Sunday, March 19, 2017

Re-Evaluating What You Do

I recently finished Greg McKeown's Essentialism, a book I had bought two years ago when a few friends and I were on a panel at NCTE together. We had all agreed to buy this book to direct our presentation, but I never had--scratch that--madethe time to read it. I can begin this blog post about taking ownership by actually taking ownership. Not reading that was on me. I didn't make enough tough choices in order to make time to read it.

So, Essentialism. In a nut shell, it "is not about how to get more things done; it's about how to get the right things done" (5). Essentialists rank; they discern. They take the time to question and think about opportunities that are presented to them, and they think through the trade-off that will occur if they do one particular thing instead of waiting for another or just saying no altogether.

This is tough work for teachers, in particular.

Many of us are go-to people. We want to "do what's right for kids" all the time, and we never really question if what we do or have signed up for really has an impact. I don't think I'm alone here when I think to a Friday just a few weeks ago where I attended a staff-staff dodgeball game, a varsity basketball game, and chaperoned a dance, all in one night.

I, for one, need to be okay with saying no. And when we do, McKeown argues, people will respect us more. We might be ranked lower in popularity, but we will become respected. Our time will be seen as more valuable, and people will start to question whether or not the thing they are approaching us about is really worth our time.

And if we don't decide on the choices we make, we will have forfeited control and allowed others to prioritize for us: "When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people's choices--or even a function of our own past choices" (39).

So starting today, I'm beginning to practice a little "deliberate subtraction" (157). I'm going to work to gracefully say no more often, and really remind myself that "everyone is selling something" (138). I'm going to borrow a lot from '"No" Repertoire,' and I might offer a no+but, ask what I should deprioritize, or even recommend someone else that might be willing to take on a task.

Put simply, I think this is a book that every educator should read. When we think about our commitments and how we spend our energy in our classrooms, we should really focus on what's essential for the most important work. We should ask ourselves: Is this the right work, at the right time, for the right reasons?


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Taking the Time to Ask Why

Recently a counselor shared an article entitled "Reengaging At-Risk Girls" by Nona C. Jones. She placed it in my mailbox, noting that she "thought of me" when reading it. I finally had the time to sit down, read it, and reflect today. What a powerful article.

In it, Jones writes this:

"What shows up as defiance is nothing more than defensiveness, defensiveness learned from a girl having to defend her dignity. What shows up as apathy is nothing more than hopelessness, hopelessness learned from a girl who has never been given a reason to hope. What shows up as anger is nothing more than explosive hurt, hurt that a girl has contained for so long it has nowhere to go but out and at the nearest person.”

This serves as a good reminder that the students we interact with every day are more than just surface-level reactions, behaviors, and emotions. It's when we take the time to question, to ask why, to build meaningful relationships that we can really find out who our students are underneath and help forge positive connections to move forward.

Like my assistant principal has been saying for years, if we just take the time to ask. If we take the time to consider an alternative reason other than defensiveness, defiance, hopelessness, anger, or apathy, we can find out so much more about the kids we teach.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Mountain Top

I've been thinking a lot about a poem shared with me by my own high school mentor. I haven't read the original book that it comes from, but I shared this same poem with another student as we debated experience and perspective the other day.

Poem from ‘Mount Analogue’
One cannot stay on the summit forever –
One has to come down again.
So why bother in the first place? Just this.
What is above knows what is below –
But what is below does not know what is above.
One climbs, one sees –
One descends and sees no longer
But one has seen!
There is an art of conducting one’s self in
The lower regions by the memory of
What one saw higher up.
When one can no longer see,
One does at least still know.

So, is it better to have climbed the mountain or to never climb? Is it better to take risks and adventures--to take a chance to see from the summit or precipice--or to remain below?

This is also a reminder that our experiences change us forever. We can never "go back" once we have experienced something, considered something from another perspective, or met someone that has changed our worldview.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

We Must Look to the Best

I recently finished reading Todd Whittaker’s What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most. While I’m always skeptical of the promise of “best practices” or any type of guarantee, I quickly realized that the things that Whittaker discusses in this book really are the things that the colleagues I consider to be the best really do.

And Whittaker makes the argument that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the worst to improve our practice. Part of the problem lies in the fact that “many ineffective teachers also think they are doing a good job,” and that building the ability to self-reflect is really hard work. But we can only deeply self reflect and improve our practice when we have exemplars to emulate.

Although there were 17 practices that he shares, I’m really thinking about these:

-“When a student misbehaves, the great teacher has one goal: to keep that behavior from happening again. The least effective teacher often has a different goal: revenge.” (25)
-“Great teachers look to themselves for answers, while poor teachers look elsewhere.” (38)
-“The very best teachers —whether they are eager first adopters or a little more cautious—ask themselves one question: ‘Is this the best thing for students?’ If the answer is yes, they will move forward. Others ask, ‘Is this the best thing for me?’ That is one reason getting everyone on board is such a challenge.” (44)
-“One easily remembered standard for classroom management is that we always treat eour students as if their parents were in the room.” (86)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Was That a Dream?

I woke this morning earlier than usual. At 3:00 AM I stumbled to the bathroom, paying little attention on my journey. We have a small nightlight in the living room. It’s just bright enough to illuminate my path to the other end of the hour. And we’ve lived here long enough that I could probably navigate with my eyes closed.

I didn’t want to wake my wife, so I napped on the couch until it was time to wake for work. As I sat on the couch in a half-awake state, I thought I could make out a smell that I knew should not be in our house.

A few months ago, Stacy had woken me during the middle of the night to point out a skunk running in our yard. Its white stripe shining bright under the moonlight, I quickly turned back over and went to sleep.

But at 3:30 AM now, I felt a feeling of dread in my stomach. Did it get into the house? Did it get under the house? How much damage did it do? I knew I should have dealt with this earlier.

I walked around the house, smelling from room to room. It seemed stronger by our bedroom windows and weaker in the laundry room. When I opened the garage door to head to work, I could also smell it near my car.

I also knew that I couldn’t quite smell right. I’d been sick for the past few days, and my nose was stuffy. This has got to be a remnant from a dream that’s carried over to reality, I kept reassuring myself. This can’t be real and inside the house.

When I got to work, I waited for a text from my wife. I was counting down until a frantic morning text, knowing that she would instantly smell it when she woke. Her first text, however, wasn’t about the smell. I began feeling relieved, but then I knew I had to ask. Before long, she had confirmed what I thought was true: the house did smell.

No one prepares you for this when you go to buy a house. And now I sit and wait to hear back from a critter control company, hoping we can find a peaceful and long lasting solution.

Friday, March 3, 2017

“Isn’t that your job?”

A student stopped by to ask about Creative Writing.

“What’s it like?"

“Well, you get a lot of choice."

“So we can write about whatever we want?"

“Well, I want you to think about genre, audience, and purpose with every piece."

“Ok. So what will we do?"

“We will write. A lot."

“Why’s that kid’s name on the board?"

“He’s leading the prompt for tomorrow."

He is leading the prompt? Isn’t that your job?"

“Is it? In here, students will have some choice in the direction we head. And we all find inspiration from different sources. I want everyone to share that."

“But you’re the teacher…"

“And in here, we are all writers."

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bus Rides

Today I spent about seven hours on buses with students. The first trip involved 49 students on a trip to Central Michigan University, and the second was to chaperone a spirit bus for a basketball game.

The ride to CMU was lively. Students were awake, engaged in conversation up and down the aisles. For some students, like the one I sat next to on the bus, this was his very first college visit--ever. For others, this was a return trip. They were hoping to finalize a decision about their next few years.

After a tour around campus and lunch in a dining hall, we piled back on the bus. And before long, a tranquil silence took over. Students drifted off to sleep or just experienced a calm contentment with the day. Some questions were answered, and some new ones were developed. A powerful trip ended in quiet reflection.

I write this surrounded by students on the return trip from a basketball game where our team just won.

It's been a long time since our team has made it this far. It's 9:00 PM. I expected a similar bus ride, but students are alive with energy. They're singing. They're chanting. They have so much pride.

As a teacher, it's so motivating to see students so proud of their school and their peers. I’m looking forward to this energy, this enthusiasm, reverberating down the halls tomorrow.

Go, Zebras!