Three for the Week

Saturdays are my time to reflect on what I read, heard, and discussed throughout the week. It is my “exit ticket” for the last seven days. So here are three ideas that made me think this week. (They are not in any particular order.)

1 – Edutopia published an interesting article on literacy conferences. One of the hesitations teachers have with one-on-one conferences is the time it will take to conduct them. The author addressed that concern. “Before I began using conferencing, I rarely left school without a bag full of papers or tests to grade. Conferencing shifts some of the time teachers spend on grading to conversations that take place in class.” They are also shared ideas about getting conferences up and running.

2 – This article explores the idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. There is growing research questioning the long held belief that breakfast is king. If you know anybody who has tried intermittent fasting, you are probably familiar with eating windows which usually eliminate breakfast. It’s an interesting read.

3- This is such a wonderful story. A boy asked his girlfriend to the prom. His girlfriend, however, is blind, so the young man created an invitation for her in braille using Hershey Kisses. We need more of this in the world!

What Color Suit Did Barack Obama Wear?

One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. In one scene, the main character wears dress shoes in prison, but nobody notices he’s not wearing his prison-issued shoes. It makes the point that people rarely pay attention to the details of a person’s clothing.

I’m reminded of that scene whenever I think of a productivity technique I first heard about with President Obama. (Disclaimer: This is not a political post and will not become one.) Regardless of your politics, you’ve probably seen at least one of President Obama’s speeches. Here’s a question for you: What color suit was he wearing? The answer: blue or gray.

That’s because President Obama only wears blue and gray suits. His reasoning has to do with something called decision fatigue. I first heard of this phenomenon from an article about the former president and his choice of clothing. When you’re the leader of the free world, you have a lot of decisions to make. The color of your suit isn’t nearly as important as world trade agreements and international markets. So, Mr. Obama limited his clothing decisions and spent some of that energy worrying about other things like foreign and domestic policy.

I thought the idea was intriguing, so I started to do it on a smaller scale. I wear mostly the same thing to work every day: khakis and a polo or long sleeve shirt. Most of the colors I pick are interchangeable – almost every shirt will match with either beige or blue khakis. This makes my morning run much more smoothly and frees up mental energy for the 1,500 decisions I’ll have to make in my classroom that day.

Kids Love Problem Solving

Kids love problem solving. I really believe this. They like to figure things out. If given the right environment, students like to challenge their thinking and struggle with concepts.

I was reminded of this last weekend when I checked my “Shared With Me” file on Google Drive. I had a number of files from students titled “Math Puzzles.” A few of my students created puzzles to challenge their classmates.

The student-created puzzles really showcased students’ individual interests.

Everyday we start our math lesson with a math puzzle and some mental math problems to build number sense and improve our problem solving. My students love completing these tasks, so some of them they made their own puzzles.

Some students used adorable pictures of cuddly animals. Others used their favorite sports teams or video game characters.

This got me wondering if students really don’t like math, or do they just not like how math is typically presented. I had six students who spent their own time creating puzzles. I didn’t tell them they had to do it or assign it for work. They enjoyed the challenge and wanted to show their creativity. It doesn’t get much better than that – creativity, engagement, and problem solving. Now I have to keep that excitement going.

Mystery Science

About a month ago a colleague told me about a website called Mystery Science. The site has great lessons with hands-on activities. You can search for topics or browse by grade level. Best of all, it’s free!

Earlier this week I used a lesson with my students to explore how sound travels. They used paper cups, string, and paperclips to make telephones. Students “talked” through the phones to learn about sound waves. It was an engaging, hands-on activity that really helped them understand how sound travels.

If you teach elementary school, you should definitely check out this website.

Teachers as Leaders

A few years ago my district started a leadership workshop. These were monthly meetings on a range of topics. Leadership has always been an interest of mine, so I signed up for the workshop.

At the first meeting, I looked around the room and immediately felt like a fraud. Most of the people in the room were in leadership roles in the district. I was “just” a fourth grade teacher.

Over the next few months I attended the workshops and eventually got my principal certification. During that time, I thought a lot about those initials concerns. What was I, a teacher, doing in a room full of “leaders” in my district. These were people who were running transportation programs, various buildings, curriculum departments, and other aspects of the school district.

Then a thought occurred to me: I am running a classroom with 26 students. I am running a small company everyday. This requires communication with students from a range of ability and their families. There is daily planning and adjustments as situations arise. I’m responsible for the safety and security of the students in my class. All of this takes leadership.

There are many definitions of leadership and even more characteristics of a great leader. Here are a few qualities from a Forbes article:

  • Sincere enthusiasm
  • Integrity
  • Great communications skills
  • Loyalty
  • Decisiveness
  • Managerial competence
  • Empowerment
  • Charisma

These are all qualities good teachers posses. They are enthusiastic about their subject area and students. They do what is right for all students and guide their classroom with integrity. They communicate with students, families, colleagues, and other stakeholders. They passionately advocate for their students and show an unwavering loyalty in the process. They make as many as 1,500 decisions during a school day. They know and understand the curriculum, the systems in the district, and the other structures necessary to be successful – managerial competency. They empower their students to rise to their greatest potential. They get buy-in from students who, often, are not enthusiastic about school. That takes charisma.

Teachers should never feel inadequate sitting in a leadership workshop because to be a great teacher means you need to be a great leader.

Peekaboo Breathing

Children are experiencing greater levels of stress and anxiety. This is happening in and out of school. While we can’t always eliminate the factors causing stress, we can help students learn strategies to help manage stress.

This year, I’ve incorporated more meditation and mindfulness into my classroom. We regularly review the importance of taking a deep breath when we are stressed or anxious. This might be before a test, a project, or another situation in or out of school.

Earlier this year, I taught my students “peekaboo breathing.” This is a wonderful idea I learned in the book Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom.

Students lie on their back and place a small stuffed animal on their stomach. They breathe slowly and deeply and watch the stuffed animal rise and fall with their breath. After they inhale, they hold the breath for a moment and see the stuffed animal pause. At this point, students can say “peekaboo.” The animal gives students a great visual to “see” their breathing.

Students placed small stuffed animal on their stomach to practice deep breathing.

We did this the first time right before a quiz. I asked students to think about their stress level. We completed a few cycles of the peekaboo breathing, and then they thought about how their stress level changed. Every student said they felt better after completing the breathing.

This is a fantastic way to help younger students learn to breath slowly and deeply. Seeing the stuffed animal rise and fall with their breath helps them control their breathing and gives them a great visual to practice the exercise. While the standards we teach students are important, it is also critical that we help students learn habits which will promote good mental health as they move through school. This strategy is a great tool to help improve mental health.

When You Know Better, Do Better

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is, without a doubt, one of the most important writers or our lifetime. Her words and poetry are unbelievably powerful and have impacted so many people in all walks of life. This is my favorite quote from her.

It is what life should be about. Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know something is better, do that instead of what you were doing. This can apply to almost every aspect of life: relationships, nutrition and fitness, parenting, or work.

When I started teaching, literacy was an area where I needed to grow. So, I got a master’s degree in language and literacy. Throughout the coursework, I learned of research and pedagogy that, at times, ran counter to what I was doing in my classroom.

At this point, one of two things could have happened. One, I could have ignored what I learned and kept doing what I was doing, or I could do better now that I knew better. I chose the latter.

This also happened with a behavior system I used in my classroom. Early in my career I had a color coded behavior chart. Every student started the day on green. If there was a behavior issue throughout the day, they’d move to yellow. A second disruptive or off-task behavior and they would have to move to red. There were different consequences for yellow and red. At the time I was thought this was a good practice.

Then I started to reflect on the behavior system, and two things struck me. First, this system didn’t really seem to have any impact on behaviors. The students who were usually on yellow or red, were always the same students. So, moving to yellow or red was not creating the desired behavioral outcomes.

The second thing that changed my mind about my behavior chart was a thought I had during a faculty meeting. What if faculty meetings were structured like our classrooms? What if there was a behavior chart in the faculty meeting? A teacher talks to another teacher… Go clip down to yellow. Not taking notes on what was just said… Clip down to red. I imagined myself getting up, in front of the entire “class” and moving my clothes pin to yellow or red. My stomach churned just thinking about it.

How was a student going to trust me and feel emotionally safe in my classroom if I was making them move to yellow or red in front of their peers? At that point I knew better, so I did better. I never used a color coded behavior chart again.

Teaching is a hard profession. Whether you are a first year teacher or a 25-year veteran, there is always more to learn and ways to improve. I try to learn one new thing each day. This is sometimes a tip I pick up from a colleague, something I read in a book or online, and sometimes the most important lesson I learn are from my students. I’m always trying to learn, so that when I know better, I can do better.

Three for the Week

Saturdays are my time to reflect on what I read, heard, and discussed throughout the week. It is my “exit ticket” for the last seven days. So here are three ideas that made me think this week. (They are not in any particular order.)

1 – An article from Edutopia discusses strategies to incorporate choice in the classroom. I really liked one specific idea from the article, “By giving the students choice, I give them the choice to become independent learners with the autonomy to fail but also the autonomy for authentic engagement.”

2 – I’m reading the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together? in the Cafeteria by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. It is a wonderful book about the role race place in our society. Dr. Tatum discusses the definition of racism on page 87. She shares David Wellam’s definition of racism as a, “system of advantages based on race.” That definition has really made me reflect on what we do as a society and as educations systems to provide advantages and disadvantages based on race.

3 – Get ready for a good cry. This is a story about a boy who adopts dogs. It’s the reason why he adopts dogs, however, that shows everything that is good about people, and children.

Mindful Eating

After dropping my students off at lunch, I think about three emails I need to send before the end of the school day. There’s also a stack of quizzes on my desk I told myself would be graded and returned to students today. So, during my lunch I sit at my desk and fire off emails, grade quizzes, and shovel lunch into my mouth. I would love to say that days like this were outliers, but that wouldn’t be the truth. They were more the norm than the exception.

I have to admit, didn’t really know what mindfulness was a few years ago. Yes, I knew that it meant paying attention to what you were doing throughout your daily routine, but I didn’t really understand what that looked like. After I learned more about mindfulness, I realized one of the areas were I was really struggling was eating. I would eat regularly in front of the television, a computer, or some other device.

It never occurred to me that this was a problem until I was in a professional development last year about mindfulness. One of the sessions discussed mindful eating and the dangers of multitasking while you eat – watching television, working on your computer, etc.

According to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, when you are distracted you eat more food. This is because your mind sends signals to tell you’re full and should stop eating. These signals can start about 20 minutes after you start eating. If you’re not paying attention to your meal, the signals your mind sends to the rest of your body might not be noticed. When you’re distracted, it is easier to miss these signals.

In addition to being more mindful, there are other strategies to help decrease the amount of food you eat before your mind sends the “I’m full” signal. Here are some great suggestions from Harvard Medical School:

  • Set a timer to 20 minutes.
  • Eat with your non-dominant hand.
  • Use chopsticks if you don’t normally use them.
  • Eat silently for five minutes, thinking about what it took to produce that meal, from the sun’s rays to the farmer to the grocer to the cook.
  • Take small bites and chew well.
  • Before opening the fridge or cabinet, take a breath and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?”
  • Do something else, like reading or going on a short walk.

Since I learned more about mindfulness, I eat almost every day in the faculty room with a colleague. My computer is in my classroom, and I try to keep my cell phone in my pocket. It has helped the amount I consume, and I’ve found it helps me reset my body and mind for the afternoon. One of these day, though, I might break out some chopsticks and give that a shot too.

Types of Anxiety in Children

You’re in the middle of a lesson and a student named Jonathan approaches you. He complains of a stomach ache. It’s the middle of cold and flu season, so you send him to the nurse’s office. He comes back a few minutes later with a note saying there is no fever and no other symptoms. What is causing Jonathan’s stomach pain? There’s a chance it could be anxiety.

Anxiety is a growing concern for children in and out of school. According to the National Institute of Mental Health anxiety disorders affect almost 1 in 3 children. Females are affected more than males.

  • An estimated 31.9% of adolescents had any anxiety disorder.
  • 8.3% of those children had a “severe” impairment.
  • The prevalence of any anxiety disorder is higher for females (38.0%) than for males (26.1%).

A growing number of adolescents are experiencing anxiety disorders, but what exactly is making students anxious? Here are some examples of anxiety disorders provided by the CDC:

  • Separation anxiety – Fear of being away from a loved one, especially a parent;
  • Phobias – Extreme fear, such as fear of dogs;
  • Social anxiety – Fear of being in places where there are people;
  • General anxiety – Worrying about the future and what could go wrong;
  • Panic disorder – Sudden, unexpected, intense fear with heart pounding; having trouble breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweaty.

With nearly one third of children having some anxiety symptoms, it’s important for educators to know what symptoms look like. Not all children will present anxiety in the same way, but the following list outlines some symptoms to look for in anxious students:

  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Inattention, poor focus
  • Somatic symptoms like headaches or stomachaches
  • Avoidance
  • Tantrums
  • Crying
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Meltdowns before school about clothing, hair, shoes, socks
  • Meltdowns after school about homework
  • Difficulties with transitions within school, and between school and an activity/sport
  • Difficulty settling down for bed
  • Having high expectations for school work, homework and sports performance

So, it is a good possibility that Jonathan does have the cold or flu. He could be worried about being away from his parents or suffering from social anxiety.