festival that I’ve ever seen!

Thank you again to the Arts Team!!!!

Data Drives Us All

Summer is great.  Cheese, beer, and all-you-can-eat Friday Night Fish Frys…welcome to Wisconsin!!  It’s time to sit back, relax, and worry about nothing but enjoying time with family and friends.  Then reality hits…when I got back to Quito the biggest dose of reality that I had to face was the scale in our apartment, YIKES!  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised after a summer full of eating, drinking and not even looking at a scale.  Time to do something about this!

Fortunately I had the time to dedicate to fixing this problem and getting back on track.  Counting steps on my FitBit became crucial, 10,000 steps per day was non-negotiable now, more was better.  Additional exercise, at least twice a week, had to be done.  Tracking calories taken in, measuring input, was essential.  Gone were the days of attacking life with no plan, data was collected and goals were set.  It took time but it worked, I rectified a summer’s worth of damage…I was “caught up”.  

We all use data every day in our lives to make decisions and act on plans:  How fast are you driving on Ruta Viva, check the speedometer.  Wear that sweater today or not, check the thermometer.  Use the credit card or debit card, check the bank balance.  How much food to buy for the party, check the RSVP list.  Now, granted, there are a lot of things that we do without contemplating data but it’s the times when we really want to get it right that we consult data.  No one wants a speeding ticket, to be cold, overdrawn at the bank, or short of food while hosting so we check the data and make sure we get it right.  

During the summers I throw data out the window.  The only data I care about is on the golf course (mostly, my final score!) and what time we’re meeting grandpa for lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings!  I go about much of my summer with very limited plans, scheduling things the night before and mostly just winging it.  That’s summer, that’s the way it should be…data free 🙂

The school year, however, is a different matter.  Data rules the day.  As educators we need to be making informed decisions.  What data are we using to decide our course of action?  We know the standards at the end and we know the general path toward getting there, but what about all the decisions in between?  Does a diagnostic at the beginning of the unit show us what we need to add or perhaps what we can move through more quickly?  After a bad quiz, do we use the data to make a decision about the addition of a period dedicated to reteaching?  The questions should be about how we regularly use data in our classrooms not about if we regularly use data.

I love data, I’m a bit crazy when it comes to digesting information and analyzing what it all means.  When it comes to data, I can get a bit carried away at times…just ask the people who used to be in the bowling league with me in Shanghai (that’s a whole different story though).  Despite my love of data, I realize that not everyone else loves data as much as I.  However, that doesn’t mean we can ignore it all together, it must play a role in our practice as educators!

I’ve been thinking about this post for the last few days and while doing so, Facebook (with it’s scary mind-reading abilities) shared a wonderful article with me.  It comes from the Center for Teaching Quality, which is one of my most frequented sites.  This article shares some of the lessons learned by a school that has been data-driven since day one.  One of the overarching things you’ll see in this article is that it takes time and energy to do this well.  This is not one of those things that you can just start implementing tomorrow, this takes planning and careful consideration.  That being said, take a look at the article as it really does a nice job of demonstrating the power of using data to inform educational decisions.  While you may not be able to implement large data-driven plans starting tomorrow, you can definitely get started along the path toward regular data use.  Dig deep into data about your students and before you know it, you will know them as well as Facebook knows me!