Friday, June 3, 2016

4 Top Things my Gifted Students Taught Me this School Year

There's no doubt, as a teacher, that the students in your care over the course of 10 months have the ability to change your life. They utterly, completely, drastically, and beautifully change the way you think about life; the way you view and think about children; the way you approach your profession; even the very ways you speak, walk, act, and function. Trust me, there have been several times when I've been stopped short doing something because of how I realized the way I am now doing it has changed from the way I used to do it. The way I learn in a teacher conference. The way I walk down the hallway. The way I speak to someone I do not know. The way I help my husband edit his cover letter. Teaching and the experiences you have as a teacher truly have the ability to affect everything about your life.

Each group that you teach is also extraordinarily unique. There was never a group of students like it before, and there will never be a group of students like it again. Like a wave on the ocean, it all pushes forward together, and then when it retreats back it isn't the same wave anymore. The water exchanges, the sand, rocks, shells, and organisms shift, and the next one is going to be different, even if it falls in the same place and location around your feet.

My group of students this year have changed me, helped to shape me, mold me, and refine me. God used them as sharpening tools for my own refinement and growth not only as a teacher, but as an adult and a soon-to-be-mommy. You always hear sayings like, "I thought I was here to teach reality, they were here to teach me." I truly do think that it is a relationship where students and teachers alike learn from one another, a beautiful example of interdependence, and this group was evidence to me of that. As I look back on our time together, important lessons surface to my mind and make me dance inside with rejoicing.

1) Don't limit a child...they can do more than you probably think they can. There were many times this year that instead of saying no or trying to redirect a student's idea or project proposal, I refrained. Sometimes painfully! I waited to see if they could be successful with what they wanted to do or try, or how they wanted to show their learning. I watched them problem solve or realize their initial idea wouldn't work and then fix it to make it work. This takes a lot of control out of the hands of the teacher and puts it in the student's hands, and that is hard to do at first-- but then you step back and see what they created on their own and think, "Boy, am I glad I didn't limit them and tell them no."

2) The power of communication and how to problem solve. One thing we spent countless hours on this year was learning how to communicate with others. I have often focused on this in previous years, but this year it was a huge goal of mine to spend lots of time in this area. Gifted children have a more difficult time than their same-aged peers communicating. While celebrating who they are, we also have to help them learn how to function and communicate in society with others. This covered everything from:

  • active listening- looking at the speaker, eye contact and gestures, commenting on other's stories instead of inserting your own and making their story suddenly all about you; 
  • telling someone when they've upset you- what they did and how it made you feel, what you both think would make it better, apologizing by not just saying sorry but identifying the action and future action step (I'm sorry I took the jumprope you were using. Next time I will wait my turn or find another one to use.); 
  • sharing ideas or thoughts with a partner or group you are collaborating with
  • self awareness- knowing when there is something wrong or upsetting you and being able to verbalize it calmly, knowing when you need a cool down time and asking for it, knowing when you need to work out a problem with a friend and asking to be able to go solve it out in the hallway; 
  • learning how to communicate with adults- greeting adults that greet you, telling an adult good morning in the hallway, speaking to the cafeteria workers and telling them please and thank you, not ignoring or walking by an adult as they are talking to you or asking you a question but responding
  • being able to compliment others on the great things they have done, knowing when it's time to celebrate the accomplishments of others instead of our own
I notice more than ever the inability for humans to communicate appropriately and effectively with others. Our Facebook feeds are filled with hateful comments and our face-to-face interactions are full of people glued to their cell phones when the person across from them is trying to tell them a story. I even used that as an example this year, about how much it bothers my husband when he is trying to talk to me and my attention is on my phone! I watched my students grow tremendously in their understanding of communication skills over the course of the school year, and it blew me away how important these skills are for children to learn and practice frequently. It takes consistency and work over time, but the fruit of it was so powerful. This is something I will definitely carry with me into motherhood with my own children. 

3) The importance of validating students' feelings before trying to help them cope with their feelings. This year, more than ever, I had to really embrace this practice in my classroom. With 20 highly gifted students with unique sensitivities and emotions, the classroom could become a flood zone if it wanted to, and it also could become an unsafe place for these children to be if they weren't allowed to feel what they were feeling. Let me unpack that a bit. Have you ever felt depressed or sad or lonely for someone only to tell you something to the effect of, "Oh, don't worry about that." or "That's nothing to be upset about." or "Come on, that's silly to feel that way." Yeah...I don't know about you, but when people tell me those things, it either deeply hurts me or makes me feel angry, like what I'm experiencing or feeling isn't real or worthwhile. We have to think about children and their feelings in the same way. When a student shared that the dog in the book I was reading aloud made her think of the dog that she used to have when she was little that died and her eyes start welling up with tears, the last thing I should do is tell her "Oh, that happened a long time ago though. You don't need to be sad. It's ok. He's in a better place." or something along those lines. What she needs to hear is something VALIDATING. That her emotions, feelings, rawness, are REAL. Something like, "I understand that is a real thing that happened to you, and that your feelings are real. It's okay to be sad about something we've lost. How can I or others help you, or what do you need?" Usually, just hearing that what they are feeling is real and validated helps a child to start to move on. You don't want to dwell there, and cause them to stay in that place for too long, or it can turn into hours of crying in your classroom or a student taking advantage of a situation. But offering validation before offering ways to cope and push through is a must, especially for our highly sensitive gifted students. We don't want them to feel like we don't care, or that their sadness or feelings are something we can shrug off. You can then help give them options, or even they can then verbalize that maybe taking a moment in the corner, getting a pillow to sit on, or sitting by a friend can help them cope in the moment. And that's that.

I think too often to dry up tears or move on to what's next, we can jump straight to the coping piece without validating first. We try to offer a solution instead of just starting by saying, I hear you...I see you...I think that's all others want sometimes, to just feel heard and seen in their pain or feelings.

4) The importance and value of community when its time to celebrate as well as when things go south or unexpected. Building a class community and class family does not happen naturally or overnight. It is something you "build," like a home from its starting foundation. You can build this through several different means: sharing literature together and discussing books; engaging in shared, collaborative experiences like science labs or STEM challenges; but I think the main way we developed and built our community was in taking the time to circle up EVERY day as a class and share things we are feeling, thinking, or doing in our lives, as well as taking the time to stop throughout the day to talk if we needed to. Sometimes we have so much to do in a given day that we don't stop and "smell the roses" with our students. We have to let ourselves be okay with stopping and talking with our students if the opportunity arises, to be transparent with one another, to discuss our families or connections, to talk through a bad situation or moment in class, to reconnect and realign if things aren't going right that day, to even "start over" fresh if nothing is clicking. We can't get to really know each other that well if we don't allow for these natural moments and breaks in our day to day class life. I used to be so driven by keeping a schedule and having everything aligned perfectly that I bet we all missed out on some pretty amazing moments or relationship building in past years. This year, I think my students showed me the importance and the okay-ness of things not always following the timeline- and how the rewards of that surpassed getting that project done on schedule.

A lot of things happened in our classroom this year beyond your typical birthdays or getting new pets or friends moving away. I truly believe that due to the community our class had built, we were able to be there for one another in ways I haven't witnessed before. My students were able to surround me and my baby throughout my entire pregnancy with love, affection, and care. They learned how to help me and our classroom when my mobility wasn't what it used to be, and when the baby was growing bigger ("We need to get all the trash off the floor so Mrs. R doesn't have to squish Baby Theo picking it up!). When I unexpectedly had to go on bed rest and be gone the last 5 weeks of the school year, they mourned with me and spent our last afternoon together making things for the baby and writing notes to me, at their request. They then asked to Skype and FaceTime with me a couple of times a week when I was on rest at home- they asked- not because they were told to, because they wanted to keep me as part of the community we had built together.

They also experienced how to be there for a friend going through a despairingly hard time. A student's dad unexpectedly passed away recently, and the class community we had built together allowed them to truly surround him and care for him when it happened. They weren't forced to write him cards or to attend the funeral with their parents, they ASKED to. They deeply loved and cared for their friend in his pain, and knew him well enough to know how he feels loved and cared for best. Having to be at home on bed rest when this happened was extremely difficult, but hearing about how they were taking care of him day to day allowed me to find peace in not being able to be physically there for him. The students were taking him under their wing and providing a safe, loving place for him- showing their ability to express empathy and sympathy and camaraderie as mere first graders.

All humans need community to thrive, and that includes our students.


Thank you, ASPIRE 1 students of 2015-2016, for the lessons, memories, and moments I can look back on and think, "Wow, I got to be a part of that."

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

#WhyITaught: By a Teacher on Bed Rest

Ever since I got the news last week that I was to be on restricted rest the remainder of my pregnancy and not return to teaching for the rest of the year, each day has been a jumble of tears.

For me, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind. There is a surreal feeling surrounding my soul that everything that has happened, and is happening now, isn't actually happening. Trying to wrap my brain around what has occurred and where God has led me to is proving confusing and difficult.

With only 24 hours after receiving the news to try to decide what I needed to do to be prepared, how I was going to say goodbye to my precious 20 students and their parents and families, how I was going to say goodbye to my beloved staff, all without over-stressing myself and going into real labor...the past few days have been nothing but an attempt to process in between moments of fear, doubt, uncertainty, and lots of kleenex.

But the most sobering reality of all is that I didn't only say goodbye to my beloved first graders, their families, and my out-of-this-world coworkers.

I said goodbye to my teaching career. For now, at least. After six of the most rewarding, stretching, unfathomably meaningful years of my life.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week in our nation, and there is a hashtag on Twitter circulating around called #whyiteach. So today, I want to reflect and pay tribute to those six years that I got to share and spend my days with our nation's most precious resource: children. I know I will forever be a teacher, and I may even perhaps return to the classroom one day, but instead of writing about #WhyITeach, this will be rather "#WhyITaught."

A lot of people don't understand why someone would want to teach. The pay isn't necessarily high, the hours aren't what you expect, and the emotional and personal sacrifices that you have to make in order to be effective and organized and prepared are many. You are constantly in a limbo, being pulled in several directions, having to make hard choices. You surrender a lot of your personal "me time," as going to a yoga class after school, for example, takes a backseat after conferencing with parents or prepping for that fun science lab tomorrow. Your heart breaks and mourns with your students as they experience the hardships of life. You don't really have the freedom to do basic things like eat your lunch in a timely fashion, or even go to the bathroom when you need to. You and your pride, self-worth, identity, and ego are daily put on the chopping block. You don't always please everyone and sometimes people are very unhappy with you if you don't do everything just right.

Yes, there is all of that. And a lot more probably, but I don't want to focus on the negative anymore. One of the rules in our classroom has always been "I will have positive energy, not negative!" and I think it's time to ramp up this post towards the former.


1) Because children are worth fighting for. They are worth us fighting for their education, their growth, and their feelings. These children are but that- children- and need advocates all around them, in the home and at school. As a teacher, I was able to be an advocate and help foster the development of each child I taught. I was able to help them build their character, mindset, and grow in their ability to love. I was able to see their hearts change over time and grow in kindness, strength, empathy, and courage. To me, nothing, nothing, nothing beats this.

2) Because our work is meaningful. Not one day can a teacher go into work and leave saying, "Man, that day was pointless." Each day holds such meaning. Each day is an opportunity for students (and teachers, alike) to learn something new, to grow in perseverance and character, to make others smile, to gain a new friend, to leave each day changed by the things experienced. We are helping to make huge differences in the lives of others when we step foot into our workplace each day.

3) Because it is life giving. Your days as a teacher are spent pouring into others, yes, but what you receive in return fills your cup up beyond your understanding. The rewards might not be monetary or physical. They might just be a child crying in your arms as you comfort them, because they feel safe with you there; a heartfelt handwritten note secretly left on your desk about how much a child loves you; an email from a parent about how you have changed their child's life; a sense of accomplishment and joy when you see your students engaged and excited about learning and school; a postcard from a student you taught three years ago arriving in your mailbox just to say hi and update you on his life; sitting around a student's family dinner table as they invite you into their lives and home; watching a student in their element, such as being invited to a baseball game or a diving meet; hearing a student say "I love you" or "I feel so safe with you, Mrs. Rubinson"; this list could go on and on, but as I reminisce about my days as a teacher and think back on my experiences, these are the things that I hold onto and remember.

4) Because I got to spend my days loving children. Caring for them. Knowing them, their hearts, their minds, their likes and dislikes, their fears and worries, their interests and things that got them excited. I got to be a stepping stone on their paths of life. I got to be a part of children's hearts. And they are forever parts of mine. They have changed me. They have helped me grow, too. They have taught me so much about forgiveness, grace, and mercy. They have shown me the perils of perfectionism and how it is okay to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and they change us for the better next time. They have illuminated and brought to the surface parts of my heart and mind that needed serious mending and redeeming. Children have the tendency to do this to us as adults. They are great sharpening tools.

So, #WhyITaught? In short, I was able to have my life changed forever by 119 students over the course of the past 6 years in our classrooms, and by far many more who I did not even teach but interacted with on a daily basis. I learned more about God's love for me as his child through the love I was able to feel and experience for my own students. I have been stretched, tested, and pushed to limits of my own that I did not even know could exist. For all of this, I am eternally grateful and thank my heavenly Father each day for the love he has for me, in that he knew it would bring me so much joy to be a teacher, and he led me to this profession and life.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Confessions of a Pregnant Teacher

Confession: my last blog post was written back in September. There have been several times that I have had an inspirational idea for a blog post, or have had something I desperately felt needed to be shared. But, another confession: it has taken everything in me just to get through each day, that the blogging part of me has ceased to exist until now.

Let's back it up a little bit. I have been wanting to write about this journey for so long now, but have lacked the exact words and timing to say it. I feel like that time has finally come. The following is a very personal post, not about education, but about life, and a good God who hears us.

Last year, I wrote a few posts at the beginning of the year that regarded goal setting, what worked + what didn't work for me in the previous year, my "word" for the upcoming year, and so on. That practice of writing and reflecting was so imperative to my growth as a person, teacher, wife, friend, etc. at the time and I am so glad that I did it. As I think back on the year 2015, I can only really think of one major theme. This is a theme I have shared with a few people already, but I really do feel that 2015 was the year that I truly witnessed and believed, whole-heartedly, that our God is a God who HEARS.

God hears us. He hears our cries, our pleas, our hearts, our worries and fears, he hears about our hopes and dreams. He actually hears them when we don't even say them or acknowledge them out loud. Our great God, who knitted us together in our mother's womb, knows our desires, knows how we tick, knows our thoughts before they even enter our minds or mouths. This past year was such evidence that God is a God who hears us...and, who hears me.

For so long I have battled the feeling that God is not for me, and that he must be constantly disappointed in me. I have battled this unbelief, and have chosen more times than not to believe a lie, that God is against me and that when I sin or when I fall short, he is shaking his head in shame. Our God, if we are his children, does not do this, though. He does not see us through any other lens than the lens of the blood of Christ. He loves us. He does not get upset when we find joy in what he has given us. He does not get frustrated when we enjoy the life he has so graciously given us. I think that I was so scared to enjoy the little things in life, the small joys and celebrations, because I thought that I was enjoying those things more than I was enjoying him. But through this past year, God has shown me that this isn't true. That he is for me, and that his grace covers me like a blanket of white.

This lesson and understanding has largely come about due to the fact that God heard my prayers and knew my heart and gave me a child. Graciously. I did nothing to deserve being blessed with a child growing in my womb. I have done nothing to deserve that child growing healthily, strong, stable, beautifully. Yet he has given out of his abundant love and grace. Given after a sad, mournful season of dealing with heartbreak and loss after a confusing and disheartening miscarriage. Given after years of worry and doubt due to illnesses, issues, and misdiagnoses that I would have a difficult time conceiving a child. The past several years were marked by prayer for the future opening and blessing of my womb. And he gave. I walked so carefully through the past 5 months of pregnancy like I was walking on eggshells, thinking that at any moment, I could lose the little life that was inside of me, just as I had lost one before him. Yet God has heard us. He has heard our prayers, and has sustained this life within me, and for that I can only sing hallelujah and praise him.

Since I could remember, I wanted to love and be loved. I prayed ferociously and probably more than I ever prayed for anything to one day be married. I filled journals with pages of my heart's desires and longings. I wrote all about the kind of husband I desired to be my companion for life. And then, unexpectedly, Andrew arrived in my life. After six months of telling him we weren't meant for each other and that I wasn't interested in him, we began dating, and got married 15 months later. God heard me. He heard my prayers and answered them in a far more beautiful way that I ever could have contrived on my own.

God, all along, has heard me. He has listened. He has brought me to my knees lately as I have been recognizing how attentive he has been, and how well and intimately he knows me, because even when he has given me hardships and trials, they were specifically for me and my good, to learn and grow and be molded and shaped.

So really, this is a post of praise. Praise and glory to a good, good Father. I have been quite absent from the blogging world because I have deliberately taken several steps back from my professional life to enjoy the gifts and blessings that he has given me in my personal life. I have discovered more and more the delicate balance that exists in enjoying my teaching career and my vocation, and enjoying my husband, family, friendships, and now this new little baby inside of me. Who, although has brought several weeks of vomiting, nausea, sickness, pain, and occasional ER visits, is kicking and sucking his thumb and waving at me as I look at his little one-pound body on the sonogram machine. God has opened my eyes to the beauty and joy in life around me, and has shown me that even in the smallest of things, he listens and hears me. He hears the deepest longings and prayers of my heart. He hears the constant thoughts bouncing around in my mind. He hears. How comforting it is to know that the creator and holder of the universe hears us, his people, and loves us.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What Did We Do at School Today?

Often, parents want to know what their child did at school everyday.

This is completely, 100% understandable, and it is their right to know. It is their baby who they are graciously sending off to school every morning. They have a lot of hopes and dreams for their child. They have a lot of wonderings and questions about their child. Will my child make friends? Will my child be kind? Will my child learn new things?

It is so difficult, however, to answer the question, "What did my child do at school today?" because, if I answer you honestly, this is what it would look like.

It wouldn't look like a seamless, followed-to-the-exact-minute schedule.

It wouldn't look like your child sitting at a desk all day long, doing long calculations, reading a textbook, working in a workbook, or doing lots of worksheets.

It wouldn't look like a perfectly silent and quiet classroom, with all 19 children obeying and following and listening to every direction.

It looks like this...

Today, I greeted each of your children at the door as they entered and got ready for their day. I want them to know that I see them, that I know they are there, and that their presence at school today is celebrated.

Today, I led your children in exercises of independence and organization. I taught them how to unpack their backpacks everyday, put their take-home folders in the right basket, get their iPad ready for the day, and get started on their morning work. You see, we are working on doing things by ourselves, instead of having others do them for us. We also practiced how to gather all of our needed materials for math class by ourselves, which starts right after announcements are over.

But, after announcements were over, I led your children in understanding the "why" behind saying the US and Texas pledges, as well as why we observe a moment of silence. Lots of them were still trying to sit down or continue to work during these things, or talking or making noises during the moment of silence to be funny. We discussed the importance of respecting our state, country, and fallen soldiers who have fought to protect our freedoms. We discussed the freedom of getting to go to school, to learn, to worship the way we want, to dress the way we do, to marry the person we want. We practiced doing the pledge and moment of silence after these discussions, and your children showed ample respect.

Today, we had math class. During math, we talked about what good mathematicians do. We learned the value in double checking our work. We learned how to organize our thinking about numbers and place value. We learned how to take our time to do a good job. We learned how to download an app and how to use it the right way. We used the app to show the place value of numbers up to 120 and beyond, because I let your children pick their own number and show me all that they could do. Then, we worked on your child's individual math goal that they had set at the beginning of the year. I pulled each child one at a time to work with them individually on their specific goal. I taught one-on-one lessons about multiplication, division, and triple digit subtraction with borrowing-- because those were your children's goals, and I'm not going to stop them from going beyond the curriculum if they can. While they weren't with me, they were doing challenging problem solving questions or logic puzzles in groups. When math was over, I could barely break them away from their focus. They were so into their learning.

Today, we had snack time, because your children get hungry mid morning and I want to listen to that. Their basic needs must be met before learning can happen, so I let them have a snack.

Today, our class circled up and I told them good morning by name and that I was glad they were here today. We talked about how we are feeling today, because sometimes children can carry in hurt or pain or confusion or anger to the classroom, and this is a time to check in and help them overcome those things.

We talked about who we become when we enter this classroom, and who we want to be. Among the answers from your children were: thinkers, dreamers, learners, writers, authors, scientists, friends, artists, readers, loved, and important. I never want them to forget the possibilities within.

We talked about our favorite parts of the week, and reflected as a group on the wonderful things we had done together in class. We laughed together, practiced listening skills and how to make eye contact with others, how to wait our turn when someone else is talking, how to respond to someone's story or thought, and how to show respect in a group and value everyone's voice.

Today, we did a brief but fun calendar time. I asked your children questions like "what number month of the year is the month of June/September/December" or "what would the code date be 6 days from today?" because I know that your children already know the months of the year or how to write today's code date, so I added some depth to it.

Today, we talked about character, how to start a chain reaction of kindness, and read the book "Each Kindness" together, which is about a little girl who lost her chance to show kindness to another child, and it was too late. We talked about being brave and showing courage by being kind. We made text-to-self connections to our own life as we read, and commented on how parts of the book reminded us of things in our own lives. We deeply felt the sorrow at the end of the book. You could've heard a pin drop as I closed the book. I nearly cried after reading the last page. We shared that moment together and understood the depth and importance of being kind to others.

Today, we each made an artistic expression of the word "BRAVE" and decided how we would have courage and be kind this year. We wrote our response on our "BRAVE" posters and used our creativity and art skills to construct a masterpiece. We talked about being brave in making new friends, or standing up to others who are bullying or being unkind. We discussed intellectual courage and being brave with our ideas and our thinking, how to push our brains in new ways this year that we haven't pushed them before. This is so important for us to discuss, because this year will be hard. This year, your child won't coast by. They will have their thinking challenged by other classmates. They will have to grow in strength and reasoning in their intellect.

Today, I held 3 separate children while they cried.
Today, I rubbed a child's back while gently redirecting him to make a better choice.
Today, I put a bandaid on a child's scrape, wrote 3 nurse passes for ice packs or sore throats, and felt 2 foreheads for warmth.
Today, I walked around the playground and located every one of my children, and made sure that they had someone to play with. I helped connect them with other children if they didn't, and helped them practice social skills in joining in play or requesting to play, or inviting others to play.
Today, I gave countless hugs.
Today, I calmed a child down while they had a panic attack in the corner.
Today, I walked many children through the lunch line and made sure that they had a balanced meal and encouraged them to get fruits and vegetables, and not just sweets and snacks.
Today, I noticed lots of good choices made by your child, and had them mark down those good choices and reflect on them.
Today, I helped sprinkle a whole lot of glitter on your child's artwork, lovingly and carefully trying to stick to the design they wanted.
Today, I taught your children how to clean up after themselves and take care of their classroom.
Today, I lined your children up at the end of the day and told them how much I loved them, thanked them for a fabulous day of learning, and told them how much I would miss them over the weekend.
Today, I listened to your child groan because they wouldn't get to go to school for the next three days. I listened as your child told me they would miss me and school and their friends. I hugged and high-fived your child as they walked out the door.
Today, I made sure your child got home safely and got to where they needed to be.
Today, I hung up your child's Brave poster and marveled at their words. I thanked God for each one of them. I prayed for a year of growth and learning.

The past couple of weeks, we have explored the science lab and tools a scientist uses; we have built stamina in reading independently; we have read aloud many beloved books and creative chapter books, and shared rich moments diving into literature; we have focused on building our classroom community and seeing how we are all connected to one another; we have talked about the importance of rules and their purpose, and debated over whether rules should ever be broken; we have slowly started to set up our iPads, learned how to download our own apps, are still learning how to use an app independently, and are still trying to type in our own passwords correctly. We are learning how to brainstorm and think creatively and see things in more than one way. We are learning how to not get stuck as a writer, and discussing ideas of what to write about. We are sharing our passions and interests and starting to research the things we love most.

We have done so many things over the past two weeks since school began.

So, when you ask your child or me what we did at school today, it is a really loaded question. That is why sometimes your child gives you a brief and non-informative answer. That is why my weekly newsletter recapping the week and discussing what learning is to come next week leaves you with lingering questions. Because what we do, everyday, is so much more than a blurb about an objective; it is so much more than what a picture can capture.

And I can't wait to see what the many days to come will hold.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

My 6 Hopes for Year Six

The past week I have been up to my classroom a handful of times: unpacking boxes, sorting math manipulatives in their little baskets, stapling borders, and making runs to the Dollar Tree and Teacher's Tools. And as I work away at setting up this room, there is something really important that I don't want to forget. This isn't MY classroom- it's theirs. It's ours. Together.

What are my hopes for year six? It is honestly crazy to type that out. I remember starting out on this journey of teaching, August 25th, 2010. It was the same day my parents became officially divorced. It was a month before I would even get my first paycheck, and my coworker next door was generously buying me staple groceries to help me get by. It was a month after ending a relationship that crushed me. And on August 25th, 2010, I met my first group of students. They were eager, excited, enthusiastic, and brilliant. We were like peas and carrots, those children and me. They brought healing and purpose to my life that I couldn't have imagined. They gave me a new identity of sorts- "teacher."

The past five years have not been about me, though. Sure, the teacher can really influence a room, but it's the kids that make it. The kids are the ones who create what you will have together for the next nine-ish months. They are the heartbeat and soul of any class, and I find it so funny that I used to think I was.

So as I decorate and place things and hang things and staple things and so forth...I have to continually ask myself, "Is this going to help the room feel like theirs? Is this going to enable us to learn and grow together?" Because if it won't, I don't need to put it up on a wall. And this goes for far more than just classroom decor, this goes for lessons and activities and experiments and PBLs and group work in the future-- is it going to help my students own their learning, and feel like its theirs?

So, as I am constantly reflecting on every little detail of our little learning zone, I also have been reflecting on what I hope for and desire this year. Here are my 6 hopes for year six.

1) Build strong, beautiful relationships with each of my 19 awesome students. I stinkin' love children and what I love about them is that they are each a unique ray of light in our world. They bring sunshine wherever they go, and their childlike outlook on life is refreshing and sweet. I love getting to know them- about their families, their likes and dislikes, their passions and dreams, their goals and hopes, their fears and worries, their ideas and imaginations...I love how they are each wired so specifically, so distinctively, so intentionally. There will never be another child like any of the children I have the honor to teach, and there has never been, nor will there ever be another class like this one again. I want to relish in it and not compare it, not try to make it something it isn't, but to love what it is, and help it to flourish and thrive.

2) Give the classroom back to my students, and allow it to be theirs for the taking, the learning, the growing, the shaping. Allow it to be their space and learning laboratory, their space to grow in, their space to learn more about who they are and how to think and what they feel. I want it to be a space where they feel SAFE to be who they are and learn and ask questions and explore.

3) Fill each day with positivity. I read "The Energy Bus" this summer by Jon Gordon, and I want to be a CEO (Central Energy Officer) for our classroom by promoting strong positive energy, humor, laughter, silly moments, moments to breath and smile and take in the goodness of life. I also want my students to climb aboard our classroom "Energy Bus," and help energize and encourage one another throughout the day.

4) Promote community, kindness, trust, and strong bonds between the students. I want our class to know one another so deeply and well, and build such a tight-knit community that if one of them is absent, the absence is felt- whether the student's ideas or contributions to discussions or learning times aren't being heard, other students are sad about not getting to play and learn with him or her, and the student's overall presence is missed. I want our students to trust one another and me, and to feel safe, loved, and cared for in their classroom environment. I want students to leave our classroom having a better understanding of how to be a friend- how to play with others, how to see things from other perspectives, how a kind word is never wasted, how to be inclusive and accepting of differences, how to THINK before we speak, how to communicate well, how to work with others, how to serve one another, and how integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.

5) Be more flexible with balancing state standard need-to-knows and independent/passion learning time. I want to not worry so much about "covering" every single state standard and by doing so cause stress and anxiety in our classroom (as well as super full days), but to focus on the most important ones and go deep with them with my students. I always try to make sure we hit every standard during the year, but it can sometimes get in the way of real student discovery and self-led learning. I want to make sure there is a balance, because I believe in both. It's important for students to leave our classroom having learned what they needed to learn, but also for them to leave our classroom with a deep understanding of their own personal passions and interests, and the capabilities to research, explore, and go farther with those on their own. In a nutshell, providing time for more student choice and voice, and not feeling guilty about it!

6) Self-reflect and embrace reality. I want to constantly ask myself the question, "Would I want to be a student in this classroom?" I want to be able to problem solve if the answer is no, to be able to think creatively and design solutions that will help students learn better and love learning more. I want to ask students, parents, and teachers for feedback, and be willing to receive it. I want to grow thicker skin and push towards my own goals and change for the better.

To my 19 students of year six- I am ready for you, and I am so excited to be your teacher.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Don't Forget Where You Came From

Yes I have been very bloggy lately. But I am thankful for a space to share what is on my heart and mind. I don't want blogging to be something that I do for gain or notoriety, I want it to be a space to think and grow and share. Maybe it will be of use to others, but it has been immensely useful to me. And on days like today, really pensive and thoughtful ones, I can't help but wonder if I'm just missing it all. Missing reality. Missing the actuality of our education system and just floating on cloud nine and forgetting.

I don't want to forget.

I may be a teacher of the gifted now, but I have always been a teacher of children. The children I have taught range in needs and abilities, but my love for them all is unconditional.

I may be a teacher in GCISD now, but I used to be in BISD. And man, did those people work hard. They had to. Not that teachers in GCISD don't-- far from that-- but it is a different kind of hard work. During my first four years of teaching in BISD, they had very little resources and little support from the community. They had classes bursting at the seams, overflowing with children beyond the 22:1 ratio. They were a small district in cities that have been fighting to thrive. And I had the chance to know and work for this district, and teach alongside their teacher-warriors the students in our schools. Students who were, and still are, absolutely worth it. Students who I have shed many tears over and prayed over and loved with all the love I could muster. Students who have loved me unconditionally, and have seen me not only as a teacher, but a caregiver, a mother, a parent. Students who I will never forget and am thankful to have had the opportunity to know and cherish. Families who became my family. Families who saw me up late at school at night and brought over dinner, or invited me into their apartments. Some families who, despite having little, gave what they had to make sure I felt appreciated. Families who still text me, or keep in touch, or send me Christmas cards or emails. Families who trusted me and cried with me and fought with me, fought for the best for their child. Some families who never stepped foot inside our classroom or answered a phone call. Some families who didn't know what grade their child was in. It is their children who I miss with a different kind of longing. BISD, you showed me how to fight for the best for our students. And you continue to fight the good fight well, with what you have, any way you can. You pour your lives into your profession. And I miss you...deeply.

I may be a teacher who teaches in a classroom where all of my students have 1:1 iPads, but I used to be a teacher who struggled figuring out how to use 5 iPod touches well in a classroom, or one class set of iPads during one 2-hour period per week. The technology that my students now have at their fingertips at any given moment during the day astounds me. And it breaks my heart that this isn't the reality or the case across our great state. That some students will grow in an educational environment full of digital literacy and opportunities for learning because of the tools they have, and some won't have that same chance. It frustrates me.

I may be a teacher who teaches in a classroom where the majority of my students want to learn and grow, but I have been on the other end of that spectrum. I will never forget how long it took during my second year of teaching to slowly motivate and instill a love of learning in my students. They were young and wanted to play and frolic and socialize, and I was young and wanted them to learn and read and write. We met in the middle somewhere along the way, and it was beautiful. I remember the lack of desire, the resistance to learning, the groans and the tears. I remember the obstacles many of us faced to get to where we needed to be. I remember that it isn't always the norm to have a class full of students who are eager to learn and excel. I don't want to forget what it's like for a child to finally unlock their own love of learning.

I may be a teacher now who blogs about new-fangled ideas on giftedness and how to best serve gifted students in a classroom, but I used to be a teacher who just blogged about my small, daily adventures and moments with children. I wrote about things that may have been ordinary to most, but were extraordinary to me. Moments that I am thankful to have captured, for when I read back on them now, I laugh and weep and thank God for what he has given me the past five years. Moments that I can't believe happened, conversations I recorded that I can still play out in my mind and remember the children who made them happen, times of frustration or despair that were all redeemed and restored.

I may have things I want to say now about giftedness or the world of education, for it is a passion of mine, but I also don't want to forget that this blog started as a way to remember, to never forget, to look back on memories with fondness and joy. I don't want to forget where I came from, from Room P104 and all of the life that occurred in its walls.

What I Wish I'd Done with GT Kids in the Regular Classroom: #1 and #4

Good afternoon! Andrew and I just returned from a loooooong stretch of vacation. We were in Chicago (for both of us, it was our first time there) for 5 days and then Austin for 4 days. Both were restful, adventurous, and beautiful, but it feels good to be back home and back into a rhythm.

I mentioned on my previous post that I would go further in depth with each of the 9 things I listed that I wish I would've done in my regular classroom with my gifted students. I am going to further explain #1 and #4 first as a starting point, and I think they go nicely together, since inquiry and exploration in science and social studies includes a lot of student voice and choice in content, process, and product. The following post is a bit on the longer side, but I wanted to make sure to provide lots of examples and explanations.

Advocating for Student Voice and Choice in the Classroom
Using Inquiry, Wonder Walls, Research, and Self-Led Experimentation

Classroom with Mike: very little student voice/choice, and science/social studies time was a lot of direct instruction with very few inquiry components, if any at all. Mike was not given the chance to share how he wanted to meet a standard or choose what kind of product he would make to show his learning. Mike was not given the chance to give me feedback as an educator or propose possible changes that could make learning for him better-- I didn't know at the time the importance of letting my students do so. Mike had very little space for asking above-and-beyond questions that he could actually find answers to on his own. I did not set up our science and social studies learning to be inquiry and discovery-based, which resulted in boredom and detachment during lessons. Oh, if only I knew then what I know now.

Student voice and choice is a hot topic right now in many educational circles. We are seeing it pop up everywhere. Our district had a passionate Twitter chat all about it in May that blew us all away. We are seeing how crucial it is that students are given a voice- the ability to speak up, be brave, ask questions, share ideas, give examples, communicate needs and desires, and provide feedback on how the learning is going. This feedback can include commenting on a teacher's teaching methods or practice, to how they would change something in the classroom, whether it be the set-up of the desks or the book project that was assigned. When students are allowed this freedom to speak up respectfully and share what is on their minds, teachers are allowed the opportunity to hear from the best critic of all- their own students. You see, our students are not just receivers of information or visitors to our classroom. They are to be the center, and they have a right to say when something could be made different for the betterment of the learning environment. That doesn't mean they bark rudely at you or tell you what you are doing is stupid, because that gets nobody anywhere. At the beginning of this past year, some students after hearing that they had this freedom to speak into what we were doing as a class used it as merely an opportunity to complain or comment without any back-up or alternative plan-- and when I would ask them how they could envision something better or to give specifics, they could not. We all quickly learned that feedback isn't feedback if it's just noise.

From day one, it is important to model and practice with students how to ask specific questions, how to provide and share new ideas or ways to do something differently, and how to give teachers constructive and helpful feedback. Opening up that line of communication builds a level of mutual trust and respect that is out of this world. It empowers students to be the owners of their learning experiences. It empowers them and produces boldness and leadership, to allow them to take on learning with their own two hands. The teacher is a facilitator, a guide, a mentor, a coach, a scaffolder, there every step of the way-- but now the students are in charge of their own learning and excited about it. They have a say! They have freedom! They can work in groups or by themselves if they want, they can go to the bathroom or sharpen a pencil when they desire, they can show their learning by making a movie or a model or a brochure, they can. Sure, there may be times where you as the educator know what is best for them and give them certain parameters-- you come to know when these times are; for example, the child who never works alone and always with others, or the child who wants to make a second 3D model that week and hasn't even finished their first-- you tend to pick up on these patterns and intervene when it is fitting. But when it comes to the learning process, there's not a lot of can't's that should be present anymore. With all children, especially gifted learners, they need this freedom. They need to be allowed a voice and choice in how they learn. Not just receivers of what we give them, but creators, doers, thinkers, makers, dreamers, full of ideas and possibilities. 

More on student voice and choice in content/process/product throughout the next several paragraphs, but I want to take a moment and talk about the importance of science and social studies. The first has to do with the way the world works around us, and all the things in it. The second has to do with the way communities and people work together, and how it has been done and how it has evolved and changed in our appropriate communities and the world over many years. When you boil it down, science and social studies teach us how to better understand our world- so they are super important! These are often subjects we skimp on (or skip completely) due to the nature of the fact that reading and math are so foundational and necessary, plus due to the fact that our students take standardized tests in these subjects sooner in their educational careers. So we spend little time on science and social studies or we try to integrate them into our ELAR block, but it just makes me sad that these subjects often get the shaft. To do science and social studies REALLY well, you can't just read a book about it. You can't just read a passage and answer comprehension questions about it. You have to incorporate inquiry- the process of starting with questioning, then walking through exploration, experimentation, and discovering answers to your questions along the way. You also have to incorporate *wonder* in science and social studies instruction. "I wonder how our life is different today because of historical figures and their contributions in the past? What would it be like without them?" "I wonder how objects in the sky move over a 24 hour period? How does the sky change?" It opens up so much opportunity for exploration and discovery.

Here is how to use inquiry, wonder walls, research, and self-led experimentation in science and social studies while incorporating student voice and choice.

1) Gain Prior Knowledge. I should've done this so much more often with Mike and the learners in my classroom. It seems so simple, but when we as teachers construct an amazing lesson plan and then think about the what-if, "What if my students already know all of this and my planning time was wasted?", we often can shy away from this very important step. This means that as a teacher, part of your job is to introduce the learning standard or target, and then gain what prior knowledge or ideas they already have coming into the unit. This is so important to do with gifted learners. They often come in already having the knowledge and having mastered the standard before anything else is said. When you ask what they already know, they can sometimes be an encyclopedia of information. My students often times know more than me, and I have learned to be okay with that! When I asked them what they knew about magnets, for example, I gave them about 3-4 minutes to write down their thoughts on sticky notes and post them to the board. They have a class number, so they would write their number in the corner so I would know whose was whose. After reading them all, I quickly realized which of my students already knew everything we needed to know about magnets- that they can push or pull objects, attract and pull objects made of iron, repelling/pushing happens when two similar poles are put together, and pulling/attracting happens when opposite poles are put together...and so on and so forth...and I laughed and realized that if I had made them sit there through a week's worth of magnet books and videos and lessons then they would've been bored and poor behaviors would have started to pop out and they would've been trying so hard to move on to something new. 

So what happens if you gain prior knowledge and your gifted students plus others know the information, but some do not? You differentiate the discovery in content, process, and product. Here's how:

2) Create a Wonder Wall. Whether a child knows everything there is to know about Abraham Lincoln or types of energy, there is always more to know or wonder about. Allow your students to wonder and ask new questions! These questions can be ones they can research or find out as you go, or they can be ones that turn into self-led experiments that are performed over a longer period of time. 

Plants Example: Our first grade science standard is to identify and compare the parts of plants, a pretty simple one that could be done easily in one day with an associated worksheet that gifted students would find pointless and then quickly ask when they can go back to their coding app or finish the comic book they are working on about the ten tallest buildings in the world. #giftedinterests

So, we gained some prior knowledge- what do we already know about plants and their parts? After finding out what my students knew and didn't know, I then knew how to go from there. As we would continue in our plant unit, the ones who didn't know would simply be the ones who I watched more closely as we engaged in the exploring and discovery pieces-- were they picking up the information they needed, and were they discovering it on their own? When they researched, were they finding answers? If they weren't, then of course I could do some one-on-one instruction with them or small grouping. 

Then we all started to ask more questions-- this takes us into choice in content, what the students learn. Students often want to learn so much more, if we let them and get out of the way. If after generating prior knowledge you have students wanting to know more and go beyond the standard, you begin a wonder wall. ALL students can participate in a Wonder Wall, even the ones who don't have the basic content mastered yet. Wondering creates opportunities for learning, ones that we as teachers may not have even imagined. Creating a "Wonder Wall" is easy-- this can be at any space in the room. It can be a bulletin board; it can be a poster board you laminate and can put up or take down; or even a section of your white board. A Wonder Wall is most effective when it is always available, so that students can use post-it notes and jot down a wondering at any time during the day to stick up there and work with later. It is wonderful because whenever a child has a question they are wondering about and we may not have the time to go deep into it at that moment, we can all say, "Wonder Wall!" and the child can happily, excitedly go write it down and stick it up on the board to be explored at a later time. It is helpful because it doesn't dismiss the above-and-beyond questions, and it promises students that they can find out the things they want to know and will be given time to do so. They can explore their questions during an RtI Block or as a fast finisher activity, or during independent study-- you will find the time. However, you can be intentional with what the questions will be used for-- will they be a simple search one day on (a kid-friendly search engine), or will the questions be turned into experiments or independent study?

^ An experiment from this past year that was birthed out of a wonder wall question

3) Self-Led Experimentation. So with plants we asked- What do plants need to survive? What does a seed need to germinate/sprout? (These first two questions I generated for class-wide experimentation.) Then they came up with the rest: Can seeds grow without any oxygen? How much space do seeds need to grow? How much soil do seeds need to grow and survive? If you give a plant too much water, will it die? We made hypotheses and predicted what we thought would happen if we tested any of these questions. We then set up inquiry-based experiments that the students chose- this is the process of learning the content they want to explore, and they chose how they wanted to do it- and their experiments were all based on one of the questions they asked on the Wonder Wall. They got into teams, told me the materials they needed to perform their experiments, used proper science tools, set their experiments up and put them in an area of the room by a window, or perhaps in a closet, if they were testing the effects of no sunlight. Next to their experiment they wrote their Wonder Wall question on an index card and propped it up next to the experiment, so all would know what the experiment was testing. As we watched and observed these plant experiments, taking notes and recording what we noticed and new learning (my students couldn't believe that seeds only need water to germinate/sprout-- nothing more-- it was on many of their "top things I learned in first grade" lists), we dove into the plant parts and compared them to one another in each of the several experiments going on. After the two weeks of watching, observing, and recording what we noticed, we shared our findings to one another in our teams-- what we had discovered, if our question had been answered or if there was further exploration to do. My students loved this part because they were in charge of their question, their experiment, and their discovery-- they were the scientists, and I was the facilitator on the side. They owned it!

4) Research. I asked how else we could find out information about plant parts and their functions, so students decided to research in teams (more process decisions- how the students want to learn) by using various web sites and videos explaining the parts of plants and their functions. They asked if we could use a class shared Google Doc to type down notes about each plant part as they found information. Some asked if they could just take notes on post-its, and others in their science journals --> more choice in process. This is another area you can differentiate in- the process of how children learn something does not always look the same for all the students in your class. While some students may feel comfortable and ready to go and research on their own, some are not-- and this could be a time where when others are independently researching, you can pull individuals or small groups to research together or to do a mini-lesson or reteach. It is important to provide choice in this way, even for gifted students, because sometimes they aren't ready or willing to go learn on their own in various cases. Sometimes they want you to teach them something directly, and that's ok!

^ Snapshot of part of the notes on class shared Google Doc

5) Assessment/How Students Show Their Learning and Understanding: Along the way, students created different products- ways to show their learning of plants and their parts. There are so many ways students can show learning along the way of course, and you can do continual formative assessment as you work through the study. However, as a summative (in lieu of a paper/pencil test) you can often ask students how they want to show you that they've learned. Sometimes they can just orally tell you. Sometimes you can just pull them one-on-one and them show you they know. But sometimes, they want to come up with something created and original- hence, a product.

Students started their plant products at the beginning of the unit as opposed to at the end of the unit. They updated their creations and worked on them as they learned and gained new understandings. This allows the students time to actually create a sophisticated product, instead of cramming it in at the end of a study. (Note: If I were to do it again, maybe we could've made this into some sort of PBL with an audience, but I don't think it is necessarily needed here. When you incorporate inquiry and self-selected experimentation and research, it can be very real-life and real-world to younger children.) They chose their own products, from creating life-size plant models to posters to books to digital products, labeling parts and describing their functions. 

Allowing choice in product is so important for gifted learners. They often have ideas of how they could show their learning, but we can limit them by always providing the means. From the beginning of the year, I slowly teach one product at a time. I started out last year with PicCollage to make collages with text, then recorded products such as Doceri, ChatterpixKids, Shadow Puppet, or iMovie. After introducing these, students already have a good amount of choice in their products early in the year. No digital tools? No problem. Introduce other ones at first, like a poster, a foldable, or a book. You can add additional product choices to your students' tool belt as you introduce them, and by mid-year, they have a wide array of products: advertisements, poems, iMovies, collages, posters, Popplets (digital webs), brochures, dioramas, models, Important Books, comic strips, and more. You can even have a list of these with visual aides for children so that when the time arises for them to choose, they remember what they have to pick from. Product choice is also super helpful with any student. I have a twice-exceptional student who struggled with writing on paper, but when he was allowed to explore other ways to show his learning, he blossomed.

^ Examples of different products- these were from our independent study animal research projects: a triple diorama, an informational poster, and a 3D model with facts attached- student chosen, student created

I had one student create a plant model out of construction paper that was beyond any idea I had. He made a huge paper plant with a flower, leaves, a stem, and roots coming out of the bottom. The plant was in a round paper pot, where if you opened a side door on the pot, you could see the roots inside and read about them. He wrote about each of the other parts as well and attached it to the model. He was so proud of what he had done and was showing off his product to everyone in the class and talking about it with other teachers he would pass in the hallway. Boy, am I glad I didn't give him a worksheet to label...

If you are used to a 5E model when approaching inquiry- Engage, Explore, Explain, Evaluate, and Elaborate- you can find this flow in the above approach. Engage/explore often go together in generating prior knowledge and wonder wall questions and in the experimentation/hands-on activities. Explain/Evaluate occur as students are learning from their hands-on experiences and teachers are providing understanding as they go, as well as through research and study of the content along the way. Evaluation is occurring every step of the way because you started with what your kids knew or didn't know yet, monitored and gauged their learning through observation and seeing their notes and journals, and also through the products and ways they show their understanding throughout. Elaborate really goes well with the Wonder Wall questioning and experimentation-- because a lot of those questions and experiments/studies that come from them are going above and beyond the learning standard anyway.

So...who's ready to do some science right now? Because after typing all of this out, it's making those parts of my brain click wildly! I hope that this post has provided some clarity on #1 and #4 in my list. There are other examples or ways that we included the components of inquiry and of student voice and choice in the classroom, but this post is already packed full enough. Feel free to ask any questions or share ways you've done these things in the past. 

*Note #1: It is really helpful to find learning standards that go together so that you can reach all of them within one "unit." This is the approach PBL takes as well, to clump those together (cross-curricular as well!) so that you're not doing this entire process for one lone standard.

*Note #2: I also want to say that this was a year-long process for me of learning how to do these things well. At the beginning of the year I was afraid to let go of all my teacher-control, and I hadn't quite figured out how to best approach science from an inquiry standpoint. But by the end of the year, I felt that my students had helped me somewhat figure it out. Next year we will continue to work on these things and find our flow as a new class, but I am excited that we had this past year full of wondering!