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.”

Here’s to all the learners

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” ― Steve Jobs

As the year comes to a close I want to take a moment and reflect.  The quote above is one of my absolute favorites.  Too many of our students have been given one of these labels during their school careers and show up to my high school impacted from it in a negative way.  We have misfits, rebels, troublemakers, round pegs, square pegs, and rule breakers…and we need them all.  I love having this wide variety cross the threshold into my classroom.  But these labels can be dropped at the door for one that suits all of us in different ways every day.  We are learners.

All of our students need relationships and connection.  They require a sense of belonging at our schools and in our classrooms.  We need to appreciate the varying lenses with which they view the world.  Although we may never fully understand every situation, simply trying to learn more will create a meaningful bond and show our students they are valued.  It is modeling this caring, compassionate behavior that will guide our diverse learners to form positive relationships themselves rather than negative ones.  Care and compassion are lacking in our world, and it’s time to change this.

As I have said before, I don’t want to recreate the status quo with my students.  I want them to push the envelope and go beyond barriers set before them.  This generation will lead us forward into uncharted territory, and they have the genius, creativity, and intellect to make this world amazing.  We need people to create positive change in our world, and to do that the next generation must know how to take a risk.  They must understand that they may fail.  They must recognize that at the moment of failure, it is their reaction that determines their future.  At the moment of failure, it is time to learn, grow, and be relentless in the pursuit of success.

So this is my salute to ALL the learners that I encounter.  Here’s to each of you, as we move to the new year.  The world demands divergent thinkers and personalities.  Show compassion and accept each other for who we are in order to move forward together.  Consider the wide-ranging ideas, even ones that may seem crazy, and let’s push forward to change the world.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pushing learning ‘out of the box’

Should learning be unsafe? As I consider the idea of unsafe learning, my answer would be a resounding yes.  As confusing as it may seem, I believe that unsafe learning happens in a safe environment.  Unsafe learning involves taking risks, making mistakes, and failure.  Unsafe learning pushes the envelope of innovation and creativity.  Unsafe learning challenges our students to push the ceiling higher, stretch their knowledge farther, and use content in new and exciting ways.  But how do we create an environment that fosters this learning in our schools and classrooms?  How do we facilitate innovation in a world that demands standardized tests, high stakes grading, and cultivates a fear of not being perfect?  We have spent generations in a safe learning mode where a one size fits all model indicates fairness, and competition and grades are seen as motivation.  We have a moral imperative to change this model and push learning to new levels, outside the traditional norms we have grown accustomed to – ‘out of the box’.


It begins with creating a learning centered environment – a safe place to try new things, grow, and improve.  True learning cannot be high stakes, standardized, conforming, or perfect.  Learning must be personalized and focused on the individual student and meeting their needs.  The culture of learning must be conducive to collaboration and growth.  Students must come in feeling comfortable, and leave feeling accomplished each day, while also sensing an urgency to work.  The role of the lead learner is an essential one – behaviors and learning must be modeled.  Educators must engage in unsafe learning themselves and model risk taking.  Students must own what they are pursuing and engage in challenging work.  This fosters the growth mindset essential for learning.


What does this look like in my classroom?


When you step into my classroom, learning is valued above all else. My students demonstrate proficiency and mastery of standards in a variety of ways.  Standards are posted, discussed, and exemplified in the formative work we complete. I share my own learning in the classroom, successes and failures. Learning and thinking are facilitated while creating a safe haven for my students.  Grades are only discussed when necessary – evidence and a focus on feedback for learning drive the experience.  Redos and retakes are a normal part of the learning process, and each day is a new opportunity to improve.  Once this safe environment is established, my students can dive outside of the box of traditional schooling without fear.


Our safe haven evolves throughout the year as I continually get to know and form relationships with my kids.  Formative practice is differentiated by readiness, interest, and learning profile.  Learning is happening in different ways, and at varying speeds in my classroom all the time.  Student choice is essential for growth and carries many imperfections as my kids learn how to make good decisions about their learning and practice.  At times poor choices are made, and it is my role to assist and guide, but not to mandate compliance.  When we dictate behaviors for our students, we deny them an opportunity to learn.  Failure can facilitate growth and improvement when it is handled properly.  I let my students know that they will fail before they succeed, and that learning is a journey of progress and recession, of struggle, frustration, and achievement.  Perfection is no longer a part of our goals, but rather proficiency and mastery.


How do you get your students to push ‘out of the box’ while helping them feel safe?

Challenge accepted

Don’t get me wrong, I have had the best start to a school year since the beginning of my teaching career 14 years ago.  I have been forming relationships and building trust with my students.  They are developing their skills and making me very proud to be their teacher.  I am taking risks, finding successes, and learning from failures.

But there is that little nagging voice in the back of my head as I go home each day…Have I done the best I could for them?  Is there something I could have done differently? Is my environment the most conducive for learning?  Am I giving them enough feedback?  Are my assessments truly measuring my students’ achievement?

I know deep down that I work very diligently to provide my students the best learning experiences possible.  I am always reading, learning, and practicing to grow and improve my craft of teaching.  At times, the nagging voice can eat away at my confidence a bit, and discourage risk taking.  I try to ignore this, and I am getting better at it.  There are other things that feed the nagging voice – colleagues, old systems, politicians, lack of time…the list goes on.  It is difficult to push the envelope when most everything around you is pushing back to maintain the status quo.  We cannot sacrifice what is best for our students because it makes our lives easier.  We cannot lose confidence because we forge new paths.

There are positives to this voice.  It keeps me centered and grounded in the fact that I cannot stagnate.  I cannot stop.  I must keep changing, innovating, and creating.  If I slow down, my students stop.  I need to make sure that I listen to the voice to a certain extent – always challenging myself to be better, learn something new, create a better experience.  It keeps me on a journey rather than at a destination.

Here’s to being a positive deviant for change.  Break away from the mold to do what is right for kids.  Learn from your experiences, colleagues, and environment.  Grow and take risks.  Dare to be the teacher you never had in school.  That is what my nagging voice has challenged me to do this year.

Challenge accepted.

In pursuit of knowledge – be bold!

I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearing every authority which stood in their way.-Thomas Jefferson

I am a knowledge seeker.  I love learning new things, pursuing new ideas, trying them out, reflecting, and improving.  This is something I must tenaciously show my students to ensure that I am modeling the behaviors I want to see from them.  I read, collaborate, write, listen, take risks, handle adversity (the best I can, no perfection here), and grow from mistakes.

This persistent pursuit of knowledge is what keeps me going as an educator, and fuels my fire.  I like to think I am the lead learner in the room, and I had better back that up!  But of course, it is no easy path being this stubborn about learning and innovating in the classroom.

There are the looks and stares, the discussions that stop mid-sentence, the people who just don’t talk to you as much as they used to.  Others still, that make a point to let you know that everything you do in your classroom simply wouldn’t be possible in theirs.  Innovating can be isolating at times.  You can wonder if it is worth the struggle.

Then I think about my students.  Our modern world requires nothing less than innovators.  We need people to fill jobs that have not been created yet.  We need solutions to very difficult problems.  We need learners.  We need creators.

So, I am committed to pressing ahead, learning and innovating no matter what the cost.  For the time being, I will bear any authority that stands in the way of my students and I pursuing knowledge.  But eventually, my students will have to go out and bear that authority, and I hope to have shown them the right way to do it.  I hope to live up to the quote I began this post with, to boldly follow truth and reason no matter what.