Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Using Tech to Meet Learning Challenges: Dyslexia

We all have students who present specific learning challenges. As teachers, we look for ways to remove the challenges impeding their learning...or at least find strategies that we can teach them to become successful on the learning continuum. In the last several years, I have had several students who have arrived with a diagnosis of Dyslexia. The thing about a diagnosis is there is a danger that we make assumptions that every child with the same diagnosis is the same...they need the same types of supports. This is simply not true. Each student is special and unique. They are much more than their diagnosis. They have interests, fears, strengths, and challenges like all of their peers. As teachers, we must look at each student as a unique case and compile a cadre of tools, strategies, and practices that will not only help meet the unique needs of each learner but also empower them beyond our classroom walls.

I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the tools that I have found that work really well with students who may be faced with the challenge of Dyslexia. Some of these work very well to support the learning of struggling readers or those with limited language proficiency. The key is for us to find the tool that will best need the unique learning needs of each one of our learners.

  • Audio books: I know that this may seem like a given to many, but I know personally, I overlooked this option for many years. Yes, we want our students to be able to read, analyze, and enjoy reading. However, when we want our students to apply content area standards like comparing and contrasting texts, identifying a theme, or supporting an argument with textual evidence, an inability to physically read the text, impedes a student mastering those standards. One thing that I discovered in my research is that the processing that takes place when one's eyeballs read a text and the processing that take place when one hears a text is very similar. With this tool, all students will have the opportunity to discuss and analyze a text with peers. (Digital audio books can generally be checked out from school or public libraries.) 
  • Voice Typing: For students with Dyslexia, writing is a major challenge. One simple tool that we've discovered is "voice typing" in Google Drive. This allows a student to speak their writing into a document. They do have to tell it when to punctuate and when to go to a new paragraph. I've had students who it would normally take 30-45 minutes to type a couple of sentences, who could compose and entire narrative within 20 minutes using "voice typing." For the first time, I was able to see their creativity and ability to compose in different genres because "voice typing" removed an obstacle to their learning.
  • Dyslexie font: Did you know that there is a special font that makes it easier for students with Dyslexia to read? It's called Dyslexie. With this font, students have an easier time reading things that are written. When creating printed material for students, my interns and I have started using this font for all of the students. For someone without Dyslexia, it simply looks like any other font. It's just simpler and easier to read.
  • Google Chrome Extensions: There are several extensions that students can add to their Chromebook Google accounts. Speak It will read selected texts out loud. The Open Dyslexic extension overrides all fonts on web pages with the OpenDyslexic font, and formats pages to be more easily readable. It works at preventing the "funny things" that happen to letters for those with Dyslexia. Sometimes, we need our student to read a text in order to build background knowledge. With TLDR (too long didn't read) by, learners can get a summary of a web page without leaving the actual site. We've had various levels of success with each of these. It all comes down to the individual student. My middle schoolers are very conscious of being different. These extensions allow them to continue doing the same thing on the same sites as their peers but provide them the support that they need. 
  • Video diaries, building, making: When it comes to assessing a student's level of mastery, there may be challenges for students with reading obstacles. However, their obstacles should not impede our ability to assess their level of mastery of content standards. All of my learners have the freedom to choose how they demonstrate mastery of standards. Often students with Dyslexia are very intelligent and creative and they have struggled to keep their heads above water at school. Many of them are exhausted by school. By providing them the opportunity to build, make, or create they are able to excel in spite of their specific challenges. 
When we can empower our students with tools, practices, or strategies, we see their passions and hear their voices...and so do their peers. They become an integral part of the learning environment. 

I'd love to hear some of the tools and strategies that you've found successful with your students. Please share them in a comment below.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Managing the Mess of a Makerspace

In previous posts, Let's Make a Mess and Makerspaces in a Content Area Classroom, I outlined how we transformed our 6th grade ELA classroom into a makerspace. One thing that Caylyn Harden (my intern at the time) and I discussed early in the planning stages is how we could manage all the mess within our learning environment.

With our middle school schedule, we taught multiple classes of ELA. Furthermore, our classroom was originally designed as a resource classroom for a class of no more than 8 students. The physical space of our classroom is small...postage stamp small. Our largest class was 32. I already had dove into research on learning spaces and determined that each student didn't require formal seating...which is a good thing as there wasn't enough room for desks, tables, and chairs for 32 students. In our classroom, we have flexible seating, including several nontraditional seating options like camp chairs, ottomans, stools, floor pillows, a futon, small armchairs and carpet remnants. (we also have many different lighting options.) The students flourish within this space, but we knew that adding all other plus 80+ different project at various stages of completion was a challenge that we needed to meet BEFORE we began. Many would have looked at our small and cozy space and said that adding a makerspace to it was impossible. We didn't want our space limitation to hinder our students' ability to engage in making, so we put our heads together to find some solutions.

Since our floor space was at a premium, we cleaned out a section of cabinets and drawers to house the items that were donated for the students to use to make and create. I know ideally, the students could see all the materials, but this was the only space we had. There wasn't much usable storage space in our room. Then, Caylyn acquired a large storage bin with a lid for each class. These were the largest that they make. We had zip-lock bags for each student to store their work in each day (gallon to 2.5-gallon bags depending on what size they needed). Those bags would go into their class' tub and be closed up, preventing other students from accidentally damaging their work or pieces of their work from getting lost. Then, thanks to the generosity of a fellow teacher who has a large lab classroom, the tubs were stored in her room. If a student had something that needed to dry, he/she would leave it on our small counter space.

Regarding time management, after taking the last 10 minutes of class to clean up their work for the first couple of days, the students got much faster at storing their work away....and help those who needed additional hands to clean up their "making-in-progress."

Was this an ideal situation? No, it wasn't. However, with these we simple practices, students were able to excel with a makerspace in our ELA classroom. The learning wasn't impeded by our lack of space. Did our Makery look like other makerspaces? It did not, but isn't that what's wonderful about teaching and learning? It can be adapted to fit the needs of our learners in our learning spaces....and our makerspace did just that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

So You've Had a Bad Day

We've all had them...seriously. Those days that never seem to end. Nothing seems to go right. Your to-do list continues to grow. All around you, you see others whose lives seem picture-perfect both in the classroom and personally. Yet, you are struggling to make it through a single lesson....and those lessons are far from the vision that you had for them. You have students who need help academically, socially and in their personal lives and you feel like you are failing them every single day. You begin to wonder, "What am I doing wrong? What am I missing that everyone else seems to have figured out?" You may even be in a place where you are questioning your ability to continue in this position. What do you do when you have THOSE days?

In the interest of being transparent, I must admit that I have been having a series of THOSE days recently. And as I sit here writing, I have been trying to reflect on my choices and how I can change my mindset to best provide my students what they desperately need.

One thing that we all need reminding of is that we cannot compare ourselves to the highlight reels that other educators post. We are living the good, bad and ugly. We see it all. Typically, excitement leads us all to  share our successes with others. We've built relationships. We want to pay forward to those who have helped us out by sharing successes. Although these posts come from a wonderful place, as the audience, we need to remember that for every success there is a cache of failures. As educators, we are lifelong learners who have learned that failures can be a very positive way of growing. Unfortunately, we don't always share THOSE experiences which leave the appearance that everything is smooth sailing. I guarantee that every single educator that you admire, no matter who they are, is having that same feeling of inadequacy from time to time. That feeling is typical for educators because we all feel the weight of responsibility that we are carrying with us every day. Our students need us...

For many of our students, we are the light in their days. We are a break from their reality beyond the classroom walls. We are the safe place that inspires, encourages, nurtures and guides them into being the best part of themselves. We are equipping them for their future; the future they imagine for themselves. That is indeed a  grave responsibility. However, as I look back on some of my most significant successes with students, many of them have been born out of a failure, where something unintended happened. When we have a lesson that is less than stellar or the new strategy that we were hoping would support a student in a particular area of need, we all (and I'm speaking to myself here) need to remember that our students are going to learn from our example and how we handle things when the train comes off the rail. We need to remember that we are teaching humans, not content. Our actions speak much louder than just our words.

And with that idea in mind, we need to remain focused on our mission. It is easy to become derailed. We all have things that impede our time or ability to effectively teach our learners. We have pressure to give standardized assessments and collect data. Lots and lots of data. We have book studies, action research, new school procedures and committees that need our participation. There are parent conferences, IEP meetings, eligibility meetings, 504 meetings, RtI meetings, department meetings, faculty meetings and grade level meetings. We serve lunch duty, bus duty, and hall duty. We coach, mentor, sponsor, and lead professional development. Many of these come with their set of time, responsibilities and work. As educators, we have so many (worthwhile) things pulling at our precious time; it's easy to lose our focus. When we become overwhelmed, it is crucial that we remember WHY we do this: our students need us. They need us every day. We need to make them our number one priority.

It's okay to have a bad day. We all have them. Sometimes we have a bunch of them in a row. But as the lead learner in our classrooms, it's how we handle them that can make a world of difference in the lives of our students.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Makerspaces in a Content Area Classroom

In my last post, Let's Make a Mess, I shared how we began the process of turning our 6th grade ELA classroom into a  makerspace that we dubbed the Makery. As an ELA teacher, my administrators expect to see ELA instruction and learning taking place every minute of every day. The question that I get most frequently from other content area teachers is how one can blend best teaching practices, subject area content and a makerspace into finite teaching time. To be completely transparent, that was why it took me two years to take this step. I researched, went to formal and informal presentations, participated in digital conversations, and spoke with many educators. What I typically got was a list of tools and gadgets to stock without any connection to the learning. Yes, it promotes creativity, design, perseverance, communication, problem solving and critical thinking. However, I still needed to be able to justify my instructional choices as an ELA teacher...and I needed to be able to produce sound evidence as to why this was a worthwhile use of our ELA class time.

Here are some of the best practices that simultaneously occurred while students were using our Makery. I hope this answers some of the questions that you may be having as you look at bringing a makerspace into your classroom.

Content Standards: When Caylyn Harden and I stopped and looked at our state's College and Career Ready Standards, we identified twelve standards that directly correlated to our makerspace-informational writing project. There were six additional standards that could also be tied into this project. Looking at where our students were on the learning continuum and what they had mastered previously, we narrowed our focus down to four standards.

As is our usual practice, Caylyn guided the students into breaking down the standards into measurable components that allowed students the freedom to be creative and pursue their passions. These rubrics gave students a destination for showing mastery in each of these four content area standards.

Reading Literature:  Knowing our students, we knew that there needed to be a (slightly) different mindset. Although our classroom was already designed to promote a growth mindset where we try new things, fail, learn from those failures, and move forward with new ideas and experience, many learners were still struggling with perseverance. Many were afraid to try new things for fear of failure. We knew that we wanted to change that. Before beginning our foray into our makerspace, we read Mistakes that Worked by Charlotte Foltz Jones so students could see how many of the things we use, eat, wear or play with were mistakes that the inventor turned into something other than its original intention. Then each day, we would start our class with a read loud of a picture book that demonstrated through characters' actions important life lessons on perseverance, problem solving, failure, courage, individuality, collaboration and creativity. These opened the door to many insightful conversations about the work in which students were involved with our Makery. Furthermore, it provided students the opportunity to look inward, make evaluations and set goals in order to find success.

Reading Informational Text: Because students were going to be writing in a new genre, informational how-to, they needed mentor texts. The students were guided through a Blendspace of a wide variety of mentor texts to analyze in order to identify the nuances in this type of writing. Through this lesson, students who needed support in reading informational text, received small group instruction as many student would be reading information text in their process of making, documenting, writing and publishing.

Writing Workshop: Although each learner would be making something different, they were all documenting their progress in order to publish a how-to guide for a group of 3rd grade students. Having an authentic audience for their writing, encouraged the students to stay focused throughout the designing and making as well as the writing and publishing. All the writing, editing and revising took place in Google Drive. Caylyn and I (as well as their peers) left students feedback every 2-3 days. Students met with one of us for one-on-one writing conferencesAdditionally, students were included in small group lessons when a weakness was identified in their writing. 

During the 2.5 week project, their 3rd grade buddies came for a visit to see what we were creating. Their questions gave our students an authentic reason to look at the impact that audience has upon what and how one writes. We observed a sharp increase in the quality of students' writing.

So while all the wonderful mess was happening in our classroom, there was an enormous amount of authentically applied content area learning taking place as well. Students were being given the tools necessary to propel their learning forward while being engaged in learning that each individual designed. They became (more) brave, creative, courageous and confident when speaking about their learning...and isn't that something that our world really needs?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Growing Great Teachers

Many of us are fortunate to get to host preservice teachers in our classrooms. In the last couple of years, many of them expressed to me a fear of entering the classroom because they know that the statistics show that many of them will not last for 5 years. Let's be honest. Teaching is hard. Very hard. It requires us to analyze and diagnose 30+ students simultaneously every hour every day. I'd like to see a doctor even attempt that.

Teaching is both a science and an art. It requires grit and passion....and a lot of flexibility. So it makes me wonder, for those of us who have been in the classroom and weathered the storms, how do we persevere? What have we figured out as professionals that we can pass on to the next generation of teachers so that they can not only take root, but flourish as an educator?

Develop a PLN. Unfortunately, teaching can be isolating. In many schools, teachers go to their perspective classrooms and shut the door. Some of our preservice teachers, will be in those schools where they are all alone with no one to throw them a life preserver when they are sinking. Many of us have been in that situation. However, knowing that you have a mentor, coach, or listening ear can make a world of difference.

I often get the question from interns, "how do you know so much?" I can attribute a large measure of what I know to the brilliant educators that I have connected with on social media. Although many of our interns use social media, they are unaware of how to connect with likeminded educators who can provide them with support, resources, answers, and encouragement. We need to take the time to help them learn how to build their PLN through tools such as Twitter or Facebook. They need to see how we build powerful relationships with educators who we can learn from and who we can share our experiences with. These carefully curated relationships don't just happen. They take time and guidance. By taking preservice teachers under our wing, we can guide them to a path where they will not be isolated in their classrooms.

Give them a vision of professionalism. So many preservice teachers have a limited view of what it means to be a professional educator. They lack a vision of where one can go as a professional. By giving them the opportunity to attend conferences, Edcamps, Twitter chats, workshops, and other professional events, interns begin to see that teachers are always learning, growing and sharing.

Many of them enter classrooms not knowing about the educational organizations that they can join or certifications that they can earn that will sharpen their teaching practice and propel them into powerful teacher leaders. Preservice teachers often do not have a vision of where they are headed as a professional in the next five years. We need to be that person who taps them on the shoulder and encourages them to become active in professional organizations to grow their practice. After they've been in the classroom for three years, as veteran teachers, we need to encourage them to pursue National Board Certification so that we can start growing great teachers early in their career. Imagine where early career teachers would be if they began their journey toward accomplished teaching early in their career.

Involve them early. Many of us have discovered worthwhile professional endeavors by accident. These are activities that not only keep us informed but also help us to develop relationships with policy makers. One thing that we can easily do is invite preservice/early career teachers to join us in educational functions beyond our schools. Invite them to join you when you go speak with your legislators. Encourage them to attend the town hall meetings or district forums where there are conversations about practices that can impact the teaching and learning in the classroom. When there is a meet and greet for an organization, encourage preservice teachers to join you and actively participate in the conversations. Our profession needs teachers who are articulate and can advocate for our students. This provides preservice/early career teachers the experience to be comfortable in these situations because students need the next generation of teachers to step into these roles. Furthermore, these experiences help them see the impact of what they are doing inside the classroom upon the community outside their classroom walls.

We want to elevate our profession. We want to attract and keep the brightest minds. That cannot happen if we keep losing our teachers. Let's reach out, be a beacon of light and start growing great teachers even before they enter our profession.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Let's Make a Mess

Learning is messy. Very least when it's done right. As classroom teachers we are faced with the immense challenge of diagnosing each of our students: What are their strengths? What are their goals?  Where to they need to grow? How can I help them get there? What ignites a passion within each one?

We work at it daily knowing that simply teaching content area standards is not enough. Our students must have ownership over their learning, see a relevance to what they are doing and employ strategies that work for them. Our learners crave the opportunity to apply what they are doing in a way that makes sense to them. They want to be creative, they want to communicate, they want timely feedback, they want the challenge of critically analyzing and problem solving.

As teachers, how can we provide meaningful experiences for students that are personalized? I wrestle with this question daily. In my ongoing quest to find answers, I began digging into research on the Maker Movement. I wanted to provide my students with the opportunity to prove mastery of content standards, while giving them the freedom to explore, design, create and make. The challenge was that it was my responsibility to facilitate the mastery of ELA standards with my 6th grade students. As an ELA teacher, my administrators expect to see ELA instruction and learning taking place every minute of every day. How could these two things live in harmony? The answer to that question came from a who I had not yet connected with until I saw his laser focus and passion while building and coding a  Lego Mindstorm kit on our Innovation Day (Students Learning the True Value of Literacy). He saw what I had been missing...

We were going to turn our ELA classroom into a Makerspace. Students were going to design, make, or create anything that interested them in order to teach it to a group of 3rd grade students through informational "how-to" writing.  As my intern, Caylyn Harden, and I began planning out the specifics of how to provide students with ELA content instruction and how to manage a Makerspace within our small classroom, she asked if she could take on this challenge for her 10 day unit. 

Students were given an interest survey to determine what types of projects and topics interested them. Caylyn created a basic supply list with a parent letter explaining the what and why of what we would be doing and included a Sign-up Genius request some of the basic supplies that we would need (cardboard, pipe cleaners, masking tape, poly-fill, fabric, thread, yarn, etc.). The focus was never on the materials, but on the learning that would occur when students dove into making. We were creating a host of learning opportunities where students were safe to explore, investigate, fail, persevere, and have fun while harnessing their literacy learning to propel their individual growth.

Learners were exposed to new ideas and methods before they embarked because how can they know what they want to make if they've never experienced something? Caylyn created a collection of about 70 different open-ended challenges providing students an opportunity to find their own path to the destination.We had all kinds of materials (mostly donated) for students to use in meeting these challenges, including four sewing machines (which turned out to be extremely popular). Due to student interest, learners also had the opportunity to build and make with coding, Makey Makey, Google cardboard, Snap Circuits and a variety of other digital tools.

After 2 days of hands-on fun, our learners began making a plan for their creating and their writing. Each student conferred with us one-on-one explaining their plans. Every single one of them was excited about the opportunity to make a mess, document it and share it with an authentic audience. Every single one of them chose something different. For us, that meant we had 90 different projects being made...being made in our extremely tiny classroom and the hallway and the storage closet and the outside courtyard and in any space that they could find to spread out.

Was it messy? Absolutely. It was the biggest, most wonderful mess. Students were 100% focused on their project, on their writing. They could wait to get started and they didn't want to stop at the end of class time. And as their teacher, how could I ask any more than that?

But, I couldn't help but wonder, how can we do this on a regular basis....

Friday, August 5, 2016

Imagine the Possibilities

For many of us, the summer is drawing to a close and we are at the brink of a brand new school year. Although, I will miss some of the freedom and relaxation that a summer offers, I am always excited about all the possibilities that a new year presents.

As I began to think, dream, and plan, this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt continued to come to mind:

"Do one thing every day that scares you."

I first heard this quote from Jeff Charbonneau last January and it really stuck with me. As veteran teachers, it's very easy to fall into routines year after year without taking the time to reflect, analyze, and evaluate not just the "what" but the "why" of each and every decision we make in our classrooms, schools, and our professional lives beyond classroom walls.  Complacency and apathy begin to set in and before we know it, we've drifted away from doing what's best for students into doing what's easiest for us.

As teachers, our sole mission is to positively impact each of our students with each of our choices. That intentional reflection often leads to change, and change can be scary for most of us. But that fear can lead to amazing possibilities for our students and our professional growth.

After months of reflection, research, planning, and plotting, I've created my list of the "something new" that I believe will have a dramatic impact upon my students' learning. These items do cause me to have those nervous butterflies. In the back of my mind I wonder, "What happens if this fails?" The answer is simple: It will be a powerful learning experience for not just me, but for my students. They will learn that it's okay to try new things and fail...and how to continue to move forward to find success. And that is one of the most powerful lessons that our students can learn.

  • Makerspace: Last spring, my intern and I turned our classroom into a makerspace where students pursued their interests, made something unique and documented their progress. They used this experience to write informational text for a class of 3rd grade students. Through this experience, my students far exceeded our content area standards (there were 12 of them tied to this writing and publishing). Every day was jammed back with high-energy, laser focused, enthusiastic learners. This was only a three week unit; I want to bring this into my 6th grade ELA classroom on a full-time basis.
  • Breakout Edu: At the end of last school year, we began dabbling in Breakout Edu. My students would beg for class to continue. Through these series of breakout, puzzle-solving games, they were sharpening their mastery of content standards while strengthening their problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration abilities. Last year we started with the digital games, but this year, I have four of the breakout boxes that I have built. I even have tried my hand at creating my own breakout for the 4th day of school. (Those butterflies are breakdancing in my stomach over this one.)
  • Peer reading recommendations: Although my students have Free Read Friday and book chats once a week, I want to increase their opportunity to recommend books to one another. As teachers we know that a recommendation from a peer carries much more weight that one coming from an adult. My fellow ELA teacher and I are planning on having students create a data base of book recommendations with all of our classes. Also, I have set aside shelves in my classroom for students to place their favorite reads. I know that this "new" thing will take dedication to continue throughout the year. My hope is that once the students get a feel for it, they will continue it on their own.
  • Book shopping: I've tried this in the past, trying to match the right student with the right book at the right time. Honestly, I haven't had much success with it. However, my plan is to do this in conjunction with student recommendations so that any guidance I may be providing will be using the voices of their peers. Although, I've never banned (or discouraged) audio books, knowing my students, I hope to steer some of my ELL and struggling readers in that direction so that they can join in book discussion with their peers as they often feel left out or isolated from this activity. 

That's my list (so far). They all create a different level of unease, but they also create an excitement for all the possibilities that these new practices will bring to my students' learning. Be brave. Try something new. You never know what great places it will lead you and your learners.

I'd love to know what new thing are you trying out this year that scares you. Please feel free to share below.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Students Learning the True Value of Literacy

As educators, we know learners sometimes fail to see the connection between their work inside classroom walls and their lives beyond classroom walls. A question that often arises in many of our students’ heads is, why do we need to learn this?
As their teacher, I wonder how I can help my students see that their time within our classroom is valuable, not just for the few months we are together, but for a lifetime.
One practice I employ is asking students, “Why do you think we need to master this?” Once they get beyond the idea of “We need to know it for the test” or “We need this for next year,” my students begin to discover some interesting ideas about how their learning affects them now and in the future.
This winter, our sixth grade had our annual Innovation Day. This day is built on the 20% principle where students can choose any topic, wondering, or problem that interests them. Students get to spend an entire day becoming experts and creating something to use to teach their peers about their area of expertise on the following day during our Gallery Walk, where they get to share their findings.
This year, we challenged students to make something that would be interactive for their peers (and the others guests we invited). We had an incredible day filled with excitement, passion, and creativity as each project was as unique as the student behind it.
I spent more than two weeks working with each of my students in the planning stages. One task they were expected to do was explain what skills or strategies they had taken from their academic classes that would support their learning on Innovation Day. Seeing that “eureka” moment when students realized how much they would rely upon their literacy abilities to discover answers, solve problems, and create something to share with their peers was exciting.
Because of our Innovation Day, I had the opportunity to see some of my students in a new light. I saw enthusiasm I had not seen before. Students who had been hard to reach or difficult to connect with through our usual classroom activities were now strong, confident, and excited to share their learning with others.
Several students used Lego Mindstorm kits to build and program robots. Another student created authentic, interactive games teaching peers how to make financial investments. Other students built motors, created inventions, or learned the chemistry behind dyeing hair. Some wanted to create a children’s book using tools like StoryJumper or LINTOR Publishing. Others wanted to create videos using WeVideo, PowToon, or iMovie. Some students wanted to create a how-to guide on a Wiki, Tackk, or a Weebly.
As I took time to visit them during their Gallery Walk, I asked each of the students, “What can we do to bring this type of learning into our ELA classroom?”
Even though each student created something unique, students’ answers to my probing question were very similar. They each expressed an interest in composing something that could teach others what they had learned. They all wanted to pay forward their learning.
Using their newly gained experience, my students clearly saw how their mastering of ELA standards supported them in anything they wanted to accomplish. They truly have gained an understanding of the importance of literacy in their lives, not just for a grade or a test, but as a vehicle for taking them anywhere they may want to go—now and in the future.
And their answers to my question, well, that opened the door to a whole new adventure...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Growing Empathy in Today's Tumultuous Society

In light of recent events, I know that many of us are wondering what has happened to bring about these horrific acts upon fellow humans. While at ILA, many of the informal chats face-to-face and on the conference hashtag revolved around What can we, as educators, do to equip our students for the world in which they live? ILA saw this pressing need and scheduled an impromptu conversation facilitated by Cornelius Minor. The room was filled to over capacity with literacy leaders and advocates from all over the world. Mr. Minor did an outstanding job modeling and guiding us through some of these difficult conversations. There was a lot of fear, worry, and tears during this conversation. We all have one purpose: leading our students to making this a better world. And that requires bravery. It involves speaking up and speaking out for all of our students. As I continue to marinate on all of this, I have determined that there are some thoughts that I need to express to my fellow "in-the-trenches" teachers.  If I want for my students to be open and honest, I must be willing to do the same.

One comment that was made during this discussion that has continued to ring in my head is:

Our students leave our classrooms and live different realities.

For the last couple of years, I have striven to bring in literature, historical events, and change-makers who are from different ethnicities and backgrounds so that my students can see themselves in their reading. They need to know that literacy is not just for one part of society. It is a key cog for every person, everywhere. And while I've spent two years reading research and growing my practice into one that is much more culturally responsive, I can't help but ask myself if this is enough. After this difficult conversation at ILA and discussions with respected colleagues and friends I can determine that NO, it is not enough.

Our world is greatly lacking in kindness and empathy for others. As literacy educators, we have the opportunity to use powerful stories to help our students experience the difficult realities that the peer sitting next to them may be living. Many of our students are able to turn off the heinous acts happening worldwide and their lives don't change. For other communities, it turns them on end; turmoil, fear, worry and anxiety blankets their neighborhoods and communities. Distrust builds between communities. And our students are ill-equipped to have the language or ability to have difficult conversations.

Unfortunately, what I hear too often from teachers and parents is that it is not for the schools to discuss. I respectfully disagree. Last year, I had students dealing with mental illness, homelessness, the loss of a parent, attempted suicide, abusive home lives, foster care, addiction, and questioning their sexuality. This is in addition to the usual, middle school drama of being "different," whether it's due to ethnicity, language, religion, appearance, or ability level. Those are very heavy topics for 11 and 12-year-olds to process and deal with in healthy avenues.

Cynthia Lord, author of Rules, said,

"Great stories are about being human."

If our students can walk for a mile in someone else's shoes, experience what lives are like for those who are different from them, they are gaining insight into a reality different from their own. Those characters become our "friends." And when readers meet a new peer, the experience gained through walking around for a time with those in different realities will evoke kindness and empathy for others, even if they are very different.

As teachers, it is crucial that we get these powerful stories into the hands of our students. I am not advocating that every book is for every student. We must know our students and their parents. Have conversations with them about difficult topics. Make sure that they are ready to wear another reality for a time. We no longer can afford to brush difficult conversations under the rug and ignore them.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for lives outside the classroom walls. So let's dig into these great stories and nurture empathy in each of our learners. Because our students deserve a better present and future than what we have now.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Teaching Writing: What do you do with all the other students?

In my last post, Teaching Writing: Is it a race against time?, I shared some ways that I have found to give my students the benefit of quality writing instruction within our limited class time. The most common question I hear is, "What do you do with all of the other students while you are conferring and doing small group lessons?" This has been quite a journey for me; I have found a lot of things that didn't work. Like you, I want my students to be engaged in meaningful work, but they also have to stay focused so that I can dedicate my time to the student(s) with which I am working. I am still working at fine tuning my practice, but I have found that literacy centers have been the key to meeting my goals.

I spend over 90% of my time with students either in small group lessons or in one-on-one conferring. Much of the success of using literacy centers comes from having my students set the expectations for themselves while they are either working independently, in pairs, or in a small group. They become the monitors of their own (and their peer's) choices. It puts them in control of the choices that they are making. By letting them have that ownership, I discovered that engagement increases and off-task disruptions are kept to a minimum.

Also, because this is a new for most of my students, we have a gradual release into centers. They need the time to build the endurance to self-monitor and stay engaged for longer periods of time. At the beginning of the school year, we may only devote 10-15 minutes to Lit Centers. As students show that they have an understanding of what the expectations are and they learn how to self-monitor and engage themselves in their work, we slowly increase the time until they are able to devote an entire ELA block to staying focused and on task. To be transparent, my middle schoolers become very adept at this quickly. However, they are middle schoolers. On occasion, I will stop and remind them to evaluate their choices: Are you actively engaged in your work? Are you being as productive as possible? What will change/increase your growth? 

Another crucial cog in this process is for students to be engaged in meaningful work. Learners want to know that their work is worthwhile; it's helping them reach their individual goals. As classroom teachers, I'm sure we've all given students work that is a time filler. Students know when an activity, assignment, or project is basically a glorified babysitting tool. The danger in that is we are sending a message to our students that they aren't the most important entity in our classrooms. They need to know that we all have very important work to complete. Our time is valuable. When designing Literacy Centers, each center needs to provide students with choice. They need to push student's learning and growth wherever they are on the learning continuum. Lit Centers should be a time where students can practice, fail, reflect, and retry. Learners should know not just the "what" but the "why" behind each of the centers in which they are engaged.

To design my Lit Centers, I have combined many different schools of thought (The Daily 5, Writer's Workshop, etc.) to make them work for my middle level learners. Typically, we have six centers that students rotate through each week. Some of the centers may last for several weeks, but most of them can be completed within a week. The centers are: Read to Self, Liberating Lexis (meaningful, individualized vocabulary development), Read with Others, Reflection (typically done on KidBlog), Grammar Grabber (using mentor texts with authentic practice), Publishing Studio (as a project based classroom, we always have a working project). Some centers are independent, some are for student pairs, and some are for a small group.

The learning activities change each week based on the standards learners are working on mastering. Because our 6th grade team plans cross-curricular units, sometimes they are working on the ELA piece of a cross-curricular plan. These centers include the freedom of choice while allowing students the creativity to pursue interests, capitalize on strengths, and grow in areas of weakness. Students know that they are accountable for completing all centers within a given time frame. They understand that the work in which they are engaging is practice to push them towards mastering content standards and reaching their personal goals.

I have found that by combining Lit Centers with writing conferences and small group differentiated instruction, my students grow tremendously. They are happy, enthusiastic, engaged, and self-motivated. They are not only growing to demonstrate mastery of ELA standards, but they are also developing crucial life skills: time management, accountability, collaboration, communication, perseverance, problem solving, and creative thinking.

That is what all of my others students are doing while I'm conferring and conducting mini-lessons. I'm working on making a few tweaks for next year. I'd love to hear how you keep your students actively engaged while you work with small groups of students.

Further reading:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Teaching Writing: Is it a race against time?

As a classroom teacher, the biggest struggle I face is feeling like I have enough time. Time to get to know my students, time to help them reach their personal goals, time to guide them in mastering standards, time to provide them with the learning opportunities they deserve. But never do I feel like I fight that time battle more than when it comes to growing great writers. And based on a conversation from EdcampNBCT, I am not alone. Time was the number one frustration listed when we engaged in a conversation about challenges we face when teaching writing and/or using the writer's workshop model.

I wish I had the answers to finding the time we need to not just rush through every student's writing, but truly devote the time that is needed for students to develop their own voices, experience (and learn from) the struggles of a writer, overcome those struggles, and fine tune their writing prowess. Since none of us have Hermione's time turner, I thought I would share some of the ways that I have found to save time without sacrificing the quality of the instruction and support each individual student needs to grow into a great writer.

One of the biggest commitments that we have is to provide our students with timely, personalized feedback. Like most of you, I would spend hours editing papers, writing feedback, often to have students ignore my suggestions when they went through a revision process. This is amplified when you have multiple classes of students. We want to give our students personalized and timely feedback so as to push their growth and keep the momentum of the writing project progressing, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Through trial and error, I have discovered that if each of my students creates and shares a Google document where they compose/curate all of their writing from brainstorming, planning, drafting, revisions, and editing, I can type feedback comments into their document much faster than if I am writing them with pen and paper. An added bonus is that both the writer and I know what feedback has been left. When leaving feedback, I am focusing only on the standards that my writers are working on proving mastery of in that project. However, as I am reading and leaving feedback, I am making notes of patterns of error within their writing. If I see that a student is struggling with subject verb agreement, I will plan a special small group lesson and additional practice for that student until he/she demonstrates mastery of that skill.

When I shifted to using Google Docs, I found I had more time to contribute meaningful feedback to my students more frequently. It also afforded students the opportunity to receive feedback from their peers. Because it is in Google Docs, students can easily refer to the feedback when making revisions, weighing the ideas and making deliberate choices in their next draft. They can see the evolution of their growth throughout the project.

A second way, I've discovered for saving time while not sacrificing the quality of instruction was I stopped editing their writing. Now I know that there are a lot of English teachers (including an earlier me) who may be shocked by this idea. Here is my rationale: if we are changing, editing and rewriting their work, we impose our voice, ideas and opinions upon them. We steal the ownership of their writing. We take away crucial learning opportunities. As educators, we know that students learn by doing, failing, and retrying. Yet, as writing instructors, we tend to take that away. There is no wonder why so many students hate writing; we tell them we want them to have a voice and then we contradict ourselves by superseding our voice, opinions, and ideas onto their work.

For learning to be meaningful, students need to have that ownership. They need to have the creative license to write and create. Learners need to experience the struggles that come from meaningful work and feel the triumphs of hard work, perseverance and dedication. By providing them feedback on the side of Google Doc, conferring with them one-on-one, supporting them with small group mini-lessons, we are facilitating that type of environment for our students. We are providing them with the tools to master writing, while encouraging them to hone their voices.

Do these strategies and tools give us unlimited time with our writers? Unfortunately, no. But, they present us with more time to spend growing great writers while still focusing on best writing practices. And ultimately, isn't that what we want for our learners?

I'm always looking for new way to sharpen my teaching practice. I'd love to hear any time saving tip you have discovered that still affords you the ability to provide accomplished writing instruction to your students. Thanks in advance!

Further reading on related topics:

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Feedback: Taking it to Heart

Feedback. It's a topic about which I have written quite a bit, especially in the realm of its integral role with student learning. However earlier this week, I got to experience the role that feedback should have upon the instruction provided to the learners. I know that all of us have dutifully completed surveys at the end of a day of professional learning only to see that no changes are made to subsequent events. As a participant, it implies that your voice isn't important; others know better than you. You become a victim to what others want for you rather than having that control over the learning process.

I can honestly say that my experience with the Network to Transform Teaching Hub team was the complete opposite. Never in my experience, have I observed a group of organizers take the feedback left at the end of one day, to immediately turn around and spend hours making alterations and adjustments to the following day's agenda based on what the learners needed or wanted from the experience. I want to point out that all the participants received an agenda (a plan) that I can only imagine took days to create in advance of the learning session. Yet, the Hub team valued what everyone said and were willing to make adaptations to meet our needs.

For me, this served as a perfect model for how accomplished teachers would approach their classrooms. We all collect information and data from our students, but the real question is what do we actually do with it? Do we listen to what our students are actually saying and make changes to our plans based on what we hear? Are we valuing what our students need, what they want out of their learning experiences?

For several years, I have asked my students to provide me feedback on our classroom throughout the school year: What went well? What didn't go well? What goals do you have? What changes can we make to better support your learning? As the recipient of that feedback, you have to be willing to hear some things that may be very hard to hear. I've had some learners provide feedback that has brought me to tears, but when I honestly looked at the choices that I made, I could see the disparity between what I thought I was doing to support learning and what the student perceived.  Even though we may spend hours planning to meet the needs of our diverse learners, the truth is we don't know how our intentions translate to each one of them unless we take the time to ask, truly listen, and put their ideas into action. Because the reality is that this learning is about them, not us. They deserve the best learning opportunities possible. We just have to provide the tools, guidance and pathways to get them where they want to go.

Want to read more about feedback in our classroom?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Learning is Hard

This week, I have been immersed in a four day learning session. While the work is extremely valuable and exciting for student learning, it is completely out of my day-to-day realm. I possess very little foundation in this type of work (in spite of completing my homework in advance). As I reflected at the end of the day yesterday, I realized that much of what I was experiencing can be very similar to what some of our students may experience within our classrooms everyday. As someone who strives to learn and grow every single day, it was an eye-opening experience to sit in this role.

This lead me to question the choices I make with and for my students. Am I providing them the supports that they need to make sense of the content with which we are working? Do I give them some context upon which to hang new ideas and then the time to process and discuss these ideas? Am I stopping throughout the learning process to check for understanding or am I trudging forward full speed ahead oblivious to the fact that a student is sitting there completely lost and frustrated?

Furthermore, what are my students experiencing? Are they so overwhelmed that they complete shut down? Do they feel like they are the only one in the room who doesn't get it? Are we giving them an opportunity to vent their frustration? (Thank you, Emma) Are they getting the encouragement and one-on-one support that they need to keep moving forward instead of completely giving up? (Again, thank you, Emma)

Learning is hard. Sometimes it's scary. As the lead learner in our classroom it our obligation to look out for every single student put into our charge. Sometimes it's important to put ourselves into their shoes and feel how overwhelming, messy, and ultimately, exhilarating learning can be.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What do you value?

This past weekend was the University of Montevallo's annual homecoming, College Night.  For College Night, students break into two teams, gold and purple. Each side spends three to four weeks writing and producing an original musical. Everything is done by students: costuming, musical compositions, choreography, set design/building, lighting. The two sides perform, amidst each side's chanting and cheering and it's scored by a panel of judges. A tradition like none other in the United States, it began in 1919 and is a considered a local legacy by the Library of Congress.

As we were ensconced with all the different College Night celebrations, it occurred to me that many of the attributes that we value in our classroom are also valued at Montevallo: creativity, collaboration, community, voice, hard work and acceptance.

It's obvious, to even a casual observer, that the University of Montevallo values those traits. As a teacher I couldn't help but wonder how we demonstrate what we value within our classrooms? What does a casual observer see when he/she walks into our learning space? Are students sitting in quiet rows working on test-prep? Are learners sitting all over the space, collaborating in face-to-face and digital formats? Are they building and making things? Are they applying their learning in meaningful ways? Is everything focused towards a score on a standardized test, or are students pushed to demonstrate mastery on authentic problems? Where we invest our time and energy shows what we value.

I think whether we make conscious decisions or not, what we value as an educator can be seen with our students in our learning spaces. Sometimes, we need to take a look in as an outsider to see if what we value is truly what is being manifested in our classrooms. If someone who didn't know you came into your classroom, what would they see?

Let's take these ideas and build the best learning experiences possible for our students.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Igniting the Love of Reading

Not too long ago, I got to participate in some fantastic conversations at ILA15. One of these conversations was how we can ignite the love of reading in even our most resistant students. As Lester Laminak said, " We want students to fall into a story and wallow in it because that is how one discovers a love of reading."

At an Edcamp later, I joined a conversation about sparking a love a reading in middle school readers. At the end of this dialogue, someone asked me if I had these ideas in one place. So here are a few of the ways that my learners and I have found to break down even the last resister to ignite that love of reading...

1- Each Friday, we dedicate time for silent, independent reading. Students can read ANY literature that interests them. We have a large library of comic books, picture books, novels, and nonfiction books. Also, my students can choose to read their classmates' blog posts or articles online. They can read about ANYthing that interests them.

We approach this day as an exciting event. It's true that if you are enthusiastic about something, the students will mirror that excitement. Many students have had that flame stomped out by reading logs, scripted programs, and mandatory AR points. So, we gradually build up their endurance. No pressure. We are reading because it is FUN. It's perfectly acceptable for students to read part of a book and decide not to finish it. Then we have informal book chats. Students take 90 seconds to sell their book to their audience. A peer's endorsement of a book results in a long waiting list for that book in our classroom library and the school library (To be totally transparent, a majority my favorite reads this year have been a direct result of these informal book chats.).

Consequently, our classroom became a place where book chats spontaneously sprouted and dialogues blossomed. When students finished a book, they would go to one another for recommendations. My students reaped so much from this simple practice and eagerly anticipated our time each week.

2- The weekly independent reading and book chats opened students up to conversations about reading and writing. Several of my students even formed their own book clubs during lunch. It quickly became a popular thing to join these student led book discussions. It wasn't long before these groups included students who didn't see themselves as readers.  Therefore, it was no surprise that these lunch time book clubs organically developed into student-run book clubs within our classroom. Students chose books, set group norms, timelines and facilitated their own discussions. (You can read more about that here: Once Upon a Time Student Run-Book Groups.) The students had an authenticity to their reading and their writing.  The results were amazing as students had the opportunity to connect with peers who were in different classes, gaining different perspectives, strengthening their literacy skills, and having...dare I say

3- Since today's students crave immediate feedback from their audience (usually judged by how many likes they've received on Insta posts), each year, we usually engage in several synchronous book chats using a variety of digital tools. What we've discovered is that it really doesn't matter the tool; what matters is that they have the opportunity to talk, in real time, to others about the books that they are reading. They love forming connections with their global peers over their favorite books. Gaining that perspective often pushes them to think beyond themselves to see and gain a respect for others' opinions and ideas. It stretches them to see beyond themselves and their community, discovering their place within a global community of readers and learners. My students have used tools like Twitter, TodaysMeet, Skype, and Google Hangout.

The question that I often get is "How do you find these classes to connect with your learners?" Over the years, I've been able to find connections through various social media outlets. Many of these connections have been through our participation in the Global Read Aloud (You can read more about this program here: One Book to Connect the World.) As a teacher, there is an entire community of fellow educators who are interested in connecting their students through literature. Many of the connections that we've built through the Global Read Aloud become long term connections. My students love the opportunity to build relationships with their global peers in order to share their reading, writing, and ideas.

4- Another way my students connect with one another to share books is through a Book Tasting. Often students will find a book series or an author that they love and they will read every book in that series or by that author and they are stumped for what to read next. Even though we do the informal book chats every week, there are so many book recommendations that go unshared due to time. A book tasting is an activity where students bring in their favorite "unsung hero" book in any genre. They write a recipe teasing that book for their peers. During a book tasting, learners have a blank menu where they can select books that appeal them. Appetizers, for a little taste of something different. Entrees, for something meaty to dig into. Desserts, for a frivolous light-hearted read. 

Our classroom was decorated like a diner. Set on each table was a platter of books. Students would read the recipe, pieces of each book and discuss them with the "dining companions." As the diners were wrapping up their tasting, a new platter of books was delivered to their table. Learners filled their menus with books recommended from their peers. Even my most reticent readers enjoy themselves, finding great reads recommended by their classmates. (You can read about the details of this day here: It's Time for a Book Tasting and Build a Book Buffet.)

I hope that one of these ideas may spark some ideas for you and your readers. I'd love to know what you have found that works for your students. Please share any of the ideas you have found to be successful with your readers.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why We Need Each Other

I have a student; for this post, we'll call her Lisbeth. She is in one of my honors ELA classes this year. In our district, placement in this class can be overridden my a parent request in spite of teacher recommendation. Now, I am not here to debate this practice, because as their teacher, it is my responsibility to educate every child that is in my classroom. Lisbeth is one of those students whose parent placed her in honors classes.

As I got to know my students, I observed that Lisbeth often took a great deal of time in completing any classroom assignment or project. In spite of the extended time in class and at home, she was actively engaged in her work and she demonstrated mastery in content area standards. She provided her peers with deep and insightful feedback. When she read aloud (yes, she volunteers), she struggles to decode words and lacks fluency. She demonstrates great reading and word strategies as well as endurance when tackling new words or text. Doing some one-on-one work with her, I discovered that although she lacked fluency, her comprehension far exceeded many of her peers.

From my experience, I wanted to conclude that her lack of fluency and the extra time that she needed to complete tasks was not something to focus on. Also, I did not want to make any decisions regarding her obstacles that could potentially damage her self-confidence.

As an educator of middle level students, I don't often need to work with students who lack fluency (unless it's also tied to other reading deficiencies).  Although my instinct told me that since Lisbeth was still finding success, I didn't need to go into rigorous lessons on fluency, I lacked that data to substantiate that decision. That's when I turned to two highly accomplished K-3 educators. Dr. Gay Barnes and Kim Bowen both who have years of experience in positively impacting student learning, especially in reading.  They are vocal advocates for doing what is best for students regardless of whatever trend is blowing through education. I knew they would really listen to all of my observations and the conclusions that I have drawn regarding Lisbeth and give me honest feedback and recommendations.

As we spoke, they came to the same conclusions that I did, but they recommended that I conduct a Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) in order to evaluate if I was missing something in diagnosing Lisbeth and designing the appropriate support for her learning. I hadn't thought of a QRI in thirteen years. Although time consuming, those assessments provide the data I had been lacking regarding the conclusions I had drawn.

Without my conversation with Gay and Kim, I could have easily misdiagnosed what Lisbeth needed. It could have had a negative impact upon her growth professionally and personally. We all need Gays and Kims in our lives who can provide us with honest insight, feedback, and expertise so that we can provide our learners with the best learning opportunities possible.

As we begin a new week, let's all be mindful of the  breadth and depth of experience we have around us, both face-to face and digitally. Let's harness that collective and channel it into empowering our students with the best support system possible.

Photo credit

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Where can student voice lead?

I know that I write about, speak about, and advocate for student voice....often. I truly believe that is a key to reaching our students. They need to have control over their learning, not just in the now, but for a lifetime. Then on Friday,  real-life example of how far student voice and choice can take an individual walked into my classroom.

I have a full-time intern this semester. She prepared a brief activity to introduce herself to my learners. As she began sharing a few things, one item opened a door to a lot of questions for me and my students. She explained that when she completes her internship with us and graduates, she already as a teaching job....for two years....with the Peace Madagascar. I'm sure you can imagine the questions that tidbit sparked. She transparently shared her story and it starts in one of her high school English classes.

In high school, she had a teacher who told the students that they could choose any topic to research. In searching for a topic, she came across the Peace Corps and her interest was peaked. As she dug into her research, she began to see this as an opportunity for her to grow as a person and give back to others.

Upon entering her teacher preparation classes at the University of Alabama, this idea of serving in the Peace Corps resurfaced and she began the journey of making this a reality. She isn't traveling with friends and she knows no one who is or has been in the Peace Corps. Yet, this is something about which she is passionate....thanks to a teacher who gave her an opportunity to choose. And where did that passion take her? All the way to Madagascar (come June 20th).

Her story reinforced why it's truly worth all the planning, conferring, and time involved in giving students a voice in their learning. In so doing, we are investing in our students and their future...and we have no idea how far that will take them. It could take them to the other side of the planet, out into space, or into the great unknown. But we'll never know until we give them that opportunity. Let's give them a voice and let them start their own journey.

Madagascar Image

Want to read more? Here are a few other posts I've written on student voice and choice:

Monday, January 18, 2016

Being Present and Making Moments

At the beginning of a new calendar year, there is much discussion about goals and resolutions. Although my students composed a an email on outlining their plan for the second semester, we set goals in our classroom just about every day regardless of what the date on the calendar reads. Each day is fresh with new ideas, new possibilities, new opportunities. Each day, we are a little different and therefore our path may need to be altered.

Yet, as my students were discussing and writing an email to their future selves, I began to think about what changes I wanted to make, personally and professionally. With the integration of digital tools into our every day lives, we have opportunities to connect and collaborate with people globally. I know I am a much better teacher, a much better person, because of these regular connections through social media. However, as a result, like many of my students and friends, I realize that we often disconnect with those around us in the three-dimensional world to catch up with those in our digital world. Have you ever looked around restaurants? It is very common to see a group of people (of all ages) dining together, but not conversing because they are each on devices.  This happens in professional settings too. 

As I reflected on this, a thought crystallized. We only have limited amounts of time with our students, with our family, with our friends. Once a moment is gone, it will never return. We need to clear time and mental space to truly be present in each of our moments with others. 

For me, I realized that my mind was too cluttered to be able to enjoy moments giggling with my nieces or planning an amazing simulation for my students. I had to clear things off of my plate and out of my mind. That meant saying "no" to truly worthwhile opportunities. It meant removing devices from some of my activities. I have to have space to be creative and breathe so that I can be the best teacher for my students and the best version of me for my family and friends.

Teaching is not about content, it's about students. Life isn't about a checklist, it's about the people that we surround ourselves with and the choices we make. So whether we are conferring with a student on writing, facilitating an improv activity with our class, meeting with a parent to design a path to lead to a student's greatest success, hiking with friends, cooking dinner for loved ones, or binge watching TV in your PJs with your family, let's all strive to make moments. Be present...because that's the greatest gift we can give another person.