Category Archives: Big Ideas

Walls and Boxes

A colleague of mine once said that it was critical for students to write to the same prompt, do the same project (a diorama for you! and you! and you!), take notes the same way to capture the same information, and turn in the same work with only one right response.

Doing so, they said, would teach them what it looks like when work is done, what it means to have work that is done well, and how to evaluate their own work against a set standard – the criteria set forth by a teacher. I saw an article about this somewhere the other day and it noted too that this type of expectation is setting kids up for the real world of adulthood–to be good little worker bees who are able to do what they are asked to do when they are old enough to have a job.

I went along with my colleague’s thinking for a while. I was a newish teacher and wasn’t sure how to prove my hypothesis about why my gut was aching more and more as we moved from unit to unit.

I wanted to see what would happen if we gave kids the opportunity to show what they had learned using a variety of options, each with its own set of criteria but also incorporating a requirement for the same knowledge. One of the things this colleague had noted was that they felt that it was impossible for a teacher to evaluate student learning if everyone was turning in something different–all students had to show the same learning so all students should be doing exactly the same work and then should be evaluated against each other to get a good picture of how the class as a whole was learning. A teacher can’t do that if everyone turns in something different–it all has to be exactly the same.

Almost everything I’ve learned about teaching, I’ve learned from kids. Kids have told me what they need in the past 17 years. And they’ve told other educators for far longer than that. They need, especially in the elementary years, to have opportunities to show what they know in a way that they are confident and able to do it. Some need to tell me what they know in a conversation or a presentation. Others want to sing about it because they can remember things best that way. Some want to draw it out and explain it. Others want to put all of it and then some into a poster and add bling and lights to illustrate the most important parts (the things THEY feel are the most important) and others want to write about it–they want to write about the experiences of people, their thoughts about a particular event, or simply lay out a series of facts. And still others want to recreate something they read about or saw–with a dance or a series of hand movements or by actually making the thing so they can understand how it works.

Kids need choice. They need to choose what they do, how they do it, and all the bits and pieces that go into it. And they need to learn what to do when what they chose doesn’t work out.

A question that came up was how I’ll know if they learned everything if they’re only focusing on something THEY want to share.

I don’t want them to learn everything. There’s a place for regurgitation of facts but I want them to learn enough to be able to connect what they’re learning with other things. They’re capable of finding out when William the Conqueror invaded England. They can google the names of every US president in order or learn the song if it brings them joy, but I’d rather they understand and be able to explain how the awful thing one person did impacted events and other people later on…and be able to connect it all to current and future situations.

A million years ago, when I was little, we learned about Native American tribes in Mrs. Gerlach’s class. I remember using paper bags to make “leather” to create a tipi and writing stories using pictures on the sides using markers, and sugar cubes to create igloos, and learning a little bit about the ways Native Americans used everything in nature to live. It was fun, and I remember that I enjoyed it all very much.

Photo by Jola Kedra on

Here’s what I didn’t learn:

I didn’t learn why they settled where they did or why they didn’t choose to move when the weather was cold and awful or what we’d consider too hot.

I didn’t learn why the Trail of Tears happened or why Native Americans were moved from where they settled first by people who moved here to escape persecution in their home country. And I didn’t learn why people thought that was perfectly reasonable to do.

I didn’t learn how the Native American cultures were the same, or how they were different beyond where they might have lived or what they ate, and I didn’t learn anything about their individual cultures or how their cultural stories connect to stories in other cultures in and beyond the U.S.

And given that I went to a Catholic school, I didn’t learn how their beliefs about God were the same or different than the faith in which I was being brought up. I think that would have been pretty damn important given we were learning how to be good Catholics.

I did learn that my tipi needed to look the same as others right down to how my story looked in pictures and that my igloo had to be shaped just like the other ones. I learned to answer multiple choice questions and match vocabulary words to their definitions.

And now as a grown-up, I don’t remember anything about that content beyond how to make a damn fine piece of paper bag leather and the way that it felt in my hands when it was soft and pliable…and that sharpies work better to draw on it than Crayola markers.

Kids deserve to learn more than how to make paper bag leather tipis. They deserve to be able to explain why they thought it was important to focus on the fact that one Native American culture chose to stay on the Western Slope while others chose to park themselves on the plains. They deserve the opportunity to imagine a life a long time ago and connect to it, comparing the 25-room homes of one culture to the two-bedroom, one-bath house they live in. They deserve to see history, science, literature, and math not as a series of facts to be memorized and spit out when the test day comes but as experiences of real live people who made choices and decisions and had revelations that impact the lives of other real people.

They deserve to get to do the work that generates more “why” questions, more “how” questions, and more “what if” questions.

As educators, we need to look beyond the posters we bought on Amazon or from the teacher store hanging on the walls of our classroom and think beyond the boxes of curriculum that arrive on our tables in August. None of that is learning. Those are resources to help support it. And this is why Joe Schmoe off the street cannot be a teacher–a teacher…a good one…learns over time how to use those resources as something to supplement learning…not to drive it. There’s good stuff in it, to be sure–sometimes there are great questions or ideas that you can steal to make a springboard for kids into a great discussion or great exploration of thought that leads to more questions.

That is learning.


A friend gave me a shirt that says Teaching is Progress not Perfection.

One of the kids noticed it today, pointed it out, and intentionally grinned and said, “I like that.”

I have felt like I am floundering for several weeks. I know I can wing it in the classroom, but I don’t like having to do so for more than a little while. I am able to build fairly good relationships with kids easily–street cred goes a long way and kids are inherently good-hearted and grant grace in buckets.

This morning, I got up before God after sleeping like the dead from pure exhaustion and the panic set in quickly after I took the dog out.

Getting up at 430 in the morning should be plenty of time.

It’s not.

The realization that I had eleventy-billion things to do, no copy paper, little sense of direction, a long list of to-dos sorted and arranged in my head, no time to do any of them, emails to catch up on, and also had to people far before I felt ready to caused a Jessie Spano moment. (No, I didn’t sing or scrunch my socks above my high-tops…but I did make damn sure I took my supplements and anxiety meds.)

I don’t like feeling that way. I prefer, as a friend puts it, to “not embrace frantic.” Teammates have been fabulous, preparing slide decks as a jumping off point with critical things included, granting grace for missed meetings, and allowing me to disappear to get other things done in the few moments available.

So tonight I sat and reworked slides for tomorrow in a way that brings me a little normalcy, rethinking how the last two days have gone, what I’ve missed teaching, what I’ve done well, and what I’ve forgotten entirely.

I’m thankful for the gift of past experience–my kids taught me well. And this new batch is helping me remember and get into a groove that suits them too.

We’re creating a system for our work together, I said this morning. We’re creating systems that work for us in this space together so that we can function and learn and grow. No, our brains aren’t doing a lot of heavy lifting just yet but they will…once the foundation of our systems are in place.

A tree needs roots to grow…but it’s progress…not perfection that helps it grow strong.

Who, Not What

Gifted is who they are, not what they produce. ~Linda Silverman

Every year for the past 15 years, I have attended a variety of conferences, classes, trainings, and other professional development. Most have shared sessions about strategies to work with struggling learners, ways to ensure accountability and engagement, and often, the social-emotional needs of kids whether it be trauma informed, multi-generational home lives, kids in poverty, or a mixture of everything, including current situations, such as existing with distance learning to hybrid to in-person and back again through all of them.

All of these things are important to learn, and you don’t learn it all in teacher school. Teacher school shares generalities, theory, and lets you dip your toes into a variety of things, not focusing on any one in particular because every school, district, state, and population has their own way of doing things.

When I was a little girl, my report cards had letters. A, B, C, etc. I had one D ever (until college math for English Majors, when I took my D as a gift and ran) and I earned every point of that D and paid dearly for it. I was given a C in PE in the fourth grade because I still, to this day, cannot run a 12 minute mile unless it’s completely downhill and a bear is chasing me. Teachers wrote comments like, “Teri is a joy to have in class” or “Teri is very talkative (or “quiet and shy” after the 5th grade)” or “Teri reads too much in class, and should not be reading books above her grade level” and my personal favorite, “Teri should spend the summer memorizing her multiplication tables at Our Lady of the Broken Ruler summer school using flash cards.” Perhaps these weren’t the exact words the teachers used, but what’s important about them and why I remember them so clearly, is that none of them shared anything about who I was as a learner or otherwise. My parents looked at the letter next to the subject and assumed I was learning what I needed to and doing my work in class. They never met with my teachers (except that one time I got the D…poor Mrs. Morales, having to deal with my father who was a long way down the river of denial about his little girl’s science research skills) and rarely saw my work, tests, writing, or much of anything else.

I think about the comments on the report cards I received as a child and I realize that my parents had no idea, based on report card comments, what my strengths in school were, what I needed to learn, where I was excelling, or where I was drowning. My teachers didn’t really didn’t know who I was…they only knew what I produced and gave it a grade according to a point-based percentage-based scale.

Our kids’ families deserve to know that we see who their kids ARE…not what they produce. Yes, they should know that Joey is missing 23 assignments and that Janie needs to work on her math facts. And they need to know that Joan is kind to her classmates and they need to know that Jack is a wonderful helper who talks a lot in class. Those are separate conversations. Parents need to know that we really SEE their kids.

John connected with the main character of the novel. He noted in discussion that they both are passionate about skateboarding and have only one or two good friends despite knowing a lot of people. In addition, John saw himself in the main character when the character worked together with his close friends to organize a petition to get a skateboard park in the neighborhood near school.

Stephanie truly sees herself as a scientist, moving through experiments in class methodically, noting questions she has along the way, and being precise in her data collection. I notice that she does the same in her writing, developing her stories according to what she thinks a particular character might do if a situation presents itself (hypothesis) and changing things as she writes according to the data she collects about other characters.

Matty sees the world through his doodles during class. His notetaking demonstrates a high level of understanding of the content we discussed this quarter and he can explain his note-doodles in great detail, incorporating both what was discussed during that session as well as comments of others and his own thinking.

John, Stephanie, and Matty may not have turned in one assignment. They may have bombed every quiz, had their camera off during class, or typed “poop” 9,000 times in the chat just to see what would happen and who would get angry first. But the comments address who these kids are, not what they produced.

John is a leader and connector. He has a vision of what could be and brings people together for a purpose.

Photo by Jonathan Portillo on

Stephanie is an observer. She notices details and sees the importance of the little things.

Photo by Pixabay on

Matty is an artist, seeing connections between ideas through the images he creates. This child sees the world differently.

Photo by khairul nizam on

Perhaps comments like these aren’t things you can put into your report cards (space, required format, drop down comments). But parents need to know that you truly see their kids. That you know who they are. That you recognize that they are more than a series of ticked boxes and completed assignments.

I challenge you this week, before Thanksgiving Break, to reach out to as many of your students’ parents as you can and let them know that you really SEE their kids and recognize that gifted is who they are, not what they produce.

“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has or ever will have something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” -Mr. Rogers

Season of Sacrifice

I have had “blog” on my to-do list for almost a month, yet kept moving it to tomorrow, and then next week, and finally sat down today, my one day of weekend, to write while a Nora Ephron book plays on my phone and the laundry launders. I still feel the guilt of sleeping almost all of Labor Day, waking up to phone calls from colleagues and texts from others needing information, ideas, or support. Each apologized for texting late or early, calling multiple times, asking questions that they can’t remember if anyone asked or not already. I told them no apologies needed….this is our Season of Sacrifice.

Tina Boogren (Self-Care for Educators) talks about the “season of sacrifice” in her presentations, podcast, and books on self-care and support of teachers beginning their careers. It’s the season of the school year in which educators across the globe sleep little, getting up early and going to bed late, work longer hours than usual and forget to eat, and eat worse when they remember to eat at all–ordering DoorDash or GrubHub or running through the drive-thru at whatever fast food joint is on the way home and still open. It’s the season where teachers see few people beyond their coworkers and some seem to forget they’re married and carry parent-guilt around in a large Target-brand rolling suitcase behind them interspersed with teacher editions, laminating to be cut, a computer and tablet, gradebooks in various states of “done,” and reading material about new and improved teaching strategies.

This year’s season of sacrifice involves relearning everything, going back to our first years of teaching and feeling like failures, figuring out how to remake lessons to work in a virtual classroom AND possibly an in-person one without allowing kids to collaborate, talk, sit near one another, and still honor the fact that a third group won’t see any assignment until late that night or the weekend because they’re completely asynchronous and working on school after parents are home from work or on weekends because everyone has other obligations in the evenings.

It involves teaching ourselves how to use technology that makes us uncomfortable and angry, fielding questions from families and those outside of education about when the hell schools are going to “go back to normal” because none of this is sustainable. It involves sharing fixes or shortcuts with everyone else as we find them because none of us has ever done this before…and some are happy to experiment on behalf of others. It involves using phrases and words we hate in with the fire of a thousand suns because we can’t think of others that fit: robust, out of the box thinking, asynchronous, new normal…

It also requires sticky notes to remind ourselves not to read the comments on news stories or on social media, the ones blasting teachers for “not wanting to go back to work after a six month summer break” and demanding they take pay cuts or lose jobs altogether in favor of paying parents to be at home with their kids while teachers teach online. This season requires us to bite our tongues and not try to explain to those who can’t understand what toll this is taking on us, our school communities, our colleagues, our own families, and ourselves.

This year’s season of sacrifice means teachers and parents are asking for resources and there’s not budget to purchase it. It involves writing grants that won’t be reviewed for another month hoping that it will pay for a part of what’s needed, but not soon enough.

It’s staring at spreadsheets, data, comments, and emails all asking for more when there isn’t more to give. It’s praying that dedication to the greater good will allow teachers to agree to take on blended classes or a class they never planned to teach to accommodate cohorting requirements and hybrid in-person groupings. It’s going in on Sunday so that a colleague can find a little peace and have one day with their family before we begin again on Monday.

It’s hoping that health for all of us holds out until…until God knows when…and that we don’t lose anyone to the multitude of things that could collapse it all…everything from COVID itself to mental health needs to family needs.

It involves a lot of tears, guilt, shame, frustration, and worry whether what we’re doing is right…or enough. And it involves purposely reminding ourselves to find the beauty in small things:

poetry written by children that paints a perfect picture of who they are

teachers sharing student work with excitement and pride

square shaped clouds at sunset

art shared that excites others to try it too

books written eons ago that are still relevant

coming home to patient pets, curled up on rumpled sheets and blankets

a couch covered in furs without jobs while I work sitting on the floor

Spotify playlists collaboratively created with other teachers to share the music that brings each of us joy

sleeping until the sun is up and seeing the sun shine on the mountain during our walk to the park

It’s the Season of Sacrifice for sure, and I have no idea when it’ll be over this year. Take solace in those little things and write them down to read when you feel there aren’t any good things and everything is awful.

There’s No Crying During Zoom Wine School

Shortly after the world stopped turning and we hunkered down at home in mid-March, a restaurant not remotely local to me began having a wine class every Sunday via Zoom. Friends shared the link with me, and I started going. They said the learning was good, but the chat was why they went. It lasts about an hour or so, and the chat was full of good people, funny people, and people looking for connection when there was so little to be had.

I started going and I don’t think I’ve missed a week since. Someone created bingo cards and there are t-shirts (I have two). Another proposes a wine school field trips when all this nonsense is over. There are guest speakers, winemakers, wine buyers, sommeliers, and other people from the restaurant world from their local area and beyond. And yes, the chat is spectacular. People worry when others don’t come or are late. I have never met any of these people yet I am willing to spend an hour or so of my Sunday afternoon with them and look forward to it every week. I learn some things about wine, and yes, that’s interesting to me, but moreso there’s connection, which many of us are lacking.

Social media right now is a hot mess. A friend deleted FB from his phone and is slowly managing withdrawal. Others have blocked friends and family because conversations have ceased to be kind, and others have simply unfollowed in the hopes that those people will stop commenting on posts to create drama and cause problems. In many ways, it’s almost as bad as it was just before the 2016 election, with outright lies, misinformation, denial of actual occurrences, unkindness, insults, and refusal to understand that behind every opinion is a human being.

A friend noted the other day that now that the 4th of July has passed, summer break is more prep than relaxation. In the before times (probably the best description I’ve heard yet), teachers spent a lot of July working on curriculum, taking PD, prepping their classrooms, supporting Target singlehandedly with school supply purchases so there would be extra just in case. This year, none of us know what to do because we don’t know what school will look like. Trump and DeVos are calling for all schools to reopen and things to get back to the way they were or else they’ll pull funding–kids don’t get sick, right? State and district-level administrators are brainstorming ways to keep kids and staff safe and healthy, while still complying with the demands of this administration out of fear they’ll lose MORE funding and have to cut even more positions, putting additional teachers out of work.

Building level administrators have it the hardest I think. While upper levels ARE thinking about kids and staff, they aren’t the ones fielding questions about exactly what the fall will look like and how their kids and families will be impacted. If you flipped through social media lately, you’d think that teachers were once again the problem and they didn’t want to come to work. But that’s just it–we do want to come to work, desperately…we miss our kids and families. Teachers are researching things on their own like face shields vs. masks, fresh air and how to get it into windowless classrooms, how to create a flipped classroom to maximize the time they get with kids, what to do when there is no AC and air recirculates throughout the building, how to have class outside or online while some kids are at home, how to create a community of learners who aren’t allowed to be anywhere near each other nor see one another’s faces, and what to do when teachers have left the building and go home to their own families, their own kids…is there a pile of teacher laundry in the garage and a shower to hose off with before they walk in the house to be with their own families?

While I was listening to wine school this afternoon, I came across a post a friend shared on her social media from someone else and I got a little teary which then involved some questions from others to just me if I was ok (Lambrusco doesn’t generally evoke tears I guess). Remember, none of these people actually KNOW me…but they could SEE me, and that mattered an awful lot.

I’m not a religious person necessarily, but sometimes, we have to pull out all the stops and call on whatever higher powers might exist. This is the post:

From Kathleen Caldwell Dial, “Wrote this today in response for a group of friends asking how they can pray for me. Wanted to share with you…

As you know, I believe in the power of prayer. Here are some ways you can pray for me, and any school leader at this time: Pray for our health, the health of our staff, and the health of our students. We love those we serve. Pray we can be innovative with safety measures given the resources we have and the mandates given. Safety is our highest calling. Always has been. Pray we can appropriately and excellently staff the array of school options we are giving families. We long to do great work and make a difference. Pray we can strongly support student and staff social/emotional/mental health and character development. This matters. This isn’t one more thing on the plate–it is the plate. Pray we can accelerate learning. Pray we can have the stamina needed for the big work and long days we have before us. Pray for wisdom. We have never done this before, neither have those who lead us. Pray for us to lean on one another, and our teams. Together is better. Relationships are central to our work. Pray for us to keep hope in the equation. It can feel like we are hard pressed on every side. Pray for our hearts. ❤️

Whether you are a praying person or not, these are the thoughts that our educators need right now. They need to know that they are supported. They need to know that you recognize that their fears are not selfish and that they’re not trying to get out of work. They need to know that their lives matter. They need to know that the things they are trying to do for the kids and families they serve matter–they’re well aware they won’t make everyone happy but they’re trying. They need to know that the public recognizes that they understand that there is risk involved in re-opening school…and that they’re scared too. Everyone from the first year teacher to the seasoned teacher and all of them in between and around them is scared too. A lot of what if’s are hanging over us, putting even more weight on our shoulders.

It was good to be seen today by those at wine school…just seen. They didn’t ask me to fix anything or go deep into explanation, didn’t make me feel bad for having feelings and showing them to a hundred plus people I don’t know, didn’t share their opinions on anything. They simply said yeah, we get it. And that was enough. We can get through this together.


We sometimes catch ourselves getting caught up in the day-to-day work of teaching: the anticipatory set that doubles as a pre-assessment, the mini-lesson and modeling, the gradual release to go off and do this work, reminders about the extension work that’s available, or the on-the-fly assignment that draws on a child’s area of interest and also meets a need for us. We greet kids at the door, keep them from getting themselves into trouble with the gift of proximity, non-verbal cues, and The Look from across the room that often fixes more than one potential issue because no one knows who The Look is actually for, but assumes it’s them.

We do all these things and after a while, it becomes rote, muscle memory taking over, the routines you taught are just as routine for you as they are for the kids.

In my current role, the routines that look so pretty on paper or in my head as I drive into work every day often get interrupted or never even started. Someone’s out sick (or may not make it through the day because one to many kids exhaled the ick into the air and not sleeping well let them catch it), the before-school care is late or doesn’t come in at all, an event needs to be set up or an important part of a first-thing-in-the-morning activity needs to be located, someone can’t make it in due to car trouble or traffic or weather, or I just flat forgot something that seemed to suddenly appear on my calendar (even if it had been there a while and I put it there myself…). When I was teaching in my own classroom, few of these things really impacted my day unless it was a teammate out or the fact that I forgot a field trip or classroom event. The ebb and flow of the day was generally the same and there was a sense of calm about it all.

“I will not embrace frantic,” a friend often says when things are not going according to the beautiful plan she had in her head. It’s hard not to embrace it some days, particularly when you want to wrestle it to the ground and strangle it altogether for messing up your day.

But there are moments that remind me that for all the routines that have become rote, for all the plans that explode upon arrival, there’s one thing that manages to weave itself into every day that we shouldn’t forget.


Every classroom management program on the planet talks about the importance of relationship with kids and their families. That’s how self-managing classroom communities get created. That’s what allows learning to happen every day even when there’s conflict. That’s what makes the dreaded phone call home about a problem in class have a reasonable, solution-focused outcome. Relationship with colleagues is just as important–when you have to ask a favor, want to give praise or kudos or support, or need to talk through something difficult. Creating good relationships with the people we serve and do this Big Work alongside make doing our job a little easier.

It’s more than just that though.

Relationship is what keeps kids coming back to your classroom because they know you have squishy dice, a full set of rulers or whiteboards, calligraphy pens and books for a project in another class, the grammar book they know they can find information in that you’ll lend them because you taught them long ago that you’re willing and they know to return things they borrow. It’s what leads them to your classroom for a pencil to take to class so they don’t get admonished for losing yet another one by a teacher down the hall.

It’s what gives a nurturing colleague an idea to share with an entire region of kids in support of some of their own.

Relationship is what sends messages to the littles who barely know who you are that you like hugs in the morning and love being read to when your kids are with the encore teacher. They watch and listen to your interactions with the kids who were once yours pretty carefully to decide how to handle you. When they see the way you talk to you and treat other kids, it helps them see that you are ok, not scary, and someone they can go to when they need a band-aid, help with writing (maybe math too), or just to talk to when they’re sad.

And the best thing, I think: relationship is what shows kids who are new to the school when you aren’t in the classroom anymore that you will always have their back, even when they make mistakes–doesn’t mean you won’t call them on it, but you’re there to help them grow and learn from it. It’s the message they get from older kids who’ve known you their whole lives that you’re looking out for their best interests and want to see them be successful beyond the classroom. Street cred matters.

Somehow that message gets down the hall to the little ones who ask to have lunch with you, just because, and read you page after page of the big Pokemon book with all the descriptions, truly worried about you because you admit you haven’t played Pokemon Go from anywhere beyond your couch at home in over a year (srsly, who doesn’t play it all the time if they are old enough to have a phone!?) and only have 74 Pokemon and you’ve had the app for three years.

And it’s why littles want to crawl into your chair with you to read or tell you about their hamster who passed away last week, and why they ask you to play line tag at 7am when the first cup of coffee isn’t even halfway consumed, and why they sing you happy birthday at the top of their six-year-old lungs…or 13-year-old lungs, complete with cracking voices and Jazz Hands in the middle of the hallway during a transition. And you tear up for both of them for different reasons.

The proverbial “they” say that teachers don’t teach for the money or the fame, and they’re right. We teach, even once we’re outside the classroom, because of the relationships we get to create with kids and their families, colleagues, and the community as a whole. Every one of us is an ambassador for our profession, and though we can’t hide the exhaustion we feel most days by October, we can still remind each other why we do this Big Work:

Teaching is the profession that makes all others possible.

The modeling we do of caring, compassionate, and healthy relationships with one another, with the kids we serve, and with our families is what will help these young people go off into the world and be good people who do their own Big Work.

Beware the Ides of October…

To engage in work that impacts the world around me positively so that others can grow, learn, and honor one another.

Several months ago I put words to my Why after many lengthy chats with friends and mentors. I’m realizing that it’s important to revisit it now and then because it’s pretty easy to forget when things get busy.

October is a good time, for the record. A very good time indeed.

October is the time of year when administrators and office staff start taking bets before the first bell rings on how many visits from children struggling to meet behavior expectations there will be when the barometer drops and the weather changes. It’s the time of year when teachers are balancing getting sick with taking a day off to catch up on grading or prep–is it possible to stay home to do both and still be productive? It’s the time of year when all the professional development conferences are scheduled to ensure that guest teachers remain employed until February when they’re needed again for the second round of PD conferences. It’s the time of year that the words “They’re dropping like flies!” requires clarification as to whether it’s referring to teachers or students, sickness or other things…

I requested the opportunity to work offsite last week to catch up on a few bigger projects that are best worked on with little interruption. I go home at night with best intentions, packing my bag with things I’ll need, thinking I’ll *totally* work on them when I get home, only to sit down and fall asleep on the couch, flanked by furs without jobs and something edible from a bag that probably isn’t good for me. There’s just no energy left in October. It’s as though it gets sucked out of me overnight between the 30th of September and 1st of October. Energy vampires are real, trust me.

I felt the need to revisit my Why this week in particular after looking back over the past couple of weeks to make sure I hadn’t missed something, revising task lists and project needs while I was working offsite, and coming across a quote in my planner that said,

“People lose their way when they lose their why.” ~Gail Hyatt

When I requested an offsite work day, it was out of sheer desperation–I’d lost my way completely. The task list grew longer by the minute, the requests more frequent and requiring more immediate addressing and cognitive power to problem solve, the nights later with event after event, and the time to get things done by deadlines shorter. I’ve never been great at setting boundaries or asking for what I need, but in looking at my Why, I could see the connections to it in all the things I was trying to fit in. That helped a bit to reframe the overwhelm I felt.

October is when some feel as though they’re getting into a groove with their work. I always felt that way in the classroom with my Tall Poppies. I knew my kids, knew where they were academically and such, knew where we were headed together to learn what was needed by the end of May, and had the ability and confidence to change lanes quickly and roll with things when I needed to. I haven’t felt that way about my current role at all in the last four years. Tasks get added and changed and removed, my role advancing and receding like the ocean against the sand. I never seem to know where I stand or which boss I answer to in the moment.

Taking a minute to sit with my Why has helped reframe it all though: To engage in work that impacts the world around me positively so that others can grow, learn, and honor one another.

My Why is a journey, not a destination; often it seems there is as many construction-related detours to navigate as there is real-life construction within the city limits. I need to remember that it’s ok when I need to request an offsite work day to help me move forward on the journey.

The reason we do this Big Work.

Curiosity…gave the cat another reason to nap.

We are doing a book study. We’re using Onward by Elena Aguilar and the accompanying workbook. I bought it on Audible when we started and the downside to doing so is that you lose a part of the intentional reflection. It’s something about the feeling of the pages between your fingers and seeing the actual words on the page and the ability to go back and skim for information that makes for more meaningful reflection.

This month’s focus in the book is “Be a Learner.” It’s pretty timely because February is traditionally the month in which educators across the country are seriously considering whether or not being a barista would be a better career move than remaining in teaching. We are frustrated. We are angry. We are quick to snark. And we are once again, tired. Naps shortly after arriving home are the norm, and sometimes the couch = bed because we’re so drained. February is a reminder that yes, we still have miles to go before we sleep (in June…)

Aguilar asks the reader to consider his or her experiences through the lens of curiosity and makes a challenge, of sorts, to see coaching and colleague feedback as an opportunity to learn and grow. She posted this video on the website for the book and I thought it was a good tie-in:

This time of year, much of the feedback we get is viewed as criticism and because our own criticality is high, both about our practice AND about the behaviors we’re seeing in the kids we serve, we take offense, looking for all the ways our coaches, administrators, colleagues, parents, and kids are failing us…how WE are failing ourselves and our own expectations.

She also challenges the reader to revisit the idea of time management. For many of us, Sunday is the worst day of the week. We drag through the day, putting off planning and prepping, and tackling the most mundane tasks in order to further procrastinate doing the things we need to get done to ensure we’re ready for the upcoming week, practically as well as emotionally and mentally. No other profession really has this issue. Lots of people don’t look forward to going back to work on Monday, but I think that teachers during February dread it with a special level of apprehension. Some of this stems from the eternal search for more time in the day…it’s like the Holy Grail and impossible to find. Between planning and prepping, making copies, sending reminder emails and updates to families, as well as checking in with teammates, finding more time to do the rest of it seems overwhelming.

Sometimes it seems that we begin focusing on the wrong things this time of year. We focus on “they ought to know by now,” the behaviors that drive us nuts that we are pretty sure we’ve addressed eleventy-billion times a day since August, the eternal search for more time in the day, and all the ways we feel like we’re failing when we meet with our coach or team. Why not reframe these feelings in ways that are more productive and focus on learning from them?

Instead of “they ought to know by now,” why not ask the question “What have I missed–it’s evident they DON’T know, so how can I support their learning so they can know and apply it?

Instead of focusing on the behaviors that drive us nuts, why not remember that behavior sends a message and be curious about it. Why does Joey continue to make that noise when he works? Does he even know he does it? Why is Serena avoiding a particular type of work? What is Mia getting out of the snarky comments back when I ask her to do something? Why is Jeremy incapable of keeping his hands to himself in any situation? What is it that he’s trying to get by touching other kids and things? What is this behavior telling me?

Instead of listing all the things we have to get done, why not take a hard look at how our time IS being spent? Am I putting out fires when I should be letting someone else handle it? Am I allowing (and even encouraging) interruptions in my day without thinking? Am I tackling the things that need doing in an order that makes the most sense? Am I procrastinating? I find that I have to reassess my time particularly when I feel overwhelmed and determine where I am losing time so that I can refocus my priorities, reblock time, and reschedule my day so that the most important things still get done–it might not be in the timeframe I planned, but it can get done. I have to remember too that my priorities have to change because the needs of the people I serve change. I’m still very much learning how to do my job…it’s not static and that’s part of why I enjoy it.

Instead of focusing on feelings of failure, how can we take feedback and learn from it? What questions do I have that need clarification after I’ve had a chance to think? How can feedback help me grow in my practice? What IS my Why and if I’ve lost it, how can I find it again?

I really enjoyed this particular chapter–there are lots of other good nuggets in it, but these are the ones I really wanted to reflect upon. I get to lead a conversation with our staff tomorrow about it, and I thought it was pretty important that I take time to do my own reflection…much like I would think about a lesson before I planned it out.

Some food for thought before I close. What thoughts do you have on generalizations about a big idea? I loved sharing these with kids as we begin a new unit or as we’re working through one, coming back to them to see if what we said at the beginning was still true now that we’ve learned more about a concept or topic. It made for very rich discussion and a way to come back to a guidepost as we learned together. As I think about this particular time of year, I agree with Aguilar’s big idea of “learning.” The thing about generalizations is that they are true or applicable in multiple situations. So if the big idea for this month is “learning,” do you think that these generalizations work?

  1. Learning generates both additional learning and additional questions.
  2. Learning can be either positive or negative.
  3. Learning is necessary for growth.
  4. Learning occurs over time.
  5. Learning can take many forms.

How will you reframe your challenges this month to be more curious and see yourself as a learner? Are the generalizations I proposed above true for you?


Have you ever read an article or watched the news and wondered what precipitated an event or issue?

Why did Columbine happen?  How did the standoff with David Koresh begin?  The Oklahoma City bombing?  Why is violence so prevalent in our society? What’s with all the protocols for the British Royal family? The lack of funding in education, how did that happen?  The pro-life or pro-choice movements–what values brought about that split in thinking? Why did the city choose to put in a road a particular way that drives you nuts?  A book you really got into–what made the author choose to write it?

You’re looking for connections.  And for gifted learners, connections are everything.

Over dinner last night, my boyfriend and I got into a conversation about “sage on the stage” educators and how effective that style of teaching is.  Our teachers at the high school level and in some college classes used a lecture format infused with some discussion to disseminate information to us, expecting that we would memorize information and be able to regurgitate it on tests.

I remember vividly taking notes, frantically writing down names and dates and events during lecture in my high school American History class.  I remember making piles and piles of notecards to help me memorize who did what when and where because that was what had been communicated as important: the names, the dates, and the events.  We didn’t discuss much that I recall (though others might remember it differently), but I know that this style of teaching, without an opportunity to process those names and dates and events in a way that created some sort of hook or story I could follow, some connection for me, created a loathing and disinterest of American History (and later American Literature because it was taught much the same way by a college professor) that still impacts me.

For a gifted learner, connections are how sense is made of things in the world.  They want to know why about everything…and one question leads to others, often seemingly unrelated:

  • Why do Peeps swordfight when you stick toothpicks in them and put them in the microwave?
  • Why does the moon seem bigger or closer at certain times of the year if its orbit doesn’t change?
  • Why does daylight savings time exist at all?
  • Why are the Palestinians and Jews fighting?
  • Why were some against slavery and some wanted it to continue?  Why did Americans think it was okay to begin with?
  • Why does a particular type of person become a beloved president by some and reviled by others?
  • Why is race still such a big deal in the US?  In other countries?
  • Why does the economy going to hell in one country matter to any other?
  • Why do people keep bringing up Ayn Rand and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when talking about what’s happening in our country?

I love teaching language arts, in part because I love words, but also because it touches every subject area.  When I taught a novel, I often looked into what was going on at the time it was written or the time period in which it was set and encouraged my students to do the same to have a better understanding of the story.  One can learn an awful lot about history through literature.  We’d talk about the social structures within a book and the values of the characters and discuss why or how they said or did particular things.  We made conjectures about upbringing, societal norms, and compared and contrasted those with what we know or do today or those in other novels or short stories we read. The fantasy books kids devoured were fascinating to pull connections out of because so much of the story was rooted in real life.  When we discussed poetry, we talked about meter and rhyme and the math and science behind it, why some words change their pronunciation to meet the needs of a particular line, how the words are arranged to serve a variety of purposes, and why the poet might have written it at all.  I pulled non-fiction pieces that tied to subjects discussed in books or poems for us to review, and students researched important events, places, and people to write about while they proposed their own connections between ideas.

I did many of the same things when I presented history, sharing it with kids as a story so that they could build connections between dates, people, and events and geography, politics, religion, economics, scientific thinking, and mathematical practice.  We tied lifeskills lessons into history: how did the big idea of power impact society during the middle ages or Colorado’s early history and how does it impact our classroom community now?  Very little of my time in any class was spent lecturing and requiring kids to take notes.  I tried to provide opportunities for kids to experience the content, discuss it, tear it apart, question it, and understand it so that they could apply it to the next level of study.

Science and math were more difficult for me because neither is my area of passion or expertise, but there’s a way to create connection there too, though hands-on explorations, research of theories and ideas, and talking to people who use the skills kids are learning in their everyday jobs.  We skyped with engineers, talked with people from the city utility company, and took a mock mission to space.  We studied the evolution of scientific thinking and how particular algorithms were developed and what they’re used for.  There’s a place for paper and pencil practice of math as well as documentation of experiments and notetaking with memorization, of course, but that can’t be all a child experiences in math and science classes.  If I were in the classroom now, I’d be doing quite a bit of refining in how my science and math classes were organized to allow for more opportunities for kids to go beyond the steps of the experiment or algorithm to explore connections in these areas.

Some would say that the way I taught and the informal assessments I used weren’t best practice because they aren’t rooted in hard data: the number of questions that addressed particular pieces of information answered correctly vs. those answered incorrectly.  Hard data has a place in tracking progress, of course, but learning is a process, not a regurgitation of information.  It’s cyclical: how a child accesses the information they’ve been introduced to and uses that knowledge to communicate their understanding over time is far more valuable data than hard numbers in a color-coded spreadsheet that tracks progress on daily quizzes over yesterday’s material.  My experience is that they take that understanding with them and use it in other situations…and that’s what we want, isn’t it?

It breaks my heart when I hear middle and high school teachers talk about how great their lecture went but they can’t understand why so many bombed the quiz or gripe about how kids aren’t learning what they so carefully presented through a powerpoint and complaining about how notetaking skills suck because it doesn’t follow the format they want used (even if the notes totally make sense to the child). Their kids, particularly the gifted ones, are being denied a tremendous opportunity to understand content by experiencing it…not just having it presented.  Thankfully, many of the teachers I know who teach at these levels have further developed their practice and now incorporate more research opportunities, discussion with complex questioning, role play, debate, and Socratic seminars, and active learning experiences to facilitate the understanding of their content area, not simply learning the information.  Their assessments require the demonstration of understanding and connections between ideas, not the simple regurgitation of bits of information.

When we choose to become teachers, for most of us, it’s not about simply sharing what we, as adults, have already learned.  It’s about facilitating the understanding of the world around us so that kids can go on to improve it.