Tag Archives: Gifted

Trust

A friend asked me to think about what the word “trust” really means. I’m presenting at CAGT on Monday (Please register here! It’ll be fabulous and virtual and you’ll get to see ALL the sessions because you’ll have access for a while after!) and really thought I was mostly done with the presentation itself, but the more I got to thinking about it, the more I realized that the work we do with our gifted kids hinges on trust and I needed to go back and revise my presentation a bit.

I am a huge proponent of teaching self-advocacy to kids, particularly gifted ones, because their whole lives their parents have been the ones to fight the good fight on their behalf. They need more challenge, not more work. They need to be in the higher level Bible class because they already learned everything taught in the one for their age. They want more time on the field to get experience vs. riding the bench every game. They’re not being bossy, but want to be heard and understood by peers and teachers. They may need to approach a project or other work differently, and need to be given space to do that without repercussions.

Every time a teacher says that all the kids have to do the same thing otherwise their work can’t be graded, my heart breaks a little more.

We really need to think about the purpose of the work we’re assigning. I’m sure that none of us assign it to give ourselves something to do at night with a glass of wine or bourbon. We should look at the work we ask kids to do not as an assignment, but as a measure of progress…and progress looks very different from one child to the next. Why does everything have to look the same? And why does it all have to be evaluated exactly the same way?

Amy McInerney got an award every quarter for her perfect penmanship when we were in grade school because she was able to form her letters to look EXACTLY like the ones in the workbook. Mine weren’t any less neat, but they looked a little different than the ones in the book. I made my T different in cursive. My Q looks like a Q and not a swirly 2. My D looks like a D without a combover. But mine didn’t look exactly the same as the book’s, so I never get the award and got a lower grade in penmanship than she did.

Because I make my capital letters a little different doesn’t mean I didn’t make progress…it just looked different. But teachers often feel that if anything looks different than the model or the example, it shows that the child should a) have to do it over b) take a lower grade because it’s not what the teacher was looking for or c) have to “let all the other kids do whatever THEY want too.”

The cry for conformity is loud…and frankly, I’m tired of hearing it. Now is an excellent time for change…since we’re revisiting what school can look like anyway.

When I talk to kids about self-advocacy, the first thing I ask them is how they feel about the adult or peer they need to talk with about something. Some are afraid, because their parents always took care of it and here I was asking that they do it themselves. They are afraid of the teacher or person saying “No” and then being humiliated. Some are excited, because they have a lot to say and would love the chance to do something the way they envision it for once. It does come down to trust though. Do they feel they can trust that other person to listen to them first of all, and do they trust them to at least consider what they’re requesting?

I had a student once who was brilliant and could talk about anything we were learning. The kid loved to be the center of attention and was incredibly creative and dramatic. The thought of hand writing an essay, or even typing one, created anxiety and the child shut down altogether. Some teachers would see this as refusal to work and give consequences like “You can’t go to recess until this is complete” or “You will have to do it for homework.”

I sat with this student one day and said, “Tell me more about how you would show what you know about the work we have done together if I hadn’t assigned an essay.” The things the child came up with! So creative and unique (and so much more fun than writing an essay)! Finally, we settled on a newscast, which would have to have a written script (which wouldn’t be graded for neatness, spelling, or anything other than content) and be recorded using a program we had on the computer. We created a rubric and specific “must-haves” for the work. And it was brilliant.

We created trust that day. And from then on, I began giving kids the option to do things I came up with or determine what would best suit their way of showing what they knew. We worked together to talk about what the most important things we needed to evaluate to show progress. Those things were the same regardless of the end result. Doing this gave them the opportunity to problem solve, back pedal, collaborate, or fail forward and reflect on the successes and what didn’t go as well as they thought. They always knew that sometimes I’d need them to do something specific because I needed something in particular and I’d be honest with them about what I needed and why (like an actual essay to measure their progress in writing an essay), but having that freedom most of the time helped them grow in their confidence and self-advocacy skills.

I think what hurt the most were the times where they were confident that other teachers would do the same as I had, only to be shot down with no discussion or support for their learning self-advocacy. More than once I watched confident and creative kids come back to my room after asking for what they needed saying that another teacher had never even let them explain their idea. I hurt for them. And I hurt for the teacher, too

Think about what that did to the student. Think about what that did to their relationship with that teacher. Think about what opportunities were missed.

Our work with these tall poppies is so incredibly rewarding, adding this layer of trust makes it that much better.

Wise Words

Many days lately…since March, really, I have ended my day frustrated, overwhelmed, feeling useless or unsure whether or not I’m doing anything “right.” I have the opportunity to meet with a smallish group of gifted educators every few weeks and I leave every Zoom meeting feeling alive and so much better about everything after I leave them.

Last week, wise words were shared and the next day I went to work and wrote them on a sticky note and stuck it to my nameplate next to my door.

Because I have chosen to work in the field of giftedness, in collaboration with a bunch of gifted people, serving a bunch of gifted kids, these wise words are so incredibly important to remember, especially now.

We had dreams when our building remodel began. Finally, we’d have wide hallways for kids, beautiful spaces with high ceilings and storage, rooms used for a variety of purposes with furniture that could be moved and reorganized and modified as teachers and students needed. Beautiful colored walls, lots of natural light, places for kid-created art showcases, and outdoor spaces classes could use for learning on the many Colorado days that allow it. Spaces for kids to refocus, take sensory breaks, meet with teachers one on one, and for teachers to take a time out of their own when they need it, to work uninterrupted on curriculum development and unit planning. Community spaces for collaboration and discussion, resource storage, a gym and theater space that served multiple purposes from middle school sports to large audience performances.

And here we are, on the edge of October, with so much left unfinished, dedicated construction and finish workers taking care of details everywhere, trying not to interrupt meetings or classes, working around all of us who are trying to get on with the work of school. Other staff are helping get rid of or store things we can’t use right now or won’t use anymore, while still setting up the critical pieces for learning: blinds so kids can seeFamilies are deciding whether to come back at all and just homeschool or unschool, stay virtual, go hybrid, or choose elsewhere that’s in person all the time because parents have jobs and bosses who can’t or won’t grant any more grace because they have kids. Classrooms don’t look like they should with all the collaborative furniture separated to ensure 3′ or more distancing between work spaces and community supplies packed up. The question “Will the kids be allowed to borrow books from our classroom library?” hurt my heart…it shouldn’t ever be a question anyone ever has to even ask. Teachers are trying to figure out how to manage keeping kids in seats without duct tape (seems there’s a rule about that somewhere…) while simultaneously providing engaging performance theater for those attending from home and also fielding parent emails and questions about what class looks while trying to teach said class because they feel like they aren’t doing it right..perfectionism is a thing for them too. And all of those lovely community spaces…closed until further notice because people can’t be that close to one another…

The sheer number of new multi-page documents that require review, publishing, and revising is tremendous. And each one hurts a little more.

Fragility for all of us is real right now. On so many levels.

We hoped for perfect. We kind of expected it because we had worked so hard to make this happen. Perfect happens when you work hard, right? We knew there’d be snags, glitches, criticism because there are so many opinions about what all of this ought to look like and, questions because not only do things change with every exhale, but they change upon the inhale again as soon as you tell people about the new information…there’s more, or different, information.

In all of this imperfection though, Brené Brown says there are gifts.

The realization that you meant something to a child because they keep asking about you.

The understanding that process is much more meaningful and demonstrates deeper learning than product sometimes.

The willingness of people to reach out to each other, to help, to support, to “pop in” virtually so someone can take a bio break, to talk with families to try to come to solutions, to meet on the lawn to troubleshoot tech issues, to meet at night after parents are home from work to to help their child.

The new ideas that spring from all of this imperfection…

How will you see the good shine through?

Drawing by Ciera Gonzales, 2007

Start…Stop…

I have started this post over and over again. I have stopped, swearing I’ll come back to it, and then deleted one draft after another. I read headlines instead of watching the news, alerts as they pop up on my watch or phone. There’s been some news, to say the least, and some of it is just unfathomable, making me reconsider if whatever I’m thinking even matters in that moment given everything else.

By this point in the summer, I have typically started thinking about how I want to evolve my role the next year. I’ve identified pieces of my job that don’t fit my title and give the wrong impression about what exactly it is that I do, and identified what I WANT to be doing for our gifted learners and educators to help them both grow.

COVID-19 and closures and stay at home orders and murders and protests and layoffs and furloughs and budget cuts and worry have occupied my thoughts and seemed so much more important than anything else on my mind.

I’ve attended several meetings lately where discussion turned to what teachers will be facing next year. Many in the group noted that there was a lot of upset as teachers felt out of the loop more than usual, with decisions being made about next year without their input, and they felt undervalued and some were even considering quitting altogether because so much was up in the air and no one could seem to answer their questions with sufficient detail for them to feel at ease. They’re anxious and angry. They’d gone into mid-March holding “crisis school,” feeling frantic and not knowing what they were doing or what was expected–some districts expected online school to look exactly like in-the-classroom school and teachers were exhausted trying to meet that expectation on top of taking care of their own families at the same time. They want to know what things will look like for the fall–are we going hybrid? in-person? online only? They want to know what options they have for employment as they, too, are worried about their own families and the risk they’d be taking in being in a classroom with 10+ students.

The consensus from everyone is that no one knows what the fall will bring yet. Change happens constantly right now and most districts and schools are trying to build a skyscraper during an earthquake. They have plans for this, that, the other thing, and then news brings changes which requires stopping to make more modifications or starting over altogether and a new set of plans. There is no one way to do this. Administrators aren’t trying to keep anyone in the dark, but it doesn’t make sense to share multiple possibilities for plans that change with every Apple News alert.

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Even in my role, much is up in the air. What will my job need to look like? Will the things I see as needed be what others want done? A podcast I listen to every Monday noted that this is called the “Messy Middle” where goals may need to change and we may have to let go of the goals we’d planned last year or in January. What should be the focus going into the fall? PD about cultural responsiveness? trauma? online or hybrid learning? Synchronous and asynchronous planning and teaching? Regardless of the focus chosen, will it end up being what’s needed?

I feel like I start and stop things a lot lately, second guessing myself and the worthiness of the work. One of the pieces of advice in the podcast today was to go back to my Why. Initially, I’d determined my Why to be:

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

I think this, along with several goals, needs to be revised to include the things about which I’m passionate. Perhaps another version or sub-Why is more appropriate right now:

“To engage in advocacy for gifted learners so that educators will be able and willing to see them, hear them, and begin to understand and honor them.”

How might your goals or your Why change? What have you started and stopped lately that you need to come back to and evaluate? Schedule a time to talk with a mentor or friend to talk about it…and about the fear that underlies all of this.

Controlling the Unknown

I’m over the virtual meetings.

I’m over hangout and social media chats.

I’m over strings of emails with one sentence responses and overlapping questions because we can’t just walk down the hall and have a damn conversation to fix a problem.

I’m over discussion of yet more education budget cuts and possible layoffs and hybrid in-person and distance learning and maintaining social distancing with five-year-olds and memos put out by people who last saw a classroom when they were in elementary school telling educators how school should look next year.

I’m tired of virtual happy hours and webinars.

I’m tired of being mentally and emotionally exhausted every day before it’s even begun.

A friend said it best this week when we were texting to find a time for a virtual happy hour. She said some days are better than others, but she hated having to be socially and physically distant from others. And she hated having no control over her future. That’s exactly it. That’s the crux of what is wrong for so many of us right now. I see my neighbors more (not altogether a bad thing) but never see the people I love. I don’t know what the future holds and that’s scary.

We’ve released from school, and technically summer break has started though it doesn’t feel, once again, as though it’s a break. My heart hurts, literally, for all the unknowns we’re left with and the lack of control that any of us have on our future. I can’t design what I want coaching to look like with people next year because I have no idea what my position will look like in the fall. I can’t plan marketing because who knows how we’ll be allowed to interact. All of the possibilities being discussed are mind-boggling and I can’t wrap my head around how any of them could actually work.

Small businesses and restaurants and breweries aren’t sure how much longer than they can stay afloat without in-person sales without restrictions and dine-in/drink-in options, and employees don’t know if they’ll have jobs to go back to when they do open up completely–on the one hand, they don’t want to take another position but on the other they need a job. Parents who have already been laid off or furloughed are worried about finding work, and unemployment will only last so long. Whole industries have been impacted by this, and those who don’t need financial support have managed to get their hands on it with no trouble, while those who do need it can’t even get an application to ask for it. Seems the rules change for those who have, and those who have not are again, stuck having not. And I hate that inequity.

We have little control right now over much at all and it’s frustrating. You can’t control the unknown, especially when you aren’t the one in a decision-making position. I got to choose wall colors for my office this week (Pollen Powder and Yam, for the record) and for a moment that was enough. Then a thousand other things I have no control over spilled out over the past few days and so much of what I feel is…sad, I guess.

Someone said in a virtual meetup that liquor sales have gone up significantly since all this began and I believe it. I know I have a fairly good part of my fridge dedicated to my liquor of choice. I say I drink socially (which generally is the case), but when you can’t be social…well, one crowler has to be consumed at a time (I will not be my mother and put tin foil over my beer to “save” it for tomorrow.) and I can say I’m supporting a small business.

And then there’s existential angst that comes up when you’re alone so much and you begin to doubt your worth. The beer does not stop the thinking.

I have four fairly big projects going for the summer, all of which have their own unique set of unknowns, and my ability to complete them successfully is a huge concern. Do I know enough? Am I doing it right? Was I really the right person for this?

Imposter syndrome is real, and it shows up in the gifted population with significantly more frequency than that of neurotypical people. I’m sure there’s statistics…but I don’t want to hunt them down right now. Everyone has doubts, but those in the gifted population run deeper and are more complex. I’ve watched it happen. I’ve experienced it. We worry less about how we’ll be perceived than how our success will impact others and the greater good. I think about my kids who have graduated both high school and 8th grade this year, and cannot even begin to imagine what they are going through right ow with all the unknowns on their plates.

I get so angry when I hear or see people spouting complete untruths about the impact of this virus on people. When they go on about how it’s all a hoax. When they say that masks are unnecessary. When they say that we’re all overreacting. So let’s assume it’s all a hoax and we are overreacting–that doesn’t mean the impact of it has changed or lessened. Families have been destroyed through the death of loved ones. How we view our society has changed. How we view education has changed. How we support our students and families has changed. And how we support one another has changed…and that hurts most of all.

I got caught up watching Jersey Shore over the past several weeks (no judgement…it’s as mindless as one can get and I’m fully aware I’m losing brain cells.) One of the people on the show left for a time due to anxiety, and when he came back, he was sporting a tattoo that said “Let Go, Let God.” He got it to remember that he is in control of his actions, but not the outcome. I’m not a really religious person by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to believe that something greater than myself is at work here.

Things I know are that I get to work with a brilliant team of educators who want only the best for our kids. I get to partner with others in a variety of organizations who want the best for kids and their families. I have wonderful mentors to rely on when I don’t know the answers. I have friends and family I can lean on when it hurts too much. Eventually the clouds clear (unless you live in the PNW and then it’s a crapshoot if they’ll clear or not). Everything has a season. People come into your life for a reason or a season…every interaction is a lesson of some sort and if we need more practice, the interaction continues to be presented.

I can’t control the unknown, no matter how hard I try. I have no intention of giving up, but I can mellow out about it a little and let go… The clouds will clear. And the storm will pass.

Magic Word

There are certain words that strike us. Words that bring about feelings of happiness, sadness, frustration, anger. Trigger words. Words that remind us of who we once were…and remind us of who we hoped to be.

I have had a very long day and been on the brink of tears for some time. Hell, I’ve had a long month. Fine. A long school year and it’s only November. Part of me feels as though the last one never really ended and despite all the new beginnings and good things, there’s been no down time to be able to really start fresh despite two brand new planners, a multitude of productivity and inspirational podcasts, nightly meditations about knowing my worth, and revising my own rituals to make them better so that I feel as though the self-care that I know I need is really happening. But I have felt lost for a long time, as though somewhere I left a big piece of myself somewhere else…setting it in a box and tucking it away safely for later in favor of all the things that others felt were important or all the things that simply needed to be taken care of.

Tonight a friend uttered a magic word as he made a request of me that I haven’t thought about in a while, except in those infrequent passionate conversations with people who get it when frustration is winning and tears sting my eyes. I figured that others had forgotten or that they never saw it to begin with.

Advocacy.

Let me explain. I write a lot about my Why, which right now reads like this:

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

I’ve felt for a long time that my Why Statement was general, and that was fine, but there was something missing.

The days that I feel best about my work involve giving our kids opportunities to self-advocate or advocate for others, whether that’s talking with a teacher about modifying a project or activity, taking the lead on something that could make a difference, or speaking up about how to best support a peer. The days I go home happiest are the days I get to talk with parents and am trusted to support them in advocating for their kids and their needs, even if the conversation was difficult or complicated. The days I feel good about the work I do are those in which I get to share some of the best practices we’ve developed and implemented over time that benefits the kids we serve. The days I feel accomplished and fulfilled are the days that I get to share a bit of what these kids, these tall poppies, really need us to know and do on their behalf to make their lives better, their school experiences meaningful, and help them go off into the world and do good…whatever that might look like for them.

I get to do a lot of things in my current role and generally, I appreciate that I’ve been entrusted with all of those things–I wouldn’t have been asked if someone didn’t think I was capable. I use the word “get” intentionally, for the record, but the to-do list is ever-growing and all of the things are important in some way to the greater good. With all of those responsibilities though, something has to get set aside. I’ve felt all year that something was off–I was missing a piece of myself, not getting to the really important bits, and not often leaving school at the end of the day feeling like I’d done much in support of the things that really matter.

That piece that’s been missing is advocacy for these glorious gifted kids.

It’s why I choose to work where I do and want so much to help teachers SEE the kids they’re serving. Not the behaviors. Not the work that gets done too fast or too slow or not at all. But SEE WHO THE KIDS ARE.

It’s why I choose to present at conferences and spend hours of my own time creating what I hope will be a meaningful session to the people who choose to spend an hour with me, all the while hoping that they leave the room being able to look at one of their kids a bit differently when they go back into their classroom on Monday.

It’s why I revise wording in outreach emails meticulously, and ask lots of questions so that I understand better what people are in need of learning. Do they want a quick fix, or do they want to really learn about who these kids are and what they need?

It’s why when I talk with other educators I get so incredibly upset when they can’t find their way to seeing that gifted kids NEED people who are willing to go the extra mile and think outside the box and provide an education that is meaningful to them.

It’s why when one of our kids is hurting or struggling, it hurts me that much more–whatever pain they’re experiencing is so multi-faceted…and so many only see one facet of it, trying to insist it’s something simple.

It’s why I seek out others who get it–people who know what it is to not quite fit and who are able to see past the pieces of these kids that others see as faults and see the beauty of who they truly are.

It’s why I find it so hard to say no when there’s critical information that needs to be shared to better help people, everyone from parents to the guy who came to fix the cable to teachers to politicians, to understand who these amazing kids really are…truly see them.

Gifted is who they are, not what they produce and not what they do. Gifted kids need advocates. They need people to stand up on a soapbox and tell the world that they need for us to make changes to how we’re doing things to ensure that they all learn something every day, that they all grow, that they all know that they are SEEN.

Thanks for helping me see the thing that’s been missing, friend. Thanks for seeing me.

Kidlets…

I have been trying to write this piece for several days. The words get lost in the emotions and can’t find their way out–kind of like they’re stuck in an escape room with clues laid out that may or may not be meaningful or purposeful, all the while growing more exhausted and frustrated that they’re stuck. I have an ache in my head where the tears are stuck. There’s something to be said for writing that happens organically, while the emotions are fresh, but…yeah. That wasn’t going to happen this time.

Wednesday night a group of kids graduated to high school. I’ve watched several of this group grow up from itty bitties just starting Kindergarten. We have a photo of one being held by her dad, looking at him as if to say, “Hey Daddy, it’s gonna be just fine.” One helped me paint what would eventually be my classroom. He did the low parts of the wall back then and he’s now almost a head taller than I am and beats me in Exploding Kittens often. Others spent two years of our language arts class together whining about all the writing I “made” them do, while others devoured grammar and writing like a teacher at the end of the year consumes coffee and donuts she finds in the lounge. Still others joined us along the way, finding a home in our school, a tribe in which they could be themselves, figure out who they wanted to be, and learn about who they were as learners and thinkers and people.

They’re definitely not adults, but also not completely children anymore, having grown up into simply amazing young men and women who will begin the next phase of their journey, high school, in a few months. Many are old souls and have been their whole lives…and each shows it a bit differently. They’ve grown so much in nine years…and I’ve enjoyed watching every moment of it. They’re wonderful human beings, and each of them has taken up residence in my heart: From the one who shared a long list of what she wanted to be when she grew up, to dancers who cultivated their activist leanings, to the writers and poets (the reluctant ones, too), to the young rocketeers and scientists, to the artists and adventurers, to the future lawyers, to the one who had found her BFF in the first four seconds of the first day of third grade, the leaders and doers, and to the quiet ones with eyes that took in everything, the old souls, and the deep thinkers who said little but felt much.

This batch of kids shared with me memories of our time together over the last few days. One shared that she and a new friend weren’t sure where they were supposed to go on the first day of third grade and decided my classroom was a good spot to land–they knew me from our intro conferences and felt at home enough to stick around. I vaguely remember counting heads at one point and thinking, “Hey…I have two extra,” and figured out where they should actually be. I love that they made themselves comfortable that morning…and that she remembered the story. So many of them had stories like that. Moments we shared, things they remembered. Others were just teary all over the place because they’re sad to leave this place they’ve called home for so many years and heading off into a new adventure, which is probably seeming a little scary. Some have simply said thank you over and over again the last several days…recognizing that our time together is precious, and they didn’t want to move too fast and forget. I got pretty teary several times, holding each one a bit tighter, a bit closer, a bit longer as we said our goodbyes, remembering days when they didn’t stand a foot taller than me.

The first group of kids we sent off into the world came to us as eighth graders for a reason that first year. They graduated college this year. They knew what we were about and they helped us build the plane as we flew it. Those who came after had big shoes to fill, but still managed to understand our “Why.” This particular group of graduates understood our “Why” better than all those before them. They knew they were getting a different type of education from the first day of kindergarten. They understood, particularly those who joined us after kindergarten, that they needed something different, that they learned differently, that they were just inherently different than other kids. They left us understanding a bit better of who they are…with all their glorious quirks and asynchronous bits. They left us knowing how to ask for what they need, how to set boundaries, and that their passion is the most important thing. We helped them learn that…and it matters.

Last night, we had an alumni event with ice cream and schmoozing. A few recent graduates joined us, and the others are from a variety of periods with one or two who left to do other things but still call this place home. A few graduates come to several events a year, living nearby or having siblings still with us, to see what’s going on and how things have changed…if things have changed. It’s good for current kids to know that there are graduates about–it lets them see that there is life beyond the 8th grade, and they’ll find their tribe even after they leave. Some of the kids who came last night came for a particular purpose, because someone they wanted to see might be there: an old friend, a teacher, or just a familiar face. Some of these were mine…and it was so good to share in their successes, their challenges…and to get to watch them be kids for a while, remembering what it is to be little while their six-foot-plus sized bodies squeezed into kindergartener-sized swings and to play four-square and chase and slide down a slide tucked into the side of a hill.

For those of us who come to these end of year evening events, two graduation ceremonies and a social, it’s a long week and our feet hurt and we’re tired. But it’s important that we show up. The kids need to know we’re still there. And for us, it’s just as important. These kids remind of us of our “Why” every time. They remind us that we choose where we teach and we choose the impact we get to make. They remind us that kids need advocates and to have someone in their world at school who really SEES them for who they are, not for the work they do or the scores they produce or the progress that makes it looks like a lot of growth on paper for a teacher evaluation or an award given to the school by the superintendent. These kids are more than all of that. They’re why others and I choose to do this work. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. And sometimes it’s all the emotions…all at once while you’re standing in your office with the last remaining tissue box.

Go off and do good, sweet kidlets… Go off and do good. Come home once in a while, though, wouldja? We’d love to see you.

Conference Season, Part Deux

February is when the rest of the annual conferences are scheduled. One of my favorite conferences happens in February, CCIRA.

CCIRA is a literacy organization a friend introduced me to years ago. Their conference is one of the largest in the country, and it often has big names in literacy education speaking either as keynotes or in smaller sessions. It’s a little like Comic Con for Language Arts teachers. This time, I ran (literally) into Gerry Brooks, saw Mark Overmeyer coming to breakfast, had Dr. Bob Seney sit in one of my sessions right up front, and though I missed Tina Boogren, I knew she was there–I felt it. (The self-care energy is great with that one…)

What I love most about it though is that so many of the speakers are local educators. These are the people doing the work in their classrooms every day with kids and they are willing to take two days out of their time with kids to come and share their own learnings with the rest of us.

I’ve presented at this conference twice. This year, they picked up both my proposed sessions and I felt incredibly nervous about them both, despite the fact that I’ve presented both more than once. I met with a friend to chat about how to become more of a dynamic presenter and I spent several hours tweaking both presentations so that they’d be just right for the audiences I’d have, which almost always include people with very little experience in teaching our tall poppies.

So many buildings use basal readers–those big classroom textbooks with a smattering of re-written and simplified stories and non-fiction pieces for students to read and answer questions about. Most programs have a small group timed schedule that looks like this:

Day 1: Teacher reads, vocabulary instruction, skill introduction

Day 2: Popcorn reading, vocabulary review, skill practice with text

Day 3: Partner reading, more vocabulary review, comprehension practice

Day 4: Independent reading, skill and comprehension practice

Day 5: Test, which is almost always a mixture of multiple choice, matching, vocabulary, and if you’re lucky, a short answer or two requiring information that’s right there in the text.

Then the next week they begin again with a new story or non-fiction piece.

Teachers work hard using a system like this to support their readers, providing really intentional instruction in both skills and content. And most basal programs aren’t all bad. For a typical learner or one requiring lots of repetition or specific supports, this type of learning situation can be a good thing, providing explicit instruction in specific skills. They do level the playing field, incorporating instructions for support and accommodation, but what’s provided for “enrichment” usually doesn’t follow gifted best practice. For a gifted learner though, this is a recipe for disaster and kills a love of reading fairly quickly.

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of teaching is that kids, particularly gifted ones, need to read genuine, original literature if they’re to learn how to comprehend text. They need to learn how to work their way through a complex sentence or paragraph, go back and reread a difficult piece of dialogue to figure out who the heck was actually speaking, and they need to learn to muddle through longwinded descriptions of paths lined with trees. The author had a purpose in including that part, after all. More importantly though, as readers, we want to connect with the pieces we read. When we choose books, we look at the first few pages, the cover, the back cover, read the recommendations of others, and then decide if we want to commit to it. We want to know the characters personally by the end of a story, and when reading non-fiction, we want to get our questions answered by the end of the piece, so we choose what we read intentionally. Kids don’t always get that choice, so it’s up to us to help create some connections for them. And that requires going beyond the basal text…

One of the sessions I presented was all about making connections to text. I used a short piece from a well-known author, a woman of color. I was introduced to it not in school, but in a conference session presented by a friend of mine who has far more years experience teaching literature than I. As our intimate group chatted about the piece, ideas began to spring into my head about how I could use this with kids, and how I’d like to see them respond to it.

He helped me create connections to the text by asking a few very deliberate questions. I was looking through the eyes of my students as I read, thinking of all the things beyond the words on the page that I saw in it.

That’s reading. That’s practicing comprehension. That’s exploring vocabulary and sentence structure.

That is the work of readers.

This time, this particular session went very well, and the energy in the room was high, people were engaged, and like when a lesson goes the way I picture it will, I moved on to my next session a little high on excitement.

The people in the room were probably excited to learn a new way to help their kids learn to read literature, but I suspect they left even more excited having had the opportunity to remember what it was to be a student and experience learning in a way that allowed them to remember what it felt like to think and make connections.

We don’t do that very often anymore as adults–we let the news tell us what we need to know, flip through stories on facebook or twitter, read professional books for specific purposes (to get that ONE kid to finally show what they know…) or learn new strategies to help us be more successful, or sometimes slip into a mindless read to downshift into a world of someone else’s making.

This week, I double dog dare you to read something for the sake of creating a connection. Let yourself explore the words, allowing them to roll around in your mouth and wonder why the author chose those words in particular to use to describe something. Allow yourself to step into the shoes of a character or person in a non-fiction piece and think about what their world is really like beyond this one snippet of text. Think about the possible connections that might exist to your own world, that of your kids, current events or past ones. And consider the author’s purpose in writing it…and for whom it was written. Bonus points if you chat with another person about what you are thinking…

There’s no fear that your tongue will stick to a metal pole in this challenge, but you might grow some dendrites and remember what it was to think for yourself with no fear of judgment…