Reading Day: Making Time for Professional Development

The past several weeks have been a blur — two November snow days (oh, Maine!), report cards, and the holiday season have kept me in a perpetual losing battle with my to-do list.

It’s this continuous sense of hustle and bustle that has led me to create an intentional shift in how I think about scheduling my time. In an article that I recently read (the author and title escape me), the author discussed how we spend so much time working on things that are unimportant because they come with a false sense of urgency — email comes to mind as the big one for me in this area — or because they are quick and seem easy to get done and cross off our list. What happens as we chase all of these small, urgent-feeling tasks is that we lose all of the time for the bigger, deeper things that we’re always saying we’d like to find the time to do.

For me, the thing that I’m always copying and pasting from one week’s to-do list to the next is professional reading and creativity time for curriculum and activity development. Because it never feels as urgent as my other to-dos, it’s the first thing I tend to push aside, even though it’s the thing that would actually be most effective in helping me to reach my goal of being a real-life Mz. Frizzle, who makes learning an adventure with interesting and challenging activities.

Over the Thanksgiving Break, while I had a few moments to catch my breath, I decided that I was going to prioritize this time for my own professional development. In creating my month-at-a-glance, I scheduled in one school day a week to be my “Reading Day.” On this day, the only thing I can do during my prep or those little pockets of time that crop up during the day (what typically becomes compulsive email checking time) is read and gather ideas for future activities. The time to do this is never going to magically appear and planning to do it only during the summer isn’t practical, as I’d like to be continually refining my practice while embedded in my daily context, not just creating plans during the summer when I’m not in the rhythm of teaching.

Thus far, keeping all of those to-dos away from my reading day has been HARD. Way harder than I expected. I keep having to remind myself that email can wait just one day, that I can catch up on setting up materials tomorrow — I’m having to retrain myself to more accurately judge urgency.

Today is actually my reading day, so I shouldn’t technically be writing this now, but this an idea that I wanted to ripple forward. Now, it’s back to my read for the day — Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager’s work Invent to Learn. Already, in my reading at breakfast and when I first arrived at school, I’m feeling that rush of inspiration that comes from reading about new, exciting ideas.

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From ELA to STEAM

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So much has changed during my hiatus from blogging this spring! I have changed home addresses, schools, and — most significantly — my job description. After four years of teaching second grade at a small, rural school in Maine, I am transitioning into a role as a Pre-K to 8th grade STEM teacher at a slightly-larger, rural school in Maine.

For longtime readers of this blog or anyone who knows me, it’s a bit startling that, come September, I’ll be taking on a specialized science and technology position. After all, I double-majored in English and education, have an M.Ed in Language and Literacy, and am a voracious reader. Yet, as I look back on my four years of traditional classroom teaching, I can clearly see myself transforming — at first gradually and then quite rapidly — into a STEM teacher.

This transition began when I recognized that my students had an innate interest in science and that traditional reading and writing instruction could easily be encompassed within and made more meaningful when embedded in science (and social studies) content and activities. By my second year of teaching, I had largely given up on the traditional “literacy block” in favor of specific literacy instruction that occurred within the context of our science explorations. While many elementary school teachers lament not having enough time for science instruction, with this thematic approach, I was soon spending one-third and then more than one-half of our day on rich scientific activities that incorporated multiple subject areas.

In my third year teaching, I won a grant that allowed me to purchase Lego robotics kits and other computer programming technology for my classroom/school. While watching my students tinker with technology, I recognized that they instinctively began applying all of the Habits of Mind that we also spent a significant amount of our time discussing and practicing. They began cooperating on groupwork, inventing multiple ideas to problems, persisting — essentially doing all of the things that I believe lead to meaningful and lasting learning. I became obsessed with planning our engineering activities and found them to increasingly be the perfect practice zone for all of the skills and habits that I wanted my students to possess before concluding our time together.

And now, planning those STEM challenges that will foster critical thinking is going to be my full-time job. I am incredibly excited about the scope of this role — providing STEM experiences for all 400 students in our school — and the freedom that I will have to build a program that is responsive to student interests and our ever-changing world. Because I love teaching all of the subjects in a thematic context, I never thought that I would specialize, but now that I have made the leap, I am amazed by the clarity and focus that I’m able to bring to my work — and now, to this blog. I hope you’ll journey with me this year as I dip my toes into becoming Mz. Frizzle!

Epistemological Humility

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Explorations with Sewn Circuits & Makey Makey at Constructing Modern Knowledge

My primary activity this summer has been learning! I spent time in May developing a comprehensive summer learning and professional development plan and, as a result, my brain is bursting with new ideas, connections, and an even-longer list of things that I need to spend more time exploring. It is this familiar run-in with the need for epistemological humility that has me most energized about going back to school and working to help broaden the perspectives of my Curious Questioners to show them that the world contains more information than they could ever learn in six lifetimes.

Here are some of the highlights of my summer learning:

  • Constructing Modern Knowledge – For four days this summer, I was immersed in 21st century MAKERspace land at the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. The learning space allowed me access to all of the technologies that I’ve read about but never seen — Raspberry Pi, LittleBits, Arduino, Lilypads…the list goes on and on. There was no set schedule during these four days, so we were free to dabble and create. Many of the other attendees worked on large, complicated projects, but I was so overwhelmed by the choices that I didn’t want to limit myself to one idea. I spent most of the time exploring sewn circuits, finally figuring out how to use my Makey Makey kit, and integrating projects into Scratch. The experience was rich, tremendously uncomfortable in its uncertainty (in a wonderful way), and inspired me to continue pursuing constructivist tasks and projects with my students. Learn more about this amazing un-conference at http://constructingmodernknowledge.com/.Oh! At CMK I also got to talk about my question mark project (above) with Alfie Kohn, one of my educational heroes. I still can’t believe that actually happened!

 

  • Online Course: 
    • Leading Change: Go Beyond Gamification with Gameful Learning
      It remains flabbergasting that the edX and Coursera MOOC platforms offer such high-quality content for free. In this course, I’ve been learning about techniques to make learning “gamified” in ways that leverage student motivation and encourage risk-taking. The course explores what video games do so well — primarily personalized scaffolding — and how these ideas can be brought into the classroom to create more compelling learning environments.

 

  • Reading:IMG_0400 I’ve had the wonderful fortune of choosing excellent professional development books to explore this summer. No ho-hum or basic ideas here! A Place for Wonder and To Look Closely inspired my Nature Study program, which I cannot wait to begin in the fall. Hello Ruby is just the tool I needed to introduce my students to programming in an accessible and engaging way. Finally, Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, which I’m still reading, is making me rethink nearly everything I’ve ever done in math. Revamping my approach to math is my focus for curriculum work in these last few weeks of summer.

I feel so fortunate to have a career that allows me the time to continually push my pedagogical thinking. At Constructing Modern Knowledge, we talked about “taking off our teacher hats and putting on our learner hats” — this summer, I’ve been able to do just that, and it’s been invigorating.

Still Seeking a Curious Classroom

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” – Margaret J. Wheatly

I have been back to classroom teaching for a year and, during some long rides on my bicycle, I’ve realized that the decision to cut reflective writing out of my overstuffed schedule has not benefitted me personally or professionally. So, here I begin my re-entry into this blog. The work of trying to teach differently remains challenging, messy, and joyful — but documenting the attempt to do so seems urgent in this era of continuing standardization, Betsy DeVos (How? Why?), and shinier-flashier boxed curricula.

Since I last wrote, I spent one year working in an urban elementary school in a non-classroom role and struggled every day with not being the one providing instruction. From where I now sit, I see the tremendous value in the step I took to explore a different perspective and position in education, but wish that the knowledge I acquired could have been gained without such complete severing of my ties to the helm of a classroom. The boxes of school materials I had packed up to take this new position didn’t have time to collect much dust — through an unlikely series of events, I actually found my back to the same rural school (even the same classroom) where I began my career. This year, I welcomed my third bunch of Curious Questioners, a group that tested and challenged me pedagogically, mentally, and emotionally.

Throughout this year, I kept hearing comments about how, as a third year teacher, things get easier, because you know what you’re doing. While it’s true that I know worlds more than I did when I first started teaching, it occurred to me that, while I have created some classroom and learning frameworks that seem to “work,” I still feel a profound dissatisfaction that my classroom and my teaching does not fully embody the ideals that I have for it.

One day in May, I was getting agitated because of students lollygagging on their way to the rug, where I had requested that we meet to discuss or go over something — I honestly can’t recall the circumstances. For some reason, I paused and pondered and then started asking myself a series of questions: Why was I having students come to the rug? Did students need to come to the rug to be successful at whatever was coming next? What did calling them to the rug signal about ownership of learning time in our classroom? Why was I sitting in a “grown-up chair” instead of on the rug with my learners? Why was I getting frustrated with students who wouldn’t stop what they were doing just because I asked them nicely? And then, it hit me — I had, once again, fallen into the trap of routines and traditional teaching when, it seemed likely, that a far better and more student-driven approach could be found.

Of course, there are times when it makes wonderful sense to have students gather on the rug together. But does it need to happen each time an activity changes? And how many times should I be changing activities? Also, why was I expecting all of my students to be working on the same thing at the same time? These questions had fallen absent, as — under the pressures of end-of-the-year-assessment-madness and the weight of (perhaps) too many afterschool commitments — I was struggling just to make it through each day of learning.

But now it’s summer — my most productive season for professional development and instructional reconfiguring. It is my hope for the next nine weeks (and for the next year) to critically examine my practice, to finally go “all-in” on those practices that I have seen bring students (and their teacher) most fully into sustained and engaged learning, and to constantly ask, “Why am I doing it this way?” I hope you’ll join me.

“On the Way to School”

It’s been a long, busy, frigid week here in Maine. I have one more week to go until my February vacation, which will hopefully offer a much-needed break for both my kiddos and me — I think the cold and “cabin fever” that sets in during this part of the winter is impacting all of us!

This morning, I went to a local cinema to watch a film in the documentary series that they are doing on Saturday & Sunday mornings. The film this weekend was “On the Way to School,” which chronicled the journeys that four children (and, in some cases, their siblings) make to school. The locations covered were Kenya, Argentina, Morocco, and India — the scenery in the movie was fantastic and it was fascinating to observe the differences in lifestyles and means for getting to school. It goes without saying, I think, that there wasn’t a school bus that was coming to collect the students featured, but I was surprised by how arduous the journeys were, particularly for the boys in India, who not only had to walk 75 minutes, but had to do it while pushing their brother on a makeshift wheelchair through some pretty difficult terrain. As an educator, I felt moved that students would travel so far with such intrepid determination to pursue an education.

What was perhaps most interesting to me were the universal aspects of childhood that appeared throughout the film — the squabbles with their siblings, the amusement in small things, the sense of pride and responsibility when they are given the opportunity to be independent.

I think that this film would be a great one to show and discuss in the beginning of the school year with slightly older students than the ones that I currently have. Too often, kids are not aware that coming to school is a privilege that shouldn’t be squandered. I’d be really interested to hear their reactions to the film — I think it could be a powerful experience for them to see children their own age (~11-13 years old) and the odds they tackle to make it to school.