With Eyes of Wonder

Earlier this month, while walking back from PE class, some of my homeroom students excitedly pulled me over to a small pumpkin patch that was growing beside the path in a raised bed. “Look through here!” they exclaimed, pulling back some of the vines. It was like a small green cave and inside were a pair of small, orange pumpkins. I loved it and noted to myself that I wanted to stop some day and take a photo of it.

Photography is an amateur hobby of mine, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting shots. I trace it back to the day many years ago, when a dear friend pointed out my son reflected in the airport window as he watched planes on the runway. She is a professional photographer, and something must have clicked for me that day, because I’m more aware of framing than I used to be. Digital photography is a blessing as it gives me immediate feedback on my results and it allows me nearly unlimited attempts to get a shot right.

img_6889A week or so after seeing the magical green cave, I thought to take my phone with me on the way to PE. (There’s another photography blessing – cell phones with outstanding camera capability.) I knelt down to pull back the vines and took the shot. Now it was my turn to excitedly show the fourth graders how they had inspired me, and they loved it. “It’s beautiful!” “It’s like a fairy cave!” “Where did you see that?” Other students wanted to see the hidden pumpkins that they had walked past every day. As I showed my division director the photo later and described the exchange, I referred to it as “looking with the eyes of a fourth grader.”

That phrase has turned over inside my mind frequently in the past weeks as I watch my students and get to know them. After a month of school, I’m seeing multiple sides of my students, and I’m curious. How does that behavior that annoys other people help that child? Because there has to be something that feels beneficial to the child, even if it’s short term and doesn’t make sense to us as adults. What is s/he thinking while making this computational error?  If I understand the thought process, I can tweak my instruction or assistance. Does the child who seems impulsive all the time have moments of focus? – When? – Under what circumstances? Knowing this may help me channel this child’s focus. Fortunately, I work with a team that is in close communication. We share our observations with one another and our suspicions. We brainstorm ways to support individual students while being mindful of the whole group’s needs, including teachers. We communicate closely with parents trying to forge a partnership, always being mindful that each person wants the best for the child.

In addition to having a sense of wonder about children, I try to bring that to the world, especially nature. I’m aware of the different experiences this generation of children is having compared to mine growing up. There’s more digital distraction and scheduled activity and less free exploration of the world. Fewer opportunities to find fairy caves or to see what happens when you throw a rock in a pond. When I slow down to show them beauty or wonder around us, I hope it has an impact. To open some eyes that might not have seen. To reinforce that it is good to slow down and look for interesting phenomena wherever you are. To inspire a story or a drawing or a poem. One of my online newsletters this week had a great article about nature-deficit disorder and an interview with Richard Louv. He wrote Last Child in the Woods, which I read and enjoyed many years ago.

img_7074As I was hiking this morning, I came across a small tree that had fallen. It must have grown within a fissure among granite rocks and dislodged one of them, because elevated above ground was a small rock, enveloped by tree. I snapped a photo, thinking how cool this was and how some of my fourth graders would love it. Then I realized it would be a perfect illustration for some of our work in erosion later this winter. My slowing down and noticing today will have a direct impact on a future lesson, something I wasn’t looking for on my hike.

I celebrate that I still see the world with “the eyes of a fourth grader,” and that I slow down to see nature and children. Who knows what an observation will lead me to discover!

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Problem Solving through Group Initiatives

k4-flower-of-handsI’ve been trying to incorporate elements from my challenge course training earlier this summer by using what are known as “group initiatives.” In a nutshell, a facilitator provides a problem or challenge to be solved by the group. It can be made as silly or serious as desired – silly will often engage the kids well. The facilitator has to read the group to determine what level of challenge they can handle while pushing them to improve their skills, and the key component of a challenge is the debrief time afterward. We did two challenges on Friday, and they went well … and  I see things to do differently. Right now, I recognize the similarity of our group debrief and this written reflection. I get to notice what went well in addition to what I still need to work on.

I gave the kids a challenge that stepped up the difficulty level from our first week’s introduction. They had to put themselves in a line based on the number of letters in each student’s first name  WITHOUT talking. There were clarifying questions, of course: What if I have a nickname? Can I use the name my mom calls me at home? Who decides which name to use?

They got to work, and I watched. I noticed things that went well and things that did not. After their completion, we circled up and I asked the key question, “What did you notice?” Open-ended intentionally to see what THEY noticed. They noticed what I noticed: Kids got in a line. Kids argued without using words. Kids disagreed. Kids helped point others to the right place in line. They assessed that they succeeded at solving the challenge and failed in the process.

I loved the next challenge … mostly. I let everyone know that there was a secret ingredient in our lunch that day which “glued” our hands together. We had to interlace our two hands together and could not use the fingers separately. (That was fun, and the kids enjoyed the silliness.) I challenged them to make groups based on their family size, without talking or using their hands at all. Of course, we had questions to clarify before getting to work!

It was fascinating to watch! Students tried a variety of methods to communicate family size – bending one leg to make the body look like a 4, stomping feet for family size, swinging arms up and down to count, and more. There were a lot of families with four members, and initially students created two separate groups. Someone in the group figured it out and led the way to bring them together. The kids had learned from their experience, and I was so proud of them. Once they were done, we circled up. What did they notice? For one thing, stomping slowly worked better than stomping quickly – it was easier to count. They shared their observations. The group assessed that they succeeded at the challenge and did better in the process.

While they were at recess, I discovered a place where I failed. One of the kids was triggered and left to have private time with one of our teachers. It was something that I should have thought of ahead of time because I knew backstory. I got the scoop from my colleague, and I immediately went to this student and apologized for letting him down. I had to take ownership for an oversight on my part. And I praised him for taking care of his heart. He did the right thing that he needed to do in the situation.

I know that we all make mistakes, and while this impacted his emotions in a big way, I also know that he will continue to be triggered from time to time in ways I can’t protect him from. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I took ownership and I will think a bit more carefully in the future for prevention.

I noticed more. Things that I can do to improve my facilitation skills. Part of our “5-finger agreement” that I taught the class includes not pointing fingers or blaming others. Their debrief comments in circle were sometimes finger-pointing. I’d like to avoid that. I wonder if I can get at it with more specific questions. “What did you notice that was helpful for you?” “What did you notice that YOU did?” A gentle reframing could be – it was helpful when people accepted my number of letters without arguing with me. Fourth graders can do that. And some of these kiddos need more support in looking for the positives. That will carry over in valuable ways into their lives.

I also need to create more dialogue around volunteering and self-care. A good tool for that will be to play “Have You Ever?” Students can learn that it’s okay to keep things private, one doesn’t have to share information if they don’t feel safe in the group. It’s an individual’s choice to share or not.

Overall, I think I succeeded at both the task and the process. I still have a lot to learn to be even better.

Self-Care

K4 sample hands

What an intense start to the school year! It’s not anyone one thing, but an accumulation that leads me to already feel I’ve been back for months. That sounds ambiguous (and possible negative!) as I write it…What I mean is that I already feel in the groove after 8 days of student time, in the groove with our new schedule and knowing the kids. I know I’m not the only one to feel it; I’ve heard it from administrators and faculty in both the Lower School and other divisions. I’m curious that it feels stronger to me than it has other years.

I’d like to think that it’s partially related to my focus on individual children. I am grateful to work at a school and directly with a team that prioritizes knowing kids. My co-teachers and I are also flexible. We overplanned for our first week, which is not surprising given that we didn’t know what we could do with our new community of fourth graders. What was great is that we quickly reassessed the time we had and our priorities, and we made changes to reflect our students’ needs.

I know it is easy for me to lose sight of self-care, and I wonder if that contributes to my sense of already being back for a long time. It has been easy for me the past couple of weeks to overlook my own needs, stay late at school, and get things done. I found myself grateful for this three-day weekend, and I spent the first day reading. Blissful heaven! Now as I sit reflecting, I realize that this is a good opportunity for me to strengthen my planning skills and build in the time that I need for myself, to set appropriate boundaries, and to better recognize when something can wait or needs immediate attention.

I feel a difference in myself since I started a regular gratitude journal 14 months ago. Even when I am overwhelmed or distressed, I can find things in my life for which to be grateful. My journal includes a daily photo, which pushes me to look for visual reminders in my day. This focus on gratitudes helps me acknowledge that while I can improve in my self-care skills, I am significantly more aware of it than I used to be.

This photo shows the community that we are building, not only in the fourth grade, but also with our kindergarten buddies. It reminds me of how I need to provide a variety of experiences for students to learn multiple aspects of who they are. One student, who tends to be impulsive, sat carefully designing and coloring his hand while conversing with a classmate … for more than 30 minutes. What an incredible insight that gave me, and now I’m curious to see when else it occurs.

This photo reminds me of the uniqueness of my students and the responsibility I have to be respectful of their gentle souls. I am honored by the trust placed in me by students and their parents. I recognize their willingness to be vulnerable in the conversations that we have. I strive to be vulnerable with them and to be present in every moment. I am grateful for all of these opportunities to grow as a person and as a teacher, and I appreciate the written reflection time I’ve committed to this school year.

Math – It’s not always about numbers!

Last Friday we engaged in a fascinating math lesson in the fourth grade. Students used a math manipulative/construction tool called INTOOBA. They each had a turn to build a structure and then gave directions to their partner to build it without using any visual cues. It was so interesting to watch this learning unfold.

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One of my co-teachers and I modeled how it would work. At times I would step outside my role with my partner and share my thinking and my process out loud. “Do you notice how I’m touching the structure as I go? It’s helping me keep track of what I’ve told Ms. Rogers to do since I can’t see her progress.” “Watch my hand. I’m putting it on top of this connector to help me figure out what direction to tell her to turn and how far.” Demonstrating also gave me empathy what my students would experience as they did it. I could refer back to my modeling if I needed to when I talked with partners.

I saw students adeptly give directions, and I saw students be less specific, for example, saying that it should “look like a laser.” Sometimes the errors came from the way the direction was given, and other times one occurred because of the way that the listener interpreted the directions. I got insight into who has a visual thinking strength and how students communicate their spatial sense. I could see how students handled frustration and who had persistence to push through their challenges. I also noted students who needed a little scaffolding in this lesson and gave it to them as needed. I watched fascinating strategies unfold, for example, one student figured out which direction in the classroom was north and directed her partner to make the rod point north.

Additionally, one of my goals was to provide a different sort of math experience. Unfortunately, it’s true that by 4th grade some students have already decided that they don’t like math. I feel a deep responsibility to show students the many faces of math. It was gratifying to hear students exclaim that this math was actually fun. When students wrote in their math journals to respond to the reflection questions, many replied that they learned that math was also about communicating or that math didn’t always have to be about numbers. This feels like a good first step on our 4th grade journey into math explorations.

I love having the opportunity to sit back and watch how students tackle a task. I think it’s important to be a “watcher of learners” and to carefully observe what tools students are using and which ones they’re ready for next. I need to remember to create multiple  opportunities to informally assess their skills in this way throughout the entire school year.

Back to School Organizing

It never fails. A new school year approaches, and I am overcome with the NEED to organize my environment. Of course that includes my classroom environment, but often it carries over to my home life as well. I wonder if it felt a little more intense this year because my youngest child went off to college this month. All I know is that I have been consumed with organizing and RE-organizing my environments for the past five weeks.

It started simply – this summer, my son added electrical wiring to the walls of my home office so that we could install better lighting. Once he finished, I needed to tidy up the construction mess. Somehow, the chaos of the space inspired me to rethink how I use it. My desk moved out, I consolidated paper files into nearly half the space (while recycling a lot of paper!), and I’m moving in a comfy chair for reading. My own cozy retreat for reading – something that I’ve dreamed about. I credit the change to technology upgrades. I no longer need a desk to house my computer as a laptop is far more streamlined and portable than a desktop PC.

Then my classroom. I wondered last spring if I could possibly rearrange furniture and like it anywhere near as much as it was configured at the time. I loved the cozy “living room” feel of our classroom library, and I definitely didn’t want to lose that. That wondering must have percolated in my brain’s subconscious all summer long for after our first day of meetings, I started emptying bookcases and moving furniture around. I knew that I would have to live in it for a bit before I could commit to it with kids, and I wanted time to work in the room. Turns out, I love it and I can’t wait to see how we actually use our new classroom configuration. I kept my flexible work spaces and seating options because I think that control and choice is important for students. Registration is tomorrow, and I’m so curious to see what my former students think of the rearrangement.

Next? Our schedule and our curriculum! Our school adopted a new schedule for this school year. It seems to have a minimal impact on the Lower School, but to my everlasting gratitude, both fourth grade homerooms have identical specials schedules. That means that our fourth grade team has maximum planning time in our week. Thank goodness! While we see the good in it, it meant we needed to reexamine how we allocate our teaching time across the week within the larger schedule’s structure. I may also make a change in our Social Studies units later this school year. I’m letting those ideas stew in my brain, and I’ll be talking with the 5th grade team and department chair to flesh out the plan further. My co-teacher and I also want to improve what we’ve done with reading and writing instruction. I focused on reading this summer, and she contemplated writing. I’m excited to add Notice and Note signposts to our reading work this fall.

Whew, is there more?! Yep. I spent much time today cleaning and organizing in my house. I’d gotten sloppy about putting things away this summer, and I had piles of items to put into their “homes.” I now have a couple of boxes to donate to the thrift store down the street, I reorganized cleaning materials into baskets, I emptied my ironing board that I’d been using as a horizontal catch-all surface, and I returned books that had piled up to their rightful shelves or baskets. Definitely, whew!

And … I feel mostly ready for the new school year. “Mostly” because I’m never fully ready. There is always something else that I could do or change or make. I’m not trying to achieve perfection. Learning is messy, and I’m excited to start finding out about these individuals that will make up our new fourth grade community.

It’s Not About the Climbing!

My school has the good fortune to have built a challenge course on our campus. It was completed last winter and this summer training was offered to any interested faculty to become a facilitator with the course. I decided to participate in part because I was directly approached and invited by our challenge course manager. (What a good reminder about personal investment and direct asking.) I also knew that my students would be thrilled! I went into it thinking that I would become more comfortable at heights and learn more about all the elements and how they can be used with students.

Wow, was I wrong! Yes, there were practical skills involved. I learned how to self-belay up a pole and safely set a pulley system for a dynamic belay. I learned how to tie specific knots. I learned how belay a person traversing a high element and on a climbing wall. How high? 35 feet off the ground! I even got to play on the elements where I felt comfortable pushing myself. I learned about a couple of the low elements, options for use with my fourth graders. But the key takeaway for  me was that our challenge course is simply a tool. A tool much like a classroom, a whiteboard, books, science equipment, maps, everything that we use to guide our students to access the curriculum. It’s an exciting tool for sure, and I have a responsibility to keep the focus on the learning.

What I learned has so much carryover into academic areas and especially into the social-emotional learning that we do. As a facilitator on the challenge course, I must create an environment of emotional and physical safety so that students can thrive. That’s what I do as a classroom teacher. If I don’t enable a student to feel safe, especially emotionally safe, it doesn’t matter how dynamic and exciting my teaching is – little learning will happen.

Choice and Voice are two other key components that work together to help learners develop self-efficacy. I feel strongly about giving kids choices in the classroom and making sure that they have input whenever possible.This isn’t new to me. Somehow, seeing it in this context and experiencing it as a learner this past week, helped me own the understanding in a deeper way than I had before.

I learned about the difference between encouragement and coercion, and how the words can sound EXACTLY THE SAME, depending on who made the choice. That was mind-blowing to think about, especially in connection with how I present and guide our Reading Challenge. I will be spending time in the next couple of weeks before kids arrive thinking about how to better present the Challenge and engage kids in making real-to-them choices so that I can encourage them throughout the year, not make them feel coerced to meet a goal that I set for them. So much of the language that I learned last week around identifying a person’s chosen challenge on the course is directly applicable to goal-setting with kids. I’m excited to use it and increase how much goal-setting and reflection we do as a learning community.

There was so much that I learned, and so much that I still have to digest. I can’t possibly represent it here in a single reflection. I imagine that my learning will be pondered frequently in this blog over the coming year, and I know that the facilitation learning I gained will play a role in my professional goals for this coming year. I’m still churning ideas in my head for how to craft the wording of my goal.

The icing on the cake is the stronger connection that I feel with the nine other faculty members who were in the training with me. I got to know teachers who I rarely see because of the different ages of learners that we teach. We decided to make our group an ongoing Professional Learning Community (PLC) for this school year. We’ll create times to practice our practical skills and talk about how to implement these ideas into our everyday teaching. We’ll celebrate success that happens. We’ll invite each other into our classrooms so that we can refine our skills. We’ll collaborate in ways that we don’t even know right now. It’s exciting, and I’m so glad that I took this class. It was definitely NOT about the climbing!

catwalk

Self-chosen element + self-chosen goal + personal challenge = celebration!

NSTA Engineering Workshop

I had the privilege of presenting a workshop at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) STEM Forum in Denver last week. Last winter I was incorporating engineering design challenges into my science curriculum at the same time that I saw the NSTA call for proposals. I thought about what I had been doing with my students and chose a challenge that I could implement and demonstrate at a conference. I called on two of my colleagues, our Technology Integration Specialist and an Upper School English teacher, and they graciously reviewed my proposal draft to provide helpful feedback.

I was excited this spring when I finally learned that I had been accepted, and true to form, pulled my slides together in the week before the conference. As always, the ideas had been percolating for the last month, and I had proactively asked our parent and faculty community to save and bring in any cardboard tubes in the last weeks of school, so my procrastination was not quite as bad as it sounds. Every time that I went into my classroom this summer, I continued to discover even more tubes! I’m grateful to work within such a kind and supportive community. It’ll be great to have our cardboard tube collection be robust for future projects.

I had so much fun presenting. It was interesting to reflect that the last time I did a full presentation at a national conference was over 20 years ago, during my first incarnation as a teacher. The technology has changed (online slides vs overhead projector, for one thing), but it’s still all about sharing knowledge and making connections. I appreciated that the adults fully embraced the hands on challenge to build marble runs, and I loved that their products reflected the inherent creativity in the challenge, the necessity of collaboration and communication to be successful, and the critical thinking required to problem solve.

There’s a chance that I might be able to offer this workshop for preservice teachers. I’ve already begun thinking about how to adapt it for a different group, teachers with less experience and training. They’ll need more scaffolding and more opportunities to hear their peers’ ideas.

When the session was over, I felt energized. It was a successful workshop, and a great conference. I appreciate that NSTA thoughtfully invited speakers to address a wide range of teacher populations (preschool through high school and even higher education), a variety of science topics, and an array of teaching questions and strategies. The length was a perfect time to attend sessions, gain information, and not feel overloaded. I’m grateful that I took a chance writing a proposal this winter and for the opportunities that resulted.

Launching a new blog

As a teacher, I pride myself on being a lifelong learner. So here I am, learning about creating my own blog as I go. I’ve thought about it for a long time, and I’m finally pushing up against my own self-imposed deadlines. I was a rule-following student, and I know it helps me to set boundaries so that I can get things done!

I’ve asked myself why I’m pushing myself to do this. It certainly is sucking up a lot of my time in this early phase of the learning curve as I stumble and figure things out! One of my primary reasons is to formalize reflections on my own teaching and learning. I read a lot – professional books, lots of other education bloggers, and kidlit, in addition to “regular” grown up reading. In my reading, I continue to notice the importance of taking time to reflect. I provide time and support for my students to reflect on what they’ve learned and what their goals are. Now it’s time to create that space for myself. Thinking ahead to the upcoming school year, doing more reflection will be one of my professional development goals.

I could just do this privately in an old-school journal, and that would still be helpful. Keeping a blog adds layers of benefits that I look forward to reaping. By blogging, I open my thoughts and reflections to the input of others, who may have additional points that I hadn’t considered or even experience that would help me out. I appreciate being a connected teacher, and I’m striving to increase the online network that I have through this electronic journal. Finally, my school is encouraging teachers to maintain digital portfolios to document professional growth. I hope to include photos and lesson ideas here in addition to written reflections.

I’m modeling for my students and their families what it means to be a lifelong learner, to take a risk and try something new. When my students stumble, I am able to be there to empathize with fresh emotions from my own mistakes as well as hope and encouragement to see through the challenges.