Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Recharging Throughout the School Year

By a show of hands, how many of you are tired...maybe even exhausted? That's a very common sentiment among those in the teaching profession. We strive to know each of our students and their families. We are constantly growing our practice. We collect and evaluate data and make constant adjustments to our lessons. We work to build a strong home and community relationships to strengthen the world in which our students are living. This doesn't even account for lesson planning, grading, horizontal or vertical team/department planning, ongoing parent communications, district-wide PD, IEPs, RtI meetings, 504s, parent-teacher conferences, data meetings, faculty meetings, PTA meetings, board meetings, and the miscellaneous paperwork that accompanies much of this. Anyone else exhausted just from reading this? (By the way, this doesn't even include all of our family, church, or community commitments.)

As classroom teachers, we are on the frontline empowering our students to become equipped to take on the world outside our classroom walls. We are helping them reach their goals and discover new avenues of learning for future goals. Most of the teachers I know LOVE their chosen profession. However, what happens when we get so run-down that we become sick or we fall into a negative frame of mind? Can we be the one that our learners (or our family) need?

How many times have we heard friends or family tell us to reduce stress? As one who is often burning my candle at both ends, I am very guilty of running myself into the ground.  So about a year and a half ago, I began researching simple ways that we can take time to recharge because I needed to find some concrete ways to do that myself. Here are some of the things that I've found particularly useful.

Get outside. There are copious amounts of research that point to the health benefits of being outside, whether it's taking a stroll, walking your canine companion, enjoying a meal in the outdoors, or taking on a more strenuous outdoor adventure. Fresh air, the sounds of nature, the scents of flowers blooming. Being outdoors can really positively impact your frame of mind. About a year and a half ago, we started finding great places to go and hike. Occasionally, we would paddle on one of the rivers or lakes in our area. When we began, I found two apps to be very useful as a jumping off point, Outbound and AllTrails (both also have a web presence with an online community). I've really found that by taking some time outside really helps me find some mental and physical balance after a challenging day or week. (If you follow me on Instagram, this one isn't a surprise.)

Disconnect from social media. Noise. It's everywhere, especially when you are part of the connected digital age in which we live. Yes, I've written about and spoken about the power of being connected to grow as a community of educators. Some of the most significant professional learning that I've had has come from my reading, connecting and sharing with other educators through social media. However, have you ever stopped and taken a look at the amount of time that we spend diving into our feeds? When we sit down for a minute, we immediately open an app and start filling our minds with the noise of constant conversations. Our brains need to take a break. We need time to think, process, and reflect. I found myself struggling to go to sleep at night. The to-do lists and noise from the day would come rushing in. I found that by putting down social media at a designated time in the evening and on the weekend, my sleep quality and my mental well-being has improved.

Say "No." Many of us find this one difficult. There are so many worthwhile endeavors out there. Yet, we are living with a finite amount of time each day. When we say "yes" to one thing, we are also saying "no" to something else. This is where we need to take time and reflect on our priorities and goals. If they aren't written down somewhere, before saying "yes" again, take a minute to write them down. While that new opportunity may be important, does it align with our professional goals for this school year? Will it take away time from other places where you have already make commitments? Could it take precious time away from those that you love and care about?  While this new opportunity may be a "no" for yourself, you could turn it into a "yes" by paying it forward to provide an opportunity for a young teacher to become involved and begin developing leadership skills.

Be creative. As educators, we know the benefit of providing students the opportunity to be creative. So why is it that we don't do this for ourselves? I know, we are busy, but we are worth the time. Set aside a few minutes each day or a larger block of time once or twice a week to pursue something that is creative. When I started doing this, I found myself working on creating things for my students and while it was useful, it wasn't really the point. We each need to pursue something that helps us develop individually. We don't have to be great at it, but we do need to enjoy it. About a year ago, I began playing with journaling and sketch-noting. I'm not particularly good at it (yet), but I've enjoyed practicing different styles of hand-lettering, borders, and doodling. It's a place for me to focus on verses or quotes that are meaningful to me, a way to set goals, and a way to document the fun things going on in my life. While journaling might not interest you, find something that you can pursue that lets the creative juices flow.

Create an oasis. While we hear this a lot on design shows, there is a thought that appeals to many of us. We want an escape, a mini-vacay, to connect with others face-to-face or with ourselves in the hurry-scurry lives we live. This doesn't have to be as big as room makeover. An oasis can be your favorite comfy chair where you can curl up and read, a front porch where you can listen to the sounds around you and write or sketch, an outdoor eating area where you can enjoy a meal with someone else, or a kitschy backyard oasis complete with an inflatable pool and plastic flamingos. I read one time that we should live a life where we don't feel the need to escape it by going somewhere else. We took that to heart and looked at the things that we enjoy when going on vacation and created little getaway nooks so we could enjoy dining alfresco or soaking up some vitamin D while reading a great book from the comfort of our own home.

While this isn't an extensive list, these are the specific ways that I have found to recharge my battery throughout a busy school year. Very little money was spent on any of the things mentioned above because it's more about shifting a mindset. Of course, I'm sure eating healthy food and exercising regularly wouldn't hurt either. I'd love to hear how you find ways to recharge.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Maintaining Our Focus: Why are we teaching?

While I know that educators go into our noble profession for many different reasons, in all the educators that I've had the privilege of meeting over the years, I think it all boils down to this one basic idea: 

Educators are in the business of changing children's lives.

That may look differently from classroom to classroom, school to school, or country to country. But, it's important that we always remember that every choice we make, we are the ones ultimately responsible for positively impacting their learning each and every day. If our choices aren't focused on that one goal, we really need to stop and ask ourselves (and those around us) why? Why are we devoting valuable hours to a new initiative or program if it isn't empowering our learners? Why are we placing more value on one practice or one piece of data than on the real needs of our unique learners?

So as we begin a new week, let's all remember why we are in classrooms every day...our students. They deserve the best that we can give them, every single day.

Wishing you a great student-centered week!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Hosting your Own "Bring a Legislator to School Day"

As educators, most of us pursued a career in education because we love our students, we love learning and sharing knowledge, we love seeing our learners' growth and empowering them with the skills necessary to make a difference in the world. In my experience, most educators love the world of teaching and leave politics to others. While politics and policy writing is a totally different world, it is one that can greatly impact the work that we do with students. It is crucial that we, as the educational experts, reach out to policymakers to build long-term relationships built on respect and educate them on the reality of today's classrooms and schools.

In previous posts, I've recommended inviting elected officials and community leaders to participate in school events or as volunteer readers. However, have you ever thought about hosting an entire day where these officials could actually participate in a typical school day to gain firsthand experience of the life of a student in today's schools? This year, my colleague, Laren Hammonds (@_clayr_), and I did just that. Honestly, it wasn't that much work (even with both of us being full-time classroom teachers), but it had a huge impact on both our students and all of our invited guests.

Here are some of the most asked questions about setting up a day like this:

  • When do you host "Bring a Legislator to School Day?" Timing is crucial. If you want legislators to attend, you need to know when they are in session as they won't be available during this time period. When do they hold committee meetings; this impacts the availability of school board members, city council and chamber of commerce. While there is a national "Bring a Legislator to School Day," the timing didn't align with our needs. We knew there were a couple of key players we wanted to attend. We confirmed a day with them and then set that as our date.
  • Who do you invite? How do you invite them? Invite anyone who writes, frames, or makes decisions regarding education. We decided to cast a wide net. We sent out emails customized for each group: local school board members, state board members, district-level administrators, city council members, our mayor, and all state legislators in our region (and a little beyond).
  • How do you know who is coming? We created a Google Form and requested that each individual respond there. It was very quick and simple: name, email address, and time slot (we included two-hour time slots and they could click on as many as they wanted). For planning purposes, we found it very helpful to include a deadline for their response so that we could plan the schedule of that day.
  • How do you advertise your day? We contacted our district's public relations department who reached out to local media. In addition, we sent out a similar invitation to well-known education writers and bloggers in our state. For some elected officials, this can make the difference in them attending or not. Our tech coach took the time to find the Twitter and Instagram accounts for each of guests and the counselor posted photos on our school's social media accounts throughout the day.
  • What was going on at school during "Bring a Legislator to School Day?" For us, it was important that our guests saw a real school day. We stressed that we were not putting on a dog and pony show. That will not help them reframe their ideas about education. Laren and I believe that by participating alongside students, our elected officials gain a new perspective of what education is like today....not when they were students. On our "Bring a Legislator to School Day," they participated in Socratic circles, dissected frogs, solved complex math problems, composed solid argument based on credible evidence, designed and tested roller coasters, and debated the credibility of urban legends (plus much more). 
  • How were the students involved? We both really wanted as much of this day to be student owned and student-run. Our student council with students who have served in a variety of leadership roles, met together to discuss the day and the expectations we all wanted from the day. They volunteered to fulfill different roles. Some served in our hospitality suite while others greeted our elected officials when they arrived and took them to visit classrooms. These students also took candid photos to be posted via social media. When a guest arrived in a classroom, a student in that classroom, greeted him/her, gave an explanation of what was taking place and encouraged them to actively participate in the learning. Also, I had my students write letters to each of our elected officials, thanking them for visiting our school and participating in learning with them. They also shared some of their ideas on ways they could help them make changes in our communities and continue to support their education. (Personally, this part had an incredible impact on my students. Our conversations about advocacy and their experience in having their eleven-year-old voices heard were so powerful. Talk about authentic learning!)
  • How did you get faculty "buy-in?"We started by getting support from our building administrator. She gave us the opportunity to speak briefly at our faculty meeting about "Bring a Legislator to School Day." We gave teachers the opportunity to volunteer to have visitors join their class on that day. We had more teachers volunteer than we could actually use. I attribute that to the fact that it was completely voluntary. They knew it was important to open their classroom door to guests, but they were just going to have a "regular" school day with a couple of extra participants.
This day was overwhelmingly successful. Our guests thanked us and continue to have conversations with us about teaching, learning, and growing accomplished teaching in our area and beyond. Although I had spoken with many of these elected officials many times before this day, we saw that there is a big difference between hearing about it from a teacher and actually living it alongside students. Will we host another "Bring a Legislator to School Day?" Without a doubt! Are you interested in hosting one yourself? Let us know! We are happy to answer questions and share our resources with you!

Here is a piece written about our "Bring a Legislator to School Day:"

Here are a few other pieces that I've written on the importance of using our voice:

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How will you Be the One?

This last weekend, I had the enormous pleasure of participating in the Alabama NBCT Network Conference; the theme was Be the One. I listened to brilliant people share their thoughts, formally and informally, on ways we, as accomplished teachers, could be the one...the one for our profession, our colleagues, our communities, but most importantly, how we can be the one for our students. In an effort to capture many of these simple ideas and pass them along to others, here are some ways we can each Be the One.

  • Tell a colleague that you see the hardwork and dedication they put into their students each day. Teachers typically are not looking for praise, but some acknowledgement for their work really goes a long way, especially when they face challenges.
  • Get to know your students. Really know them by learning their strengths, challenges, background, learning preferences, hopes, fears, and dreams. Look for the untapped potential. See all the opportunities where you can empower each of your unique learners. 
  • Continue to sharpen your teaching practice so you can provide students with the level of support and challenge that each one needs. This can be done formally and informally through conferences, Twitter chats, book studies, webinars, or workshops. Living in the digital age, there are more opportunities than ever to connect and learn from others. Learning is often more fun when done with others. Grab a colleague and ask them to join you.  That gives you a sounding board as you work to make big ideas work for our specific students.
  • Share your professional learning with others. Did you read a great article? Watch a compelling video? See an inspirational speaker? Share that with others, face-to-face or on social media. Have you had an epiphany with a change you've made in your teaching practice? Write a blog post for an educational organization (they are always looking for great "in the trenches" content). Go to your school or district administrator and volunteer to share what you've discovered that works well for your students. Submit a proposal to formally present at a local, state or international conference. This is an opportunity to pay the professional learning forward for all those people who have shared their learning with you. 
  • Connect with your elected officials. This can be done informally by tweeting, posting or emailing a picture or story of something great going on in your classroom or school. Invite them to be guest readers or an extra set of hands during a hands-on learning activity. When you have Family Literacy/Math Night, student concerts, parent workshops, or special tournaments send them an invitation. Hand write them a note sharing your appreciation for the support that have shown. You can even formally host a Bring a Legislator to School Day and have elected officials spend the day (or a couple of hours) working along side students and forming a firsthand view of what learning looks like in today's classrooms.
  • Look at what areas you are passionate about: literacy, math development, teacher retention, STEAM, educational technology. Seek out opportunities where you can join committees and drive decisions that impact the lives of our students.
  • Join professional organizations. Through these orgainizations you connect with other similarly-minded individuals who can push your thinking. In turn, you can provide your unique insight as you work to grow our profession and positively impact student learning.
  • Volunteer to coach new teachers in your school or district. Offer your classroom to preservice teachers. The reality of a classroom can be overwhelming to preservice or early career teachers. This is a powerful way to provide them support, guidance and encouragement as these are the ones who will be taking the reigns of our profession in a few years. 
These are the ideas I walked away with this past weekend. What are some other ways that we can be the one?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Your Words and Silence Speak Volumes

Yesterday, I spent the day at a brilliant conference, the Alabama NBCT Network Conference, where we explored ways to "be the one." While I learned much and connected with so many phenomenal educators, there is one thought that continues to resonate in my head. It was spoken by one of the opening ignite speakers, Tammy Dunn (@tammydunn01). She said that not only are we responsible for our words but also our silence. Reflecting on this idea, it occurred to me that while I have been a long time advocate for teacher-voice and student-voice and the power of one to make a difference in the world, I had never contemplated the times when I remained silent.

Sometimes remaining silent needs to be intentional. All you have to do is spend a little time online to see that staying out of conversations is what is best for ourselves, our colleagues, and our profession. If a situation is one where there is only griping without a mindset to find a solution, sharpen our teaching practice, or improve our communities, it is best to not be pulled into the mire. There are other arenas where our voices will have an impact without being drawn into rants with those who have closed-minds and no desire to divert from their current mindset. Experience has taught me that there are always going to be individuals who are going to try to pick a fight with anyone over anything.

However, the silence that caused me to pause is the one where we choose not to speak up when it is imperative that we do. As educators, we know our students, their families and the communities in which we teach. We are passionate about our content and know the strategies to provide each of our students with the best possible learning experiences. I truly believe that a majority of teachers pursue this career because they want to do what's best for students and positively impact their future. (See NBPTS What Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do)

As accomplished teachers, we know what works and doesn't work for our learners, our colleagues, our schools, and our districts, yet when we are at the grocery store, airport, or ballpark and we hear people maligning education, often we remain silent. We receive policy or practice change, and even though we know it is not what is best for students, we hold our tongues. We see non-educators telling negative stories about schools, but we don't take the time to share one of the many success stories we witness unfolding every single day in our own classrooms or schools.

It is scary when we are in a situation and we find ourselves at the crossroads between being the voice for our students or remaining silent. Reaching out to those writing policy and making decisions for our students can be intimidating. However, if we want our students to believe that they each have the power to make the world better place for someone, shouldn't we each be doing the same? If we want to empower our students, we must break the silence and lead the way to a brighter future. Our learners deserve it!

Here are a few other pieces that I've written on the importance of using our voice:

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Open Letter to ILA

Dear ILA,

I have been participating and attending the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference since 2013. In that time, I have seen tremendous change. Beyond the name and branding change, I have been very impressed with how ILA has reached out to educators who are in classrooms and schools to determine the future trajectory of this international organization. As a participant, seeing how teachers’ voices have driven change has been remarkable and filled me with hope for the future.

In a time when more and more teachers are pursuing free avenues of professional growth, ILA has embraced the changing needs of teachers by providing opportunities such as Twitter chats and Edcamp Literacy where participants can drive their own learning. By pairing participant-driven learning with formal sessions, as well as exciting interactive Putting Books to Work workshops and current event panels that do not require special ticketing, ILA provides teachers with the best possible blending of professional learning.

In my experience, this year’s program is the strongest one to date. From EdcampLiteracy to the highly engaging and relevant general sessions speakers, to the panels filled with passionate educators and authors, to the formal sessions, I have walked away with tools, strategies, ideas, and a renewed passion for teaching from every single opportunity, something that I can’t say of many professional learning events.

As a veteran educator, it brings me hope for the future of literacy education to see an emphasis on sound and current educational trends while remaining grounded in best practices in literacy education. With a focus on recognizing phenomenal young educators in The 30 Under 30, it demonstrates that ILA has their eyes on the future by recognizing the work of young educators.

So as I head home, I feel incredibly grateful to ILA for providing all of these opportunities to me and all the other participants. My head is full of ideas, my heart is full of love for teaching, my bag is full of great new books, and my pocket is full of new connections….and I was able to add an ILA17 button to my collection.

With my new wand in hand, I want to extend a sincere thank you. When teachers, authors, and professional organizations work together hand-in-hand, I believe anything is possible. And isn’t that what all of our students deserve?

With love,
Julie D. Ramsay, NBCT

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Growing Beyond Our Own Comfort Zone:Doing What's Best for Students

While facilitating a workshop on how makerspaces provide students an authentic way to employ literacy standards, I provided mini makerspace kits my students assembled for the participants to use. As I traveled around the groups of teachers working on making and creating  (some for the first time), I noticed there was a teacher sitting with her arms crossed. The others at her table were encouraging her to engage in the challenges; she created reasons why she couldn't participate. Upon engaging her in conversation, she stated that she never liked these types of challenges. With further prompting, she explained that she knew these type of problem-solving, critical thinking challenges were good for students, but that she never enjoyed these type of activities even as a child, and it was unlikely she would ever do them for her students.

This spurred some reflection. I could identify with her to a point. As a learner and as a teacher, it was difficult for me to leave the pattern that I had found comfortable....a list with rules and specific guidelines. I like knowing where things belong and what expectations are for any project in which I participate. Neat stacks, labels, detailed calendars, and to-do lists, those feel comfortable to me. However, as educators, we know this is not the end-all-be-all of what our students need.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for the world they live in now AND the world of the future. Our students need to be able to attack problems to find solutions. They must be able to fail, evaluate different options, design a new path, and move towards their goals. Perseverance, grit, growth mindset, and the ability to look at things creatively is what is going to make them successful. All of the linear "book learning" alone will not make them successful. They have to be able to leverage that learning and apply creative problem solving, collaboration and communication to solve real problems, big or small. It takes BOTH. Leaving one or the other out hinders our students from our ultimate goal of preparing them for the world beyond the classroom walls.

Change is scary. Historically, new ideas draw fear. But with fear, we have the ability to grow both as teachers and as individuals and provide out students the best learning opportunities possible. And isn't that why we're in the classroom in the first place?