Relationships are Key

fullsizerender-10October is a great month to reflect on relationships. Developing a community of learners requires that we focus on building relationships with students, and it’s a large part of what we do in the fall. I’m also reminded how important it is that put energy into building relationships with our students’ parents. We value a team approach to education, and our parents are an important piece of that equation.
Earlier this month we had our Parent Teacher Conferences. Based on the time that we commit to this endeavor, we clearly value them. My co-teachers and I made sure to follow up with every family who hadn’t initiated a conference so that we could meet with each one. Most of them we conducted in the day and half that our schedule allocated for conferences. The rest we scheduled during our shared prep time while students are at specials. We have one last conference to conduct … and now we are beginning to write report cards.

I was struck by how much we learned from parents. We gleaned history about last school year that helped us better understand the behavior that we’re seeing this year with some students. We’ve already used that knowledge to guide us both in how we talk with those students and what kind of follow up we provide to parents. We’ve learned with some parents that we need to be in close contact to best support a child through a challenging emotional situation. We’ve learned communication preferences for certain families. While many are happy to share thoughts through email, there are some for whom a phone call is the first choice. We’ve learned about family dynamics and learning history that shed new light on students. We’ve even explored the possibility of doing further diagnostic testing to give us more information about a student’s learning needs.

All of this is only possible because we make time to talk with parents. We enjoy meeting with them informally at our back to school grade level parent party as well as at school events. It is also crucial that we listen with open ears. We went into conferences with specific schemas about kids; that makes sense because we’re trying to construct a picture of who they are as learners. Parents’ insights and observations expand our ideas if we listen and make room for their thoughts. It’s gratifying when our hunches and observations match up with home experiences. When it doesn’t, I’m motivated to dig deeper and explore why it’s different.

Now as I begin writing report card narratives, I’m confident that there will be no surprises. We discussed challenges that students may be having with behavior, friendships, and academics, and we celebrated growth and learning that has already occurred. I find that the preparation that I do to get ready for conferences actually lays the groundwork for report card narratives. I celebrate developing strong relationships with students and parents!

(A note about the image – My students create Heart Maps in the fall to represent the people, places, and things that are important to them. I love how this shows the connected people in a child’s family. It’s how I envision our team of support for every student, a team that includes parents.)

Thoughts on GRIT

fullsizerender-7Last weekend, while traveling to visit with my college-aged daughter, I had a little bubble of extra time to read. Air travel and hotel stays without school homework opened up hours of time to lose myself in books. One title that has been on my To Read pile since this summer is GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. I decided to take it with me, and I ended up reading the entire book. As I finished reading, it was clear to me that I needed to wrestle with some of the ideas, reflect on them, process my thoughts through writing, and summarize my big takeaways so that I can easily revisit the ideas. Duckworth explains the idea of grit and the research behind her work quite well in her book. What I want to examine is how to take her ideas and bring them into my classroom.

Duckworth notes that suggestions and advice for parents are often appropriate for teachers and coaches as well. She points out that parent comes from a Latin root that means “to bring forth” and likens the work of teachers to bring forth characteristics of grit to that of parents. She takes the term “authoritative parenting” and changes it to “wise parenting” because of how authoritative is often confused with authoritarian. Essentially, wise parenting looks to balance one’s support for and demand of the child with his/her needs, adjusting as is necessary for development, environment, and circumstance. Reading more about the nuances of “wise teaching” in a classroom setting and the research to support it, I realize that it would be beneficial to more explicitly tell my students that I have high expectations and that I believe they can achieve at that level. It seems like a small thing, but I know that little things can make a difference.

What leads to grit? Interest. Practice. Purpose. Hope. She writes about her challenges with the popular charge to “follow your passion.” Even though I frequently talk about helping students find their passions, I also have mixed feelings about that overused phrase, particularly as I’ve talked with and encouraged my own children as they applied for college and contemplated majors. So I love what Duckworth has to say about it: “…passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and a lifetime of deepening.” (p. 103) While reading the chapter on interest, I felt a lot of affirmation for what we do in our class with Passion Projects. I’ve had to develop a good way to talk about them with students, as a student once asked me, “But I’m passionate about Katy Perry, why can’t I study her?” Parents recognize that we’re asking students to explore different topics in increasing depth across the year to see what might become a later passion in life. Our expectations are clearly defined in a rubric, and most students strive to meet those expectations and even exceed them

Duckworth explored the role of practice in developing grit, and she found a difference between run-of-the-mill practice (just going for a run) and deliberate practice (setting a goal, seeking feedback on performance, disciplined habit). I immediately thought about how my school developed a mindfulness initiative last year. Mindfulness for myself and within my class is something that I’m working on, and it comes in fits and spurts. For my students (and myself) to truly benefit from mindfulness, having a daily, deliberate practice is a key component.

Reading about purpose reminded me of the value of a back-to-school exercise our K-8 team experienced a year ago. Our division director guided us through a reflection of what significant life events made us who we were at that point in time. That led to each teacher crafting a personal mission statement. I’m grateful for that mission statement because it serves as a touchstone for me whenever I feel discouraged; I can remember what is truly important to me as an educator.

The chapter about hope is really about mindset. Having a growth mindset leads to optimism – believing that you can find a solution to your challenge helps you continue to look for them which makes it more likely that you will find one. Mindset is something that I continually bring up in my classroom. We’ve read picture books that embody growth mindset. They tend to have characters who show grit as well, so we talk about what grit looks like in different situations. We use multiple words to talk about grit – stamina – perseverance – building vocabulary and expanding student understanding. Students will even praise one another, “Hey, you used growth mindset when you got stuck with that problem.” They hear us praise their classmates for sticking with a tough challenge, and they’re learning that they each have strengths and weaknesses.

The final chapter in the book tackles a valuable concept – the culture that we live and work in can significantly influence our own grittiness. It’s staggering to think that my classroom culture has the potential to impact every single student and their families. That becomes magnified when my fourth grade team has a strong culture, when our Lower School has a strong culture, and even more so when the entire campus embodies and encourages grit. Reading this chapter made me both grateful to be working where I do and curious about what more I can do to promote a culture of grit. I come back to what I wrote earlier about being more explicit about high expectations and will add that saying it often, saying all that I believe often, will reinforce the culture that I want to create. In addition to having high expectations, it’s important to support learners who fall short. Creating scaffolds is a key component of wise teaching.

Personally, I want to continue to develop my own grit. Duckworth describes how that can be done through the Hard Thing Rule. What it takes is committing to something of your own choice that requires daily deliberate practice. Quitting or changing is allowed, but only if it’s at a natural point, such as the end of a sports season or class session. While I wish I had known of this when parenting through the teenage years, I can apply it to myself, encourage my family, and share it with families of my students.

I happened upon the following tweet in my feed this evening, before starting to write this blog post. How perfect it felt for what I was about to do!we-write-to-know