Nothing Comes from Nothing

I’m not exactly sure how a realization comes about, but it would seem as though it’s an instantaneous occurrence — that one moment we lack realization and not a moment later, we come to a realization.  But this idea that something formed from nothing, that it just spontaneously materialized, really defies the laws of physics, for nothing — neither matter nor energy — can be created or destroyed.  Instead, matter, energy, and therefore, consciousness must follow these laws, as well.  The act of realization must constantly and imperceptibly be occurring as our synapses fire.

The other day, regardless of how or why, I had a realization.

It all just kind of hit me at once. I looked around and saw all of these people, a building, the couch beneath me, the computer in front of me, and faces of all photo (13)these small children who were now under the careful watch of my co-teacher and me.  This reality that I was now a part of was a mere figment of my imagination six months ago: it was an anticipation, a mere hypothetical.  But at that moment it was a reality.  It had become reality.

And it’s tempting to say that it came from nothing — that it just appeared, but that’s not the case.  While it may seem that it was nothing, it can all be infinitely traced backwards to points where it might seem like it began.  But even supposed beginnings have a series of inciting incidents that led to it in the first place.

And I think within that idea lies hope.

If nothing comes from nothing — and if everything comes from something — then there’s always something else we can do or try, there is always a place where we can meet a child, and there is always a glimmer of hope, even when it feels without.

Creation Over Consumption

I sat and watched as my students began to look around at each other, draw lines on their papers, and label certain places on the paper. What I was trying to get them to do was make a two-column chart, in an effort to help them organize data for an experiment we were about to start.

IMG_3630Yes, I could have taken the time to create a chart for them beforehand, placed some cute graphics on it, chosen a scientific font, and made copies so they could pristinely show their work on this consumable piece of paper.  Likewise, I could have simply had them open up a Google Spreadsheet and input their data on a computer and then allow the computer to automatically create a series of graphs and charts.  We certainly have access to the technology to do so, and it certainly would have been more efficient. B ut I chose to have them create the chart with their own two hands. I chose to have them create the chart from nothing, to rely on the simple materials around us, and to use their understanding of the world to organize themselves.  And it was extremely intentional.

There’s a misconception out there that we need lots of “things” to learn, that learning has to be expensive, and that going to a good school means going to a place where pretty products are manufactured daily.

But that’s not the way you work. That’s not the way the world works. And that’s not the way kids should work.

As teachers, we have the daunting task of helping our children make sense of the world. It’s like the building of a suspension bridge, with all of the world’s languages at one end and an individual child’s language at the other. In order to build that bridge, posts must be secured in the ground and then building must happen from both ends. And this means children must have a hand in it.

IMG_3634While the task of having children make their own two-column tables may seem laborious, rather disorganized, and extremely messy, the simple intention of it being student-created is not only easier for me, it’s better for them in countless ways. It allows them to own the task, to construct this language of data organization on their own, and it allows me to listen, so I may help to bridge the gap between their intuition –their language — and the language I’m trying to help them speak, which, in this case, was data organization and display.  It helped them to build spatial awareness, understand partitioning, and interact with two-dimensional planes; not to mention, it built fine-motor skills.

So, in order to help my children make sense of this data and this experiment, I started from the very beginning; I had them build something that technology could have very easily done for them, and as a result, I helped them build their knowledge of data collection through seemingly mundane and time-consuming tasks.  But even more so, I authentically modeled that learning doesn’t have to come from a workbook or computer.

Instead, learning comes through creation — not consumption.

If I Was a Parent

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to send a child — your child — to school each and every day.  I can’t imagine because I am not yet a parent, and it’s very likely that I will not be for quite some time.  And for that reason, this becomes one of the most complex pieces of our job, in my opinion: working with the people who take the risk to trust us with their children every day — the parents.

But why does it have to be so complex?  What makes working with families so delicate?

It’s easy to lose sight of this the longer you are a teacher.  After all, you see students filter into your classroom, day in and day out, and to you, it’s just business as usual.  Kids come in, they fail, they succeed, and, for the most part, they take baby steps towards long-term goals each and every day.  And within those experiences, and only those experience, lies the educator’s perspective — the educator’s truth.

What we forget, however, is that does not lie within parents’ realm of experiences each and every day.  Instead, the parent watches their child — their baby, their little miracle — get on the bus, walk out the front door, or get out of the car each morning and walk into a place over which they have very little control.  That same child comes home every afternoon, and upon being poked and prodded for information about the school day, many parents get an apathetic “I didn’t do anything” or “It was fine” from their children.

Of course, we know our kids aren’t “doing nothing.”  In fact, we know quite the opposite.  We know that our kids are doing a whole lot of something.  But it’s unreasonable to expect parents to simply know and trust this, and it’s wholly unrealistic to expect young children to be able to communicate all of the day’s happenings in a succinct and clear manner.

555487_3739179115224_1910065841_nAnd I can only begin to imagine what this must be like.  

As a bona fide, certified control freak, I pity the poor soul who teaches my child some day, because I know that I will be freaking out with every lesson and every moment that passes by in the classroom, because in my mind, every moment is precious, every moment is a moment of that child’s life that we hold delicately in our hands, and every moment is another moment that a parent is missing out on each day.

We have a unique superpower, as our students’ teachers, and this power we possess allows us to see significant pieces of these children’s lives that the parents don’t get to see.  They, in essence, are loaning their children to us for the better part of a year (or more), trusting that we’ll do good by them, and that we’ll do everything in our power to nurture them just as they, their parents, would.  As a result, it’s just as much our job to make parents feel safe, supported, and seen, as it is to make the children in our rooms feel safe, supported, and seen, as well.

And I think with a little empathy — with a little perspective-taking — teachers can realize that most parents are not trying to judge teachers, and at the end of a week, all parents just want to know their kids are getting the best experience possible.  They want to know their children are seen and heard in the classroom, and they want to know that these little people — the little people into whom they’ve invested so much of their time and energy — are safe and happy.

And I think if I was a parent, I’d want that, too.

So make the phone calls, be proactive, and treat relationships with parents in the same delicate manner you’d treat your relationships with children.  It’s part of the nature of what we do, and it’s what’s going to make our children the most successful.

3 Ways to be a User-Driven Teacher

We live in a user-driven world.  In fact, every time you turn around, it would seem that your current search engine or social media application knows you better than you know yourself.  While this may be a reality every time you open up Facebook, this still is not a reality in classrooms all over the country.  Instead of user-driven learning, schools and classrooms alike are driven, not by the students, but by the traditional constraints put upon them.

IMG_3975And I think that’s a little silly.  Don’t you?

Just like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all about the user, learning should be all about the user — the student — as well.  After all, how do we expect our students to grow and find themselves in their own classroom if we don’t let them take control of the experience?  Better yet, how can we buy in to this mindset when so many classrooms across the US are dominated by these traditional constraints?

Know the standards well.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but having a strong command and a flexible and fluent understanding of learning standards can only help you create a user-driven classroom.  By becoming a teacher who has mastered the taxonomies of the Common Core and Next Generation, you can allow students to explore and you can create learning experiences that emerge through provocation, retrospectively labeling their learning with standards, as opposed to prescribing it beforehand.

Use assessment to create future learning experiences, not to categorize and label kids.  Assessment doesn’t have to be for grades, and even if you are working in a system that uses letter grades, it doesn’t mean your activities have to be graded as such. When I worked for a system that gave letter grades, I waited until the end of the trimester to use letters to grade my students.  By doing so, my students were able to use rubrics and proficiency scales to measure their growth qualitatively, as opposed to letter grades that simply summarized their learning.  And what about the parents?  You’d be surprised at just how flexible parents are with grading if you explain your rationale clearly and help them see that it’s in their child’s best interests.

Document and listen. A lot of times, we don’t even really have to try that hard to figure out what students know and what students want to know.  After taking the time to sit back and listen, you might be surprised at just how forthcoming and vulnerable each of your students is.

This information that they — our users — provide so willingly can be some of the most valuable data we can possibly collect.  

Perception is Reality is Truth

It’s fun to be a spectator sometimes, especially after getting to know the kids so well.  On Fridays, I get the opportunity to be a spectator when I supervise PE.  The kids become so present, and they forget that their teacher is watching their every move. All the while, their little personalities come out in full force.  It usually isn’t long before their competitive sides come out either. PE will to do that to even the most civilized of students, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw another one of my students push another.

Conflict erupted and I spoke with both of the students carefully.

“Now here’s the hard thing about this,” I confided in them. “I don’t actually know what happened. I only saw one push.”

“But she pushed me first!” one student said.

“I didn’t push you!” the other replied, escalating. “I just tagged you!”

“Alright, alright,” I said, “this seems to me like it’s a matter of perception.”

They both looked at me wide-eyed.

Right, I remembered, they’re kids. Whoops.

IMG_3472“Okay, so perception means how you see something. So, like, you and I might see something differently. Make sense?”

They nodded.

“But here’s the tricky part, when people perceive things differently — when they see things differently — those different things become true to each of us. So what’s true to me, might not be true to you, and what’s true to her, may not be true to you,” I continued, putting my hand on the first student’s shoulder.

“It sounds like you think she pushed you, and if that’s how you feel, that’s how you feel. Your feelings are very real and we get that. On the other hand,” I said turning toward the other student, “you think you tagged him, and that’s also a very real feeling.

“But this is so tricky because right now we have three truths: we have my truth because I only saw one piece, we have your truth because of what you saw, and we have her truth, too. What should we do?”

“I know!” the first student said. “We can ask the PE teacher.”

“Ah, great idea,” I replied, “but wouldn’t that just make it so that we have a fourth truth? A fourth way of seeing things? That sounds even more confusing to me!”

They agreed, and therein lied my entry point.

“I have an idea,” I said. “Why don’t we pretend we’re each other, and pretend like we believe each other’s truths. You try first. Pretend you are her. Pretend you really feel like she just meant to tag you and that now you’re looking at this other person who’s really mad. What would you say?”

“I would say that I didn’t meant to push you, and that I was just trying to tag you,” he replied.

“And what would you say if you were the other?” I said, turning to the other student.

“I would ask them to be more careful next time,” she added.

The tension in the conversation broke. It seemed by taking a moment to hear each other’s truths made sure they both felt heard and understood.  Apologies were exchanged, and smiles crept across their faces as they ran back to their game.

At the end of the day, there really is no truth in a classroom.  In fact, at the end of the day, there are as many truths as there are bodies, and as our students’ teachers, all we can hope to do is help students see, acknowledge, understand, and question the many truths that permeate our days.

Failure Does Not Mean Frustration

I sat this morning, stirring, sipping my coffee in one of my favorite Starbucks, wasting time staring at my computer screen.  My mind felt overfilled with ideas, bubbling over the edge, not only from this seemingly reflective time of the school year, but also from some incredible conversations last night with my colleagues.  As a result, nothing cohesive seemed to come out, even though the thoughts in my mind, still waiting to coagulate, were all there in some way, shape, or form.

 

And so all I decided to write was this:

I don’t know how to write this first sentence.

And then I added:

I don’t know how to write this first sentence, so I’ll write it once.

Until finally I wrote:

I don’t know how to write this first sentence, so I’ll write it once and add on to it.

 

And then I did it again:

I don’t know how to do anything.

And again:

I don’t know how to do anything, so I’ll try it once.

And again:

I don’t know how to do anything, so I’ll try it once and add on to it.

 

A seemingly mundane and monotonous task at first, it actually helped, and the result of this simple exercise knocked something loose in my brain, sending me spiraling into thoughts of process and product, and the delicate balance between the two.

I gave a presentation last week, and in the middle of it, a question stopped me in my tracks… but just for a second.  I was presenting with my co-teacher on methods for blending an emergent and standards-based curriculum.  We highlighted some myths behind this false dichotomy and then shared some concrete examples from our classroom.

And then a hand was raised.

“How do these kids learn to fail if they’re doing what they want all the time?”

It was a great question — one that our presentation did not answer, and one worth answering.  How do kids learn to fail in an emergent environment?  How do children find struggle when they’re simply “doing what they want?”

First and foremost, a classroom that values emergent curriculum does not necessarily mean that students are simply participating in choice activities all the time.  Instead, it means that teachers are placing intentionally rigorous provocations in front of students, in an effort to provoke thought, inquiry, and synthesis.  However, when they do participate in choice activities, our role transforms into a facilitator for learning, where we are slowly scaffolding new pieces of activities to help funnel foundational skills into an interest-based task.

And while I could describe, in detail, the puppet shows our students have done this year — or the projects on nanotechnology, drones, the emergent and student-driven lessons on designing our classroom, or solving our fruit fly problems through data collection — the one salient point that comes as a result of all of those examples is this:

Rigorous learning doesn’t have to be horribly painful, and failure does not necessarily mean frustration.

In fact, when we push a child to an unhealthy level of frustration, the exact opposite of what we might intend happens: children shut down, withdraw, and do not interact with material in a manner that’s constructive.  And looking at best educational practices in reading, math, and assessment (among other disciplines) tells us this.  Reading at a frustrational level yields far less gains than consistent reading at a just-right level; likewise, pushing students to advanced math concepts before providing the foundation might yield a strong procedural knowledge, but in the end, it leaves our students in a drought of conceptual knowledge.

photo (14)

This student was exploring the commutative property for the first time at the age of 7. Clearly, there’s a misconception, but after 10 minutes of re-explaining and trying different angles, it was clear that we’d reached a frustrational level. That’s my cue to scale it back for the next lesson and make it more reachable.

This morning, when I sat down to write, I failed.  I failed almost immediately, simply because I didn’t know what to write.  And instead of shaming myself, dangling an unachievable goal above my head, and trying to jump towards it, I wrote down the truth that existed in my mind at that moment: I wrote down my just-right level. After that, I built upon it, piece by piece.

649 words later, I’m glad I didn’t push myself to unrealistic expectations.

Choosing Ourselves

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to change us, and maybe not purposefully — maybe not even maliciously — but nonetheless, it’s always trying to do it.  Every synapse that fires in our brains and every new thing that provokes our minds changes us, turning us into the dynamic beings that walk out our front doors every day.

And every day, when we walk out that door, we walk out different people.

As I come to almost a half-year of living in a new city and in a new place, I can’t help but relax into a state of pensive reflection, one where I think about who I used to be, who I hope to be, and who I am right now at this very moment.  It’s quite a culture shock to pick your life up and take a leap of faith on, well… yourself.  But that’s what I did.  I moved across the country with only myself to depend on, and once I did that, the gravity of my decision weighed heavily on me, sending me back millions of years in human history to some of my most basic survival instincts.

Anxiety washed over me, and I felt like I was constantly in fight or flight — constantly trying to navigate my way through new situations and second-guessing my every move.  I came from a different place, and now enough months have elapsed to the point where I can say it was a different time, too.  In fact, as I think about the sheer terror of a move like that, I cannot help but think of what it’s like for kids — especially my current students — most having come from different schools and different areas of the city, knowing no one, and having to stake their claim in a new classroom with a new bunch of kids and several new teachers who, little did they know, were also finding their way, too.

But it seems like it’s always this time of year that things settle in — that we start to really know each other, that we start to get comfortable…

That we start to feel like a family.

And I know that, because I’ve started to see parts of my students and my co-teacher in each other, I see parts of all of them in me.  After all, isn’t that what a family is?  A unit of people that share common experiences, that possess exclusive commonalities?  But none of this could have happened — none of it could have flourished in the way that it did — without the fight, without the temptation to fly away, and without the resilience to be vulnerable, let ourselves be seen, and turn ourselves inside out for all to see.

photo (12)In fact, whenever we go to a new place — when we encounter a new experience — we can’t help but turn ourselves inside out.  If we don’t, then we cannot possibly be open to new experiences; we cannot possibly let the newness of an ever-changing and dynamic world mold us into something new.  We can neither change for the better, nor change for the worse and then learn from it.  When we put up our walls, when we don’t take the time to second-guess ourselves, and when we’re too confident in what we do, we rob ourselves of the ability to truly test our morals and beliefs and make a conscious choice to keep the things we love about ourselves.  Without being tested, we can never be sure that we’re choosing ourselves out of want.

In fact, without being tested, we choose ourselves only by default.

Picking myself up, going outside my comfort zone, and turning my world upside-down, I’m starting to see, was one of the best things I ever did.  It scared the proverbial crap out of me, it highlighted each and every one of my insecurities and flaws, but it’s also starting to show me that I can depend on myself, trust in my beliefs, and most importantly…

It’s showing me that, when all else fails, I can choose me.