Personalizing the Impersonal

It goes without saying that I’ve had to get a little creative this year.

On top of having four grade-levels worth of students all packed in one classroom, each of them have very specific learning needs, from regulation challenges to social differences to the issues that many children experience while learning.  But as a teacher, I value the whole-group experience immensely.  It is of utmost importance to me that children interact with each other and have some common experiences.  Within these experiences, we teachers specifically choose media and provocations that will shape learning, and it’s important that our students share some of those experiences to lay a foundation for learning class-wide.

This becomes especially challenging, though, when trying to teach basic skills relating to math and reading.  Yes, it’s easy to create rubrics, lay out the skills, and then provide each of the children with isolated skills that help them to climb the steps to higher levels of proficiency, but that’s only part of a child-centered experience.  Child-centered learning more importantly entails provoking learning in whole-group settings and allowing students to find their respective places within that curriculum. It requires them to see themselves in the midst of the group, and it challenges them to personalize something that has not been personalized for them already.

Or maybe that’s the teacher’s job.

I sometimes fear the use of the word “personalization.”  A lot of times, when described, I suddenly get visions of children working in silos, separate from one another, isolating themselves and their learning from anything contextual, when all along, learning needs to be contextualized, it needs to be social, and it needs to be something through which children can communicate the way they see, feel, and experience the world.  And in order to communicate this, they simply need others.  They need a whole-group experience.

This manifest, though, has not changed the constraints that my classroom has imposed upon me.  I still have four grade levels worth of kids, and I’ve still needed whole-group lessons to create social experiences that allow all children to access the content. What’s a boy to do?

photo 4Interdisciplinary Learning

My teaching partner and I decided to create a yearly theme of communities.  We chose this not only for its ties to social-emotional learning, but we also chose it for its breadth.  By choosing such a broad topic, we have been able to weave most, if not all, disciplines into this theme, helping to make the connections tangible and learning multi-dimensional.

This week’s general math skill related to place value, specifically comparing numbers.  While this looks different at a variety of grade levels, I found it necessary to embed this content within an interdisciplinary provocation.  On the board, I drew three tables, each with two columns.  One column had a series of four-digit numbers, ranging from 1794 to 2010, while the other column had anywhere from one-digit numbers all the way to six-digit numbers.

I told the students nothing.  I simply showed them the organized information and encouraged them to observe, ask questions, and make inferences. Soon enough, though, they figured it out.

photo 2“Hey, it’s like a population!” one of the students exclaimed.

I smiled and asked more questions.

“What makes you think that?” I said.

Of course, the students replied that the series of four-digit numbers looked like years and that the other numbers seemed to resemble various numbers of people at any given time.  Some of them surmised that it was the population of the world, while others thought it was the population of America, and some even thought it was the population of California.

“Wait, no, I know the population of the world is like eight billion!” one student said.

photo 1Through the sharing of background knowledge and the momentum gained through asking questions and making predictions, we eventually centered on the idea that this was the population of San Francisco over time (with a little help from the teacher).  Within this fifteen minutes, children were cognitively challenged, meanwhile allowing me to do a quick review of place value and strategies for comparing numbers.  From there, students were able to participate in activities commensurate with their ability levels in comparing and ordering multi-digit numbers.  For some, comparing to the thousands place was appropriate, for others, comparing to the billions seemed just right, and for a few, comparing decimals was appropriately challenging.

While all of these activities did not use the San Francisco data verbatim, the foundation it set was strong, relevant, and gave a purpose to our learning that day.

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It’s easy to lose children in a whole-group setting; it’s easy for them to fall through the cracks.  The best whole-group experiences are the ones where everyone is correct, everyone is able to contribute, and everyone is able to see and appreciate themselves, despite the ocean of thoughts, strengths, and people around them.

By giving learning a context, by making it relevant and interdisciplinary, and by starting with the children’s questions and thoughts, we can help all students set a purpose for learning, and we can help all children feel seen.  While it’s tempting to think of “feeling seen” in a conventional way–in the sense that in order to be seen, we need to externalize our self-image and rely on validation from others–feeling seen doesn’t necessarily mean feeling like everyone else agrees with you or that everyone else thinks you are correct.  Sometimes “feeling seen” means knowing that you’ve contributed and knowing that you’ve figured something out.

And through provoking learning in this way, we can help all children feel seen, if not by others, by themselves.

To Be Extraordinary

I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone out there who doesn’t want to be recognized for what they do.  

Perhaps there are those that stray from the spotlight, and perhaps there are those that prefer to avoid being the center of attention, but the idea of validation lies at the heart of all that we do.  Yes, for some, validation stems more from intrapersonal conversations, and for others, it requires too much support from the external.  For some, a healthy balance helps them to feel validated. But regardless, we all need to be seen, we all need to be heard, and we all need to feel important.

photo (40)We all want to feel extraordinary, at least in our own respective ways.  I use the term loosely, and perhaps what I mean is that we all want to have purpose.

We want to know that the years of compounded memories upon which we’ve built our lives have meant something.

We want to be able to look back and invest meaning in our successes and mistakes that embody our present and future.

We want to know those successes and mistakes are worth more than the gray matter they’ve created in our brains.

But perhaps the extent to which we are extraordinary doesn’t have to lie in the validation that comes from recognition; maybe we don’t need the recognition to be extraordinary.  Perhaps it simply comes from being, moving, and adapting with our successes and shortcomings.

Instead of validation, it could be the courage to simply be ourselves–despite the constant push and pull of the world around us–that makes us truly extraordinary.

Why I Like My Messy Classroom

“Just throw it on my desk,” I used to say.  All the time.

And so my desk became the place that people threw things.  It became the place that I threw things.  Weeks and weeks would go by, my desk would sit alone in the corner of the room, untended, with no one to sit beside it; a mere collection of papers, books, and miscellaneous confiscated items.  It got to a point in my third year where I actually hid my desk behind a supply cart, in an effort to shield any visitors from its less-than-attractive facade.

In fact, as those weeks and weeks would pass, I’d notice similar piles of things stack up around the room: student work, remnants of activities and games, even books strewn about across the room.  Was it because I was careless? No. Disorganized? Maybe a little bit. But even that wasn’t the real reason.

photo 1

We’re still chipping away at design!

It was because learning messy; it’s a forced to be reckoned with.

Learning is instinctual, and if you really think about it, it isn’t something that anyone can force us to do.  Instead, learning requires the active participation of the learner.  He or she needs to make a choice to listen, process, and internalize the information or provocation presented before them.  But this complex process is neither linear nor sequential. While it might have a trending progression or series of steps, it is by no means a one-way path, and it can only be found through trial, error, and consistent interaction with the media presented.  What’s even more baffling is that it sometimes can only be tracked retrospectively.

Yesterday, in the midst of a lesson on form and function, my students built structures for various fictional companies, trying to make a building that met the needs of their fictional character.  While the original intent of the lesson was to lay a foundation and draw parallels between real-life structures and text structure, the amount of learning that occurred through trial, error, and rebuilding was rather startling (and not what I originally intended).  Instead of prescribing the content, though, I purposefully provoked learning so that students were able to try out-of-the-box solutions and inquire as to their success or lack thereof.  Likewise, I was able to continuously ask a barrage of questions, getting them to truly think about the intention behind their structures.

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When we finished, there were toothpicks strewn about the floor, mixed with dirt and sticky marshmallows; the tables were turned, askew to the rectangular shape of our classroom; and the stools were no longer three to a table.

Could they have been more intentional about keeping the space clean?  Of course, they could have.  But the silver lining in their lack of intention was the industry, autonomy, and risk-taking that accompanied their curiosity and engagement.  Keeping the space clean was deprioritized because they were too busy trying, rethinking, and most of all, they were too busy learning.

There’s a certain romanticism that comes with a messy classroom, even when it causes us teachers some anxiety.  It makes a space feel lived in, and it makes a space feel real.  Too often we get caught up in the “cute” of teaching, when that’s actually not what the reason we’re in it .  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good bulletin board or colorful anchor chart, but a classroom should speak the language that the children speak; it should mirror the culture of the room.

And our culture is messy.  Because learning is messy.

Why We Don’t Need to be So Scared of Math

Believe it or not, math anxiety is a scientifically proven thing.

For some people, when they see or hear about a math problem, their first instinct is to freeze up and turn away. The idea of math creates feelings of angst, and while we can never be sure why, it’s most likely because of experiences rooted within schooling that cause this.

Math seems like it would a subject with absolute answers, and to a certain degree, it’s important that we help children learn to find plausible answers that use logic; however, this does not mean that we have to teach with an absolutist mentality. When we do, it’s exactly the opposite of an empowering experience. It’s limiting, confining, and conducive to making children believe that math is a foreign language, one which they will never have any potential to understand. By approaching math through inquiry, however, we give our kids a much greater chance of relieving their anxiety around math and empowering them to be problem-solvers and critical-thinkers.

photo 1

The wall started with simply an image of the blocks. As the kids spoke, I recorded their thoughts on the wall.

Check out this series of mini-lessons I did with my students last week. I decided to switch to 15-minute shared math mini-lessons in order to help create a common experience for a group of thirteen students spanning four grade levels and various interests, one that I could easily use as the foundation for multiple proficiencies within one general skill area, but one that would still allow all students to observe, question, and think at a level commensurate with their respective skill sets.  In fact, the objective, in my opinion, has little to do with actually mastering mathematical concepts, and more to do with the art of curiosity.

We used Project Zero’s See… Think… Wonder… protocol to help the children construct meaning on their own. I started by having them simply look and tell me what they see.

“I see blocks,” one said.

“I see 10,” another replied.

“It’s getting bigger,” a third retorted.

We went through this process of seeing, thinking, and wondering. I put up all ideas, even ones that struck me as inaccurate in an effort to have something to which we could compare our thinking and learning later in the week.

photo 2

When we finished the week, we had an entire wall of thoughts and questions, accompanied by post-it notes and even some other images!

“I’m not going to tell you what I think,” I told them. “You’re going to have to figure it out for yourselves as the week goes.”

It was in this moment that a startling conclusion came hurtling into my mind–one that I always had a hunch about but could never really prove. Children don’t always need to be touching and feeling to interact; interaction itself doesn’t need to be hands-on to be valuable. Interaction implies a conversation, and whether that conversation happens with tangible media, other people, or ourselves, the bottom line is that it’s of utmost important that our children interact with what they learn and that we facilitate that interaction.  We need to facilitate this interaction so they are able to observe, question, and think in a risk-free manner.

These media–the media with which we interact on a daily basis–define our experiences and shape the knowledge that we construct. By facilitating this interaction, we facilitate learning.  We cannot facilitate learning when students are afraid to take risks, and we especially cannot foster a strong conceptual knowledge of math when anxiety presents its ugly face. Instead, the best way to face these fears is by watching them, thinking about them, and questioning them intently.

I think if this was done that way from the beginning, people would be a lot less scared of math.

Object Permanence

Mist and fog shroud the bay,
Muddling the image of the bay city’s silhouette.
I can see neither its presence nor its arms wrap around me,
But I somehow don’t feel lost;
I don’t feel foundationless.

Its brightness paints no images on my retinas;
Its smile stains no part of my periphery.
But I sense its safety;
I feel it surrounding me–

Even though I cannot see.


Seeing the Invisible: The Power of Perspective in Student Success

My grandma changed my life, and I don’t think she ever knew it.

She passed away almost 5 years ago now, and before she passed away, I don’t even think I knew how strong her impact would be.  I wrote about this quite some time ago, but it’s taking on new meaning as I delve further into my adulthood; I question the nuances of motivation, the origin of interest, and the true meaning of success.

When I was in college, I used to correspond with “Grandma France” via e-mail here and there.  She loved going online, and we’d find that most of our conversations would transpire over the occasional e-mail, where I’d update her on my life, and she’d respond with more questions.  Every so often, we catch each other on the phone, but in hindsight, I’m grateful for our written correspondences more so than our phone calls.  And why is that?

Because she helped me realize something about myself.  She helped me see something in myself that I wasn’t able to see before.

You’re quite a writer, the e-mail said. You should write more!

I remember stopping and reading her words.  Me? A writer? I thought.  I had always felt simply like I was talking with my hands.  I never saw the value in my own writing, and I never really felt successful as a writer either.  As such, it wasn’t a preferred activity; it wasn’t something I would choose to do.  It wasn’t something I deemed an “interest” of mine.

To me, it is critical that we find things that students are interested in.  In order for our children to feel seen, valued, and heard, we need to channel their interests.  But I believe that student interest is not where learning begins.  If we look at the root of student interest, it is likely that it is grounded in the student’s definition of success–not in the topic itself.  More often than not, a student’s interest is validating to them; it makes them feel good, because they believe that they’re “good” at it and they believe they “know a lot” about it.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 9.25.45 AMIt makes them feel… successful. 

It comes as no wonder then, that our students that struggle the most are the ones that don’t feel successful.  They withdraw from school and often say they don’t have any interests, not because they’re trying to be difficult; rather, they say this because there are few places in which they feel successful.

I had one student back in Chicago who used to claim that she hated to read.  She’d say the words would “float away from her” as she’d read, and that she preferred to read graphic novels only.  She was also very specific about the types of books she’d read.  She gave me specific plots and character types.  Obviously, these experiences with these types of books made her feel successful.  It was more than just an interest.

One day, I pulled her for a reading group with some other students.  The other students had different needs than she, but also different strengths.  This student, in particular, had a strength in conversing and thinking deeply, something that the other students didn’t have.

“I need you to be a role model today,” I said.  “I want you to be a part of this group because I need your thinking.  Sound good?”

She nodded, still a little wary, as reading was a non-preferred activity.  I pulled out copies of the text, highlighters, and some pencils.  This student also told me she liked to highlight.  It made her feel good when she was able to mark up a story.  We began reading, and I modeled some strategies, showed some pieces of the text I deemed important, and then sent them on their literate ways.  I’d listen to each of them read independently, asking probing questions along the way.

“I think she might be trying to teach the tiger a lesson,” my reluctant reader said to me.

We were reading a folktale about a tiger who had stolen from an old woman.  The old woman then set up a series of tricks to teach the tiger a lesson about stealing.

“Everybody stop!” I exclaimed. “[Jess] has a great thought!”

She shared with the other two students, who then went back into the text to discuss their thoughts, catapulting us into the momentum of the small-group reading lesson.  They continued to read closely and highlight pieces of text that helped support this idea of a lesson in a story.  Our time suddenly seemed to go by rapidly, the inertia of the lesson encountering little friction.

“Alright, I think we need to stop for today,” I said.  “It’s almost 2:00.”

“Can I keep reading it on my own?” my reluctant reader asked.

My eyes widened.  Without thinking, I said, “Really?”

“Yea,” she said back coolly, pretending it wasn’t that big of a deal.

“Sure thing,” I replied, trying to calm my excitement and mimic the “coolness” of my student.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 9.27.06 AMI asked myself why she was suddenly so interested, and I wondered why she was miraculously so engaged when she wasn’t 30 minutes prior.  The text I had pulled that day had none of the prerequisites she had listed in her interests.  It wasn’t even a story that had a character similar to her.  Sure, it was a good story, an engaging text, and it aligned with previous lessons, but if learning hinged on interest, what was getting her interested?

In that lesson–in that moment–she was interested because she was feeling successful.  She noticed that she had something to contribute to her own reading experience, which was paramount to a sustained interest–to subsequent independent, self-directed practice.  Suddenly, something in which she previously had little interest became an interest to her… and not because she provoked it in herself.

But because she felt successful doing it.

If my Grandma France had never told me I was a good writer, who knows if I would have ever started to write, who knows if I would have learned to love to teach writing so much, and who knows if I would have ever developed an “interest” in it.  In that moment, with those few words in a seemingly routine e-mail, she made me feel successful, and she made me and my written words feel valued.

While student interest is important, I believe that, at the core of what we do as educators, seeing the potential in children and helping them find success in all they do is even more important.  This is why a student-centered education is so important, and this is why meeting children where they are and building them from there is far more effective than pushing them to unrealistic benchmarks.

I’m grateful for my grandma everyday because she helped me to see something in myself that was not visible to me. The power of her perspective, in hindsight, is humbling.  I couldn’t get by simply driving my own experience; I needed someone else’s perspective to help validate, motivate, and drive me into a sustained interest.

And this is exactly what our students need.  They need someone value the parts of themselves they don’t yet know how to value, and they need someone to nurture the malnourished. They need someone to see the the parts that are currently invisible to them.

They need us to believe in them.

Balancing Freedom with Intention: Creating Vulnerable Writers

The idea of language has always been fascinating to me.  The mere thought that an amalgamation of lines and curves can form meaning automatically is mind boggling.  Even right now, as I type these words, they come from abstract thought, an image in my mind that is a mixture of visuals and feelings, somehow translated into the words that you are reading. Right. Now.

The magical thing about it all is that kids have those thoughts, too.  They just don’t always express them.

In my opinion, these thoughts and these words get tied up somewhere–somewhere between a lack of understanding and an abundance insecurity.  Too often, writing practices confine children, leaving them to feel constantly criticized and utterly powerless, but a lack of any structure at all can be just as limiting.  In order for children to become better writers, balancing freedom with intention is of utmost importance.  It allows for a critical and purposeful process, meanwhile allowing students to take risks and internalize the beautiful freedom that comes from being vulnerable with their thoughts.

“It takes a lot of…” I stopped. “Hold on, I’m going to write this word down.”

My hands started with V and slowly leaked out the remaining 12 letters to spell vulnerability.

“Does anyone know what this means?” I asked.

“Yea!  It’s like in my video game when a town is really vulnerable, it means it can get DESTROYED really easily.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 6.21.04 PMNot exactly what I had in mind.

“Totally,” I replied, “but there are other ways to think about vulnerability.  It can be a good thing, too.  When sharing our writing, and when giving feedback, we need to be really vulnerable with our thoughts. It will make us better writers.”

“Yea, it can be kind of scary sometimes to share writing,” another student confided in the class.

“It certainly can,” I replied, “but if we remember that we’re all trying to help, we can make our writing even better.”

The conversation turned to our conference form, where the students were able to see just the manner in which they will be able to give and receive feedback to each other.  While the choices in the “I see…” sections are extremely intentional and linked to Common Core Standards, the form itself is open-ended enough that it allows for a focused and positive critique of their writing, intended to help them hone their skills one step at a time, as opposed to achieving perfection after the first shot.

“Using this form means that both people have to be vulnerable,” I continued. “The writer has to share his or her thinking, and the reader has to give some honest and positive feedback to help make the writing even better.”

We practiced with my story, and they were able to give it a try.  Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 6.26.09 PM

Well, they don’t quite know the difference between “word choice” and “grammar,” but at least they know how to give some honest and actionable feedback!