Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Possibility in the Gray

Lately I have been delving into exploring the power of positive emotions as well as cultivating meaningful experiences to engage kids in learning. Books like The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen Langer, Positivity, by Barbara Fredrickson, and Curious, by Todd Kashdan have renewed my interest in reflecting upon and re-framing what I do to help kids flourish in and out of the classroom.
One of the most powerful ideas to come out of this exploration is that being "open" matters.

We can get so much more out of an experience, whether it's learning new information, relating to a partner, or calming down a class of chatty, off-task learners by a simple mind shift. That mind shift involves being able to stay in the gray area, "Maybe I don't really know the answer right now." Often, being the thoughtful human creatures we are, we like to categorize things, act like we have all the answers, or at least believe that an "expert" has the answer when we don't. My question is : What happens if we allow ourselves to sit with the wonder of the gray, instead of resorting to the black and white mindset of : "right answer" vs. "wrong answer"?

We sometimes give our students "think time" and ask them to think before raising their hands to answer a question. Allowing ourselves to ponder different scenarios and come up with the "best answer" for right now can actually lead to a more developed, deeper understanding of a concept or situation. This meaningful reflection might, in turn, give us a variety of solutions and a flexibility in applying those answers in the future. What if what we learned actually might help us the next time we encounter such a situation? Isn't that what we want our learners to be able to do: generalize a critical thinking process to areas besides the specific lesson we just taught?

Well, it may sound quite simple, but reflecting and thoughtful exploration seem to run a bit counter to what many of us do at times, as we react instead of act. A myriad of emotions, such as fear, hurt, worry, or anxiety catapult us toward a path of mindless action, instead of stopping to consider our many options. While we could put ourselves in our partners shoes, we often don't; we assume that we know what they think and feel, attack out of hurt and fear. In this age of "instant thought moving to action", many of us simply get caught up in the moment and feel pressured to act. We live in a world that doesn't seem to want to wait for us. The over-stimulation of our surroundings with the multitude of media threaten to aid in our memory lapse. " I must make a decision now, or I might forget, or not have time later to answer this important question." I must post on my blog, tweet on my twitter, fret on facebook and say something important to make my mark on the world. Are we afraid that someone is going to win the race or take our place?

One common approach, reflected in all three of the books mentioned, is to ask open-ended questions when trying to elicit engagement. Ellen Langer demonstrated with her research that directing people to "notice more" when examining something they weren't previously interested in actually got them to take more time, notice more detail and actually report a higher level of positive experience in learning the new information or skill. Todd Kashdan gives many examples where being an open and "curious explorer" helps people combat the anxiety that often holds them back from attaining their goals and achieving meaningful lives. Barbara Fredrickson talks about the power of positive emotions and how being interested in exploring or even amused by something actually broadens your ability to think more creatively and flexibly.

What if, instead of asking a child why he acted a certain way, you expressed curiosity in what was happening? I often say to my students, "Wow, I am really confused about what is going on here." I express wonder and confusion when I want to get them to stop and think about their actions in the moment. Suddenly, before my eyes, they snap out of the off task behavior and get back to work. Now if that worked all the time, I would be set!

I guess all I'm saying... in a round-about way.. is to give yourself and your students the time to ponder. Don't always make up your mind. There isn't always an easy answer, quick-fix, instant message solution. In fact, the deepest and most profound discoveries come when we acknowledge what we don't know. Share that with your students. The teacher doesn't always have to be right. Teachers are learners too.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Put Yourself Out There

About a month ago I did a presentation of my "Silly Songs for Sight Words" at a reading conference down the road in Asilomar, near Monterey. I have always loved going to this conference, as the grounds are right on the coast, with many of the presentation rooms overlooking the beautiful Pacific ocean. Deer walk by on occasion and raccoons entertain folks at night with their scavenging antics. There's nothing like presenting to teachers who are enjoying the fresh ocean breeze and walks on the beach in between sessions. It's always been a wonderfully uplifting experience!
On the day of this conference, however, I was sick, tired and entirely not in the mood to be up on a Saturday morning at 6:00 a.m., driving an hour, schlepping ( is that even a real word?!) all my presentation stuff to find an audience of 6 people. Yep, that's right! 6 teachers were in my session. Thanks to the economy, and budget cuts, the attendance at the conference was down considerably. I was losing my voice, trying to get pumped up for my session, and thoroughly disheartened that hardly anyone was there. I tried to rev myself up and did the best I could. Although people were polite and participated by singing, offering comments and asking questions, I felt somehow as if I had failed to fulfill my purpose. Perhaps my ego had gotten in the way as I thought, "guess no one finds value in my work or they would have come" I had expected to feel good about my idea to give away my cd instead of charging the usual $15. Not even the usual good will feeling budged my mood. I left the conference, exhausted, thinking, "What a waste of time!"
Just yesterday, I received the attendee evaluations in the mail. The memories of the day flooded back and I hesitated before opening the envelope. Nothing "bad" had happened , but I certainly didn't feel like I had given my best performance. To my surprise, all of the feedback was positive, with gushing comments about how useful and innovative my songs and ideas are. I realized then, that if I had reached and inspired each teacher to try just one song or one activity that engaged a learner in their class.. my effort was definitely worthwhile.
Sometimes it may seem that your uphill efforts are far more laborious than rewarding. Don't lose sight of your overall mission. If you have something to share, put yourself out there! Think of the lives you will touch by being an inspiration.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Whose Job is It Anyway?

I am a firm believer in teamwork between caring individuals in a child's life. I can especially attest to success in this arena as I have raised 2 wonderful kids while being on a team with my ex-husband and his wife. As a teacher, I have countless opportunities to work with wonderful parents who are willing to do whatever is necessary to help their children become responsible, respectful, engaged learners. I really appreciate those parents.

This week, one of my kindergarten colleagues was appalled when her students were discovered standing around one of their peers who had been kicked to the ground. She was shocked to hear another teacher (who had been on yard duty) report that her students were kicking him and talking about "teaching him a lesson." As a very caring and competent teacher, she was nevertheless shocked and speechless as her class entered the room after recess. Later that day she asked what I would do if I were her.

"Wow," I thought. "What would I do if this had happened with my students?" I felt the helplessness of my coworker and first became sad that kids could actually do this to each other. 5 year old children were "ganging up" and attacking another student, using the words, "Let's teach him a lesson."
I agreed with my colleague who decided to call each of the parents and inform them of the episode. The following day, one of the students came to school with a letter of apology for the student. Although it was very difficult for him to admit that he had been wrong, his dad stood by him as he apologized to the student. I heartily applaud that parent, as he had used this event as an important teachable moment for his son.

So many times, it seems, parents and teachers point fingers of responsibility about what should be taught at home and at school. It's ALL of our jobs to teach civility and kindness. And it's quite a huge job considering the fact that we live in a society where some people would rather read and be engrossed by the glamorous, "hyped up" lives of celebrities than sit down with their children and learn about their day. ( Oops.. I think I just accidentally stood on my soapbox for a moment!)

It takes all of us caring adults to join together, preparing these young ones for life's challenges. Let's consider it a shared responsibility and move to shared solutions.