Osu, or, Cultivating Empathy for My Students

My nephew has what the sensei calls strong spirit.

My nephew has what the sensei calls strong spirit.

Last year I signed my nephew up for beginning karate and started carting him to lessons twice weekly.  And I watched a bit in between grading papers.  It looked interesting.  And kind of difficult.  The sensei was very patient, however, and the nephew responded to instruction and caught on well.  He moved up half a rank (to “white belt with yellow stripe”), and we were suitably impressed.  He moved up to the intermediate class.  And that is when I enrolled for beginning karate.

As a teacher, I’ve always felt that it is important to maintain a strong connection to my role as a learner.  And I’ve completed college courses, but that sort of learning is deep inside my comfort zone.  So I’ve tried to find learning opportunities that push me in different ways.  A few years ago I started playing video games, and while there are always new places to go with that, I’m not regularly pushed into cognitive dissonance at this point.  So I’ve spent the last four months taking karate.  And it is freaking hard for me.

I do not have the natural coordination of many other students.  I am out of shape, sweaty and out of breath with alarming frequency.  The instructors do not cut me slack because I am the old lady in a group of kids.  The kids do not cut me slack, although they are encouraging.  Just when I get the hand motions under control, I am told my stance is all wrong.  I fix that,  then my shoulders are telegraphing the punches.  I fix that, and my feet are pointing the wrong way.  I fix that, and now my hand motions are going wild–again.  Did I mention how freaking hard this is for me?

I think about quitting.  I think about my students–that kid who just can’t seem to remember how to round numbers.  That other kid who hates reading aloud, because she knows (she KNOWS) that she’s the slowest and makes lots of errors.  I so get that, I really do.  And karate is the latest pursuit that keeps the learner’s struggle front and center within me.  I watch the instructors cycle through the class, correcting errors, observing, giving encouragement.

And when I get that hand motion right, and the sensei tells me so, I feel that little rush of victory.  I hang onto that.  I say, “Osu.”  Depending on how you translate, this means different things.  One sensei described osu as perseverance.   I read another interpretation–push and suffer.  In teaching, we might frame it as productive frustration.  I want to teach my students like this.  Push, struggle, make a small victory, use it to fuel that next push.

My first belt test is coming up in a week or two, and I am nervous.  Deeply nervous.  I have tried to be the best learner I know how to be, but it may not be enough to pass.  What if I fail?  Yes, I know–if you give it your best shot, you can be proud of yourself regardless of the results.  You can try again.  (But don’t we all want to get it right the first time through?)  Being a learner sometimes means coaching yourself to the occasional hard truth.

So I need to go practice my kata instead of blogging about it.  Maybe next year I”ll take up knitting or learn to write HTML or something.  The task isn’t necessarily important–it is the benefit of feeling all the horror and glory–push and suffer–that is my true goal.  When I stop being a learner, I stop being an effective teacher. Osu!


Reflections on PD & Choice & Hope

I am not, as I recently heard a colleague say in reference to herself, a “Positive Polly”.  At least not lately.  The confluence of broken contract negotiations, laws and media that attack my profession, the retirement of a beloved boss, and a new teaching assignment (in addition to personal life stuff) has left me feeling…lost and afraid, I suppose.  But in the midst of winter, I found, if not an “invincible summer” (sorry Ralph Waldo), something to inspire hope.  I want to share.

District teachers and administrators met for a day of professional development on MLK day last week.  I have a rocky history with district-sponsored PD.  This time was different.  In advance of the day, our new assistant superintendent for instruction organized several folks from both within and outside the district, to offer conference-style workshops.  Even better, staff were given the opportunity to select the sessions that most interested them.  There were nearly a couple of dozen choices, and I found myself in the wonderful position of having to choose between multiple learning opportunities of interest to me.  I also  had a chance to present, which was a great learning experience.  This probably doesn’t sound all that groundbreaking to the larger world, but it was a big deal to me and many of my colleagues.

Being given choice is something that every learner, and most educators these days, know the power of.  The opportunity to choose confers an unspoken respect on the chooser.  The message I got was, “Hey, you are trusted and competent, and we’d like to offer you some opportunities to continue to evolve your practice in ways you deem most appropriate as a reflective educator.”  And it just felt really good.  Like a little ray of light in the dark.

dark candle by Wim Vandenbussche

And I’m going to try and hang onto that.  The professional development I signed up for challenged my thinking, and that is important.  And the way the PD was planned and implemented is also challenging me to re-frame how I see my circumstances.  For me, at this moment, that is of greater importance.

Missives from the Dojo

Back in November I wrote about using a couple of new tools for motivating students and managing/tracking behavior, Class Dojo and classbadges.com.  We’ve been at it for a few months now, and I’ve learned a few things.

1.  I am pretty good with the whole Positive Behavior Management thing, and using the dojo helps me to stay on track.  Since every point that a child gets has to be immediately classified, I can give specific feedback about behavior–no “caught being ‘good'” scenarios for me!  And I’ve trained my students that, if another staff member hands them that kind of thing, they need to ask WHY they are being rewarded.  Because guess what?  Before I taught them to ask, most student did NOT know why they were getting little reward cards.

2.  I have some routine items that students expect.  Each day I pick one or two points that everyone gets a dojo point opportunity on–sometimes as simple as having first and last name at the top of assignments, other times showing reflective listening skills in partner talk.  Y’know, positive behaviors.  That keeps me from forgetting completely as we get immersed in lessons.

3.  I kind of suck at tracking negative behaviors.  I am not as consistent about making sure that these behaviors are recorded in the dojo.  It’s just so HARD to lose instructional time, even a few seconds beyond that already lost in giving corrective feedback and problem-solving these behaviors.  I haven’t got this part down.  Yet.

4.  So far students are still invested in the Dojo leveling process I’ve cooked up, and I haven’t seen any competitiveness or jerk-like behaviors.  Kids have their badges displayed proudly, stuck on their desks or on a binder.  We do a badge/dojo mini-ceremony once every two weeks, and the students seem to be invested in earning badges.

5.  The struggle is keeping each “level” fresh.  We’ve talked about how, in most games, leveling up sometimes comes with rewards, and sometimes just comes with the glory of achievement.  Students are at various levels, from Level 2 to Level 4, and most have earned some achievement badges that are separate from the dojo/leveling, for things like mastering math facts or visiting a local museum or planetarium on their own time.  I want to do more event-based badges, just for the fun of it.  Partly because, that’s how achievements in most games work, and also because I don’t want this to become a “grind-fest” for points and levels. (Non-gamers–grinding in a game is when you have to complete tasks that are repetitive and non-engaging simply to move forward in a game.)

I am still pretty excited about this aspect of our classroom community, and ready to take some next steps.  First, I’d like to have students design some achievements.  Second, I think I’m ready to invite parents into this experience more.  Class Dojo has a reporting form and classbadges has special logins for both students and parents to view achievements.

So this week, students will work in groups to design proposals for achievement and also perks for leveling.  I’ll get back to you on that.

One more thing.  I would not–no way, uh-uh, forgetaboutit–attempt classroom management/motivation stuff this complex without the support of these technology tools.  Time is an incredibly precious resource to all teachers, and I am so not an exception to that rule.  The dojo and badge systems are quick to use, easy to manage, and simple to communicate to others.


So I’ve joined a learning community at my local ISD called Tech2Teach. We will meet in person only a few times, but will connect via Edmodo, Google Drive, and who knows what else at various times during the year.
Today was our launch, and we had lots of time and guidance to explore apps like Edmodo, and later to share other useful apps for increasing productivity and engaging students in meaningful learning opportunities.
Honestly, I was a bit worried this would be a basic tech usage deal, but there is a lot of encouragement for participants to plot their own course as learners.
So what should my course be?  Here’s what I’m thinking:

1.  I started using Class Dojo as a replacement for the positive behavior support program in my school, which has kind of devolved into one of those “Caught Being Good” scenarios where we hand out tickets to children for doing what they should be doing anyway.  I like the dojo because I can take it anywhere (iPad) and track both positive and negative behaviors.  The students seems to like it to–it has a novelty factor, and they enjoy the cartoon-y monster avatars.  I started by giving each child the same avatar, and they were allowed to “level up” when they accumulated 10 net positive points in a single week.  Then they could choose from a couple dozen avatars–this was a BIG deal for them, and thankfully everyone has managed to get this far.

2.  Once I started the whole leveling process, I knew I had to keep it up.  So now the default leveling is the net 10 points in a week.  Most kids made it to level 2.  But the level needs to have some kind of marker, as it would in any video game.  This is about the time I heard a podcast featuring the developers of Class Badges.  I could customize badges for the levels!

3.  So I set my class up at Class Badges and created a level 2 badge.  I sweetened the deal with a coupon that allows one late assignment to be turned in without lateness counting against the student.  They were MORE interested in the cool sticker I made of the badge that they could stick to their desks.

4.  And then I started thinking about the badges and video games.  One of my favorite parts of many games is earning special achievements.  So I started creating achievement badges–one for math facts, another for eating a bug during a special larva-eating event in my class.  The kids love earning achievements and getting badges–it’s crazy!

5.  Which brings me to my work in Tech2Teach.  I’m thinking I want to continue to “gamefy” my classroom management using both Class Dojo and the badge system throughout the year, tracking student engagement and trying to make strategic use of the tools to maximize student learning.

I like it, but it sounds hard-ish.  But it does combine two things I love–teaching kids and video games.  And the research on gaming and education is very hot right now.  Huh.  Could be cool.

Out Of Service Inservice

Warning:  Likely Pointless Raging Against the Machine Ahead
Summer wouldn’t be summer if it didn’t come to an end–and today is that day for me, at least officially.  I’ve been in the classroom for many hours this month, of course, getting things organized for a new year.  I’ve been using Google Calendars to try and organize some of my instruction for the first month or so, preparing to juggle the needs of community building, launch of academic study, and preparation for my state’s high-stakes “assessment”, the MEAP. 
And tomorrow I’ll trip into the local Methodist church for breakfast with my 200+ colleagues around the district, followed by four days of district-coordinated professional development.  Highlights for fifth grade teachers like myself:
  •  A half day entitled “Math”–yep, that’s it.  How am I supposed to plan as a professional for this?  Clearly that is not required, so I’m guessing we’ll just sit somewhere and listen to someone for a few hours.  I suppose this someone will talk about math instructional practices, or math materials for instruction, or math standards, or math pacing guides, or math curriculum maps…maybe.
  • A half day entitled “Words Their Way“–this is the word study “program” my district has adopted.  Should I bring materials?  Are there professional readings recommended for preparation?  Is their a specific goal in mind?  I don’t know–that information didn’t come with the brochure.
  • A half day entitled “Brain-Friendly Teaching and Learning” by Dr. Marty Burns from Scientific Learning–At least this is clearly a presentation I am just supposed to sit through.  I’ve been reading Brain Rules and watching video by Dan Willingham on You Tube, so I am interested to hear from Dr. Burns.  Actually, I downloaded another presentation by her and will listen to that in preparation for the “live” show.
  • A half day entitled “Positive Behavior Support“, which I here will be a district-implemented behavior management program–I don’t know this for sure.  I am sure it is a lovely program, and I will surely comply with any directives, but I do wonder at my district’s dogged pursuit of sameness and what it says about their view of me and my colleagues as professionals.  Do we need to have this because we aren’t doing the job of behavior management “right”?  Will every class using this model prepare students for the world beyond classroom walls?  I’m curious about this one.
I’ve left out some tidbits here and there, but these are the highlights.  We do have some significant time to work on “building agendas”, which is likely a laundry list of business that the state or district needs us to address, with a dash of teacher-generated issues mixed in.  These things have to be dealt with, so I don’t begrudge the “building agenda”.
I do get frustrated with much of the other district PD.  I know a large consideration is budgetary.  We can’t afford to spend lots of money to bring in consultants/experts differentiated to each educator’s specific needs.  And a little sitandlistenquietly is to be expected.  But if the point is actually to grow teachers as professionals, should a district be “teaching the teachers” using methods that are so very far from the practices that are accepted as the most promising for learning?  I doubt the brain-friendly teaching and positive behavior support lectures are going to tell us to sit our students down and lecture to them for 2-3 hours at a time.
We know that the example a teacher sets through her/his behavior choices is often far more powerful than much of what that same teacher says.  Just because we are adult learners doesn’t really change this paradigm.  We need to play with new knowledge, have choice and opportunity to contribute within the learning community and socially construct knowledge…we need similar opportunities to the kind we provide for our students.  PD needs careful pedagogical consideration, and the best PD I’ve experienced has clearly had it.
I feel embarrassed for the administrators of the world who demand excellence from their employees but do not model best practice when they find themselves in the position of teaching their teachers.  I feel grateful that I am a self-directed learner that goes out to find the books, webspaces, and networks that push me to expand my thinking and my practice.  I wonder what starting the school year with rich, authentic, and engaging professional development is like? The momentum that must provide teachers to bring their best into those first days of school! 
I’m sure I will get some useful information from my PD days this week.  But I will have to shake off the medicre process so that I embrace what I (and most of my fellow teachers) know to be the set of promising practices that invite learners to explore, question, make connections, and build knowledge.  I’m afraid we will have to be compelling and fun and worthy and effective in spite of this PD rather than because of it.


Transparency Can Be Good For You–Or Me

Caution:  Brain Dump Ahead

Today at RCWP’s Tech Matters I presented myself as a case study on the theme of collaboration. Aside from sharing a few tools I use to stay connected/networked, like Classroom 2.0 and my Google Reader, I told two stories about my collaborative efforts. One is a story of success with student collaboration, and the second story is an example of how really NOT to attempt collaborative projects with colleagues.

So today my brain keeps coming back to how vulnerable it can be to make my teaching practice transparent to even a small chunk of the world beyond my classroom.  I have a reasonable amount of practice at this sort of presenting/sharing, whether it is in front of a supportive audience like RCWP or my district Board of Ed, which not quite so demonstrably affirming. Still, I get scared to lay out my practice, the thinking and choices that expose me to…other people’s judgements! AAAHHH! Run away!

I have never regretted being transparent about my teaching practice, because I always learn from these experiences. It forces me to reflect in new ways on my work and choices, which isn’t my natural desire on a daily basis. But every time it is frightening, albeit with the knowledge that I’ll be better off at the end of a presentation or blog entry or conversation in the teachers lounge.

Teachers in my district don’t much do the sharing or transparency thing.  The vast majority, anyway, are not sharing beyond their teaching pals.  Why?  Probably, I’m theorizing, because they are afraid of being judged and found wanting.  I can relate to that.  And yet, if we want to be afforded respect as professionals, I don’t think we can do that without transparent practices that show the world that we are…respectable professionals.  The paper certificates and degrees just aren’t enough.

What would happen if we opened our practice to the world, or even each other?  Could my colleagues see more than brown-nosing or egoism/self-promotion?  What could we accomplish together, open to one another and open to possibilities for collaboration?

Summer Goals Update Part 2

I’m reading the third and final professional book on my summer list.  Well, I actually have picked up a few more, but Choice Words by Peter Johnston is the last I committed to finish by summer’s end.  I wrote a bit about Peter Johnston after attending a panel last fall at the NWP/NCTE convention in NYC.  The subtitle of the book is “How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning”, and that is something I knew I needed to reflect pretty seriously on in my teaching practice.

This book is excellent, and I’ll have to reread parts of it, because I’m ready to be more effective in how I use language to promote learning.  My fear in reading this book, after hearing the author speak, was that I would languish in shame over years of poorly-worded interactions with students.  Thankfully, I found (and I think most teachers would also find) that I use a lot of this language in my daily teaching.  What I need to do is be more conscious, deliberate, and strategic in my use of language that empowers my learners.  To help me remember bits of Johnston’s ideas on language, I’m making these little charts–

Don’t ask me where I’m going to put the little charts, because I haven’t figured that out quite yet.  And the charts won’t mean much if I don’t reread parts of the book and actually make myself reflect on my language use during the daily insanity of classroom life, not just from my quiet, child-free domicile.  And I have to finish the last two chapters and about 3 more little charts.

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