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end of the school year

Education Teaching Tuesday Teaching Tip

The Subversive Innovator

Last week I was able to meet with some teachers who are doing great things with technology in their classrooms. We had a meeting to talk about how tech can live in our schools, and part of the meeting was asking them to create a vision for what digital learning could look like in their school in three years. We had five minutes of silence as they typed their responses and read the responses of their colleagues. And then we discussed.

And the first comment was, “If only it could actually be like this.”

Which was followed by nods of agreement, and then several comments about why this could never work. I totally get this. I get the feeling, I get the sentiment, and I get the frustration.

It reminded me of a conversation I was part of several years ago, sitting in a room of mentor teachers, all with a student teacher from the University of Chicago in our classrooms. The mentor teachers were brought together for training, and to be told about the end of the year “project-based learning” unit that was required for our student teachers to complete. We all sat there, watching the implementation gap grow between what our student teachers were expected to do, and our school expectations.

After a series of comments, most of which were explaining why this project-based learning could never happen, one of the facilitators said, “I understand that there are challenges, and that this will live differently in each school setting. But I also believe that we have enough talent in this room to figure out how to be subversive within the system to bring what we know to be best practice into our classrooms.”

The subversive innovators.

You know, the ones who are doing really cool things, but maybe doing so on the down low, with little fanfare, largely uncelebrated, so as not to bring too much attention, so as not to make too many waves.

south chicago model
(The finished product of my student teacher’s project-based learning about our neighborhood)

It’s close to the end of the school year, so for today’s Teaching Tip, I wanted to give a few ideas of how to bring innovation, creativity, and fun into the classroom, even if time is limited and expectations are high.

1.) Find your squishy time

It’s different in every classroom, but there are moments within each day that are under-utilized. The time right after lunch, the time between lunch and specials class, the time right before the end of the day. I usually know when I’ve hit up against a teacher’s squishy time because when I ask to see their schedule, and I point to a specific spot, and they get really non-specific about what is happening during that time. Or they get defensive (often because they’ve already identified this time as squishy and are putting it to good use!) That’s the time do get creative. Even if it’s only 5-10 minutes. SO MUCH can be accomplished in 5-10 minutes.

There’s also squishy time within the content, like changing the end of unit assessment to a performance task, incorporating one center rotation focused on student choice or interests, or using the math drills at the beginning of the lesson to incorporate calisthenics, as one of my teachers does with her 4th graders.

2.) Get student input

When bullying got real in my class, I held a class meeting to explain the situation to my 3rd graders and ask for their input. Honestly, the biggest reason was that I realized that the problem was bigger than what I could solve on my own. Their ideas were pretty fantastic, including a system of bully tickets, kindness tickets, a bully poster campaign, and a bully prevention leadership team. It was so much better than I could ever imagine, and it was completely different than what I would have developed.

More importantly, it worked.

It can be helpful to start with a shared problem, and help students to come up with solutions. One teacher I work with is using the end of the year time to do a study on the elections because his students kept asking questions about a certain candidate and why he was doing so well in the polls. Another high school math teacher presented the problem that many buildings in their city were not accessible for wheelchairs, and the class used what they had learned about angles and measurement to build ramps for local businesses.

But the point is, if it isn’t clear where to start in innovation, ask the students. I guarantee that one of them will have a far better idea than anything I could blog about here.

3.) Follow Through

making rocket launchers(Making rocket launchers in science)

This one is the hardest for me. I am great with ideas. I have a million ideas a day. Seeing them through to their completion is always the hardest part. And it’s the same with innovation.

There are a few things I’ve seen help with this.

One, setting a deadline. Put an end date on it and do as much as possible to prepare for that deadline and keep it a fixed mark. Deadlines are great motivators.

Two, push for a product. It can be a letter, a drawing, a photograph, a robot, a recipe. It can be almost anything, but there should be something to show for the time that is given.

Three, carve out time to share. Yes, learning is fun in and of itself. But it is also super duper fun to get to talk about what you’re working on with other people, and show them what you’ve made and created. The first thing I do when I create something new is share it to social media to get feedback. Why should the classroom be different? If there isn’t time to do a show and tell in class, take a picture and create an instagram bulletin board, or twitter feed for comments.

The best part of the end of the school year is that usually there’s more squishy time available to do fun and engaging things in the classroom. And students are antsy to do high impact, high engagement activities. (AKA, everyone is squirrely and behavior can take a nosedive!) Why not try something new?

For ideas about some of the incredible things happening in classrooms around the country, check out this AMAZING TED talk from Stephen Ritz, about how he started a gardening program for his middle school students in the Bronx. (And if you can get through it without crying, I don’t believe you.) Then just go ahead and keep on watching this TED Talk Playlist of inspiring teachers.

And for the record, my innovating time started with right after lunch. I gave students five minutes of choice time to do any silent activity they wanted to do. And from there, we snowballed.

It doesn’t take a lot, it just takes a step.

-Rachel

Education Grief Teaching

Forgive Me For This Crappy Goodbye

When I was little we went to visit my grandmother every summer in the small town of Gilby, North Dakota. We bought penny candy and played on the teeter-totters at the playground in the one block main street that consisted of a bank, post office, grocery store, hardware store, and bar. What else does a town even need?

I have a million fond memories of that place, and even more of my grandmother. My grandma was a strong, playful, extremely hardworking woman. And she hated to say goodbye.

When it was time for our family to leave my grandmother found it of utmost importance to begin trimming her hollyhocks. Or hanging the laundry to dry. Or cleaning out the pantry.

It was an ongoing joke in our family to talk about where we might find Grandma when it came time to leave. But it is also an inheritance. One shared by my mother, and then me; a deeply-seated avoidance of goodbye.

Today is my last day at school and I would much rather talk to you about dropping my dog off at the vet this morning, or going to Starbucks to get an iced tea than I would like to process how I feel about leaving. It’s the last day of school and I am hiding in my room writing a blog instead of going to say goodbye to the hundred students I have taught over the last four years.

But I also remember that this time of year is never what I expect.

The endings, the goodbyes, are rarely the celebrations or rituals or pomp and circumstance that I think they will be, want them to be. Instead of the meaningful goodbye ritual I create in my head, the last day of school is usually spent cramming the trunk of my car full to bursting with the “last few items” from my classroom that I swore was only one armful, and turns out to be a car-full.

image-8

I forget that trying to get nine-year-olds to sit in a circle and tell stories they remember about the year is about as easy as trying to run a cat circus. So the last day of school often looks like me popping DVD after DVD into the computer, projected onto the scrubbed-clean white board, telling my students, “SHHHHHH! We can’t hear the movie!!!!”

I forget the frustration of trying to hunt down the people necessary to sign off my checklist, showing I’ve completed all the necessary documentation to end the year. I forget that there is always, always, always more paperwork thrown at me that needs to be completed before I can sign out of the building.

I forget that last day of school is usually punctuated with a staff event that is cheesy, with the teachers sitting exhausted, hair pulled up in messy ponytails, barely present to eat a hot dog or luke-warm pasta. I forget that sometimes teachers forgo the party altogether, opting instead to start the summer vacation early, sitting in front of their TV to binge watch the television shows they’ve missed for the last ten months.

I forget that goodbyes are hard for everyone, including my students, and therefore it’s so easy to leave on the wrong terms, saying “Sit down!” and “Stop talking” instead of saying all the things you meant to say, like “I love you” and “I’m going to miss you.”

I forget how quickly I turn into my grandmother, more concerned with the work of cleaning and emptying a classroom than with saying goodbye.

And I forget that the goodbye is one moment, only one moment, but the time before the goodbye is full of thousands and thousands of moments and memories. I forget that we don’t build toward a goodbye. We live. We live. We live.

When I got the call that my grandmother had had a stroke, ten years ago, everything stopped. The family flew in and gathered by her bedside to sing her songs and brush her hair. We told her stories and kissed her head. I had to leave to go back home before she passed away, and so I said my final goodbye to her on a gray Easter Sunday, and then drove the seven hours home to Saint Paul to catch a flight back to my home in Philadelphia.

I cannot for the life of me remember saying goodbye to her.

But I remember sitting with her on the porch and laughing with her as she told stories of the past. I remember the spicy cinnamon gum she chewed, which over the years changed to doublemint. I remember riding bikes around her town, bikes she spent weeks scrounging up for our visit. I remember the smell of the bread she made, “Grandma’s buns”, just out of the oven. If Grandma was to be believed, they were always her worst batch yet. I remember the cards she sent on every birthday and every milestone, telling me how proud she was of me.

And I think my grandma is okay with me not remembering our goodbye. I think she probably prefers it that way. Maybe she somehow managed to arrange it.

Maybe it’s okay to be bad at goodbyes. Maybe it’s okay to not get them right, to say the wrong things, to not say enough, to not say all that needs to be said. Maybe all the good things before the goodbye is enough. Maybe it has to be, even when it isn’t enough.

I’m gonna miss this place, I’m gonna miss these people, I’m going to miss this time.

If you need me, I’ll be hiding in my room.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

 

Education PARENTING Teaching

Angry ‘Cuz You’re Moving On Without Me

Street sign

“You can only love what you got while you got it.” -Kate DiCamillo

I’m leaving.

I have one week left at a school that I helped open four years ago. And I have no idea how to feel about it. Relief that the year is almost over, obvious sadness to say goodbye to a community that has embraced me and a community that I love.

I go back to stories and people and find new reasons why I don’t want to leave, and why I do.

And I find myself angry about everything. Anger. Such a useful emotion, and so dangerous because it is so hard to control. But anger, useful in the way it helps me to disconnect, to push away, to let go.

I wish that instead of anger I felt acceptance. I wish I felt mindfulness. I wish I felt calm. But I’m not that enlightened. And it’s the end of the school year. I’m exhausted.

The secret I’ve been keeping is that I want everything to fall apart without me there. I want the whole school to fail. I want scores to plummet next year and everyone to miss me. Because I want to be that important and that amazing. I want everything to be about me.

When talking with my principal about leaving she told me not to feel badly. And I said, “I am just sad.” I know everyone. I know all the cafeteria workers and all the custodians. I bring Christmas presents for the engineer and she leaves me bags of oranges on my desk chair. One of my favorite parents came to my house during my maternity leave to teach me how to wrap my stomach. I’ve taught half of the students in the school. How can I possibly leave?

My principal said, “It really is your school.”

And it is. And it isn’t. Because people and schools don’t belong to one person, shouldn’t belong to one person. Can’t belong to one person.

I’ve been working on this in parenting. I’ve been reminding myself over and over my son doesn’t belong to me. Now I’m having to do the same in regards to my job.

The same part of me that wants my son to love and adore only me also wants my school to cease to exist without me there. Which is ridiculous for so many reasons, the biggest reason being that it is my choice to leave, no one is kicking me out. It’s a self-imposed exile and I’m all kinds of grumpy about it.

I’ve had good friends leave the school and the school has gone on without them, as it will without me. I hope that everyone will miss me next year, but in two, three, five years very few people will know my name.

In five years, when no one remembers me, what is my legacy?

Yesterday I was in my classroom, working on planning the school carnival. While I was there student after student came in. Some wanted to play a game, other wanted candy, others had stories to tell. But Natasha came in just for a hug. She walked in, arms outstretched, and said, “I just wanted a hug.” I hugged her, and then she left.

I’m angry because I’m leaving. Because I won’t be able to control what happens in our school from here on out. I won’t be the voice of dissent or assent in the leadership meetings. I’m angry because leaving means letting go. And I don’t want to let go.

But I’m also angry because leaving doesn’t make me care any less. Instead, leaving makes the small moments, like the hugs from Natasha, even more powerful and even more painful.

And it’s easier to be angry than to be sad.

At lunch today three second graders came up to my room. I asked them what they wanted to do. I expected them to say they wanted to play on my iPads. (The possession of the iPads makes me infinitely more popular.) Instead, they said, “We just wanted to tell you about our weekends.”

If I have any choice in how I leave, any choice in how I’m remembered, I hope my students remember me as a teacher who took the time to listen to the stories of their weekends. In the craziness of testing and Common Core, the decisions about what curriculum to use and how to structure our literacy block, I hope that listening to stories never stops being my priority, regardless of the school I am teaching in, regardless of whether I’m teaching or not.

I’m leaving. And my school is going to move on, with or without me. I want to want this and want to be happy about this. Eventually I think I will be. I’m trying to be thankful for the lesson I’m learning about how I am not the center of the universe, probably not even the center of my school. I’m trying to once again open up my clenched fists and let go.

With open hands or clenched fists, next Thursday will come. Angry or grateful, selfish or gracious, the goodbye is here. One more week left to leave my legacy.

I plan to give lots of hugs.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

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