The End is Also the Beginning

Exhausted, brain dead, over it. These are just a few words that have come to mind over the past week. Walking around campus, I have been greeted by many other zombies. I rarely end the year as such, but there has been nothing normal this year and so how else would I expect to end my first year in a new school, in a new country.

I sit here in my class; it’s the last block of the day. My lights are off and I can hear the elementary students playing outside. I want to nap. I want today, Monday, to be the last day of the 2021-22 school year. . . it isn’t. There are still 2.5 more days followed by a teacher work day on Friday. I can do this–maybe.

Even exhausted, my mind is racing as I look to the next school year, thinking about the first few weeks and how I can welcome my new students. This excites me and is one of my absolute favorite things about teaching. Every year is new. For every day where I feel done and overwhelmed, there are so many other days where I feel energized and motivated and ready to tackle whatever my little darlings decide to throw my way.

Reflecting on this past year and looking forward to the new year, I think about things I want to stop doing, start doing, or doing better:

  • embed Wednesday skill building days in to better meet the needs of my diverse learners
  • finally get going on my Orton Gillingham training (this I’m really excited about!).
  • assess all readers by the third week of school using Acadience benchmark and Maze assessments, while also assessing all new students using TC Quicks.
  • engage in data dialogues with my g6 humanities team around our progress monitoring system (new next year).
  • bring word work into our weekly rotation to help with vocabulary development.
  • continue to engage in collaboration with my team, really focusing on bringing in protocols to encourage collegial discourse.
  • improve my anecdotal note taking system in a way that allows for greater collaboration between learners, myself, and my co-teaching team.

The list above is daunting, but it is also exciting. Even though I am trying to quiet my mind and listen to my body saying it needs rest, I can’t help but think to the future. In two months time, a new group of wide-eyed 6th graders will enter the classroom-scared and uncertain. I will be ready for them.

End of Year 2021-22 PLJ Reflection: Collaboration

Collaboration can be loud, roaring, all encompassing; it can also be soft, like a whisper, constant and unassuming. This year’s journey to explore various forms of collaboration, not only with my peers but also my students, has encouraged me to look at collaboration through a variety of lenses. Results of this year-long inquiry have not been Earth shattering, nor do I feel I am uncovered anything new and innovative. However, I have thought on this, read on this, and attempted new things because of this goal.

Congeniality vs Collegiality

I remember when I first heard these two terms. Dictionary.com says “someone who’s known for their congeniality is friendly, nice, and easy to get along with;” while a collegial person cultivates “cooperative interaction among colleagues.” At first, I was a wee bit confused. I couldn’t understand the idea of congeniality. I mean, we’re all here for student learning, and so we need to push each other and challenge each other and engage in hard conversations as we share common purpose. Over the years, I’ve been part of teams who are very congenial-everyone gets along, they hang out after work, and there are lots of smiles and laughter. Everyone feels good. But, student learning does not take center-stage; instead, it is about not stirring the pot and working hard to make sure everyone leaves each and every interaction happy.

I definitely prefer to engage in collegial discussions where we all push each other’s thinking in order. This is something I’m still hoping to have develop within my curricular team. Currently, we are all quite nice to each other and I really do love everyone I work with. But, I think we can step outside of trying to be super nice and into the role of questioning each other to further develop our own thinking and practices.

With students in collaborative groups, this is what we ask them to do all the time. ‘Provide your partner with constructive criticism.’ ‘Be sure to challenge each other.’ The first thing said, isn’t always the best.’ We ask students to engage in high level discussions, when we ourselves can struggle with this. I suppose the next step for me is to spend time playing around with how to raise the level of discourse within the classroom, as well as with adult learners I collaborate with.

Types of Collaboration

Throughout this year, I have played around with different types of collaboration. What I’ve found is that there doesn’t seem to be one type that seems effective for all learners. The idea of loud vs soft collaboration is one I ponder a lot. I remember years ago reading, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. This book was absolutely revolutionary to me. It is a book I go back to over and over again. It has made me ponder on which type of learner our classrooms, and even our schools as a whole, are catered towards.

In our western based classes, there is a heavy focus on collaboration-talking with each other, solving problems with each other. The classroom is not quiet-there’s a buzz that I have grown to love because it is the buzz I have come to associate with engagement and learning. However, as I wrote in my mid-year update there isn’t a specific type of collaboration that the majority of my students enjoyed. Instead, it was a smattering. Some loved to chat with their peers, others preferred to engage in silent conversation, while still others preferred to work on their own and then come back and check in.

If this is true with students, how does this relate to adult learners? We meet multiple days a week. Inclusions begin each and every meeting. And the focus is heavy on conversation. I wonder sometimes about this. Could it be that there is a softer, quieter form of collaboration that will allow opportunities for all members to feel included, valued, and their voices heard? Perhaps it isn’t even and either/or; it’s a yes/and. What could this look like if some meetings were held in a way that didn’t require a lot of talking and back and forth? What would it look like if instead of meeting with 15 people, you met with 2 or 3? Would a level of intimacy be cultivated that wasn’t there before?

Size of Groupings

The last area of collaboration that I focused on and played around with was size of groupings. This was quite interesting to me because over and over again, the students in my class engaged in much high level of collaboration in partnerships. There were definitely a few groups of students who worked well in triads or in groups of four, but overwhelming, partnerships seemed to be most effective. It could be that I didn’t provide enough structure or scaffolds to have them effectively work in larger teams-this is something for me to explore further. However, if they do work better in partnerships, should this be capitalized on? Can I use this bit of data to create better collaborative teams for my students?

Summary

As I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t feel as if I have uncovered any pearls of wisdom. I do think spending this year focusing on collaboration has helped center me, especially being new to a building. This focus is one I will continue to think on, read on, and gain feedback from my students. Each year brings new groups of students. It would be interesting to see if my noticings from this year transfer to next year’s group as well.

Regarding collaboration with my peers. . . I will continue to focus on this and really reflect on the part I play within my various teams.

Mental Health of Educators

Mental health in the field of education has taken center stage. The pandemic magnified this need as more and more studies emerge regarding the impact isolation and uncertainty have had on the global community. “According to early findings from an international survey of children and adults in 21 countries conducted by UNICEF and Gallup . . . a median of 1 in 5 young people aged 15–24 surveyed said they often feel depressed or have little interest in doing things.” This is a global issue impacting millions of children.

As in many schools, social emotional learning (SEL) has been at the forefront of conversations within my building. How do we meet the social emotional needs of our students, and how do we make sure we are constantly thinking about student mental health? We spent an hour weekly meeting with our grade level teams discussing lessons and experiences all centered around SEL. We have a 30 minute, 5 days a week time set aside for these conversations. Each educator in the building has a small group of 12 or fewer children in this advisory group. We become like a family, supporting and cheering each other on.

I love my advisory group and wouldn’t want anything about that to change. I also recognize that as adults, we have been challenged throughout this time and that needs to be at the forefront in schools. According to a survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA), 55% of educators are considering leaving the field, this is up from 33% of members surveyed the end of August and contains a disproportionate percentage of educators from the BIPOC community. The article (linked above) by the NEA states that educators have been under “an unprecedented amount of strain” that has been “exacerbated by the pandemic”.

The statistics are dreary. If you spend any amount of time on Twitter, educators are speaking up about how this is the most difficult year they’ve ever experienced-previously they believed the first year of COVID was. So many are feel trapped, unheard, devalued, and they are experiencing burn out at record levels. This is not just happening in the US, globally, international educators have been impacted as well. Many have been trapped outside of their country of residence, teaching a hybrid model at ungodly hours, while others, like myself were trapped inside my country of residence unable to leave for years at a time. Many have given up and returned Stateside, some have moved on to new countries in the hope things will be better, and still other feel trapped and are unhappy, bringing that with them to work every single day.

My family and I decided to not return to the US, but to move to a new country and see if things would be better. While in China, we experienced lock down after lock down. Uncertain about if we would be pulled into government mandated quarantined, separated from our 2 ten-year-old daughters. Unsure when we’d be able to leave and see our families back home. We experienced loss, like so many others-saying goodbye to my grandmother over Zoom, babies who would be toddlers before we’d ever get to meet them, countless holidays and birthdays spent without those we loved. And we feel as if we had things pretty good. We were healthy, safe, and still employed.

As we’re thinking about the SEL of our students, schools need to also be putting in time and resources into thinking about the mental health of our educators. Educators give and give and give, and right now, they’re giving more of themselves than ever before. You cannot drink from an empty cup and educators are drained dry. We cannot continue to pour out love, patience, tolerance without filling that cup again. We’re tired.

Magical Map

I am not one who loves standardized tests and the pressure that goes along with them. Working in US public schools, stakes were high: teachers were called out for low test scores, our funding was tied to them, and it created an “us” against “them” mentality. I did always value the data, though. I loved to pick through and see areas of growth and areas of challenge. I saw this as a time to celebrate and also recalibrate my curriculum to better meet the needs of my learners.

I excitedly clicked “view reports”. My students have grown as critical thinkers, independent learners, and positive members of our community. It didn’t take long for that excited feeling to become a pit in my stomach. This year, our standardized test, MAP, kicked my butt! This is the lowest growth I’ve seen in 12 years of administering the MAP test. Honestly, I didn’t see it coming, but I should have.

I quickly reached out to a few trusted colleagues. I’m searching for “what went wrong” and time and time again, I heard: “Well, do the students actively engage?” “Remember, this is the first year they’ve really been in school for two years.” “Maybe they weren’t putting in effort as they should throughout the year.” “The test was given on a Monday, right after IC trips-not a great testing situation.”

See, those things went through my mind as well. The old ‘how can I place blame somewhere else so I don’t have to admit that I didn’t meet the needs of my learners (with regards to this one particular assessment)?’ Honestly, I feel defeated. It’s always been a source of pride for me that my readers grow leaps and bounds every single year. If that didn’t happen this year, what did I do wrong and what do I need to do to turn this around.

8 weeks. That’s what I have left with these amazing humans. I don’t want to feel as if I failed them-they deserve better than that. They deserve to have opportunities and curriculum that supports that growth every. single. year. What do I do? Do I take my colleague’s advice and chalk it up to COVID? That would be easiest, I think. But, I’ve never been one to take the easy route.

Today, I will analyze the detailed reports and look for common areas of growth. I will then do an audit of our curriculum to see where we can add in those growth areas-really hone in on them. Being new to a school, country, and 100% new curriculum we are writing as we go, I haven’t been at my best; and I will recognize that and allow myself some grace. In addition, I will celebrate the amazing growth my students have shown this year. They have grown in their ability to problem solve, think critically, and be positive members of an extremely tight classroom community.

The MAP test is a snapshot in time and measures a narrow band of achievement-this I also need to keep in mind and celebrate the growth that has happened. I honestly couldn’t be prouder of my students in the people they are becoming. These are passionate, kind-hearted people who I know will make a positive impact on the world as they get older. I’m going to hold on to this even as I look to make adjustments in my teaching.

Napping the Day Away: Day 19 SOL22

I zoomed through this last week full of energy. A unit ended and I saw pride in so many faces of my students as their websites were finally complete. They didn’t believe they could produce something that looked so professional, so good (Thanks Canva!), nor did they believe they could accomplish so much in so little time. Friday was a day of celebration as the girls completed their grade 3 ballet exams. The nervousness of the days leading up to the exam was pushed aside as excitement for grade 4 ballet and pointe was ushered in. Our day at school ended with the entire middle school playing Holi. Colored powder filled the air as giggles and squeals of utter joy echoed throughout the field. This week ended and spring. . .fall. . . uh March break began (living south of the equator, I’m never quite sure what to call this break).

First day of break, I didn’t sleep well and ended up finally getting out of bed around 5:30 am. I slowly drank my coffee and thanked the universe for our Air BnB cancellation, giving us one more day at home before our 10 hour drive to the coast. I planned on a full day: a massage, pedicure, laundry, deep cleaning, cooking for the trip, and packing. I made it to my massage and quickly fell asleep on the table. I barely kept my eyes open during my pedicure. Finally home, I crawled into bed for a quick 20 minute cat nap. Two hours later. . .I pried my eyes open-my day had slipped away and it was now dinner time.

No packing done, laundry not finished, cooking. . .yeah right! But, it was a lovely day and one I guess I needed even though I didn’t know I did. Tomorrow, we have an early start as we make our way to the beach where I plan on napping as much as possible.

Change of Course: Day 18 SOL22

I received an email today from a parent. The type of email that makes you pause, reflect, and reconsider tactics previously taken. It wasn’t a bad email at all; quite the contrary. It was one sharing a bit about their home life and one I instantly could relate to. This is a kid who lights up the world with their smile. A kid who loves to joke and to laugh. A kid who frequently misses class and rarely messages to check in or get any work. This is also a kid who wants nothing more than to be at school with their friends, but having the wants become reality are not always within their control.

Today, I took a different tact. I simply sent an email saying we missed them. The class isn’t the same without their twinkling eyes and bright smile. I haven’t heard back yet but my mama heart aches for them.

What We Keep:Day 17 SOL22

As we explored options for how to begin our new unit on values and beliefs, the book, What We Keep: 150 People Share the One Object That Brings Them Joy, Magic, and Meaning , came to mind. This was a book that I picked up a few years ago, looked at it and then placed it on my shelf, all but forgotten. A few ideas were thrown around about how to launch the unit, none felt quite right, but all ideas would definitely work. I took a walk and remembered Bill Shapiro’s book and how I felt when I opened the cover and was thrust into the world of magic. It has always fascinated me how one object, no matter how simple or how plain, could hold such extreme value.

For me, one object that accompanied everywhere that seems silly now was a green rock. It was gifted to me by a true friend of the heart while hiking Artist Point up on Mt. Baker. I had recently returned from extensive time away and was seeking to reconnect with home, friends, and maybe, possibly figure out what was next. “The exact color of your eyes” as the rock was held up before me. It wasn’t very big, maybe about an inch and half long and half and inch wide. I have no idea why I carried it with me from that day on, but I did. I also remember when I gave it away. I was 100% ready to cut ties with my past. As I handed the rock to its new caregiver, I distinctly remember a sense of loss and yet a huge weight being lifted.

And so, I opened What We Keep: 150 People Share the One Object That Brings Them Joy, Magic, and Meaning and began to read. One story stood out, not because of the words (I’d save those for later) but because of the image of a bright pink frilly dress. Memories of my babes when they were younger flooded back. This was the object I would begin with.

Inclusion activities during meetings are not my favorite. The task master in me is always looking to complete whatever needs to be done and move on to the next “must do”. I have been wondering if I could come up with inclusion activities that somehow was linked to the work we needed to do, if I would feel differently about them. I am lucky I work with a fellow, like-minded literacy teacher and so if I was going to try this, this meeting would be the one to try it in.

“I’m going to set a timer for 4 minutes. Let’s take a look at the image, then read the text, then let your thoughts guide you as you put pen to paper.”

The timer went off and our pens were still flying like fire across the page. And then we shared. . . I’m not going to say we wrote the most brilliant thoughts, but there was definitely magic captured. Moments were we question our own roles as parents, our impact on those we hold most precious, the capturing of the first great loss. 4 minutes went by quickly but I found myself wanting to learn more about my colleague, to ask probing questions, and in this time, I felt connection. Isn’t that what literacy does? It brings us together, builds community, and begs for continued conversation. Objects can seem to be mundane, ordinary, but the stories that can lie within can mean everything to someone.

Fuzzy Failure: Day 16 SOL22

The number of walks I take in a day is directly proportionate to the level of unease I am feeling. Today, after sitting down to do some planning and, realizing I was getting nowhere, I walked and walked and walked. I walked into a colleague’s classroom, thinking that gleaning the good stuff from them would somehow break me out of my funk. I left with awesome ideas, but still the aura of unease enveloped me.

I’ve never been someone who has been satisfied with the now-I always have looked to the future-looked to find a better way of doing something-looked to find how to be better. This is where the source of my unease is, I believe. In education, it is easy to become complacent. . . easy to turn to the same text, the same protocol, the framework. So much is new and challenging in our field but everything doesn’t have to be, right? Except for me, it does. And today, the what is next is hovering above my head, just out of reach. I’m jumping and screaming and stretching but it continues to evade my grasp.

Asset based approach to teaching is one I struggle with for myself-with others, I’ve learned to highlight and support and cheer on the good to provide the gentle nudges to help move someone forward. I am not so easy on me. If something isn’t working, fix it. If there’s a better way to do something, do it. This has caused some extreme moments of highs and some extreme moments of lows as well. Lately, I’m feeling buried. Not because I have too much work or things feel overwhelming, it’s simply that I can’t seem to find my way through a puzzle of my own creation.

This morning I was working my way through Penny Kittle’s Padlet she shared during a fantastic PD I took on Flash Fiction. You know the phrase that the ‘book finds the reader’, or that ‘things will fall into your lap when meant to be’. . . well, perhaps that is what happened to me today as I watched This American’s Life, Ira Glass’ video on “The Creative Process”. This spoke to me because he basically says that you, as a creative, have excellent taste-so much so that you can see that what you are producing now isn’t quite right. That you’ve just slightly missed the mark. Glass then says most people quit at this part. And I get it, change is hard and failure sucks so why would anyone want to put themselves out there in that way.

So this is where I’m at. I am frustrated. I feel like the mark is there but is fuzzy. I feel like there’s something else, something next, something better, but I can’t quite see what it is. I do feel like where we are now and the questions being asked aren’t quite the right ones, yet. I feel frustrated, uncertain, shaken. I feel like I want to quit. My brain is buzzing and my emotions are high. Is Glass correct? Do I just need to keep on keeping on and eventually I will get a few steps closer, the mark will be a little bit less fuzzy? Or am I chasing after something that doesn’t exist, or if it does, will I be traveling alone on that journey?

I Don’t Want To: Day 15 SOL22

Sometimes writing is hard. I say this to my students with the expectation that they can work through the tough times and continue to produce. However today, writing is hard for ME. It hits differently when it is personal. We all know the value of writing alongside our students, living the life of a writer. But do we also appreciate and push through those times when we simply do not want to have anything to do with being a writer? This is my current struggle.

I spent my last two days envisioning what school could look like if all parameters were removed. Well, that was the idea anyway. We spent time norming, exploring, and learning. It was fantastic . . . and I’m fried. I don’t have ideas to write about, head space to fully actualize a piece, and certainly not the mind for making anything flow nicely. So, here it is. Today, I don’t want to write but I am showing up, even if the show up is mediocre. Now, I’m off to lounge in my yard and crack open a book.

Giraffe Manor: Day 14 SOL22

My Slice in pics. . .

Nothing quite like dining with a giraffe
Who knew giraffe kisses could be so amazing???
They were greedy little eaters-didn’t leave anything for us
Swinging and trying to feed a giraffe is not as easy as it looks.
So glad I had this experience with my Beijing Lady
Big Ed is the alpha male of the heard. 5 of his ladies are heavily pregnant with soon to be born calves.
Seriously will never get old!
Afternoon tea before our evening time with the giraffes
Big Ed was HUGE! He was a bit intimidating as he stopped by for an afternoon snack.
A memory to last a life time. Complete and utter magic!