Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hate is poison. Education is the antidote.

It's easy to say that white supremacists of all types are wrong and I do not support their ideology one bit, but it's hard to figure out what I can do about it. When I couldn't sleep last night, I looked to my past experiences and my community's history for answers.

I have lived in or around Coeur d'Alene, Idaho for my entire life. For most of that time, a white supremacist compound in nearby Hayden Lake cast a shadow over our town. I became aware of the aryan nations group when a bomb exploded less than 500 feet from my first grade classroom. A nearby business owned by a Jewish family was targeted when some members of the group used explosions to distract from their plans to rob a bank.

As I grew older, I remember occasionally seeing a swastika patch on someone's jacket in the grocery store. My response was always to move to another aisle as quickly as possible. There were times that their hatred became more visible. One day, the neighborhoods around my high school were leafleted with racist propaganda and some of my friends brought the papers to school. Some were laughing at the inappropriate jokes inside, but most were shaking their heads with disbelief. I was concerned about my friends who found it funny and remember telling them that the neo-nazis wanted to turn their laughter into hate.

Looking back, it wasn't hard to be honest with my friends about hate. My parents did a good job giving me the confidence to stand up for what was right, but my education deserves credit, too. To counteract the hate in our community, educators made an effort to teach love and acceptance for all, especially those who were different. My fifth grade class was one of the first to attend the long-running human rights celebration that we still hold today. Books like Number the Stars were part of the curriculum, and reading them led to discussions of the toll that hate takes. 

The final hate group march in Coeur d'Alene, 2004
Photo by Cole via Flickr
Our community did its best to avoid adding fuel to the fire. When hate groups marched downtown, movie theaters, the roller skating rink, and other businesses across town offered free alternatives in the hopes that no one would be on the sidewalks to see the brownshirts and klansmen pass by. Most people understood that the white supremacists craved conflict. It was better to turn our backs to them until we were able to drive them from our community.

That day came when they shot at a former elementary school classmate of mine and his mother. I was in college about 100 miles to the south, but I followed the story of how the aryan nations were forced to turn over their property after losing in court. The story is worth reading. "Welcome to Hayden Lake, where white supremacists tried to build their homeland" by Meagan Day is a good overview, and the Spokesman-Review has a number of articles if you're interested in digging deeper.

Of course, closing the aryan nations compound didn't remove hate or all white supremacists from our community. During my first round of conferences as a teacher, I found myself shaking hands with a man wearing a black jacket with the aryan nations symbol on one sleeve and two jagged images of the letter 'S' on the other. Sometimes I catch a student using hateful language or humor, and I find myself pulling him or her aside to talk about it. No matter what happens outside of school, hate is not welcome in my classroom.

I've come to the conclusion that the best way I can combat hate is with the way I teach. First, my classroom is a safe space for all. We work on how to listen to one another and solve problems together. Second, we get to know our fellow humans. As I build my classroom library, I strive to include books with characters that each of my students will identify with. I also intentionally pick books that will allow my kids to get in the heads of people who are very different from themselves. Good, diverse literature helps kids understand others without seeing them as "the other." We also reach out to the world through the Global Read Aloud, mystery location calls, and connections with our class blog. These actions have gone a long way toward inoculating my students from hate by increasing their empathy and understanding of others.

In addition, I plan to address hate when we encounter it in literature and current events. We need to have frank discussions about the hate that exists and how we can keep ourselves and our friends from allowing it to spread. My students need the courage to stand up to their friends when they notice hateful words or actions. I can't stop the white supremacists that take to the street, but I can make sure my students know better than to stand for it.

Note: excuse my lack of capitalization, but hate groups don't deserve to be proper nouns.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Idaho Kids Vote Book Award year two

One of my students, Hattie, created the logo
Last summer at this time, was still a week away from becoming a registered domain name. I wanted to get my kids talking and sharing about the books they read and reading more complex books. The idea of having a statewide book award had been bouncing around in my head since I saw displays for Oregon Battle of the Books and ORCA (Oregon Reader's Choice Awards) at Powell's books in Portland. That led to a flurry of activity for me that started in early July as I built the aforementioned website and began reaching out to others to make the Idaho Kids Vote Book Award a reality.
One of the inspiring displays

The premise of the award was simple. Teachers would nominate outstanding middle grade books that had been published in the last few years. They would then make these books available in their classrooms and encourage students to read about them. Kids would naturally talk about the books, but teachers could set up blogs and arrange connections with other participating classrooms to get the conversations flowing beyond classroom walls. Finally, in April, kids who read two or more of the books would vote to choose a winner.

With one year of the award completed, it's time to reflect and start thinking about the next one. Things went well in my classroom. Using my classroom budget and donations, I was able to get three copies of most of the books. There was buzz around them throughout the school year (especially the winning book). Although students talked about the books, not many chose to write about them when they created blog posts.

My students contributed one-sentence review blurbs to this bulletin board.
From the feedback I received, things did not go quite as well in the other 21 classes that signed up to participate. Few teachers were able to devote funds to buy all eight books. Others said their administration and district policies were roadblocks to connecting with other classrooms outside their district. Still, four classes contributed votes for the winner and suggestions for this year's award.

In the next few weeks I'll be ramping up for the second year of the Idaho Kids Vote Book Award. I'm presenting about it (and classroom connection strategies) at the P20 Conference at College of Southern Idaho. I'm also reading possible nominees for the award and hope to publish some book reviews here. Of course, there are some questions I still need to answer: How can we get nominated books into classrooms? What could remove some of the barriers to connecting classrooms? Is there a better way to make this accessible to students?

That's a lot to think about while I also catch up on household projects, work at my summer job, and take advantage of some extra family time I don't get during the school year. If you have ideas to help this succeed, please share. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

Friday, April 7, 2017

Compliance: #IMMOOC inspired post

Image courtesy
Compliance: I often think of it as a bad word in education. Just like the quote above, I believe that it often leads to conformity and squashes student voice.

Compliance has been heavy on my mind for the last few months. Where is the line between a high-quality learning environment and compliance for compliance sake? I want my students to be comfortable. I want them to have the freedom to be themselves in my class. I want them to move when they need to. Lately it seems like those wants are clashing with the learning needs in my classroom.

Let me start by explaining a little bit about my classes. I teach reading and math enrichment groups in a traditional elementary school. My classes are similar to 45 minute middle or high school class periods, although there isn't a passing period. Students often trickle in for the first five minutes as they make their way from their main classrooms. We start class at assigned tables (it helps me take mental attendance and gives students a built-in discussion group) and begin with mental math or an estimation that requires students to share their thinking. It doesn't matter to me if students sit or stand (or even wiggle and dance) at their tables as long as they participate in their discussions and respect everyone's space. This year I have a few students who aren't staying at their table or withdrawing from table talk when a best friend is at a different table. I want students to work with everyone, not just their friends and homeroom classmates. I'm left questioning if these procedures that support my goals are worth the frequent power struggles.

Image courtesy of
I have to admit that the old saw "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" has crossed my mind a few times this year. However, reading The Innovator's Mindset strengthened my resolve to give my students the inches, feet, and miles they need to be independent learners and innovators I know they can be. In these last couple months of school, I plan to increase my efforts to build relationships with these students and give them opportunities to use their strengths. Hopefully we will get to a point where these students trust me enough that they will buy in to balancing their personal freedom with their responsibilities to the whole classroom community.

Although I am going forward with my plan, I still question rather it is the right path. Next year is a new opportunity to structure a classroom where my students can become innovators. All of the professional development I have done this year, including my school's book study on That Workshop Book, a visit to a classroom with a successful reading workshop, my own reading of Mathematical Mindsets and The Writing on the Classroom Wall, numerous Twitter conversations, and #IMMOOC are bouncing around in my head. It's time to make some changes, and "change is an opportunity to do something amazing"!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Working toward empowerment: #IMMOOC Week 3, Post 3

I pride myself on having engaging classes. My room is a place for exciting projects, highly anticipated annual events, and connecting with other places via Twitter and blogging. Engagement hasn’t been my goal, though. I want my students to clamor for knowledge and understand how to drive their own education in my class and beyond. Chapter 6 of The Innovator’s Mindset has me wondering if I empower my students to reach that goal.

Right now, my 5th grade reading students are in the middle of creating curiosity projects. This is the fourth year I have attempted something inspired by Genius Hour. Some kids blow me away with their enthusiasm and deep learning as they take school time to write a short story or do research on one of their passions. Other kids seem to amass a folder full of gifs and memes related to their chosen topic, but show little evidence of new learning.

This taste of empowerment isn’t enough. My kids need more chances to take control of their learning so they can all use that freedom to do amazing things. I’m not quite sure what it will look like, but I can’t wait to get there!

Connecting and learning: #IMMOOC Week 3, Post 2

"What if we focused on connecting and learning, both globally and locally?" -George Couros, The Innovator's Mindset

Quote by Bill Nye
Image from The Good Men Project
Learning is a social pursuit. Every conversation, every book read, every YouTube video watched is an opportunity for learning from someone else. Occasionally we make an absolutely brand-new discovery, but the value of those discoveries increases once they are shared with others. This has been on my mind near-constantly since joining Twitter and making a point to share my learning online.

I encourage my students to learn from each other by sharing their thinking, engaging in Quality Boosters to improve their work, and looking to each other for help. There is a lot of connecting and learning that can happen within our own classroom.

If we can learn so much from the people within our classroom, think how much we can learn when we look for ways to connect beyond our classroom walls. We've connected with other classes to play mystery location games, share our thoughts about The Global Read Aloud Books, and learn from experts working in other places. We've also read and commented on blog posts while sharing ours with a larger audience. This is a good start, but how can I truly make connecting and learning a focus for my students?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Everyone learns, everyone teaches: #IMMOOC Week 3, Post 1

Image courtesy
Why is there a divide between school and learning? How can we bring them closer together? A good place to start is recognizing everyone in the classroom as both teacher and a learner. I am proud to be a learner. When I try something new, I tell students. where I learned about it and that I am still figuring things out. My students know I learn in and out of school.

My students teach me and each other by sharing their thinking. Math classes begin with number talks or Estimation 180 challenges. These always put student thinking front and center. We learn from each other as we listen and consider different approaches. Throughout my classes, students share.

As I think about what I’m doing, I wonder how I can make it better. Do my students see themselves as teachers? I honestly don’t know. Even though they share their thinking, they look to me to bring it all together and make sense of it. How can we better share the responsibility of making connections and drawing conclusions from what happens in class? I guess I have a lot to learn as I head back to school this week...

This post is part of the Innovator's Mindset MOOC blogging challenge. You can find my other posts related to #IMMOOC here.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What is the Innovator's Mindset? #IMMOOC week 2

Image courtesy of
Two weeks in, and The Innovator's Mindset MOOC is one of the best things I've done since deciding to take control of my own professional development three years ago. One of this week's blogging prompts was to choose one of the characteristics of the Innovator's Mindset and reflect on what that means for you. As soon as I looked at the sketchnote, I knew I couldn't limit my reflection to just one.

1. Empathetic

Trying to look at school (and especially your own class) with students' eyes can be scary. Does it seem like a safe place? Are the things we do motivating and inspiring? Is there value in what we are doing? I start doing this by picturing myself as a student, but I also ask students for feedback. My goal in this area is to offer more opportunities for truly anonymous feedback so I can better understand how my students feel about my classes.

2. Problem Finders

This is how I approach life. Question starts with quest because I am always setting off to find answers or solutions. Helping my students see questions has been a focus of my classes for awhile. My biggest success here has been with three act tasks. Having my students generate questions in math has been a game changer. My attempts at curiosity projects (I've also called it 20% time and passion projects) have always started with student questions as well. 

Speaking of curiosity projects, that is an area where I have lingering questions and answers to seek. It never works out as well as I want it to. That should be a topic for another blog post.

3. Risk Takers

"How you ever gonna know, if you never take the chance?" That line from one of my favorite Garth Brooks songs sums it all up. Ideas are great, but you need to act on them to really make a difference. I'm comfortable telling my students that I'm trying something new and I'm not sure if it will work. We frequently talk about the value of mistakes in my class, and I strive for an environment where no one feels their pride or dignity is at stake when they take a risk. Hopefully the only thing lost in failure is time and pencil lead, but the lessons learned will more than make up for that.

4. Networked

Joining Twitter was the best thing I ever did for my teaching career. Being in constant communication with other teachers inspires me to do better and gives me a sounding board for all of my ideas. 

5. Observant

As a teacher, my best information comes from watching my students. I'm not sure my students are great observers, though. I need to take the power of asking "What did you notice?" to more of my lessons.

6. Creators

This goes along with risk taking. You just need to go for it and put your idea in action. The Idaho Kids Vote Book Award is probably my most pressing example of using hard work to drive an idea and action to fruition. It's rewarding to see something come of your idea. Again, this is an area where I need to give my students more opportunities. There are many things created in my class, but more of them need to come from student ideas.

7. Resilient

Without resiliency, all seven of the other characteristics would fall flat. When things don't work out like you want, you have to be ready to pick yourself up and move forward. Maybe it's time to reflect and create another iteration. Maybe it's time to consider it a lesson learned and try something else entirely. Whatever the next step is, you can't wallow in failure. 

Things move fast in my classroom, and I think some measure of resiliency comes from not having the time to bog down and lament. Still, this can be a tough one, especially in my advanced learning program. Many of my students are used to doing well at everything they try in school. My classes challenge them and it can be uncomfortable. When I see a student reaching the frustration point where they just can't be resilient, it's time to step in and help with strategies like taking a break or taking stock of the places where they were successful. Hopefully those lessons continue with my students to other areas of their life.

8. Reflective

I'm writing this, aren't I? My moments of reflection come after every class, and sometimes I manage to get them written down here. For some reason, I have been stuck on the idea that reflection only counts when it is written down. As a result, my students' reflection often gets lost in the mechanics of putting words on a page. I'm trying to make more frequent, shorter reflection a priority. I was able to visit a classroom last week where students rated their learning and performance on a four-point scale throughout the day and had to think about what had to happen for them to move to the next level. That quick reflection was a powerful tool I plan to implement.