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What does love mean in the context of a school?

2015 June 18
by Jabiz

We had our Moving On Assembly for the grade 8 classes today. I had a very special group this year. I will miss this class something fierce.

Here is the speech I gave. (We all raised plants this year, hence the reference to plants.)There are many variables to consider when helping a seed to grow into a fruitful, viable, living plant.The obvious things are water and sun. But you have to be sure that the soil has nutrients. It can’t be too wet or too dry. You have to place the pot in a place where it gets optimal sun but not too much.Sometimes the pot needs to be rotated. Sometimes the plant must be pruned. Sometimes you just leave it alone for a few days and trust that it will be fine. Other times it needs constant attention.

Raising a collection of different plants in one setting adds even more complexity. Some plants need water everyday, while others prefer drought. Some plants will vine and weave and grab onto anything they can attach to, while others prefer to grow alone in their pot. Some plants will wither with the slightest neglect, and will spring back to life with a little attention, while others will ignore everything you do.

There are many variables to consider when helping a teenager grow into a kind, independent, expressive human being.

The obvious things are food and electronic devices. But you have to be sure that their classrooms are nurturing. They can’t be too hands off or too smothering . You have to place the kids in a place where they get optimal mentoring but not too much.

Sometimes the student needs to be reminded about manners. Sometimes the kid must be reprimanded. Sometimes you just leave them alone for a few days and trust that they will be fine, other times they need more constant attention.

Raising a collection of different kids in one classroom adds even more complexity.

Some students need attention everyday, while others prefer to be left alone. Some kids will make friends and be social and grab onto anyone they can get attached to, while others prefer to grow alone in their skin. Some students will clam up with the slightest neglect, but will spring back to life with a little attention, while others will ignore everything you do.

But one thing I have noticed is that both plants and students need love grow. Love is word we don’t use enough in schools. We love our families and we love music and we love food and we love boys and we love girls and of course we love books, but for some reason it feels a bit strange to say you love your teacher, or for me to say I love my students. Maybe it is because the word love is such a tiny word for such an immense emotion. But I am here to take it back.

What does love mean in the context of a school? I think it means kindness, honesty, respect, taking risks and allowing for vulnerability in order to feel safe. I think love in the classroom means that everyone feels like they belong. Everyone feels heard and attended to. Everyone can be themselves without having to change for others. In short, people enjoy each others’ company and feel happy to be with others. When you love your peers, your teacher or your students you want to see them everyday and their energy and your energy are no longer separated.

I want to share a quick story to help you visualise what this love looks like. Last Friday night, I was with 8JRa and all their parents at our year end class party. We had eaten and the music was loud. Before I knew it, I looked up and saw us all dancing and smiling. Yes, there was a conga line around the room. Kids, parents, teacher.

In my 15 years of teaching, I have never seen anything like what I saw last week at our class party. I have taught my share of kids. I have raised my share of plants. But sometimes, the stars are aligned and a classroom and the teacher and the kids, and let’s not forget about their parents, create a situation so we all love each other. These bonds. These classrooms are special. Don’t take them for granted. They don’t happen very often.

In closing, I want to say goodbye to 8JRA for this year. I hope you will come and visit and stay in touch in the future. I hope you cherish what we built 8JRA. It didn’t happen by accident. Kids, Parents, Teacher- we all did our part. We had a good run. I hope you will look back on this year and think about the things we learned together and that you smile fondly. This class will always have a special place in my heart.

Thank you. I love you.

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Leave With A Suggestion

2015 February 9

My growth as a reader and as a reading teacher continue to evolve. Readers of this blog might remember the first time I opened my eyes to YA literature and drastically changed my reading habits to better serve the needs of the kids in my classroom. Then a few months later, I expanded my thinking and reflected on what our Independent Reading program was looking like at the end of the year– last year! Here we are in February and I feel an update is necessary.

A few quick things: We have, since the beginning of the year, established classroom libraries, adopted the TCRWP units of study and have hired a literacy coach, Ann-Marie Chow (a superstar) to help us learn how to teach our best in “the workshop” model. Kids are reading and writing at their best and I feel more comfortable with this approach with every passing week.

So like any proper edu-literacy-book-nerd, I was a bit star-struck to meet Penny Kittle this past Saturday for a great workshop at our school.  As if meeting her and attending her session wasn’t enough, I was able, with my colleagues, to watch her teach a class, confer with kids and debrief her work for well over an hour afterwards. Needless to say, it was time well spent. If we think about teaching as a craft, and I do, then there is no better way to improve your craft than to watch a master crafts(wo)man do her thing. I took several pages of notes from her Saturday workshop as well as from her teaching today, and this post is a synthesis and reflection on what she said and did. I am not sure I will say anything that you will not find on her website or in her book, but I know my friend Ari will be curious for my notes, and who knows, you may be too.

Before I begin, however, let me say how refreshing it was to work with such a humble, passionate and sincere teacher. So many times when teachers achieve notoriety or success, they don their consultancy hat and forget that real teaching happens in real classrooms with real kids. Sure it is nice to have empirical data with which to draw upon, but I will take an in-the-classroom-teacher who refers to her kids and her own work, over a consultant years removed from a classroom any day. Penny was calm, understanding and real. And it was her gentle and supportive persona, which she displayed both with teachers and students that impressed me most. Okay, hopefully that is enough to get her blushing. Let’s get to the notes!

In order to get these notes published and shared with some level of immediacy, I will not wrap them in too much prose. I apologize for the bulletted format of ideas and the litany of grammatical gaffs and typos which I am certain litter this post. I will try and add some insight and annotations as I work through my notes and ideas, but I cannot make any promises at this time.

READING

  1. Some Essentials:
    1. Be positive
    2. Build classroom Libraries
    3. Read everyday! Everyone- teachers and kids
    4. Confer with kids as often as possible
    5. Give choice. Choice. Choice.
      1. Don’t hand! Let them grab. Offer them three possibilities and let them choose books.
    6. Set goals.
  2. Build a school culture of reading
  3. Reading is the foundation for any writing program.
  4. Increasing stamina builds engagement (kids inhaling books), building complexity builds confidence= Independence.
  5. We Think in Narratives
  6. Persistence + Self-control + Curiosity+ Conscientiousness + Grit= Self-Confidence
  7. Try 6 word book summaries or Twitter reviews to get to the heart of thinking.

For me there wasn’t much new to what she shared, but it was reaffirming. Her workshop made me feel confident that the work we have been doing as a group and the enthusiasm I have developed personally are exactly the direction we should be heading. The time and money we have spent, along with the systems we have built to support our classroom libraries are worthwhile.

As a department we spoke a little about what is next in terms of building a school-wide culture. What would a humanities class library look like? Where are our books about science and math? What work are those teachers doing towards literacy in their fields?

WRITING

Read. Write. Revise. Everyday.

That means everyone! My biggest take away from her writing session was that there needs to be room in a writing workshop for free, fun, undirected writing. Kids notebooks should look like Bubble Catchers not just skills based writing workbooks. There is room for practicing the skills explicitly taught through mini-lessons, but there should also be room for exploring ideas that may never be shared or published.

Penny shared several prompts and talked about the power of a short mentor text annotation and mimicking. She used this example by Devon Gundry from Rainn Wilson’s Soulpancake.

Depending on when you met me, I might have been: a checkers champion, the kid who squirted Super Glue in his eye, a competitive Ping-Pong player, Tweedle Dum, a high school valedictorian, a fake blond, 1⁄12 of an all-male a capella group, a graduate of the Vanderbilt School of Engineering, a nomad, a street musician, or a pigeon assassin.

The idea was to use the structure of the list to explore some thinking that might later to lead to more expansive writing. I loved how she allowed us time to think and write during this time of the workshop. At first I found the structure limiting, but the more I tried to stick to its confines, I realized how it pushed my thinking and made me write in ways I probably would not have if given the freedom to write in whatever way I wanted.

Depending on when you met me I might have been a blue-ribbon-winning horse show participant, the kid who repeatedly lit himself on fire using Aquanet hairspray, C-3PO, or the underachiever on report card day, the blue-haired guy with too many piercings, an open-mic performer, or Columbia grad student, a Peace Corps volunteer, a wanna-be writer, or a leave-the-cockroaches-alone activist.

The more we write ourselves, the more we know where kids might stumble, and so we know how to anticipate their needs.

She also mentioned how important it is to write in front of kids and make your thinking public. Show them how you start with scattered ideas and how your thoughts and writing evolve. Revise you work in front of them too, so they see the process not the final work.

CONFERRING

Penny Kittle’s workshop was a great use of time and I found it inspirational, but to watch her confer with actual students was something else all together. As a teacher new to workshop, I feel my conferences are awkward, rushed, uncomfortable administrative sessions, only done to see where kids are in their work. A notebook check-up. But watching Penny, I knew that with some time and practice, I too could hopefully use this precious time to actual teach kids while I sit with them for five minute sessions. Watching Penny Kittle confer with kids was truly a work of art. There was so many subtle devices she used, but here are some of the basics I was able to retain.

Smile. Be kind. Give compliments. Make eye contact. Relax. Breathe. Speak with a loving voice. Listen. Listen. Listen. Start where the writer is not where you want him to be. Talk about books, writing, ideas not skills, tasks, or work. Allow kids time to arrive at an idea. If they need to summaries the plot for two-minutes, let them. Do not rush their thinking. Listen. Say thank you. Don’t think about the next kid. Be present. Don’t fill the silences. Thinking takes time. Let them stew in the silence. Make eye-contact. Smile. Listen.

Ask, “How can I help you? What are you discovering? What is it you just did?” Teach a point and ask for examples. Name what kids are already doing and compliment them on being smart. Say, “I noticed that you……tell me about that.” Ask them, “If you did know the answer what would it be?” Encourage guessing. Risk taking. Revision.

Constantly remind students that you too use the strategies you are teaching when you read and write and think. Don’t ask about theme, but ask, “Why do you think this book was written?” Say to them, “I love this strategy. I use it when I read too.” Compare their shortcomings and failures to your own shortcomings and failures. Ask them to show you were they have revised their writing in their notebooks. Don’t have an agenda when you sit down. Tell them, “I want you to figure out what you need, so you don’t need me.” Ask them, “Read me something you love or something you want me to help you with.” Smile. Say thank you. Compliment.

Listen. Teach. Don’t administrate.

And always leave with a suggestion!

I hope this post was useful for you. I know it is not the same reading this on a blog or seeing these ideas on her website. Meeting people in person and seeing them in action is where so much of our learning happens. We all know these things. Right? But like Zen, it is a practice. We have to apply these skills over time to improve. I for one feel energized and inspired to get into my room tomorrow and try out a few of these things.

No agenda. Smile. Eye contact. Listen. Teach.

I’m on it.

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Beyond Blogging? Student Choice

2015 February 4

If I were to write this post how I feel it needs to be written– long, comprehensive, timely and engaging, then it would never be written. So instead I am going to try a quicker, choppier, more get it down approach. Going to try some Guerrilla Blogging . (I might have just made that term up, because when I looked it up there were little to no references.) But what’s up with this lengthy, rambling, irrelevant intro. This is not Guerrilla Blogging! Get to it.

What You Need To Know:

I haven’t blogged professionally since September when I Backed Away From The Edge, and consequently upset a few people in the process. But I am back now. I am revamped, energized and seeing things with a fresh outlook.

I’ve just returned from Japan, where I facilitated a two day EARCOS workshop with Rebekah Madrid called Beyond Blogging.  We were primarily looking at why shared online school spaces like class blogs and portfolios seem to fall flat. We decided that we knew, or at least thought we knew, what these spaces could do or have done for adult learners, but we were flummoxed, like many of you, as to why  K-12 spaces looked more like glorified teacher created worksheets, than dynamic authentic student created spaces designed for identity exploration, content creation and community building.

Big questions I know.

Everyone I spoke to before I left said, “Looking forward to seeing what you find!” And upon my return? “So what did you find out?

Here goes:

I started by talking with some students who I knew were active online. Two successful Youtubers from our school. I chatted with them for two forty-five minute sessions and this is what they said.

I was struck particularly by the key words which I highlighted in the video.

These words seem pretty straightforward. I think most teachers would like to think that they attempt to incorporate at least a few of these ideas into their daily teaching. But listening to the girls, it is pretty clear that they do not see the work they are doing in school at all similar to the work they do on their own.

This discrepancy, to me, seemed like the crux of our issue. The dichotomy between school generated curriculum and what kids w0uld choose to do if given a chance appears to be wider than many of us think.

You can take a look at the agenda from the workshop and explore some of the work the participants did here, but I wanted to take some time in this post to try and consolidate some of my own thinking. I thought about the Do’s and Don’ts we generated, and wondered what next. Here are some raw thoughts fresh from the weekend:

1. Choice matters– No one likes to be told what to do, and we like it less when we are told when or how to do it. Kids are no different. True, we are all working with a written curriculum which needs to be taught– a set of skills, concepts and understandings that we have pre-determined are vital for learning, but kids will always see this as “work.” It will be rare to find kids enthusiastically reflecting or sharing this type of teacher assigned work. When kids create or share online on their own accord, they seem to share ideas, skills and understandings which they choose an care about. No amount of forced reflection will make the work we assign authentic. Blogs will not magically make students care about what you want them to care about.

2. An Audience Matters–  Kids are not worried about being exposed to the world, but they are aware of who might be watching, and they want feedback from this audience. Perhaps, the idea that every kids has the same method of sharing (a blog or portfolio) with one massive audience (The world their school or class) is false. It is important that students create their own spaces and connect to smaller interactive audiences that give them feedback, instead of sharing everything with everyone and never connecting in a meaningful way with anyone. The tools learners use to create these spaces and communities must be chosen by the user.

3. Diversity of Tools- Kids need to create their own unique audiences and choose the methods and tools with which they connect to this community. Perhaps the readers in your class connect to other readers using Goodreads, but the actors choose Youtube as a place to connect with other actors, and the writers use a blog designed for Harry Potter fans. We cannot expect every member of our school community to use one platform to share their learning.

4. Being Open Requires Trust– Students have to know that their teachers are not looking for reasons to doubt or question student choices. They have to feel free to be themselves even if their identities do not always illustrate the perfect student. Life online requires risk taking, exploration, and the awareness that sometimes we all make mistakes. If we want students to be authentic we must allow them the time and space to find out for themselves what that means–without our own systemic institutional expectations.

5. Time– True student interests often exists beyond the curriculum. Kids need time to explore questions and solve problems of their own choosing. We need to make time for students to think, play and learn beyond our curricula. Things like the MYP Personal Project or Google 20% time could be key areas to allow for real blogging and online sharing. Allow students the time to learn, create and share the things that are important to them. Beyond assessment, school and work might be where students can share their learning. Take a look at this great pitch by Madeline Cox:

The problem, as I see it, with student blogging is not technological but curricular and institutional. We are expecting students to be excited about content they never chose to be excited about, and then we are disappointed when they are not super keen to write about it or share it with people who are not really their friends and who also lack interest in said content.

Share everything with everyone will never work. The better model is share what you love with those who care and can help you.

What does this type of sharing and learning look like in our schools? Most teachers do not work in student-centered, problem-based, inquiry model, project based institutions. No matter what we tell ourselves most of us are responsible to a curriculum and all the restriction it includes: explicit instruction, assessment, and reporting.

I think we need to think about what the learning looks like beyond our curriculum, so that it makes room for looser, freer, student choice. I have been hard on curricula in this post. I do not mean to say that students do not need the skills, concepts and understanding we teach them, but perhaps they do not see the value in sharing their school work in the place that we tell them to.

In a perfect world, we would see evidence of the curriculum in these more independent projects, and like Sidney said, the teacher can build the learning around what has already been done by the student. I am not sure what this model looks like in different schools or different subjects, so I can only share  examples of what we are doing in our MS English department at UWCSEA East.

We are using the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop. Coupled with our benchmarks, we have a pretty solid set of skills we are responsible to teach. I think these skills are important and I think teaching them explicitly is valuable. I also feel that assessing these skills, offering feedback and reporting on student progress is crucial for their growth as readers and writers. But I do not expect them to share their reflections of their learning on a blog. Who would want to read that?

I do see the value, however, of offering them choice in content. The beauty of the workshop model is that it offers absolute choice of what they write about and what they read. The units do focus on certain text types and this can prove problematic for everything I have mentioned in this post, so what we have done is intersperse independent writing units in between the more prescribed units of study.

For our last unit, students were given the choice to write about any topic or issue in any style or text type they found relevant. They wrote a range of pieces from cookbooks, to Rubic’s Cube tutorials, poems, songs and short stories. The next step is to coach these kids how to create communities around the content they create. Instead of publishing their assigned article on a blog, they need to learn how they might create a space to share their independent work, in hopes of finding other chefs or musicians.

As adults, we build communities around the content we create to express our passions and foster our learning. Why then do we not allow students the time and space to do the same? It’s not that blogging is dead or that we need to find out what lays beyond.  Schools as we know them are dying and we need to look beyond them.

This what I am thinking so far. What do you think? Share some thoughts and let’s see if we can’t figure this out together.

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Back From The Cutting Edge

2014 September 29

Been a while huh? You still there? How did you end up here after so long? Is RSS still a thing? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read a blog post in almost six months. Have you? Did you follow the Twitter trail here? Are other people still blogging? Are you? Did I miss anything?

I am not even sure who you are, and to be honest, these days I am having a hard time knowing who I am, and what I am doing here. Blogging. Writing. Sharing. It has been so long since I did any of those things that I feel I have lost what it was I wanted to say when I started. Have I turned my back on whatever audience or community I spent so much time and energy cultivating? Do you care? Does it matter?

Yeah, I am and have been having a bit of an existential crisis since the end of the school year last year.

What have I been doing you might ask? I have been spending my time reading every Young Adult book I can get my hands on. I’ve been falling in love with #TCRWP (Reading and Writing Workshop), to the point that I even have grade eight kids writing in notebooks. Pen and paper old school. Pages and pages of it. And it feels great. I am hand writing charts on flip chart paper for goodness sake. And to be honest, I feel I am doing some of my best teaching in years.

What else? I spend some of my energy on the plants in my classroom. I’ve also been playing open mics in the hope that I will be able to sing a full set of songs without tabs and lyrics by Christmas.

Not sure how or why I fell into this new territory. There was no conscious choice to turn my back on ……What do I even call it? What exactly have I turned my back on? Is there anything at all to be named? My PLN? Blogging, Ed Tech? These labels seem so simplistic. Have I turned my back at all?

My thoughts have drifted I suppose and my priorities have shifted, but what really happened is that I have grown bored of my own shtick. Digital stories, sharing, sharing, sharing and networks– round and round left me dizzy, till I just had to get off the ride. I have forced myself to name what I value and why? In short, I know that I still value open networks and community learning. I still value expression and stories and the magic of the web. But what that looks like in my classrooms these days? Your guess is as good as mine.

Things have been feeling stale for me for a while. After a decade of being on the cutting edge, I need a break. Maybe, for the time being I need other people to be the innovators. I need some time to reassess what I value. What felt new and transformative when I started, feels stale and unimaginative.

This re-evaluation reminds me of the value of having people on campus who sustain the momentum when some of us lose it. Every school needs people on the edge, so that when the rest of us need to move back from it, they can push us back where we need to be.  I’m talking to you Digital Literacy Coaches and Tech Facilitators. Thank you for the work you do, to keep the rest of us on our toes. So that when we hit a rut, like the one I have described, you can rejuvenate us and remind us of what we value that we may have forgotten.

Which brings me to Learning 2.014. Feels like I have gone full circle in the last decade. I feel like the doe-eyed n00b again this year. I am very much looking forward to seeing what everyone is excited about this year. I have no role to play at this conference other than open-minded learner. I am looking forward to having energizing conversations. I am hoping to creep back to the cutting edge, or maybe share the view from the way back.

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Building A Vibrant Reading Program

2014 July 8

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about what seemed to me at the time to be a major breakthrough —  I had, believe it or not, finally realized that reading the books my students are reading would be a good idea. I understood that maybe having a clue as to what they like and finding books to help them become more confident readers was my professional obligation. After years of obstinate snobbery, I decided to step off my adult literature reading pedestal and acknowledge that there is merit in young adult fiction. To be well-read in the genre is indeed empowering. You can read more about my epiphany here, but the post I am writing today is meant to share the events that followed this breakthrough. Below you will find a rough sketch illustrating some of the success we had implementing our Independent Reading program in the last term of the school year.

BOOK TALK

After reading a few YA books, (I was determined to read five YA books for every one book I read for pleasure. The score at the end of the year, by the way, was forty-seven YA book to zero personal books. What can I say, I was hooked.) I read Book Love my Penny Kittle and Falling in Love With Close Reading by Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman, and realized that while I was on the right track in my thinking, I had some classroom routines to establish. My biggest take away from Kittle’s book was the power of the Book Talk. Simply put a Book Talk is when a person, so far it has been only me, but students can deliver Book Talks as well, stands up in front of the class and tries to “sell” the book. Below you will find some key points I try and include in every Book Talk, which I try to limit to about seven minutes:

1. Read the back blurb and talk about the cover.

2. Mention its strengths. Here are some example:

Well-written
This book had me laughing and crying at the same time. Skillfully crafted, it moves beyond simple plot description. The author plays with language in very interesting ways and had some amazing passages. While the voice is funny at times, Alexie is able to deliver some very poignant scenes. (Absolute Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie)

Exciting
The last one hundred pages of this book were off the hook. I couldn’t put it down. While it started a bit slow, the book pays off for readers who can be patient and invest in plot development. I don’t want to give too much away, but after about page 150 everything goes a bit crazy. (Erebos by Ursala Posnanski)

Well-development characters
I fell in love with Eleanor and Park. Because they are deeply flawed, and so they appear to be human. I not only knew people like this in high school, I think I was a person like this. I can really relate to Park’s inability to be himself in the face of society’s definition of masculinity. These characters take time to understand, but pay-off once you know them. Good luck not crying at the end. (Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell)

Reverent themes to my students
This book was very difficult to read. While I know some of you have studied the Cambodian genocide in humanities, this story makes it feel all too real. Because we do so much work with Cambodia NGO’s, I think this book should be mandatory reading for all UWCSEA middle school students. (Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick)

Compared it to books I know are popular
Five Flavors of Dumb is not a particularly well-written book, but if you liked The Future of Us and Everyday, then you will like this one too. Simple and easy to get through. This book will not change your life or affect your soul, but it will keep you interested and does some cool stuff with growing up and Rock and Roll. (Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John)

3. Discuss some of the themes or ideas covered on the book (I try to avoid plot summaries).
4. Give it a 5 star rating and explain why I rated it as I did.
5. Read a passage from the book to give kids a taste of the voice and the style.

That’s usually about it. I’ll take a few questions and be done. I think it is important to have a physical copy of the book as it adds a certain gravitas; besides, you need it to read the passage, which is not a step to be missed.

I cannot tell you how powerful these book talks have been in my classroom. I have kids running up to me during lunch time, thanking me for my recommendations. Middle school kids want to read, but they don’t always know what to read – and random scouring of the library rarely bares fruit. Kids need help and the Book Talk is a great first step.

The effectiveness of the Book Talk has been evident during our fifteen minute independent reading time. When I look around, I would say that 90% of the books that kids are reading are books that I have book talked in the last few weeks. I also supplement the book talk with my book wall.

Real simple – On my classroom door, I have a sign that says Currently Reading, and I print out the front cover of whichever book I am reading at the moment. Once I am done, and I have book talked the book,  I then add the printed cover to the wall outside. Sometimes when a kid asks me for a recommendation, I physically walk them to the wall and we talk about the books that are there. The wall serves as a reminder for us both.

TIME

I would like to talk a bit more about the fifteen minute independent reading time I previously mentioned. Kids value what we value. If we want them to take anything seriously in the classroom, then not only must we feel excited and passionate about it, but we must also deem it valuable enough to dedicate time for it. We talk about a million things, but until we do them and dedicate consistent time to routines, then we are only paying lip service. So at the start of every class, we read for fifteen minutes. The key is that there are no exceptions. Even if we have a shortened class for whatever reason, or if we have an assessment due the next day, we still read for fifteen minutes. Our reading time is never cut short. Never.

When kids understand that this reading time is set in stone, it cuts down on forgotten books or those kids who are simply not reading, because those kids know you will be checking to see their progress every class. (Quick note about forgotten books. After a few weeks, it happens less and less, but even your most avid reader will occasionally forget his/her book. I like to have magazines, poetry and short story books on hand, so that a student can start and finish something in that day’s time and return to his/her novel when home. That being said, you will have your serial forgetter, and honestly I am still working on strategies for those kids. Feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments.)

The fifteen minutes, while a frustratingly short amount of time, sets a great tone for the day’s lesson. Kid’s simply stroll in and, without much fanfare or noise, find a comfortable place to sit and read. (Side note: this is easier when there are comfortable places for kids to read: Sofas, beanbags and comfortable carpets are crucial in any room that is recite to reading.) I sometimes actually “treat” my kids to extra time and they love it. Your more confident readers will police the louder ones, as they see this time as precious reading time in school, while your weaker readers have no choice but to get with the program. They know they must have a book and have little choice but to hunker down and get to it, lest they get yelled out by the others. You will find your reluctant readers fake reading and this why you use this time to conference with kids about their reading. But before I get to the conferencing, I need to talk about Goodreads.

GOODREADS

Because you must be thirteen years old to use Goodreads, (Goodreads, if you are reading this post, an educational account option would be great) we only use it with our grade eights. I will explain what we do with younger kids at the end of this section. Before I continue, let me say that I am obsessed with Goodreads as a teaching tool. Like I tell my kids, I use it to “stalk their reading lives!”

Our students create seven shelves to log their reading. Yes, I said the “L” word. We all know most students hate logging books. But we also know that logging what we read will help us gain stamina and confidence as a reader.  With Goodreads, students seem to be okay with building a personal catalog of books they have read. To keep track of their log, our students create these seven separate shelves:

  • To Read Comfort
  • To Read Just Right
  • To Read Stretch
  • Read Comfort
  • Read Just Right
  • Read Stretch
  • Abandoned

The To Read books are to help them build stacks of books they want to read. These may be books that they are excited about after a Book Talk, or from a friend’s recommendation. The three categories are pretty straight forward. One of the main learning goals for this reading program is for students to be able to self-select the right book at the right time. We encourage them to vary their reading lives. It is okay to pick a few comfort books that they can read in one or two sittings. We want students to always be reading, not getting mired in books they hate or ones that are too difficult. I would rather have a student read four comfort books, two just right books and a stretch book, rather than trying to read four stretch books back-to-back. Looks like I may need to write another post about these classifications. Back to Goodreads.

Beyond simply logging books at the proper levels, Goodreads also lets me know when, how long, and how often they are reading. With the update status feature, I can follow a student’s reading habits and comment in real time! If I notice that a student reader reads in small chunks throughout the week, but is able to sustain long marathon sessions on the weekends, I know that she is probably an avid reader who simply doesn’t have time during the week to read. I can say something like this on her profile:

Wow! Great job on such a long reading session. Let’s try and add another ten minutes to your reading during the week. Remember reading is your English homework and is expected, so do not treat it like a luxury. You love to read, so read during the week too.

Whereas the student who has not updated his/her status in days, will need a special in class conferencing to see where the problem is.

Goodreads also allows me to conference with readers live and at anytime. There were times when I would notice kids reading for an hour on a Saturday night, to which I could leave words of encouragement and support. What has been even better than me monitoring students’ reading is that they are recommending books to one other and using the site as a vibrant social networking site for books. Like anything of course, these success are not true for every student, but as I mentioned above the inactive users are often the reluctant readers and Goodreads allows the teacher to sort out who is who.

I had mid-level readers telling me that between the Book Talks and Goodreads they felt a sense of urgency and momentum that forced them to become involved and much more confident readers.

“It feels like everyone is always talking about and excited about books. I have never felt this way before, and with Goodreads I can see my reading life growing and share it with my friends. It also feels good to know you (talking about me the teacher) are paying attention and giving us support.”

Goodreads has been priceless in building excitement around our independent reading program. We still have work to do for sure and the influx of our classroom libraries next year will help move us to the next level for sure, but we had a great start in our last term. The formula is pretty simple:

  1. Empower yourself to be en expert by reading as many young adult books as you can.
  2. Be passionate and excited about what you read and share your enthusiasm with your class through consistent Book Talks.
  3. Give kids time to read in class and show that you value their reading. Reading is not a luxury. We do not read when we have to time or need to relax. We read because we love it. We value it as an activity and we want to build stamina. We read everyday!
  4. Although reading logs have a bad reputation, we can all agree that students and teachers need to know what and when kids are reading. Goodreads is a dynamic and fun way to gather much of the data teachers need, and students like using it.

The following is not verbatim, but a summary of many talks I have given kids in the last few months:

This reading program is not some cute initiative we, the English Department, are experimenting with, that will go away. We are here to prove to you that reading is fun and has value. It is not something you do on the side. Reading is a key tool to your learning. You need to know how to choose the right books and build your stamina. I am not telling you these things because I want you to read a few books this term. I want you, starting at this moment, to always be reading a book. When you finish one, you automatically pick the next one, because you have a stack of books waiting to go. I want reading to become an obsession for you. I want you to lay wake at night and worry about not being able to read every book you want to in your lifetime. I want you to panic when you go into a bookstore or a library because you want to grab every book off the shelf and read them all at once.

I am here to help build your reading life. You will not become one of those adults who just “doesn’t read!” There is no such thing. You will start reading one book after another this year. You want to know when you will stop? Summer? At the end of Middle School? High School? College? Nope. Never! You will NEVER stop. You will be reading one book after another till the day you die. This is the business we are involved in here in this classroom. We are readers and we are writers, so we read and we write because that is what we do.

Believe it or not, I was not able to fit everything I wanted into this post. So please stay tuned to this space for more info on conferencing,  videos of Book Talks and some student interviews. Please leave any questions you  have, and share ideas and strategies you have used that have been successful.

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Well-Versed In Books

2014 March 10
tags: ,
by Jabiz

Note: This post was originally written for teachers, but applies to parents of middle school kids as well. 

I have an amazing talent for stating an obvious fact, one that everyone already knows, way after everyone has already talked about it. What’s worse is that I somehow fool myself into believing that this universal well-known idea was hatched in my brain and so it must also be deeply profound.

You have been warned. There is nothing new in this post. Nothing any English teacher, librarian or committed reader doesn’t already know, but what I am about to share with you has been an epiphany of sorts for me. It has sparked a thirst for books that I seem powerless to quench. Ya’ ready?

Read the books your students are reading.

Wow, I am actually a bit embarrassed when I see it written out like that. Let me explain. I have been teaching Middle School English  for over ten years. My name is Jabiz and I am a book snob. Until last week, I rarely if ever read any Young Adult literature. At any given time I could be found saying things like, “I found the writing mediocre at best, the characters shallow, the themes trite and the stories plot heavy.” I almost threw a copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go across the room, after the the protagonist was nearly caught for the 100th time!

I couldn’t be bothered to read YA Lit, because that genre didn’t scratch the intellectual itches I enjoy. How could I tear myself away from David Foster Wallace, or my new love– James Baldwin, to read whatever dystopian garbage the kids might be reading?

But here’s the thing, I have only just recently realized– My intellectual and literary needs should not always come first. I owe it to the kids I teach to be well-versed in both the books they love and the books that I can find for them to love. As their English teacher, I should be the main resource for what is good, bad, exciting, at their level, too hard, and a bit simple but fun. I should be able to tell a kid who just liked Wonder that Eleanor and Park is a bit darker but about similar themes.

What sparked this epiphanal moment, you might ask? It was a series of things I suppose– years of incurring guilt for my ignorance about YA Lit, news that we have been approved for classroom libraries (150 titles per room!), and my becoming tired of recommending the same books over and over.  We are currently in an eight-week reading unit, where we explored a shared class novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  After practicing a series of skills, we allowed the students to choose a novel of their choice to show transference of  skills. Like most text hungry teen-agers, they were looks for suggestions.

I began to realize that I couldn’t recommend many of the authors or books I love, because the content is not quite appropriate or interesting to fourteen year olds. As great as Jonathan Franzen may be, I am pretty sure no middle school student cares about mid-life crisises in the suburbs. So I did what I have always done. I recommended the books I know: Of Mice and Men, Lord of The Flies, and Catcher in the Rye. Don’t get me wrong. I love these books, and I have been blown away by the exploration and analysis of these texts by my current students. But I knew there had to be better titles. Better matches. I knew that I was short-changing my students for not helping them find the just-right book for each of them. And the only way to do that is to read more YA Lit– plot-heavy dystopian adventures be damned!

Guess what happened? I felt totally empowered after reading just four books. After each title, I could name several kids who would love that book. Or I knew that this book was just right for one or two more mature and advanced readers. I start every class now, pushing books. I tell them about what I am reading. I can sell these books with confidence. I am even emailing specific kids and saying, hey you! This book is perfect for you. What will be great is when I have a library of 150 titles, I know and love, so I can literally just grab the right book and hand it to the right kid.

My enthusiasm in class has already led to one girl asking if I have read Angel’s Fury, to which I said no. The next day she brought me her copy, which I am reading at the moment. I have put up a physical list for suggestions.  There is something magical about empowering students to feel like experts. Allowing them to feel that they can influence their teacher with their love of books.

I feel that by reading more YA Lit, English teachers are creating and fostering a more authentic community of readers. Hey parents, I did not forget about you! If you want to foster a love of reading, then read some of these YA titles as well. We cannot continue to discredit books that were written for young adults, while promoting an antiquated list of books that they “should” be reading.  There will always be a place for the classics we love, or the stretch books from our own libraries that might fit a few students, but we owe it to our students to be well-versed in books that they can access and explore and love. I would love to hear about some of your favorite YA titles, or about some of the strategies you have chosen to excite your students about books.

As for my intellectual itches? I have decided to read five YA titles for everyone of my own choices. Although, I have already checked out a few books that will put me past five. My collection of Foster Wallace essays can wait, I need to read Holes, so I can talk about the narrative perspective with my struggling readers, and maybe The House of Scorpions might be the book that gets Billy to “get” reading.

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Schools Can Be

2014 February 17

A few years ago I was scared of my thoughts. More accurately, I was afraid of how people would react to my thoughts, my ideas, my values. Maybe it was because I was living in a conservative country and working at a conservative school. Or maybe it was because my values, at the time, were still forged in anger and seeped in rage. I was driven by an obstinate defiance. I was always pushing back against existing hypocrisies, instead of standing for anything on its own merits. There was little wisdom to my beliefs. Even less understanding. Whatever, the case I was constantly anxious about what I said, what I shared and what I wrote. I was scared of my thoughts.

But recently, things feel different. Not only do I not feel scared, I feel that my ideas are valued and even celebrated. This acceptance and sharing of diverse thinking is a testament to a healthy learning environment. The fact that all members of our community feel valued enough to share their ideas no matter how different from the status quo is what makes UWCSEA East such an amazing place to work.

Let me tell you a bit about my last few days. Last week, I was part of a Share Your Beliefs session with our current grade elevens, as part of their TOK (Theory of Knowledge) exploration of faith. It looked a bit like this:

Your role is in session 1; when you be based in a single classroom and you will have three sets of some 13 students come your way; one set at 8.30am, one at 9.00am and one at 9.30am.  The students are all mixing up for each session, so all will hear from you and two different people; in all cases students hear from an atheist and two people of different faiths.  We have several speakers from outside school coming too.

The aim is for you to share with students your beliefs, and to have a short discussion/debate with them. This will then form a solid platform for later analysis and comparison.

The following faiths were represented:

Christianity
Sikhism
Buddhism
Reikei
Baha’i
Hinduism
Atheism

This is the second year in a row that I have been able to talk about my unique melange of  Zen inspired spiritual atheism with a group of young people. I spoke about how my Buddhist principals have shaped my ethical and moral choices when it comes to teaching, parenting, and being an active and thoughtful member of the human race. I pulled no punches and spoke about my animosity and disdain for organized religion based on the effects of Islam on my country of birth, Iran. I spoke about how a belief in a patriarchal omniscient deity just doesn’t jive with how I view the natural world.

In short, I was able to have a very open and frank conversation with a group of young people about who I am and what I believe, without fear of reprisal from an angry community member, because by making this sharing of ideas possible, UWCSEA is telling students and parents that we value a range of ideas. We are saying that no one idea is correct or carries any more weight then any other. We are free to hold our unique beliefs, but we must be open to the idea that others may disagree. This melting pot of ideas may seem obvious to anyone who has studied or worked in a progressive environment, but I think we all know that open-minded is not always the case especially when it comes to religious matters.

Second story– My daughter is in grade two and their current unit of study is about food and where it comes from. They were recently visited by Cowboy James, who spoke to them about his experience on a dairy farm and growing up in rural Canada. (BTW Cowboy James is our head of school) Kaia was curious and excited to hear about this process. At home we began to talk about my current decision to become vegan. Our entire family is vegetarian, but the vegan thing is new. It was great to watch Kaia negotiate her understanding of our family’s choices in the light of Cowboy Jame’s message and what I was telling her about food choices.

After our family chat, we thought that it would be great for Kaia her share some of her thoughts from our conversation with her class. So today, Kaia and I gave a 25 minute presentation, which we prepared yesterday, to her class about why our family chooses not to eat animals. It was great. She helped brainstorm the slides, find the pictures and got up in front of her class and shared her thoughts, with just a little help from me.

“We simply love all animals like our pets and don’t want to eat any of them.”

If you are keeping score– Atheist, Vegan, long haired, bearded and tattooed! It may not seem like much to you, but this is the first time in my career where I feel at home where I work. The first time I feel I can be my compete self. I think a school with such freedom of ideas should be celebrated and upheld as a model for effective learning communities everywhere. I cannot imagine having opportunities like the ones I just described in too many American schools. It is precisely because of  this celebrated diversity that I work internationally. I also love the cross pollination of ideas between ages groups and school divisions.

Third Story– Some students in my grade seven BTC (Be The Change) class are working on an action project about labor rights and treatment of migrant workers here in Singapore. As luck would have it, our grade nines recently did extensive work on the topic with TWC2. So they were perfect mentors for my middle school kids. I quickly sent an email to former students and all week, I have had several grade nine students work with the grade seven students as secondary sources and sounding boards. It has been a fantastic opportunity for both groups.

In closing, I wanted to share my gratitude to finally work at a school that puts its money where its mouth is. The examples I shared are just a few episodes that happened to me this week. I am sure there are many such expereinces happening everyday, everywhere in our school. So often we get so lost in the bureaucracy of school administration that we forget how powerful a school should be.

UWCSEA is a special place not only because I can share my quirky liberal values, but because I am sure that my daughter is the recipient of a plethora of conflicting ideas as well.

Final note– I am excited because I can write about my ideas without the fear that an administrator might “find me out.” Instead, I will email this post to our leadership team confident that they too will be proud of the community we are building here at East.

How does your school work? Do you have open channels for an exchange of ideas? Are you doing anything to promote cross-divisional sharing and learning? If so what are you doing? What are some frustrations that you face being yourself?

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Nice To Just Be Outdoors

2013 November 28
by Jabiz

I have been thinking and writing a lot about nature and the outdoors lately. As I slumber through a post-trip funk, I just returned from Chiang Mai after six days of caving, trekking and rafting with kids, I can’t help but continue to reflect on how valuable those times outdoor are to learners and teachers. I have a mammoth post brewing about my recent trip, but I wanted to scratch out a quick post about a simple experiment from yesterday.

I was teaching my grade 7 BTC (Be The Change Class) and I had planned for students to share memorable experiences they have had in the outdoors. Trying to get the kids to realize that it is difficult to care about anything or to take any action if they don’t have actual experience with it, I wanted them to mine their own experiences for times when nature meant something. Armed with Sam Sherratt’s recent post, I wanted a way to build a bit of awe and wonder.

So often, we allow ourselves to over-think how to get kids to shift their perspective and feel curious. I realized that I did not have to plan some huge trip, or create an immense experience to show kids that we are surrounded by wonder. All we have to do is notice it, move amongst it by changing where we work and think and learn. I needed something quick and easy and different.

We have a small patch of green space on our campus (not enough for sure) but it is what we have so I worked with it. I took my class down to the grass and we shared our natural experiences beneath the shade of the trees, the floating clouds and the slightly damp and muddy ground.

Nothing earth-shattering, I know. But you should have see the excitement and ease with which the kids adjusted to this new environment. Read for yourself the affect of such a tiny shift of going outside to learn can have on a student’s day.

I think that going downstairs into the grassy area was not really something we normally do at school, so it was a different experience, but also really fun. It was exciting and surprising to hear everybody else’s stories about interacting with nature and also to share my stories too. A lot of people had stories where they had done similar things that i had done in the past and it was interesting to relate to them with my own experiences (such as interacting with dolphins, whale watching, drinking out of streams, snorkeling etc.) . Additionally it was really nice to just be outdoors and get a bit muddy, relax and just hang out with friends instead of being in the air con all day and working on our laptops like we usually are.

Today was a very different class because we went outside into nature and talk about our outdoor experiences.  I really liked it because I am more of an outdoor person and we got to talk and reflect about how we take nature for granted sometimes.  I found today’s lesson very relaxing, and was fun at the end when we got to chill and play tag. It really taught me how much fun you can have without our expensive things and how we should all help conserve the small amount of nature we still have.

Today in BTC we went outside to a green area, close to the gate where the buses go out. We sat in a circle in the grass, and talked about our experiences with nature, whether it was wildlife or not. I learned that a lot of us had really interesting encounters with nature especially in regard to wildlife. Several people had gotten close up to manta rays, others with lions, and even more to turtles. I recounted when my family and cousins went to Hawaii for a vacation when I was 5, and we were swimming in the ocean when my cousin spotted a green sea turtle. my cousin, brother, and I went over to the turtle and just started swimming along beside it. The turtle didn’t go away and we spent over an hour just swimming next to it. It was an amazing experience. We also talked about how living in an Urban area can cut off our connections to nature and how our senses get dull over a while if we don’t connect with nature. We also talked about how we don’t need aircon all the time, or the environment around us doesn’t have to be clean all the time.

We ended with a short lay in the sun and a quick game of tag. Next time you want to get kids excited about being outside, all you have to do is take them there. It is amazing what a little breeze, some mud, grass and a few clouds can do for a kid. Now I am left thinking about how can I authentically incorporate more experiences like this into what we do on a regular basis. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?

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Ubiquitous Exposure

2013 November 18
by Jabiz

It is the marriage of the soul with Nature that makes the intellect fruitful, and gives birth to imagination.

Thoreau

It is that time of year again. My favorite part of the year actually. Tomorrow, I will travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand to meet my mentor group for five days of camping, caving, trekking, and rafting in the jungle. Like most years, I am ready for a week of disconnecting and really connecting with the kids I teach. I always look forward to getting my nature fix and spending time in my own head, free from the noise of everyday life and routines.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the power of nature and the affect it has on learning when I criticized a Toys R Us commercial. And I have been thinking about the “ubiquitous exposure” to nature ever since. We have spent countless time and energy making sure that every kid who needs access to technology can have it. Through the implementations of 1-1 programs world wide, many students, like their adult counterparts, now use technology without even thinking about it. It has become part of what we do. And this is (can be) great.

What bothers me, however, is that we still are not thinking about a “Nature 1-1 program.” These types of outdoor trips are still an extension of what we do in schools. Even at a school like UWCSEA, where we are committed to the five elements of our learner profile

And Outdoor Education is valued equally with academics, it still feels like a trip like this, one that only happens once a year is only part of our student experience here at school. So how can we change that? Even as I write this, I am keenly aware that our school gives students so many opportunities to go on trips and participate in hands-on-activities. We are luckier than most. I also realize that I need to speak with our outdoor team and learn more about their curricular links to what the kids do on a daily basis. But I cannot help but think about how can people living in urban, technology rich environments make sure that our students are influenced by nature and the outdoors everyday? I am thinking of school gardens, maybe even chicken coups, or outdoor classrooms, regular camping trips closer to home, or weekend hikes to local parks. A school greenhouse or animal center. And how can we make all of these things a reality for all the students–  as part of what they do, instead of an opportunity for some kids who choose to take them on.

From my last post many teachers shared amazing stories of schools in Europe and other places committed to the concept of learning outside, and I love that idea. But how do we transform our schools to function in that way? How do we create schools that give students that ubiquitous exposure to nature? I know that my students will learn so much from the ten days they are in Chiang Mai. We will trek and suffer and feel discomfort, but I also know that we will grow in nearly every aspect of our profile. I just hope that we can continue those conversations and experience when we get back to the urban jungle and back to the daily grind of school.

I guess these are the kinds of things I will think about tomorrow as I feel my feet sink into the mud and the sun shine on my back. Or maybe not, maybe I will just enjoy the river and the fires and the conversations and the kids and our learning as we sleep beneath the stars and be grateful that at least we can go into the jungle once a year.

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There Is Always Room For Improvement. Right?

2013 November 14
by Jabiz

Yesterday, we had our parent teacher conferences. And while like most teachers I find the exercise exhausting, yes sometimes even commiserating with other teachers in the spirit of camaraderie, I actually like the process. For the most part I enjoy meeting parents and telling them how great their kids are. I like to see my students with their parents to get a sense of what kinds of relationships they have with each other. Are they nervous, or timid, or funny, or courageous around their parents? A teacher can learn a lot about a kid by how they act around their parents. I like to watch moms and dads and the banter and tensions they bring to the table.

After every marathon stretch, eight hours yesterday, I am always left thinking about learning. And school. And grades. And a whole slew of other thoughts I can’t seem to capture at the moment. After last night, I haven’t been able to get over a certain phrase.

Yes, I know she is doing fine, but there is always room for improvement. Right? What else can she do? How can she do better?

I must have heard these words from the mouths of every parent I met. Irregardless of their grades or their skills. Didn’t matter if they were high pressure parents or easy going ones, they all wanted to know how their child could do better. This got me thinking.

Our students, for the most part, work hard. Really hard! I am often in awe that these twelve to fourteen year olds sit in class all day, do homework, participate in services an activities, and hang-out with their friends. They are engaged with the school material, they ask about  rubrics and articulate their learning. They reflect, make portfolios, and ask for help. They are simply amazing young people. They do all of this all whilst dealing with hormones, growing up, balancing countless relationships with their friends, teachers and yes parents. They are online and offline and everywhere in between.

So what must it feel like, to work this hard, to do the best you can for twelve years and to constantly be told, no matter how or what you do that there is always room for improvement! It must be devastating. By the end of the night, I was no longer hearing how can my child do better, but I was hearing how can my child be better. I could read it on the face of every kid while they listen to their parents praise their work and talk about how proud they were, only to hear that big but at the end of the conference.  I could see them smile and sit up straight and beam with pride and confidence only to watch them deflate, when after the praise every parent ended with, “But how can she do better? How can she improve?”

Is this what we want? A learning environment where feedback and growth and improvement have trumped simply saying, “Job well done! I am proud of you. Now take a break! Enjoy your learning.” Are we so fixated on our kids “succeeding” and remaining competitive, that we cannot simply let them bask in the glow of their accomplishments with out constantly raising the bar? How can kids feel successful if every time they do, we tell them to do better?

I want to formally challenge the notion of constant improvement as a motivator for learning. So many parents also told me that their kid is working under potential. “He is actually really talented, but he just needs a push. He won’t do much unless you force him to do it.” Am I wrong in thinking that this doesn’t sound like learning?

I would hope that when a child is self-motivated and passionate and self-aware of their needs and strengths and weakness, that they can and will push themselves to improve. And if they don’t perhaps they are not ready to commit to their learning. This same kid, also should know that sometimes they just need a time-out. A break.  Constant growth and improvement is not sustainable and should not be the perpetual expectation.

Parents, if you are reading this–  I get it. I am a parent too. Every time I see my daughter slacking off or not working to her potential, or not achieving some unrealistic expectation of mine, I too want to remind her that she should work harder, slower, smarter. Even when she does well, I too catch myself saying, “How can this be better?” It must be natural to want our kids to be their (the) best. I too want to tell her teacher not to let her lose focus, but I think I could honor her independence more and feed her confidence more, if I were to sometimes just let what she does be enough.

I want to say to her, “I am proud of you honey. I cannot believe how hard you worked and how much you have grown. I am so impressed by how much you have learned. You really seem be aware of what you are doing. I trust you and know that you are doing your best. Take some time to relax and enjoy what you have done and all that you have learned. Thank you for being such a great learner.”

Nothing more! I keep the, “There is always room for improvement,” and the “What could you do better,” to myself this time. I am curious how this would affect our kids. I am willing to bet that kids would leave parent teacher night a bit more confident. A bit more proud. They would nod their heads knowingly and smile, because they know that their parents do not expect any more from them. At least for now?

What do you think? How can we find ways to talk to kids in way that motivates them to want to improve, while honoring the work they have done? How do we move away from this trap of demanding never-ending improvement?”

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