Mindful in Every Moment of 2019

poster_6cfb31e1-19a8-49cb-af66-a0cb7d5e7879My “One Word” for 2019, mindful, revealed itself to me during a conference as I drew conclusions about current issues in education. Discussions about student anxiety and trauma, teacher burnout, character development, and the importance of developing relationships all connected to pausing and paying attention to ourselves and others in present moments. Mindfulness is a practice that began in my personal life and has spread into my professional life, and now it happens to be the latest buzz in education as a tool for students and staff navigating through stress and anxiety. As a result of realizing how practicing mindfulness has helped me and can impact others, my goal for the upcoming year is to continue being mindful during every moment of every day and educating others about mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that emerges through paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” I began practicing mindfulness as a young mother trying to balance caring for my family while furthering my career. There was a point in my late twenties when I was feeling especially overwhelmed with having two young children and putting in long days as a teacher. One day I watched an Oprah show about finding the spirituality in simple tasks, like folding laundry and doing dishes. The idea of focusing on the task at hand and my particular role in completing the activity helped me reframe simple moments in my life. When I was cooking a meal, for instance, I paid attention to the therapeutic art of chopping vegetables and took the time to enjoy the aroma of the herbs and spices used in the recipe. I also focused on how the food would nourish and be enjoyed by my family. This strategy became a key habit in helping me appreciate and revel in simple moments.

Many years later, I began applying an intentional use of mindfulness as a principal. A pivotal moment happened when I was subpoenaed to testify in court the next day for a contentious child custody battle. Coincidentally, I had a Board of Education presentation to deliver that evening before I needed to review a three-inch thick file of information relevant to the court case. I was already feeling anxiety preparing for my first Board presentation as a principal. However, anticipating recalling facts on a witness stand in a room full of strangers really had me panicking. I remembered what I had read and learned about mindfulness in several journal articles and the importance of being present in the current moment and not worrying about the past or future. During the Board meeting that evening, I channeled all of my focus on the people at the meeting, the information I was sharing, and the students and staff who helped me deliver the presentation. The next day, I focused my efforts on remembering facts about the defendant and thinking about the well-being of the children involved while I was questioned on the stand for an hour and a half. Both events resulted in positive outcomes, and I emerged with my sanity intact.

Now, mindfulness has become routine for me as a school leader. Through paying attention to my feelings and emotions, I am aware of how my mood as the principal sets the climate in my school. Mindfulness also helps me think with better clarity and make more logical decisions. By paying attention in the moment, I have the ability to slow down and notice multiple perspectives and contextual factors that influence happenings. Then, I can better assess the fullness of a situation, considering the viewpoints of other people, and think clearly and act according to my values. This purposeful attention helps me create better solutions and respond more fairly and effectively to difficult and complicated dilemmas that arise daily in my job. Mindfulness also allows me to examine my own thought processes in an impartial way so I can self-assess my emotions and responses to ensure they are honest, fair, and free of my own biases or conflicts of interest. As a result, I am more aware of the ethical considerations within my decisions and this self awareness enhances my moral judgments. Overall, mindfulness help me to be authentic to myself and those I serve, and equips me with the balance and energy to lead with energy, innovation, compassion, and courage.

In addition to improving my leadership skills, mindfulness helps me to absorb the joy in every moment. While I am talking to students, I take notice and appreciate their innocence and curiosity. In classrooms, I marvel at the learning experiences teachers are masterfully crafting for our students. My heart sings when I see the genuine bonds between staff members and individual students, especially those students who are often difficult to love. It is pure pleasure when I notice staff finding joy in their respectful roles, seeing the smiles of students as they walk down the hall, and hearing hearty laughter emerge from the staff lounge. Taking in all of these powerful moments helps me store a plethora of positive energy so I can deal with the challenges that come my way. Being mindful helps keep me balanced and at peace.

Here’s to 2019 and savoring every moment of the upcoming year!

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Cultivating Curiosity

Something is stifling curiosity in both our schools and our workplaces. This fact is especially concerning because the innovation necessary for solving today’s complex problems is dependent upon the power of creativity and exploration of possibilities by curious people.

At about age four or five, children are avid questioners. I notice this in our entering Kindergarteners. They are mini scientists conducting experiments, such as mashing things together and keenly observing the movement of insects on the playground. They are young anthropologists questioning the adults around them to learn about culture. When children enter school and are faced with increasing academic rigor, however, their propensity for questioning begins to decline quickly and steadily. Four-year-olds ask hundreds of questions a day. By the time they are in middle school, the tally plummets to near zero. Some would argue that learning how to read and write and google equips a student with the ability to find the answers to questions independently, but researchers are finding that engagement in school drops at the same rate over time as the habit of questioning. This phenomenon suggests that questioning and engagement are linked.

download (11)The best book I read this summer was “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” The author, Warren Berger, ponders whether kids stop asking questions because they lose interest in school or if kids lose interest in school because their natural tendency to question and be curious is discouraged. His ideas make me wonder... Are we “schooling” students to focus on memorizing answers rather than developing questions that will give rise to layers of answers, solutions, perspectives, and ways of thinking? Are we still locked in the Industrial Age in which a factory model of education was implemented to produce workers rather than the innovative thinkers we need today? How can we change our classrooms environments so that they stimulate curiosity and inspire inquiry? How can we teach students to not only question, but to improve and prioritize their questions?

Schools have been buidownload (12)lt around the purpose of training students to be better lifelong learners and adapters to change by enabling them to be better questioners. Deborah Meier, a leading education scholar and practitioner of progressive reform within the U.S. public school system, posed this question: What might the potential for humans be if we really encouraged the spirit of questioning in children, instead of closing it down? This guiding question resulted in Meier opening her first school in East Harlem in the early 70s, and she developed the teaching and learning focus around five learning skills or “habits of mind” that fostered inquiry. Other schools have also developed curricula based around questions. Montessori schools, for example, emphasize empowering students to explore, direct their own learning, and work on integrated projects.download (13)

Sugatra Mitra, an education scientists, asks the question, “Is knowledge obsolete?” Current school models continue to stress the ability to do math in your head and the recall of a wide mass of information. In a world where everyone has continuous access to the Internet, this educational paradigm will ultimately become obsolete. Mitra presents a vision of self-directed collaborative teams of children driving their own learning, with the teacher providing coaching and encouragement rather than imposing a prescribed path of learning .

As handwriting and fact memorization become less valuable for future success, a Hanover Research report, A Crosswalk of 21st Century Skills, sheds light on the skills necessary for participating in a global economy. Thirteen essential skills are listed below.

  • Collaboration and Teamwork
  • Creativity and Imagination
  • Critical Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Global and Cultural Awareness
  • Information Literacy
  • Leadership
  • Civic Literacy and Citizenship
  • Oral and Written Communication Skills
  • Social Responsibility and Ethics
  • Technology Literacy
  • Initiative

At first glance, it might seem that developing these skills along with basic subject knowledge is a daunting task. However, through engaging students in inquiry-based learning, students will develop both content knowledge and 21st Century skills simultaneously. Many teachers use a simple inquiry cycle that involves students developing questions, researching projects, presenting what they have learned, and critically reflecting on the inquiry process.

The power of letting students choose questions to drive learning was especially apparent to me while I was reveling in Kindergarten Genius Hour presentations in Darcee Schneider’s classroom. Tiny humans confidently and proudly shared weeks of research on chosen topics. I marveled at each student’s passion, technology skills, and high-quality displays of new knowledge. Initially, it seemed like these were enrichment projects in which students developed a variety of 21st Century skills. Then, a boy shared a presentation on magnetism. In five minutes, he presented fourth grade level science curriculum content to his classmates and visiting parents that had taken me multiple days to develop when I taught fourth grade. If every student in my school had the chance to develop questions and explore personal areas of interests multiple times throughout the school year and share their knowledge with their classmates, would the general knowledge and essential skills of all students improve? Would curiosity remain constant from Kindergarten through fifth grade? Would our students learn how to develop better questions? 

As I think about ways to develop a growth mindset in our school community, I wonder, “How can we develop skills in asking engaging, provocative questions that allow students to work out the answers.” This question leads to other questions and some possible solutions.

How can we create a climate that is ideal for creative and courageous ideas to emerge?

Possible Solution: Begin lessons with students’ questions that spark interest and curiosity. Invite students to pose tough questions, as long as they arise from the desire to gain knowledge (curiosity) as opposed to the need to exert control or dominance (power), or the need to impress others with their ability to outsmart classmates (social status). Rather than invalidating poor questions, teachers might consider responding with a “yes, and” approach, by attempting to find some bit of wisdom that you can build on as opposed to tearing down the students’ wondering.

How can we establish a school culture in which the reasonable risk of failure is understood to be the transactional cost of curiosity and that absorbing the occasional setback is worth the offsetting breakthroughs that result?

Possible Solution: Allow students opportunities to experiment and learn from results to foster innovation. We must positively acknowledge students for being curious and courageous, irrespective of whether they succeed. What matters most is that their actions had a legitimate shot at creating great opportunities. 

How can we provide enough flexibility to allow for creative ways to learn the curriculum?

Possible Solution: Look at the end result and encourage curiosity about how best to attain it. If teachers want good work, they should give students rules and maps. If teachers want great work, they should give students an idea of the learning targets along with a few constraints, and then let students uncover the strategies that work best. Trust and give autonomy to students. They will learn more and at higher levels through pursuing passions and interests to attain their learning goals. 

How can we convey the message that our school values interesting questions as much or possibly even more than knowing the answers?

Possible Solution: Be a champion of curiosity and model the willingness to ask questions and admit that you are both wise and ignorant.  Pursue and collect knowledge and wisdom at least as often as you share it with students. Model the development, revision, and prioritization of questions. 

How do we develop learning teams in order to foster curiosity and benefit from the power of collaboration to pose and answer questions?

Possible Solution: Admit that success hinges on collaborating with talented, bright, and diverse people. Leverage each other’s varying interests, skills, strengths, and past experiences to engage in inquiry and develop creative solutions to problems.

To develop a culture of growth mindset, we need to encourage questioning, tolerance, and experimentation that actively celebrates the exploration of the uncertain, unknown, and unfamiliar. Curiosity prompts us to challenge ourselves in new and different ways. Through taking risks to fail forward, we will all grow beyond our wildest visions.

Life Lessons from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

 

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Artwork by Heather Hatcher

It was so much fun sharing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of my all-time favorite children’s books, with our students, staff, and families in March. As with all great literature, the story is more than a poor boy finding a Golden Ticket in a Wonka chocolate bar that earns him a tour of Mr Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and ultimately the role of Mr. Wonka’s successor. Embedded in this fantastic tale are life lessons that apply today just as much as they did in 1964 when the book was first published.

Here are some things we can learn from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

  1. Learn to follow directions. Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teavee all disregard instructions to satisfy their own wants and suffer horrible consequences. Even Charlie and Grandpa Joe do not listen to Mr. Wonka’s directions about not drinking the Fizzy Lifting Drinks and almost end up cut to shreds by the fan spinning in the ceiling.FullSizeRender (1)
  1. If you dream it, you can make it happen. Nothing is impossible! All of the creative confections in the factory are the result of dreaming big and thinking outside of the box. As Willy Wonka says, ““I am the maker of music, the dreamer of dreams!”  
  1. The world doesn’t revolve around you. Greed is unattractive and often gets you in trouble. Greedy Augustus Gloop, like the other spoiled children, teaches us that drinking from the chocolate river just because you want to and cannot control yourself only means you have contaminated the chocolate for everyone else and you are going to end up in the toffee room being pulled and stretched. Think about how your actions affect others.
  1. Be grateful for the important and simple things in life. Although Charlie could be jealous of the spoiled children who also found Golden Tickets, we don’t see himFullSizeRender (2)comparing himself to those more fortunate. Charlie is a kind and loving boy.  Instead of yearning for materialistic things, Charlie focuses on his loving family and the simple joy of enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of the factory with Grandpa Joe.
  1. The best things in life are worth waiting for. Trust the process. Unlike the other children touring the factory, Charlie shows patience and takes time to marvel at and enjoy every invention and room in Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. He does not just focus on his own wants and whims. The expression “good things come to those who wait” certainly applies in this story.  

Please continue to read great books full of important lessons with your children at home. You might consider reading some of Roald Dahl’s other books such as Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, and The BFG to enjoy marvelous characters involved in imaginative tales that offer real-world lessons about life.

Reflections of a First-Year Principal

Today is officially the last day of my first year as a principal. Every crazy, inspiring, funny moment from the past year is permanently etched in my memory and will inspire and inform my decisions next year and beyond. The lessons I’ve learned and skills I’ve developed are many, but there are some things that stand out as the most important points to identify as I sum up this year and move forward.

Leadership develops from the ground up. My staff and students dictate what I do, and being in tune to their needs helps me lead and support them. I need to constantly check in with them to assess what is working in our school and what is not.

Developing a thick skin as a leader is essential, but you must work just as hard to keep your heart intact on the inside. Principals are bombarded with a lot of negatives: difficult students, sad home situations, disgruntled parents. The job is emotionally draining, and it is important not to get too absorbed in every hardship experienced by students, staff, and families. At the same time, it is important to maintain compassion and empathy when dealing with unfortunate situations. Balancing an openness to distress with an emotional detachment to remain strong is a constant challenge.

Setting high expectations for all fosters a growth mindset and helps ensure that everyone is working toward their his or her greatest potentials. Both children and adults will perform at the level where you expect the least capable member of the group to function. Believe that everyone can achieve greatness, and most will reach that level of performance. It isn’t enough to just articulate what you expect. A good leader needs to be ready to provide assistance and resources, as well.

Relationships are everything. All members of the school community needs to feel that they are unique, valued, and have a voice. Through developing relationships with students, staff members, and parents, a school leader cultivates trust. That trust motivates individuals to work harder and take risks using their unique talents. In turn, a positive school culture emerges when people feel that their principal supports them and cares about their well-being.

With my first year of learning as a foundation, I look forward to using this insight to make the second year even better than the first!

Life Lessons from Charlotte’s Web

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Artwork by Heather Hatcher

March is over, and the Belle River school community just finished reading Charlotte’s Web. Together, students, staff, and parents shared the seemingly simple story about an imaginative girl, farm animals, a small pig, and a barn spider. Although a multitude of children’s books of various themes and genres have been written since E.B. White published this short novel in 1952, I cannot think of any other children’s book that contains as many important life lessons in 184 pages as Charlotte’s Web. White used a deceptively mundane and ordinary setting, set of characters, and plot to explain the profundity of life in ways that people of all ages can understand.

Charlotte’s Web teaches us to…

Celebrate and Make the Most of Life

Wilbur is saved from an untimely death by Fern and likes to spend quiet time thinking about what is is like to be alive. In the background of the story is the nature world in its constant state of life, death, and replenishment from year to year and generation to generation. Charlotte ponders, “After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” Life is precious, wonderful and beautiful, especially when it is well-lived.

Realize the Importance of True Friends

Friendship is certainly the foundation of the novel. Fern’s love for Wilbur saved him, and Charlotte taught Wilbur how to make and be a friend. Charlotte’s life had purpose because she saved his life and made him happy. The meaning and satisfaction of friendship is one of the greatest joys of life.

Appreciate Diversity

There are a variety of animals in Charlotte’s Web: cows, sheep, geese, a horse, and even a rat.  Even though they share the same space in the barn, they do not 12778674_1669994383251660_6483419314232506641_ohave any interest in becoming friends with one another. The animals do not trust what is different from their own kind. Simple and kind Wilbur sees past the exterior appearances of the animals, and the friendship shared by Wilbur and Charlotte inspires the rest of the animals. Ultimately, the barn animals work together as a team to help Wilbur and Charlotte. Although everyone has different appearances, cultural backgrounds, and customs, people are similar on the inside and have talents to contribute to the greater community.

Stay Humble

“Wilbur was modest; fame did not spoil him.” He maintained his lovable, kind personality, and everyone in the story liked him even more. People respond well to humility because it shows that you place yourself at the same level as others, and not above them.

Cope with Loss, but Never Forget

After Charlotte died, Wilbur loved her children and grandchildren, but “none of the new spiders ever took her place in his heart”. Fern grew up and stopped visiting the barn, but Wilber maintained his fondness for her, too. Although life is not the same after a loss, memories remain unchanged.

Show Compassion Whenever Possible

Both Fern and Charlotte show tremendous compassion for Wilbur. Charlotte is even compassionate toward her victims, putting them to sleep before eating them so that they feel no pain. Both great and small acts of compassion should be applied to our choices and actions.

Give People a Chance

Charlotte seems fierce, brutal, and bloodthirsty to Wilbur at first. He gives her a chance and learns that she is kindhearted, clever, and compassionate. Some people may seem rough around the edges on the outside, but they usually have endearing qualities on the inside.

My hope is that our students will hold on to this story as they grow up, always keeping in their hearts the lessons of friendship, life, and loss that will help them navigate through their lives and be better people. When they are adults and have the urge to reread Charlotte’s Web, perhaps with their own children, I hope they remember with fond memories the first time they read this classic story as students at Belle River Elementary.

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Artwork by Heather Hatcher

My Word for 2016: Intention

 

imgres-7Rather than developing a New Year’s resolution, I decided to choose a vision for the year based on one word: intention. This year, I made a commitment to myself to live every day with intention. Every moment of each day is a choice, and I want to mindfully direct my actions with my goals, beliefs, and dreams serving as the compass for each decision I make. Every day, I want to intentionally choose how I spend my time, how I exert my energy, how I focus my thoughts, and the environment that I create to surround me. With my intentions driving my actions, I believe I can maximize my opportunities and have the greatest impact. The idea of living with intention will be the anchor that steadies my focus on being purposeful and mindful in all aspects of life, particularly in my role as an educational leader.

In order to fully develop my understanding of intention, I read books and blogs, listened to podcasts, and collected quotes. All of the thinkers I examined shared similar beliefs that intention is about knowing who we are, assessing the culture around us, and making choices. Being intentional is living the life you were born to live, finding your passion, setting goals, staying focused, and learning from other people. It is apparent that intention extends into all facets of life from personal to professional, which is how I intend (pun intended) to apply what I discovered about intention in the various roles of my life.

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Intention is very spiritual. It helps you discover your true character and find ways to develop yourself to your greatest potential. Setting intention is quite different than goal making. It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are being in the present moment. Your attention is on the here and now in the rapidly changing course of your life. You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.

Intention is about being creative and abundant. Most people view intention as having determination or strong will or control, but it is more about having the power to create and tap into unlimited abundance. According to Dr. Wayne Dyer, author of The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-create Your World Your Way, intention is a source of energy that lives within each of us. He feels that intent is inspiration, “when an idea gets hold of you and you feel compelled to let that impulse or energy carry you along.” Great musicians, writers, athletes, and artists tap into that source. “When you’re connected to the power of intention, everywhere you go, and everyone you meet, is affected by you and the energy you radiate. As you become the power of imgres-2.jpgintention, you’ll see your dreams being fulfilled almost magically, and you’ll see yourself creating huge ripples in the energy fields of others by your presence and nothing more.”

Intention is about getting results. According to Dr. Mindy Hall, author of Leading with Intention, “Every interaction—whether presenting to an entire organization or talking one-on-one with a colleague—is an opportunity to influence and inspire others to achieve extraordinary results”. She feels that your ability to do that depends on how aware you are of your impact and the care and discipline with which you choose your actions.

As an elementary principal, I want to be more aware of myself in each moment and truly understand how my choices and actions are impacting my students, my staff, parents, and the greater school community. Throughout the day, I need to see myself from the perspective of those I serve. Am I coming across as being grounded, prepared, transparent, approachable, and competent? Am I contributing and making a difference through my deliberate choices? Are my beliefs and values about children, teaching, and learning reflected and executed through my actions? Am I consistent in my efforts? 

Four days into 2016, and I have awakened each day and asked myself, “How am I going to make this day great and engage in every moment?” Each day, the answer to that question has been grounded in intention.

Happy New Year!

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Parent-Teacher Conferences Truly Matter

Parent-teacher conferences are scheduled at Belle River Elementary next week. This is an opportunity for the essential stakeholders to meet for a frank discussion about the successes and challenges facing each learner at our school. With the implementation of online progress reporting and digital communication of classroom and school news, this face-to-face meeting is especially important for members of a child’s learning team to address specific issues and develop a relationship that cannot be cultivated through electronic means. Rather than just informing parents through a one-way stream of information, a conference is a two-way conversation that fosters a partnership between home and school. Parent-teacher conferences serve the following purposes:

Parents need to see firsthand what is happening at school.

Often there are misconceptions based on public perception or lack of knowledge of current practices in education. A parent-teacher conference allows the teacher to share work samples and information that reflect day-to-day student work. It is a good time to share instructional practices, curriculum information, assessments, and data that are used to inform instructional strategies and interventions. Conferences provide parents an opportunity to see into their child’s world at school.

Parents want ideas to help support teaching and learning.

Teachers have spent years developing skills and techniques to help children learn, and parents really want to tap into that expertise and take away some ideas to help their children think and learn. Teaching parents the terms related to instructional programs, sharing book titles and educational apps, modeling questions to foster high-level thinking, and providing strategies to help children study are some ways teachers can teach parents learn how to help their children improve as students.

Parents need to understand and provide insight into the uniqueness of their student.

In order to better personalize the learning experience for our students, parents are key in developing the learning plan. Both teachers and parents can share the students’ strengths, interests, and opportunities for growth from their perspectives. They can also offer suggestions. Teachers can direct parents toward resources, and parents can inform teachers about students’ personalities and preferences that might inform learning activities. Through combining the school and home points-of-view, instruction can be individualized to better meet the student’s needs. 

As much as digital communication has taken over schools, communicating in person will always be the most effective. The teachers at Belle River are ready to answer questions, share observations, provide suggestions, and learn from parents in order to ensure the success of each of their students. We hope to see all of our parents next week at conferences!

Following are some questions for parents to ask at parent-teacher conferences:

  • Is my child performing at grade level?
  • What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses in each subject?
  • How much time should my child spend on homework?
  • Are my child’s assignments completed accurately?
  • Does the school have special programs to meet my child’s needs?
  • What are my child’s special learning needs?
  • Does my child have close friends?
  • How well does my child get along with the other students?
  • What can we do at home to support classroom learning?
  • What is the best way to keep in touch with you?

We look forward to seeing all of our parents at conferences next week!

Be the Principal of Change

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Tomorrow is my first official day as a principal, and Gahndi’s words keep reverberating in my head. This is my chance to lead and innovate and positively influence all who enter my school. Because I feel I was called to administration as I was with teaching, I cannot help but reflect back on my first day as a teacher. As a new teacher, I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of learners and build capacity in them to reach their greatest potentials. I wanted to seek out and design effective and engaging teaching methods. I wanted to be the kind of teacher that I would want for myself and my children. I wanted to “be the change” rather than just talk about change.

So, what does it mean to “be the change” as a principal? It means to let every action reflect my beliefs and ideals. It means to be accountable and responsible, not making excuses. It means to lead with commitment and heart. It means to put ideas into action. It means to do and be rather than just talk.

In the spirit of Gahndi, I hope that my leadership changes others for the better. As I begin my term as a principal, my goal is that others will see the following actions reflected in my words, actions, and principles.

  • Be supportive
  • Be accessible
  • Be visible
  • Be fair
  • Be collaborative
  • Be kind, caring, and respectful
  • Be an example
  • Be with students
  • Be a good communicator

Literature Circles

One of my favorite instructional practices in reading that I’ve used for two decades is literature circles, based on the work of Harvey Daniels.  A literature circle is a group of students who read the same book and meet together in a book-club format to discuss the book and work together to better understand their reading. 

When I first introduce literatures circles in the beginning of the school year, I teach the students various “roles” to use as lenses through which to engage with the text. The roles are Discussion Director, Vocabulary Enricher, Connector, Summarizer, Literary Luminary, Researcher, and Illustrator. Students are assigned a different role each time their literature circle completes a reading, and then the groups meet the following day with each person contributing to the discussion from the perspective of his or her role. 

Assigning different roles works for one or two books with students becoming experts at discussing and analyzing text. I find, however, that the novelty of literature circles wears off and students settle into sharing their roles in a “round robin” format that lacks excitement and substantive conversation. When that phenomenon occurs, I introduce the Advanced Literature Circles form that I created that include all of the roles. This format helps students examine a book through all of the desired aspects, better understanding how a reader asks questions, develops vocabulary, makes connections, summarizes, appreciates the author’s craft, and visualizes during the course of a particular reading session. After completing the Advanced Literature Circles form and gathering for the next day’s discussion, students begin to share what their notes in a more natural way as the conversation calls for particular contributions. 

Eventually, students become so adept at using this note-taking process to synthesize during reading that they do not need to use their notes to discuss. After months of developing the skills associated with all of the literature circle roles, the students are experts and become so caught up in discussions characterized by high-level thinking and substantive conversation that they do not need prompts. Wanting to capture this type of dialogue in which students abandon their literature circle scripts and move beyond merely recounting the facts of a book, I recorded an impromptu video of a group of girls reading Esperanza Rising. Watch as they analyze and debate their ideas and predictions about the story with a natural passion and love for literature. 

Earth Day Makerspace

Since our exploration of the makerspace concept has been a huge success and the students were asking for more tinkering activities, Earth Day seemed like a great opportunity to link makerspace activities to conservation. Makerspaces in schools are stocked with various supplies and materials for students to use to invent. With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to invite students to bring in recyclables and items destined for the garbage to use to create. Students would learn how to reuse materials to produce novel things, combining conservation with innovation.

I shared our plan with Laura McDonell, a middle school teacher whose class has been collaborating with my class on Genius Hour projects and makerspace activities. She sent me a list of makerspace ideas generated by her students to use for our Earth Day projects, and we were ready to celebrate Earth Day in a fun, creative way.

On Earth Day, I printed the makerspace ideas on slips of paper and readied a table for the students’ “trash”. After the children arrived, I partnered them and told the pairs to choose an item to create. Then, they could pick six materials from the garbage/recyclable table to use in some way in their inventions. In addition to the selected materials, the students could use any other available material or resource in their construction. They discussed their ideas, planned designs, created prototypes, redesigned and improved their ideas, and tested their inventions. The final projects were clever and forward-thinking in design, and throughout the entire process students were excited and engaged. The students are excited to share their creations in the video posted below! Happy Earth Day, every day!