Sunday, October 18, 2015

What I Learned About Teaching from Disney World

I just got home yesterday from a week of this.

I have been meaning to get to Disney for years.  So, this past winter, on a very cold day when we were snowed in for the umpteenth time, I touched base with a friend/neighbor of mine who's a Disney travel planner, took the plunge, and booked a trip for Fall Break.

Best money I ever spent.  

Because during the week, much more happened than riding Space Mountain, watching "Wishes," and eating Dole Whip (though those were incredible moments).  And on the flight home, as I was thinking about the week, I realized that the moments that meant the most, that were the most memorable, are really lessons about teaching.

Which may seem like a stretch, but bear with me.  

1.  Personal connections are everything.  

So, it's the first day of our vacation, and we're in the middle of the mayhem that is Magic Kingdom on a weekend around 2:00.  It's packed, we're hot and thirsty, and the lines are long.  We were getting water at Liberty Tree Tavern, with is a stone's throw from Cinderella's castle, and out of nowhere music starts playing (which I quickly learned meant SOMETHING was about to happen).  And then.  Then the Disney princesses actually came out of the castle.  I mean, we are talking Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty . . . the whole stinkin' lot of them.  They came out, did a little dance or something, and where we were was just to the back of them, so I got a pretty good view of what was going on.   But then, as they were going back in the castle, they spotted the crowds where we were, and I waved like a madwoman, and I promise you Snow White waved right back at ME.  At me.  No five year old was more excited than I was right then.

And I thought.  It wasn't that she waved.  It was that I felt like she was waving at me.  It was that personal connection that made all the difference.  Seeing the princesses out was one thing, but having one actually wave at me was another.  

I saw this happen all week long.  At the electrical parade one night, a little one next to me - who didn't speak English, by the way - danced up and down when she waved at Cinderella and Cinderella blew a kiss back to her.  Another cried when she got the chance to talk with Belle.  Maybe that's one of the reasons the lines to meet the characters are so long - it's your chance to make a personal connection with someone who means so much to you.

Isn't it like that in our classrooms?  Sure, we can get up and do a dance - we can make things explode, create PowerPoints with animation, dance on the desks - but it's the personal connections that we all (especially our students) crave.  It's having someone notice YOU.  Having someone see you and care about you and make time just for you.  Personal connections mean kids don't just go to school - they learn lessons from great teachers who impact their lives.

2.  You may have taught something for the 27th time, but it's your students' first time to learn it.

My favorite park at Disney is Magic Kingdom, largely because it's just so quintessentially Disney.  And it has the aforementioned castle.  On our last night there, my daughter and I were leaving the park, and as we walked to the end of Main Street I said, "Okay, turn around and take one last good look at Cinderella's castle.  It's the last time we'll see it this trip, and you'll want to remember this moment."  We both turned to see the castle brilliantly lit up against the night sky, took a moment just to drink in the sight, and then turned again to go.  Right as we rounded the corner to exit the park, we met another mother and her young daughter on their way in, and I overheard the mom say, "Okay, honey, you're about to get your very first sight ever of Cinderella's castle!  You'll always remember this moment!"

And I thought - wow.  One girl's taking the time to remember the castle as she leaves while one's taking a moment to remember what it's like when she sees it for the first time.  And it reminded me of lessons I've taught, time and again, that are old hat to me.  So, sometimes, I just kind of go through the motions, forgetting that what's familiar to me is still brand new to my students.  I need to see it through those "remembering" lenses.  To take the time to really think about how this lesson is going; just because I've taught it a lot doesn't mean I've taught it well.  To try to see it as my students do, be truly present and in the moment, make it better, and get excited about it just as I did at the beginning.  It may be my 27th time to teach it, but it's their first time to learn it.

3.  There are a lot of parents with ninja-level skills out there.

Let me tell you about the parenting I saw out there.  

Case 1:  Mom has a 4-year-old having a complete meltdown in the stroller.  Mom rolls the stroller to a wall, with the child facing the wall, turns around, and leans back against the stroller.  A passerby kind of raises their eyebrows and Mom replies, "She'll have to quit sometime, but she won't get a bit of attention from me until she does."  I applauded.  Literally.

Case 2:  Mom and Dad have what appear to be three - count them, three - children under the age of 2.  Mom has a baby carrier on her front and back, with kids in both.  Dad has a backpack on and a carrier on his front, with a kid in it.  Plus a double stroller.  They are waiting to board a bus, and they are happy.  Smiles on their faces, having an honest-to-goodness conversation with each other.  I didn't applaud.  But I really wanted to.

Case 3:  It's after midnight, and my daughter and I are in line to ride Splash Mountain.  A family ahead of us, composed of two teenage girls and mom and dad, are waiting, too.  Dad is bleary-eyed and obviously tired, but when one of the girls asks if they should go, dad replies, "No, honey.  I can sleep later.  This vacation is about family."

Case 4:  We are waiting for fireworks, and a family behind us has backpacks on.  A toddler nearby is whining, and one of the kids in the family whips out a thing of bubbles, asks the mom if he can give them to the toddler, and the grateful mother readily agrees.  The kid spent about half an hour blowing bubbles with the toddler until the electric parade started.  Later I learned that the family regularly packs extra things in their backpacks to share with other kids who are tired or having a hard time.  It's their way of helping to spread the magic.

Wow.  Just.  Wow.

4.  Your kids come first.

If you are a parent yourself, listen to me.  Your kids come first.  At the end of your life, when you are looking back at how you spent your small amount of time here on earth, you will think of your teaching and how you used your talents, but I believe that you will be most concerned with how you parented.

Will you do a perfect job?  Um.  No.  Will you feel guilty?  Um.  Yes.  That comes with the job.

I can let my priorities get out of whack.  The kids I still have at home are teenagers, and it's easy to think that they're self sufficient.  After all, they love pizza for supper.  And what they mainly ask for is transportation and money.  And there is SO MUCH work to do at school.

But my favorite thing about this time at Disney was that for the first time in what feels like forever, we just hung out.  All in the same place.  Doing the same thing.  If you have teenagers, you know how rare that is.  And while the magic of Disney totally worked on me, it was the time that we spent laughing and eating and walking and talking and playing - and even waiting in line - that was truly magical.

Jackie Kennedy once said, "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much."

Put your kids first.  You'll be a happier and better teacher for it.

So, that is the teaching wisdom I learned from Uncle Walt this past week.  Qualify for PD?  I think it should.  :)

Have a magical week!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Read Aloud 15 Minutes Campaign

I am on a mission to improve early literacy, and reading aloud is one of my favorite things to talk about when people ask how we can do that.

There is a ton of research about the importance of reading aloud:  how it prewires children's brains for later reading when they are young, how it exposes them to more sophisticated language and vocabulary, how it can improve fluency and foster a love of reading.  And I agree with every last drop of it.

Read aloud time is sacred in my classroom, but it's becoming more and more difficult to protect.  There are so many other things that pull at my time, and it's so tempting to get "one more thing" done instead of taking the time to turn out the lights, settle the kids down, and spend time with a book.  But it is a time in my classroom that I hang onto for dear life.  You know that scene from "Gone With the Wind," where Scarlett is hungry and she's on this hill facing a glorious sunset, and she finds herself eating something she just scrabbled out of the dirt?  And she stands facing the sunset, raises her fist, and says, "As God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again!"  That truly dramatic scene?

That's me and reading aloud.

So we do it.  Every.  Single.  Day.  I have favorites that I turn to every year, classics I feel every child should read or hear, like Charlotte's Web, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  I have seasonal favorites, such as Bunnicula.  And we have good reads that the kids always love, like The Chocolate Touch.  I also like to try something new every year.  Last year it was Ivan the One and Only.  The year before that it was The Penderwicks.  But I read, and they listen, and we have that shared reading experience that leads to conversations and comparisons and recommendations during reading conferences.

Reading aloud is important, and I'm out to share that with anyone who will listen.  So are the good folks at Read Aloud.  They have created a Read Aloud 15 Minutes Campaign to share that message with as many parents and caregivers as possible.  They are so passionate about it, they have got nationwide partners and they conduct wide-reaching media pushes to share the message.  And YOU can become a partner!  All you do is sign up and then agree to share the message through any avenues available to you.

It's one more way to share the love of reading aloud, and I'm so very glad they're here to help.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Genius Way to Post Learning Targets

We all know that it's important that kids understand what they're learning, and that posting those targets often helps them to do that.  The thing to consider is, what's the best way to post them?  Some use pocket charts, others use picture frames as mini dry erase boards, and still others incorporate learning targets into their PowerPoints.

It really becomes challenging during our reading block.  We use the ReadWell reading curriculum, which means that our reading is taught exclusively in small groups.  So if you have three small groups, that's three different learning targets to coordinate.

Well, here's one particularly clever way of displaying learning targets that our principal saw during an evaluation last week:

All this teacher did was to write the target on a piece of card stock and fold it into a tent.  It stayed at her table while the students were with her.  The genius part is when the students left her to transition to independent work at another table . . . they took the learning target with them!!  The kids knew what they were working on, and any assistants or interventionists who might be in the room helping knew, too.


Inexpensive, easy, and effective.  A teacher's three favorite words.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Staying Transparent

The last week has been an absolute whirlwind of emotion and activity, because a little over a week ago, this happened.

This picture was taken at our state's Teacher of the Year banquet.  See the guy on the left?  He teachesfifth grade math in East Tennessee, where he gets double digit TVAAS gains out of kids in a classroom where 90% qualify for free or reduced lunch.  He organizes a Math Olympiad every year in which hundreds of kids participate.  He also has leadership experience to spare, and is a super nice guy to boot.

And the guy on the right?  He teaches algebra II in Middle Tennessee.  While working on his doctorate.  And writing about the Japanese Study Model for professional development.  He is kind and funny and incredibly smart, and we also work together on the Governor's Teachers Cabinet.

I'm in the middle.  

So what happened is this.  We three were selected, out of a group of 9 absolutely phenomenal teachers from across the state, as the grand division finalists for Tennessee Teacher of the Year!  Which means not only are we incredibly honored (I mean, these are 9 incredible teachers!), but we get to work together for two years on the Teacher Advisory Council, which collaborates to help teachers share their voices and feedback with the Commissioner's office.

Sidenote:  I am determined to get at least one shot of us in a Charlie's Angels pose before that time is up.  

Out of the three of us, one was selected as Tennessee Teacher of the Year, and it took a few seconds for it to sink in that they'd actually said my name when the announcement was made.  

It looked a whole lot like this.

So, it's been a crazy, exciting week.  I'm thrilled about a lot of things.  I can't wait to meet again with the Teacher Advisory Council; it's not every day that you get to work with top teachers from across your state.  We are already making plans to host roundtable discussions with teachers in our regions, and I am excited to meet with teachers, hear their thoughts, find out what fantastic things are going on in their classrooms, and share their voices.  I am looking forward to talking with anyone who'll listen about the importance of early literacy and what we can do to make sure kids leave the third grade ready to read critically.  I want to use this time to work together to make a real difference in education and in our students' lives.

But there's one thing I want to encourage us all to do, and that's to stay transparent.  It's vital that we all remember that no one's classroom is perfect.  It may seem perfect.  I mean, we live in an age of Pinterest, where every container is color coordinated and every label is printed in the cutest fonts and every student is smiling at the book they're holding.

Listen to me.  No one's classroom is full of rainbows and unicorns and Skittles.  It just doesn't happen.  Teaching is a calling - and a noble one at that - but it can also be messy and uncomfortable and frustrating and it can make you cry.  When we are open and transparent with one another, though, when we share the imperfection and the struggle, we do two things.  First, we let everyone know that imperfect is okay.  Actually, it's more than okay.  It's awesome, because when we learn most when we try and fail and then try again.  Second, we open the doors for some incredible communication, because when I know that you're not perfect, then I'm not afraid to come to you with a problem.  I know that your classroom is just as imperfect as mine, so I'm not worried about being judged or feeling dumb or that you'll talk about what a wreck my teaching is.  I'll know that we're just two teachers, struggling to get it right, knowing that it will never be perfect but that the journey forward is what makes us great.

Case in point.  Some teacher, we'll call her Teacher C, may or may not have discovered before the banquet that her shoes were a tad too big.  Said teacher may or may not have been terribly worried that she was going to fall (not an uncommon occurrence) in front of everyone, and in a desperate attempt to remedy the situation, stuffed toilet paper in the toes of her shoes.  Same teacher may or may not have been praying, with every step to the stage, "Please, please, please do not let me come out of these shoes and let toilet paper go all over the place and let these people see that I don't even have it together enough to get shoes that fit."

See?  Don't you feel better about going to Teacher C with a problem or an idea?  I mean, she's obviously seriously flawed.  Don't you feel more comfortable talking with her?

So, stay transparent.  It can be uncomfortable, and it can feel really vulnerable, but I promise you will become a better teacher for it.

Have a great week!