Friday, January 17, 2020

Finding Contentment in the Present

If only.

If only my students would talk less or speak up more. If only they were more motivated and engaged. If only they'd stay off their phones and be more focused. If only I were at a bigger school or a smaller school. If only the demographics were different. If only I could teach another grade or subject area, or at another school. If only parents were more involved or less involved (both extremes can be challenging). If only I had more resources or more support. If only.

It's easy to be present when things are good. But when you're not content with the present, if you're like me, you may just want to run away. While we can't always pick up and leave, it's easy to run away mentally and emotionally and the "if only" thoughts kick in. And while this may seem benign, it may actually be destructive. In running away, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to impact the present and make lasting change.

Whether your challenges are unexpected, underestimated or consequences of our choices, the only way to get through is to go through - to be present in the moment. Here are some questions that I ask myself to help find contentment so I can stay present and live out my word for 2020.
  • What's good? No one or nothing is all bad. We can usually find something good in even the  worst situations. If it's not obvious, dig. I find that when I force myself to find something positive, I'll usually see lots of good things I've missed out on because I've been focusing on the negative.
  • What small changes can I make? Is there a routine or strategy that can be tweaked? Is there something you can start doing, do differently or stop doing? If those research-based practices that worked in the past no longer produce results, it may time to ditch them. Reach out to your colleagues and don't be afraid to try something new. But think small. One small change can make all the difference. Watch "212 - The Extra Degree."
  • What must I accept? Work with what you've got and pick your battles. We can't always control our circumstances, but we can control our approach and our reactions. As educators, we need to be flexible. There's lots that happens in and around school that is beyond our control and there are some things we have no choice but to accept. Will it matter in 20 years? If not, move on.
Contentment helps us to give our best even when life is not. Like corrective lenses, it helps us see things a little bit more clearly and helps us make the most of today, so that tomorrow is a little brighter for ourselves and others.

Friday, January 3, 2020

30-Second Talk & Listen Name Activity

Are you good with names? If you are a secondary teacher with 100+ students in your classroom every day, learning names is no easy task. There are lots of tips and shortcuts out there to help with learning names, but today I'd like to share an interactive activity I opened our first CTE department meeting with back in August. With the new semester quickly approaching, this is a great way to  start with new classes. Or even if you're not starting the new year with new students, it's a great way to regroup after the winter break.

For this activity I used prompts developed by the My Name, My Identity Campaign and the “30-Second Talk About” teaching strategy, developed by CTE Teacher and Instructional Coach, Sandra Adams, to engage participants in conversation about their names.

Here's how it goes. 
Participants will talk with a partner about the background and uniqueness of their names. This activity is different from other similar name icebreakers in that one partner will have the chance to speak for 30 seconds and during that time the other partner cannot utter a word. They should maintain eye contact and can nod or smile, but they cannot speak. Once time is up, the listener will share what they learned with the entire group. Once all listeners share out, the roles are reversed and we repeat the process. 

Before we began, I gave my staff the following directions:
1. Find a partner - ideally someone you don't know well.
2. Choose a "Talker" or "Listener" Role.
3. Talkers will share the "story behind their name*."  During this time, listeners cannot utter a word. They should listen actively, affirming the talker with nods and smiles, but no talking.
4. Once 30 seconds is up, the listener will paraphrase what he/she heard with the entire group.
5. Switch roles and repeat.

Roles and/or partners can be assigned, if appropriate.  Also, be sure to provide prompts or talking points. I gave the following talking points from the My Name, My Identity Campaign resources.
  • Is there a story behind your name?
  • Were you names after someone?
  • Where does your name originate?
  • What does your name mean?
  • What is something positive about your name that makes it easy to remember?

This simple, engaging strategy forces participants to actively listen to a partner and while 30 seconds may seem brief, listening intently even for that short time is not easy. Most of us jump in with a comment as soon as someone starts to speak. In her blog post, Ms. Adams described the exercise as a review activity, and while it can be used to foster any sort of academic conversation, using the name story prompts, it made for a wonderful icebreaker.

A couple of months ago, I modeled this strategy in a Business Law class to build background as students were starting a unit on Credit Laws. Students embraced the process and with an odd-numbered group, the teacher stepped in as well. It was very effective. 
Talking and listening are essential skills for everyone, but they are crucial for our digital natives who are connected virtually through social media but lacking the soft skills needed for the workplace and beyond. This activity will not take much time, but it can greatly impact learning and help students prepare for job interviews and other social interactions they will have in their post-secondary life. I encourage you to try it and if you do, drop me an email or a comment. I'd love to hear how it goes. 

Have a great year!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2020 Vision

If you are fortunate enough to have 20/20 vision, you can see clearly with no need for corrective measures of any kind. Up until my early twenties, I assumed I was one of those fortunate ones with normal vision, having gone without glasses or contact lenses my entire life. However, during my last semester in college, I began noticing that I was not able to read the writing on the whiteboard unless I sat in the very first row, and so I scheduled an eye exam. During the exam when I was asked to read the eye chart, I could barely see the large letter at the very top. To say it was a rude awakening was an understatement. I immediately ordered my first pair of glasses and within a few days, my world was transformed. Everything and everyone changed. Road signs, lecture talking points, facial features. Everything was not only clear but looked radically different. For years what I had seen as normal, had been completely distorted.

As we approach 2020, I am pondering my vision for the new decade. The more I ponder, the more I see how vision acuity impacts our reality. The lenses through which we view our world can potentially present us with a false reality, causing us to miss out on what is really there.

There's lots that can keep us from having clear vision, but as I reflect on 2019 and search for my "word" for 2020, there are three things that immediately come to mind:
  • Regretting the past. The past has come and gone and there's nothing we can change. Dwelling on the good ole days or torturing ourselves over mistakes, will not change the past, but if we are not careful, it will change the present. Regret can potentially cripple us with insecurity and cause us to lose momentum. Conversely, building on successes and learning from failures helps us to see possibilities and help us pick up speed.
  • Worrying about the future. We can't predict what will happen tomorrow, but worrying about what may or may not happen will not change a thing. Worry causes us to lose focus and keeps us from seeing all the good things happening in the present. If we take one day at a time and deal with challenges as they come, we will be more at ease and in control. You may also agree that we will usually handle things much better than we anticipate and in the end, most of what we worry about will never happen.
  • Comparison. Comparing ourselves - our work, our families, our achievements - will often not only steal our joy and peace, but it can also make us either believe that we don't measure up or it can swell us up with pride. Neither is good. While healthy competition can inspire growth, comparing ourselves with others keeps us from seeing all the good that surrounds us. If you are on social media (like most of us) you can be especially vulnerable to a distorted view of reality, as most of what is published is not accurate. Let's celebrate each other's uniqueness and be grateful for what we have. In doing so, we will be able to clearly see the truth and count our blessings.
-Bill Keane
Writing this post has helped me determine my "One Word" for 2020.  My word is "PRESENT." By focusing on the present, I will stop regretting, worrying, and comparing. In doing so, my vision of reality will be more clear, enabling me to make the most of today so I can be a blessing to those who I get to share life with.

Wishing you and yours a very clear and blessed 2020!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

How Can We Make Lessons Relevant to Students' Lives?

Learning can't always be fun and interesting, but it must always be relevant. This is at the core of my educational philosophy. But what does "relevant to students' lives" really look like in the classroom?

Let's look at Webster's definitions of the word relevant:
(a) Having a significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand
(b) Affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion
(c) Having social relevance

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Relevance in learning is not only about the "matter at hand", the age, and/or the intellectual level of our students, it's also about social relevance. Inarguably, we can analogize the material so learners can assimilate the content, but a crucial aspect of relevance is presenting lessons that contain true, authentic, updated information, applicable in the "real world", theirs ideally, but certainly to society at large.

One of the ways we can help students find relevance in lesson plans is to tear down classroom walls and virtually connect with classrooms and experts outside of the school building. Here are some ways I have facilitated connections without having to leave the building:

Global Communications & Collaborations. From across the district to across the globe, students collaborated on projects with other learners using technology. In my early teaching days, students connected via discussion boards and chat rooms. These days, we videoconference and use Google tools. When time zone differences prevent real-time communication, we've shared video recordings and blog posts for partner classes to view and read as convenient and respond accordingly.

Paired Reading. Pairing fictional reading with informational text is a great way to bring relevance to academic content. Pairing current events or non-fiction reading with academic content takes learning to a whole new level. Add a Skype session with an author or an individual featured in an article can energize a unit. Last year, I connected a Spanish teacher at my school with a professional translator who had been featured in this LA Times article. Students were reading a fictional novel and the plot closely resembled the content of the article. After reading the post, I emailed the writer who connected me with the individual. After a few emails and a Skype call, I introduced him to my teacher and we planned a lesson that brought the novel to life.

Virtual Guest Speakers. This works perfectly in Career & Technical Education courses, but it can work in any content. Regardless of our subject area, we are all preparing students for the workplace. When young people hear from industry experts how their content connects with real life, it energizes our lessons and helps students find meaning and purpose to their work. While an in-person speaker is ideal, time and travel sometimes make scheduling classroom visits difficult. Furthermore, when connecting virtually, our students can hear from people all over the world. And as remote work becomes ubiquitous, getting students comfortable with remote conversations is very valuable.

Most of my learners have found these experiences to be fun and interesting, but there were always moments that were not so enjoyable. My goal in connecting with other classrooms, pairing content and bringing in virtual speakers is not about enjoyment, but about making content relevant. And relevance is about bridging gaps and moving our students forward in their learning journey.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Thankful for the Starfish

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like you are spinning wheels and going nowhere? Whether you are a classroom teacher, an administrator, or in a supportive or coaching role, we all have those days. Sometimes, it's not just a bad day, but a bad week, month or year. Perhaps you may be wondering if you should explore other career opportunities, or you may have considered leaving the education profession altogether. While I haven't felt lead to explore opportunities outside education, there certainly have been many times when I'm not sure I am making a difference. And then when I find yourself hanging by a thread, someone - a student, a colleague, or a supervisor - will say something that will turn everything around and will help me reclaim my calling. Even if I impact one life, I know that my work is not in vain. What I find fascinating is that once I realize I am making an impact, I suddenly find that I am actually touching many lives.

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It's November and I've committed to practicing gratitude and looking for good things around me and blogging about it. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude will not usually change my circumstances, but it does shift my perspective and alter my reaction to challenges, which in turn do sometimes change my reality. 

So, my fellow educator, as you go about your day, I challenge you to search for that one starfish in your building, focus on saving that one life, and be thankful for the impact you’re having. Whether it may be a student or a colleague, let this person reignite your passion for teaching and learning. I'm certain that once you find that one, you will soon realize you are making a difference in countless lives.
Image Credit: Reader's Digest

Thursday, October 31, 2019

30-Day #ThankfulTeacher Challenge

Tomorrow is the first day of November and I as I do every year, I will challenge myself to maintain an attitude of gratitude all month long - not just on Thanksgiving Day. Starting on November 1st, I will post on someone or something I am grateful for on my personal Instagram and Facebook accounts using the hashtag #30DaysofThanks. In past years, I have posted an occasional gratitude tweet related to education, but for the most part my gratitude posts are shared with family and friends, and are personal in nature.

This year, using the hashtag #ThankfulTeacher, I want to focus on all the ways I am blessed in my professional life and I challenge my fellow educators to do the same. I want to practice gratitude and post expressions of Thanksgiving all month long. Whether it's about major events or simple things, having an attitude of gratitude is about counting our blessings in spite of the challenges that come with being an educator and maintaining a love of teaching and learning.
Image credit: Etsy
Won't you join me? Let's spread gratefulness during the month of November in the hopes that it will stay with us all year long.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Key to Consistent Blogging

Image source: Pixabay
I love blogging. While I may not be a prolific writer, blogging (or any sort of writing) for me is therapeutic. Writing helps me process my thoughts and challenges to better develop ideas and solutions. As a teenager, I kept a diary. As a young adult, I kept a prayer journal. When I became an educator, I debriefed by writing notes on my lesson and unit plans. But when I discovered blogging, my reflective practice and my mindset were transformed.

However, once I left the classroom, I felt as if I lost my blogging voice. While time is certainly a factor, I mostly struggle with content. I’m like a newcomer English learner in her silent period. My blog has always been reflective in nature and I wrote about what worked and what didn’t work. When I entered the coaching role, I was taking in the newness of the role and didn’t feel as compelled to write and share as I did when I was a classroom teacher.
Image source: Pixabay
I recently read an ASCD post on content-area writing and it was like an epiphany moment. “The Keys to Content-Area Writing: Short, Frequent, and Shared" offers practical ways to help educators incorporate writing across the curriculum - the title says it all - but it gave me exactly what I needed  to help me get out of my writing funk. Just like with content-area writing, the key to consistent blogging is short, frequent and shared. Keeping posts as short as possible, writing frequently and sharing them with our professional learning networks.

So here’s my plan:
  • Short. I often overthink my posts and worry about reader-friendliness. In order for my blog to serve its therapeutic purpose, it must be more about reflection than about readership. When I first started blogging, I often wrote a paragraph or two and published a few times a week. As I honed my skills, my posts were lengthier but I published less frequently. This may be a good place to start to get me back on track.
  • Frequent. Making blogging part of my weekly routine will help me stay consistent. I made a calendar entry to remind me to publish every Friday to keep myself on track. However, my goal is to write a little something every day, even if just a few sentences.
  • Shared. Social media sharing is the quickest and easiest, but I will share my blog with anyone who’s interested. While my blog is intended to be read by educators, I have shared my work with students in an effort to model reflective writing. Moreover, although reflection is on my evaluation instrument, weekly blogging is not. Just like we want students to write for more than a grade, I write for more than checking off an item on the list.
If you’ve been in a blogging funk or struggle with consistent blogging, please share your thoughts and ideas. I look forward to hearing from you.

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