Sunday, August 6, 2017

Fear: Friend or Foe?

What is fear? According to Psychology Today, “Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger—if we didn't feel it, we couldn't protect ourselves from legitimate threats. But often we fear situations that are far from life-or-death, and thus hang back for no good reason.” I started to think more about fear and the impact it has on the decisions I make. Did fear protect me from danger, or did it cloud my thinking and influence the decisions I was making? I decided to explore my fears a bit deeper to find an answer.
 
This summer, my family and I visited Door County. We look forward to our annual adventure. We can always count on our favorites: Wild Tomato, Not Licked Yet and Peninsula State Park. Each day begins with a bike ride on the Sunset Bike Trail; 9.6 miles of solitude from the chaos of life. Those who know me are aware of my love-hate relationship with biking. Each year I face my nemesis and leave 
Door County feeling exhilarated and relieved; exhilarated by the beauty and cardiovascular exercise, relieved that I overcame my anxiety and survived (physically and mentally).

Our first bike ride on the Sunset Trail presented a few challenges. First, it was raining. It had rained all night, and there was standing water on the trail. In all the years of riding, we never faced the trail under these conditions. Second, Jackson, my five-year-old son, was no longer in a safety seat on my husband’s bike. This year he graduated to a trail-behind bike. He would still be attached to my husband’s bike, but he would need to be responsible for pedaling, balance and hanging on to the handle bars.
My husband, Chris, unloaded the bikes and we put on our helmets. Jackson got on his bike and was excited to tackle his new challenge. The moment of new adventure was beautiful to watch since Jackson had fears of his own and needed to work through his anxiety on his terms. Jackson's bravery inspired me to hop on my bike and embrace the rain. As we began our journey, my older son, Ethan, and I both noticed that Jackson’s bike did not seem balanced. We watched for a bit; waiting to see if Jackson was leaning and causing the odd position of the bike. I soon realized that the trail-behind was not attached correctly. My son and I signaled to my husband, careful not to alarm Jackson of the possible danger. Chris adjusted the bike, and we were ready to go. I followed behind my family, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened to Jackson if we didn’t notice the problem. I tried to shake it off; knowing he was safe and experiencing his first trail-behind bike ride. I decided to revisit all the happy memories on the trail and remind myself of my own goals to become a better rider. I was pulled out of my positive self-talk to deal with a more urgent matter, a dangerous trail. I was riding too fast for the conditions, and my bike began to slip to a steep edge of the trail. I used the little experience I had to make some decisions about the moves I must make to return to safety. I accomplished my goal, but my heart was racing. I realized how lucky I was, knowing I could have easily fallen off the trail and been severely hurt.

For the rest of the ride, thoughts filled my head. I kept thinking about all the possible scenarios: Jackson falling off his bike, me plunging off the trail, and the casual riders who do not follow trail rules and put my family at risk. I finally said to myself, “Are the dangers worth the risk?” Twenty-year-old Julie would have immediately answered, “YES! It’s just a bike trail. Get over yourself and ride on!” But a forty something wife, teacher, and mother of two paused before responding. I am no longer responsible for just my life. I need to consider the safety of my husband, my boys and myself. I want to be a strong, fearless role model, but I also need to remember that the world is dangerous and we need to take calculated risks. Is it possible to find a safe balance between these two? Can I be fearless and careful?

Each year I teach my students about the importance of a growth mindset, which encourages students to face failure and view them as temporary setbacks and learning opportunities. To overcome our fears in the classroom, we try to meet them head on by discussing the reasons behind our fears and implementing strategies to support us while we work through them.

First, we come prepared with the right tools for our mission. The tools often include school supplies, laptops, our independent books and a positive attitude. These tools help us feel ready to tackle new learning and challenging situations.

Second, we need patience. Fear and failure can stem from the inability to accomplish a task. We feel uncomfortable, especially when we see others succeeding. We need to be patient with ourselves and realize we might not be where we want to be YET, but we can get there. Perseverance is one way to accomplish our goals. Instruction, conferring and strategy groups are other ways to move past “not yet” to “I can.”

Collaboration is another way to overcome our fears. We can’t always go it alone, especially when tackling new challenges. As a teacher, I often turn to my personalized learning network. We share ideas, best practices, and encourage each other to take risks. I model this for my students and help them to create their PLN. We need others to support us and offer encouragement as we muscle through our learning process. The process and experiences along our learning path will often be what we remember most.

Finally, we need to reflect and celebrate our accomplishments and our mistakes. When we make mistakes, we need to realize there is an opportunity to learn. We need to pause and reflect on moving forward, which is not an easy task. I have to remind myself to reflect at the moment since I often perseverate on my mistakes instead of celebrating my accomplishments. When I see my students falling into the failure trap, I do my best to supply the encouragement they need to understand they might not be there yet, but they will, with the help of their PLN. Celebrations are also important. Success is awesome! We need to take the time to celebrate our accomplishments. This feeling of joy is remembered and can push us to try the next challenge.

I decided that fearless and careful CAN go together if I apply the same beliefs I foster in my classroom to my personal life. I carried my growth mindset with me for the rest of our rides on the Sunset Trail. First, I was sure I had the right tools. I had my bike, comfortable clothing and shoes, water bottle and my helmet. The proper safety equipment gave me the confidence I needed to get started. Next, I reminded myself to be patient with myself, my family, and the other riders on the trail. I can only control my behavior, which means I need to enjoy my experience by keeping my fears in check. Self-monitoring is easier said than done, but it helps to discuss these fears with my PLN. These include my family and my friends who ride. I ask questions and set a goal for each ride so I can improve my skill. I know there will always be unexpected obstacles along the way, but at least I will be more physically and mentally prepared to overcome them when they happen.

The final rides proved to be worth the risk. I had many experiences which brought joy to my heart. I spotted a doe and her fawn standing silently in the woods along the trail. Beautiful. I also witnessed a rider with a cage on the front of his bike. As he came closer, I discovered he had two parrots inside. How often do you see birds in a cage, on a bike, on the Sunset Trail? Crazy! If I did not ride that morning, I would have missed it. I did not miss the chance to watch my boys make decisions on the trail. These experiences helped them learn, grow, overcome challenges, and succeed. My final experience reminded me why I push myself in both my personal and professional life. On the last day, my husband and I rode the trails alone. He is a strong rider, so it took everything I had to keep up with him. We attacked a challenging hill, and by the end, I felt like my heart was going to fly out of my chest. I was so ready to give up. Suddenly, I noticed a group of girls walking on the trail. They looked to be the same age as my sixth-grade students. As I moved slowly past them, they began to cheer, “Way to go! You got this! You can do it!” I smiled, thanked them, and pushed myself to make it to the top of the hill. That bit of encouragement was just what I needed to keep going. The rest of the trail was easy; I was elevated by the kind words the girls so readily offered to a stranger.

As I start my 23rd year of teaching, I will be more conscious of my fears and how they impact my teaching and learning. I will encourage my students to do the same. What do you fear? 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Are You Reading?

As a Reader’s Workshop teacher, I know many ideas about reading to be true. First, workshop should be about choice. Readers must have the opportunity to choose the books they want to read, know where to find the right books, and explore different genres. Readers also need time to read independently.  Readers who read consistently have higher academic success than those who do not (US Education Dept, US Endowment for the Arts). It is important for readers to have time to respond and reflect about the literature they selected. Some strategies include response journals, class discussions, book talks, book recommendations and book clubs, just to name a few.  Finally, readers need to understand that they are part of a classroom and global community of readers. Finding other readers with similar interests can help readers communicate, grow, and challenge themselves to increase reading stamina. The hope is that readers will develop reading habits that will continue into adulthood.
Knowing what I know about reading, why have I deprived myself of these same principles? Why was I not practicing what I teach my readers?
I knew that my teaching would improve the more I learned and applied best practice. I never wanted to miss an opportunity to be better. One of my favorite resources is professional texts.  I made it my mission to read these books during my free time. A few of my favorite authors include Chris Lehman, Jennifer Serravallo, Jeff Anderson, Colleen Cruz, Donalyn Miller, Kate Roberts and Ralph Fletcher.  
I believed I was modeling great reading to my students by reading my professional texts.  I was growing my mind and finding methods to improve my teaching at the same time.  It seemed like a win-win.  Over time, I began to dislike the fact that I was constantly working. While my own children played or read books they chose at the library, I was still devoting my private time to my profession. When I wasn’t working, I felt guilty and obsessed over the work left undone. I hate to admit it, but I started to resent reading.
A few months ago, I was with my girlfriends at parent pickup.  We were chatting about our usual topics when the conversation turned to a book she just finished.  Her eyes lit up, and her voice changed, as she shared her excitement over the book.  Someone else chimed in to share about her book and what she planned to read next.  This went on for a few minutes, and I stood in silence (those who know me understand how odd that must have been). I had nothing to offer. What could I say? “Hey, let me tell you about what I just read about student-led classrooms” or “I just discovered some great prompts which can be used while conferring with readers.”  This would not have been the place to voice these gems since none of these ladies are teachers. Why would they be interested? I also noticed that no one else is using this free time to discuss their profession. It dawned on me that these women were devoting time out of their busy schedules to, dare I say it, read for pleasure. It was like I had been hit with a brick.  Why was I depriving myself of the same joy, especially when I believed to my core the importance of selecting choice books to increase reading engagement?

As I pondered this thought over the next few days, something amazing began to happen. I started to notice other adults who were also finding great joy in reading: a substitute teacher, my brother-in-law, and a parent of one of my students. The parent, who is an avid reader,  introduced me to a novel by the best-selling author, Liane Moriarty. The following day, her daughter brought her mother’s copy to school so I could read it right away.  Once I started, I could not put the book down. As I turned to the last page, I was filled with so many emotions about the characters and plot.  I felt like I knew them and wanted more. I felt renewed because this feeling was the wake up call I needed. I was reminded how much I LOVE to read.  

I experience the same excitement in my classroom as I listen to my students talk about a book they just finished. They, too, discuss the characters, setting, and how the plot unfolded with vivid description. They are left will feelings of joy or sadness; some readers are even brought to tears. No matter the emotion, they are inspired to move on to their next book so they can experience those feelings again. A community of readers grows before my eyes. Thank you, authors, for creating this opportunity for my readers. 

I still love my professional texts. I know that my favorite authors will always be there with new ideas to support my teaching practices.  I also know that to be a better literacy teacher I need to devote time to my choice book and escape into the stories. This “me” time leaves me refreshed and inspired knowing I am in the presence of an author who is a master at her craft; someone who puts beautiful words together to tell a story.  I notice the strong vocabulary, elaborate sentence structure, and how the descriptions create a clear picture in my mind. I am made vividly aware that writing becomes a mixture of all we experience as readers. These experiences will transfer to my teaching, just like my time with the professional texts. It will also allow me to participate in engaging conversations (impromptu book clubs) with my adult peers and friends. My private time is more interesting and stimulating.  Most important, I am modeling my love of reading for my own boys. They already find pleasure in reading and our trips to the library, but I hope my boys will nurture this practice to become lifelong readers.
I don’t want them to lose the passion for reading like I did. Dr. Seuss reminds readers, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” Thank you, Dr. Seuss, and all the authors who are lighting the way as I begin my new-found journey as a choice reader.  



Monday, August 1, 2016

Brotherly Love

Ethan and Jackson
"CANNONBALL!!!" Swimming is a family favorite at the Reuter home.  My boys, Ethan and Jackson, would swim daily in our pool if the weather and our family schedule presented them with the opportunity. We have a pool prep routine: suits, sunscreen, toys and rafts in the pool, and then, "SPLASH"! They enter the cool, blue water with such grins on their faces.  Ethan picks up Jackson, and they move around the pool in unison.  They giggle and laugh as they discuss the next toy they will use. I am always impressed by their love for each other and the teamwork they exhibit.  I decide this behavior must come from my brilliant parenting skills.  I start to dream about sharing my methods with Parents magazine, as I am sure that other parents would want the same level of devotion to their children.  
As I continue to watch them interact, I am touched by the sweet conversation and loving interaction, when suddenly…"MOM!!!!!!!!!" I hesitate for a moment to see if this is the boy who cried wolf, like so many other pleas for help, or if this is the real deal.  Ethan tries to calm the screaming beast that is 4-year-old Jackson, but to no avail. He swims away, like any frustrated 11-year-old might do, trying to avoid the kicks, slaps, and pinches from Jackson's flailing limbs. Ethan looks at me as if to assure that I knew this was not his fault. This move by Ethan anger the beast more and throws him into full tantrum mode. "MOM!!!! Ethan is mean!" howls Jackson. What follows are yelps and wails of pain and anger which are heard throughout our neighborhood.
As my dreams of the feature in Parents magazine slip away, I put on my mom hat and decide how I will intervene.  I pause and think, what if I don't? As I contemplate my next move, I can't help but think back to my childhood experiences with my brother. What did my mom (who was also a teacher) do when it seemed like my brother and I were on the path to the point of no return?

This thought took me back to Three Lakes, WI where I spent almost every childhood summer at our cabin.  Looking back, I realize how lucky we were to have a special place to visit as a family that allowed my brother, Jayson, and me to fish, ride bikes, explore and swim in beautiful Big Stone Lake. The first thing Jayson and I would do after we helped my parents unpack was head to the lake. We would start at the top of the stairs, run the length of the pier, and with an excited screech, we would dive into the water.  The time of year and temperature rarely mattered since we just wanted to swim. We would spend hours in the lake.  A few favorite activities included diving contests, searching for smooth, colorful rocks to add to our collection, and finding clams and catching crayfish using old pots and pans. As you can imagine, all of these activities required communication and teamwork.  We proudly counted our rocks, clams, and crayfish, always wanting to find more.  We knew if we combined our treasures from the lake, we would exceed last year's totals.  Whenever I see a smooth rock ready for skipping, or a crayfish moving its way through shallow lake water, I can't help but smile and remember those happy times with Jayson.

Unfortunately, not all interactions in the lake were filled with love and compassion.  I have plenty of memories of fearing for my life while in the water.  My brother, who is two years older, liked the fact that he was bigger and stronger than me. He was better at diving off the pier and reminded me of this fact every chance he got.  He also thought it was hilarious when he jumped off the pier and tried to land on me.  If he were really in the mood, he would only push me down and hold me underwater until I couldn't breathe.  Not cool. Finally, his preferred means of torture was to push me off the end of the pier before I was ready to enter the chilly water. When these events happened, I would look to my mom for help. I, like Jackson, would scream "MOM!!!!!"  What I remember is she rarely intervened, but when she did, look out.  It meant she had enough of our petty conflicts, which usually meant we needed to get out of the lake, sit on the pier, or head up to the cabin.  Over time I discovered I needed to weigh my options before screaming.  I learned to defend myself and fight back, or simply swim away like Ethan did.  There is nothing bully bros hate more than victims who are brave enough to stand up for themselves.  Each summer was a new opportunity to grow and reflect, and also develop bravery, strength, and resilience.

More splashing and screaming returned my focus to the escalating situation in the Reuter pool.  I get up from my comfortable perch in the lounge chair and move closer to the pool.  My primary concern is always the safety of my swimmers, so I assess Jackson's "real" level of need.  I observe that he is safe on his noodle and all of his screams stem from his want of attention from his older brother.  By this point, it seems that Ethan has realized the same thing. Ethan lets out a "sigh", and then swims back towards Jackson.  "Jackson, will you be nice to me if I come back and play with you?" questioned Ethan.

"Ok….." whispers Jackson.

Ethan asks, "What do you need to say, Jackson?"  

Jackson hesitates and says nothing while looking down at the water moving past his red face.  Ethan patiently asks again, "What do you need to say, Jackson, if you want me to play with you?"Jackson finally looks up at Ethan.  The anger has drained from his face, and there is a look of remorse.

Jackson finally looks into Ethan's eyes; slowly and quietly whispering, "Soooorrrry, Ethan." Ethan assures Jackson that he is forgiven, and asks Jackson for a hug.  Jackson throws his little arms around Ethan's neck and holds him tight.  Ethan begins to carry him around the pool again, and within a few seconds, I hear giggles coming from Jackson.  Ethan and I look at each other and start to laugh as well.  I return to my perch on the lounge chair and hope that this calm will last for at least a little while.  

As I reflect on this day, as well as my time spent with my brother, I realize how important a sibling can be to a child and an adult.  Not only do you hopefully have a life-long friend who lives in your home, but you also have someone to share your success, failure and family crisis.  Do siblings always celebrate these achievements and treat failures with care? Not always, but we can learn from how siblings treat each other. Siblings, on their best day, can exhibit love, compassion, teamwork, and communication.  Siblings prepare you for school, work, and life situations in the future.  On their worst days, they are mean and hurtful to each other. Siblings teach us other essential skills needed for school, work, and life.  These are patience, strength, reflection, and the importance of crucial conversations to repair relationships.

My husband, who is an only child, reminds my boys and me how lucky we are to have a sibling to share these moments, at both times of pure joy and unresolved conflict. My hope for you is that you have a sibling to share your life.  If not, find someone who loves and challenges you as much as a sibling would.  You will be better for having someone in your life that can be both your teammate and opponent based on the situation. I leave you with a quote about siblings that touches my heart,  "The greatest gift my parents ever gave us was each other." So true.


Jayson and Julie
Mom, Jayson and Julie    
My boys and I


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Growth Mindset, Motivation and Digital Writing

My passion for growth mindset teaching and learning began a few years ago when I read Dr. Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  One of my biggest struggles as a Writer's Workshop teacher is watching my learners who don't like to write.  No matter what I tried, there were always one or
two students who were not motivated to engage fully in the workshop process with the rest of the class.  If I did not have 100% participation, I felt like I had failed. I discovered that my struggling learners may very well have a fixed mindset about writing.  Until they believe and understand they are in a safe environment where mistakes are encouraged, and with hard work and perseverance they can succeed, they can't change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset about writing.

Last year, I decided to make it my mission to integrate growth mindset teaching into my Writer's Workshop class.  Fortunately, I discovered Mindsets in the Classroom by Mary Cay Ricci early in my journey. Ricci's book was an excellent resource as I began introducing my students to the idea of growth vs fixed mindsets and perseverance. We start each year with personal narratives, so I shared my own story of perseverance and the fear I had of cycling with my family that summer. They had so many questions about my experience. They returned to their notebooks and wrote their own stories of perseverance and couldn't wait to share.

Another way we kicked off our year as growth mindset writers was to decide how we would be "Brave as a Writer this Year in Writer's Workshop?"  We listened to the song Brave by Sarah Bareilles first to get the students excited about the concept. The words to the song have a very powerful message (See my previous post). Each student posted their goal to our Padlet as a reminder and we revisited them often.


One of my favorite, quick, and what I believe to be the most effective growth mindset strategies I used last year, was what I called my "daily dose of growth mindset".  Each day I started workshop with a quote or image on the screen for students as they walked in the room.  It became the topic of conversation each day and the transition to our mini lesson. I especially like the one above for many reasons... but most importantly I can proudly say J.J. Watt attended the Pewaukee School District. This is an example of hard work and perseverance at its best, but in the words of J.J., "rent is due every day".  It motivated us to get to work, and for those who weren't totally motivated, it was hard to argue with J.J. Watt on the board.  I noticed students would push themselves, and each other, a little bit harder than I had seen in past years. I also noticed students using the mindset language in pair shares.  Students would also share and email me quotes or images they found on their own and asked if I would share them with the class. Priceless.  

Mentor texts with a growth mindset message was also a wonderful way to inspire my writers and I could teach my mini lesson in the process.  JoEllen McCarthy has put together a great set of mentor texts to help teachers start their own classroom library. I have used over half of these already in my classroom and my students love them.  Peter and Paul Reynolds Going Places will always be a top pick.  Another must have text in a growth mindset classroom is The Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, PhD.  It is important for our students to have an understanding of their own brain and how it works.  My writers and I read The Fantastic Elastic Brain together and reflected on how their own brains can stretch and grow

Reflecting on growth, celebrating success, and learning from our mistakes was all part of our process this past year in Writer's Workshop.  I had students set growth goals for our Fall conferences and present them to parents.  For our Spring conferences, students created digital portfolios which were completely student-led conferences. When students and I would meet for a conference during workshop, we would end each conference by setting a growth goal for our next meeting. I would make note of it in my Confer app and the student would keep the slip. When we met again, we would check the goal and celebrate the perseverance, or discuss what we needed to work on in order to meet the goal for next time. This strategy worked well because students had the sheet in their binders as an accountability tool and something to work towards.  I also made sure it was an achievable goal that could be measured the next time we met.  Other goals we set were mid-unit growth goals.  These became crucial for me to get a pulse of where my writers were truly at as we moved through our units of study.  It was powerful to watch the improvement in the posts as the year went on.  My students were not only becoming better writers, literary essayists, and journalists, they were able to communicate and reflect their own growth and learning the more time we spent together as a group.  This was true for the celebrations at the end of the units too.   Research-Based Celebration and Reflection   Theme-Based Celebration and Reflection

The group communication, collaboration and support was key to our growth mindset success. Each year in Writer's Workshop I have my students create their own personal learning networks. Their personal learning networks might be students in the class, teachers and parents.  PLN's can be anyone who will support them in their learning journey. My blog on Student PLNs  will share my resources and rationale for this powerful process at all grade levels. The reason why this is crucial for growth mindset is because students need to know they have a support system in place to help them persevere. They also need a group of "like learners" in their PLN who will challenge them.  When you create PLNs, you need to remind students to pick people who will push them and tell them the truth about their work and take the time to help them be better. I will never forget when I was at Teacher's College and Colleen Cruz, author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, told me to be "sharp" in one-on-one conferences. She was right. Our students need our honesty about their writing if they are going to improve. Start with a compliment, but then we need to be sharp and teach.

These are just a few of the mindset activities I used with my students last year.  You will find these and many more on my website. I will continue to share as I try new ideas with my students this year.  Mary Cay Ricci also came out with a book of Ready-to-Use Resources for Mindsets in the Classroom, which I highly recommend.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What Did You Learn at School Today? What Will YOUR Students Say?

Every new school year I begin my planning ritual.  I type my class lists, revamp my website, and change the number of years taught on my teacher profile.  Then, I reflect on my summer of learning.  I always start the summer with a plan to read professional texts to improve my quality of teaching the following school year. This summer was quite the gift because not only did I read some new gems, I also revisited many books I read previously. I have so may ideas in my head, but my hope is to fit the philosophies together to deliver the best learning opportunities to my students this year. I will highlight these texts in future blog posts since each author and topic deserves its own moment to shine.  I also believe it is important to share how I will or have used the ideas discussed in my own sixth grade classroom.

One of the texts I revisited was Thinking Through Project-Based Learning by Jane Krauss and Suzie Boss. This is one of my gems since I recently used it as the textbook for a university course I taught for teachers called, "Project-Based Learning and STEM".  Even though I know this book well, I often revisit the chapters on inquiry. These chapters are wonderful reminders to teachers that project-based learning doesn't have to fit a specific mold. It meets the needs of our students and the learning targets. It also reminds us that project-based learning is often interdisciplinary, which can range from several days to weeks depending on the content. As a writer's workshop, science and social studies teacher, the interdisciplinary approach to meeting the learning targets are ideal.  Students are able to integrate concepts and ideas from other disciplines. I am always reminded that most careers are interdisciplinary, just like teaching. We need to create experiences in our classrooms that are modeled the same way.

This is especially important this year.  Last year our 6th grade schedule allowed a time for science, social studies, and project-based learning.  This year, project-based learning will be integrated into our science and social studies time.  Fortunately, I teach with an amazing group of teachers who value the importance of inquiry-based learning.  We have already looked at our schedule and our learning targets to make sure we are able to integrate our PBL opportunities appropriately, as well as look for new ideas.

As luck would have it, my husband welcomed Suzie Boss to present at Franklin School District on Project-Based Learning.  Of course I jumped at the chance to attend.  Meeting Suzie Boss in person, walking through the project planning process with her, and being able to ask questions was such an amazing experience. I like to select project ideas from headlines or local issues and I noticed my writers and scientists do as well.  I was glad to hear Suzie use examples she called, "Ripped from the Headlines" in her presentation.  She also shared the great resources from the Buck Institute for Education. I love the graphic below because it shows the design elements, as well as the role of the teacher.


My goal this school year is to continue to create inquiry-based experiences for my students in all subject areas.  If they are seeking knowledge through research and asking questions, they will acquire a deeper level of knowledge. This means my mini lessons need to be shorter! (Reminder to myself.) My time is better spent as a facilitator and conferring with my writers.

If each experience is not memorable due to student voice and choice, inquiry-based and personalized, will students retain the learning?  Will they look forward to what you have in store for them tomorrow? Most important, will they leave empowered with the skills to recreate the experience on their own? My hope is my students will end each school day with a new piece of knowledge, maybe even a gem to inspire a Passion Project during the school year.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thankful


Teaching is a unique profession that those not in education often do not fully understand. People ask me all the time, "Why are you a teacher?" Each day I have a different answer to that question based on an experience from the day. I am a teacher and I am thankful.  Maddie, a former student, wrote a beautiful essay about me and I earned the honor of B93.3's Teacher of the Month Award. This month was filled with compliments, stories and memories about the award, my students, and my profession. I always teach my students the importance of reflecting on struggle, growth and celebrating success. I have had more than my share that led me to this point of overwhelming gratitude. I am especially thankful for my students, my family, and my professional growth.

I am incredibly thankful for my students over my twenty years of teaching.  The relationships I have built with them will be remembered for a lifetime. I treasure all the notes, visits, and updates from my former and current students. I have discovered that being a Language Arts teacher is a special gift because you are able to learn more about students through their writing, blogging and one on one conferences. My 6th grade students have always mentored younger students with writing and technology.  When I moved to Pewaukee School District, a few of my former Merton students who were experienced bloggers mentored my new 6th grade students and continue to comment on our blogs.  They are dedicated writers and mentors, and wanted to share their experience with younger students because they knew they could teach their skills to others.  I am so proud of them.  They were willing to do this for students they didn't even know at a different school.

I have also discovered that my students are the ones who help me stay the course when my life seems upside down personally or professionally.  My classroom is always a place I feel at home and accepted.  I hope my students feel that way too.  It was a hard decision for me to leave Merton after 19 years, and I wasn't sure how my students would take the news.  They understood and respected my decision and said all the right things. Students seem to find the solutions to problems that adults find complicated.  I love that about them. They take risks, innovate, collaborate, talk, smile, laugh, cry, create, fail, try again, write, all with me throughout the day.  Why am I a teacher? I am a teacher because of my students and I am so thankful for the time I get to spend with them.


Teaching is a profession that takes an enormous amount of time and dedication. You need a family that supports and understands your level of commitment to your career, but also find a balance between work and home.  I am so thankful for my husband, Chris,  who is my biggest supporter and holds our family together. He does this along with his professional role of Middle School Principal.  We have two amazing boys, 9 and 2, so our schedules are crazy.  I am grateful that he values my role as a teacher just as much as his role as a principal. We are equals, personally and professionally. The time he spends with our boys allows me to work on my professional passions. Chris is not only a great leader at work, but also at home.  I am so thankful our boys have a role model like him.

I am thankful to be selected Teacher of the Month in November for personal reasons as well as professional. 10 years ago, my mom passed away in November. She was also a teacher who made a difference in the lives of many middle school students in West Bend, WI.  Her birthday was also in November. Being raised by two dedicated educators, and now following that tradition with my own family, I am filled with pride. Why am I a teacher? I am a teacher because I have a family that supports me and has taught me the importance of education. I will always be a lifelong learner, and I hope that our boys will value education as much as my husband and I do.

Professional growth and change is something I always considered a necessity in education.  Not everyone agrees with me, but when we consider the fact that our world is ever changing, we need to look at our practices as educators and realize that professional growth and change should be ongoing.  This year I am thankful for the Pewaukee School District because they believe in professional growth and change. I have found a wonderful home at Horizon Elementary School.  My new leaders, Pete Gull and Jodi Swanson, start our staff meetings with "appreciations" for each other.  I leave our meetings with all I need to know about standards-based grading and SLO's, but I also feel thankful knowing more about my colleagues and all the great things they are doing.  I miss all my teacher friends I left after 19 years at Merton, but was welcomed by new friends at Horizon. Change is scary because it seems unknown, but if you are in a position where you are no longer growing, it's time to move on.  I am so thankful I did.  Teaching is the ultimate opportunity for professional growth and an opportunity to follow your passions.  Why am I a teacher?  I am a teacher because I believe in the power of learning and growth.

As teachers, we all have days and lessons that don't go well.  We have students who don't like us. We have parents who disagree with a decision we made. I admit that I am one of those teachers who take those criticisms to heart. I wish I could "Shake It Off" like Taylor Swift advises me to do in such a wonderful sing song way, but instead I obsess over it. I want to be the best teacher I can, and any criticism is hard to hear. That is why I wanted to write this today.  To remind myself how lucky I was to be recognized by Maddie in November of 2014, along with all the other letters, cards and emails I have received over the years.  As educators we should be thankful to everyone who supports us, celebrate, remember all our hard work, and do our best to shake off the occasional criticism.







Sunday, August 17, 2014

Just Keep Pedaling

Bike...check. Helmet...check. Fear...check. Anxiety...check. For many people a bike ride is something that brings joy and happy memories.  But for me, cycling  is a dangerous sport and not something an uncoordinated person like myself would prefer to do, especially on a family vacation.

I love the sport itself.  I always enjoyed watching it on TV, the Tour de France, the dedication of the riders, and what it takes to be a successful cyclist.  My family takes the sport very seriously and rides often.  This is what motivated me to finally want to get a bike of my own and overcome my fears.

I started to think about why I felt a pit in my stomach towards a sport everyone else loved. I looked to my childhood bike rides. They were very different from today.  Our bikes were cheap, we had no helmets, and I was not a skilled rider. Our homes were far away from our destinations in West Bend, so that meant that we needed to travel far distances on country highways.  I remembered the horror of the cars speeding past me at 55 miles per hour. The dangerous rides were never worth the trinkets or the candy we purchased at the stores once we finally arrived, especially since we had to turn around and ride the same distance home. Luckily I survived and found other forms of exercise that were more enjoyable and less dangerous.

A few years ago, cycling tried to bully me into giving it another go on a girl's weekend in Shawano, Wisconsin. There were many women who were there to relax, but others wanted to use this time to take on new challenges.  I was torn, because one of my dear friends and role models, Jolie, arrived. She was a skilled cyclist and was going to try the infamous bike trails nearby.  I was so inspired by her. As she got her bike ready, she shared her fears with me.  I love that about her.  Even though she is so talented, she is not afraid to express how she is feeling about what she is about to do.  I watched her ride towards the wooded area and I admired her so much.  I wondered if I could get past my own fears and try this myself. While she was gone, I sat in my chair and read my fashion magazines with such mixed emotions. I was enjoying my relaxing time, but was also jealous that I wasn't getting down and dirty on those trails and facing my fears on that bike.  A while later, I saw Jolie walking next to her bike.  She screamed, "Julie! I scraped my leg!"  I ran up to her and saw she had torn her leg open.  There were left over artifacts from the trail remaining in her open wound.  I was heartbroken for her.  The trails were so tight that riders could barely fit through.  It must have been so painful.  I was so proud of my brave friend for even attempting to tackle these treacherous trails, but I was once again convinced that there are better ways to exercise and spend time with friends outdoors.

I was able to escape the cycling curse a few more years until we started a tradition of taking a trip to Door County each summer with my brother's family.  The first two years I was in the clear because one year I was pregnant and the second year Jackson was too little to ride.  This year there were no excuses.  Everyone was hitting the trail, including me.  John, my father-in-law, gave me his bike which was in wonderful shape and my sweet husband got me all the other equipment I needed.  He got everything else ready for our boys too.  As luck would have it, a few days before our Door County trip I had dinner plans with Jolie, so I could talk through my fears with her and ask her some coaching questions that I didn't want to ask my husband (all you married people out there know EXACTLY what I am talking about).  One thing that worried her was my pedals.  I had clips on my pedals.  She suggested I get rid of those.  It really helped to have this time with Jolie before the trip to not only ease my mind, but also build my confidence.  I will be the least experienced rider, and I don't want to let anyone down.

We arrived in Door County and we were blessed with beautiful weather. Everyone was excited to get on our bikes and head out on the trails, including me! I couldn't decide who I was ultimately doing this for. I felt such mixed emotions as I headed out on the trails.  I wanted to prove to my entire family of skilled riders that I could do this too, but I think I really wanted to do this for myself.  I have gone through a lot of changes personally and professionally lately so I wondered if achieving this small goal would replace the feelings of loss I have felt.  At first I was uneasy on the bike. I didn't understand the clips on the pedals and I had to think about the gears. Soon, I felt the wind off Lake Michigan and the sound of the birds. I forgot about the pedals and I listened to the crunch of the wheels on the trail as my speed increased and my heart raced.  I found myself giggling and hoped that no one could hear me.  I loved it.  It was a sport where I could take it all in and enjoy the time with my family, and most important, my computer was at home.  I had no way to work except to just process in my head. I finally got it.

I was feeling so confident that I had accomplished my goal that I forgot that I was an inexperienced rider. We were coming to a busy road. I suddenly stopped and forgot that I had clips on my pedals.  I couldn't get my shoe out fast enough and my bike tipped over.  Of course it was at a spot where other riders were also stopped.  I quickly picked up my bike and examined my scraped leg.  I had flashbacks of Jolie's leg as I heard Ethan say with a concerned whisper, "Mom, are you ok?"
I held back the tears, and said, "Yes buddy, I'm fine."  Physically I was fine, but emotionally, I was crushed. I could have cared less about all the strangers who just saw me fall.  I tell my students all the time to take risks and not to worry if you fall.  I truly believe that.  But what broke my heart was that my boys just saw me fall.  I don't ever want my kids to think that I can't accomplish something I set out to do.  I know that sounds silly, but I want them to believe Mom can do anything, at least for a little while, and I just fell.  I, of course, wanted to scream at my husband since he put the clips on my bike, but it wasn't his fault.  It was just one of those situations where you need to brush yourself off and get back on your bike and keep pedaling. So that's what I did. As I look back on that day I realize that this is a better lesson for my boys to learn. More often in life we remember the imperfect bike rides, not the perfect ones.  I want them to remember both, but I want them to know that if they do fall off, it's ok!  They should just brush the trail off, get back on the bike and keep pedaling.