Embrace Some Discomfort

Amy and I watched a new show recently, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman.  The first episode had a guest who, believe it or not, needed no introduction…Barack Obama.  It was a great interview and, whatever your political leanings, is worth watching.  One of the many topics discussed by Letterman and Obama is something I’d like to think about in our context as educators, “Nothing right in this world occurs without, at least, some discomfort.”

As educators we have our comfort zones, they are our safe little bubbles that we use to help us stay confident in the classroom.  I’m going to ask you today to take a step out of yours, and be a little uncomfortable.  I’ve got four things I’d like to ask that we all commit to doing for the rest of the year, they are things we can start today and will immediately improve the learning environment for our students.  Some of you may already be doing the some of these things but the I think, on some level, these will apply to everyone…

  1. Get a basket/box/container or something else and require that students put their phones into it before the class starts (unless you have a specific reason they need it that day.)  For our students, and all of us in fact, our handphones and other devices are distractions.  They vibrate when we get a message, they ding when we have a new Instragram follower and they overtake our concentration.  99% of the time our students don’t need a handphone in class…get the basket and have them put their phones in before the lesson begins.
  2. Make kids close their computers until they absolutely need them open.  If we remove the handphone distraction but allow students to keep their laptops open, we’ve accomplished nothing.  There is very little our kids can’t do from their computers that they can from their phones.  You’ll be amazed by the increased level of concentration from your students once you’ve removed these two distractions.  (Tip:  If you want their concentration back once they’ve opened their computers…have them close them again!)
  3. Don’t allow students to listen to music while they work.  This will come with some controversy, especially from the older students, and will put many of us out of our comfort zones.  There is a lot of research that proves that multitasking doesn’t work, it makes people worse at all of the things they’re trying to do in comparison to focusing on one task.  Here is one small study that is a good example…basically, if you want your kids to learn at an optimal level, take the headphones out of the equation. (Note:  In Arts classes, this step may be skipped…music tends to increase creativity and can be helpful for artists at work.)
  4. Now that we’ve eliminated a lot of the major distractions, get up and engage your students!  If students are using their computers, get up and move around the room so you can see their screens frequently.  Kids will still find ways to be distracted despite our best intentions.  If students are working, that is your time to be checking their work, discussing with them, and monitoring their progress.  

At the end of the day, some of these challenges will be easier for some than others but they are all sound educational practices that will improve the learning environment for our students.  As the quote above mentions, “Nothing right in this world occurs without, at least, some discomfort.”  These four things will cause some discomfort for you and the students but at the end of the day, they’re all things that are “right” for education.  

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The Art of the Mistake

We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.  They’ve been big and they’ve been small.  Usually, in hindsight they’re really no big deal at all.  Sometimes when they happen, however, they have such an impact that they’ll never be forgotten.  We’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

Part of me wants to stop there…we’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

However, mistakes can’t just stop with the mere acknowledgement that they’ve been made.  The beautiful part of mistakes is what comes after: learning, empathy, growth.  As educators we see our fair share of mistakes made on a regular basis.  I’ve grown fond of telling students that we expect them to make mistakes and that it’s their job (with our help) to learn from them, that’s why they’re in school.

Sometimes the mistakes our students make are minor, like a computational error on a math problem, other times they’re much bigger.  However, at the end of the day the ultimate goal is still the same; they should be learning from their mistakes.  This, the learning, is the crucial part of the puzzle.  How do we ensure that the learning they take away from their mistakes is the ‘right’ learning and how do we make sure that they’ve actually learned that lesson?

In truth, the answer to that question is simply, ‘we can’t.’  For the same reason that we are prone to making mistakes, we can’t guarantee anything else in the equation – we’re all human.  This, the fact that we’re all human, is something that I believe we forget all too often when dealing with other people’s mistakes.  It’s very easy to climb up into our ivory towers and pass judgement upon other people’s mistakes, even easier when those people are teenagers who make lots of mistakes!  However, if the true goal is to help someone learn from their mistake then we have to step back and remember – we’re all human.

Now, to be sure, just because we’re all human doesn’t mean that mistakes should be allowed to go unaddressed.  Actually, it’s just the opposite, mistakes need to be identified and learning should take place.  It’s this process of identifying mistakes, acknowledging them, and going through the process of learning that is at the heart of our job.  At the end of the day, how we treat mistakes made by our students is the legacy that we’ll leave as educators.  

Herein lies, perhaps, the biggest challenge we face each and every day.  How do we deal with mistakes made by our students?  We can be too relaxed, we can be too strict, or we can be somewhere in between.  It’s a Goldilocks paradox of sorts, we’re looking for that sweet spot right in the middle, that ‘just right’ territory.  There is no right answer here, and sometimes we’re going to make our own mistakes when dealing with other people’s mistakes.  However, if we can step back and acknowledge the fact that we all make mistakes and that they are a normal part of life, then just maybe we can get a little closer to that ‘just right’ place where we can all learn from our mistakes.  

We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.  They’ve been big and they’ve been small.  Usually, in hindsight they’re really no big deal at all.  Sometimes when they happen, however, they have such an impact that they’ll never be forgotten.  We’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – John Powell

“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.” – Richelle E. Goodrich

“You will only fail to learn if you do not learn from failing.” – Stella Adler

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” – Neil Gaiman

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde

“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.” – Winston Churchill

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

 

Planning for Misunderstanding

Over the three day weekend Amy and I flew up to Jakarta to stay with some friends of ours.  Getting from the airport to their house required a ride with a Grab driver who, seemingly, was very helpful and polite.  However, the next morning I received a phone call from a Grab representative inquiring about some extra charges that the driver had added onto our fare (I paid with credit card.)  I was very impressed that this huge company was being proactive about something they could’ve easily just missed or decided to ignore.  It became clear to me that they’ve spent time anticipating potential problems or trouble areas for their clients and can now respond proactively when situations arise.

Recently I’ve been listening to a really interesting podcast by Craig Barton, a Math teacher in the UK.  On the last episode I heard, he interviewed former teacher and author of Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov.  During their conversation they discussed the idea of planning for misunderstanding, as I was reflecting on my interactions with the Grab representative I realized that this was a very similar situation – Grab had planned for my misunderstanding.

While we’re planning units and lessons for our students it’s important that we take the time to stop and think through their potential misunderstandings before we teach the lesson.  By taking the time to process the material from our students’ perspective we are able to proactively trouble shoot the challenges our students may face as learners.  By anticipating potential problems we move from being responsive teachers to proactive facilitators of learning, a huge step forward on behalf of our students.  

Over the next two weeks you’ll be very busy writing comments, marking assessments, and providing quality feedback to your students.  However, when it comes time to think about those first units of semester two, take some time to plan for misunderstandings.  Grab had the foresight to realize that extra charges added onto a ride need a little investigation and dedicated time and effort to ensure that my experience was the best it could be.  What can you do as an educator to make the experience of learning in your classroom the best it can possibly be for your students?  

Planning for misunderstandings might just be the most effective strategy you can use to help your students, take the time to do this before teaching a lesson.

Modeling Our Learning

A few years ago our staff completed a Strengths Finder course and it was revealed that more than 80% of our teachers had the “Learner” profile in their top five strengths.  Not a surprise at all, considering the profession we’ve chosen.  I imagine that, despite being a small sample size, this group was representative of teachers across the world.  We’re learners, through and through.  It’s something we’re passionate about and, even if it’s not one of our top five strengths, it’s something we’re good at and enjoy.  

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking back to induction week and the challenge I put forth to lead our students, not only by teaching them academics, but also by positively modeling the behaviors we consider important.  I wish so badly that there was a way for our entire High School student body to have seen how hard their teachers were working to LEARN on Friday and Saturday.   Being learners, we understand the value of opening our minds to new ideas, but how do we model this behavior for our students?  

Too many students see learning as a school activity, something they’ll be “done” with once they graduate.  It’s one thing to tell our students that being a “lifelong learner” is important but wouldn’t that message be more effective if we could show them that we actually believe it?

One of the easiest ways to demonstrate our “learner” strength to our students is by sharing our learning experiences with them.  Whether it’s learning Bahasa Indonesia, studying for an IELTS assessment, taking golf lessons, or learning a new instrument, we’re all learning new things all the time.  If one of those doesn’t remind you of something you’re learning, then think no further than what you learned over the last few days in our MYP/DP workshops at school.  By discussing what we’re learning with our students we model for them the idea of being a lifelong learner as well as demonstrating our value for education in general.  

Recently I’ve become very skilled at saying, “Saya perlu belajar Bahasa Indonesia.”  I may not be making much progress but I’m working on it.  Students may occasionally laugh at me but they see me trying to learn Bahasa.  I constantly let them know how jealous I am of their bi/tri-lingual abilities (many of them have no idea how lucky they are to be learning in such a dynamic place as Sekolah Ciputra).   It’s one thing for me to tell them that learning languages is cool but it’s another thing altogether to show them that I really believe what I’m saying by showing them I’m working to learn Bahasa myself.  Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk shows you mean it.

So, as we come off a wonderful weekend of learning, think about how you can share this experience with your students.  Ask them about their 3-day weekend and let them know what you were doing while they were sleeping in and eating ice cream.  Let them know how important it is for you, as a teacher, to keep learning by sharing with them.  As the year goes on, look for more chances to share your learning with the kids.  You’re learning, you know it and I know it…let your students know it too!  

 

What’s Your Name Again?

I’ve done it before.  72 kids, 120 kids, 300 kids…but there I was standing in front of 650 kids, telling them that I vow to learn each and every one of their names…eeek!  What would possess somebody to endeavor to do such a ridiculous thing, let alone say it out loud?!?  

Throughout the week as people watched me struggle to remember names learned just 30 seconds earlier, smack myself in the head, and once in awhile actually remember a name, I’ve been asked about my strategy for remembering so many names.  Well, I don’t have just one.  The reality is that I’ve got about five or six that I’m using at any given time.  Let me see if I can articulate those for you:

  1. Use It or Lose It:  It’s true of anything in life, if we don’t use a skill it fades and is eventually lost.  The same is true with learning names.  The kids I met on Monday who I didn’t see the rest of the week; almost no chance I’ve remembered their name this long.  There are, however, a bunch of kids who’ve helped train me by continuously asking “Do you remember my name?”  To be honest, I probably didn’t know it the first or second time but those kids who continue to ask are now well ingrained in my heads.  They are in the small group that I’ll still know after a weekend away.  Use it or lose it.

  2. Repetition:  This is very similar to the first one but is more about the actual moment of learning, it is basically burning the memory of their name into my head.  I’m not sure it works that well, kind of like Rote Memorization, but I generally say a kid’s name over and over in my head (and sometimes out loud) as I’m trying to make a connection somewhere in my brain.

  3. Connect the Dots:  Speaking of making connections – aside from #1, this is probably the most important for long term memory making.  Our brains are like Velcro, memories and new information seek out a connection to stick to.  If there is nothing for those names to latch onto they just bounce around for a few seconds and fall right out.  I start with physical features, if there is something distinctive I can connect to that is always best…hair cuts, new glasses, and everyone wearing the same uniform are total enemies of this strategy!  Connecting their name to popular culture, a person I’ve known in the past, or just something silly all help maintain the connection longer.  Basically, for the long term recall, making a connection to a more permanent memory helps cement the new memory much faster and longer.

  4. Visualization:  I find that this one is very helpful for short-term memory.  Often times when I’m trying to recall a name I’ll ask the kids where I learned their name.  This helps me draw back to the initial creation of the memory and rummage around until something springs up.  If they were sitting with friends at lunch, in Math class, or I met them on Orientation Day, these are all opportunities for me to flash back to recall their name.  An aside here, there are certainly places that are not conducive to learning names – I’ve realized that in the morning or afternoon as kids are coming and going in a steady stream I can’t recall much of anything.  So, if I’ve stopped into your room to meet a few kids, thank you – I’ll appreciate being able to visualize your room later while trying to think of a name 🙂

  5. Context:  This is generally a good tool for helping me remember names in the long term and something I’d recommend for teachers learning names in their classes.  If I have the time I will engage a kid in a longer conversation, asking about their summer, their favorite class, or if they have brothers or sisters.  If I can place them in a certain context later on then I’ll have an easier time recalling their name.  Anything unique that I can learn about a student will greatly increase the odds of remembering their name.  This strategy is tough for me because often I don’t have a couple minutes with every kid, this is why break and lunch are great for learning names!!

  6. Spelling Champion:  Never mind that I lost the spelling bee on the word “phlegm” in 6th grade (who would think there is a ‘g’ in there?!?)  I’m often very good at processing auditory information but I find that when learning new names I benefit from having kids spell their name (especially the names that are “new” to me) while I phantom write them on my hand with my finger.  The process of hearing, doing, and saying is a good combination.  Also, there are a lot of kids who have “common” names that are spelled differently than I’m used to; this unique quality helps me remember as well.  

At the end of the day, no matter what strategies I use it comes down to effort, determination, and perseverance.  It’s not easy, it will take a long time, and I’ve already made so many mistakes it’s embarrassing.  However, it’s important to me so I will continue to push on and, someday I hope, I will get there.

As the beginning of the year washes over us and we move into the next phases of the school year, it’s important to keep in mind that we’ll have ups and downs, highs and lows. Whether it’s remembering names, planning lessons, or trying out new strategies in class, take a risk and don’t be afraid of a challenge.

 

Embracing Summer

It seems like a long time ago that I started writing this blog, five years and 146 posts ago.  Thinking about that makes me start thinking back to all that has happened over those five years.  Two different schools, traveling to all sorts of countries, lots of professional and personal experiences that have changed me (mostly for the better), and throughout all of that a constant reflective process that I’ve learned and practiced through the writing of this blog.  I’ve written before about why this blog is important to me and why I think others should try, if I haven’t convinced you yet…maybe now is the time!  Perhaps over the summer you’ll sit down and give it a shot.

Hopefully everyone managed to stay alive (literally and figuratively) and we’re now about to embark on a wonderful summer!  For each of us that will look a little differently.  Normally my summers are a time for me to reflect, read, write, and attend a PD or two but this summer will be different.  For Amy and I it will be a short and busy time.  After leaving Ecuador we’ve got just three weeks until our wedding (YAY!) and then only four more days until we head off toward Indonesia!  There’ll be lots of planning, visiting with family, and racing around getting everything ready for a wedding and relocation.  Then it’ll be the new school year before we know it!  

Even though my summer will be crazy (and I’m sure many of yours will be too), 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 five things.

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.  Establish a PLN: If you haven’t done this already, now is your time.  Don’t be afraid to start small.  Right around the same time I started this blog, about 5 years ago, I started on Twitter and slowly began to see the value of building an online/digital Professional Learning Network.  Some of you have experienced my PLN first hand, connecting across the globe to celebrate awesome activities, meet new colleagues, or even just find a new idea.  Start out by having a look at a past blog post I wrote about building a PLN (it’s short) and then create a Twitter account.  Once you have one (or if you already do) send me a tweet (@The1sWhoDo) and ask who you should follow…I’m happy to start recommending people immediately.  From there…follow along and get a feel for Twitter, summer is a perfect time to do so!  

3.  Take care of yourself.

Remember that New Year’s Resolution…yeah, I know the feeling…I was too stressed and too cold in the rainy season to really get anything productive going.  It’s too cold and wet to get out of the house and do anything!  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 (the standard FitBit goal) 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!

4. 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 five books on my Kindle just 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 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!

5. 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 AC 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!

 

Chasing the G.O.A.T. to be Better Educators

Very soon (or possibly already, depending when you read this) LeBron James will become the all-time scoring leader in NBA playoffs history (basketball).  The talking heads on TV and the sports columnists will write articles questioning whether he is the greatest player of all time, or if perhaps the man he passed on the scoring list (a guy you may have heard of, named Michael Jordan) is still deserving of that title.  My personal opinion is that MJ is still the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All-Time) but I also acknowledge that LeBron is still playing and could overtake him some day.

I’ve got some friends who would say that Michael Jordan is, was, and always will be the G.O.A.T.  However, I can’t take such a hard line view because of my beliefs about growth mindset and the ability for everyone to work hard and achieve.  If we said right now that MJ was the best that will ever live then what goals do young basketball players have to work toward, second place?!?  That’s rough!  To allow for the conversation, and suggest that LeBron or someone else may be the best of all-time means that every basketball player and everyone else for that matter can still strive to be the best, to surpass the amazing achievements of those who’ve come before them…there is no limit to what we can achieve!

Okay, this isn’t a diatribe on LeBron vs MJ or who is the G.O.A.T.  What I’m working toward is the growth process for all of us.  Whether we are teachers, students, basketball players, doctors, or plumbers, we should all be working to be better at what we do.  Every morning when we wake up we should aim to be better than we were the day before, imagine a life where that was actually the case…success!!  Sometimes we will be better at our jobs, other days we will be better at interpersonal relationships, or perhaps better drivers, cooks, or parents.  Everyday we’re working to be better, that is the real goal…growth.

Even “the best” never stop striving for improvement or growth.  Michael Jordan didn’t stop practicing after he won 5 championships, he got in the gym and shot more and tried to get even better (he won a 6th before retiring).

We have a lot of amazing teachers at our school and I’m constantly impressed with the teaching practices employed to help our students reach success.  As the school year comes to a close I’ve had a lot of goals reflection conversations.  There is not one teacher at this school who doesn’t want to improve their practice and become even better for their kids.  The passion and drive to become the best teachers that they can possibly become constantly impresses me.  They don’t care if they’re being evaluated on the Marzano, Marshall, or Bozo rubric, they want to improve!  We may not have the greatest teacher of all time walking the halls of our school (we might though!) but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a school full of teachers who are working toward it.  Growth isn’t just our students’ goal, it’s ours too!

As educational leaders we have to live our message.  If we want kids to work hard and grow, then that needs to be our active pursuit as well.  Working everyday to become better educators and better overall humans is what it’s all about.  How are you growing?  How are you becoming better today?