Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Good enough

"This is good enough."

The timing of these words is crucial.

I know some folks who say these words when they achieve the bare minimum. Barely good enough is still good enough.  This was my response to most of my middle school classwork.  I did just enough to make sure the teacher would accept it.  I know teachers who have taught the same mediocre lesson for years and years without change.  I guess it is good enough.

 I know others who say these words only seconds before it is time for action.  They reflect on past attempts and agonize over improvements.  They revise and change.  They practice and modify.  They make improvements until the last possible moment, then they say, "This is good enough."  These teachers continually look to improve everything they do!

Is your good enough good enough?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

tap tap tap...

Little Johnny was in my class years ago.  He needed a larger amount of stimuli to keep his brain moving.  More than most kids.  In fact, the boy could not keep still!  Even early in my career, my classroom was not a quiet or still place.  Nevertheless, there are times in a classroom where a certain amount of still and quiet are necessary.  When those times occurred, Little Johnny made his presence known more than ever.

He loved tapping pencils. Loved it!  Unfortunately for the two of us, repetitive noises happen to drive me bonkers!  This gave us an immediate point of contention.  He would tap.  Often.  All the time.  I would take deep breaths at the same rate trying to keep my cool.

I would walk by him all day long, repeatedly giving him signs and discreet reminders that tapping was annoying to some people, including his favorite teacher.  Tapping was a habit he had developed to keep himself entertained when our learning activities didn't provide his brain with enough stimuli.  My reminders were an attempt to change his habit.

As with any true habit, changing it is a challenge.  The tough part to remember was that it was his challenge.  Not mine.  The class did need him to stop tapping.  I needed him to stop tapping.  But it was his habit so my reminders were simply my way to help him.  But like most teachers, I became frustrated a few times and my brain went to that place that doesn't help.

There was one time in particular that the tapping seemed more than usual and my patience was less than usual.  After several reminders, a brilliant idea must have popped into my head and come out of my mouth at the exact same time.  I gave him an ultimatum, "Little Johnny, if you tap your pencil one more time, I am gonna keep you in from recess and you are gonna tap for ALL 30 minutes!"

Four minutes later...tap tap tap tappity tap tap.

Ultimatums rarely end well when made in haste.  I decided to keep my word and punished myself by providing this kid with 30 minutes of approved tapping time.  I believe he perfected a few new tapping combos and learned the opening drum solo to Van Halen's Hot for Teacher.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Modeling a growth mindset

The desire to win is a natural, normal human trait.  We all have it to some degree.  A friend of mine is ultra-competitive.  He cannot stand to lose.  He is a really nice guy and a very gracious loser when he doesn't win, but he hates losing.  We had a friendly neighborhood ping pong tournament a few weeks ago and he didn't win.  In fact, he got beat by an 11 year old and a 13 year old.  After the tournament, he challenged each of them to another match and won both.

I found it quite interesting that the younger boys won when it was tournament play, but lost when it was just a friendly match.  Likewise, it was interesting that my ultra-competitive friend lost when the pressure of the tournament was on, but won when it was just friendly.  Did the younger boys rise to the occasion?  Did the adult falter because he expected to beat the kids? 

Some folks are perfectly happy with only a tinge of competition.  They may enjoy playing a board game or some cards.  Other folks like to view everything as a competition.  Whether it is a simple game or a successful career, everything hinges on the question, "Who is better?"

I was outside watching some kids throw the football yesterday.  Back and forth, back and forth, the passes got longer and the catches more acrobatic.  A boy stood next to me and commented after each throw and catch, "I can throw it better than him....I can catch better than him...I am faster than him...I have better hands than him...I would've caught that one one-handed..."

The comments went on and on, yet this kid never jumped into the mix to prove himself.  I waited for him to jump in and have some fun but he never did.  After reading Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck, this got me thinking!

Really competitive people tend to notice a gap between their abilities and the abilities of those who perform better.  The internal conversation typically goes one of two ways.  Some of them ask themselves these questions:
  1. What makes the other guys better?
  2. What can I do to to close the gap between me and them?
Others simply say to themselves:
  1. They are just more naturally talented than I am.
  2. I just can't do it that well.

One set of people ask questions that drive improvement,  The other set makes statements that speak of limited abilities.  The questioners look for growth while the others speak of fixed abilities.  There is a certain amount of this mental structure that is innate, but according to Dr. Dweck, people are capable of learning to adapt to a growth mindset.

As an educator, do you see yourself making comparisons to those around you?  If so, how do you approach your observations?  Do you try to learn from those who inspire you?  Do you seek out continuous improvement?  When things go well, do you still look at how to improve for the next time?

Or, do you see folks around you who may do something a little bit better, then say, "I just can't do that."  Do you say the other teacher has better kids, or a better schedule.  Do you convince yourself that your practices are just fine, regardless of the greater successes shown by others?

Most educators profess to the ideal of being a lifelong learner.  If you are indeed a lifelong learner, how do you live it each day?  Do your students see you living with a growth mindset?  Do they hear you questioning your own efforts as you seek improvement?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Who wins?

Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, tells a wonderful story about a cross country runner with cerebral palsy.  He tells of this young man who always comes in last place.  He finishes each race in pain and usually covered with blood.  He continues to participate and work hard even though he is fully aware that he will never be able to challenge the competition.

While the story of this student could be one about, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," it is not.

Instead, his story is about competition.  This young man did not compete against the other racers.  He couldn't.  But each race, he competed against himself.  He tried to better his own time.  He simply wanted to finish and improve.  And because of that, he also finished every race with the support of every other racer.  His teammates, and most of the other competitors from other schools, would finish their own race, then run back to join the last place finisher.  He may have officially finished each race last, but there were dozens of runners with him as a crossed the finish line.  They clearly recognized his efforts and his perseverance.

Why?  Because people love to support each other's efforts when the competition is courageous and personal.  We love to help each other overcome individual challenges!

Friday, April 17, 2015

The wisdom of Mike Tyson

The best plans in the world are well-thought out and constructed over a considerable amount of time. The efforts usually brought together the best minds and created detailed, yet flexible action steps to reach the goal.  The best plans were usually understood by all stakeholders and included a great deal of consistency and synchronicity among all the moving parts.

The best plans oftentimes included a sleepless night just before the first day!  Everyone was excited about the new plan and anxious to get started.  Then the unanticipated happened.

Oh my!  We didn't plan for that!  What do we do?

Mike Tyson said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face."  If your plan was worth the time and energy to create, it will be able to handle a few punches! Be brave!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Believe in the purpose!

"Purpose is the best form of activism."

I heard Jake Ducey say that on a podcast.  I can't find anyone to attribute the quote to, so I'll give it to him.  It struck me as a pretty simple but true quip.  When we pursue something with a purpose, we are more actively trying to get there.  Contrarily, when we try to get something done because someone tells us to do it, there is not a sense of urgency, there is not a sense of passion, there is less likelihood for success.

This is not just an adult concept.  It applies to students too.  Perhaps even more!  If we want students to actively pursue something in class, they must be passionate about some aspect of the activity.  They can't merely understand the purpose.  They must believe in the purpose!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The great debate!

During last night's Twitter chat, one question centered the participants on things that can be done when the planned activity doesn't go so well.  It reminded me of one of the best "pinch hitter" lessons I have experienced.  I was teaching in a 4th/5th grade mixed-age classroom and we were about to get to a major turning point in the book I was reading to the class.  What would the main character do?  What choice would he make?  Would he choose to stand up for his lifelong friend or would he go with the group mentality of the "cool" kids?

It was long enough ago that I don't remember the learning target.  I do remember that I wanted the students to stop and do a wet ink writing activity.  I wanted them to write their prediction of the main character's choice and the reasons they believed he would make that choice.

It bombed.

We had built up to this moment in the book for several days now.  We could tell what was coming and the side chats were getting heated!  I should have noticed this, and maybe I did notice, but I wanted them to write.  When we actually got to the page where he made his choice, I stopped the book and asked them to write.  This class normally did exactly what they were asked to do, but not this time.  They looked at me, then the self-appointed class spokesman told me that she did not want to write.  She wanted to talk about it.

I made my point that I needed them to write about it.  They begrudgingly began to write...for about ten seconds.  Then they started to talk while they wrote.  That lasted about two seconds.  The writing stopped and the chatter increased.  I was steadfast in my directions.  I got them back on their papers for about ten more seconds.  The chatter returned.

I was about to attempt another request to write but I could read this audience and I wasn't going to get what I wanted.

When lessons fail, I do not believe in lowering expectations.  A well-designed lesson hinges upon knowing exactly what your students should be learning and how their mastery of the learning target will be determined.

I needed them to communicate their predictions and the rationale behind those predictions.  There were clearly two choices for the main character and plenty of different rational reasons for each choice.  The kids wanted to talk it out.

Just as I started to beg for them to write, I stopped myself.  They stared at me.  I stared back.  I asked, "Who thinks he will stick by his friend?"  Half the hands flew up!  I asked, "Who thinks he will go with the cool kids?"  The other half of the hands flew up!

I asked each group to go to opposite sides of the room and I started making up rules as I talked.  This could have been a disaster!

It wasn't.  It was awesome!  Once they were separated.  I started announcing the purpose of our debate and the rules we would follow.

"We need to talk this out.  We need to make a prediction and back it up with supporting details from the book.  Each side will have five minutes to talk.  Discuss the reasons why you think you are making the correct prediction for our main character.  Your job is to convince the other team you are correct.  One person will speak at a time.  Once you have spoken, you cannot speak again, until round 2.  Each side will take turns making a point.  You may change sides at any time."

I had no idea what I meant by Round 2!  It didn't matter.  They turned to each other and started having the most incredible conversations about their predictions.  They were pulling out supporting details like never before.  They wanted to convince the other team!

After a few minutes, you could feel the energy in the room.

"We will take turns speaking.  One side, then the other.  I am going to call on individuals randomly to speak.  Listen with your eyes, your ears, and your heart.  If you feel a change of opinion, feel free to quietly walk over to the other side."

I called on the first kid.  She immediately said, "I don't wanna go!"

I replied, "No worries, I want you to pick someone from your team that you think has a valid point."  She chose a student and the first point was heard.  The team clapped wildly!  Too wildly.

"It is great to be enthusiastic about the things you believe.  It is also great to let those beliefs do the talking.  If someone changes teams, it should be from a change of mind, not because of the loudest cheers."

They went back and forth a few times without anyone moving.  I continued to call on kids randomly and had them choose the next speaker.  After a few turns, the person who spoke first walked across to the other side.  The reaction was wild!  I celebrated her courage for walking over.  I celebrated the convincing team for providing a valid point.  I celebrated the entire class for respecting the process.  The next few turns had several kids moving sides.  I'm sure some of them went just to get moving or be noticed.  I'm sure some moved because they truly had no definite opinion anymore.  Regardless, the dialogue continued to be quite powerful.

After a few more turns, I gave each side stickie notes and asked each person to write one supporting reason for their opinion.  They stuck them on the wall near their side and side.  We debriefed the process and the kids loved it!  The feedback was incredible!  They wanted more debate!  I wanted to see if they had learned anything of value.  At that point, I asked for a wet ink writing piece, but that time I asked them to write for two minutes about making predictions and then realizing you are wrong.  Does being right or wrong affect how much you learn?  The responses were amazing!

I loved the debate.  The kids loved it more.  They were engaged and they learned.  They were respectful while being competitive.  Nobody asked about Round Two!

The twitter chat mentioned above was founded by Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate.  Join us Mondays at 8pm CST.  Hashtag #TLAP

Friday, April 10, 2015

Why kids misbehave.

Simon Sinek says we should almost always start with "Why?"

Why do kids misbehave?

Kierkegaard said two things:
  • It is man's destiny to amuse himself.
  • Boredom is the root of all evil.
When kids get in trouble in classrooms, they are usually trying to amuse themselves.  Sometimes they amuse themselves by amusing others.  Sometimes they amuse themselves by creating art (drawing on themselves, their desks, in the books, etc.)  Sometimes they amuse themselves by doing science (Can I poke little Johnny with a paper clip without the teacher seeing me?)  Sometimes they simply wander around the room, chat with friends, tap on their desks, and on and on and on.

As educators, if kids are misbehaving, we must first look at our practices to see if we are designing lessons that engage the learner.  I'm not saying that every lesson needs to be "swing from the chandeliers" fun.  I am saying that kids will misbehave if our learning activities are boring.

Eliminate the root of all evil by replacing a student's desire to amuse himself.  In the words of Dave Burgess, "It is not easy, but it is worth it!"

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What's the worst that could happen?

This question is too common.  Too many leaders seem to be making decisions based on the answer to this question.  Fears of the worst possible outcome drive decisions and build giant barriers to innovation and progress for too many folks in this media-crazy, sensationalized world that expects perfection and admonishes error.

Go ahead and keep asking, "What's the worst that could happen," but be sure to also ask, "What is the best that could happen?"  Finally, ask yourself, "What is most likely too happen?"

Very rarely, does the worst possible outcome actually occur.  Very rarely.

Look at both potential outcomes. Determine if the benefits of saying yes outweigh the detriments of saying no.  Which decision aligns with your mission?  Rather than simply choosing between YES or NO, are you willing to bravely seek a third alternative that aligns with your mission and brings your vision closer to reality?  As a leader, are you willing to truly support the people, the systems, and the ideas that focus on your vision?

What's the best that could happen?

Monday, April 6, 2015

It sounds so easy!

"We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong.  The amount of work is the same."

--Carlos Castañeda

Focusing on an extremely difficult experience can make you miserable or it can make you strong.  Most likely, it will do both.  First you will feel miserable, then you will learn from the experience and be stronger.  At first, feel the misery, dissect it, and let it soak in.  Then as soon as possible, let it go.  Find the learning experience.

When kids make mistakes, oftentimes the adult-given advice sounds easy, "Just count to ten before you answer...Just walk away from him...Just take a deep breath....Just keep your hands to yourself."

It just sounds so easy.  But it isn't.  If it had been easy, the kid wouldn't be having difficulties.  When kids get reasonably emotional, tell them it is OK to feel the way they feel.  If they happen to make poor choices due to those feelings, tell them it is not OK to act that way.   Remember that it might only be easy for you because of the years of experience that you have under your belt.  The situation at hand will end up being one of the experiences that help make things easy for that kid in the future.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

That's not fair!

This morning I was driving in and I passed three vehicles, the first was what my kids would call a monster truck, the second was a black car, and a dump truck in front.  As I flew by, driving about 15  miles an hour above the speed limit, that black car in the middle was a cop!  I thought, "Rats!  This is the day I get a ticket."

I took my foot off the gas and slowed to the appropriate speed as casually as possible.  Trying to look as if I was doing nothing wrong.  My innocent look would most certainly convince the officer that I had done no wrong!

I kept my head forward and slid right by all three of the them while my eyes searched for a reaction from the cop.  The top of his car didn't immediately light up, so I stopped holding my breath and checked my speed.  Just prior to looking down, I noticed the dump truck in front of the cop didn't even have a license plate!  Well...

...that little fact was all I needed!  Why would he need to pull me over for speeding when the dump truck didn't even have a license plate!  That wouldn't be fair for him to ignore the truck and pull me over!  Why would he pick on me and ignore the other criminal driver???  If he had already pulled the other guy over, like he should have, I wouldn't have even worried about passing him so fast!!!!

Do you know any kids who make mistakes, then try to minimize their own errors by pointing out the errors of everyone else around them, exclaiming, "That's not fair!!!"

I think I do.