Tag Archives: reflection

Musings and reflections on one of the greats

This week we lost a legend in the educational world, Grant Wiggins. I want to take a moment and pay tribute to the impact he has had on my educational career thus far.

As a teacher, Understanding by Design was critical, I just didn’t know it in the beginning. I learned about it a few years in to my career, but it caused a monumental shift in my thinking and practice. It was one of those things that just made sense, but I was never introduced to it in my undergraduate work. Why wouldn’t we want to begin with the end in mind, plan our units and lessons from there, and clearly communicate the end targets with our students? This never occurred to me as I fought through my first years of teaching. I did as I was instructed to in college – plan units in chronological order and create the final assessment just before administration.

Once I made the change in my mindset, planning, and instruction, things were different for my students and myself. We began each thematic unit with a specific purpose and the kids were focused from day one. There were no surprises with assessment, and the link between what we were doing day-to-day with the end goal was transparent.

As I have now moved into a coaching role, Understanding by Design has come up again in an entirely new way. I have been able to introduce teachers to the framework and watch it take hold. Once they began to look at unit planning in a different light, they realized on their own the influence and potential of UbD. They were empowered to own the process and found that it made their lives much easier.

It has been enjoyable to pause for a moment and reflect. Things are funny this way – it can take an event such as this to remind us of the importance of reflection. With busy lives both inside and out of school, reflection can get pushed to the back burner. This week I stopped for a moment to do some important thinking, and I’m so glad I did.

You will be greatly missed, Mr. Wiggins, yet your profound impact on teaching and learning will be felt for decades to come.

The status quo worked for me

Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. – Robert Frost

Early in my teaching career I was very traditional. This was how I experienced education growing up, what I was taught throughout my teacher preparation program in college, and what I observed educators practicing in their classrooms. My evaluations went well, with very little advice given to me as to how to improve my teaching. Students were to show up to my classroom, receive the information I covered, and learn. The process was sterile and the same almost every day. This was (and still is in many places) the status quo of teaching. It worked for me as it does for many teachers…or does it?

Were my students doing more than playing the game of school? No. Was I growing as a professional? No. Eventually I saw this, but because of what I had been taught, the environment and culture of school systems, and the praise of colleagues and administrators I didn’t find reason to change for some time. I was stuck in the box of traditional teaching. The status quo had sucked me in and the grip was tight.

All it takes is one moment in time, one person, one bit of research, or one student to show the way out of this box. I was lucky that a few of these came together at the same moment to point me in a different direction. I was able to make significant change once I admitted to myself that there was a better way. This idea that something works ‘so well’ makes it difficult for many educators to reach outside the status quo and search for something better. When we are pushed and reinforced to head one direction, it takes a lot of bravery to follow another path.

The status quo in teaching would have us make everyday the same. Homework and assignments would be blanket assigned without regard to student readiness levels. Tests would be the primary, if not only, sources of summative assessment. Classes would consistently be driven by textbooks, lecture, direct instruction, and quiet seat work. The file folder would come out each year with the previous lesson plans and activities to be used over and over again.

I realized the status quo didn’t work for me or my students, and I am thankful. I faced challenges with breaking the mold of teaching, but it was worth it every time. There have been bumps and bruises, paths that deviated from my colleagues, and so many questions along the way. All the while, my students benefited and continue to benefit with the changes. They are recognized as individuals and I am seen as a person, not an unapproachable character with a robotic presence…and it makes all the difference.

What was the moment in time that changed you as an educator? How did you break the mold of the status quo? Please leave your story in the comments.

Oh the places I’ve been

I had the fortunate experience of traveling some this summer and meeting educators from across the United States and beyond. To witness the passion for education that lives throughout our world was awe-inspiring. It was very interesting to talk with others and learn about diverse learning environments and school systems. The more I discover, the more I realize how much I have left to learn and I am intrigued. We sometimes get sheltered in our own school cultures and fail to realize how distinctly different other districts can be. My eyes have opened more fully and I feel more well-rounded heading back to school this fall.

There are of course similarities no matter what school you walk into or which teacher you meet. Student learning and how to ensure it happens in our schools resides in all of our hearts. We have a common ground that links us and guides discussion no matter what context and background we bring to the table. There are times when we disagree about methodology and assessment, culture and grading to name a few. I find these conversations are so important to my learning and growth. I love the challenge of rethinking what I do at school and defending my beliefs. It forces me to arrive at that slightly uncomfortable place where change and risk taking reside. It makes me reflect on my practice and consider new possibilities.

I have been faced with many difficult questions and discussions about what I do in my learning environment over the years. I have gotten the long pauses in my doorway with the begrudging looks. I have been avoided because it is much easier to ignore me than engage in discourse with someone who is so passionate about learning. Then I am faced with a decision. Do I walk away as well, or do I start the conversation?

I have grown more comfortable with this over time (and am still working to improve!). Walking away could leave behind a potential learning opportunity. I try to listen and encourage teachers to divulge problems or issues they are facing before I say anything. I strive to validate their opinions and find common ground before sharing my perspective about the topic or situation. So much is gained through these conversations and I become a better educator after each one.

No matter how you connect with other educators, whether it be via social media, travel, or simple conversations in the hallway, it is an opportunity to expand your horizons and learn. Don’t be afraid to share your story with others and listen to theirs. It will expand your educational world and enlighten you to the vastness that exists within it. Gather the varied viewpoints that create our amazing profession while finding the interwoven thread of student learning that ties us together.

You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!                                                                                                      -Dr. Seuss

The clean plate club

This week I had the fortunate experience of speaking with the Power of ICU team in Nashville, Tennessee. We were at John Early Museum Magnet Middle School in the heart of the city. Our team of Danny Hill, Jayson Nave, Sherri Nelson, and Cory Crosnoe were fabulous to work with as we talked about building a Brick House culture within a school where students complete quality assignments, have plenty of support throughout the process, and teachers move toward healthier grading practices.

In our opening session, one focus area for Danny was the idea of clearing our plates. This was a moment of great reflection for me. There are so many things we put on our plates that we have no control over. However, the only item that should remain is student learning. It is a decision that is very difficult to make when so many other things loom over us, especially at the beginning of the school year. Our time is so valuable and pulled in so many directions, we have to be careful what we spend it on. But we must keep one vital thing in mind – student learning is the most important feature in our lives as educators. Our concentration must center on forming those key relationships with kids and bringing our passion to school every day.

Because here’s the thing…the kids are coming!

The kids need us to clear our plates for them. The kids are coming regardless of whether the school is ready. The kids are coming no matter what initiatives we are handed or what curriculum we were given to write at the last minute. The kids are coming even though we have not had enough time to plan or get our classrooms ready. The kids are coming…

As I reflect on past school years, this was a constant battle. Things outside my control kept working their way onto my plate and I had to fight to remove them. I didn’t control that I had 32 kids in my room with extremely varied readiness and 45 minutes to work with them. I couldn’t control all the federal and state mandates that attempted to weigh me down. I couldn’t control the fact that it was 95 degrees and humid outside and for many years I didn’t have air conditioning. The list could go on and on. But what I realized as I thought back was when I walked into my classroom, I cleared my plate. I set the stage for learning and left everything else by the wayside. This was what I had control over, and I wasn’t going to sacrifice anything for my kids. In a sense, I felt very protective of our environment and couldn’t allow anything to deter us from learning.

So let go of it all. Don’t let outside factors get in the way of forming essential relationships with our kids and bringing passion to our classrooms. Decide what you do have control over and own it. Remember…

…the kids are coming!

A special thank you goes out to Danny Hill for inspiring this post.



What a year it has been…

What an incredible year it has been. I don’t think I have had a time of greater growth and reflection in my teaching career. There are so many people to thank, the list would make this post way too long! I have grown because of my colleagues, my professional learning network, and most importantly my students. Today I’ll take a moment to consider the work I have done and what I look forward to doing next year.

The most important switch that happened in my environment was changing from an emphasis on standards based grading to standards based learning. My passion regarding healthy grading practices FOR learning was still important. However this year, more of my time was spent working to leave grading in the background. I focused on the daily experiences I facilitate for my kids. Formative practice and assessment moved to the forefront of my thinking, planning, and reflecting. I recognized that this piece is most critical for my students and their learning. I was responsive to my students needs with feedback throughout the year, which meant that I threw out lesson plans more often than at any other point in my years of teaching. My students determined the direction and pacing of instruction and practice. We found so much success together.

This year I am much more comfortable defending my teaching, grading, and assessment practices. I had some wonderful conversations with a wide variety of people about what I do and why I do it. Those discussions have reinforced my convictions and beliefs about standards based culture and why it is best for students. I have helped my parents get on board with a system that it not like the classrooms they had, not like the classrooms their children have experienced K-8, and most likely not like the classrooms they will go to through the rest of their high school careers. This is always an uphill battle, but with encouragement, communication, and a little bit of compassion along the way, my parents (and students for that matter) support my charge to make learning accessible and attainable for everyone.

On a more personal note, I have strengthened my own knowledge, understanding, and skills throughout the year. I have read, gone to many conferences, and even presented some of my ideas to others about education. I met and talked with some of my heroes in the educational world and they make me a better teacher. They challenge my thinking and help me reflect on changes I need to make for next year. I chatted with some of the best instructors and administrators across the country about a variety of topics via twitter. Through this many doors have opened to me for additional sharing and collaboration. All of these people push me to new levels and give me confidence to take risks in my classroom for the sake of learning.

Throughout this busy summer I hope to find some time to let my brain relax. It is during those times that I am most creative and productive. I already have some areas I would like to improve upon and update before I welcome the class of 2018 next fall. My standards are always a work in progress. I will revisit them as I do every summer to see what improvements can be made. I started to implement a system this spring to remove student apathy from my classes. I am already thinking about how to refine its implementation beginning day 1. One other item I will consider is how to improve student reflection and self-assessment. I am sure more things will come up as the summer progresses, but I also need to remember that a few well thought out revisions are more powerful than many quick ideas for change.

I am looking forward to writing more often. I feel like the end of the school year has pulled me away from my blog and will enjoy writing more regularly. Writing gives direction to my thoughts and reflection. My blog will turn one next month and I cannot believe how writing has not only changed me as an educator but also pushed me forward.

I second guess myself at different points throughout every school year. I wonder if what I am doing is the absolute best for my kids or if I could be doing a better job. It drives me to learn and keep growing my craft. But sometimes I just need to sit back and remind myself that what I do has an impact and a positive one. I will close with a student reflection that to say the least made me very emotional.

“Mrs. Hillman is a wonderful teacher. This year was very intimidating because I have never learned Spanish before so I was a little nervous. Being in Spanish 1 with Mrs. Hillman has made me feel like nothing is impossible. I feel like I am able to learn things at my own pace and really understand what I am doing. The grading scale is very helpful as well. Mrs. Hillman is always there to help any student when needed. She pushes her students to do their best. She helps me have faith in myself and in my learning. I am glad I got the chance to take part in her classroom and learn things from her. Mrs. Hillman, you are an inspiring person and have encouraged me so much. You are a person I admire and would like to take after when I’m older.”

Here’s to a summer of learning, reflection, discussion, and improvement. I am not the teacher I was five years ago, and I will not be the same five years from now.

I am inspired.