Courage

As 2014 opens, I am accepting a challenge from members of my PLN to choose one word to focus on and lead me throughout the new year. My word is courage.

Courage to be autonomous

First and foremost, I will need to find the courage to be autonomous in my classroom. Autonomy is at times difficult with all the mandates, rules, and requirements that are handed to us as educators. My charge is to provide the best learning experience possible, and I have to rely on my research and professional judgement to make decisions while staying within the parameters of my district’s expectations. This can be a fine line to walk, but essential to my students’ success.

Courage to treat all kids fairly

Once I find the courage to be autonomous, I will be able to help my students in the best ways possible. Differentiating for their needs is not always easy or orderly. It will take courage to continue to learn about them, further relationships, and challenge them to improve more than they thought they could. To be treated fairly, I must address my students’ needs on a daily basis. I will pass my courage on to my students as they take learning to new levels. Many of them have been in overly cautious learning environments for too long and still struggle to see their potential.

Courage to try new things

I’ll admit it…I am a recovering perfectionist. It continually takes courage for me to try new things and innovate. I am always reminding myself that just because something worked very well for one group of students, it doesn’t mean that it is the right choice for my current kids. When I try new things, there is always this little voice reminding me that it probably won’t go as planned, and of all the little things that could go wrong. Over the years, I have gotten much better at pushing forward and ignoring that voice, but to be honest – it still takes work.

Courage to help my colleagues

This year more than ever, I want to help other teachers. I got a taste of working and learning with my colleagues this fall by introducing twitter to the staff and working with small groups to demonstrate new digital tools. It has taken a different type of courage to open up and share my practices with my peers. Starting this semester I will embark on a new endeavor with them. We will be forming peer observation groups – voluntary, collaborative groups of teachers committed to learning and growing together. We will observe each other and have reflective discussions on how to improve our practice. I am so excited to bring this new opportunity to our staff.

Courage to write

In June of 2013, I started my blog. I had been encouraged by various members of my PLN to start one, and I am very glad that I found the courage to start writing. It has been a powerful tool to share my thoughts and reflect on my teaching. This year, I want to continue with that same courage to write. I was never a “writer” in school. It takes bravery for me to push the publish button every time I blog.

Courage to leave an impact

Finally, I want to be courageous enough to leave an impact with my students.  I love that students are happy when they arrive to my classroom, and sad to leave.  I am constantly talking about learning and growth rather than points or grades, and they are slowly changing their mindset.  If I could leave them with only one sentiment, it would be the quote from John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

Let them own it

I got a glimpse into the true greatness of my students yesterday.

In my level 1 classes, we started with a meeting.  I had my students pull their chairs into a circle and let them know we had equity of voice.  I explained that overall things in class were going well, but we needed to make a few adjustments.  I could have easily just handed them the new way we were going to do things, but I decided to go a different route.  I decided to involve them in the decision making process.  No, I decided to give them the decision making process.  It is their learning – not mine, right?

I started by sharing a couple of observations…I had noticed that my students could improve at finding resources for practice.  I have many different ways for them to practice, but there are only a few that are being well utilized.  I also noticed that when independent work time is given that focus can be a problem.  We needed to change that.  We only spend 45 minutes together each day and time must be maximized.  My students agreed with me and shared some of their own observations, concerns, and comments.

Then I turned the floor over to the kids to figure out how to make it better.  I cannot tell you how proud I was of my kids.  They came up with a new, better model of independent work days.  Some of them asked for my opinion or suggestions, and I gave them.  They expressed that they would like more small group instruction rather than whole group and figured out how to make it happen.  They decided that each skill (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) would have its own place to practice.  There would also be a places to practice the skills together (integrated), to use technology, and to assess.

All I can say is that kids need to be in charge of their learning.  They are so capable and ready to take the reigns.  Their decisions may not be perfect, but I would love to find the teacher that makes perfect decisions.  I am sure we will have more tweaking to do as the year progresses, but you had better believe that when I see missteps, my students will be the ones to figure out how to get back on track.  It is their learning, it is their experience, it is their time.  It is not about me.

Best self, best work

It is the mantra at my school this year – Best self, best work.  Our administrators started the year at our kick off assembly talking to the kids about this phrase and what it would mean for their school year.  Each day since, the morning announcements end with “Best self, best work.”  The kids have actually started to say it along with my principal each morning.  So, I began to reflect…

What does it mean for me?

My favorite thing about this mantra is the idea of best.  Best doesn’t mean perfect or flawless.  Best isn’t the same thing every day for every person.  Best challenges without insisting on the superhuman.  Best is never ending, there is always room for improvement.  I would hope that our best shows growth throughout the school year.  Our best will give us a redo the next day, and the day after that.

The next piece to the mantra is self.  We each bring our own individuality to our learning community.  We need a variety of passions and strengths to give our students what they need each day.  Each member of the community needs autonomy to learn in their own way, students, teachers, and administrators alike.  Learning is a personal, individual activity and schools provide a place where we all share the experience.  We form relationships that in the end better ourselves at least as much as the academic studies, if not more.

And finally, not to be left out is the concept of work.  Learning is full of vigor and hard work.  If we don’t bring our best self, the work may seem impossible and more difficult than it actually is.  Learning is a demanding process, not to be taken lightly.  Work is a key part of the mantra, it is the promise that it won’t always be easy, but if you bring your best self and persevere, you will succeed.

The expectation is clear – bring your excellence, bring your individuality, and bring an inquisitive persistence to seek knowledge.  I can’t help but smile when I imagine the greatness that will abound if everyone just subscribed to this simple request each day.

Best self, best work.

Moving toward September

As I work through my third week of school, I finally feel like things are settling down a bit.  From the whirlwind first three days, to the introduction of genius hour, and time spent getting to know my kids, we are ready to get into a bit of a routine.  This week, I am introducing my learning contract for our first thematic unit.  I enjoy giving my kids a contract for each theme to allow them to drive their learning experience, find good practice and resources, and gain essential feedback prior to our summative assessments.

I love to see the student responses once I show them that the ownership is theirs.  Fear and anxiety always appear – concerned that they won’t make the right decisions about practice or pacing.  I remind them that this is my role.  I will help them when they feel stuck, guide them when they feel lost, encourage redos and retakes whenever necessary, and further them on the road to autonomy in their learning.  That is our job in high school, is it not?  Before we send our kids on to colleges, universities, the military, trade school, or the workforce, don’t we want to make sure they know how to learn on their own?

The first theme/contract is always a precarious one.  I need to give them autonomy and control while showing them all the resources, practice, and feedback available.  What I usually end up doing is meeting with small groups of kids to offer suggestions and give some feedback not only about their Spanish, but also their decisions on practice and assessment.  I talk to them about practicing until they feel ready for an assessment, and remind them they should be retaken until they reach the level of proficient or distinguished.

I also want to make sure that I infuse some incredible learning experiences for my kids this year.  Experiences that we share together no matter where each individual student is on their journey.  This is something I struggle with as I need to let my kids grow, improve, and learn at their own pace, yet want collective experiences as well.  I do have deadlines for my assessments each theme (although they can retake after the deadline to improve their mastery) so I am thinking I could capitalize on the days following those deadlines to create some unique adventures where we apply what we have learned.  Stay tuned for those, creative ideas take time to develop!

Here’s to a routine, but holding a few tricks up my sleeve to keep them on their toes!