Teenagers – Wild Animals

IMG_5524Last week Amy and I went to the coast to see Humpback Whales.  Just before we got on the boat our guide gave us the whole safety routine, then added one more piece that got me thinking.  Basically he said, these are wild animals and we never know what they’re going to do, we can’t predict their behavior so they may be jumping or we may not see anything, it’s nature.  

While we were motoring around looking for and watching whales I had a lot of time to think and I began connecting our guide’s warnings about wild animals to what we experience with teenagers on a regular basis.  Many outsiders, those NOT in education, view these lovely young adults as wild animals.  As I think about it, they’re not totally wrong!

Teens, the human variety, are capable of very high level thinking and processing.  They are empathetic, sympathetic, and very resilient.  Additionally, they are also full of hormones and are constantly changing.  In that regard they could be looked at much like the Humpback Whales I was hoping to see jumping all around me – wild and unpredictable.  

It would probably be a bit strange if I rallied all the teachers around each morning and reminded everyone about teenagers, “remember, these creatures are unpredictable…it’s nature, please be patient!”  However, it wouldn’t be untrue.  We’re dealing with some of the most diverse and rapidly changing brains in the world, no matter how well we think we know them nothing can be taken for granted.

The captain of our boat has been taking people on tours to watch whales for years now, he knows these waters and he has learned a lot about the movements of these massive mammals.  In an attempt to understand the wild, teenage minds that we encounter each day we work to establish positive relationships with our students.  By learning about their personalities we can better anticipate their learning styles and needs, much like the captain of our boat learning to anticipate the whales’ next move. We also have to remember that their brains are changing, each day may not guarantee the same interactions and behaviors as the last.

Keeping in mind that our kids are constantly changing is extremely important for the success of our young students.  Just as there will be days when the whales jump and there will be days when they don’t, the same can be said of our students – there will be good days and bad.  Also similar to the whales, we won’t ever know when these “jumping days” will happen for our students nor do we know when a bad day will strike.  The whales don’t jump every day but that doesn’t mean the captains don’t take tour groups out to sea in an effort to see them.  In the same spirit we must prepare to give every student the opportunity to “jump” each time we see them.

Creating the opportunity for kids to “jump” is what education is all about.  It won’t happen if they’re not comfortable and prepared, nor is it something we can force.  Each student is going to “jump” differently depending on a wide variety of factors.  Be ready for anything from these wild young minds, create the opportunity, and enjoy the show!  

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The Educational Caravan

This past summer I was visiting a friend in Chicago, we had to drive from one place to another and he said, “just follow me”.  It was about 30 seconds later that he ran a yellow light and lost me in traffic.  I figured he would’ve pulled over and waited for me but as it turns out he was too caught up in a conversation to realize that I was stuck at the light.  Eventually he answered my phone call (thank you technology) and came back to find me parked on the side of the road, frustrated and annoyed.  The next day as I drove back to Wisconsin I started thinking about the similarities between this situation and education, I found a lot of connections!

I started realizing that being a member of a caravan, whether the leader or follower, was a lot like working in education.  We’re all educational leaders in one capacity or another, whether as the leader of a school, division, or classroom…we’re leading the caravan and in some cases we’re following as well.  To better understand caravans I needed to think about them in an educational context, while doing that I identified five key parts to successful caravan situations both on the road and in education.

  1. The Role of the Leader

When I was following my friend he had the implicit responsibility to make sure that I arrived at our destination.  He was supposed to lead the way and guide me to the final goal.  While the destination in this story wasn’t very important, we often find ourselves as leaders in education pursuing lofty and extremely important (for our students) goals.  

The leader of the caravan has the job of ensuring that everyone makes it to their goal! Thinking back to family caravan trips as a kid, I’m sure there are a few times when my parents would’ve preferred if one or two of the other families didn’t make it to the final destination but in education it doesn’t work that way!  Our students, teachers, or other community members are trusting us as the leaders of the pack to get them ALL to the final destination.  

  1.  The Route

As the leader of the caravan you have the responsibility for getting the entire group to the desired destination.  The route you choose, is often times up to you. There are a few factors to consider when choosing your route but there are no overarching rules that apply here.  Perhaps you or the group want to arrive as soon as possible, sometimes the safest route may be a little slower and but more desired.  You also have to consider avoiding road construction or other detours, potential headaches are often bypassed intentionally.

In education we work together, we collaborate to develop the best “route” to get our kids to the ultimate learning goals.  Sometimes we collaborate with other leaders in the journey and other times we work with everyone involved in the process.  Ideally we are working together to choose a path from the start and when we hit those obstacles along the way we come back together to make a collaborative decision about the best detour to take.  In either event, it is crucial that everyone has a solid understanding of what the destination will be and as much information about the route as possible.  

It is often said that the route isn’t important, that it is the destination that matters.  While this may be true as a generalized statement, when it comes to education the learning process is extremely important.  Choose your route carefully, collaborate with your colleagues, and work to lay the best path for those you’re leading.  

  1.  The Speed

Ever been in a caravan with a leader who likes to push the speed limit to the max?  How about someone who prefers to drive five miles below the speed limit?  It’s the “Goldilocks” paradox, too fast and too slow are no good, as leaders we have to be “just right” when it comes to pacing.  The larger the group the harder to find that sweet spot but it becomes even more essential with large groups.

  1.  Maneuvering Obstacles

When I got left behind at a stop light this summer I ended up lost because my leader wasn’t aware of the obstacle at hand.  His running of a yellow light forced me to decide, run a red or stop and wait.  As leaders in a school, whether leading students or teachers we have to be aware of the obstacles we face.  Do we rush the end of a lesson because the bell is going to ring and risk leaving someone stuck behind?  If we’re leading a school wide initiative, do we push on even if everyone isn’t on board just so we can implement the plan by a certain deadline?  How do we advance the whole group while also maneuvering through the wild obstacle course that is a school year?

One thing that is important to consider is that we (both leaders and followers) move at different speeds and encounter different obstacles in our learning.  Whether a disruptive home life, learning challenges, or a desire to move quickly through material, we’re all faced with different situations.  As the leader of the pack it’s important to keep this in mind.  Sometimes it’s okay if someone trails the group, as long as they remain in sight and can continue down the path at their own pace.  These people may need extra support.  That might take the form of Student Support Services, language acquisition assistance, or one-on-one support.  No matter what the obstacle there is surely a path to be followed.  Sometimes the trouble is just working to find that path and other times the challenge is overcoming multiple obstacles simultaneously.  Just as I mentioned when discussing the route, in education we work together as teams to help everyone succeed…especially those with multiple challenges or obstacles to arriving at the destination.

  1.  Watch Your Rear-View Mirror

As I sat waiting for my friend to come back and find me this summer I couldn’t fathom that he had just continued on and not noticed I wasn’t behind him.  However, as I mentioned earlier, he was too caught up in conversation to look in his mirror to check on me.  As the leader of the caravan it is your job to make sure everyone is still behind you.  On the road this means checking your mirrors regularly and verifying everyone’s presence.  Perhaps you even have a system set up so that everyone is responsible for the car behind them, thus creating a chain of accountability.  No matter the plan, it is important that everyone travels together and ends up at the same destination.  

In a leadership context a rear-view mirror isn’t the literal tool for checking on your followers but the fact remains that we must be sure that those we are leading stay with the group.  With a group of teachers moving toward an initiative you might form cohorts so that everyone is accountable to their small group.  Similarly in a classroom, small groups are often used to help students move forward with their learning collaboratively.  It is also possible for the leader to track their followers’ progress individually, a strategy perhaps more fit for smaller groups.  Whether by taking sole responsibility or sharing the task of monitoring the group, leaders must constantly check with their followers to ensure that everyone continues moving toward the final destination.  

 

The Road Ahead

This past summer I was left behind and felt lost.  I’ve been in the same place while working in school, both as a student and an educator.  During my two hour drive back to Wisconsin the similarities between these two scenarios really came clear for me.  Whether the leader or the follower, it is important to understand the dynamics of the caravan and the important similarities to the classroom and education.   

As educational leaders we’re all leading one caravan or another, and for many of us we’re busy leading multiple different caravans with different destinations.  Continuous movement forward is the main goal as we drive on toward the ultimate target.  However, we must keep in mind that we’re in this together…some people drive faster or slower, have less capable cars, or are just learning to drive.  No matter who is following it is imperative that we continue to consider everyone who is included in our caravan.  

Drive on 🙂

Positive Notes Home

We’re in the home stretch, three weeks until summer break, wow!  I keep thinking about our school culture and I’ve been reading even more about it as people share amazing articles, links, and books with me (thank you!)  I will keep it short this week because I think it would be really valuable if you went to this link and read a great blog post that was shared with me.  I’ve written about ideas for improving school culture the last two weeks and the theme hasn’t died down in my mind, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not going anywhere!  

Last week I brought up the idea of positive notes home.  The author of the post I shared above makes a great case for dipping your toe into the waters, it’s not a huge time commitment but the power of those notes IS huge!!  As an example, one of our colleagues came to me this week to show me an email he received.  He wasn’t trying to brag about his child but rather was sharing it with me to help confirm my theory.  It was a glowing email about his child’s performance in class and the way it made him feel, as a parent, was exactly the kind of feeling I believe we need to start fostering in this community.  He was proud of his child and happy about the growth shown academically but along with those feelings he was thankful toward the teacher for sharing.  This is what I’m after, that parental feeling of positivity and thankfulness for us (the teachers!)

We need to bring parents to the table.  They need to be more a part of the school community than they are now (as a generalization).  By communicating regularly, and not just for “negative” reasons, we will begin to forge a connection that we can draw upon to help get them more involved in their child’s education as well as the school community.

As I said, I’ll keep it short this week.  PLEASE give it a try, send a few positive notes home and see what comes back!!

Learning From Experience

Monday was our second opportunity to engage in our Cougar Buddies program.  Once again it was an absolutely incredible experience!  Having enjoyed my trip to IMAGINE Valley with our 9th graders at Thanksgiving, there was no way that I was missing this second trip.  In our first visit I was blown away by the wonderfully positive interactions between our 9th graders and the IMAGINE Valley students.  On this trip something else hit me, the learning…

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When we first conceived of the idea of Cougar Buddies there was a buzz of energy in the room – what a great opportunity for us to build community at our school!  Connecting the Middle and High Schools with Early Childhood and IMAGINE, building relationships with students who wouldn’t normally interact…it was an exciting concept.  In our first Cougar Buddies, at Thanksgiving, we saw this excitement play out, our teachers loved it and more importantly our students loved it!  This experience was different, in a good way…actually it wasn’t different, so much as it was better – it was improved, it was deeper, it went beyond meeting new people, smiling, and having fun.

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In our first trip to IMAGINE I stood with Carolina Ulloa (one of the outstanding leaders of the IMAGINE programs) and we watched.  We watched as students met and engaged for the first time.  We watched as some 9th graders dove in and immediately developed meaningful relationships with their Cougar Buddies.  We watched as IMAGINE students joined the excitement with smiles and we watched as a few retreated in tears.  We watched as some of the 9th graders retreated (without the tears!) to a more comfortable distance; it was clear this was pushing their comfort zones.  It concerned me, I was disappointed seeing these “big kids” hold back.  However, being as amazing as she is, Carolina encouraged me to be patient.  “Give them time,” she said, “I’ve seen this before.  Some kids need to sit back and watch for a while before they jump in, that’s okay.”  She couldn’t have been more correct, our second visit proved that!

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Based on stories I’ve heard from teachers and students alike, the experience I’m describing wasn’t unique to the 9th graders visiting IMAGINE Valley.  This scene was playing out in classrooms all around our campus and what a beautiful scene it was.  Our second Cougar Buddies visit opened new doors, chances for those who sat back and watched during the first visit to wade in a little further and test the waters.  It was amazing!  

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Students who had previously been little more than a fly on the wall were now diving right in, playing, laughing, and enjoying the experience.  The pleads for more time with Cougar Buddies were repeated during this second visit.  The laughter and stories heard on the bus ride back to AC were filled with joy and happiness.  Our students, both young and old, have taken full advantage of the opportunities provided by our Cougar Buddies time.  

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Building the Academia Cotopaxi/IMAGINE community, #LearnInCommunity, was one of the main drivers in our initial planning of Cougar Buddies.  While that goal has certainly been achieved we’ve also seen incredible growth and learning come in just our second visit.  Many of our students don’t have siblings with such a large age difference, or siblings at all.  The experience of interacting, even just sitting down and playing together, is one that is new to many of our students.  What an incredible opportunity for them to step out of their comfort zones and face new challenges!  This was the best Cougar Buddies experience yet; with the awesome growth seen between visits one and two I have high hopes for the future of this initiative!!

It Takes a Village To Raise a Child – Successfully

The first semester is quickly coming to a close and a number of students’ names have come my way for having late and missing assignments.  I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers about strategies for holding our students accountable to their work.  It seems that whether we’re talking about a 6th grade student or a high school senior, the conversation goes the same way.  Often times, as responsible adults, we have a hard time figuring out what is preventing these young adults from living up to the expectations we’ve laid out for them.  

I don’t think there is any one “problem” or “issue” that is common to all students struggling to meet expectations.  In fact, there usually isn’t even a common factor when I sit down and look at a small group of 6th grade boys, for example.  Every student has different struggles and they usually are experiencing these difficulties for various reasons.  There are myriad factors that play into the development of a young mind and trying to place our thumbs on any one “problem” is a bit of a fool’s errand.

As I sat back and thought about all of the different struggles that our students experience and considered their excuses (I think I could write a pretty long book full of the different excuses I’ve heard over the years!) I tried to think back to my first days as a teacher and recall the strategies I’ve used to help hold kids accountable.  To be perfectly honest, the list is long and it’s full of failed attempts but in the end there are two strategies that, when combined, have achieved the most success.

Just for kicks, let’s see…In the early years, there was the guilt trip which was very successful at drawing forth tears and a careful analysis of footwear (lots of hung heads and feeling ashamed).  There were also the whole class heart-to-heart sessions about responsibility, these seemed to have an immediate but very short term effect…I just didn’t have the time or energy to pull these out twice a week!  Then there were the raised voice conversations, random calls home, and sending students to the ‘in-school-suspension’ room.  None of these did anything for the students’ responsibility levels and they most certainly didn’t help me build any form of positive relationship.

I learned though, thankfully, and I turned my attention to more positive motivators.  I gave raffle tickets to those who completed their work, we started a challenge with other classes to see which class could have the most consecutive days of homework completed by everyone in the room, I wrote positive notes home for kids who finally turned in homework on time, and I praised, praised, and praised some more.  While these alternatives helped me form better relationships I still saw little progress towards increasing levels of responsibility among the students of concern.

To be perfectly honest, I know I haven’t solved the riddle yet and I’m most certainly not done pursuing better options.  However, over the last couple years I’ve employed a combination of two strategies that have led to increased responsibility over the long term and also led to positive relationships.

These two strategies are certainly not rocket science but they do require a level of dedication that will take a concerted effort to maintain.  So, what are they already, right?!

 Consistency is Key:  Many people, and young adults are no different, need consistency in their lives.  The students who struggle to meet expectations for timeliness and responsibility most certainly fall into this category.  The first thing we need to provide for our students is a level of consistency that might even border on manic.  As these young minds develop they are facing so many changes, stressors, and emotions that anything outside of a routine will easily become lost in the shuffle.  Establish precise routines for your classes.  For certain students who you’ve noticed struggling even more than the usual, increase the rigidity in their routines.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

    • Post a detailed daily agenda in a visible place that will remain for the entire class period (build in small breaks that will act as targets/checkpoints.)
    • Ensure that students use a consistent system of organization (agenda, digital calendar, etc)
    • Post any homework or outside of class responsibilities in the same place each day AND give kids sufficient dedicated time to record their homework in a(n) agenda/digital calendar each class period.
    • Create a dedicated “inbox” for completed work and/or ONE specific system for turning in digital assignments.
    • Remind students about long term assignments every class period AND check-in on progress toward the long term goal.
    • Make time at the beginning (waiting until the end doesn’t work, trust me) of each class to check-in with students who need reminders, never let a class pass without this happening…remember, consistency is key!
    • Change up other routines to encourage flexibility…I know this seems to fly in the face of the whole point but try things like:  Changing the seating arrangement, seating chart, groups, or elbow partners.  Also, keep your bulletin boards fresh, rotate student work displays, and keep your room current.  

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child:  The African proverb is so popular and has been around so long for a reason…it’s true!  Students who require the most effort and attention will need the whole “village” to be involved.  Communicate with your grade level teams, share and harmonize strategies, and include other support (Sped, ELL, Counselors, Admin, etc) as necessary.  Similarly, communicate with the parents in a positive and supportive manner.  As a team share the strategies that are being employed, ask for support, and let them know that this is a team effort.  Last and definitely not least, include the student in the conversations as often as possible.  They need to understand their role in their success.  Try:

    1. When an assignment is late, or better yet about to be due, send the student a reminder email and CC the parents and other relevant support.
    2. Let students know that they should be proud of themselves when they do well.  Building the intrinsic sense of achievement is exponentially more powerful than letting them know you’re proud of them.  Try, “You should be proud of yourself for…” instead of “I’m proud of you…”  They will still know you’re proud of them but it also sends a message that they should be working for themselves, not to please you!  Remember, you won’t always be there to be proud of them!!
    3. Use Growth Mindset language with your students.
    4. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to have all relevant stakeholders involved in the process of supporting a struggling student.

You can try yelling at students, ignoring the problem, or giving them detention, some of these will make you feel better but at the end of the day these strategies will achieve nothing more than a acidic relationship and a distaste for your subject or class.  By this point I’m 100% sure that you already have a small list of students in your mind.  Consider the strategies you’ve employed thus far and think about what alternations may be needed to help improve the level of success they are experiencing in school.  Finally, please involve me in the conversations.  As I hope you know by now, helping struggling students is one of my passions as an educator.  Every teacher in history has had students who’ve struggled for one reason or another, let’s work together to help those students succeed!

Grit and Growth Mindset…Necessities!

The other day a teacher walked into my office with some questions about student learning goals.  He wanted to teach his students “grit” and find a way to measure their growth.  I have to be honest, this was one of the most exciting educational conversations I’ve had this year.  When he left my office I was off and running on an uncontrollable urge to re-read all of the grit articles I had bookmarked and re-watch all of the related videos…it’s just too inspiring!

If you’re unfamiliar with the character strength called “grit”, then I strongly urge you to stop right now and watch this TED talk by Angela Duckworth, it is only 6:09 long and not shockingly has only 7.3 Million views…more people need to see this!!

For those of you who are in that 7 million plus viewer group, you’re already a convert…I’m sure of it!  The idea of “grit” and the data coming out of the research is just too impactful to ignore.  However, as Duckworth points out, there’s a problem…we (humans) still aren’t 100% sure of how to teach grit.  In her TED Talk, Duckworth points out that Carol Dweck’s concept of the growth-mindset is likely the best available theory for approaching the teaching/learning of grit.  If you’re not familiar with Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset then…stop and watch this now!  

Growth Mindset is something that is so crucial to success that it just can’t be ignored.  There are, of course, very successful people who’ve never learned a Growth Mindset but there is just too much evidence that shows how having a Growth Mindset and believing in “the power of yet” can change someone’s life.  

The implications for “grit” and Growth Mindset for educators (and parents) are astronomical.  It may require slowing down a bit in class, taking time to help students “relearn” material, or adjusting our practice as educators.  Rick Wormeli, a former Disney Teacher of the year and one of the first Nationally Certified Teachers in the USA, speaks about the implications of the Growth Mindset for our classrooms.  This video is an absolute must watch for all educators, no question about it!  No matter if you’ve seen this video before or not, please watch it and contemplate the implications for your classroom.  

Our role as educators is extremely important.  The tasks we are charged with are many but the most important of all is the future success of our students.  “Grit” and Growth Mindset are two of the factors that research has shown to dictate success in life; how do these two things fit into your classroom?

A Parting 2 Cents

It seems like a long time ago that I started writing my 2 Cents!  For the last SCIS version of my 2 Cents I’m going to be a bit more long winded than usual.  However, I want to offer a few summer time options for those who haven’t already ironed out every single minute of their holiday.  I’m not advocating for any one idea over another but I think any successful summer will include at least one of these four things.

Personally, for my summer, I’ll be working on organizing a visa to Ecuador, spending time with family and friends in America, getting back to working out and eating healthy, and acting as the Officiant in my sister’s wedding just days before Amy and I take off for Quito.  During all of that time I’ve also committed to reading two professional books (one for an online book chat and the other to review for Middleweb) and attending a 1-day “Ed Camp” in Chicago.  I’m excited for these professional opportunities which have all come via my professional learning community (PLC).

My recommendations for the summer:

1.  Hit the beach, mountains, trails, parks, ocean, lake, or whatever you can find outdoors!

Get outside and enjoy the fresh air (I’m hoping you can get away from a polluted city for this one).  Spend a few days camping next to a river with no wifi or mobile phone access, unplug and enjoy Mother Nature at her finest.  Give yourself some time to just enjoy all that nature has to offer without the hustle and bustle of the ‘outside world’.  If camping isn’t your thing then take a walk, go for a bike ride, or just sit and enjoy a park…but do it often.  Take a road trip, see a new place, and get out of the city-life for a while.  All of these things will help rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit!

2.  Take care of yourself.

Remember that New Year’s Resolution…yeah, I know the feeling…I was too stressed and too cold in the winter to really get anything productive going.  It’s too dark in the mornings and dreary at night, who wants to work out?  I wanted a nice warm meal full of comfort food and some wine on the couch at the end of those days, not an exercise class and salad!!  However, now the sun is shining and we can sleep past 6AM!  So track down your trainers and get moving…10,000 steps a day is a lot easier to manage in the summer when there are no papers to grade or meetings to attend.  Cook some homemade meals for your friends and family who still have to work through the summer, enjoy a nice dinner together and help them relieve some stress too.  The summer is your time to take care of yourself and feel great!

3.  Read, read, read!

If you’re like me you might feel like summer is the perfect time to squeeze in some of that professional reading you’ve promised yourself you’d do.  That’s fine but don’t skip the reading for pleasure too!!  (I’ve got Game of Thrones book 5 waiting for me)  Whether you’ve got a book waiting or not, you might also consider reading some of the books that are hot with our kids right now.  This article is a great one and lists five young adult books that adults would also enjoy.  I’ve read a few on this list (Book Thief is awesome!) and agree that knowing what our kids are into is a great way to connect and relate to our middle school age kids.  If you’re thinking that professional reading might be in the works for the beach then have a look at this article, some great tips there too.  The old saying of “don’t mix work with pleasure” goes out the door here…when it comes to summer reading, mix away!

4.  Reconnect at your own risk!

It goes without saying that living overseas requires a long time away from friends and family who are back ‘home’ or elsewhere.  However, if you’re like me it only takes a week or so at ‘home’ before you feel like it’s time for a break!  There are a lot of family and friends who want to spend as much time with you as possible and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the attention.  In a sense it’s almost like teaching…there’s only one of you but there’s a seemingly endless number of people who want/need your time and energy.  Be sure to take some “Me Time” this summer and don’t let yourself get run down while trying to connect with everyone.  I often joke at the end of summer that “I need to get back to work so I can relax!”  It’s easy to feel that way, especially if you’re bouncing from couch to guest room all summer.  Enjoy the time with family and friends but be sure to enjoy some time alone as well.

Enjoy the last week with our kids, it’s going to be a wildly emotional ride for many of them (and us!!)  Hang in there and enjoy the laughs and memories and embrace the inevitable tears.  Everyone has made a lot of strong connections here in the SCIS community and it will be tough to part ways, no matter how long you’ve been here.  Say what you need to say to those you’ve grown close with, trade contact info, and be confident that you’ll connect again soon!