Saturday, March 29, 2014

Conflict: Maintaining Professionalism, Integrity, and Relationships

Conflict is all around us as educators. Conflict among students, their parents, and our colleagues. I've recently completed a Masters in Teacher Leadership where we spent much of our time in the program diving into strengthening communication skills and dealing with interpersonal conflict among our colleagues. The most active discussion among my classmates always arose around the topic of conflict: avoiding it, rectifying it, and restoring peace. My class had students from all over the world which showed me this is a topic not limited to one specific school, district, state, or country. It's universal for us because, as educators, we deal with people. So how can we deal with conflict when working with our colleagues? It is impossible to avoid if you do not know one another very well.

This year, I have been very fortunate to work with an extremely talented and confident team of experienced and passionate teachers. Each member has an area of speciality that they bring to the group as we move towards providing our students the best learning possible. However, in any group there is always the possibility that our viewpoints and perspective will not always align with one another's.

During the first semester, our team leader, Lindsay Kilgore (@lindsaykilgore on Twitter), suggested that we create a unified goal as a group of 6th grade teachers. Through this discussion, we were able to share our own vision for our students and the grade level, giving all of us an insight into each other's perceptions. Being a new member of the team this year, our creating of the goal gave me the opportunity to understand my team members and feel like an integral part of the team. All of us agreed that student learning needed to be our driving force. I believe that the process of writing this goal is what solidified us as a true team and laid a foundation for further discussions.

I admired how much research that Lindsay did on communication, conflict resolution, and professional goal setting. Another team member suggested that it would be helpful for us to take a personality test so that we could understand one another on a deeper level when working closely with one another. Lindsay sent us the article Personality Types: Using Personality Assessments to Identify Your Strengths (and Understand Your Co-Workers). In that article is a link to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator that we each took and sent the results to her to compile. During the time that we took the personality test, many of us were surprised at not only how accurate the explanation of our type actually was for ourselves, but also at how different some of our colleagues were in reality than we had perceived them. In spite of regular conversations, team meetings, and collaborative projects, it became apparent that there were some crucial personality characteristics that we each needed to take into consideration.

Lindsay compiled all of our information and distributed at our team meeting. She included tips for how
Photo bPeggy2012CREATIVELENZ
each personality type should interact with the other personality types. Through our discussion, it led us to the conclusion that not only understanding ourselves, but each other and how to communicate effectively would be of great benefit in knowing our students. We discussed how we could begin the school year with a personality test in order to truly gain insight into our learners and begin the year teaching them the way that they learn and communicate. (Lindsay used 16 Personalities: Get to Know Yourself and Relationship Between Personality Types and Truity and Personality and Relationships to compile and explain our results.)

Another conversation that we had as a team was discussing conflict: what sets us off, how we deal with conflict, and how we want to resolve the disagreement. It became very apparent that not understanding these elements could potentially cause a problem. For example, if one individual deals with conflict considerably different than another in the team, that could exponentially escalate the conflict. This kind of issue could hinder the true point of conflict, which is resolution. Knowing this about one another helps each of us to understand what to expect of each individual and proceed in the manner that fits their personality.

Out of the conflict dialogue grew a discussion on where we wanted to be as a team professionally...our professional goals as a team. This conversation showed that some team members wanted to focus all their efforts in their classroom while others wanted to pursue National Board Certification, writing for professional education organizations, building a model school for lab experiences, coaching fellow teachers, or presenting at conferences. This opens the door to ongoing conversation as we continue to teach together. Knowing an individual's goal helps you to understand actions you might have misunderstood (A lesson that easily applies to our students.).

Conflict is difficult. Conflict among great and passionate teachers can take a great place to teach and make it unbearable. Opening up the dialogue, being honest and kind can lay a strong foundation before conflict arises. It builds strong relationships based on trust and mutual respect. And, when you really think about it, the true beneficiaries of handling conflict with professionalism and integrity are our students...the ones that it's all really about.

PS- Next week, at our team meeting, we will be creating norms for our group. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 24, 2014

It's Time for a Book Tasting

This year has been filled with so many wonderful things. One of which has been the large number of books that my students have shared with me. I have an ever-growing list of highly recommended books that no matter how much I read, I can never seem to put a sizable dent in. I love it! However, many times, my reader come to me looking for a recommendation based on what they've read. They typically find an author that they love and read everything that he/she has written (like me). This always brings to mind what Rick Riordan said in his keynote at IRA last year: as a teacher it is my responsibility to get the right book into the hands of the right reader.

With there being so many great books out there, that call to action seems almost daunting. How can I expose my students to a multitude of books from which to select all which could appeal to their specific needs and interests?  I was reminded of what a students said in a session at Teaching & Learning, she said that a recommendation would mean so much more coming from another student. And that is how our Book Tasting was born.

Three days before our first Book Tasting, I led a discussion on the
process they each go through in finding their next great read. My learners all admitted that they have varied tastes depending on what is going on in their lives at the time. That was the perfect portal for introducing the Book Tasting. Each student created a recipe for a book that they wanted to share that was also one that others may not have heard of before. They looked at recipes to determine what elements needed to be included in this style of writing in addition to what elements of the book that should be included to tempt the reader to read their scrumptious literary dish. The day before the book tasting, each student brought their recipe and a copy of their book to share. Because I teach multiple classes, I included all of the books from all of the students to give them a wider selection of books.

On Book Tasting Day, I set up the class like a diner including 50's Rock and Roll, tablecloths, flowers, a platter full of books, and a "Wait to Be Seated" sign at the door.  When I seated each party, they each were given a menu where they could add any of the dishes as an appetizer, main course, or dessert depending on their preferences. Then the learners dove into their platter of books, reading the recipe, a portion of the book, and discussing it with the other readers in their party. Some students really got drawn into reading books, unwilling to relinquish them for other learners at their table. After about ten minutes or so of previewing reading and discussing their platter, they would receive a whole new platter of books to savor and discuss with one another. In the course of the period, students tasted at least forty new books and almost all of them had written down more ideas for their independent reading than their menus could hold.

As I walked around the room and enjoyed listening and engaging in informal book chats with each of
my tables, I was thrilled at the level of excitement. Often a student would comment on one of the books on the platter and another reader at the table would share additional recommended reading based on their experiences. The students took their love of a certain book or author and shared it with their peers. The conversations were rich and demonstrated much about each one of my readers. They have learned how move beyond simple sharing the the plot to internalizing and connecting literature to other literature, lessons in other content area classes, and events in their loves. They discussed commonality in themes and analyzed an author's writing style. They even discussed how an author's writing had changed throughout their career and how the time period in which an author wrote directly impacted the style or content in a book.

At the end of class, they each left with a menu full of reading options...options they were excited about trying that came recommended from one of their peers. You know you've found something great when students all  complain that the class went by too fast and that they are afraid they may have missed a hidden treasure on one of the platters. Will we have another Book Tasting? Absolutely! I know those reading menus will be ready to be filled again soon.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Measuring Innovation?

I have just returned from Teaching & Learning 2014 in Washington, D.C. My head is full of new thoughts and ideas that will trickle their way out onto blogs in the next several days (or weeks). The idea of innovation is one that I have spent quite a bit of time contemplating over the last couple of years, in fact the session that I led was "Are you integrating or innovating with technology in the classroom?" One thing that I have learned is that there are so many nuances to innovation that we all have different definitions of what it is and how it looks in our classrooms.

However, in Bill Gates' plenary, while promoting innovative thinking, he made the statement that we needed to find a way to measure innovation. I sent this tweet:

and then this one 

Asking the question, "Is it possible?" bounced around in my head as I prepared to lead my presentation, an active discussion on innovation in the classroom with the support of technology. Based on my experience, innovation is a quality that can be nurtured much like creativity; by making it measurable means that we are going to take that quality and standardize it, which in essence extinguishes it. 

While these thoughts marinated, I attended Tony Wagner's Saturday morning plenary. His entire speech was so "tweetable" with revelations on innovation and how we, as educators, can foster it within our students. One thing that he said really resonated with me and my "bouncing question" was that innovators are critical thinkers. Critical thinkers are those that ask the right questions. Innovation is a team sport dedicated to removing the boundaries of content disciples in order to create, not simply consume content. 

As a teacher, we become a coach who empowers and enables students to ask deep, meaningful questions. We dedicate time for students to connect with one another, face-to-face and digitally, in order to ask one another questions, find solutions, share ideas, and push each other to new levels of thinking. We blur content areas lines because in life rarely is a problem dedicated strictly to academic discipline. Answers are found where content areas meet. We let them explore, discover, and create because it is not about finding one right answer. It's about empowering learners to take control of their learning, build meaning, and make a difference in the world.

So is it possible to measure innovation like we attempt to measure everything else in education? Absolutely not! It will take shape in each of our students in different ways. We will see it manifested over time with our coaching, encouraging,  and support. With respect to Bill Gates, what he is proposing is counterproductive to innovation itself. True innovation cannot (should not) be measured. It can be nurtured to flourish in each of our learners. So as we enter our classroom this week, let's put on the proverbial coach's whistle and get to coaching our students in their ability to ask questions. We have no idea what innovative idea is out there waiting to be discovered by one of our learners.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Can One Person Make a Difference?

This post is a bit of a departure than my typical posts. However, my reasoning is twofold. One, I needed to write to clarify my own thinking. Two, I am asking for some insights from all of you as I value your perspectives.

If you're an educator in Alabama, I'm sure you would agree that every time we turn around, there seems to be a new piece of legislation that seems like an attack on educators and our ability to teach our students. Everything from a lack of pay raise to escalated healthcare costs to repealing College and Career Ready Standards to making our state superintendent an elect official (sidebar: Dr. Bice, a champion for Alabama students, doesn't waver from doing what is best for each of our students). I have mostly refrained from publishing my personal views through social media selecting instead to write my legislators emails/letters, make phone calls, and schedule face-to-face meetings. In addition, I have spoken with many of my fellow educators to encourage them to take action as well.

Last week, I finally reached my "breaking point." Much of this legislation is being pushed through by my legislator. After doing some digging, I discovered that he is planning on running for a position in Congress. So, in the interest of building a name for himself, he is taking actions that directly impacts my students' ability to learn and my ability to teach.  I have personally met with many of the Alabama legislators and all of our federal legislators (in fact, I will be meeting with several of them again this week). Any guesses on which legislator I can't get in touch with? Yep, that's right. The one where I am his constituent. I've tried. For two years.

Like many educators, I do not like politics. It is not an arena where I want to be all. Like many of you, I became an educator so that I could teach my students. I LOVE that I have the privilege of learning alongside my students every day. Every day is different. Every day is exciting. I have a passion for empowering the voices of each of my students. I teach them that their voice can make a difference in the world. A little over two years ago, I realized that I had to speak up for my students. I could no longer sit back and expect others to take action. I had to lead them by example.

I know that the work that I do makes a difference in the lives of my students, their parents, and the community. I have been fortunate enough to be able to witness this year after year. However, I can't help but wonder if I am giving my students false hope or an unrealistic view of the world and the power that they have to make a difference. I want to instill in them a sense of community and a desire to serve others. I want them to know that they matter, their thoughts matter, and that they don't have to sit by and be a victim. They can speak up.

So as I wrap up these thoughts I wonder: Am I setting my students up for failure? Are these unrealistic expectations for my learners? What lesson can I take away from my experiences to pass on to my students?

Thank you in advance for your thoughts and ideas.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sitting on the Sidelines is Tough

This week has been...challenging. It seems like each day has started afresh only to be bombarded with more challenges and obstacles, seemingly coming from every direction. Being a classroom teacher, these days are not completely uncommon. However, these last couple of days have really gotten to me. As I was driving home yesterday contemplating why these days seemed worse than any other challenging day, I realized the biggest difference was that I wasn't spending my days teaching my fantastic students.

I have a full-time intern who has started her ten consecutive days of teaching. I have been sitting on the
Photo from
sidelines at my now-empty-small-group table diligently staying out of her plans (as instructed by the university). She is doing a great job with my students, but I desperately miss the ongoing, engaging conversation I usually have with my students. I miss the dialogue. I miss participating in activities along side them. I miss the small group instruction and one-on-one time with each one of my learners. I miss those spontaneous book discussions or brainstorm ideas that changes the course of our learning. I miss the inside jokes and celebrating their small victories. Sitting on the sidelines stinks.

Then, I realized how many time students are stuck on the sidelines of their own learning. I couldn't imagine how someone could sit by, day-after-day, while someone else controls all the decisions in his/her learning journey. As a teacher, I realized how crucial it is for us to give our students the ability to actively make choices about their learning. Their hands and minds need to be active. They need to get to know one another (and their teacher). Learners need to learn about themselves as learners and set their own learning goals for their future. They need to be in the game, not on the sidelines.

So as I mark off the days until I get "my kids" back, let's not forget that our students need to get in the game. They need to be the player. They need to be the one calling the shots, with the support of you, their coach. Let's get our learners off the sidelines and let them create their playbook and headed for the BIG game known as life.

*Disclaimer: This post is in no way indicative of me not wanting to provide interns a space to learn and grow as our future generation of educators. I am passionate about "paying forward" learning and providing educational support, opportunities and experiences for others. My intern is doing a great job with my students. I am thrilled to have her in my classroom sharpening her teaching practice. She and my students have both grown by having her join our class.