There’s Nothing That Your Mind Can’t Do

I’m so grateful to Leah for this beautiful piece for my classroom. Not only does it manage to bring Hamilton in and is just gorgeous, but she couldn’t have chosen a phrase more suited to my philosophy about learning.

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I firmly believe that the human brain is an incredible machine. There is nothing that your mind can’t do. In Hamilton, when the line is sung, it’s not entirely a good thing. Eliza is singing about her worry as Hamilton speaks to her father about marriage. The human brain does seem to have an impressive capacity for anxiety. And anxiety certainly plays a role in my life in the classroom. I am amazed at all my brain can do when it comes to worrying about my students and whether or not I’m doing everything I can for them or if what I’m doing is the right thing.

But this quote speaks to me in a different way. I believe we are all capable of so much, often so much more than we believe we are. We doubt our minds and our abilities all the time. Having this constant reminder that ‘there is nothing that your mind can’t do’ hanging in my classroom will help me and my kiddos believe in ourselves.

I’ve worked with about 25 students every year now for nearly two decades. That’s a lot of students. I never cease to be amazed by their thinking, their questioning, and their brilliance. One of my greatest fears as a teacher is that I am consistently underestimating my students, not asking as much of them as they are capable of giving.

My goal is to start with a really high bar for myself and my students. If I need to add scaffolds to help us get there, that’s fine. But I don’t want to assume their minds can’t do something before we even begin. What I’ve found this year, with my 3rd graders, is that the more challenging something is, the more effort they’re willing to give it. I’ve watched them stretch and push when I think I would have given up. There’s nothing that your mind can’t do.

In Hamilton this line comes from the song, Helpless. I believe that because there is nothing that our minds can’t do we won’t ever be helpless.

Wait For It

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from Vadim Timoshkin’s flickr

One recent morning as I got ready for school the song, Wait For It, was stuck in my head. As I checked on my daughters, took a shower, and got my things ready for school I could not get this song out of my head. I finally paused to think about it and realized this title speaks to me so strongly as a teacher. There are so many reasons why I need to wait for it. I stopped my morning routine and began listing all the thoughts I had about waiting as a teacher.

Waiting is a sign of respect. When I am talking with others, especially with my students, I need to wait for them. It often takes children a bit to get their thoughts in order as they are talking and adults, myself included, often try to fill in the words for them. We finish sentences and thoughts for children rather than allowing them the time to do so. Waiting tells them that we value what they have to say, that their voices are important.

In a similar vein, I need to wait for it when students are answering questions. Some students are ready to answer immediately, hands waving in the air. Other students need a bit of time to prepare their thoughts before they want to share them publically. Both groups need wait time from me. Those that are ready need that that wait time to think through what they are ready (or think they are ready) to say. They can refine or even completely change their mind as they have a moment to think. Those who don’t feel ready need wait time from me in order to feel ready, to compose their thoughts into words. If I don’t wait, I’ll never hear from those students. I find myself, as I look out over my class, counting in my head to five or ten, forcing myself to wait and give them time.

Waiting for students to answer or share their thinking is about me giving them time. Waiting to respond to student behavior, one of my greatest challenges, is about giving me time. In nearly two decades in the classroom I’m learning that my gut response to student behavior is often not the best one. Sometimes it’s because I assume students are off task or goofing around when in reality they are having thoughtful conversations about their learning. Sometimes it’s because I am ready to jump in and remind students of expectations so quickly that I don’t give them a chance to self-monitor. If my goal is that my students become independent learners who are thoughtful, kind people, then I need to give them space to take those roles on now. They can’t do that if I am always jumping in immediately. Teacher Tom wrote about a similar idea with a much younger child recently.

Several years ago I coined the word ‘preflection’ (can I say I coined a word if I had never heard it before but apparently it did exist?). I wrote briefly about it then. All the waiting I’ve discussed here has been after something, waiting for students to respond after I ask a question or waiting to respond to students’ thinking or behavior. Preflection is about waiting before something, waiting before reacting or before asking a question. It’s about pausing to reflect on what I will do next. If I were better at preflecting I might not be as frustrated with myself about the “Talk Less” piece. I might more thoughtfully choose my words and therefore use fewer of them. The questions I ask might be ones that really push a student’s thinking in a new direction. Preflection is about giving myself the wait time I give to my students.

Waiting is one of the hardest things for me to do as a teacher. There’s a constant sense of urgency in the classroom, a constant sense of needing to keep moving forward. I have to fight that feeling every moment in order to slow down and wait. As Burr says, “I’m not falling behind or running late. I am not standing still I am lying in wait.”

Who Tells Your Story

Just as being “in the room where it happens” is critical for teachers, this question from Hamilton is a big one. This presidential election is a solid reminder of the importance of telling your own story. The same story is so different depending on who is telling it. We need to be telling our stories and we need to be doing so thoughtfully.

Far too often stories about education are told by those removed from it. Some reporters manage to tell educational stories well after talking with teachers, students, and families. Of course, telling stories is their job.

At other times educational stories are told by people in think tanks, politicians, educational consultants, and administrators. Some of those people tell these stories well. Others less so. The stories they are telling, though, are ours. We need to raise our voices. We need to tell our stories. We, the teachers, more than anyone else in education, know what is happening in classrooms (in the room where it happens for our students). We are the ones with students every day. We are the ones working with families. We are navigating the challenging rivers of local, state, and federal education policy while manning a boat full of students.

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from Nick Piggott’s flickr

Who tells your story? Tell it. Own it. Share your successes and your challenges and your questions. Talk about what is happening in your classroom and your school. Tell your story. But please, do so thoughtfully.

Do:

  • discuss challenges without complaining
  • share your love for and pride in your students
  • encourage your students to raise their voices and tell their stories
  • join forces with other educators to amplify your voices

Don’t:

  • whine about education
  • tell your students’ stories for them
  • divulge private information

In the Room Where It Happens

This is such a powerful song in Hamilton. Burr’s desire to be “in the room where it happens” is so strong and so understandable. Doors keep closing in his face. He keeps being left out of important discussions and times when decisions are being made.

It’s possible this song strikes me so much because I feel it too. As a teacher I feel great frustration at how rarely we are in the room where it happens. This can be as small as at a school level. Many principals and administrative teams do not include teachers in their decision making process. I recognize that including teachers is hard to do because we spent the great majority of our day with students. We do not have flexible schedules that allow us to be at meetings or ‘in the room where it happens’ when it is happening. It requires administrators to be highly thoughtful and creative to make it work to include teachers regularly. That said, I firmly believe it pays off in the long run to have teachers in the room. No one has a better understanding of how policies and decisions are impacting students and families than teachers do. As the ones living those policies and decisions every day, teachers’ perspectives are invaluable. However, not everyone agrees.

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I’m not convinced we need to be in these rooms, but why not reach for the sky…

As you move farther and farther from students, including teachers in decisions becomes even more challenging. But that also suggests how much more critical it becomes. At district levels, state levels, and at the federal level, those in the room where it happens are often far removed from students and from the realities of teaching at that moment. Teachers are with students every day. Teachers interpret the curriculum and regulations handed to them. Teachers make those things: students and curriculum and regulations work together. Sometimes that’s a significant challenge. Having teachers in the room where it happens would improve education for all students, families, and teachers. That’s worth whatever it takes.

Elementary School Teachers Do Rock

Quick break from the fun I’m having with Hamilton to vent some frustration. You may have seen this article, Why 3rd Grade Teachers Would Make the Best Debate Moderators. As a 3rd grade teacher and one who has been frustrated with presidential debates through multiple election cycles I was excited to read this. I was wildly disappointed.

It started off alright:

It’s time to do away with journalists moderating political debates and bring in the big guns: elementary school teachers.

I can be a big gun. That works for me.

It went on to describe the vice presidential debate. Then to explain why an elementary school teacher should be the moderator. That’s where it went so wrong for me.

If you interrupt or talk over the other person, your name will go up on a white board. Every following infraction will incur a check mark next to your name. Three or more, you’ll be removed from the stage.

Are there still elementary school teachers putting students’ names on the board? Still shaming students in that specific way? If so, that’s upsetting. I haven’t seen that in many, many years, probably not since I was in elementary school.

Then we move on to extrinsic motivation:

For every question they actually answer on the first try, they’ll get a sticker. If they get five stickers, they can go to the treasure box and pick out one of those cool pens with six different colored inks, or a “Make America Great Again” hat.

If teachers used this as frequently as is suggested here that’s all they’d have time to do. Thoughtful teachers move away from extrinsic motivation as quickly as possible. It’s far better for students to do things based on intrinsic motivation. That is something they’ll take with them when they finish that grade or leave that school. That’s what helps students become independent.

The final line is a good one:

Elementary school teachers know the importance of communication and words and how they’re conveyed, and should be our secret weapon in the fight against debates that don’t live up to their potential.

We elementary school teachers can be secret weapons in a lot of different ways. I feel confident that those will include affirming students and people rather than shaming them and supporting students and others in becoming better people for the long term rather than just for the moment.

Talk Less, Smile More

I may not agree with Burr’s reasoning for this adage, talk less, smile more, in Hamilton, but I think it’s a pretty good mantra in general. Especially for teachers to have. I’m pretty good at the ‘smile more’ part but I really stink at the ‘talk less’ piece.

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Leslie Odom Jr, who played Burr in Hamilton from photos taken by the White House

Talk Less

One problem I have is that I often start talking too soon. My brain hasn’t fully fleshed out the idea I want to get across. So I talk my way to it. Not a good strategy. It means I use a good ten times as many words as I should need. By the time I’ve figured out what I’m really trying to say, my students have likely tuned out. I would have. Talking less doesn’t have to mean I’m saying less. It means I need to be thoughtful about the words I’m choosing in order to succinctly say I what I want to say.

I also believe, not surprisingly, that talking is a great way to move thinking forward. As a result, I want my kiddos to talk. If I’m talking, they probably aren’t (although it’s not a guarantee!). On occasion I’ve asked colleagues to come in and observe who is talking for how much of the time. My own perception can be off in either direction and it helps to have an impartial set of ears focused on this question. I’ve also recorded lessons so that I can watch and listen later to see how much talking we’re all doing. My goal would be to have my students talking at a significantly higher percentage than I. Of course, this also requires that I’m better at the planning as noted above. When I do talk in my classroom, I want my words and questions to push my students’ thinking. (This is a place I fear I fail as parent as well as a teacher.)

Smile More

I know as a busy person that I don’t always smile as much as I’d like at my own daughters (or my husband, but this is about kids). I get caught up in everything that needs to be done, in the details of our days, and lose sight of the big picture. I would be surprised if I were alone in this as a parent.

I face similar challenges at school. There’s always more to do. Getting X, Y, and Z done before lunch and then A, B, and C before we head home. I have trouble living each moment instead of rushing into the next one. Because of this, I make sure I greet every student at the door with a smile and their name in the mornings. I want to be sure I smile at everyone at least once. Hopefully they get many more smiles throughout the day, but just in case…

In the hallways and lunchroom I try to smile at everyone, kids and adults. I know seeing a smile can lift one up. I believe if we all smiled at one another throughout the day it would shift the atmosphere just a tad with each smile. Our school would become an even brighter, happier place to be for all of us. It’s tough to be in a bad mood when you’re smiling and it’s tough not to smile when everyone else is smiling at you.

Talk less, smile more. I believe my youngest daughter’s fourth grade teacher has this hanging in a frame in her classroom. That might not be a bad idea, a constant reminder to myself. Four words, nothing life-changing in some ways, and yet maybe it could be.

Never Be Satisfied

In Hamilton, the fact that he will “never be satisfied” has positives and some significant negatives. He pushes himself to do more and do better as a result of never being satisfied but he also doesn’t ever feel finished. There’s no contentment with a job well done. Because, to him, the job has never been done well enough.

lin-manuel

Photo by Jurvetson on flickr

In my mind, this is surprisingly similar to most teachers. We will never be satisfied. I know this to be true for myself. It’s true for how I look at both myself and my students. Early in my teaching career summers were really rough for me. Life would slow down and I would have time to reflect, which mostly meant thinking about all the things I had not done as well as I had hoped. I would spend a good portion of the summer beating myself up for not being the teacher I wanted to be. (The difference now is that summers are far too busy for this so I just do it regularly instead of saving it up.)

I believe the positive to this is that I continually keep growing as a teacher. I keep reading, thinking, reflecting, and trying new things. Never being satisfied means never getting complacent. I’ll never be good enough but I’ll never stop getting better either.

When it comes to my students, this is a bit more challenging for me in that I’m not as confident of the positive side. As soon as my students reach a bar I’ve set for them, I raise it. Often I do so without even realizing I have. On one hand, that means I’m always keeping the expectations high. On the other hand, my students deserve a chance to recognize and celebrate their accomplishments.

Never being satisfied has its good points for both teachers and kids. I think it’s important to recognize it, however, in order to not go overboard. Keep stretching, keep pushing, but don’t forget to stop sometimes and see how far you’ve come.

Hamilton Blog Series

I have long been a lover of musical theater. I saw my first Broadway show at 13 – it was 42nd Street. A few years later we were back in NYC to see Les Mis. I’ve lost count of the Broadway shows I’ve seen since then, as well as other performances in DC and elsewhere. If I had the money and time I’d see shows every week. My daughters are also now fans. The oldest saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (her favorite show at the time) when she was 3. Their big Christmas gift each year is tickets to a show. We’ve seen Les Mis and Joseph and others that way. We’re also fans of community theater and our local high school productions.

All of this is to say that it isn’t surprising that we’re huge Hamilfans. My husband is a historian, which adds to his love of the show. Our current family read is the Hamiltome. We read the essays and listen to the songs, stopping to read the footnotes. And, not surprisingly, we quote the show a lot.

hamilton

Photo by Jurvetson on flickr

 

One result of this obsession, for me, is a blog series, the Hamilton Blog Series (HBS). Over the next few weeks or so, I’ll be writing blog posts about education with titles taken from Hamilton. We’ll see how it goes…

 

Posts in the series:

Never Be Satisfied
Talk Less, Smile More
The Room Where It Happens
Who Tells Your Story?
There’s Nothing That Your Mind Can’t Do
Wait For It

Loving Third Grade

After eight years with first graders and kindergartners starting this year with third graders was a bit of a question for me. Four weeks in, I can say that I love it. Third graders (or at least this group of them) are awesome. They are thoughtful, interested in everything, and just a lot of fun.

If you can look at these photos from our first week and not be totally jealous of me, then you have a cold, cold heart.

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Much Love for the Blogosphere

Many factors have shaped the teacher I have become over the past two decades. In the more recent decade, a significant factor is this online world in which I spend quite a bit of time. Twitter and blogs are often the way I wrap up each day, lounging in my bedroom with bad tv on reading and soaking in the brilliance of educators of all types. I feel lucky to be teaching at a time when connecting with folks so different from me (geographically, in who and what we teach, in our backgrounds, etc.) is so easy.

This first week of school I’ve been struck by how much the blogs I read focus on students. I do read blogs quite specifically about math content and instruction or literacy and books, but many of my absolute favorites have students at the center. I fear that in education in general this isn’t true right now. We’ve swung in the direction of focusing on specific standards and skills and focusing on students only in response to their ability to master those things. It’s reassuring to read these folks and be reminded that students are people with all that entails and that they are the reason we’re here doing what we do each day.

A few examples:

A professor I worked with for nearly 15 years through the local university’s professional development school’s program has started blogging recently and it brings me joy every time she has a new post. This recent one is about the importance of starting the year by showing students you care about them as people.

On your first day of school you only have to do one thing – let the children know that you care. Let them know you care about them as students. Let them know you care about them as people.

Karl Fisch, on the other hand, probably started blogging before I knew what blogging was (and I wasn’t that late to this game!). Karl, if you don’t know him, is a high school math teacher, making him about as different from me as he can be. But he’s another that lifts me when I see a new post. This one is about what should and shouldn’t be factored into students’ grades. That may not sound too student-focused, but take a moment and read and see how much his care for his students drives his thinking.

Another who has been blogging for many years is Chris Lehmann. Chris is one I’ve spent time with in both professional settings and casual ones and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who shows more care for the students in his school (and students in general). His recent post is one that is typical for him in many ways. He is responding to something many folks had shared online and thinking more deeply about it and what message it sends to our students and families.

As educators, when we have the chance to show kindness, we should. As educators, when we have the chance to make sure kids see that home and school can work together in a child’s best interest, we should. And as educators, when we have the chance to remind kids that it’s ok not to be perfect and that we all need help from time to time, we should.

Another one who makes me smile every time he posts something new is Jose Luis Vilson. He wrote recently about his son’s first day of pre-k and it’s wonderful. But you also get a sense of the importance of all the children in his care every day.

I am so lucky to have found these folks and to learn from them regularly. Their thinking and writing make me a better teacher.