Monday, April 9, 2018

Gumby Goals: 3 Tips for Stretching Beyond Your Comfort Zone



I have a box in my office where I keep my “stretch” projects.  These are projects that require me to learn something new, step out into the uncomfortable, or leap before I look.  This year, it seems that the majority of these projects have piled up in April, so right now, I’m neck deep in that awkward, awesome feeling of “What in the world have I gotten myself into?!”


There was a time when the thought of not knowing what I was doing or not knowing how something would turn out was terrifying to me.  I am by nature a control freak.  I am comforted by knowing the what, why, when, and how of most situations or tasks.  That’s the thing-I am comforted by those things. Comfort is nice. Comfort is cozy. Comfort is dangerous.  

A few years ago, I read Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly, followed by Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, followed by Jen Sincero’s You are a Badass.  A pattern emerged that I couldn’t ignore.  If I wanted to grow, I had to go to scary places. Uncomfortable places. Places beyond my control.  I set out on a mission to get comfortable with fear.  Not just get comfortable with it…….ENJOY it!  Even seek it out! What I have learned (and am still learning) in this quest is that (1) you can LEARN to enjoy fear,  (2) doing so makes you a better at what you do, and (3) not everyone will understand it, but (4) that’s okay...not easy, but okay.

Now, this is the time of year, as a coach, I find that teachers are sometimes more willing to try some new things in their classrooms that they may not have been as comfortable trying before STAAR.  So, if you are in that place where you are standing on the edge of trying, here is are some tips for teaching yourself to take the leap:

Actively seek out a stretch opportunity.  
You’ll know it when you come across these opportunities because they will be the things that your first instinct is to say “no” to.  They will be those things that makes you want to say, “I’m not cut out for that...” or “I’m not good enough for…” or “I don’t know how…”or “what if they….”  Watch this TED Talk by Jia Jiang to see how he learned how to face rejection...and actually like it! https://www.ted.com/talks/jia_jiang_what_i_learned_from_100_days_of_rejection

Start “unplanning”.  
This is probably the hardest lesson I have had to learn because I am, by nature, a planner.  Life, however, like our students, doesn’t always adhere to the plan.  In fact, I have a sign in my office that says, “It’s all about how you handle plan B”.  A colleague once gave me a birthday card about having a plan B (even though it wasn’t my birthday) because she said it reminded her of me and how I always said, “Okay, what’s plan B?” While I am still a fan of being prepared, I have come to understand that being prepared means equipping myself with the knowledge and skills to adapt and construct the plan as you go.  As a coach, I have learned to let the situation lead the plan.  I may have a goal, but how we meet the goal has to depend on the situation and the needs of the teachers at the time, and I can’t always plan for that. To do this, there is a level of uncertainty that I have had to get comfortable with. To counter the anxiety of the unknown, I can prepare myself by honing my coaching skills and building my knowledge so that I can adapt to situations, though.  As teachers, consider how you can “unplan” a piece of your lesson to invite a measure of uncertainty into your classroom. Read more about lesson “unplanning” here: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct17/vol75/num02/Inviting-Uncertainty-into-the-Classroom.aspx

Change the “yes, but…” to “yes, so…”
When uncertainty causes me stress, it is usually because I doubt myself in some way.  Maybe I doubt my ability or my knowledge.  Guess what?...there’s a fix for that: learn how to do it or learn more about it.  The key is to LEARN. My first reaction to most uncomfortable opportunities is to say, “yes I know _____ would be great to do, but_____.”  I have had to train my internal ears to recognize that the, “yes, but”...is a great sign. That’s a neon sign telling me that THIS is a challenge that I am not comfortable with. It ultimately boils down to a confidence issue or relevance issue--why is this important? Or can I do it? If I’m even considering it, then it must be important, so the block is usually confidence.  Confidence can be LEARNED. It’s simply a matter of changing the “yes, but…” to “yes, so…..”  So, if there is something that is outside of your comfort zone, get comfortable with it by learning as much as you can about it.  Have you wanted to try project-based learning, but you don’t know how it would work? Read up on it and figure out one thing you could do in that direction.  Have you wanted to try a workshop model in your classroom, but you don’t know how you would manage it? Go to some training or do a book study this summer to learn how to make it work.  Have you wanted to blog or join or a Twitter chat, but you don’t know how? Watch Youtube, ask someone, call me!  Just learn.

Just like our bodies, our minds and professional life need to stretch.  It helps us become more flexible, less stressed, and keeps our juices flowing.  My “stretch projects” box is staffed by a full-sized Gumby (a gift from my awesome husband) as a reminder that the “stretch” is what helps us grow. In this season of spring, I hope that you will be inspired to grow in your learning and stretch yourself beyond what you think you are capable of. Your students, and your field, need your stretch!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ready, Set, STAAR

Testing season has officially begun. The first administration of STAAR is right around the corner, and it’s understandable that we are now (as opposed to all year long) spending time preparing for it.  I think of this time of year as equivalent to when runners train for a marathon or any kind of race. Their training for months/weeks prior to the race involves running, of course, but at some point closer to actual race day, they need to start studying the specific trail or course they will be running. Where will the water spots be? Where are the hills? The answers to these questions affect how they prepare for race day.  The same is true of testing. By understanding the structure and content of the test, students can make better decisions about how to manage their time, manage their brain power, stay focused, and navigate the test.

In recent weeks, I have been working with teachers on doing some “testing as a genre” mini-lessons where we teach students about the actual test so that they can plan how to adapt the reading and writing skills they have been using all year to the unique genre of test reading and test writing...specifically STAAR reading and writing. As you prepare your students for the upcoming test, I wanted to share some activities to help your students become empowered test-takers as the day of the race draws near.


K-W-L
One thing I like to do before beginning the “testing as a genre” mini-lessons is to see what students know and wonder about STAAR.  I do a simple, K-W-L activity and have students write down everything they know (or have heard) about STAAR and everything they wonder or want to know.  What they write is pretty enlightening.  Simple things like how many questions should be on the test should not be a mystery.  The state provides resources like the test design schematic and blueprints that let us know how many questions will be on the test, how many possible passages, genres, and even a breakdown of how many questions for different types of reading, revising, and editing.  Give students this information.  Have them think through how they might approach the test. Will they read the long passages first or start with the short ones?  They need to be intentional.  The  way they approach a test depends on what they know about themselves as test-takers, so everyone may take a different approach. The more information they have about the test, the more intentional they can be with their approach to it.


Strategies Toolbox
Now, when I’m talking strategies, I’m not talking about a mnemonic device.  I’m talking about helping students come up with intentional tools for combatting their unique struggles. To be a good test taker, you have to have a set of strategies that work for you.  Everyone is different, so your students’ strategies will be different, too.  If there are some aspects of test-taking that are difficult for a student, it may help to ask others what strategies they use.   Does one student get nervous and over-think every question?  Maybe there is another student who has found a way to fight that….get them talking to each other.  What about if you have taught students to capture their thinking all year, and they have been doing it beautifully on sticky notes and paper, but now they are going to take an online test. While hopefully, they have also been practicing with online tests throughout the year, they may have had more practice with traditional paper/pencil testing or reading.  Why not ask them how they can transfer the things that work for them on paper and pencil to this new situation of online?  Let them come up with some strategies for transferring what helps them. We don’t always have to be the ones to come up with the answer of what to do.

Vocabulary
Testing is a unique genre that has a vocabulary all its own.  A test is designed to assess learning, so it will use academic words and words that are directly related to what should have been learned (content).  It is important to be aware of academic and content language when reading a test. Hopefully, your students have built the habit of becoming word collectors throughout the year. As they have read books, they (hopefully) have been encouraged to collect any new, interesting, or unfamiliar words in their reading notebooks.  Have them do the same thing with the test.  Show them the standards that are assessed and the types of questions that assess those standards.  Do they notice any similarities or note anything interesting about the wording used to assess the standard?  In looking at some questions related to theme, we noticed that the words message, lesson, idea, and theme all appeared.  That might turn into a “theme” word list.  You might collect words from answer choices that are unfamiliar. After all, this is where the vocabulary of the test sometimes hinders our students. There is no context to use in many of the answer choices, and most of the words are very sophisticated, academic words (ex., refute, illustrate).  In these cases, a dictionary may or may not offer much help either. Without context, it’s hard to apply the dictionary definition.  The academic vocabulary (particularly verbs) from the test can be used to help students discuss their reading by incorporating it into language frames such as-

“The author uses _____to ____(emphasize, demonstrate, illustrate…)______________. “

I’d love to hear other ideas and other ways that you help your students.  If you’d like more information about teaching testing as a genre, I recommend the book Putting Thinking to the Test by Lori Conrad, Missy Matthews, Cheryl Zimmerman, and Patrick Allen.

Resources related to STAAR can be found here: https://tea.texas.gov/student.assessment/staar/

Monday, February 26, 2018

Comprehension Killer: Assassination by Annotation


As I have been in classrooms this year, I have seen some incredibly creative teachers doing all sorts of things to promote thinking in their classes.  They have worked on helping students to become aware of their thinking as they read and ways to help them capture that thinking. In fact, after visiting one campus, I vowed to bring baskets of sticky notes (Santa Claus style) the next time I dropped by because they have become a staple necessity for guided reading groups.  I love it.  I love seeing the thinking that students are doing.  And that’s the thing....the annotations that students write on a paper when they are reading should reflect something about their thinking!  Unfortunately (and especially at this time of year), annotating becomes a gauntlet of stopping after paragraphs and writing main idea statements. For many students, this is a comprehension killer.

 When we read, we are essentially having a conversation with the author. The author’s side of the conversation is on the page.  Our annotations should reflect our side of the conversation.  When you look at a student’s annotations, and all he has written are main idea statements (or just phrases copied directly from somewhere in a paragraph), that is the equivalent of a conversation where someone is just going “uh-huh...uh-huh...uh-huh.”  That doesn’t tell me he knows anything about what the author was saying.  Can you imagine having a conversation with someone and routinely stopping him to repeat what he said? That would get annoying fast.

In a good conversation, we have reactions (!), ask questions (?), and remember important information (*).  If we want our students to engage with what they are reading and understand it, keep it simple. Why do they have to write a sentence if a symbol will do?  If a reader underlines or highlights something, it should be because it caused a reaction, sparked a question, or is worth remembering.

Like most strategies that we develop through the experience of becoming readers, each person’s way of annotating will be unique.  Rather than dictating how students must annotate, try modeling your own ways for them.  Show them pictures of notes from books you are reading and have them discuss what they can tell about your thinking based on your notes.  Have them look at each other’s annotations and talk about the conversation that is reflected. Go beyond that...have them think about their thinking.  Have students review their annotations and sort the types of things they noted.  Did they ask more questions? Have more reactions?  Does the type of thinking they do change depending on what they read?

In this season of testing countdown, remember...there is such a thing as formulaic reading just as there is formulaic writing. It is tempting to think that going through a series of steps will result in thinking, but it rarely happens that way.  Just as formulaic writing produces bland, unengaging results, formulaic reading emphasizes recall rather than deep understanding.  Annotating is a powerful tool that all skilled readers use, but we have to allow students to develop a way of annotating that works for them and that enhances their understanding.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Stay the Course: 5 Ways to Overcome the Urge to Revert Back to Drill & Kill

This year, I have watched many brave teachers dip their toes into the waters of using reader/writer workshop as a part of a balanced literacy approach in their classrooms. They have made the choice to get more comfortable allowing their students choice in what they read, moving away from worksheets and teacher-driven lectures, and designing their READING and WRITING classes to emphasize….wait for it…..actual READING and WRITING! That statement may seem ridiculous, but it is quite common for me to go into reading and writing classes and see neither of those actually happening. After all, emphasizing the skills of reading and writing is pointless if the students don’t ever apply those skills within the context of real reading and writing.  So, it has been exciting to watch these teachers (from kindergarten through high school) break away from what they are comfortable with in order to do some things that they know will be better for students in the long run.  They are taking a risk. They are trusting (with tons of research to support that trust) that this will work. 


While this has been incredible to see, I know that this is the time of year where panic starts to set in.  The test is looming, and it is starting to appear on the horizon. Benchmarks are being taken. Results are coming in. And not all students are passing.  Administrators start panicking. Teachers start panicking. Parents start panicking. Students start being put in accelerated programs, tutoring, Saturday school. Schedules start being switched. Teachers start being switched. Before you know it, we have shifted our focus from building readers and writers to making sure they can pass a test.  So, let’s stop, take a breath, and remember our WHY.  

As the crunch time nears, I want to share 5 ways to overcome the urge to revert back to endless practice of passages and questions. 

1. Look at the successes.  It is almost February. Your students HAVE grown this year.  Are they reading more?  Are they able to tell you authors that they enjoy?  Do they actually WANT to write?  Those are successes.  It is likely, though, that you have some data to back up the fact that they HAVE made progress in areas. Sure, there is still work to do, but don’t ignore the growth that has happened.  I don’t roll my eyes at the half-pound I lose just because it’s not the full 30 yet! It’s progress!  Remember and acknowledge the success so far.

2. Remember what time it is.  This can be a hard one because we want to say “Yes, but…the test is in ____ weeks, and the kids still don’t ___-.”  Remember...it is only January.  Even in February, remember it is only February.  There is still time.  If you were to work your body out intensely everyday for 4 months prior to a race, it would get too fatigued by the day of the race.  The same goes for our brain.  Yes, start weaving some testing practice in, but treat it like a training schedule for a marathon.  A long run may only be done once a week, and what is considered a “long run” at the beginning is nowhere near the length of the final race.  

3. Shift the format.   At this point in the year, I encourage the teachers I work with to start shifting their instruction to more small-group based activities if they haven’t done so already.  Usually, the curriculum begins to spiral and there is enough data by this point to tell you which students are understanding concepts that you have taught and which ones are not. Use that data to narrow down the what you need to spend time creating whole class lessons for.  Not every standard is created equal or needs as much time spent on learning it.  Acknowledge this shift with your students. Prepare them to work more independently. For some teachers, this is naturally how they teach. However, for many-especially secondary-the idea of small-group instruction may be new. For many middle school or high school students, they may not have had this type of instruction since elementary school. Don’t assume they remember how to work independently while you meet with groups.  If small group instruction is new to a teacher, I generally encourage them to begin building one day a week into their schedule to focus on targeting instruction in groups, then move to two days, and so on.  Around 4 weeks before the test, the majority of instruction could be in small groups. 

4. Use learning stations to review, reinforce, and enrich. That’s right.  Learning stations. No matter what grade you teach, they are one of the best tools for getting ‘bang for your buck’ as far as time goes.  There’s no need for them to be complicated and time-consuming to create, either.  Think of things that students can do with any text. Combine that with a pair of dice, and bam!...you’ve got some learning stations.  For a free sample pack of some learning stations that can be used with 5-8 grades, click here:  https://goo.gl/Zqo3FC These may give you some ideas that will spark your own.

5. Keep it real. Even as the testing season approaches, never forget that authentic reading and writing is still the priority.  Keep self-selected reading and writing as a central component of your class.  Make sure you distinguish between testing strategies and reading strategies. Students should know that one is for ALL reading, and one is for ONE TYPE of reading.  Same goes for writing strategies.  Acknowledge the test, but keep it in its place in the grand scheme of things.  

So, I hope these tips will be helpful, and I would love to hear other ideas!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Follow One Course Until Successful


I don’t know about you, but I have had a great year.  Honestly, 2017 was one of the best years I have had in awhile.  I know that not everyone can say the same, but sometimes, when you get those years...you’ve gotta take ‘em, run with ‘em, and be thankful for ‘em.

This was my year of “build”.  That was the word I picked last year as I started on a new journey of leaving a stable job to go into business for myself.  It has been a year of building a business, building my knowledge, building my resources, building my contacts, building my confidence, building boundaries, and building faith.  It has also been a year of discovery. I have had the freedom to follow my curiosities, try new things, have and explore ideas, create stuff, and wander down roads that led to nowhere.  That was wonderful.  I also noticed, though, that I had developed some habits over the past few years that I wanted to break. For example,  I had grown so used to being pulled in 75 different directions on any given day that I realized I had lost the ability to truly focus on something-to get deeply entrenched in a project.  I mean, I could ...eventually, but it required a mass amount of discipline.  I noticed this most profoundly with reading.  I seldom read a real book.  I listened to audiobooks all the time because I could listen while I did something else. But it had been a while since I could name a book that I actually read cover to cover with my eyes.

I started noticing this same thing in other areas, too.  I wanted to lose weight, so I would do something different for a few days, then move on to something else.  I would decide to do one kind of workout, then move to another kind 3 days later.  I would watch a show on tv while participating in a Twitter chat and texting my friend to schedule dinner.  My Fitbit would send a buzz to my arm when I got a text, so I would check it while walking and listening to an audiobook.  I found my brain just had a hard time doing one thing at a time or for very long.  

So, this year, I decided my word would be FOCUS! Follow One Course Until Successful. One thing at a time. One book at a time. One activity at a time. One job at a time.  One day at a time.  I will focus on that show, that person, that activity, that project, that goal with full attention.  That may be as simple as putting the Ipad away while I binge watch Mad Men or taking my Fitbit off while I work.  It may mean closing my email tab while I work on a presentation or leaving my phone at home while I walk with my husband.  It may mean setting a goal for a project and not leaving my computer until it’s done...no matter what.  800 words….not 700.  Blog post written….not just thought through.  Section 1 of presentation completed...not just outlined.  New product designed...not just sketched.  Book read...not just skimmed.

Over the past several years that I have chosen a word instead of a resolution, my word has just sort of come to me. Around November, I would start getting a sense of what my word should be. Not so, this year. In fact, several words came to me.  I couldn’t focus on one! THAT was my clue that it was time to back away from the temptation of “more” -and instead -do less with more FOCUS.

I hope your 2018 is full of great things, and I would love to hear your word for the year!