Reflection on Shame, Social Media, and RESA

It’s an open secret that when we post online to social media, we often do so to show our lives through a rose-colored lens. Look how solid my relationship is. Have I told you how good I am at my job? Look at me, I’ve reached another milestone in the game of Life. We carefully curate our self-presentation to put our best face forward online. We want the ‘likes,’ so we post things people can feel good about liking. We’re seeking out dopamine and oxytocin. And you know what? I’m okay with that.
 
Even when we share the bad, it’s the kind of bad that happens to us, not the kind of bad we bring on ourselves. Our illnesses, our grief – we’re calling out for support, and we often receive it on this platform. I’m sorry for your loss. You’re in my thoughts and my prayers. This is also very okay.
 
One thing that we don’t post about as much are the things that make us feel ashamed. The dissolution of relationships. A venture failing. Our insecurities. We want to put our best face forward, and a head hung in shame does not make a good impression. But sometimes it’s important to share, because we all, at some time or another, feel ashamed.
 
So I’m sharing something, not because I’m seeking sympathy or support, but because I want my friends to know I struggle, and that struggle is normal. Right now I’m struggling in my career, something that I consider very much a part of my personal identity. I feel shame about it. And, frankly, it sucks.
 
I have to do a five-part summative assessment in order to transition to a more permanent teaching license in the state of Ohio. I started doing this assessment in 2015, and have since passed four out of five of the parts. I should find out today if I have passed the last part, on my third and final try. If I pass, I can apply for a new teaching license. If I fail, then I can neither renew or advance my current license. I will also not be eligible for a one-year interim license. I would perhaps be able to be a long-term sub for my own job in my district while I did remedial coursework and experience, which would be a blow financially and also to my self-esteem. I’ve spent many hours reflecting on my teaching this year; while I believe I am a good-enough teacher, I am not sure I want to be in a classroom if the state of Ohio does not believe I am a good-enough teacher.
 
Failure was not a familiar feeling to me when I was a student. It took years for me to be okay with it, for myself, as a teacher. It still doesn’t feel good. But it is more instructive for me to confront and overcome obstacles than it is to never face obstacles at all. It allows me to relate better to, and be a good role model for, my students. It challenges my subconscious beliefs on the nature of learning and cognitive processes. It forces me to acknowledge what I truly value in learning experiences. It causes me to increase, or better manage, my effort.
 
I just wish the stakes, in this case, were not so high. Failure can be a constructive and even essential aspect of learning. Dead-end failure that results in loss of opportunity, stagnation, or regression? Not so much.

Snow Day (Let’s Talk About Zelda)

I was really surprised to answer the phone at 6:15 this morning and hear the announcement that today would be a snow day for our district. I was surprised because we had school yesterday when just about every other school in the county had off. And today, very few other local districts have off (some have two hour delays).

I am going to try to grade some assessments (something I struggle to force myself to do, more than doing dishes even). But, I am also going to play more video games than I probably should. Specifically, I will play Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the new Nintendo Switch.

We got this game the day it came out (my spouse and I are both big fans of the franchise; in fact I proposed to him with a Zelda-patterned cross-stich with a ring sewn on). My husband had to go out of town that weekend, so I got quality time on the system first.

And

I

love it.

Firstly, the Switch. It’s much smaller than the Wii U, and you can switch it from being hooked up to the TV, to being more like a handheld console. I prefer playing on the big screen, but it’s cool to be able to have it smaller, so that my husband can catch up on Hulu shows. I even took it to a family dinner to show my twin sister (also a big Zelda fan). It’s still just as lovely to behold on the smaller screen, it’s just smaller. And even using the smaller screen, you can set it up to multiple different controller configurations so that you can do however you prefer. (I like to hold the Joy-Cons by themselves in each hand; my husband likes to use them in the Joy-Con grip.)

Next, the game itself. It really seems very compatible with my gaming style, which is reckless. I tend to rush headlong into circumstances without planning much in advance; then, if I utterly fail, I observe how I fail so that I can base future planning on that. (My twin sister, by contrast, is cautious: she made it through Ocarina of Time without ever dying.) This game does not overly punish rashness; it autosaves frequently and does not force you to save at particular points. There are many situations where, instead of killing you outright, puts you back to your last safe moment with reduced health.

There are many challenges in the game that you can choose to face in different ways. Often there are items lying around, or characteristics of the environment you can use to your advantage if you think things through. You also get some abilities early in the game that you can creatively apply in many settings.

My husband and I are benefiting from watching each other play. For example, I solved a puzzle using the stasis ability and arrows; when he came on the same one, he happened to be out of arrows. Rather than retreat to gather supplies, he managed to find another way to solve the puzzle. I remembered his method the next time I faced a puzzle, and made sure to try other angles than I normally would at first. I don’t think I’d be doing half as well if I wasn’t playing in tandem with a different person who doesn’t do the same things I do.

I also like that there’s not a strictness to the storyline. In previous Zelda games, you had to accomplish goals in a particular order. This is not the case in this game. Yes, there are certain plot points that only get triggered after certain other things occur. Yes, there are enemies you can’t actually beat until you get the right weapons, armor, or power-ups. But the game doesn’t actually stop  you from trying to do things that you’re not equipped to handle. I think an abrupt “game over” screen is how the game designers chose to teach the player that it’s okay to run away from some battles.

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As for the content of the storyline, I think I’ll save that for another post, one with spoiler tags.

 

 

A Little Wind Beneath My Wings

Almost nothing invigorates me more than when grown-ups outside our school take our kids seriously.

Our school district uses a vendor assessment system called i-Ready to track our students’ growth throughout the school year. Generally students spend about an hour on math lessons and an hour on reading lessons on i-Ready per week. We do a lot of incentives, like teachers giving raffle tickets for each lesson passed and then doing a drawing for a special lunch with the principal.

Even with incentives, many students hit a wall with i-Ready, motivationally speaking, in January and February. They just got burned out, and I can’t really blame them – it’s just how it feels. Teachers ramped up encouragement and incentives, but even they were getting frustrated with repeated issues running i-Ready in Google Chrome browsers.

So when students logged in this morning, they were thrilled to see new games had been added. It was a very different atmosphere in the computer lab! One student in particular named Zakhary was so excited, he said “thank you” to every adult in the room. I said to him, “Actually, we didn’t turn those games on. The people at the i-Ready company did. Want to say thank you to them?”

Of course he did! He was so excited!

He dictated the message and I wrote it down. He held his message and I took a picture. Then, I tweeted it.

Now, even just this much was invigorating for Zakhary. But then, at the very very end of our school day (we were lined up for dismissal), I got a Twitter notification.

Luckily, Zakhary’s homeroom is just across the hall, so right before buses were called I went to their doorway, laptop in hand. His entire class gathered around to see the photo and listen closely as I read out the message. (Having a class quietly listening at dismissal is nothing short of a small miracle, by the way.)

So now not only is Zakhary excited about new i-Ready games, his whole class is excited for him that he was acknowledged by professional adults who created the games. And as a teacher, I’m exhilarated that someone outside our community took my student seriously. I too have a renewed investment in this product.

It’s a little like the zoo project we did last year – it makes a huge difference to student engagement when others are also engaged with them as partners in their learning.

The One Right Way to Do Things

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I was grading some papers, and a student wrote about how computers “get infermation quiqlly.” I can’t get past the spelling. Sure, it wasn’t right, but it communicated the point.

I ate lunch with first graders today. The lunch lady, for dessert, gave them frozen peach cups that were tricky to open – the condensation made the plastic seal slippery. Kids stabbed through the top with the end of their spoon; kids yanked the corner up with their teeth; kids flipped it upside down and pressed from the bottom, shoving the slushy mass through the top like a push pop.

In the computer lab, I watched as students went through many of the same routines, with variations. To do a typing activity, some students discussed with one another what they wanted to write. One started at the “last” question and worked his way up. Another bypassed the keyboard by turning on Voice Typing in the Google Doc. Some logged out of the computers by clicking on the start menu and scrolling down until they found the log out command. Others used keyboard shortcuts.

I emailed the other technology resource teachers in the district to ask how they handle a certain challenge (where tech skills meet classroom management). They had several strategies, some building-wide, some on case by case basis, and some methods that fell between those extremes. There was no one-size-fits-all solution.

What I’m trying to say is, I get really frustrated when adults act like there’s only one right or best way to do things. Yeah, some ways will be faster, some more efficient, some more comfortable, some less expensive. But that doesn’t mean other ways are inherently wrong or bad. And yeah, there is probably one best way to do certain things, but I like to let kids try those out and realize why other ways don’t work as well. They shouldn’t have to take my word for it.

“Boring but Important,” Plus Additional Thoughts on Engagement

Today a blog post from The Confident Teacher entitled “Boring but Important” popped up in my Twitter feed. In this post, Alex Quigley reflects on teaching when the subject is indeed important, but perhaps not as fun or engaging as other topics.

I am not advocating intentionally being more boring that we otherwise may be, but we should be wary of the notion that engagement should be the daily pursuit of teachers. We should think a little differently. Instead of trying to eliminate boredom – pretty much an impossibility in the real world – we should consider how we help our students manage it…

His point is that information is not proportionately interesting based on its importance. (Hence the popularity of trivia as a hobby – it is literally the stuff that is interesting and yet not important, unless it’s a question at the pub quiz.)

I am inclined to agree, from both a teacher perspective and from a student one. So the point of the post is that we should equip students to handle boredom, which I feel is a very good idea. I frequently need such strategies, even as an adult.

I would also add that, when you are fully engaged with material, it can be exhausting. So I’m not sure it’s a reasonable expectation, especially at the elementary level, for all students to be fully engaged in class content at a given time. I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation to have of children; they need breaks. That’s the case for whether they’re naturally engaged, or not. If they’re really engaged, they may not ask for a bathroom break they need; they might be thinking about one topic when they need to re-focus on another; they may not make the best choices on how to manage their time when it involves something they’re hyper-focused on. So, in addition to teaching strategies to deal with boredom, it might be good to nurture methods for moderation as well.

Why Elementary Teachers Need to Be Intersectional Feminists

I am not the best at this kind of thing, that I will state off the bat. I am trying to be better. Please do not be afraid to confront me.

Feminism is simply the idea that people of different sexes are equal. Intersectionality is an overlapping, or intersecting, of social identities, creating a whole person (or community) different from its components. Someone’s experience is shaped by many things, such as:

  • race
  • gender
  • social class
  • nationality
  • sexual orientation
  • religion
  • age
  • mental disability
  • physical disability
  • mental illness
  • physical illness
  • incarceration
  • immigrant status

And probably more that I am not aware of yet.

So, my experience as a white woman has definitely shaped me. There have been times in my life where my gender has made me feel like a target, where I felt vulnerable or even scared. But, there have been other times when I have consciously used my white femininity as a shield in ways that I don’t think a black, Latina, or Asian female could have. So on one hand, I am part of a historically oppressed group, but on the other, I am also a member of a historically privileged group. This is completely by accident of birth, and not something I can change about myself; the least I can do is acknowledge it.


Having privilege has allowed me to “not see” some of the things that other people go through. It’s not that I’m completely blind, it’s just that I take for granted how different others experiences are. For example, I am a white person who was raised in a large Christian family. People demonstrated curiosity or confusion towards us sometimes, but I wouldn’t characterize that as negative. It didn’t occur to me until high school or college that my family would probably be perceived and treated very differently if you changed just one variable about us. What if we’d been a large black family? Or a large Muslim family? I can only imagine some of the things people might say, only because I have heard some of the things people say about black people and Muslims. What I can’t imagine is how it must feel to live through that every single day of my life.

My career — specifically, where I work now — has challenged me to be more observant of others’ lived experiences, especially in regards to children.

Children occupy a strange place in our society and culture. They are disenfranchised: they have no right to vote, and minimal other rights compared to adults. They are often ignored, forgotten, even dehumanized by many of the moving parts in our various systems. When they come up in discussions, we always want to do what’s best for them, but seldom consult them ourselves. There are reasons for that, sure, but I think it’s wrong for us to talk about them and over them with little talking with them (with genuine, actual listening).

My students are living a different experience than I am, day in and day out. Part of that is generational context; just thinking about the differences in technology makes my head spin. But it comes from other areas, as well. I have students who speak a different language at home than they do at school. I have students who live with a disability, or have family members with disabilities. I have students who are different races and nationalities. The teachers in my district used to be among some of the lowest paid teachers in the county, and yet our salaries as teachers were above the median income for families in our city. I have students who are affected by the incarceration of a parent, which is sometimes an extended or repeated experience. Some of my students challenge ideas about gender. I have had former students come out outside of the classroom, identifying as LGBTQ.

I am no good to my students if I cannot see past myself and empathize with their lives, however different from mine they might be. Children do not choose the circumstances of their birth, the color of their skin, the language they first learn, how much money their parents make, and on and on and on. There is so much out of their control. It is unfair for me to force them to pivot to me. And I have to accept that, while I am an authority in the context of my classroom, I am not the authority. There are things I do not know and will get wrong, and it is my responsibility to educate myself and do better. I have the maturity and the experience and the duty and obligation to pivot myself to students.

In the bridge of the song “Cold War,” Janelle Monáe sings, “Bring wings to the weak and bring grace to the strong.” As a teacher, I am a strong person in the educational setting; I have authority, and I have responsibility. I need the grace to supporrt my students through their challenges, wherever those challenges come from. I also need grace to accept and act on the criticism I need to be a better person. More importantly, I need to bring wings to my students, children. I need to empower them by sharing knowledge, developing their skills, and building them up. Once they have their wings, they will be able to fly on their own.

On Blogging as a Teacher

I have had some sort of blog, off and on, since high school, when I had a Xanga but coveted getting a code to start a Livejournal. I spent a lot of time navel gazing, deep in the grip of  adolescent crises. Writing about my problems helped me work through them; writing publicly about my problems sometimes created more of them.

I write now, mostly related to my job, because I find it does help me reflect on my practice. I understand that I will not always have the most polished, pretty products to present to my audience; that’s actually very important to me. Part of my audience is me from the future. I want to be able to, when facing new challenges, revisit old posts to help me illuminate my possible paths.

Back when I was student teaching, my budding professional life sometimes found its way into entries. At least once, I had to edit or take down some information because it came too close to violating my students’ rights to privacy. Besides, the audience of my personal life blog? A few friends, none of whom were also studying education. Any feedback they might have provided would have been emotionally supportive but otherwise lacking insight.

My first year teaching in my current position, I was paired with an experienced teacher who mentored me. Our content areas were not quite the same, more like an overlapping Venn diagram; our schedules coincided even less so. But, we use Google Drive at school; it became very easy to keep a Google Doc journal and share it with my mentor. This was several years ago, so I would write in one font; he would leave feedback in a different color and font. I didn’t need a wide audience; in fact I’m relieved I didn’t have one. Much of what I wrote was, well, self-indulgent or downright gossipy. But, it was a phase I needed to work through, a phase where I was resisting genuine reflection and genuinely needed to be coached through it. As Descartes wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy:

I am like a prisoner who is enjoying an imaginary freedom while asleep; as he begins to suspect that he is asleep, he dreads being woken up, and goes along with the pleasant illusion as long as he can. In the same way, I happily slide back into my old opinions and dread being shaken out of them, for fear that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to toil not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems I have now raised.

Reflecting is difficult, multi-step work, and I was always that kid who loved finding and taking shortcuts because I thought that meant I was clever. And the learning process for it was not a good look, just like being woken up when you want to sleep in is not a good look. I needed some time to make myself somewhat presentable before I shared more of myself with the world, imperfect as I (still) am.

Now I use my blog for longer form reflection, and the principal audience is still mainly me. When I crave participation and feedback, it’s much more instantly gratifying to hop into a Twitter chat. But I am a little older now, and I’d hope a little wiser — and much more comfortable in my skin, blemishes and all.

On Reading the Directions

I have started frequently using videos to deliver directions to students. On Google Classroom, it is easy to write a couple of sentences, then attach a video as well as whatever assignment I’m asking students to do.

Before I started blending my classroom, I would stand by the SmartBoard and demonstrate to students step-by-step what I wanted them to do before sending them to their seats. Or, I would stand by the SmartBoard and try to make the kids go step-by-step with me as they followed along from their seats. Both delivery methods left a lot to be desired — kids would forget steps if you told them too many to start with; or computers wouldn’t cooperate and the entire class would get held up because someone needed help troubleshooting. Eventually, I switched to emailing directions (with links) to students, but that wasn’t a perfect system either. Kids would get lost or distracted in their email; directions would get lose effectiveness as they got longer and longer.

Now, with Google Classroom, I am able to give students everything I want them to do… and it’s up to them to use it. They can read the directions, watch the whole video, then start on the assignment if they want to. They can read some of the directions, watch part of the video, then check out the assignment — then go back to the directions or video if they need clarification. They can also dive straight into the assignment, because sometimes you need to become aware of what you don’t already know before you can learn a new thing.

Kids will seek out the information they want. This is not a new concept. Think of Minecraft: it’s a game many play and many more will try, and it comes with no instruction booklet. You learn by doing; or you learn by asking someone else what to do; or you looked it up online; or you saw someone else do it; or you got a book at the book fair. I think the designer may have done this on purpose. It’s not an intimidating game, visually; you certainly feel comfortable exploring before really knowing what you’re doing. But there are so many little things you can’t know unless you look them up, like how to craft a door for your hut, or how best to defend yourself against monsters, or all the steps it takes to grow crops and make food. And this isn’t new to Minecraft. I still dive into video games without more than a glance at any instructions, and that glance has more to do with awesome artwork than learning mechanics.

Kids will seek out the information they want, so I just have to make them want it.

The Value of Stories You Don’t Like

A local police officer, who makes a habit of visiting our school, does not like the Percy Jackson movies. When he goes to the movies, you see, he is seeking escapism. And he can’t enjoy being absorbed in a world where children get hurt.

That’s perfectly valid, I think. He doesn’t have to like the Percy Jackson franchise. But my youngest brother does, and many of my students do. Just because one adult doesn’t like the series, doesn’t mean other people can’t enjoy it. And, even if you don’t like or enjoy something, you can still acknowledge some value in it.

Specifically, with Percy Jackson, I empathize with an adult who doesn’t like to see kids get hurt on the big screen. But refusing to enjoy kids getting hurt through violence doesn’t erase the truth that many children do suffer violence, directly or indirectly. And many children who don’t experience it directly still know someone in their life who does. Fiction may help us be more empathic people, so reading the experiences of a fictional character may better equip a child for dealing with similar circumstances in their lives or the lives of people they know.

Not only that, fiction can force us to confront the uncomfortable realities that other people live in. Books like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck were not books I would have chosen to read as an adolescent, and I failed to realize their full value as I read them. But they helped contextualize a lot of complicated lessons of history, economics, geography, and more. Those stories allowed me to talk about others in college courses. (I felt a lot more sympathy for Achebe’s Okonkwo after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther.) And while I still wouldn’t say I enjoyed these books, I can say I like them because they helped pry open the close-mindedness I had that I wasn’t even aware I had.

Third Graders on Backchannels

A backchannel is a secondary route for the passage of information. Back in my day, backchannels involved elaborately folded pieces of notebook paper covered in gel pen missives. These days you can allow students to use technological backchannels to communicate to one another while the teacher instructs the room at large, or focuses on specific students.

Some of my current third graders figured out how to use the chat function in a shared Google document last year, in second grade. I’m still impressed with them for how they used it well, for the most part. Though some students occasionally spam the chat with keyboard mashing or off-topic chatter, most use it like this:

backchannel

I thought it was really apt that they were using a the rubric for this kind of backchannel today. It saves students time because they don’t have to wait for the teacher’s attention, and I can focus on students who face bigger challenges than spelling and grammar. It’s also very engaging to them (especially since I encourage them to use emoji in moderation).

This type of backchannel is good for me to use, because as the creator and sharer of the document in Google Classroom, I can have it open on my own computer. Even if kids try to hide something, as long as I don’t close the tab, I can scroll up and find it. The worst message I’ve seen posted in the chat has been keyboard mashing, since they know I can see and share their messages via screenshots. They’re also aware that I might pop in “undercover” using a classmate’s account, because maybe I was looking over someone’s shoulder when I saw a big question (or poor choice of message) appear.

I can get and give pretty immediate feedback from students this way, too, and they can give feedback to each other. When I have a whole class on it, the chat frequently moves too fast to reasonably keep up with, but I could see it as a great tool for small groups collaborating on a project together.

 

I might see what they can do on Padlet next.