(Un)Prepared.

Nine contact days in and I’m ok. The kids are great, my colleagues are helpful, our schedule is more or less settled, the year is truly underway. I’ve done this ritual at least 20 times before: started a school year of teaching elementary physical education. At this same school. I have experience. One might even say I’m a seasoned faculty member.

And yet.

My plans are rough. Not vague, but rough although we have a fairly detailed curriculum map with plenty of supporting documents and resources. The google doc planning sheet that I share with my team colleague is prepared week for week. Every class, I write my agenda on the board for students to read and work with. I prepare.

And yet.

It seems no matter how long I work at this, how many students I shepherd through a school year’s worth of physical education, I never, ever feel well prepared. Into every class, each section, in contact with each student, there’s a portion of doubt that stays in attendance. Like a spying question mark that sits heavily on my shoulder, at times whispering: “Was that really necessary?” “What makes you think that idea will work?” or “That’s your best solution?”

This heap of doubt I carry around lives to judge and dissemble.

I have thousands of class periods under my belt; by now also hundreds of students whom I’ve taught for multiple years. I know some stuff and I’m constantly learning and evolving. Every group is different, each child so wonderfully unique, and I of course have changed, too. In this way I have dedicated a significant portion of my life and livelihood to coping with and courting change; to making the most of and coming to terms with development.

My little heap of doubt is resilient, reliable and robust. Teaspoon sized today, boulder heavy the next, my heap can grow or shrink as the context and my reactions warrant.

So I plan and envision. I record and document. Confer and rehash. I also improvise on the spot. Change my mind in the moment. I decide to run the risk of failing miserably, succeeding wildly or both. I watch what happens. I encounter the unexpected along with the strongly probable and respond to the best of my ability. At the end of the day, we all emerge on the other side: the experience behind us and our options for reflection before us. We choose. (And even when we don’t choose we’re making a choice.)

I believe my students are going to be all right. Some of them, no, many of them will be fabulous. We are going to make some discoveries this year. We’ll run into some surprises. We’ll reach an impasse or two and get beyond it. I’ll make some mistakes right before their very eyes. Some of the mistakes they’ll notice and others they won’t.

The year won’t be perfect. It will be full of learning and growth and doubt for me and my students. It will be entirely our year. We are prepared and we’re not. It’s on, ready or not.

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Learning involves stretching…still, again.

image:  (c) @edifiedlistener Sherri Spelic

Pay Dirt in Advance

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I don’t know how you start off your school year but I’m just realizing that my colleague and I manage a small miracle with our first few classes. Let me explain.

I teach in an international school where elementary students enjoy the benefit of several specialists. In our schedule Physical Education is taught opposite German language and English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes. Strings classes also enter the scheduling mix for all 2nd graders and some 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students. We see most of our students 4 days out of a six day cycle (which is to say frequently) and on some days with strings classes, my colleague and I will collapse two sections into one.

The schedule is complex and confusing, has lots of moving parts and amazingly it works pretty well for kids.

At the start of the year, as a team of specialists, the EAL and German teachers only have partial information about new students so that they need a couple of days in the first week to screen and place students into the correct levels. What this means is that in the 2-3 days of the school year, my colleague and I welcome a whole grade level  (45-60+ students) into the gym for 60 minutes while our three German-speaking colleagues work with small groups in a nearby room. This is a process we adopted some years ago and it has a some real advantages.

Right now I want to focus on that miracle I mentioned: 45-60 kids in a gym with 2 teachers for 1 hour on the first and/or second day of school. We introduce ourselves as the PE teachers, clarify a few essential cues they will need to participate successfully (start, stop & ‘come in’ signals; toilet locations) and slowly we get started. We practice finding a space, checking it at different levels, moving safely without bumping. We play stop and go with the music signal and have them try different locomotor movements. We do a round of whole group stretching and then practice making groups of different sizes. In a nutshell my colleague and I run an introductory class almost as if we were on our own with a group of 12-18 students (normal ratio).

The miracle is that this is possible. Not once, not twice, but every time, with every grade level. On their first day in the gym.

It’s possible because…

  • the majority of the students are returning and entirely familiar with our protocols.
  • new students take their cues from veterans and see among their peers that PE is something to look forward to and celebrate.
  • new students find a culture of inclusion where they find partners and groups who are welcoming and kind.
  • there is consistency from teacher to teacher. Whether returning students had me or my colleague the year before, the general expectations are the same so kids can feel confident in their anticipation of how things will work.
  • My colleague and I are comfortable sharing the planning, the “mic”, the follow-up work.
  • My colleague and I share an appreciation for what kids need during the lesson (i.e. time to talk and have fun with their friends and make new ones; more action and less talk).
  • We’ve built this program over several years and while my current colleague and I are only on our 2nd year of direct collaboration, the pattern of team teaching and shared planning has been in place for almost a decade.
  • My colleague and I like our jobs, enjoy kids, understand fun and build on each others’ strengths.

The results are actually amazing and worth highlighting. They are not accidental; rather they provide clear evidence that sustained teacher collaboration and team consistency are fruitful endeavors that benefit students and teachers.

In another day we will separate big groups into class sections and assign ourselves as teachers. Students will know who their teacher is and the school year will proceed as planned (more or less). They will also be happy and able to combine into big groups again from time to time. We’ll stride ahead knowing that they and we can handle both kinds of classes.

Beginning the year with this generous show of student trust, enthusiasm and relative clarity about what we are about in PE bolsters my confidence and stokes my desire to deliver on the promise we’ve already laid out. Pay Dirt in advance – may not happen often in our teaching lives but when it does, it is glorious.

 

image via Pixabay CC0

Too Real

Tomorrow marks the return: Return to school schedules, to the fellowship of colleagues, to the routines we teachers use to prepare the path we will travel with our students.

I look forward to the mass reunion, to the hugs, smiles, waves and quick catch-up conversations that remind us of where we left off. I’m prepared for the variety of meetings, large and small, in which my colleagues and I question, clarify and plan our first steps into a new school year. I have participated in this ritual over twenty times – always with variations – but in its essence it remains a kind of constant. At this stage of my career, this offers a certain degree of comfort, a sense of orientation. I know where things are. I am familiar with how things begin and how they are likely to proceed. I am a veteran. I belong here.

On the other hand, …

I fear the crush of speed chatting, the sense of overwhelm in the face of sudden exposure to too many elements at once. I worry about not being able to respond adequately, that my smiles may run out; that I’ll freeze up and wish I could run away and start again on another day. I know there will be meetings with too much information and not enough time to digest it so that my questions 2 days later will seem like stupid ones. In those meetings I will either talk for too long or not at all and it will never feel like I said the right thing. I will go home drained and nervous because maybe, after all, I don’t belong here.

These are feelings. They are mine. They are real and they are all over the place; never static.

At the beginning of his keynote at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute, Chris Gilliard took some time to address a topic that had been on many participants’ minds during the week-long event. To a musical backdrop, he read a series of statements which were impactful and emotive even if you lacked the specific context they were generated to address. Particularly his first statement gives me pause.

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“being too real”

This is truly something to fear. And the more often I read the statement and listen to Chris speak it, the more deeply it reveals itself to me; where it fits in my story, how it relates to my yesterday, my now and my tomorrow.

“Being real” is something I can do quite well in my classroom with my kids. In the course of the school year my students will know me serious, silly, annoyed, patient, harried, calm, forgetful and attentive. They will see me perform miracles and manage epic fails. They will see all of my hairstyles and comment on them. They will ask me questions and figure out if I will respond with a question of my own, answer directly, tell them to ask a friend or just look at them and wait. By the end of the school year my students will have a strong sense of knowing me because I will have been real with them all along.

Being too real is more of an adult-adult conundrum. How I show up with and for my colleagues will have a lot of contextual dependencies. While I can and strive to be respectful and kind to everyone in our community, being real means that I can also be honest when things aren’t going so well, that I trust you enough to listen in a helpful way. Being real means that I can tell you what’s really on my mind with regard to a given topic and not fear your judgment. Being real means that I can tell you what it means to belong and not belong at the same time over decades in the same institution.

Yes, Chris, there are a lot of spaces in which I fear being too real. Overcoming that fear every day is my personal and professional development project for life. Thankfully I work with children who mirror that struggle in myriad ways and together we practice being real with each other day after day. Over time, they and I get better at it.

 

Games, Rules, Power and Play

While planning for my workshop Games, Rules, Power and Play, I stumbled upon many resources which I found helpful or entertaining or both.

Here’s a selection:

Deep Fun with Bernhard DeKoven

This site is a wonderful place for anyone interested in the lightness and wonder games can offer us. Besides offering a tremendous collection of all types of games for players of all ages, blog posts and articles provide encouragement and support in developing one’s capacity to engage in “deep fun.”  Really glad I found this!

In search of good word cloud creator I found this game site, ABCya!, aimed at elementary kids and was actually both delighted and challenged by some of the available games. Kid friendly interface. Yes, I would even share this with my own son. And the word cloud generator is awesome!

At Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute Vancouver I introduced the workshop agenda in the following way:

  1. We are going to play some games.
  2. We are going to take time to raise questions and offer observations about what we experienced.
  3. We will play some more.
  4. We will pause to question and reflect.
  5. We will need to wrap up and this may be hard because we’ll just be hitting our stride and having so much fun but even that part will have a playful element to it.

Given that, here’s my request of you:

Please let go of whatever notions you have about what a workshop at an academic conference can or should look like.

Let yourself play. Let others play. Let’s play.

Have the experience rather than theorizing about having the experience.

And we played:

This is my nose

Blah, blah, blah – in which pairs practice talking and listening to each other at the same time, changing subjects on the signal and continuing their partner’s line of conversation.

We spent a bit of time looking at definitions of the word game and considered the question: What do games offer us – as individuals, in groups, within a culture?

Ed-Tech Hyperbole (Using the attached word grid, players tried 3 versions)

  1. On your own- Come up with as many ed tech slogans as you can. (2 minutes)
  2.  Versus a partner:  Try to form a hyperbolic sentence that uses as many terms as possible but still makes sense.  (competing) (90 sec. )
  3. With a partner: Create 3 great slogans together Or create your own 100 word list for a particular instance (cooperating) (3 min)

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Reflection points:

Which version of play appealed most? How did you experience yourself in each of the game settings?

On the topic of power I offered:

This workshop is really too brief to try to address the many ways in which power is enacted, formalized and expressed in games and their structures. Rules provide frameworks for distributing power and authority. Players engage and may apply rules in any number of ways – strictly, loosely, consistently, haphazardly. How these variations are managed offer a whole other field to observe power relations in effect.

My request to you is to keep your eyes and ears open for power dynamics in this workshop. What have you observed in yourself and others? How might games in the classroom offer opportunities to demonstrate and discuss power dynamics in the group and in general?

And as predicted time was running low and we needed to wrap up.

We finished with a stand-up round of non-verbal feedback. Participants were asked to share their impressions of and/or response to the workshop by either humming or giving a physical representation (gesture, pose, movement).  A lighthearted conclusion to a playful and reflective meeting of the minds.

As facilitator I enjoyed the privilege of working with participants who made my job look easy-peasy. I do believe that game environments have a great deal to offer and teach us in a variety of contexts. Hosting this workshop was my way of sharing some gentle reminders that joy, fun and laughter have a place in serious learning at all levels.

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The Last Day of 3rd Grade

My young son who is 9 years old had his last day of school today and has officially completed 3rd grade at his Austrian elementary school. Traditionally the first and last days of elementary school (perhaps even in secondary) are very short and sweet. A bit like a meet and greet, except on the last day it’s a meet-and-pick-up-that-all-important-report-card-for-which-I-hope-you-brought-a-plastic-sleeve-to-take-it-home-in. The teacher says some nice words to the kids while parents gather to enjoy a final burst of pre-vacation small talk which differs only slightly from first-day small talk. For the most part you can keep the same activities and just change the verb tense from future to past.

I actually kind of like this tradition. Probably because it’s tradition and I’m also reasonably chilled out because my school year ended two weeks ago. I have time, so of course, it’s no problem to wait outside while the teacher-student thing is happening and then pick a low stakes activity to do with a couple of other families who have time and kids on their hands.

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At any rate, the boy received his Zeugnis (report card) for the first time with “real” number grades. In Austria the scale goes from 1 – Excellent to 5- Not adequate (in between are 2-good, 3-satisfactory, 4-adequate). On our walk to school he was already speculating what his grades might look like. He was pretty confident they’d be good or better but also wondered what might happen if he got a 3.

That’s where I had to stop him and explain that exactly nothing happens. Nothing. No upset, no punishment, nothing. On the way back home I also put the idea out there that his report card tells me very little about how his school year was, what he learned, how he learned it, what he liked most and what he didn’t like at all. It doesn’t tell me what kind of person he is in his class group, where his special strengths are, where he might need more support and where he made the greatest efforts. Nope, the report card as is, is simply a sheet of paper which tells me the broad subjects in which he was instructed and provides a number sign for each one indicating to what degree he met the teacher’s expectations.

If I really want to know about his learning then I have to ask him. And listen to his responses. I need to pay attention to what happens when we read a story together, to the questions that come up for him pretty much any time we are together. If I really want a picture of his progress then I can pour over the stacks of individual papers he has brought home all year long. I can read the stories he writes for homework. If I really want to know how the school year is and was, the most I can do and perhaps also the best, is to be available, open, present.

Report cards are what they are: institutional records of school attendance and academic…achievement? maybe.  Academic clearing (like clearing the bar in high jump)? Closer perhaps.  Let’s say “clearing” for now (yes, I just made that up). It’s about fulfilling external criteria and being judged on that. OK. Report cards are an institutional tradition. The weight and significance we assign to this tradition and the actual document will vary – among families, between kids, within a school, across school levels and types. My hope is that I can convey to my son that we have choices in deciding how big a deal it is in the grand scheme of things.

My 9 year old is not too bothered about any of this now. He has moved on to video games, read aloud time and a big long stretch of summer plans.  I bet he’d be alarmed to know I just spent almost 700 words on it right now.  Srsly, mom? Yup.

 

Coach Spelic

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a slice of my coaching heaven (Zug, Switzerland)

One of the privileges of my professional life has been to serve as a coach to our school’s track and field teams. I started coaching at the school in 1992. 25 years ago.

I have taught at the school for 21 years.

I have been a parent for 23 years.

If I add on my first 2 years of teaching and coaching at a small private school in the Washington, DC area – then I have 27 years of coaching track under my belt.

I love the sport. I love my athletes but I am not the best track coach in the world. I provide guidance. I offer feedback. I model my expectations. And there are certainly better skilled, more knowledgeable and focused coaches than I. But coaching is my thing.

Coaching is where I develop relationships with students which go beyond instructing and assessing the results. We laugh, sweat and struggle together. I ask them about their lives in progress, how they are feeling and what they are feeling. And often they tell me.

Sometimes they ask me about myself, about my running history: which events I ran, what my best times were, which distances I liked most. Recently one of them discovered my Twitter profile. They asked me: How come you have so many followers? Through my writing, I told them.

When my athletes ask me about school records and past highlights, my memory is remarkably thin, especially when it comes to hard data. I almost never remember times or distances, but I do remember the people. I remember so many stories of athletes and our conversations. Of finding one athlete’s ‘just right’ event at the final tournament of her senior year. Of the boys 4×400 relay that ended with a remarkable swan dive and made me weep in the stands. Of the Spanish teacher’s son who’s poetry of jumping was almost too beautiful for the competition in which he was entered. Of the skinny sprinter girl who went on to attend my alma mater, run track all 4 years there, become an outstanding geophysicist and who is now a high school teacher who coaches teams of her own.

This sport has given me so much. It is what I know. To coach young athletes is one of the single greatest privileges of my professional life. This is the passion that found me long ago; the gift that keeps on giving.

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Timely, Relevant Feedback

Today I had a second grade student give me some honest feedback at the end of class.

“Mrs. Spelic,” she said, “I feel like you don’t respect us when we do good. Even if we do everything we’re supposed to, you do this,” she covers her eyes and lowers her head, imitating me to a T.

I looked her in the eye and said, “You know what? You’re right and I’m sorry.”

At least that, at least I was able to admit my shortcoming and let her know that I understood what she was telling me. But as I went through the rest of the day, her words and the sentiment lingered. I definitely see her point. I clearly don’t give enough credit where and when it is due in that class. Rather, I let the three or four mega attention-seekers steal the show, time and time again.

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I also wish I were this beautiful while thinking about my students and their needs.

Every lesson I wish it were different. I wish I was different.

And yet, empirically speaking, it is certainly not every lesson that feels like a management parkour rather than a well planned set of learning experiences. There are certainly days, classes and moments where we accomplish all we set out to do and end the period with smiles on our faces and they leave with an Awesome Gym Day Award in hand. That happens, too. Sometimes. Not frequently but sometimes.

And in the student’s feedback there’s a very clear way forward.  She told me what I need to do differently. She’s been in school long enough to know what works for her and has learned how to ask for precisely that. Quite an accomplishment in and of itself, actually. So if I have any claims on being a growing, learning professional, I will heed her advice and get on task with acknowledging students ‘doing good’ and stop overemphasizing the negative.

The first step is listening. The next is making a tangible change. If I succeed (or if I don’t), I am certain that relevant feedback will not be far behind.

 

image via Pixabay.com