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

Resourced Learning

I’m almost finished with the springtime cycle of parent-teacher conferences. This is a part of my job which I really enjoy. Meeting parents provides that rare opportunity to communicate in person how marvelous and amazing my students, their children, are. It’s a chance to share my specific observations and to hear particular concerns or questions.

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One parent said at the end of our talk, “You really know my son, you really do.” A compliment of the highest order. This is what I am here for.

I ask myself ‘How do I know this child? How do I get to know each child?”

First of all, I have the benefit of frequency. I see students between 2-4 times per week, depending on the grade level. That’s a lot of contact time. Time is a resource.

Next, I teach in an environment in which although there is relatively high turnover in our student body (about 1/3 on average per year), I often get to teach or at least see many children over the course of a few years. I get to participate in their development. Shared history is a resource.

I spend time observing students. As the years have gone by, I have stepped back from extensive direct instruction and encouraged more student-led and independent activities. Besides cultivating a culture of choice and self-direction, these opportunities allow me to stop and look, to study and analyze student behaviors. Children reveal a great deal about themselves their tendencies during these times. Creating space for observation is a resource.

In my PE classes, I am who I am. My students get to know me in a unique and deeply individual fashion. The multiple filters and mental models each child brings to our encounters shapes the development of our relationships in unimaginable and hard to document ways. When I teach I show a ridiculous number of behaviors, emotions, capabilities which all reach students differently. Over time, kids develop ideas about who I am and what I represent to them. And these ideas are constantly being updated, revised and reworked to accommodate new input and fresh perspectives. Awareness of dynamic, evolving relationships is a resource.

Above all, my students share themselves with me. They talk to me, they ask questions, they run wild with their peers and hang back by the water fountains. They buddy up quickly or pace around the margins, they shout out their favorites and broadcast their dislikes. In everything they do, they are tireless communicators. And it’s not that I understand everything they are saying, offering or demonstrating at the time. Rather, I take their input into account when attempting to grasp their intentions and determine how best to meet their needs.

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Students compel my curiosity and I learn. I learn about them. I learn from them. I learn through them. This is how I get to know my students: I open myself to what they can teach me.

When we look for resources in teaching, we tend to bypass our students.

What if we recognized our students as the most precious resources available to us in developing our teaching and learning?

What if we learned to ask students more often about what they know and understand about the world so far?

What if students were in the habit of being able to tell us who they are before we rush to categorize and file them?

Imagine a world where “the educated” believed that their mission was to stoke the fires of curiosity wherever they went and see the potential for learning in everything that came their way.

Imagine then how well resourced education would be.

A Sight to Behold

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My students are always a sight to behold.

Sometimes when I meet a line of students and lead them through the hallway to the gym, I turn around to look at them. Often, I admit, I am giving them the “Don’t-make-me-ask-another-rhetorical-question-about-our-understanding-of-line-behavior” look. And sometimes I look at them and smile.

I look at them and actually see them in their 6, 7 and 8 year old bodies. I see them smile back at me. I see them skip and wiggle at the same time. I see them jostle to get closer to their closest friends. I see them doing what kids do. I see them being who they are.

My students surprise and amaze me. They race into the gym whooping and hollering because they are HAPPY. They chat with each other because they know friendship. They will stop and listen to me for a hot minute because we practice respect.

I have first graders who can pair up and do their own set of stretches together. I have students at all levels of the elementary for whom a handstand or cartwheel is no big deal. I have fifth graders who have shown me tricks for juggling a soccer ball and managing a back walkover.

My students blossom and bubble when they talk, when they move, when they share. How quickly they comfort one another when someone is hurt, how sincerely they apologize to each other when feelings have been bruised. How open they are when they feel listened to.

How often I forget to drink in the beauty of the students I have before me. How accustomed I become to our habits of discourse that I forget that each child who tells me a bit of news is sharing part of their very special story, their very distinct view of the world WITH ME. I should feel honored and humbled. I forget that sometimes.

My students are lovely and wonderful and miraculous and sometimes I forget to look at them. I forget to see them. But when I remember, they are always a sight to behold.

 

image: courtesy of AISVienna

The Unsettled Here and Now

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I’m going to get personal for a minute here.

Sometimes I can be particularly observant of what’s going on around me and also in me. At present it feels like my powers of observation are a little out of whack. And I think this has to do with my increased traffic on social media platforms.

Since the US Presidential election, I’ve delved more deeply into my online engagements. Twitter has become my primary news source as well as my go-to space for a sense of community in troubled times. As incredibly grateful as I feel for the tremendous wealth of good will, necessary political resistance, and human warmth I experience, I also recognize the slow drain on my attentional and emotional resources.

Every day and on every tweet that I raise my #resist flag, I know this is what I must do, at the very least. I have picked a side and it happens to be against the incoming administration and majority aggressively Republican legislature. Even though I am geographically very distant, I experience the sense of dangerous and targeted upheaval on a very personal level. I fear for individuals as well as systems. And as I watch a group of overwhelmingly white, straight, so-called Christian males parade before multiple TV cameras and announce their policy plans, I feel sickened to know how quickly the country will likely find itself flat on its back not knowing how it got there.

I fear for our individual and collective exposure through our very willing and often enthusiastic embrace of digital tools and platforms which offer us convenience, speed, and seemingly unlimited choice. We are, at the same time, in fairly constant danger of becoming hostages of all the data we give away daily. With our clicks and instrumentalized acquiescence, we have created our most sophisticated and unforgiving monsters yet, which still maintain a miraculously rosy veneer of being society’s new great helpers.

All told, I’m feeling a lot of fear.

At my core I am an educator. My dialogues with students provide some of the richest contours to my thinking and doing. I look forward to starting classes soon in order to get grounded again; to be brought back to my core mission of helping students “Get fit, get better, and get along.”  We’ll have conversations about how we include, nurture, challenge and respect each other. They will remind me about the importance of fair play and being kind to one another. They will remind me to keep working on being my best. Perhaps more than at any other time in my teaching career, creating a classroom where fairness, openness and care are built into everything we do is the most important work I can do – for my students and for myself.

 

image: Spelic/@edifiedlistener

The world is not always our target audience

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I’ve been thinking about privacy and exposure in the context of this ongoing feel-your-way journey of cultivating a digital presence. On a personal level, this does not seem overly complicated. I make my choices and have to live with the consequences. The degree to which I keep myself informed as to my risks and rights in my personal use and application of particular digital tools and platforms is up to me. I can’t easily hold anyone else accountable for the choices I make on my own behalf.

But that’s the catch. My digital engagements (entanglements, perhaps?) by their very nature almost inevitably involve other people: their work, their images, their responses, our shared interactions. If I take a picture with my phone and share it on social media, it is mine; until of course someone else finds another use for it and can choose to credit the source or not. In  most cases, it seems highly unlikely that I would ever learn of any other use unless I pursued a distinct search. If that same image contains another person, then sharing the photo on social media or other open internet platform should only happen if that person has actively consented. (This is based on my fuzzy understanding of model release and use of public domain images. Which is another way to say, “don’t quote me on any of this.”)

Enter, my work in a school. I happen to work in a resource-rich learning environment which means that I and my colleagues and our students have remarkable access to hard- and software to make the most of our digital skills. In my own PE classes I have an iPad and an iPod touch, reliable and generous bandwidth access, a beamer in one space and stereo systems in both teaching spaces. I use Spotify playlists for my classes and can show short playback videos of kids performing various skills and because I can, I now take several pictures of my kids in action.

What happens with all those pictures and video clips? Some are shared with families individually to celebrate a highlight or to document a specific difficulty. Some become resources for our online curriculum archives – providing useful exemplars of successful skill applications. And still others find space on our PE website. Our school has an opt-out policy with regards to use of student images. Families may inform the school if their child’s or children’s pictures may not be used in any school related media, print or online. Unless such a statement is delivered, consent is assumed and images of students may be used in various media. As policies go, this is not uncommon among schools and districts of various sizes.

Not too long ago, privacy expert in the field of education, Bill Fitzgerald (@funnymonkey) raised this question:

And I’ve been thinking about this ever since. In a highly informative post on student directory information he points out that he does not count a school’s website as belonging to social media as they typically receive far less traffic than social media accounts. So our sharing of student images, while available to “the world,” all those images and accompanying words are really designed for our school community to enjoy: students, families, colleagues, alumni and any other interested parties.

So as I become more comfortable with various video and slideshow making tools and posting these to youtube to then share on our website, I want to be sure that my colleague and I are asking ourselves some critical questions.

  • Which story are we telling?
  • How will our students benefit?
  • How will this grow our teaching, expand our repertoire, and/or contribute to the community?

Not every blog post that we put up needs to be broadcast on Twitter or Facebook. But a single photo sent home to a parent celebrating a recent success can make all kinds of difference. Drawing the line between posting for the sake of being seen posting and posting to inform and include is healthy practice in which many more of us could afford to engage.

For our PE website, the world is not our target audience. We’re not out to prove how great our teaching is or how talented our population – rather it is an opportunity to provide parents and colleagues a window into our day-to-day operations with elementary students. And the process has helped me realize how important it is for students to see themselves! So I have promised myself that once I get a slideshow up and running, our first audience needs to be the kids we are featuring. We owe them that much. And, in fact, so much more.

image via Pixabay.com

In Session

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School’s been in session for almost 10 days. By now I have had a chance to meet just about all of the students in my classes. They are multiple and magnificent. The youngest are at least 4 years old, and the oldest nearly 11. A handful of my students are just beginning to learn English. The vast majority speak another language at home and so far it looks like everyone has found friends.

Every day that I arrive to work something is a little different. Some of my kids are in strings class instead of PE. I’m teaching in the smaller activities room instead of the lower gym. My team colleague is playing tough cop instead of me. (I think it’s safe to say that neither of us qualify as bad cops.) My current Spotify playlists work better for the upper grades than for early childhood.

As I am going through these moments, I am struck by two things: on the one hand, details matter. It matters how students feel received in my class. Does it look like I’ve prepared for them and have been awaiting their arrival? Do my students trust me to know who they are? On the other hand, my big picture goals require massive reinforcement.

How frequently I ask my students at every level:

Is that safe?

Is that kind?

Is that respectful?

Safe, kind, respectful. This is my mantra and one I hope that my students can internalize based on their experiences in our class and our school. Their experiences are the details that matter, both seen and unseen; both planned for and utterly spontaneous. While we can only steer so much as educators, we can tip the scales significantly in favor of safe, kind and respectful environments and opportunities for our students.

Now that school is fully back in session, there is no shortage of chances to prioritize the right details.

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.com

 

School For Beginners

At my school we celebrated another first day for students on Monday. I say “celebrated” because that’s what much of the day felt like – a celebration. From most of what I saw, heard and experienced, there was a great deal of happiness. Returning students glad to see each other again, new students quickly finding friends and getting to know their teachers. Among my colleagues there seemed to be this giant collective exhale when we could finally get into our classrooms and do what we do best with students in the room.

To have a “First Day of School” year after year, now feels like a gift. I feel a sense of renewal: each day full of opportunities to change something for the better.  As I get older, I find that being the best holds little value for me any more. What I do enjoy, however, is that feeling of getting better. I could see it in my target kicking to my 8 yr old goalie son this summer. The more I kicked, the more accurate I became with both right and left. I noticed it in the way that I was able to contribute to our department’s conversation about useful apps we might try. It shows up in the way my colleague and I are able to navigate new collaborative territory as we team teach whole grade levels for a few days before our individual class schedules are set.

Getting better is also a lot more fun that agonizing over the title of “best.” Based on a recent conversation about teaching philosophy, I created a poster which I look forward to sharing with my students. Initially it had two parts: What I teach students and What I learn from students. Then I added an “essential question,” admittedly a little tongue-in-cheek. Here’s the outcome:

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Part of getting better will entail determining what awesomeness looks like for my students from PK through 5th grade. Make no mistake – they have ideas and will gladly share. My challenge will be to keep my teacher lady self flexible and sincere enough to welcome those ideas, particularly when they don’t readily align with my vision of “Elementary PE for the Ages.” For sure, being fair is harder than it looks.

In the meantime, my teacher lady self is working hard to get to bed on time, stay hydrated and remember her manners. Not yet best but always getting better.