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.