Thursday, July 27, 2017

Updates and Completion: 365 Days of Blogs

Today is my 365th day in a row of writing my blog. A full year. But I looked back over all the entries and about 13 of them never posted for some reason. They were saved as drafts, but never posted. So I just went back through my long expanse of writing and updated all the posts, sent the drafts through and now, at 365 posts I feel a sense of relief. Accomplishment. I am so thrilled to be at my destination #blog365 but the destination is merely a connection point to my new adventure: writing and discussing my classroom and how I solve problems and grow with my students. Nothing has changed-only the timing has caused me pause. July 27th, 2016 I began this journey and shortly thereafter I joined the Twitter universe. Both have changed my life. Have made me more observant and collaborative. Broken me out of my shell. I am grateful for everyone who has shaped me over this last year, my PLN and colleagues. My family and friends.

A new beginning....closure on a goal and the opening of so many more doors all leading to insight, growth and joy.

Edit, Play, Pause: What's in your Personal Documentary?

Movies, whether comedy, drama, horror, romantic-comedy, fantasy or Science-fiction impact us in different ways. We commit to 90 minutes or longer, we invest ourselves in the characters, put ourselves in the setting, feel a part of the action, why? They are visual escapism's. We go to release our minds from the daily grind, the stress of life and live vicariously through some of Hollywood's greatest characters. We become heroes and heroines for a few hours, all the while remaining safely in our seats. We laugh, scream, and cry in the dark as we watch our counter-parts save the day, experience sorrow and joy, love and fear. As their on-screen lives fulfill our farfetched fantasies and worst nightmares, we can conquer ours in the real world. If we can watch someone else achieve what we want to achieve maybe that will be the instigator to push us to do the same. These characters become a part of us, we use their victories to get us up out of our seats and active in our own lives. They propel us through our own milestones. If so and so can do it, so can I. 

These larger than life persona's and teleplays help us create our own mental setting where we play out the day’s events and pause... to find clarity. It’s not just Hollywood movies or television that create this sense of courage and hope. We have our own independent film we are creating every day. The only one who gets to see our personal documentary is us. It is a single viewing room. We add to the video, our interactions with others, the dialogue we exchange, the support we get from our peers, all adding frames of our lives, to the reel. Family, friends, school, every struggle, adventure, observation, action and pause form the digital hard drive that is our life. When we close our eyes, and see our memories unfold they do not look like a grainy reflection of our past but rather a panoramic, colorful, wide screen version of our journey thus far. During the editing process, some scenes are cut while some are added after re-filming. It is what we deem important, meaningful and moves the story forward that remain in the movie. Those scenes that are irrelevant to the plot, we disregard because we need the feature to make sense, to be enjoyed and remembered.

Every new adventure begins with a new sense of excitement. A great screenplay sets the tone for a great film. The more we commit to our role, the more exciting the performance. When we live in the moment, embrace action and change, the script becomes more ad-lib and free, creating more comedy than drama. The more we let the supporting actors enter and move the action forward the more interesting and intriguing the plot. Every role we play makes it to the director's cut. We get to decide our genre: comedy and laughs, drama and tears, action and exhilaration with a little fear, Science-fiction encapsulating progressive thinking and conquering the unknown. Every reel of every life has these at some point. It is the struggles and setbacks that lie in many of the frames, that allow for the continuation of the documentary. It is our choices that edit the script and ultimately the "dailies" we see at night. The most important thing we can do as the actors of our existence is to commit. Jump into the action and not sit in the background as part of the crowd. Those extras have no lines.  Grab some popcorn, Junior Mints and a soda and take a seat, your life is your documentary and you are the director, script-writer and most importantly the lead. It is your life after all, go out there an win an Oscar.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

To Badge or Not to Badge: A Matter of Preference

Badges like all rewards aren't necessarily a good thing nor a bad thing. In life we have rewards, incentives and 'points' we earn from just about everything we do whether it is buying gas, airline miles, BOGO deals, coupons, even if you switch over to....get three months free. Every where you look we are being enticed by advertising. Many classrooms are using some sort of reward system in their design. Earning a trip to the mystery box is always a good motivator for younger children and older alike. I see why they can be successful. I choose not to use them however, because I feel a student-centered classroom operates best not from compliance but from community. I do not reward for what is expected. Students write the rules and goals. They enforce the behavior by making good choices. Of course they make mistakes but peer pressure keeps the community running smoothly most of the time. A little pressure and modeling of mindful strategies for both joy and personal motivation. We want to work and do our best when we know the outcome is not what matters most but the journey. Journeys are individual, you get what you get out of each adventure because you choose to commit and enjoy the experience. Even the grumpiest of spirits may lose out on a roller-coaster ride if they are not willing to have fun.

Badges work for some people. I have never given incentives in my classroom in the form of candy or a sticker. But after they have done a fantastic job I usually give them some token of my appreciation. They do not always get it, rarely in fact but the anticipation that they might be free to go outside for a bit or play on their phones is enough to keep them motivated. But what truly engages them is not the off chance of free-time but rather not having homework. If they work hard and stay on task they never have any homework and this badge of accomplishment means more to my students then anything. Knowing that they didn't earn anything but accomplished a goal, a task and they feel good about that. Many authors I have read recently have explained this phenomenon as desensitizing or devaluing a task. Once we as teachers put a value on something it makes it seem like work. In our classroom we complete many tasks that are not graded. Students create their own activities that are used to demonstrate knowledge not add to their grade per se. So early on I instill a sense of growth over grades. Knowledge over reward. It may sound like a cop out but students buy into it quickly when they know that everything in our student-centered classroom is based on choice, self-determination and pride rather than a letter in a grade book.

Rewards can be motivating. But for me, student-centered achievement is the reward. The ability to choose and design their own learning does not need a rewards program only my patience, their freedom and our community support.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Making a List and Checking it Twice

How can we improve our teaching? How can we ensure that this year will be better than the last? Reflection of course is one way to look back and recognize what worked and what didn't in the last school year. But, is that enough? Sometimes I see the things I need to improve upon but I never figure out how. I enter the new school year determined to change things up, try new things, take-risks but I never plan them in advance, they just happen. I have a 'big picture' personality. I write ad-hoc lesson plans but rarely follow them because I truly teach in the moment. Each class varies a little based on their needs & personalities. When a team member comes in and asks me for the lesson plan for what I am doing, because they like it, I have to verbally tell them, to their dismay because I rarely write it down. I just work it through moments before the bell rings. My mind is never at rest. I know the TEKS, I know the pacing, I know the content it is simply the presentation that is fluid and spontaneous. When students are in control- you honestly have no idea what is going to happen. You have to be prepared for anything.

Throughout these nearly 365 days of blogging, I have written many posts about particular lessons. I spent the last few days reading over most of them. It is amazing to see how much my writing has improved over the last year. It is a great history of my teaching as well. We tend to focus on what worked not what didn't. So this post will be about what didn't and creating some strategies to make sure that this year they do. I have set a goal, well many actually, for myself this year: create a stronger team, keep my mouth shut and let them lead, take more risks and try a different approach, do not get comfortable. Those are the main two. To make sure I do not get comfortable and complacent I must tweak and experiment with former lessons. Stir the pot. Create a little anxiety in myself because that is what pushes me- fear and anticipation. Not failing, I do that all the time. Just not presenting an idea or lesson clear enough to engage my students- challenge them and inspire them. So below are a few ideas I have to make the flow better and to keep myself more focused on the pacing and integration of mindful design.

  • One-min Check ins: start day one, have students write questions and sign up for a specific time-less free flow on this
  • Cell Book-PBL allow for more comic book style writing, more freedom means more engagement
  • Use more children's books through out the class-have a reading as an opener some days just to relax before the lesson starts
  • Business cards- have students create their own- a logo and three of their skills they would like to use in the classroom, then pin them to wall like a college quad bulletin board and group based on interests and skills
  • Field Trips- set up one for Fall and one for Spring for GT students-they deserve to do something special just for them
  • Helpers- each class has a different part of the room as described in earlier post BUT also stream-line classroom helpers- more community less responsibility
  • EDISON board- first year doing this- do not turn it into an interactive word wall, keep it flowing and changing daily-make sure students are doing the work 
  • Makerspace-put it in the center of the room so it is accessible from all sides- carts in the corners so kids are more willing to use it daily
  • Laugh more. Last year I smiled a lot. Had fun with my students. This year really dig deep and play music daily and just have more fun.
  • Create a playlist on Spotify each student picks one song-appropriate and it can be the jam for the class period (each class a different playlist)- less classical more pop culture music

Monday, July 24, 2017

Riding the Small Waves, Surfing the Big Ones: Remediation and Enrichment Circles

The Ripples Begin

"Spit it out, it won't taste so bad." I love to say this to my students. After a few weeks, I hear them saying it to each other. Like the salt water that enters your nostrils and throat after a wipe out, you need to spit out the failure quickly. Being from California, I use a lot of surfer slang, “Totally rad or Epic dude.” It becomes a part of the classroom vernacular. It is all about failing fast and reinventing your ideas to keep the flow. The bedrock of our student-centered classroom is flow: if it becomes stagnate, learning ceases. If the atmosphere is too tumultuous, it creates a sense of discontentment and upheaval. It is important, with any 'Goldilocks' design, for everything to be balanced, not to fast-paced, not to mundane.

The first day they enter our classroom, we talk openly about failure and mastery. We discuss how during both journeys, we may find ourselves struggling or excelling from day to day. Some topics are easy while others just don't make sense at first. For all of us to ride the small waves and surf the big ones we need to work together. Surfing is all about skill, balance, patience and fortitude. Some waves, powerful and dynamic knock us down into the current, while others create a tube of stability that we can ride with ease. Either way, surfing is all about observing others and learning from our mistakes.

The best way to make sure that students feel in charge and connected to their learning is by unpacking the standards (TEKS) and letting them know unequivocally, the objectives and mission for the week. I am as specific in this regard as possible. I do not tell my students how to get there, merely, what they need to know once they arrive. As a class, we talk about the content related expectations. What it is exactly that they need to master. Then students discuss the topics together, design a plan, and throughout the week conduct activities to learn the material. I often have some mini-lessons on complicated concepts, but most of the investigation and discovery is in their hands.

The Waves Form

Our classroom, 1161, like my Twitter, You Tube and Class blog handles, is collidingwithscience. Yes, one word, like a collision.  This is the theme of our learning environment: constant bombardments between strategy, content, conversation. A synergy of science, writing and self-expression. Turbulence keeps momentum and an open-mind. Independence does not isolate students, they are not out on the open ocean, but rather, they are in a cluster of surfers and swimmers, where every member of the community has a role to play. One week a student might grasp the topic and feel enlightened to guide others- be a tutor of the group. They take the responsibility of helping others find their way through the obstacles of ocean tides. The next week this same student may struggle a little, we all have busy lives and maybe they just got lost along the way, the next week they may need help.

If the waves aren't there, they aren't there. You are in a holding pattern, sitting on your board, just waiting for the next one to arrive. The cool water, circling around you. You must have the foresight to wait for the wave to come to you, it always does. Like learning, we must stay patient, diligent and let knowledge find us. However, we may need someone to help prepare us for the ride, help stabilize our footing. Therefore, in our classroom, we have remediation and enrichment circles. Every Friday for 20 minutes, students focus on their strengths and weaknesses and search for their next wave.

Riding the Wave, Surf’s Up

Step one, students find their spot at the perspective table and the collaboration begins.
No one knows where they fit into the fold better than students themselves. We talk during one-minute check-ins and they ask me questions, but come Friday they know if they need to sit at the swimmers, remediation circle, or the surfers, enrichment circle. Generally, they choose wisely, however, I have been known to nudge them in the right direction if they lose sight of their mission. I make eye contact and give them an inquisitive look, this usually does the trick. After a few sessions though this quiet urging is no longer needed. They quickly see the impact of this model and growth becomes exponential.

Everyone gets a chance to be the leader of the group. At first there are only a few who are brave enough to dive into deep waters, but over time even the quietest of students finds the confidence to take the lead. The remediation circle generally is focused on reviewing the vocabulary, talking through assignments and activities from the week and helping those who may not have caught the wave yet, to at least jump up on the board. It is awesome to hear them talk things through. They understand what it means to be confused and ‘off your game’ so they are well-equipped to help one another. After 15 minutes, they choose three “light-bulb” moments to share with the class.

At the same time, there is an enrichment circle taking place, this takes a little more preparation on the participants parts, they must come to class with something tangible to present. Usually it is the form of a short-video (related to the topic) or an article they found. They share their ideas and make connections back to the weeks learning objectives. At the end of the 15 minutes the remediation group will agree on three successes of the circle, three things they discovered about the content they didn't know before. This gives students a way to reconnect and find purpose for this activity. Finally, both circles will share their discoveries with the class, helping to make connections others may have missed. A total of 20 minutes including share time. It may seem like a waste of time for some teachers, but I promise you it is not. It is a necessary time for students to learn from each other, reflect and grow as a community. To build the trust and respect needed for a student-centered classroom to be successful.

Paddling Back Out

If students feel safe to try new things they will take-risks and surf even the largest of waves. Having the opportunity to just talk and figure things out makes all the difference. No judgement, just strategy and support. When they are comfortable crashing into the current and are willing to jump back up on the board quickly they will become novice surfers, quickly. This skill of stealth and agility comes from collaboration and trust. Believing in yourself and finding strength in numbers because when we solve problems as a community, it benefits future endeavors. It solidifies the pack, the flock, the pride.

When students can see the shoreline, and recognize the importance of trial and error and observing and modeling then these circles of trust will only enhance their ride. These hives of hope create a reliance and camaraderie like nothing else. Students want to catch the wave. They just want to know someone has their back. All we should do, as teachers, is provide the board. They will seek out the surge and watch for the ripple and vibration, if we let them take it all in. Once they have confidence and faith in each other they will lose any reluctance to just ‘waste it completely out there.’ Instead they will look for opportunities to become better surfers. Let them sit for a moment on calm waters and reflect and to enter the crest at their own pace. They will in turn, hold their own against the swells and curls. If we point them toward the beach they will break the waves at their own speed. It is all about timing.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

I Love the Smell of Ozone in the Morning

The sweet, pungent aroma tickles my nose as I walk outside. The sunrise is pink and orange bringing to mind an image of carnival cotton candy. Swirling colors of spun goodness. The senses together form a sugary taste in my mouth, both honeyed and pleasing. It is monsoon weather here in the higher elevations of New Mexico. Down at sea level, in the Houston area we call this phenomenon hurricane season. Both areas flood, get tremendous thunderstorms and down pours, but the names bring very different connotations to mind. A monsoon sounds more deliberate, continual, natural. Whereas hurricanes seem punctuated, dangerous and spontaneous. Of course I know the truth, but watching the rain approach over the Sandia's just feels different up here in the clouds. At home in Texas the rain feels more forceful and ominous. 'Turn around and don't drown' the mantra on the weather channel in both locations, is a gentle reminder that Mother Nature has a voice and she spills over. We need to watch out for the after-effects. Simply soaking it in on a tranquil hillside, I am both safe and content.

Afternoon, sunny, warm and dry. It seems brighter here. The clouds move faster, they are awesome to watch. Remember as a child when you would lie on the grass and just watch the clouds make shapes and designs across the sky? Sometimes they would stay a certain shape for minutes as the white puffs floated, calmly across the blue. Here they change frequently and it is fun to anticipate what they are going to change into. I can sit on the back patio, facing the mountains or turn to face the city and just imagine, dream, meditate for hours. Each moment bringing clarity and focus. It is a beautiful, quiet place to reflect. I will miss it when I go home next week. The sweetness lingers in at about 4:00 every day signalling the onset of a storm or squall. I plan on being outside at 4:00 to smell the oncoming summer rain. To feel the winds pick up and watch the clouds roll in. Smell the sharp, tangy smell of ozone in my nostrils. Monsoons are cool.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Constructing an Extraordinary Learning Environment: Believe in the Space

A learning environment will always be under construction, or at least it should be. Depending on the participants it can change within a short amount of time to accommodate the needs of the group. It must be pliable and workable. Unlike a laboratory, this dispensary of knowledge, must have tools of the trade but it also needs to be user friendly and accessible. A classroom must be stream-lined for learning and thus appear cluttered and disheveled due to usage. Scientists design their own work space. In order to conduct their experiments and dive deep into research they need their materials to be organized. Each device having its specific place, means both efficiency and regulation. Some teachers design their classrooms along the lines of a laboratory, these are often sterile and antiseptic leading to compliance and passivity. A student-centered classroom, however, must incorporate the demands and obligations of every student. A teachers persona should be apparent in the atmosphere, for me some quirk and oddity with a lot of nerd. But, ultimately it should look and feel like the personalities and charisma of my students. If it feels like I laid the foundation, that is a good thing. The bedrock of the space should have my fingerprint. But the scaffolding, framework and ultimately masonry should all be put into place by student hands. This not only reinforces their ownership but also creates a space they feel comfortable, motivated and energized to work and grow in.

It is our inclination as educators to make our classrooms feel inviting. We hang subject related posters, or inspirational quotes on the walls. We put our tubs of supplies where we feel they will be reachable and available. We set up our desks with our memorabilia and trinkets. We basically make our work space feel like home. We need to, to a certain degree, because we often spend as much time in our classrooms than we do in our own residences. It is a second home for many of us. But, I have been putting a lot of thought into this and when I put my stamp in too many parts of the room: I choose what is displayed on the surface, I create an isolated personal space in a corner of the room, I decide where to put the organizational containers, I OWN the space. I am merely an observer, the space belongs to my students. I have never had empty walls the first day of school. The room has always been designed and clean, sterile and antiseptic. This year I have a new plan. It is extreme and radical, but I am going to do it. For the good of my classroom community, I am going to begin the year with a blank slate. How am I going to do this?

I will keep my posters and decorations in the cupboard. I will keep my crates and drawers empty and stacked along the wall. I will have the teacher desk not isolated in a corner, but in the middle of the room: it is no longer my desk but a student exhibition and presentation lectern where they can sit to address the class. The framework for the EDISON board (see earlier blog post) will be up on the back wall, merely to inspire. When students walk in the first day of school, the room will not be set up. Each class will have 'control' over a section of the room: makerspace, organization, think tank/quiet center, softer side of seating/cushions and rugs, front wall/student "community board" (like a college bulletin board in the quad), and the back wall "lets collide with science" (a wall all about science). This way they control the flow of information and how they want to stay organized. Each six weeks we will rotate the location between class periods and this will keep the flow of the space malleable and fresh. All my posters and classroom items will be available to them but the choice of how to integrate them into the learning space will be all theirs. Ownership and responsibility both keystones to a student-centered classroom.

It is imperative that we believe. We must believe in our students the moment they walk into our classroom. When we give them the respect and trust needed in order to set up their own learning environment, this shows we have faith in them instantly. This will empower them to work collectively as a community to create a space that works for every student. It will build camaraderie and rapport, day one. We must also believe in the space. While some classrooms are small and awkward in dimension, others may be large science labs. Whatever the architecture, we must believe in the space. Use every nook and cranny to establish an active, authentic, intimate learning environment for our students. The walls of our academic arena should not be the ends or sides of a crate. They should not box us in. They should be an opening to the landscape of our students imaginations, windows not barricades. If the flow of the space is boundless, in constant motion with new ideas and an endless expanse of choices, students will continue on their journey with anticipation. In the immortal words of Gene Roddenberry, "space the final frontier," these are the adventures not of a star ship but of a commonwealth of learners. All we have to do as teachers, is to provide the implements, handover the command and equip the travelers with free will and let the odyssey begin.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Moment the Flow Begins and A Classroom Becomes Cohesive

The beginning of the year is always a scary time for me. I have six different classes to connect to, bond with and form relationships with. My quirky and loud demeanor incorporates easily into most classes but there is always that one, where personalities are quiet and my approach needs to vary. I never know what jokes I can tell or how nerdy I can be until I meet them for the first time. Don't get me wrong, I am always a nerd but, I have to 'know the room' tease and play in different fashions depending on the students. It may take a little longer in one class than in others, but to build a strong rapport and strengthen trust and acceptance, a community needs to be constructed. This community is based on student input and desire and at first they are shy and compliant and in order for them to be extroverted and engaged a little finesse has to be used. Joy and mindfulness is often quiet and unassuming and this is the bedrock of my classroom: to smile and belong to something bigger. This is how the collisions form, the turbulence is welcomed and the landing gear always lowers, allowing for a safe landing. It may be bumpy but it is always successful.

The first week is when those extroverts make themselves known and the introverts step back into the shadows. I use a lot of different activities: getting to know you and lab safety skits. Having students mingle and then write and perform skits together brings laughter and equality to the community. Everyone speaks and everyone shares in overcoming the fear of public speaking together. Our classroom is noisy and messy. It is like a river, flowing around every curve, a meander and rapids all building to the mouth of the river: knowledge spilling out everywhere. Some students needs life preservers, others want to take the paddles but together they balance the raft. This is something I instill day one. The class will not run smoothly, we will not overcome the bumpy or scary parts unless we problem-solve together. I do not want one student in my class to get comfortable in the corner in isolation. There is no I in team and there is no corner in community. We can have quiet moments and cozy places to learn but we are always a neighborhood with all participants contributing to the safety and contentment of the group.

After many mindful discussions about collaboration and interaction students begin to find their groove, their wave. This wave can either be one of light, that inspires them to shine and take a leadership role or it can be one of water that carries them down stream. Either way it is an action and in our classroom- action required. Movement, flexibility, malleability and change are all integral in our learning environment. The true flow begins only when I have buy in from every student in the room. After a few weeks of 1-minute check ins, I have strong relationships in place, we are laughing at our failures, taking risks, facing challenges and putting in effort to conquer our fears. Quiet, contemplative students are still shy but they are participating and collaborating and the slow trickle of air has our flight soaring in smooth skies. The rapids have dissipated and the river is steering the raft, carrying the raft, into uncharted territory and students are anticipating and curious and involved in its journey. The flow has begun.

Every day is a different curve, a different storm we must endure to get to clear skies. But, taking risks and failing is now the air we breathe. The cool breeze on our faces. They may hesitate but they do jump in. Together they innovate and write lessons. They discuss their interests and collaborate on what they are passionate about. I simply watch. They have setbacks but they talk them through. The worst thing I can do is step in and solve their problems. I answer questions, provide them with a map if they need it but the adventure is all theirs. They know this from the moment the bell rings on the first day of school. They are not sitting in rows, in alphabetical order. There is no seating chart. There are no rules written on the board. They get quiet quickly, unsure of what is going to happen, the intrigue is already in place. I look at them, quiet and calm. They stare back at me with curiosity and anticipation. I say these words only, as we start our journey together and they make all the difference.

"Welcome to 1161, where you will think for yourself, make your own choices, collaborate and design your own learning. Daily collisions will occur, turbulence will arise, the skies will become overcast. But I will provide you with your instruments, map and gear and you will seek your own path. I will be here to help you find your way if you become lost. Your classmates will help guide you on new adventures. Together we will be a community of learners: teaching, discovering and innovating everything imaginable about science. So let's take-risks and grow together and I promise you this will be the best year ever. The first collision is about to begin, fasten your seat belts passengers, and if it gets a little bumpy, that's okay, we will overcome the commotion in due time"

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Feeling the Disconnect

This morning the first of many emails arrived regarding the first week of teachers returning to school. Beginning a fresh, anticipated, mindful new year. Lots of meetings and planning and time to set up and get organized. A district wide convocation and many subject area sessions. A full schedule for sure. The rosters for our classes are visible in the system and it is nice to be able to see the names of all the students we will be meeting in a few weeks. I smiled as I read over my different class rosters, many of my students were in Quiz Bowl last year or tried out in June for the team so there are many familiar names. There are also many familiar surnames, I know I have taught their siblings in the past. Its always fun to see the similarities and differences among siblings. Not to compare or even share my findings with my students but for me personally to see these beautiful commonalities.

The house is quiet and I am in full-on teacher mode today. Drawing sketches of my classroom ideas, hoping my students agree, as I want the layout to be theirs. Designing my first framework for the EDISON board, cutting the last of the rugs for the floor (small and personal, comfy spaces for flexible seating). Teachers return August 7th so a few more weeks but I also have to travel home and get resettled after a month, get my children ready for school. The hardest for me is to leave my newly graduated son behind to live here with my daughter. I know he will be safe and grow as intended, but it feels sad to break up the family core we have had for so many years. Now we are down to five in the nuclear home base. My two eldest will be here in Albuquerque. At home two still in high school (freshman and junior) and one in elementary school (2nd). Lots to adjust to before we embark on the 2017-2018 school year.

My intentions for today- not to cry. To focus and see the big picture. Only see what I can control and simply enjoy this time with family. There is a lot to do, but I feel no urgency, yet. Just looking for now. When I return home it will all sync and I will jump in with both feet. For now just dipping some toes in and keeping grounded footing in the rest of my summer.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

I Laugh in the Face of Danger... Ha..Ha..Ha...

In the immortal words of Simba in the Lion King, "I laugh in the face of danger, ha..ha..ha.." In a school one of the biggest threats to the cohesion, positivity, and well-being of the school culture is negativity. It is what breaks the spirit of educators around the globe. Having a few bad apples in a bunch of shiny, delicious ones can literally spoil the whole barrel. I have been lucky enough to teach in three schools and each has had its fair share of difficulties in this department. I left my first two assignments because of this turmoil and drudgery, it was too wide spread and thick, it coated every aspect of the environment. I had to leave to keep my sanity. However, I am fairly certain that at my current school, with a little mindfulness and joy I can help to turn things around.

There will always be pessimists and those educators who need to retire, but there are also those who get lost in the shuffle, forgotten because they are in the far corners of the building. It is these teachers, I plan on making contact with, smiling to and greeting in the hallway. I will make a concerted effort to form a connection with these teachers because a little conversation can make all the difference. With those who do not find joy in their profession, who honestly do not like children, those are the ones I will have to work harder at trying to bring into the mindfulness fold. I am excited that I already have a few forward-thinking, positive minded, joyful teachers in my tribe at my school Tricia Reyes and Megan Chriss and I know together we can spread joy and even if there is a resistance movement we can penetrate the blockage day by day, little steps, by simply talking to them and helping them feel connected and a part of something bigger.

We often run from negativity, lock ourselves inside our classrooms and steer clear of uncomfortable and often taxing situations. But, this perpetuates the cycle, keeps the naysayers empowered. I have made a new mission this year, outside the walls of our classroom, I pledge to make a difference. I intend to inspire others through mindful behavior, a joyful attitude, and by listening to others. Sometimes just having someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of, hitch our wagons to, allows us to lose sight of the things that drag us down and focus on those that shine light on us. Compliance does not only occur with our students, it is a thick fog that often bellows through the hallways clogging up creativity and innovation for teachers. The more we stand together as educators, bring those disenfranchised into the fold, the more we will bring about change. The more we will unite and create circles of safety, havens of trust, and waves of individuality and growth that every school needs to thrive and prosper.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tying it All Together: The Power of Dessert: The Final Touches of a Student-Centered Classroom Part Four

The first three installments of this series were all about creating the flow of a student-centered classroom. Having an extensive, open-menu allowing substitutions. Creating an energetic, learning environment where student choice, independence and preference are the back bone of the classroom. If we, as teachers, remain patrons of the establishment, rather than host or chef we can create a place of anticipation and freedom. The conversations and support will appear organically, if we are patient. The most exciting part of a student-led environment is watching the cohesion of ingredients, each student adding their own, herbs & spices to the recipe. Hunger levels will change as activities and tasks are completed. Students may feel full but we can always tempt them with dessert. The out of the box, upbeat lessons that we always leave room for. A great meal is about the courses blending and instinctively combining flavors and sensations until the last morsel is gone. Eggs and toast both compliment the pancakes but also offer another aspect to the meal: the foundation and center of the plate: the protein, the muscle builder. While dessert is just that, the closure of the meal, the sweet treat that keeps our taste buds happy until our next delicious adventure.

As much as we would like to, we generally do not have a dessert after every meal. Not only would the calories add a few pounds, we lack the time to sit and enjoy the non-essential part of eating. We may grab a candy bar or cookie between classes but we rarely sit down during lunch and eat a piece of cake or an ice cream Sundae. Although on special occasions these tend to be the administrations dessert of choice. Treats are something many of us crave, but must squeeze into our busy schedules. So, in a student-centered classroom, a bustling, fast paced atmosphere of collaboration and creativity, how do we fit these in? The most important thing to remember, as teachers, when we incorporate these confections of anticipation and pastries of possibility is that not every student has the same type of sweet tooth. While some may enjoy Jenga, Taboo or other competitive games, others may fear the interaction. What appears to be universal, like a chocolate chip cookie, is not appreciated or consumed by many. Basically, what we see as appetizing and satisfying may be off putting for some of our students.

In my class on days where the dessert is offered, there is a tray of options just like there would be on any other day. If students are lactose intolerant, they choose the option that best fits their needs. If they prefer sugary taffy like candy, they will choose a different activity than those who prefer chocolate. Just like the makerspace offers endless possibilities of tools and supplies, a day of activities should offer at least a few alternative dining options. For instance, when we used Star Wars as our theme for May 4th, students had options of how they could represent their weathering, erosion and deposition findings. While most students were excited and motivated by the universe of George Lucas, several were not. They were more interested in The Walking Dead or The Flash. So, I asked them the same question of the day "How would living on a different planet, one from the Star Wars universe be different when it came to WED?" (weathering, erosion, deposition) I said to these outliers, "do you think Flash moving so quickly may impact the environment? Do you think that zombies may change the surface of the Earth? How?" This got the ball rolling and even though it was not connected to May 4th, they got to reroute themselves and discover their own destination. It was a fun day. 

A gourmet dessert cannot occur every day. But a quick candy-coated snack can. Here are a few ideas my students and I have used to incorporate a sweet course more frequently into our student-centered classroom:

1) Play-doh (You can never go wrong with Play-doh)
2) Nature walks- use outside sparingly and it will be a treat every time
3) What would I say if... personification at its best, what would a leaf say to you about photosynthesis?
4) Act it out- 2-minute sketches of genius, let them use their imaginations and sense of humor
5) Stop-motion video, they love to make cartoons and quick videos, about anything, really
6) Mystery box- put some items in a bag, they can only reach in and feel them, no peaking, then they get to talk to other tables and try to determine what the "big picture" item is (how do all the items fit together)
7) Dress like you mean it... bring in an item of clothing that can be used to demonstrate knowledge of the current topic- you would be amazed at what the come up with
8) Let's Frizzle it, students take the mundane and make it fun and creative, for instance abiotic and biotic factors, they created an object that represents both, it had to be 3D
9) Let’s debate...impromptu debates- they love to argue
10) Stump the class- a quick research moment and they discover things about the unit topic we do not know and then share-trying to basically stump me
11) Collaborative quiz, we use the blackboard and they write clues for one another (without saying the word) and the class guesses or they line up and each student is given a vocabulary word and they must organize the line based on how the words connect to one another
12) Charades- always a fun way to review vocabulary

These quick bursts of sweet goodness get students participating and collaborating. They are fast, average 5-7 minutes and can be modeled early in the year to be pulled in at any time. Dessert is any fun and tasty way to get students excited about learning. Some of these examples, students came up with, some I created. Let students help you come up with some ways they would like to take a brain break or end the class. This will make them even more meaningful and personal. Dessert does not always have to be the topper to a great day. It can be utilized when things are slowing down, students are getting off task or are finished with their daily assignment. The more we bring these confections in, the fresher and more spontaneous the student-classroom will become. So eat that piece of chocolate and let the sugar rush create an atmosphere of joy and adventure.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Open-Menu: The Framework for a Typical Student-Centered Classroom: Part Three

Part one and two of this series was about the breakfast menu: the opening ceremony of a student-centered classroom. Maple soaked pancakes, the greeting at the door. Both enticing and alluring, a sense of wonderment and hunger. The oozing eggs setting the tone for the genesis of the lesson, the yellow yolk dripping over the onset of learning, bringing with it curiosity and intrigue for the rest of the meal or activity of the day. The main event, or entree comes layered integrating all aspects of learning: visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic. The menu still open, substitutions welcomed, anticipated. New creations appearing as collaborative efforts, bring together ideas, objectives and intentions. Students in control and tasks determined by necessity and desire much like our appetites direct us to our sustenance, interest and relevance lead us to knowledge.

As animals, humans, we eat for nourishment: to gain energy, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. The chemicals that inspire, drive, motivate and make us feel like we belong. They bring us to the dining table, help us have dinner conversations and enjoy the company of others. These armaments also increase our acuity and passion for learning by giving us the focus to be both creative and innovative. They remove doubt and build both confidence and resilience. This sustenance and maintenance occurs from our interaction and collaboration with others as well as our choice of diet. A student-centered classroom embodies both: encapsulating a student need to own their personal menu, individual ingredients and every course of their learning. The classroom is the restaurant, the venue, the banquet hall where the daily specials change frequently and where chefs are taking risks and creating new and exciting entrees at every turn. Samples offered and new inspiration gained regularly. It is the arena where spice meets sweet, savory meets sour and salty combines with bitter and umami to form a perfect union. Each taste integral to the learning process. Every bud of knowledge blooming through choice and commitment.

An open menu is the foundation of a student-centered classroom. Flexibility and freedom are not the only important aspects that drive this style of learning. A pacing waiter, pressuring the patrons to order does not create a sense of urgency but one of frustration. When we instill hunger, desire, and independence we set the flow. When we stay in the shadows providing plenty of time for them to make decisions, they make the best choices for their needs. How can we urge our students along, gently while still leaving time for them to peruse the menu? Write one word, or a sentence or two on the board; objectives, components of the main course, giving the 'star ingredients' for the day. The goal, the entree. Then allow students to get themselves there, using the makerspace, the vocabulary and their imaginations. It means much more to be given the trust to satiate your own curiosity then it does to be lead there through routine and expectation. If we place limits, they will cease to push them. If we set clear solutions they will be locked into an orbit of completion, when they should be rocketed to the unknown, acquiring knowledge by observation, exploration and discovery. The framework is scary at first because it is vast, every student creating their own idea of learning and accomplishment, we must stay out of their way no matter how much we want to intervene.

I worked in many restaurants, during my college years and the number one thing they tell waiters is to "push the specials." This is because the fish is aging, they bought too much of a certain vegetable etc. They want to make sure nothing goes to waste. This outlook however can be detrimental to a student-centered classroom. By 'pushing the specials', it means we as teachers already have the result in mind. We already have a plan, the ingredients lied out and the combination of objectives and goals in place. If we do this, we are limiting our students. If teachers have a lesson plan, flexible and open-ended, then this tunnel vision will not occur. If through a makerspace or just some imaginative mystery items, we can see possibility, students will come up with ideas we couldn't even see coming. They will look at a simple object and see a million uses. All we must do is not narrow their thinking. Not place expectations but let them see the objective. Not organize until there is only one solution but to let them find the route and the destination independently.

The framework for a student-driven, student-led, independent learning environment is a simple one:

1) Do not set expectations, but achievements
2) Do not "push the specials" but provide a supermarket of opportunity and supplies
3) Do not take yourself so seriously, there will be failures, but more often there will be leaps and bounds of growth, that students will thank you for
4) The flow of the class depends NOT on you but that of your students
5) Personalities are fluid and attitude malleable all we must do is create a safe haven and students will enter willingly and mindfully

6) Laugh, play and be yourself, students will trust you and follow you anywhere if they believe in you

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Eggs and a Side of Toast: The Recipe for a Student-Centered-Classroom Part Two

In yesterday's post, I discussed the glory of warm, silky, crispy hotcakes. Pancakes: short stack or silver dollar when smothered in maple and topped with fruit and powdered sugar, bring to life any breakfast. They are messy and sticky but this only adds to their appeal. Style, flavor and garnish all determined by personal preference and taste. They are the ingredients of a student-led learning environment. Flapjacks are not the only element that charges up a classroom. Sweet and sugary these fluffy perfections tend to be on a separate plate, a side order, yet a morning fare would not be the same without them. They are the greeting at the door, the eye contact, letting our students see we are excited they have arrived.

The Core of the Meal:

The fundamental, cardinal item on a brunch platter is eggs and a side of toast. Constituents like these, are merely part and parcel to the bigger picture- the whole plate. These staples may seem typical but they have as many variations as pancakes. Together these savory items become a cuisine, a memorable, comfortable feast. Each converging, creating a classroom of individuality, personality and deviation. Every meal based on a menu of options, substitutions allowed. If we provide students with the raw materials, they will step into the role of chef with conviction and determination.

Eggs, like buttery pancakes are often sloppy, oozing yolk over the rest of the otherwise, partitioned plate. Over easy, over medium, sunny side up or hard scrambled, this is the opening discourse in any classroom. The moment they enter, get settled and either commit or confound. Are the warm ups simple and routine- a time filler, over easy? Is the Smart Board displaying a puzzle or equation to solve- over medium? Do we fluster and perplex with a discrepant event; hard scrambled, having them dig through the dishevel to identify the solution, bringing with it, its own sense of muddiness and crumble? Sunny-side-up may be less structured and more visual, but if we begin class with a little uncertainty and hesitation, fear of breaking the membrane, we can intrigue students and set them on a course of risk-taking with out consequence, just a little mess.

Side Items a Must:

Rather than a side order of toast, why not offer a buffet of meats and vegetarian options: ham, bacon, hash browns, fruit or home fries? Give students a mystery box of items and have them create something. Provide an arsenal of recyclables and art supplies and simply let them show you the concept of the day in their own way. This makes the appetizer personal and meaningful. Then the rest of the meal will become a feast, potluck, picnic, rather than a formal luncheon. Let them 'chop up their own vegetables', clean off the scales of their 'catch of the day', write their own specials on the menu board. If they are the creators and take the lesson from scratch to completion, they can change out strategies (ingredients) as they see fit. This will allow them the growth experience needed to create future culinary and learning delights.

The Complexity of a Meal is a Matter of Taste:

A student-centered classroom is unique to each teacher and for every individual class. The personalities, interests and academic prowess of students determines the flow and energy of the learning environment. While one class may need eggs over easy, a short stack and lightly toasted bread, others require the complexity of Eggs Benedict, cheesy grits and home fries. It is through building relationships, making connections and lots of observation from the side lines to determine the course of the open-menu. The kitchen may struggle at first to keep up with the pace but eventually, the flexibility and spontaneity comes naturally. Through one-minute weekly chats with students, teachers can offer additives and fresh ingredients, but still leave the cooking and conjuring to the students. The more complexity incorporated into the design, the more flamboyant and delicious the meals will be. Adjusting to constant changes is well worth the effort.

Stay Tuned:

In my next blog post I will discuss the day to day framework that we as teachers can put into place to allow a true student-centered class to emerge. The more we can prepare ahead of time and the more organized we are, the easier it will be to step back and let students take over on day one of the school year.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Just Like Flipping Pancakes: The Ingredients of a Student-Centered Classroom- Part One

The batter: baking soda, salt, and flour make up the basic ingredients of any pancake mix. Add some water and, voilĂ ! This powdery substance enters its initial journey into an amalgamation. But this template only gets you the squishy part of the breakfast treat. The cooking of the batter, sometimes sweetened with cinnamon or heartier with wheat or corn, is where the true magic begins. If the pan is the perfect temperature, just the right amount of oil or butter, this varies with preference, and the mixture is poured in evenly, then the most beautiful golden pancake, crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside begins its formation. Then the timing must be just right. If removed too soon, it falls apart. Too late and it gets burnt. Next, it gets flipped, and if it lands spot-on, you end up with the perfect, circular pancake. A stack of them is a truly remarkable sight. Then the creme de resistance, fruit, or different flavors of syrup. There are just about endless possibilities here: chocolate chips, whipped cream, you name it. A simple batter, in a box or homemade. Either way, if time and patience is in place, you end up with a hearty and delectable morning meal. 

For child and adult alike, pancakes are a welcomed sight. Dripping with flavor, offering choice and always providing nourishment and a little nostalgia. A dollop of syrup and this silky carbohydrate, although in a slightly different form, is the delicacy of most children around the world. The pancake itself is very typical with little variation, the toppings however are what make pancakes such a popular breakfast item. Each with an advantage; fruit both sweet and healthy, chocolate chips melt and coat the pancake with a layer of goodness, while just syrup alone, maintains a minimalist approach. If you lay out all the accoutrements, letting hungry guests choose and mix and match, from a simple menu you have created an exciting itinerary. They now have variety and alternatives they didn't even know they had or wanted. They have been provided with a plain, unmarked canvas just waiting for their masterpiece to be constructed. It is even more of a gem, jewel, treasure because it was designed towards personal taste and desire.

Pancakes in all their glory, can be messy: sticky, viscous, dripping off our chins. But, we somehow deal with the sloppy treacle because underneath the molasses of goodness there is a genuine satiation that only pancakes can bring. A freedom of flavor. An independence of toppings. A personal vision of how to stack or layer, butter or Mrs. Butterworth, blueberries or strawberries each convergence of technique and ingredients erecting a unique monument of craving, taste and appetite. Each spontaneous endeavor personalized and fulfilling until the last bite. When finished a smile slowly builds, as the final drizzle of sweetness is consumed, the last crumb devoured, the memory stored to put in place the craving for another adventure of flapjack, griddle cake, crepe, hot cake perfection.

Giving students the space to be innovative is integral to a student-centered classroom. Tomorrow we will discuss the recipe to implementing freedom of choice and creativity in your student-centered learning environment. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Striking Up a Conversation with Students

I have five children, all various ages, each with vastly different personalities. Much like students, beginning a conversation with them, at least an ongoing one takes some finesse. If I just jump in, they pull away. If I am too coy, they lack enthusiasm and just trail off topic within a minute or so. I generally commence a chat by just saying their name and asking them a question. "Hello, son of mine, Gabrial, what cha doin'?" This can instigate two results: one, he actually looks up from his device, smiles and says "hello mirm," his nickname for me, or he says fine, nothing and continues battling whatever he is trying to conquer in his game. So through out the teenage, technology era, I have resorted to beginning all my conversations with my children, "Please step away from the device, all tray tables must be stored in their locked and upright positions." Then "eye contact, please." Finally, after a little push back, they are focused on what I have to say. Today, while out to lunch as a family, three noses were in their phones, only my youngest not having a device was coloring. Technology strikes again. When it came time to order, I had to say the immortal words, as previously shared. Pulling them out of the digital world into the finite one is challenging. But in a classroom at least, I do not have their devices to contend with. Just their attention spans.

I have learned over the years though that there are three main types of verbal discussions I have with students. Each bringing with it a different challenge. The one-minute check in's the first week of school- awkward. They are uncomfortable and in rapid succession so they have very little time to open up and feel natural talking to me. We make eye contact, introduce ourselves, where we are from, our interests. By the end of the week, I have jotted down some notes on every student. Over-time, quite quickly actually, these check in's become second nature and they plop down across from me almost like a friendship and we share just about everything. Its awesome. But this doesn't answer the question: How do you strike up a conversation with students? After week one, a week of social chats and getting to know one another you would think it would be easy. But, it is still challenging. Before a conversation can form, trust and respect have to be in place and this takes a few weeks to build through one-on-one conversations, sitting at group tables and just shooting the breeze and most importantly sharing lots of stories and anecdotes about my life. The more I am honest, humorous and humble with them showing both vulnerability and resilience the faster these bonds form. I act a bit crazy and quirky day one. They see me as human and not as a teacher. We begin everything from where desks will be placed, how the classroom will be organized and designed and even lessons and activities together, showing them early on that the classroom is a collaborative not an autocracy.

If I take a few notes on each student: dislikes, likes, passions, do they play an instrument, sport or video game, then I have the tools to break through their defenses. They all have them, walls of "I really prefer not to have to communicate with an adult." But, if I do not take on the power role, or behave like a traditional teacher, they ease to my presence much faster. This is not to say I do not come off as authoritarian, because trust me, the fear is there, but I rarely have to fluff my feathers. They understand I am boss. But, they also appreciate the freedom and independence, respectful and motivated behavior gets them. Awkward conversations become open, high energy chats because I know them and they know me and we can banter about comic books or TV shows. They love to tell me all about the books they are reading, because they know I am a ferocious reader. We talk a lot about science, all aspects of science, because they know I am a science geek so they ask me lots of great questions and these turn into awesome activities and lessons.

Striking up that initial conversation is definitely difficult. They do not want to look me in the eye, let alone have to say something to me. They do not know me yet. But, after the initial 1-minute check in, it becomes easier and they smile when I ask them about something they do not remember revealing in our last exchange. It shows I care when I make connections to our former parley's. Then they begin to remember little things I said and they ask me questions about Dr. Who, my favorite show and growing up in California etc. Its pretty cool once the wall crumbles. Now this wall stays upright for longer, for many students. I have to basically tear it down brick by brick with a few, but eventually every student feels comfortable talking to me every week. Eye contact is key, modeling listening skills is important and then responding with interest is the kicker. Once they have seen these in action, had many conversations with me and with one another, even the quietest of students is making eye contact and interacting with their peers with ease. We have to start somewhere, once the first strike occurs, the rest are easy.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Sidekicks and Supporting Roles: Modeling The Minor Character

Every classroom is full of leaders, first responder's, accomplices, background performers even understudies but if given an opportunity, most students jump in to become the headliner. The name in all CAPS on the marquee. But as we have seen in superhero and action films, it is the sidekick or "friend" that comes to the rescue. They are the man in the chair, directing the hero to the villains lair, the scene of the kerfuffle, or the arena of the battle. Yet, when we model for our students responsibility and duty of participating in a group, leadership is what we focus on. We discuss how to be a leader, how to direct, how to organize and get the group functioning on task, but we rarely model how to be a sidekick. It is important though to make sure that situations change and on occasion Hulk is in the line of fire and protecting his team, while Captain America is playing a supportive role. They are both superheroes, both will leap into any situation to fight evil but they each have their strengths and thus share the enterprise and undertaking of conquering the bad guys. 

How do we model being a sidekick? Most students will feel this position is inferior to that of the starring role. But, if we discuss our stories of working with others, where we supported those who needed us, we highlighted their abilities and stayed in the shadows: organizing and planning not implementing the mission, they will discover that no one can go it alone all the time. Even the strongest of leaders have a team who work behind the scene to make them look good. To let them appear flawless. Without these administrative proponents and ally's, superheros would not have time to defend. Leaders would not have the opportunity to prioritize their abilities, encourage their tribe, pilot their ship. When the ark gets off course it is the support staff that get it repaired and aligned with the groups vision and mission. Every member of the troop is integral to the machine that makes up the cohort. The leader is only as good as their staff, volunteers and cadre. In the Marvel universe it is the Agent's of Shield that have the Avenger's back, that make it possible for them to simply fight the enemy.

I explain to my students that the witty banter of any movie can only happen when the sidekick or best friend is along side the main character. There is a history there. They know each other so well that they do not have to speak, just eye contact explains any situation. If the protagonist is getting too full of themselves, are losing sight of the goal or getting obsessive about catching the bad guy, no matter the danger, the sidekick steps in and without hassle speaks the truth, re-centering their best friend. This is the importance of this character, this role, they are exposed to risk, they break the rules to help their comrade but they stay out of the action in order to make sure that the hero is successful. Without the partner, pal, buddy, things may not always turn out the right way or positively for our hero.

If we set up student-centered classrooms, these roles of hero, sidekick, extra's and even background actors all become interchangeable with different activities and lessons. While the loudest and most confident may automatically steer their way to the leader position, we must show them that the supporting role, the organizer, the planner, the director is just as important as the starring role. Show them that our role as teacher is supportive. Every part that is played in a group is dependent on one another. I explain that in our classroom, I am not the star or the hero, or even the director. I am a background character, listening to them, the actors, perform their lines, improv their scenes and supervise the set. The hero changes from day to day, the star becomes the sidekick and the set-designer takes on the role of the lighting crew because without knowledge and experience of every role in the classroom, the movie set would not be successful. Someday's we watch dailies while others we add the soundtrack but together, intricately, humbly and selflessly, we are making movie history.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Glitter Path: Individual Sparkles, Waves of Light

The sun, the source of all life on Earth, is unrelenting in its luminosity. Knowledge and growth the birth of change and progress. To bask in their brilliance is universal. With the daily cycle comes their hubris of pinks and oranges, both painting the sky and erasing the darkness, the stillness. Spawning the din of interaction, progress and continuance. Both polished and persistent they make their way through shaded windows and tinted glass, they can be refracted and even blocked but they will make their way around any obstacle to cover all surfaces exposed to them. The sun generates the process of photosynthesis, forming the oxygen we breathe. It warms the chilliest of days, brightens the grayest skies of winter and illuminates our shadows reminding us of our impermanence. While knowledge, both personal and timeless steers the current of change.

A glitter path is the reflection of a light source, most often the sun, off a water surface covered by small waves and ripples. In a classroom, this path can take many forms: student conversations, class discussions even brief lectures but they all result in an epiphany of sorts, the moment it all makes sense. Focusing the light for all to see. The pieces fall in to place and this enlightenment begins the personal journey of further exploration. These small reflecting surfaces of the faces of the waves and ripples, are everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the classroom, sparkling an effervescence seen and felt by all. It forms the curiosity that drives a student-centered classroom. With each ripple reminding the group that more knowledge is yet to come.

This gleam, twinkle, glimmer causes many individual tinsels which add up to a distorted reflection of the light source. Redirecting the light in every direction. But at that perfect moment where light and surface unite: All the voices of the classroom each vital and radiant shapes the beam of light. A perfect harmony of time, luminescence and water. Glitter paths are the myriad of individual glints - instantaneous reflections of the moon or sun – every voice in the classroom. These appear like clockwork as predictable as the sunrise, from facets of the undulating and shifting liquid surface each crest an idea, each trough an action. Each wave bringing to shore the collaborative efforts of the sum.

Glitter paths are usually associated with the sun reflected off water, though they can be formed by any slightly uneven reflective surface. In a classroom, this naturally occurs because with each individual opinion and personality there arises the angles and curvatures of a well-functioning learning environment. The enhanced reflection or refraction of light, is generally strongest when looking towards a low sun or moon or in the classroom a common vision, a unified mission and an agreed upon goal. These glows, bows and halos of light each illuminating and enhancing the community as a hole. Each flicker bringing in to focus a new set of data, a new mindset and a beautiful piece of familiarity, awareness and wisdom.

The classroom is only one surface where glitter paths can be seen. They appear in the teacher’s lounge when colleagues speak to one another and share ideas. They come into focus in the hallway when students and teachers are smiling and excited to be at school. They shine brightly when an educator feels they make a difference, when those around them support them and encourage them. They are the most apparent when seas are not calm, but agitated, roused and passionate. They form when change is occurring, when risks are being taken and most often when joy and mindfulness are aglow. They are present as soon as we accept them into our realm of possibility. As soon as we recognize that to make a focused beam of light, collaboration and empathy must be common place. That we must see past apathy and fear that may blind us temporarily and open the windows letting both collaboration and innovation shine through. Glitter paths will be visible every day once we unite as educators, as teachers and students and as human beings.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Elegant Elephant in the Classroom: Distant Watchfulness

I have always hated the idiom, "let's address the elephant in the room," it always gave elephants a negative connotation. I know the phrase came about because of their sheer size, but elephants should not be used, metaphorically, to depict major problems but rather innovative solutions. They are such beautiful, powerful creatures and should represent strength, community and endurance. They travel great distances in search of a watering hole, offspring in toe. They keep their babies close and raise their young as a group, each herd often having several generations represented. They are often considered the "king of the jungle" due to their size and tusks, yet they are herbivores and lack any resolve to harm any other animal, unless provoked. They have always been my favorite animal and as such have always intrigued me. I have snow globes, stuffed animals, masks etc. depicting their image. These are my latest two additions. Gabriel and Caesar. I absolutely love their Native American patterns. They definitely have a spot waiting for them on my desk.

Elephants are strong and fierce when they need to be. They are gentle of spirit and watch over the herd with conviction. Much like a teacher, ever present and protective yet allowing the herd to wander and be self-sufficient. A community of elephants remains together through thick and thin, defending the group in its entirety and moving together across vast areas of rough terrain, until they reach the water to replenish themselves. Like a classroom of students, collaborating and supporting one another through the expanse of learning. Much like, a student-centered classroom, by providing the opportunity for some students to lead, several to support and others to guide the herd. Creating a unity, a common vision for their task ahead. Another saying, in elephant terms, also applies "you can lead an elephant to water but you can't make him drink," as teachers if we give our students a map, using their own compass and sense of direction, they will find their oasis on their own and they will drink of their own accord.

Elephants use what is around them creatively. Dirt to knock off bugs and to cool off, even trees to scratch an inch. If we provide students with tools, like a makerspace, they will get innovative and imaginative as well. Tools are mere objects that enlighten us to do things differently. It is our resolve that leads us to find their purpose. Elephants are both intuitive and resilient, much like our students. 

Elephants have great memories. Often travelling great distances and always finding their way back home. They have a strong familial bond and a deep love for their children. Like a teacher, even with the farthest of tangents they always find their way back to the goal of the lesson. Remembering the needs of all of their students and building strong relationships that impact the herd and each individual of the collective. Growth oriented and open-minded, elephants complete journey's often abandoned by others, while they remain focused on the destination. Teachers, much the same will hold strong to their convictions and always finish the quest for what is best for their students.

Elephants can be loud, strumming out a warning or battle cry. They gather the herd in times of danger. Teachers, if elegant elephants in the room, allow the dispersal of respective members, keeping a distant, yet watchful eye, but are ever present to call in the herd when necessary. A strong presence, yet a gentle power is wielded only when required. The voice of action yet the whisper of dissidence, just to keep the herd in a sense of urgent regard.

In the mirror, objects are closer and larger than they appear. As watchful facilitators, in a student-centered environment, teachers remain just out of view, maintaining a thoughtful residence, a companionship that helps balance the function and organization of the "ecosystem" all the while creating a consistent sense of pressure, there may be a lion or hyena on the prowl (challenge) or even a sand storm up ahead causing a detour. As long as the herd stays diligent and united it will remain strong and steadfast. A herd both travelling forward and unified in conviction to conquer the dangers of learning that might lie ahead.

Elephants are large in stature, their habitation must be large enough to accommodate their circumference. A classroom just the right size for the voice and drive of a dedicated teacher. If there is one within view, you are often humbled by their spirit and earnestness. They are commanding by their mere existence. You know that they are there, yet they remain in their locus not infringing or invading that of another. Teachers and elephants both relentless and fearless in their pursuit of new experiences and new destinations.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Mindful Impact: All You Get is What You've Done

The universe has no obligation to make sense to us. When we accept this fact, that in reality we understand very little in the larger scheme of things, we begin to see our purpose. We are here to interpret and illuminate the world around us. Learn as much as we can within our radius and help others to do the same. Every one has a place, a reason, a scope in which they influence. We may enter an adjacent realm and become inveigled by its energy or our orbits may ellipse beside one another never crossing paths. The actions of others are fleeting trails, swirling and spiraling, thin as a wisp of smoke. A gentle breeze carrying them off with serenity. It is what we choose to undertake and execute that builds the foundation of our future endeavors. The catalyst our intentions, impulses, imaginations and inclinations. In the end, all you get is what you've done.

Mindful reflection is necessary. Awareness is half the battle. We can not conquer our fears unless we recognize them as vulnerable. Taking a look at our accomplishments and impacts humbles us. Focuses us. Reminds us that our motives are personal and do not necessarily translate in to reality. The magic and sorcery of our minds can create entire universes only we can see. Each a microcosm of our personalities. It is within our imaginations that we exist and thrive. We interact and co-exist in the real world but we process information and interpret our presence, in our own mind. The lens of our imagination magnifies what we believe to be dynamic and stimulating. This optic of creativity is stronger than our eyes because it sees what they do not- possibility and promise. Until we fulfill our tangible goals and accomplish discernible adventures, we will stay in our bubble. Our personal state of mind. Until we give back, make even an infinitesimal impact we are just another ephemeral potentiality. If we strive for more permanence, we must make mindful, rousing impacts. All we get is what we have done.

It starts with appreciation. Embracing the flow of positive deeds that make contact. The littlest of gestures that make joy possible in our lives. What we put out in the universe can either be a seed of change or a muffling of creativity. The expression of our desires and dreams are what eventually become our actions. Listening to our inner voice, following our instincts and listening to the advice of others is how mindfulness works. All coalescing into a centrifugal force, of confidence, determination and follow-through. Our thoughts are our own, but our actions impact the collective. Each circumstance altering the course of another. We must remember that with every response we place into the macrocosm of humanity, another part of our exclusive impact is put into place. We must not expect to get anything in return barring what we have put in. We as a part of a larger plane, an endless dimension that is both fluid and dynamic. But with this malleability comes consistent change. All we can hope to attain is what we have done and the knowledge that we made a difference.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Knowing When to Take a Step Back is Half the Battle

I have a difficult time sometimes finding balance between my personal and professional life. During the summer, a time for many to let loose and let go is often a time for me to jump into PD and Twitter chats. I keep up with my #blog365, I have for nearly a year, but now after a month in to summer break, with little rest, I am feeling very overwhelmed. Not with any one aspect of social media per se, I am just feeling unfulfilled. When I feel like my time is not valued, I feel like giving up. Retreating. This I know is a state of mind, a temporary setback. This exhaustion is felt by many teachers as they strive for perfection even in the off hours, because there really are no off hours. As educators we see strategies and opportunities everywhere for growth and improvement. I have never been an outgoing person, yet on Twitter I put myself out there. I do not have many friends, not close anyway, because I grew up very isolated and self-entertained and these traits have carried over into adulthood. Unfortunately though, being bullied and outcast for the majority of my school years has caused my skin to be thinner then I would like. On the outside I smile, remain mindful and purposeful, but on the inside I am screaming at the top of my lungs. After a few rounds of self-doubt, we all just lose sight of the positive impact of what we do. Every one just wants to belong and when we feel we don't, as much as one may strive to be happy, we lose our joy and become deflated.

Social media can be addicting. I just read a great article in BBC Focus Magazine, titled "Do
Social Networks Make Us Anti-social? " At first it seems obvious that if our noses are pointed towards our electronic devices, then our eyes are not focused on those around us and as such our personal interactions may suffer. What I found the most interesting though, is that there are different results for different personality types. Social interactions can be taxing, staying engaged and present 100% takes a lot of effort. Social butterflies adapt to this with ease both in personal and on social media. They seek it, sending Instagram pictures and Tweeting constantly. However, they lose sight often of personal interactions focusing more on the rewards of likes and comments. While, control freaks on the other hand, often depend on social media because you have complete control over your on-line presence. As the article explains "this satisfies an underlying process the brain engages in known as 'impression management' where were constantly compelled to present the best possible image of ourselves to others, in order to make them more likely approve of us." I must admit, I fall in to this trap as well. When people do not respond the way we expect it feels like a kick in the gut, even on social media. When I begin to care about how many like I get, it is time to step away.

The social cues we witness and experience in life, through eye contact, facial expressions and the sound of a persons voice are all absent from social media. This can cause a false sense of security because, anonymity brings forth the freedom to be mean or unprofessional. I have found this not to be the case with most educators, although I have run in to a few who were not pleasant. But, I think that in this, my social media inaugural year, I have grown more as an educator then I did in all my years of college, my Master's too. Twitter and blogging have spiraled me into a world of risks and failures, leaps forward and reflection and ultimately they have helped me create a student-centered classroom, a mindful learning space and most importantly they have given me the confidence to share my story. So if it has been such a positive journey, why am I feeling so discouraged? This is something I will have to reflect on, meditate on. But, it has not deterred me from yet another chat #teachmindfulbooks starting tomorrow a book chat on two amazing books on mindfulness. While also keeping up with #teachmindful and #StuCentClass both weekly and slow chats. These make me joyful, even when no one responds, I know I got my ideas out there.

Joy comes from a positive outlook and this has not changed. I am mindful of the lack of balance, working on that, a new goal, find balance. Also stress has creaped in, and I am going to take a step back from the #tagging and just write and just Tweet and if anyone out there in the Twitter universe wants to respond they will. When we seek approval and acceptance, we always come up short. When we step away from this need to belong and just Be, the reason we are doing what we are doing presents itself. I joined social media not for recognition but to learn. This is my renewed mission: to learn, share my ideas, there are people who are listening, and focus on the growth. The rest will fall into place.

Classroom Microhabitats

Gardens can be well-groomed with precise rows of petunias and squash, or they can be unkempt and more natural. The gate can be kept closed, ...