Reflecting on Three Quarters of Awesomeness

I recently participated in a Twitter chat about reflective practice.  The questions started out asking about the importance of reflecting and whether or not is was a necessary part of being a teacher.  In my mind, there is no doubt that this is an essential part of teaching and as Kat C said as we chatted this morning, “Is that even a question?  How do you exist as a teacher without reflecting?”

The third quarter is now over and we’re moving into the home stretch.  There was never a better time of year than now to try some new things and take a risk in your classroom.  If you were here last year you may recall that I asked this very same thing of you about a year ago.

With 75% of the school year behind you, take a minute to think back on what has gone well and what hasn’t.  Think about something you’ve wanted to try but, for whatever reason, haven’t yet tried.  Whether you’re staying here or moving on next year here is a perfect opportunity to improve your educational practice.

What will you do to be a better educator over the next few months?  Where can you grow?  How can you help our students be successful in this fourth quarter?

Enjoy your holiday break and come back refreshed, it’s going to be a down hill run to June 🙂

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!!

All week we have been celebrating the outstanding teachers we have here at school and it has been a very positive atmosphere everywhere around campus.  It was great to see so many of you sitting outside enjoying your food and a little sunshine at lunch today.  There were smiles, laughter, and good feelings all around…a great way to finish off a terrific week 🙂

Right across from my office is a HUGE thank you note from all of the Middle School students to you for being so awesome.  The notes and messages on that big yellow paper are inspiring.  For all of those days that your students come and go without a word of thanks, it only seems to take that one bit of appreciation to strengthen the fire.  This week of celebration and thanks couldn’t have come at a better time.

As the weather begins to turn and we come off of such a great week, enjoy your weekend!  We’ve got two weeks left and then we are on Spring Break…before you know it we’ll be on China Trips and shortly after that we’ll watch our students leave us for the summer.  If there is one message I could give to our kids at this point in the year it would be to cherish these last few months with your friends and teachers.  For many of them, and us, there will be tears and hugs at the end of the year as they go in separate directions.  Enjoy your time with your students and colleagues, they’re all wonderful people (even that kid, you know, the one who you just thought about…the one who might drive you up the wall most days…even them, they’re pretty cool too when you stop to think about it!)

I’m a big sports person, I grew up playing all sorts of sports and enjoyed coaching even more…I LOVE sports!  One of the all-time greatest coaches (at least in basketball) was John Wooden.  He coached at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) where he helped them win 10 national championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row.  At one point his team won 88 straight games.  No doubt he had some of the best players in the nation BUT he was still renowned as one of the greatest teachers of the game ever.  Anyway, I want to leave you with a quote from Coach Wooden, he understood just how important all of you are to our students and the future.  He nailed it when he said:

“I think the teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession.” – John Wooden

Thank you all for being so awesome for our students, no one can say it enough…you’re all incredible and you change the lives of our students every single day!!

What Makes a Great Teacher?

This week I saw an awesome article from the Washington Post that made me think of all the awesome teachers we have here at school.  It was about Ellie Herman and some lessons she has learned.  Ellie worked for 20 years as an American television writer. She worked on some small shows you may have heard of:  Doogie Howser, M.D., Melrose Place, and Desperate Housewives among others.  However, in 2007 she decided to become an English teacher and took a job working in a very different school environment than ours, one where 96% of the students are living below the poverty line in South Los Angeles, California.  In 2013, Ellie stopped teaching and started observing other teachers to try and learn from them.  She also started writing about what she was observing and learning; it is phenomenal stuff.

Ellie is a fantastic writer (as one could assume) and easy to read.  I want to say this as clearly as possible:  If you have never bothered to read something I’ve shared, let this be your first…it’s great.

Once you’ve read that post go ahead and explore some more…start with the front page or this article about why “love is the answer”.

If you need convincing, here are five practices Ellie observed in great teachers (she explains these in her post):

1.  Great teachers listen to their students.

2.  Great teachers have an authentic vision for their students.

3.  Great teachers have an unequivocal belief in all students’ potential.

4.  Great teachers are calm, persistent pushers.

5.  Great teachers practice non-attachment to short-term results.

These aren’t new ideas, they’re not even ground-breaking.  They are good reminders though and the way Ellie describes these traits is very energizing.  I’m most emotionally attached to numbers three and four as you may have guessed, I love to keep pushing (sometimes pulling/dragging) those kids who need the extra support because I very strongly believe in all students’ potential.  I also can’t help but notice how this all keeps coming back to the Mindset conversation 🙂

What Middle School Students Want You to Know

This past Wednesday we worked to determine the five things we wanted our kids to learn through advisory, I realized it was the perfect juxtaposition of something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now.  If all of our students were able to get in a room and come up with five things that they wanted their teachers to know, what would those things be?  As I mentioned, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while so limiting it to five was tough but I did it (with one bonus at the end!)  I don’t believe that these have any particular order of priority so here they are in the order that they fell out of my head…

1.  Middle school students want to be seen as capable.

Maybe they can’t achieve everything that is asked of them YET but they certainly want the chance.  Our students want to try new things, take risks, and discover their talents and passions.  Middle School students know what it means to be appropriately challenged and that’s exactly what they expect.  They know and appreciate when a lesson has been well thought out, their needs are being met, and challenges are being offered.  Your students want to be engaged, pushed to think outside the box, and challenged to the edge of their comfort zones.  Most of all, they want you to know that they are capable of handling this!

2.  Middle school students want to be seen as adults and treated that way (most of the time).

They know they aren’t adults yet and they don’t want all of the responsibility but they desperately want to feel like they are viewed as “adults”.  The term “child” makes middle school students cringe.  Our students want to be treated with respect and dignity.  They want to be part of the conversation (see below) and they want to feel like they really are turning into adults.  They’re in the the transition age from child to young adult but they’re also in a hurry to skip right to full maturity…growing up is hard, who can blame them?!?  We must treat them with the same level of respect that we show our colleagues, family, and friends.

3.  Middle school students want to be included in their education.

Choice, independence, freedom, voice…Our students want to be a part of the process, they want input.  Middle school students want to work with you, not for you.  They want learning to be a team game.  Perhaps you’re the coach but in more of the ‘player coach’ sense…not the drill sergeant version where you stand on the sidelines with a whistle barking out orders.  Collaborate with each other for your students but also collaborate WITH your students.

4.  Middle school students want to be held accountable.

As much as they want to be adults they still know they aren’t quite there yet and they need help.  So set high expectations for your students and then hold them accountable!  Systems, processes, and clear rules help students meet expectations.  Ambiguity, chaos, and unclear expectations lead students down a confusing and dangerous path.  Set high targets and hold them accountable to your expectations.  Hint:  If you include them in the process of setting the goals or laying out expectations (see above) you’ll have much more success!

5.  Middle school students want you to know that they are human.

We all have good days and bad; go through highs and lows.  Our students want you to know that they are no different.  In fact, because of the immense amount of changes happening in their lives they are experiencing even more of a roller coaster ride than most of us.  Middle school students want you to be patient, be tolerant, and be understanding with them as they try to manage the mine-field of hormones, emotions, and life changes that they are encountering as pre-teens and young teenagers.

And finally, one last thought with no explanation needed…

Middle school students want to be acknowledged as important, relevant, and intelligent people.

Strengths Quest Professional Development

Happy American Thanksgiving everyone!  It would be remiss of me not to at least give a moment of thanks to each and every one of you for all that you do for our kids, “Thank you!”  Being the “communicator” that I am, I wanted to make sure I said that before I got off and rambling on something else…

The last couple days have been a wonderful opportunity for us to look a little deeper at ourselves and think about how we can use what is already within us to be better teachers.  Going through the Strengths Finder activities yesterday really helped me to begin thinking about how my strengths can be maximized to make me a better educator and leader.  Another aspect that was pointed out a few times are the dynamics of how different people and teams work together based on the combinations of strengths within the group.  Understanding the 34 different strength themes is a very important step toward building a strong collaborative environment.  Also, so is knowing each others strengths.  To that end, I’ve followed the example of a friend of mine from SAS (Singapore) and added my five strongest themes to my email signature.  In so doing, I’m hoping to inspire some of you to do the same.  Now that we all have this common context, it seems only logical that we use it to maximize the strengths of the whole team, not just ourselves!  Feel free to stop and modify your signature now 🙂

The work that we do together on a daily basis is far too important to do alone.  Looking around the stage yesterday and contemplating all of the different strengths we have as a collective group is astonishing.  The sheer wealth of knowledge and experience we had in that room could, combined, be strong enough to move mountains.  As a school we already do a very good job of collaborating and working together.  Deliberately focusing on our strengths will only lead to better things down the road!!  I’m a big sports fan and I love sports analogies despite the fact that so many of them sound cliché.  However, I’m going to use one…even the best players in the history of team sports couldn’t do it alone…Michael Jordan, Pele, Mia Hamm, Jerry Rice, or Wayne Gretzky wouldn’t have stood a chance without the help and support of their teammates.  Take a second and close your eyes, think about the stage on Thursday afternoon…there were a lot of amazing minds up there, feel free to engage with as many of those as possible!!

It’s very inspiring to sit along side all of you and think about how much collective intelligence is in the room, thank you!  It’s also inspiring to think about all the potential in the world…you futurists know what I’m talking about…so take a few minutes to play with this super cool toy from the BBC.  It’s a customizable look at how the Earth has changed since you were born and a fun way to think about all that has happened around you so far during your life.  I’m only 17 years old on Mars, my heart has beat 1 billion times already in my life, there have been 385 major earthquakes since I was born, and the average life expectancy in the world has increased 7.5 years (Earth years) in my life time…what about you?

Growth Mindset and EAL Students

I’m writing a little earlier than normal this week because I’m away tomorrow (Friday) as I’ll be attending the SIS EAL Conference at Shekou International School.  It is being coordinated, in part, by a friend of mine from my time in Italy and the keynote speaker is EAL guru Dr. Virginia Rojas.  This conference has produced nothing but rave reviews in the past (some of you have been fortunate enough to attend) and I expect nothing less from this weekend!

Ever since I began in education I’ve been working with EAL populations.  My first classes in America were, in fact, comprised almost entirely of students who spoke a language other than English while at home.  I guess you could say that I don’t really have an understanding of what it would be like to teach a non-EAL population; I actually hadn’t come to that realization until just now!  When I think about all of the EAL students I’ve had over the years I’m always amazed at how fast these students can grow and excel in English and, usually, they do it in an incredibly short amount of time.  We’ve certainly seen this happen time and again at our school, take a second to think about all the incredible students you’ve encountered…in some cases it’s awe-inspiring to consider what they’ve achieved.

For many of these students, whether they know it or not, it’s the Growth Mindset that allows them to be so successful.  They know that with hard work, practice, risk taking and a decent amount of failure they will be able to learn English.  Interestingly enough, I don’t think many of these kids even realize what they are doing; this is just how they live their life.  On the other end of the spectrum are the kids who have seemingly given up and don’t put in the effort.  Last year we looked at Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset, a book I’ve gone back to a few times to re-read.  At one point Dweck discusses “Students Who Don’t Care”, she does doesn’t believe that this is really possible.  Before she launches into a discussion about Growth-Minded Teachers (a group we should all aspire to join) she says about these particular students, “It’s common for students to turn off to school and adopt an air of indifference, but we make a mistake if we think any student stops caring.”

Almost every single student at our school who is seemingly “turned off to school” is an EAL student.  Perhaps there’s causation perhaps not, but there is no denying that there is a correlation.  Take some time to think about those kids who seem “turned off” in your class and consider them in a different light for a moment.  Is there something that you could do to encourage them to turn back on?

I’ll leave you with that for now.  You all know me well enough to realize that I’m going to be coming at you fast and furious with EAL strategies and ideas next week 🙂  Enjoy your Friday and the weekend…get outside, it’s supposed to be a BEAUTIFUL weekend!!  Don’t forget that Jerry Rice is still in town, in case you didn’t get enough at Wednesday’s assembly.

Teachers Make…

Let me start with THANK YOU!!

You’ve made it, we’re more than halfway through the longest haul of the school year!  This 11 week stretch is an exhausting time that wears hard on teachers.  I know many of you have battled, are battling, or will battle colds, flus, and just general exhaustion.  The kids feel it too but it manifests in a little different way.  They become restless and antsy.  They seemingly forget all about why they come to school.  With the end of Quarter One and parent conferences now in the rear view mirror, students no longer feel a sense of urgency and often times lose focus.  All of these things combined make this the most grueling 11 weeks of the school year. BUT, like I said, you’re more than halfway there, thank you!!

In order to get you to the winter break in one piece I’m asking you to do a few things this weekend and for the next few weeks:

1.  Take care of yourself.  Eat well, get some exercise, and take a step away from school and enjoy the beautiful autumn weather we’ve been having.  If you’re not well, stay home and get the rest you deserve.

2.  Take care of each other.  I want to say thank you and congratulate you all for being so amazing to each other already!  Everyone who has stepped up to cook for others, bring them medicine, be someone to lean on, supported the musical/sports/MUN/ASAs; you are all immensely important to this community.  Without everyone’s support and passion this school/community wouldn’t be as amazing as it is!

3.  Smile.  Take a few moments to reflect on the amazing opportunity that we all have.  Canadian Thanksgiving has passed and the American version is just around the corner but there’s no reason that you can’t stop and collect your thoughts in order to appreciate the wonderful lives we have.

4.  Read (and watch if you have a VPN) this poem.  This is from one of the most well-known poets to come out of the poetry slam movement, Taylor Mali.  If you’ve never heard of him before…be warned, his stuff is awesome!!! (Read) (Watch, with a VPN)

Thank you again 🙂