Mirrors

I just finished reading Kwame Alexander’s Solo and first I need to say this book needs to be added to all classroom libraries. A touching story full of heart I highly recommend this story.

One line stuck out to me and really just hit me in the heart.

“Why do we need mirrors when we can see the reflection of our goodness in the way others react to us?”

This is just one line out of a goldmine of beautifully crafted words but I am going to have to read it again with my journal in hand to really reflect on every gem. But this mirrors line just shouted out at me.

As teachers we often set these behaviour guidelines in our classrooms at the start of the year. We get this whole list together and consequences for not following what the class agrees on and then by November we are usually piecing some entirely different but more realistic set of expectations together.

I come back to this line though and think to myself, “Can this not just be the standard?” Can we not ask our students how are your actions reflected in others reactions to you?

I like to think I am a pretty fair teacher and kind person but I do not know if I would always pass the reflection test. I wonder if we all were worried more about how our actions reflected goodness than say making people laugh, or impressing colleagues or being the “tough” teacher our classroom cultures would improve?

I did my student teaching in a school that had 2 BLA classes. Kids that struggled with their behaviours to a degree that occasionally put their safety or the safety of others in jeopardy. I was blessed to learn from the Admin of that school and the Grade 2-3 BLA teacher specifically that what we do as a teacher and the reflection of our goodness in our students eyes can have a lasting impact.

In my short (8years) teaching history there is still not a moment that stands out more than Friendship Keepers in Mrs.K’s class. Just a break down. Students had envelopes on the ledge that served as a mail box. Each week Mrs.K would have her students write a note of appreciation to someone else in the class. She gave them sentence starters, Thank you…for…, I like it when…. I appreciated…. and so on. For these students this served the purpose of working on their social skills but to me that day it served as an example of how much “goodness” can impact individuals. As Mrs.K was reading these adorable statements of kindness she got to a note that she could not read and became emotional. She passed the note off to another teacher in the class who read the statement, “Thank you Mrs.K for helping us learn” such a simple statement but such a reflection of the goodness that filled that classroom. It sticks with me to this day.

From that day forward I have strived to be that teacher for all of my students. I want the reactions of my coworkers, students and extended community to be a reflection of the goodness that I put out into the Universe. As I continue to think about this upcoming school year I hope that I can.

Now go out and buy Solo by Kwame Alexander because it is beautiful and fun and sad and everything a great book needs to be.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

 

 

33118312Usually I just write a little blurb in the book box for the books that I read but this book could possibly be the most important book I have read considering the impact it could have.

We live in a time where the unrest around the world is at an all time high. We have refugees in many places around the world trying to escape one horror or another and bring their families to safety. This is not the first time in history as Mr.Gratz so perfectly displays in his book but I do feel there is so much going on in the world we are facing a humanitarian crisis on multiple fronts and unfortunately empathy seems to be at a dangerously low level.

2 years ago, give or take, Canada like other nations were faced with the question of how to help the refugees of Syria. A people that are facing atrocities that we as Canadians and yes our friends to the south can not even imagine. There in is where the problem lies. When I asked my students a simple question, “How can we help the people of Syria?” I was horrified at the initial answers, “I don’t want to help them they are dangerous” or “I don’t want them coming here, my family could get blown up” these are the answers of 11 year olds that until this point I thought were critical thinkers. We debated many topics and I was always impressed with the critical thinking that followed when the topics revolved around their lives. This position that most of my students took on the Syrian refugees shocked me. But as we dug deeper it became clear they had no empathy because they had no real background knowledge. There was no source material beyond news articles, no “student friendly” sources that addressed people being starved to death to force surrender, no access to medical assistance, pictures of babies drowned on ocean shores. This book will serve as that bridge in the conversation until students are ready for the “heavier” material.

In “Refugee” the concept of remaining invisible is reoccurring. Either a characters choice to be invisible to avoid harm or being treated as invisible so others do not have to address the injustices they are facing. As teachers, books like this, help us to remove that cloak of invisibility, help us to show our students life with a different lens.

Kylene Beers and Bob Probst write in Disrupting Thinking that reading should involve changing their understanding of the world and themselves…wanting them to be open to the possibility that a text might be disruptive, and that it is that disruption that gives them the opportunity to learn and grow. Reading should be disruptive.

I would like to add that people need stories to change them, to touch their hearts, to help them grow. Refugee does it all, you just must be open to it. As teachers we need to take every chance we can to help our students develop empathy to make those unlike them visible. So that as Alan Gratz so beautifully illustrates in Refugee perhaps these events will not repeat as they have so often in the past.

Go buy this book and read it…to anyone that will listen.

Being Hope

I just finished reading a wonderful story, “The Girl Who Drank The Moon” I have written a little blurb about it on my book box page if you have yet to check it out. As I sat today enjoying the sun I thought more about the book and how it might impact me.

In Disrupting Thinking (I have talked about it before) one thing we are asked to consider in reflecting on a book is HEART-how does the text impact me, change me, help me to help others? I did not expect to have a greater HEART moment a day after reading a book but I guess that is really the point of reflection.

I want to discuss sorrow versus hope as they are important pieces of the story and on reflection very important in regards to teaching and how best to help our students. In the story there is an evil entity called the Sorrow Eater, someone who prays on the sorrow of others. A great quote in the story comes when one character tries to help another avoid the sorrow eater,

“She is trying to drink your sorrow, the madwoman murmured closing her eyes. “Don’t let her. Hope instead. Hope without ceasing.”

For me this illustrated that hope is the counter to sorrow. As a teacher I think this is useful.

Students come to us every year dealing with things that potentially could be causing them sorrow. A weight heavy on them. Lack of food or a safe place to live. Bullies at school or bullies at home. Struggles in learning or fitting in. Family problems, health problems. We don’t always know what our students deal with, they may not always tell us.

As teachers we need to help our students be hopeful. Help them to see there is a break in the clouds in some way or another. I can’t fix a home situation but I can make their school day as great as I can, I can’t fix a health problem but I can make sure they get the best education and best day when they are there. I can be a listening ear or a helping hand. Teachers need to be hope for their students when hope is hard to find. We need to help them see it. To let them know that the clouds might break and that it is ok to ask for help when they are not sure they have that hope in themselves yet. We can’t let our students be weighed down with sorrow.

Imagine I read a book about a Magical girl and came out with I need to be the Hope for my students when they have a hard time finding it in themselves.

 

Disrupting Thinking-The book we need now.

Kylene Beers and Robert Probst are mentioned a few times on my blog and for good reason. They have helped form my thoughts and opinions on reading instruction and so many other things. Today I want to talk a little about a book that I think all teachers should read, heck even parents should have this book to help them advocate better for their children in a day and age where truth is not always as important as catchy headlines. MB-BHH-1-Book

Disrupting Thinking speaks to the importance of readers being not only responsive to text (react to what they read) but also to be responsible (do something with that reaction). My students this year thought it was very funny and even “cool” that Donald Trump was running for President of the United States, as Grade 6 students in Canada their only frame of reference was his TV show and his “Wall”. We discussed current events often and after Trump won and announced his immigration ban legislation my kids again thought it was great because he was “kicking out all the terrorists”. Again I say these are 11 year old Canadian kids so this did not have as much impact on them as it would American kids. I decided I wanted to dive right into the idea of being responsive, responsible, compassionate (another point of importance in Disrupting Thinking) readers with my class. I gave them some background information about the countries that were listed on the ban and then we read an article from Newsela, it was not about the ban but about the families being impacted by it. Because of our work with Notice and Note Non-fiction and annotation of text my students got to work marking off the things that surprised them, confused them and changed or confirmed their thinking. The added step was I wanted them to take time to think about those things more and the what it was about those points that made them think. The conversations that we had around families and why people who had done nothing were being punished. They were holding themselves responsible for how they felt and it was impacting both their thinking and their conversations about the text. Simple but powerful.

We live in a time where fake news and alternative facts are not only common place but even defended as “their truth”. Kids of today need to be taught to have a critical eye when reading any sources of information. The Responsible, Responsive and Compassionate reader does not take whatever is put in front of them and take it is fact. I do not want my students to be a captive audience and take everything I say as the truth without allowing themselves to investigate their own feelings and thoughts. Disrupting Thinking and the ideas presented within gave me permission to explore more than just the words on the page but also the thoughts in our head and the feelings in our hearts. It also gave us a way to organize these thoughts and feelings.

The Framework 

BHH or Book, Head and Heart is introduced in Disrupting Thinking as a way that responsible readers can respond to something they have read. The book part should be pretty self explanatory, what is the book or article talking about, what does the author want us to know?  Head revisits the ideas presented in Beers and Probsts previous work, Notice and Note, What surprised me, what did the author think I knew (what confused me) What did I notice? Finally heart, How does the text impact me, what did I learn about myself and how could it help me to be better? At first my students gave me that “You have to be kidding me” look. “We have to talk about our feelings?” to which I said no but you need to be open to how the story makes you feel personally. After reading through this book I knew the power of the framework within my own thinking but I was not ready for how easy my students would pick it up as long as they could connect. The even crazier thing was the freedom to represent it how they wanted made them like it even more. I keep reading journals (I get it not everyone does, AND THAT IS OK) the majority of my kids chose BHH as their way to reflect when asked to record it from day 1 going forward.

There is power in giving kids choice, there is power in helping them open their minds, to question, to think, to feel what the words they read make them feel. I can not give this book a greater endorsement. I think every teacher needs to read it, I wish every teacher training program gave it to their graduating students and I wish every parent had the chance to sit down with their children and talk to them about BHH and why allowing ourselves to look at a text in many ways helps us to think. Kids need to be thought of as more than a test score, more than a reading level. They are the future and we need a future of responsive, responsible readers that are guided not just by achievement (trust me though the ideas of Kylene and Robert do assist kids in achievement) but also their heart, a desire to see the world as more than just how it impacts them but how they can impact it.

Man I love this book.

Here is a few examples of my kids BHH reactions from last year. Now go read this book 🙂

 

Hard topics with Picture Books

I have talked before about the power of picture books to get reluctant readers reading. Kids like picture books (less words) and they don’t seem to think it is work because there are only a few pages compared to a 200+ page novel. The thing is, in those few pages power lessons can be taught.

Sometimes there are topics that are very hard to address because maybe politics or demographics of your area make them very hard to connect with. I teach in a community that has a particularly one sided demographic regarding race. While there are students from other racial groups the majority are white. When we talk about world events things like the refugee crisis or racial tension south of the border are very hard to understand. There is no frame of reference beyond the news.

In Canada we have our own history of mistreatment based on race. Internment camps were set up for Asian Canadians during the war and residential schools caused immeasurable damage to the families of our First Nations in Canadas recent past. Again these issues have been difficult for the students to understand beyond “it was bad” the question of why it is bad did not really hit the heart reflections.

So we turn to picture books. There are many picture books that address controversial issues a few that really stuck out to me this year that I used were Baseball Saved Us, When I was Eight and Not My Girl. These texts had relatable connections to Canada’s history and so we focused on them.

Baseball Saved Us focuses on a boy growing up in an internment camp, his father creates a baseball field at the camp and while experiencing horrible treatment the boy builds his baseball skills, upon exiting the camp he still deals with racism and horrible treatment but he has something positive to focus on. Tough content but lead to great conversations.

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Not My Girl is the story of a girl that returns home after being at a Residential school. The students were given background information but were not having the heart reactions that I felt were important for such an important topic. We went through the story as the girl tries to relearn her families ways and earn back her mothers love. The reflections after were great. Questions as to why such programs existed and the discussion that followed in human rights was only possible because the pictures helped the students feel when the words were hard to connect with.

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When we are trying to get students to question their already formed thoughts and opinions we need to present them with something that shakes those opinions a bit. Using picture books we were able to come to conversations naturally without me just having to tell them everything I want them to think about. They had the opportunity to wonder on their own, work through there own confusions and perhaps even change how they approached these topics in the future.

What’s your compass?

There are two phrases that drive me crazy in education more than any other “We make our decisions based on what is best for kids” and “Is that best practice?” Both phrases tend to come from someone trying to steer a teacher towards what they think is best instead of trusting that that teacher knows their students and what they need.

Sometimes I think we get stuck in this mindset that if what we are doing and we think is working is questioned we try to find evidence and facts to say “yup it is best practice” or “All my decisions are based on what is best for students” or “How do you know what is best for students?” So I get to my question “What is our compass for the decisions we make in our class?” I was reflecting on this lately as I do a little summer Twitter and Facebook PD chatting with teachers all over North America. What is my compass? Do I make my decisions based on reading, or expert opinion or peer opinion or student reactions? Maybe a combination of everything?

First, Do I make my decisions based on reading? I am a self described life long learner and reading educational resources has most definitely informed my practice but am I so rigid in my thinking that I can’t take advice from other sources than my wonderful books? Do I take everything I read in books and say “I don’t care what my students feel about this or what my admin say, this is what I am doing?” I hope not.

I have had the great pleasure of attending PD with many experts in their field. Some writing, some math, many more on literacy instruction and reading primarily. Each has influenced my teaching, my compass but like all things if I am so rigid that I can only accept what they say and not take in the advice of my peers or my students wishes again I think we get lost in discovering what really is best for students.

Peers are a great resource. They hopefully have done some reading of their own, they hopefully have been effective in their classrooms and can add to the conversations you are having around the premise of what is best for students. Where I think it gets tricky is what the measure is for “best practice” or what is “best” for kids. Evidence is helpful in these conversations and where do we get these pieces of evidence?

The main guide to my classroom instructional practice, my students. Engagement first and results a close second. What I do in my classroom and what I require of my students is ultimately influenced greatest by how much they enjoy being in school. My practices that I learn from books, experts and peers mean nothing if my students are bored, unengaged and resistant. But engagement and fun in school must also be followed by results, academic evidence of success because well, that is our job.

Without evidence the lines “best practice” and “We are doing what is best for kids” are just lines. Best practice itself is flawed, it should be “best practice for now” an idea I picked up from a great book Disrupting Thinking by a great pair of authors Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. They have informed much of my teaching and the best part is the ideas they have shared are both engaging and generate results. Best practice for now shows that our practices just like us should grow and change over time. Innovation is only hampered by complacency. Always strive for better in teaching and engagement should follow.

As teachers we need to be flexible, we need to allow teachings from experts, peers and the lessons we learn from our students to be our compass, to guide our practice. Otherwise we might get lost in all the extra noise.

We can’t do everything everyone says

When I first started teaching grade 6 I was told that I needed to bring some “fresh” ideas to the team. Some times these fresh ideas are referred to as “best” practice for the point of this post I will just say different strategies.

There are a ton of educational experts out there that have a million different (very awesome) suggestions on how to approach teaching. It could be cooperative learning based approaches or project based or inquiry. Maybe you are a math teacher, well let me tell you there are a lot of different ways to teach math. I loved going to PD a few years ago where the kids did “investigations” that were problem based in an authentic scenario, maybe a store doing inventory or cooking a family dinner.  We move towards math workshop and guided practice. Here are a ton of strategies learn them all and check what works best. We move away from the “stale” ideas towards the “fresh” ones. Problem is what if the stale ideas are best. Ask anyone I have worked with, the good old algorithm and memorization approach to math yields strong results. This is not saying the other ways are bad but is there only one way?

We look at literacy instruction, which I have developed a passion for. Read the classics, read modern text, do novel studies, independent reading, guided reading, use a journal or notebook, don’t use a notebook. As you can see there is a lot of conflicting ideas. I attended PD with one of my idols a few months ago and he talked about his daily schedule and it indicated daily reflection with a thought log, today I read from another idol that a journal response should be maybe a monthly activity…

So where do we go from here? Can everyone be right? I think the quick answer is yes. I think the longer answer is, we as teachers need to take everything the experts say and use what works for our students. No one learns the same, no one should teach the same. We should embrace new learning but not blindly follow it because that takes what I think is best about teaching, the individual differences of learners and teachers out of the equation.

I love trying new things, I love following in the footsteps of the teaching giants that inspire me. That might be the Kelly Gallaghers or Pernille Ripp or Kylene Beers of the world but it is also the Kevin Dudley the Jemma Dallas or the Ginger Caldwells. Teachers are meant to inspire both their students and their colleagues. Working to find the perfect way to teach everything will probably lead to a very large headache and constantly reversing your position on any given topic but being open to change and also realizing when things can stay the same I think is the key to building a successful approach to teaching.

The chance to Restart

I just finished reading Restart by Gordon Korman. I am in awe of these writers that can have a zillion great books but this one really stuck out to me. Not just the premise of getting a chance to start over for a bully that loses his memory. In itself I think that is and was a great idea for a story but the idea of just starting fresh and what that could do for us I think has some great crossover into teaching in general.

I am sure I am not alone when I think of comments from students like, I am not a reader or I hate reading or I can’t play basketball I am terrible or my brain can’t do math. Kids learn limitations that are placed on them far before they learn what they can and can’t do.

As teachers we are guilty of helping these limitations take hold in our kids. We attach descriptors to behaviors, they become a number or a letter, “Mr.Gilson I am a blue dot I can’t read a red dot” “Mr.Gilson I am interested in this book but it is too high on lexile for me to try it” Who hasn’t heard that? We read files that discuss behaviors/skills and form opinions before even meeting most of our students.

When we sit down with co-workers who have taught our students previously the comments tend to be more warnings than congratulations on which students we will get the opportunity to teach. It isn’t fair to the kids and it isn’t fair to the teachers.

This year as I start at a new school I want to let it serve as a Restart. The kids don’t know me and I don’t know the kids. I want to discover their reading level by reading with them, their writing by sitting down and discussing their choices and praising the good while building on the weak areas. I want my students to know that I come to no conclusions on who they are based on a file or words from a teacher in their past. I am getting a Restart and they should to.

Working back to the story if a bully never gets a chance to show they can be something else they won’t be. If a struggling reader never gets a chance to develop a love for reading they will always struggle. Teachers need to be the one sure source that allows students a Restart as many times as they need it.

Isn’t the process of learning after all falling and getting back up again, restarting, until we get it right?

Large or Small a book should change you

My favorite educational writers Kylene Beers and Robert Probst have taught me many things. Most recently in the book Disrupting Thinking they put out the idea that the things we read should have some kind of impact on us as readers. Either through learning something new or building up an established idea or maybe even leading to a change in us.

The book as many of their other texts has had a profound impact on me as a teacher but more so as a reader. In the last few weeks (and few days now that summer is here) I have had numerous reading experiences that have lead to a change in me and the way I look at the world.

First The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Growing up in smaller towns in Canada and now living in a very small town the subject matter of police misconduct and racial discrimination is not one that resonated with me personally. Like everyone I am upset by news stories that report this ever growing issue but as it was not something I could “relate” to it was not something that occupied my thinking. Reading this book  and being introduced to these outstanding characters somehow made something that I only would ever see on the news more real. Imagine that, a young adult fiction novel became so much more real and powerful in showing me the impact of racism and police misconduct in American cities than the news stories. My second profound change book has been A List of Cages by Robin Roe. Again a story that I have not experienced anything that the characters in this story go through but after reading it I am changed. Page after page of heartache followed by hope. One characters journey to just be a great guy and another characters goal being to survive. The impact of horrific abuse is explored in this story in a way that shook me to my core. The idea that we never know what people are truly dealing with and even when we do helping them is not as easy as hollywood makes it seem. It sometimes is cliche to say but this book broke me down at points but built me up in others changed, hopefully more empathetic and focused on the struggles others may be silently suffering rather than my trivial struggles in comparison. After reading such a hard book at times I needed something up lifting. I finished Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder this afternoon while tanning by the pool (burning really). This book was a wonderful story that while I think not intentional could be great as an example to teachers in that we can’t teach all students the same. In reality themes around fear of change, friendship and family all  loop over and over. Now how did it change me? One simple lesson, we are not always ready for change but if we wait to long we might do more harm than good, take a step and enjoy the adventure.

In 7 week I start a new adventure and I am excited. Hopefully I can be like Kylene and Bob, or Rae and Cory or Charlie and Mark or my Mom and Dad. Teachers that have all helped to change me, who I am as a teacher and who I am as a person. I hope to be that teacher for my students to come and hope I have been that teacher for my students past.

Now time to read a few more books!