Tired Teacher Confesses

Recently I threw out this question to my teaching team mate: How fit does a PE teacher need to be?

I’ve been wondering about this lately as I feel my own fitness levels sink to new lows. When the teaching day is done, physically for the most part, so am I. After a day of 5 or 7 discrete classes, lots of standing, some walking, skipping, jogging, jumping, and stretching or strengthening, I usually cannot wait to sit down, to stare into a screen, read to my heart’s content and comment too, if I want.

My desire to get outside and run up a hill or amble through the woods is gone. Carving out time for a yoga or Zumba session – honestly, I’d rather not. So much of my day consists of encouraging and facilitating movement, that once the spotlight is off and that is no longer my public charge, I am thinking about when and how I can finagle enough time to compose or simply linger with a text.

And I’m aging. I have more mini aches and pains than a decade ago. I feel like I’m in a constant state of never-fully-recovered. My body is functional and can do what appears to be ‘all the things’ but rarely without some slight discomfort in one spot or another. There’s plenty of things I can still do ‘at my age’ and a number of things I wisely try to avoid. My youngest students still believe in the miracle of universal proficiency – they fantasize that I can do everything and sometimes it’s nice to indulge them in that.

IMG_1088

Exhaustion is a natural teaching health hazard. I see that. To claim and actually articulate my own sense of exhaustion feels risky and not all that smart but no less necessary. I travel in circles where saying that I am tired may be dismissed, laughed off, or cut down to size by another’s suffering. I have learned the guiding lesson for perpetual teachers that perseverance at all costs is a virtue. Some might call it grit.

Today I want to call it BS and say, y’all, I’m tired.

I’m tired and I love the work I get to do with children. To do my best work, I’ll need rest and recovery and fellowship.

Heading into these precious free days I feel deeply grateful for truth and community. To be tired and still be loved, that is a coveted gift in this busy, bustling world.

 

image: (c) Spelic

That Time When It Didn’t Work Out

class-1986501_1920

I had an idea and shared it. The idea became a collaboration. The collaboration became a proposal. The proposal was accepted. The three of us rejoiced and shared the news in our networks. Friends congratulated us, offered us virtual pats on the back. We continued talking, refining our plan. We booked our travel and registered for the event. We were so excited to be sharing the stage, pooling our expertise, involving our audience, setting the world on fire, to be honest.

And then we got word. Not enough people signed up. Get more people and it can still run. We tried this, tried that. Reached out here, reached out there. It did not work. What we had was good but no match for the 14 other pre-conference offerings. We lost out to we don’t know exactly how many others. We only know that our gig is up; meaning cancelled. In the final program, erased, I guess.

That’s not what we planned. That’s not at all what we envisioned. But it is what happened. My colleague reminded me to not take it personally; to understand that big conferences operate this way to attract the maximum number of extra payers with minimal sacrifices. Our session was one such sacrifice, I guess. While I’m trying my best not to take it personally, that doesn’t make it easier to take.

Travel plans were cancelled. Now I will be a party of one instead of a member of the triumphant trio. At this conference we won’t be involving our audience or sharing the stage. We won’t be hearing the excellent keynotes together or wander from one lit reception to the next. No, it won’t be at all the way I had hoped. And I am just getting over that.

There’s no blame to lay. I feel like I was naive and lacked insight into the conference organization process. I’ll know for next time and think carefully about how to invest my energies into this event. Burned once and you learn, right? And to feel burned by an event I actually love and care for, that is especially bitter.

This is just to say

that not all the things I try

work out

the way I want them to

and I can grow to accept

that this is true for everyone

at some point

but it’s also true

that right now

it really just sucks.

 

 

The Whiteboard Speaks

In my classes I rely a lot on my whiteboard. I put up an agenda for each grade level. Maybe agenda isn’t quite the right word. It’s a list of what I have planned. It’s some words and sometimes a few numbers that lets kids know what they can/should do, what’s next and what comes after that. Even my very young students learn to recognize “Tag” or “Awesome Gym Day” pretty quickly.

I use the whiteboard plans for a few reasons:

  • My students feel informed.
  • Having a written plan keeps me on track. (Even if I change my mind about something, my students can call me to account.)
  • Both I and my students do better with a common structure as a reference point.
  • I can assign independent activities.
  • Written directions keep me from talking too much.

Today in 4th grade I had the following on the board:

Jog 2 laps

Long Jump rope warm-up (4 per rope)

Stations: 1. Balance beam, 2. Climbing wall, 3. Ball balance, 4. Cartwheels, 5. Bear walk/forward roll

That means students arrived from the changing room, read the board, jogged the 2 laps and then looked for a group to begin jumping. Later arrivals may have needed a reminder to read the board and to do the jogging first but easily found their way. Groups formed, long jump ropes were turning, kids were jumping and I had said very little. We were 15 minutes into our 40 minute class before I called them all in to talk a bit about jumping in the rope. I gave each group the assignment to see that each person in their group jump 10-15 jumps in the rope to get a sense of where we are. They completed that task, put orange tickets in if they completed the assigned number (or more) and we moved on to the stations.

I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary here but I experienced this lesson and others like it as a tremendous relief to have helped students (and myself) through a lesson where I didn’t need to talk that much. And even better I think my students appreciate it if I keep my whole-group word interventions down to a minimum. This system allows us both more mental bandwidth for action, observation and individual exchanges which typically feel much more rewarding and valuable.

I guess this is part of a longer process in my teaching journey – learning to turn matters over to my kids. Most often they get it. They have fantastic ideas, creative and unusual ideas and they need space and opportunities to test them out. When I remember to open up that space, the results speak for themselves.

We started basketball in 5th grade this week and after having kids arrive, do some dynamic flex drills and shooting on their own (for about 10-15 minutes) I called them in and asked them what they wanted to learn about, what they considered most important to cover in this unit. Of course they were on it! Shooting, ball handling, how to defend, lay ups, rules… Based on that I then suggested that we focus on one of their priorities first (i.e., lay ups) and then return to mine (chest passes) a little later.

Afterwards I realized that I simply don’t do this enough. And that led me to this tweet which sprang from a challenge to capture our pedagogy in a haiku:

I definitely do not have this teaching game figured out. And that’s also the fun part. Me talking less is a plus. It appears that making space for student input is never a mistake. Student independence in class is worth cultivating.

Odd to put the whiteboard out there as my go-to teaching resource. It’s not an app, doesn’t require a subscription or even electricity but for my purposes it works a charm.

 

 

Keeping Kids in Mind

children-2426078_1920

Two posts I want to recommend off the bat:

Jesse Stommel: Why I Dont’ Grade

Pernille Ripp: A Call For Common Sense Reading Instruction

Teachers who actually teach and also engage on social media often have plenty to say about what they do and how they do it and also why. There is no shortage of resources in the form of tips, videos, or printable lesson plans to choose from.

Not so long ago, blogger Jon Andrews raised this question on  Twitter:

I am still thinking this over. I read a lot but this question asks about what happened as a result. This question reminds us as educators what purposeful reading can do for us. I have yet to respond directly to Jon’s question but the responses generated are a fantastic starting point for fresh perspectives.

When I read Jesse Stommel’s essay on why he doesn’t grade student work I found myself both nodding in agreement and pausing to ask myself how much of this I can/would/try to actually practice. Grading is a practice we teachers tend to assume to be a non-negotiable in schools at all levels. Thus, the very suggestion that we can leave this practice behind sounds radical which Jesse insists that it “doesn’t feel like a radical pedagogy for me.”

Well, that’s fine for Jesse, you say, but listen up (and please read the entire post):

I have previously condensed my own pedagogy into these four words: “Start by trusting students.”

My approach to assessment arises from this. While I’ve experimented with many alternatives to traditional assessment, I have primarily relied on self-assessment. I turn in final grades at the end of the term, but those grades usually match the grades students have given themselves.

If trusting your students sounds radical to you, then there’s a different conversation we can have at a later date. If, however, you take it upon yourself to first know and then learn to trust your students in the space of a semester or year or years, then perhaps the idea of engaging your students directly in the conversation about their work does more than appeal. Perhaps the option of not grading or using alternative assessments emerges as a real-life, can-do-in-many-little-ways-that-really-add-up possibility.

In response to Jon’s query I see that Jesse’s essay invigorates and bolsters my own thinking about the kinds of learning experiences I am creating and designing for my young students (PK-5th grade). And it opens me up to investigate new territory – handing more of the assessment process over to my kids.

Next, I happened upon a wonderful post by Pernille Ripp who has a significant body of work advocating for developing joyful readers and willing writers. A tweet by John Spencer, who moved from middle school to higher ed teaching, drew my attention. I mention this because these connections matter. How we come to read a blog post or article often has a lot to do with who is referring whom. Here are 2 edubloggers I have come to trust and who, despite growing audiences, have remained true to some fundamental messages about what matters for the kids we teach.

picture-108539_1920

It’s interesting to read a call for common sense in education practices that in the current political moment almost sounds anti-establishment. Pernille laments the degree to which we seem to have lost our way as profession to do what we know works well for and with children:

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense. That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to. That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

In this eloquent post she offers us reminders of “what we used to know”:  that students, all students, need choices as to what they may read, and time to read in class; they need access to books in their classrooms and those books should offer the representation of diversity that exists in the world at large. She encourages us to get to know our students as the readers that they are rather than as the readers we tell them they ought to be and to trust them when they tell us what and how much they’ve read (or haven’t).

We have reached a point in time where advocating for student agency and choice have become radical ideas in education. Even if you don’t inhabit that mindset, rest assured there are plenty who do and in Western late capitalist societies, the likelihood that those who hold these beliefs also hold the primary purse strings and political power is high. Do not underestimate their will to counter and muffle these initiatives where they crop up.

Resistance means finding ways to help our students take themselves seriously as advocates and partners in their own learning. What both Jesse and Pernille offer us are avenues for making that happen all along our students’ paths. There is no single method. As teachers we can cultivate our ability to see varied options and recognize that our students have ideas. We need to be brave enough not only to ask them but also to listen.

children-studying-670663_1920

In closing, Pernille gives us this piece of wisdom that is worth holding onto:

Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them. Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful. Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow. We are only as good as our last decision to change.

This is what our education world can look like. And we need to make those decisions to change – always keeping our kids in mind.

 

I’ve Been Thinking

I’ve been thinking about growth and learning and the value of reading widely and I’m on vacation this week so I’m not completely exhausted by the process.

IMG_20170731_150956

I’ve been thinking about arrivals – how we get to places, how we navigate routes, select paths, decide which destination comes first. Learning involves movement in one form or another, right? Whether a shift, an expansion, a step, climb or drop – as educators we are on the lookout for signs of movement – evidence of a change in location, appearance, behavior in something, anything that will tell us she moved, he changed, they got it.

I ran across a pertinent thread on Twitter, thanks to my no-fail network. A college-level instructor of composition reminds us and herself that her one semester course will not suddenly transform students into adept, critical academic research writers. @k8simply writes:

…critical literacy happens/should happen over time, in non-writing classes or writing-intensive classes in other subjects

writing isn’t something that you just learn and check that box and hey, look, you’re done as a writer

the skill of even just academic writing (excluding other types for now) unfolds as the writer learns, grows, and is challenged in life

I appreciate the point she makes about how learning unfolds. It’s a process for which ‘one and done’ can never be an adequate metaphor. This is as true for writing as it is for any type of skill or capability we will likely practice throughout our lives.

We become adults and perhaps know some things about writing, reading and the way the world works but we are so very unfinished. So much development takes place during the years we consider ourselves “grown” and this fact seems widely ignored in the popular discourse. We can find tons of books on childhood and adolescent development, yet it is rare to find comparable literature on the features of adult development – physical, mental, emotional. (If you have some good resources in this area, please help me out!) Adulthood seems to happen to us as we take on various responsibilities in our families, institutions and communities. We get busy and busy is at least something that everybody seems to understand.

So when I consider some of my own arrivals, particularly into online spaces, into communities of interest and practice, I like to step back and consider how it came to pass.

 

“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

This means thinking more about my own travels as a reader. I’ve covered quite a bit of ground over the last few years and part of that experience has involved reading up, challenging myself not simply to read but to work with the text, to make more of it, to ‘write back’ as I have described elsewhere. I’ve become a more ambitious reader which in turn has allowed me to become a braver writer.

I wish there were an easy way for me to map the connections here. I thought of trying to create a nifty infographic, a sort of reading map to illustrate how connections have emerged.

Let me try to write a story.

Once upon a time there was a eager non-fiction reader new to the Twitterverse. She was keen to dig into education circles and started a blog called edifiedlistener. Although Twitter was overwhelming at first, through following a few big names in edutwitter she soon discovered folks who were writing about more than lesson planning and classroom management.

She came across ed tech critic Audrey Watters. Initially she had a hard time following the thread. It took a number of false starts before she landed on one post that changed everything.

On Twitter she noticed that Audrey was friends with Tressie McMillan Cottom and that they both often had spicy words for current intellectual events. The eager reader was enthralled with the way these women handled detractors and maintained a humor that was at once fierce and well,

Quickly, she encountered other folks who were equally critical and also as witty. Over time they became like her personal crew of tech and society critics: Chris Gilliard, Paul Prinsloo, Bill Fitzgerald, Kris Schaffer, Mike Caulfield. They kept her up to date on all manner of platform shenanigans aimed at eroding privacy and increasing surveillance.

In fact, it was Bill who recommended ‘Black Box Society’ by Frank Pasquale to edifiedlistener – a fascinating book about the implications of opaque algorithms in our day to day dealings; a reading adventure which sparked two separate blog posts.

Meanwhile, another group of educator-writers appeared on this reader’s radar. Maha Bali and Kate Bowles were two writers in particular who spoke of the professional and personal in compelling and authentic ways, role modeling what was possible for an edu-writer looking to mix and match themes and topics in new ways. Maha and Kate also introduced edifiedlistener to the richness of the hybrid pedagogy network and before long, posts by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris became staples in her digital reading diet…

There’s no end to this story but I’m tired of speaking in the 3rd person. You get the gist.

So it goes. I am always discovering and engaging with more voices, different perspectives but the people in my story have felt like guides and yes, teachers. Beyond reading their articles and links, I have been studying them – paying attention to their cues, engaging them in dialogue, commenting on their contributions. With their support I have learned to identify and carve out my own writing path.

I still want to think about other ways to do this: How to share a reading resume or an intellectual timeline. In the meantime, I keep moving, reading, developing and occasionally, I arrive.

 

 

Stretch Yourself

It’s surprising but I have more to say about my teaching this week. Well, perhaps not exactly about my teaching, rather more about my students’ doings. I guess this is likely going to be a post about what students do with the directions I give them.

Typically, in most of my physical education classes we spend a few minutes on stretching – hopefully building our flexibility and movement vocabulary as we go. At the beginning of the year my colleague and I usually introduce this routine in a traditional teacher-at-the-front, all-kids-follow-along arrangement. That’s fine for getting things started, for setting up routines and providing everyone with a basic stock of stretches they can use. But it doesn’t take long for this ritual to become boring for a number of kids.

(This is also a fine opportunity to discover who my more divergent thinkers in the group may be – they tend to resist teacher-led whole group stretching with remarkable consistency and I get it now.)

So within a couple of weeks we try to release kids to lead their own stretching in a few different ways:

  • in 1st grade selecting 3 leaders who each share 3 stretches with the whole group
  • in 2nd – 5th asking students to make small groups of 4-6 and be responsible for completing a total number of stretches (8 -12).
  • At any grade level, partner stretching for the length of a song. (We use a lot of Kidz Bop).

IMG_1950

The main thing is that kids learn to organize themselves. They decide who will begin, they learn to offer each other ideas, and sort out their own disagreements. It also means that I can step back and observe, give pointers and a few reminders. They are not reliant on me to deliver ideas but I’m visible enough to provide the occasional nudge.

The quality of the stretching can vary widely which it would in any case, I suppose. But I no longer get hung up on those kinds of details. I may temporarily join a group and demonstrate a more accurate version of a stretch rather than say something. More important is that students can show me that they understand what kinds of movements count as stretching, that they have their own internal repertoire of these movements to draw upon and can work with others safely and cooperatively.

My colleague have been using this method for a few years now which means that we also have an increasing number of veterans who take up a lot of the slack in helping new students figure out how it all works.

Again, stretching is just a short episode in a whole lesson – maybe 5-6 minutes tops. At the same time it’s another space for student choice and autonomy that still requires negotiating with others! Every time I watch a group of 1st or 2nd or 3rd graders accomplish this task successfully, I imagine one less soft tissue injury in the world is suffered on that day. And my teacher hear does a little victory dance to Kidz Bop tunes.

Open for Tweaking

Veteran teachers, have you ever suddenly decided to put a little twist on something that you have been doing for a long time more or less the same way and have it feel like you just rediscovered fire?

*pause*

No?

Me neither.

I did, however, recently notice that by tweaking my approach to certain things I might make my teaching life a little more enjoyable and my students’ experiences a little less teacher-mandated. Here’s what I did:

I like to set up fairly simple obstacle courses that include things like speed ladders, benches, maybe a couple of tires, and a soft balance beam. I try to insure when I plan it that there is always ample space for us to do other things like stretching or tossing and catching with a partner before or afterwards. For most of my students, this kind of activity is familiar and many of them already have some ideas about what they will likely be asked to do.

Today, instead of going through and demonstrating what needs to be done, I offered a few parameters to students and let them make it up as they went. I told them:

  • in the speed ladders you should stay on your feet at a high level and aim to hit the spaces between the rungs. You can skip, run, grapevine, hop, jump or move in another way as long as you stay upright and use the spaces.
  • On the benches, you can decide which movements you want to do but you need to put your hands on the benches. You might try a bear, seal or crab walk; or jump side to side, or pull yourself forward on your tummy. It’s up to you.
  • You may step into the tires or on top of them.
  • Be sure to leave space between yourself and the person in front of you. You may have to wait at some points.
  • You may start wherever you like and we’re all traveling counter-clockwise.

Guess what?

My students knew what to do. They had ideas and tried things out. Different children made different choices. Some hopped while others skipped and tiptoed through the ladders. I saw a few kids change their movement every time they arrived at a ladder or a bench. No one was bored. No one complained. And aside from the occasional safety warning (usually about maintaining space), I spent much more time and energy observing than policing behavior and jogging memories.

Which grade levels?

Here’s a surprise – I used it with Pre-Kindergarten through 4th grade today! It worked for each group because 1) all groups had some previous obstacle course experience and 2) all children have ideas about how they want to do things and many are only waiting for a chance to show and try and experiment.

So, while I didn’t rediscover fire in my classroom, per se, I did reconnect with some creative energy in myself that let me give up some control and recognize which gifts my students are dying to share. The obstacle course piece didn’t take up a whole lesson but it provided that middle ground for me and my students to meet each other halfway. By letting them go rather than constantly applying the brakes, my brakes, they showed me how much farther they are willing to go.

Kids are awesome!