Saturday, November 18, 2017

Cotton Candy Skies

My daughter coined the phrase first, her tiny hand tucked neatly in mine as we walked on the sidewalk near dusk. "Look, Mommy!" she squealed, her face glowing with excitement, "God made cotton candy skies!" My eyes turned upward as we stopped in our tracks, the view so breathtakingly beautiful all we could do was watch in hushed amazement as the colors swished and swirled against each other, a vivid masterpiece of brilliance that dissipated as quickly as it began.

Even though she was only five, her metaphor resonated with me and for more than a decade we have repeated the phrase each time we see a sunrise or sunset that shimmers with shades of pink, purple, and blue.

Cotton candy skies are rare as they only occur for a few moments and not shown every day. They are easy to miss if your focus is on other things. This morning as I was writing in the shadows of my living room, my attention was drawn from the words on my laptop to the window on my left. From the corner of the glass, I caught the darkened sky filling with layers of pink and knew the sun was starting to rise. Immediately the laptop was put aside as I raced to find shoes and a coat, unlocking the door to view the sunrise from the middle of my street.

This morning's sunrise was spectacular!

I started to take a picture then quickly realized it couldn't capture the magic of the moment. That's when I slid the bar from photo to video and tapped the button to record:

As I stood there staring at the incredible shades of light, I became hyperaware of the sights and sounds around me. I heard the birds chirping in the distance and saw leaves fluttering to the ground. I gazed at the bands of color stretching across the sky as the morning sun peeked through the distance.

There were no cars.

No people.

Just me with the cotton candy sky.

It was exactly what I needed to start my day.

This month Theresa Holloran has been sharing her insights from The Zen Teacher: Creating Focus, Simplicity, and Tranquility in the Classroom, written by Dan Tricarico. It's been a joy to see her favorite sections of this book and her reflections on the passages. Today's post came from page 120: "Find your happy place. And then go there as often as you can."

Today I am thankful for the small moments that fill us with childlike wonder and fill our hearts with gratitude. I spent a few moments in my happy place and it completely transformed my day. How will you start yours?

As we transition into the holiday season and fill our calendars with activities and events, I challenge you to find your happy place.

Look up.

Embrace the stillness.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Umbrellas and Rain

It was a typical Monday morning with voices of students and teachers filling the building after another two-day reprieve. I was walking from one class to the next when I passed a teacher in the hall pushing a loaded cart of supplies. "Perfect timing!" I proclaimed as I held the door open for her to enter the building. She smiled in response then stopped to chat for a moment or two.

We talked about our weekends and upcoming projects on the horizon. We shook our heads in disbelief as we contemplated one-fourth of our school year already complete. "Where does the time go?" As we started to part ways, I thanked her for bringing a little sunshine to my day and she paused with a laugh and said, "You are an umbrella to my rain!"

Perhaps this is a cliche others know well, but it was the first time I had ever heard it. The visualization has stayed with me the entire day.

How can we be more like umbrellas to other people's rain?

We can offer shelter from the storm.
There are times throughout our week when it seems the winds whip from every direction and you can barely stand upright. Seek out others who may be running for shelter or are hovering in the shadows to stay dry. Make a genuine effort to connect, to check-in, to listen and empathize. Be that safe place people can go where the storm of judgment and criticism is kept away.

We can surround others with strength.
Just like the metal ribs of an umbrella stretch out to hold the canopy in place, we can strengthen our students and co-workers by stretching ourselves to meet their needs. Perhaps it's something simple like offering to help on a task or maybe it's a bit more complex like brainstorming ideas and solutions. Supporting others with strength reminds them that they are not alone and we can battle the storm together.

We can get wet to keep others dry.
Sometimes support means doing things beyond our designated roles and responsibilities. It's staying late after school to help out a struggling teacher. It's helping to clean up the cafeteria floor when a carton of milk is spilled by a student. It's offering to help, being willing to serve, and taking one for the team. Our willingness to get wet by the storm shows others that even in the hardest downpours, the work we do still has value, importance, and worth.

Let's be like umbrellas today, so we can we can shine a light on sunny skies tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Value Vulnerability

Several weeks ago, my attention was drawn to Chapter 5 of Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth, by Aaron Hogan. This section, aptly titled "Value Vulnerability" made me uncomfortable right from the first truth:

"Vulnerability is prerequisite for all innovation, creativity, and change."

Ugh! Just the thought of sharing vulnerabilities makes many people squirm, myself included. I've spent much of my career holding firm to the teacher myths that we need to know all, do all, be all. It's quite a challenge to allow that shell of perfectionism crack and shatter to the ground; it's even harder to share about it with others.

What I've learned from Aaron's writing (as well as posts from other educators in my PLN) is that I'm not alone. We've all had amazing days as well as those moments when we questioned why we got into this profession in the first place. What helps us make it through the rough spots is realizing that we are not alone: vulnerability makes us real.

Today I was chatting with another teacher when her voice lowered to a near whisper. "I did something horrible," she confessed. Her students had spent quite a bit of time working on a special piece of artwork and she wanted to preserve the delicate designs. With best intentions, she took the papers to the laminating machine, but as the oil pastel creations were pressed between the layers of plastic, the heat from the machine melted the colors and smeared them across the designs.

All the students' masterpieces were ruined. 

As I listened to her story, my heart ached for the angst she experienced in that moment. I could feel my own skin bristling at the loss, the horror of having to explain everything to her students who had worked so hard to create such a special project.

She was mortified, but didn't allow her embarrassment to stop her from being vulnerable with her students. After they arrived this morning, she gathered them near, explained what happened, and apologized. She readjusted her schedule to provide time to talk about the mishap and offered students the opportunity to use class time to recreate their colorful drawings.

Sometimes the greatest lessons we teach begin with the greatest lessons we learn.

Her students responded with empathy. They consoled her. They offered forgiveness. 

By sharing her vulnerability with her students, she actually strengthened her classroom culture as they openly discussed her feelings of panic, shock, dismay. She showed them that even teachers make mistakes, thus shattering the perfect teacher's myth in the most humbling of ways.

I was a little surprised she opened up to me in this way, sharing such a heartbreaking faux pas. But as she described her students' reactions to the news, I realized the importance of this shared moment.

We rise together. 

Aaron Hogan's words reminds us:

"Being vulnerable with your colleagues is being willing to step into the struggle and walk with them toward a better place."

Today I am grateful for the reminder that I don't have to be perfect. We all make mistakes. We all have those horrendous moments that make us want to run and hide. But there is a hidden beauty in revealing our inadequacies to others.

It helps strengthen our resilience so we can then strengthen others along the way.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Remixing Relevance

Last week our #tlap chat focused on remixing lessons. How do we take bits and pieces of lessons and change them to become relevant for our students now? As a technology integrator, I'm always looking for ways to make a good lesson great and I'll be the first to tell you that it's not about the tool itself, but how you use the tool that makes the most impact on learning.

I'm often inspired by the amazing educators I connect with on Twitter. The sharing of ideas and resources is endless! I especially love how one comment on someone's post can lead to a side conversation that takes shape and form into something new for your instruction.

I was chatting with Barbara Gruener when she asked a question that would transform my kindness lesson for the week:

"Have you seen our Jet Stream Jax video yet?"

It was a simple question from one educator to another, but became the spark of remix inspiration from Texas to Virginia.

Jet Stream Jax is making a difference in the world and my students needed to see him in action.

I couldn't wait for the students to arrive. Since our Innovation Lab has flexible seating, I removed the tables and chairs to provide room for students to scatter on the floor. We opened our lesson by reading Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts then discussed different aspects of the book, from not being able to purchase items we wanted to the kindness shared through generosity. This sparked a deeper conversation as we explored the meaning of compassion and empathy.

Students opened their Kindness Journals and shared acts of kindness they had seen and done since our last lesson together. We also gave shout-outs as sparks of gratitude for "Thankful Thursday."

Kindness Journals from Mrs. Madison's class
Kindness Journals from Mrs. Cross' class

Mrs. Cross' Thankful Thursday List

Mrs. Madison's Thankful Thursday List

Then we remixed relevance by introducing Jet Stream Jax.

"Last class we watched a video from Kid President encouraging us to make a difference in the world. Today I want to introduce you to an eight-year-old student named Jackson, who lives in Texas. He likes to be called 'Jet Stream Jax' because of his passion for reporting about weather. He and his friends were right in the path of Hurricane Harvey back in August."

Before I could say another word, the room was buzzing with questions.

"Did he lose his house?"

"Does he still have a school?"

"How can we help him?"

Students were making connections by sharing stories of other people they knew that were impacted by the hurricanes this fall. It was a teachable moment that students led by discussion, pondering the impacts of severe weather and the domino effect of damaging winds, power loss, and flooding.

My heart overflowed with their instant concern and desire to make things better for others. Little did they know, Jet Stream Jax wasn't trying to help himself, but his local and global community impacted by the hurricane destruction.

Our students watched the video, completely engaged, as they saw a real person - younger than them - using technology to make a difference in this world. Their questions became exclamatory statements as they reflected on all Jackson had shared:

"Hey! He's a real kid like us!"

"I bet recess is really boring for them now. I wish we could build them a playground!"

"I love weather, too! Maybe I'll make a video like he did!"

"That's really cool that he's had so many views on YouTube. I hope they get a LOT of coins!"

We learned about the the Kind Coins for Hurricane Relief campaign, sponsored by The Great Kindness Challenge and made our own collection jar to spread kindness to others, helping to rebuild playgrounds in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico.

In Social LEADia, author Jennifer Casa-Todd asks a vital question about technology use in and out of the classroom:
"How are we showing students that they can use technology & social media to make a positive difference in someone's life TODAY?"
We empower them to find creative ways to show kindness to others, then encourage them to share their story with the world.

Because of Jackson's video, our students now want to make their own videos. They want to gather support for a kindness cause. They want their voice heard around the world. They want others to see that their ideas matter.

They want to be a leader like Jet Stream Jax.

Two weeks ago, we had a very different lesson about compassion and empathy sketched out for our students. Sometimes, however, we need to remix for relevance. I'm so thankful Barbara was willing to share her student's video with us, so we could see first-hand how one student is doing his part to make this world a better place.

I can't wait to see how our students show kindness to others this year!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Lego Lessons

"Mommy, will you play with me?"

His eight-year-old voice rang in my ears as I finished the sentence I was typing, my manuscript interrupted yet again. I could feel the urgency to swish him away with my hand, knowing if I could just write for a little bit more I could finish this chapter. I was so close! The words were flowing so well! Just a half hour more and I could take a break.

I looked up from my laptop and saw him standing there, his small hand holding out a Lego figure that matched the illustrations on his favorite pajama pants. When my eyes raised up to meet his, I knew in an instant how I would spend the rest of my morning.

Instead of writing about kindness, I needed to show kindness to my son.

He guided me to our staircase as he explained the rules of his game.

"Mommy, you sit on the floor over there. You get to put Lord Garmadon anywhere you want, but you've got to stand him up. I'm gonna sit up here and slide down the Lego Ninjagos and we're gonna see who knocks him down. It will be awesome!"

The excitement in his voice was infectious. He was proud of himself for creating a game we could both play and he was certain he would win the first round. I set up Lord Garmadon and one by one he slid his Lego figures down the base of our banister.

Round 1: Complete failure. 

All the Lego Ninjagos were scattered on the floor and steps, yet Lord Garmadon was still standing in all his fierceness. According to the rules of the game, my son and I couldn't swap roles until Lord Garmadon was eradicated from his reign over the others. He had to try again.

And again.

And again.

After the fourth trial, his frustration started to show as he exclaimed, "How can this be so hard?" He started to tinker with his strategy. He tried to slide them along the edge. He removed and added weapons. He tried head first, then feet first. 

We moved Lord Garmadon to a new spot on the floor, a little more to the right, a little farther back, noticing that this is where most of the Lego people would land after taking flight from the banister. Still no luck knocking him down.

And then it happened. 


Lord Garmadon fell backwards and my son's joy reverberated from the stairwell. He did it! He really did it!

We switched roles and now I was charged with guiding the Legos down the banister. It didn't take long before my son started offering suggestions for improvement.

"Move that guy a little closer to the edge, Mommy."

"If you have him hold the nunchucks, they might fly out and hit him when he lands."

"No, Mommy, don't take his hat off. If his hat flies off and knocks him down, it still counts as a win."

We were teammates, helping each other with tactics and strategies. The teacher in me recognized all the things he was learning in his game: the correlation of force and motion with gravity, the mathematical insights of angles, the scientific experiments of cause and effect with dependent and independent variables.




But to him, we were just playing a game.

We continued taking turns setting up Lord Garmadon and knocking him down, our game increasing in difficulty as our technique improved. We set him up behind obstacles and used the opposite banister to launch. We had dozens of trials, even more modifications.

His older brother came downstairs, observed our game, and promptly stated, "That's impossible. You can't knock him down from there." That declaration sparked a rush of denial, an urgency to prove him wrong. 

It wasn't impossible.

We just needed to improve our attack.

We tried again.

And again.

And again.

And then...

We mastered our game!

I was reminded of valuable lessons from our Lego time together:

It's OK to lose the first time you try.

A quick win from the start would have shortened the length of our game, but we learned so much more by trial and error. The failures and mistakes showed us what didn't work, thus narrowing down options for strategies that might.

Embrace the power of "yet".

Carol Dweck states in her TED Talk "The Power of Believing You Can Improve" (as well as her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) that children with a growth mindset engage deeply and embrace the challenge of accomplishing something just outside of their reach. They discover an error, process it, and learn from it. I saw this first-hand with my child and his Lego game. Even when the bouts of frustration started to creep in, he didn't shut down and throw a tantrum. He understood completely that he hadn't mastered the game yet.

Sometimes we need to listen to the whisper on our hearts and make time for things that matter. 

I didn't finish writing Chapter 8, but I can always get back in the groove later. I may never get another opportunity to battle Lord Garmadon with my son. He is growing older and there will come a day where he doesn't play with Legos nor want his mom to join in his fun. It's important to recognize opportunities to be kind to others (even our own children!), to say "yes", to shift our priorities, to strengthen our relationships.

Today my passion for kindness was for him.

And like a boomerang, that kindness bounced back to me.