Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Happy and Brave Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Turkey Day and I am thankful for so many things in my life!  This is not about that.  This is about the courage I need to exhibit for the next few days.  I will need to muster up a great deal of bravery to not eat every blooming bite of deliciousness that I see!  Yummy food makes me happy, but feeling like an overstuffed couch pillow does not!

Seriously, how can I happily pass up twice-baked mashed potatoes with cream cheese, cheddar, and bacon?  How do I not sample all six varieties of pie?  In our house, we constantly ask, "What time is it?"  We do so because the answer is always, "Pie:30!" and Pie:30 happens 29 times per day!

Wish me luck, friends!  I do intend to be quite full, but hopefully not to the point of a Monty Python style feeding explosion!  Or, just like last year, I'll overdo it for the 40th year in a row and vow to learn from this year's indulgence.  I guess I'll try to fail forward yet again.  When will I learn!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Successing Forward, Part 2

Dr. Jeffrey Rubin says that people learn more from their failures than their successes.  Does that mean that the smartest folks around you have failed the most?  I remember a middle-school string of logic that made me laugh as an 8th grader:

The more you know, the more you forget,
the more you forget, the less you know,
The less you know, the dumber you are,
So don't learn anything, it makes you dumber!

As an educator and a parent, I want kids to have a growth mindset and feel as though they can learn anything they want to learn!  Last week, my son was asked to write a six-lined poem.  Each line needed to be a metaphor and the poem needed to rhyme.  I'm not sure what the learning target was, but I liked the fact that he had to really work with words to complete the assignment.  He had to come up with six rhyming metaphors which meant that he had to write, erase, rhyme, erase, write, erase, and so on.  It took trial and error.  He had to get it wrong a bunch of times before he got it right!

Each line he wrote held some words that stayed and other that failed.  Each line originally had flaws then got better with revision.  He persevered through the unsuccessful words and didn't let the discouragement of failure slow him down.  He failed his way to success!  But really, he successed his way to success.  The words that needed revisions along the way were not failures, they were simply words that didn't work well!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Successing Forward!

"Fail forward" is today's buzzword for taking measured risks and learning from the experience.  Don't be afraid to try something new!  Failure is the first step towards success!  Twitter is full of good quotes about failing forward.  I've retweeted a few of them because I actually believe in them!  I think that educators are experts at failing forward.  We constantly try new things, modify, adjust, and try again.  We are action researchers all day long!

As folks around me fail forward, I have noticed something that struck me in a very positive way.  There is actually a lot less failure than those words describe.  For the most part, I really see folks "Successing forward!"  I see educators trying new things and making them work!  Sure, they may be a little raw during the first attempt, but success happens.  Of  course, the real measure of success comes by measuring what you are trying to improve.  Did the students learn more?  Was it deeper?  Were they more engaged?  Was the learning activity more authentic?

Success is gauged by the purpose of your new efforts and how well your efforts made improvements.  So really, I think I have seen more "successing forward" than failing forward!

Failing forward really just means that we should take a scientific risk that our new efforts will lead to improvement.  I love being a part of this profession where we are constantly seeking to do better than we did before!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What changed your mind?

"You can't think your way into right actions, but you can act your way into right thinking."

According to Google, Bill Wilson gets credit for this quote but I have heard the premise many times before.  What is easier to change at first, your mind or your behavior?  In a classroom full of kids, I think we would all agree that you set the expectations for certain behaviors and the benefits of those behaviors cause kids to believe in them!

I always think about James, a great kid I taught in fifth grade.  He hated the idea of "hands on" math.  He thought that little blocks were for little kids, not fifth graders.  He wanted to learn how to do fractions and decimals on paper.  I wanted him to deeply understand how three fifths and 60% were the same.  Anytime he needed guidance with his learning, I didn't hesitate to pull some kind of blocks out of my Home Depot tool belt.  (Yes.  I wore one!)

At first, he would reluctantly work with me.  He experienced success even though his attitude said it was wrong.  After a short time, I saw him grabbing his own set of blocks to work things out.  Victory!  As his teacher, I changed his behaviors which eventually changed his mind.

More than not, if you need to change your attitude, change your behaviors first.  Your mind will follow!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Work out time!

Last night, I was chatting with my boys on the way home from soccer practice.  I told them that I had skipped my exercise routine for over two weeks and that I needed to jump back in.  I tore my ACL and had reconstructive surgery in the spring.  There were complications so my recovery took longer than expected and I spent a lot of time not exercising!  About three months ago, I started doing push-ups, pull-ups, and walking, which was just about all I was capable of doing with my new ACL.

When I woke up this morning, I thought to myself, "Today is a great day for a walk and some push-ups!"  A great day to get in a work-out!  Then I wondered, "Why don't people plan for mental work-outs?"

A lot of people will buy gym memberships and spend hours upon hours working out their bods.  Do those same folks actually plan for mental exercise?  Does anyone?  I know that simply jumping into a good book is great for the brain.  Games like chess and puzzles also give the noggin a workout.  Engaging in a thoughtful and meaningful argument also makes you think.  Even a good dose of meditation is great for your head!  These things happen for a lot of people quite often.  But I still wonder, "Are there folks out there who plan for a mental workout?  Do they record their mental exercises on a little pad a paper like folks at the gym?"

Time to work out.

Just a Setback

How do you deal with a setback?  What happens when success is right around the corner, then an unforeseen barrier is thrown in the way?  It could be the weather, a grumpy teammate, or a new rule.  How do you handle it?  How long do you let the setback stay in your way?

Regardless of the size of the barrier, it is perfectly OK to feel the natural disappointment or frustration.  Let it soak in, but do not let it swallow you!  As soon as you are able, remind yourself of your goal, assess your new situation, make a new plan of action, then forge on!  Remember, the best dances are two steps forward and one step back!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Just in Case I Might Need This Some Day

Twenty years ago, I walked into my first classroom and found, "The rookie classroom set-up."  Four walls, one window, two chalkboards flanked by bulletin boards, a rolling chair, a file cabinet, the oldest teacher's desk in the building, and 30 mismatched desks and chairs for my students.  They newest guy always got the oldest furniture on campus.  I didn't care though!  This classroom was mine!

I sat and looked across this blank template of a classroom for a few minutes.  How would I design this room for great learning!  I moved all the desks in little groups of six.  Then I rearranged them into groups of four.  Another move into pairs, then back to fours.  I shoved the teacher's desk into a corner and threw the file cabinet against the wall.  I actually could throw it because it was empty!  What would I fill it with???

Within 20 minutes, my new teammates stopped by and introduced themselves.  Each one looked across the room design, measuring my efforts.  I didn't notice any negative judgments.  Hooray!  Each of of these good folk also handed me some kind of paper.

"Here is a great opening activity for the first day!"
"Have the parent fill this out."
"Make sure they do this before they leave open house."
"Keep this for the end of the first day."
"Use this if they get restless."
"They can color this for a mental break."
"Here is my first month's packet for math."
"This quiz will tell you what the kids remember from last year's grammar."

And on and on and on...

I had no clue what I would need, so I diligently made a copy of each item I was given and began filing them away...just in case I might need it some day.  I found stuff for my file cabinet!  My team was extremely generous.  They continued to gift me with priceless resources that a rookie teacher just might need one day.  Indeed, I used some of the stuff I was given.  I also made a copy of everything and filed it away.

I also quickly learned that the best papers to keep were the things I created; lesson plan ideas, resources, things to read, and templates.  Not worksheets.

Each year, I used a few things I was given, but I found myself using the idea of the resource to create something better for my class.  Of course with each activity I created, I was sure to make an extra copy to go into the file cabinet.

Six years later, it was time to grow so I moved to a new school.  I started packing things up and grabbed a box for the resources in my file cabinet.  I spent hours going through each file, thinking that I needed to cull the mass of paper.  I probably trashed less than 5% of it.  I remember thinking, "I might use this one day."  Realistically, I probably only used 20% of the those things more than once.  I probably used less than half of it at all.  Nevertheless, I couldn't trash it!

After another couple of years, I was fortunate enough to follow my fifth graders to middle school as their assistant principal.  Again, I fingered through this invaluable collection of greatness.  Only this time, it didn't seem so great.  Instead of saying to myself, "I might use this some day," I found myself saying, "I did this different and better year after year."

Instead of seeing it as invaluable, I saw much of it as outdated, or more so, in need of improvement.  A giant pile of paper that I once considered necessary, was now turning into trash, yet it was still difficult to part with!  The funny thing was that I only used a fraction of it!  Most of it was kept because, "I might use this one day."

As I packed up the rest of my classroom, I thought to myself, "I should go see if another teacher wants any of this."  But really, if it wasn't good enough for my students, it wasn't good enough for any.  I was actually a little bit proud of myself for using a few of these items, but for the most part, creating even better learning activities for my students.  I scoured through the reams of paper one last time, trying to find something worth keeping.  In the end, I kept three file folders of paper.  Then with much courage, I shoved the rest of it into the recycling bin and walked away.

That night, I couldn't help but wonder if I made a mistake.  I didn't. It didn't take long to realize that I would have benefited from a different mindset from the very beginning.  Through every lesson, like most teachers, I reflected on ways the learning could have been improved.  What could have gone better?  With that in mind, I should have known that keeping a piece of paper in need of refinement was not necessary.

Since then, I wave witnessed many teachers with the same file cabinet.  Seemingly full of great learning yet most teachers used ideas from their file cabinet to create something better for their students.  Most of those teachers, like me, made an extra copy to file away too!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Serious Business!

The Texas State Capitol was abuzz with activity a few days ago.  There were scouts setting up tables for something fun.  A huge group of folks in light blue shirts were on the steps listening to somber music and holding up signs for their cause.  Tourists posed for photos and pointed at everything.  A Segway tour hummed around the sidewalks and throngs of school children played in  the grass.  All the while, the folks working in and around the capitol went about their daily business.

I stopped and watched for a few minutes.  I watched the adults act like adults and the kids act like kids.  It reminded me of my first foray into middle school.  An 8th grade teacher told me that I acted too elementary.  I kinda thought that the place could use a little more elementary!

Watching the activity all around me, I looked for similarities between the kids playing and the blue shirt rally.  Kids were running to and fro, gathering in small groups, chasing each other.  Some were sitting and laughing, others were inspecting the trees and dirt.  A few peered through the fence and waved at passing cars.  Some hung by their teachers and others laid in the grass and looked at the sky.  It was serious business!

The rally also shared a common cause.  They wanted amnesty for some perceived injustice.  They all faced the steps of the building and shook their signs.  They stood together and clapped together.  They hurrah-ed together and cheered simultaneously.  There were also little groups doing their own thing.  Organizing tables and pamphlets.  Setting out water and snacks.  Pointing up and down sidewalks and making decisions about where to do what.  It was serious business!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Brave and Happy Change

Every single day, educators are faced with new:  new students, new initiatives, new lessons, new challenges, new teams, new tests, new interventions, new crises, and etc.  New means change and change is not easy.  It takes courage to embrace change.

Interestingly, change is easier when you want it or like it, or deeply understand that you need it.  Change is tougher when it is someone else's idea.

The difficulties of change also hinge upon one's familiarity with the factors involved.  For example, when I rededicated myself to an exercise routine following my knee surgery, it was easy to walk, do push-ups, and do pull-ups. Any attempt at a new exercise routine would have been tough at first, but my understanding of these three activities helped.  If I had tried to get my workout with something completely unfamiliar, like karate or ballet, the learning curve would have been much steeper and my early successes would have been fewer.  It would have been tougher to embrace the new.  However, my friends would have most certainly been entertained if I had tried ballet!

New happens frequently in education.  Improvements happen every day!  Teachers are scientists in an ever-changing lab.  Teachers tweak variables all the time, looking for a better outcome.  Teachers also throw out the old a start anew quite regularly when a better way is believed in or wanted.  The change that causes the most talk is the one that is "forced."

Whether from the state government, the superintendent, or the principal, when something new is chosen for the teacher rather than by the teacher, it is accepted with varying degrees of acceptance.

When this happens, what level of brave and happy do you choose?  How do you enter this pool?  Do you jump into the deep end and splash around or do you tiptoe into the water as slowly as possible?  Do you own the pieces that are within your circle of control or do you focus on the variables that you have no control of?  To be brave and happy, don't let your unfamiliarity with change determine your success.  Let your brave and happy attitude determine your success!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Thank you to our nation's veterans.  Thank you for serving this great country so that we may continue to enjoy our freedom.  The bravery you showed through your service, your giving, and your sacrifice goes beyond what I know.  I am honored to say thank you and I truly appreciate what I have because of those who served.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Plan for a little smile

Have you ever found yourself without a smile and realized that it has been several hours since you wore one?  Perhaps you were intensely involved in a planning for tomorrow.  Perhaps you couldn't get your mind off of yesterday.  Perhaps you were completely wrapped up in a lengthy to-do list and didn't write down, "Stop and Smile," anywhere!

I say, plan for that smile!  Find something that only takes a few minutes, but it can get your brain back on the happy track!  I have recently tried my hand at a little iPhone photography.  I try to capture an artistic pic that I can be proud of.  I may not always get the shot, but the effort makes me smile.  This is my simple method to take a few minutes for myself just to play around and plan for my smile!

Here is yesterday's "just for fun" picture.  There is no meaning to the bottom of the mushroom, other than the fact that it made me smile!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Saying No

Trying new things, innovating and creating better systems and improved practices takes courage.  It is not easy to head into something new and different.  Sometimes, though, it actually takes the most courage to simply say, "No."

Perhaps the time is not right, or the circumstances need more consideration.  Perhaps the new plan isn't quite ready or the people just aren't prepared for it.  Sometimes, "No" is the most courageous response!

But really, I strongly prefer, "Not yet!"

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Door

Do you teach with your door open or closed?

Some teachers keep their door open all the time.  Some keep it closed all the time.  And for some, it depends on the learning activity in the classroom.  I've seen great teachers in all three categories.  I started asking folks if the opened/closed door was a choice or not.  The reasons I heard were pretty common and not unexpected:
  • It's just a habit to close every door I walk through;
  • The hallway is usually too loud;
  • I leave it open so it doesn't slam 300 times a day with every bathroom trip;
  • My class pours out into the halls for flexible learning settings, and;
  • I can't teach when it is open.  I'm scared people will judge my teaching.
 Years ago, I feared teachers with closed doors.  I wondered what they were hiding.  Were they keeping the greatest lessons to themselves or hiding a horrible classroom?  Now, I know that some teachers may simply be hiding their lack of self-confidence.  Even some of the best teachers, magic in front of children, lack a bit of confidence in front of another adult.

Teachers are almost always their own worst critic!  We love to praise the great things we see in other classrooms.  We also love to find the faults in most of our own lessons and we brush off any praise that others may give us.  I would like to challenge you to see things through a different lens.  Before critiquing the learning in your classroom for things you want to improve, find the greatness in your own designs for learning.  Pat yourself on the back for what worked well.  Celebrate your expertise and share it with others so that they may improve by watching you and hearing from you!

Whether your door is open or closed, I challenge you to share the great things you do with each other! Bravely share your expertise!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Homework on a holiday???

Last Monday, our local school district held a professional development day and my kids were stuck at home.  I wanted to check out my older son's real-world problem-solving abilities, so I gave him a homework assignment.  The street light in front of our house was burnt out.  I asked him to report it to whomever needed to know so that it could shine again.

First he asked rhetorically, "Homework on a holiday?" not believing that I was serious.  Then he asked, "Who do I call?"

I replied, "Figure it out!"

A few hours later, he texted that he couldn't find the contact information and asked for a hint.  I thought that was great!  He reached out for guidance.  To be fair, we leave in a small Municipal Utility District (MUD) rather than within the city limits so it was probably quite difficult to find.

I told him the name of our MUD and he was able to get it done.  He found the contact information he needed online and made the report!  Way to go, son!  It is good to see that our kids can actually apply some of the skills we want them to apply to actual human life!

Now, I am busy thinking of other meaningful things for the kids to do!  Any ideas?