Friday, September 28, 2012

Choose the Cone

Last night I watched this TedX video:

The basic premise is that at any given moment in your life, one hand is holding an ice cream cone while your foot is in dog poop. It's up to us to decide where our focus will be.

I'm glad I watched this video last night, because today was rough.  Things got off to a rocky start, and then got progressively worse as the day wore on.  Kids felt it.  I felt it.  Other teachers who walked into my room felt it.  By mid-afternoon, we were knee-deep in an open-ended math problem-solving activity that was causing a lot of frustration.  There were tears and angry outbursts.  Kids were giving up left and right.  Heck, even I wanted to throw in the towel.

And then I watched one of my students slyly place a pink sticky note on her upper lip with a perfectly drawn black curly mustache.  She continued to take notes and listen intently to our discussion.  Trying my best to ignore it and keep a straight face, I kept teaching.  A few moments later, I watched another boy at the same table place a sticky note mustache and goatee on his face.  Keep in mind, no other tables realized this was happening and both students continued to remain serious and studious.  I turned away to chuckle.  Coming back to address the class, I watched a third student place two bushy paper eyebrows on his forehead.  At this point, I pretended to drop my pen and doubled over laughing behind my computer cart. And, just when I thought I had fully composed myself, I looked up to see the fourth student at the table with her whole face covered by different colored sticky notes.

They chose the ice cream cone for me.  We had a good laugh and decided to put our math away for a bit. We took a walk through our school's community garden, took some photos for our science unit, and picked a healthy after-school snack.  The most important part was that we managed to make it through a rough day with a smile on our faces. Together.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Make Your Mark

International Dot Day was many things to me:
  • A chance to introduce my students to one of my favorite authors/illustrators, Peter H. Reynolds.
  • A starting point for many meaningful discussions with my students about overcoming fears, believing in yourself, and creative thinking.
  • An opportunity to collaborate with other educators and classrooms - in our school, across the district, and around the country.
  • A reason for students to work cooperatively to tackle complicated but amazing projects (including a video, several painting projects, writing pieces, and goal setting activities).
  • An excuse to throw an awesome party welcoming families into the classroom to celebrate student work, build community, and stress the importance of a strong home-school connection.
Dot Day not only encouraged my students to make their mark on the world, but helped me realize why I continue to make mine through teaching.  Thank you, Mr. Reynolds, for all you do for kids and teachers around the world.  You and the characters you create are truly inspirational.  

My copy of The Dot traveled 3,000 miles
to be signed by Peter Reynolds at
the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weren't You Listening?

Every teacher knows how critical the first weeks of school can be.  Routines need to be established, classroom community needs to be built, and curriculum needs to be taught.  There's just a lot going on every second of the day.  So when I had to unexpectedly be out three days during the first week of school for a family emergency, you could say I was a little frazzled.  

On my return flight, I made two big mistakes going through security: I forgot to take off my belt, and I left my liquids in my carry-on.  Frustrated, the security officer snipped at me: "Weren't you listening?!"

I'm not a seasoned traveler, but I know the drill when it comes to navigating airport security lines.  I simply made these mistakes because it was a stressful trip and my mind was somewhere else.  I was embarrassed and hurt by the incident because I was already emotionally fragile and I didn't mean to make these silly mistakes in the first place.  I also didn't like being singled out for something I'm sure is a normal occurrence in the security line.   

I started to think about how often I've thought or said those words to my own students in frustration - weren't you listening?! - and the possible feelings I may have hurt because of it.

Perhaps those students weren't listening for a reason. Perhaps something stressful, sad, scary, or life-changing was going on in their lives. If only I would have asked them if everything was okay, rather than taken it personally.  The incident was a great reminder that we're not always at our best when we come to work or school, and that sometimes we make mistakes because there are bigger things on our minds.  

As this school year unfolds I want to strive to be perceptive and empathetic - to not be so wrapped up in the details and not let my authority as "the teacher" impact the dynamic of the classroom.  In those times of frustration, I hope to channel that moment in the airport, remembering that we're all fighting a hard battle and that the stories and experiences we bring to our classroom are what make it a special place to be. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How to Sink an Orange

On the second day of school I presented my students with a bucket of water, an orange, and a problem to solve: get the orange to sink.  

The secret to this experiment is the peel.  Like a little life preserver, it is full of air pockets that make the orange float.  To sink the orange, just remove the peel.  It's almost too simple.  To shake things up and get the creative juices flowing, paper clips, tape, clay, string, and math counters were made available for students to use.  

This was a great beginning of the year activity because it combined science, inquiry learning, and team building.  Not only did students have to ask questions, test out hypotheses, and make adjustments, but they also had to listen to each others' ideas, compromise, and cooperate.  I also like this activity because it shows students that we can reach the same conclusion through many different pathways.  

One team started with paperclips and clay.  The paperclips, they rationalized, would weigh down the orange and the clay would hold the paperclips in place.  When that didn't work, they figured the paper clips were too light and something heavier was needed.  Math counters were added for additional weight and they tried again.  As they plopped the weighted orange into the water and watched it bob back up to the surface, I could tell the group was getting frustrated.  Both the paper clips and the counters sunk on their own, so how come they couldn't sink the orange?  
"It's impossible!" I heard one student say. "No, it's not! Let's not give up just yet," her teammate encouraged.    

After several more failed attempts to sink the orange by each group, I saw the light go on in one girl's eyes.  She motioned her team into a huddle and whispered, "It's the peel!"  They carefully tested their new theory, noticing that their orange sunk a little further the more they peeled.  Excited by their discovery, they quickly worked together and sunk the orange.  Other groups began to observe and modify their own designs as a result.

This activity led to great discussions on the importance of failure, the value of thinking creatively, and what to do when the tools we're using aren't working for us or are getting in our way.  Most importantly, this activity allowed students to have fun and get excited about their year in our classroom.  Many students mentioned to me with a devious smile that they were eager to conduct this experiment again at home.  Ultimately, this activity set the tone in our classroom.  It showed my students that learning can be messy and loud, working together can be rewarding, and we can learn a lot through wondering about the world around us and not giving up in challenging situations.