Today I attended the funeral of a former student. She was 21 years old, beautiful, and vibrantly full of life. And she is no longer with us. As I sat on the church pew during her celebration of life service, shedding tears and reflecting back on the playful, exuberant 7th grader I once had in my class, I could not help but think about what an amazing gift it is to be an educator, and how precious and impermanent life is. Ashley called herself a “Dreamweaverr”–she loved making dream catchers and had the dream of one day making and selling them. The symbolism and positive connotation surrounding the dream catchers to her meant taking all that was bad, scary and fear inducing, and wrap them up in a protective, beautiful piece. When I read John Quincy Adams’ words in the Innovator’s Mindset: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader” I thought of Ashley. The students we teach have so many stories to tell, so many hurts, so many joys and talents to share. It is our job to help them weave those beautiful dreams into reality. We need to, as George Courous states, help students find their gifts and passions and strengths and give those a voice, a voice Ashley no longer has, but the rest of us do. What a powerful gift that is, to share our stories, and inspire others.
Fear is a scary thing. I have shared in previous blog posts that I am a creature of habit, and change does not come easy to me. But I am also a life long learner, and above all, willing to do what ever it takes to do what is right for each and every student in my classroom, fear be damned. “Fear can make us reluctant, but it doesn’t have to defeat us,” (Couros, 2015).
The truth is, technology scares me. I feel like I’ve always been a pretty creative teacher who wants to get kids up and moving and talking to one another. My classroom has always been built a hustle and bustle of hands on activities, a place built on relationships and trust, and in my 18 years of teaching I’ve lived by the notion that learning can and should be fun. But I initially fear what I don’t know. And although I’m getting better personally at navigating the waters of Google Docs, Google Slide shows, Google Classroom, apps to storyboard and apps like Padlet for closure and online “parking lots” for questions and further discussion, I’ve been hesitant to jump right in because, well, I don’t always know what I’m doing. Especially when there are 60 sets of eyes focused on me, a new set of kids each hour, looking to me for the answers. “What do we click, Ms. Var?” “Why won’t mine work, Ms. Var?” “What do I do, Ms. Var?” …..ummmm…. I’m not sure! It is with this reluctancy that I have worked to overcome my uncertainties and by overcoming my fear, move toward something new and better for my students. I’ve realized that I don’t need all the answers. It’s not even about the answers, but rather the questions. Together, do we have the right questions to figure this out? How can students work together to help one another (and me)? I believe in a learning environment where we work toward a collaborative, unified front, and now I have the opportunity to live that reality. It only seems scary until you give it a try. And when you do, amazing things begin to unfold in ways you never expected. Even if “mis-steps” find their way, always continue to move forward as it is with these changes that we can begin to get kids doing things differently (Martin, 2016).
Through the process of reading the Innovator’s Mindset and through weekly participation in the IMMOOC, I have really done a lot of deep reflection with regard to my daily practices, and continually ask myself, how can I make this learning experience new and better for kids? To give them the voice to learn, grow and discover by following their passions, not just my pacing guide “to do” list that ironically is supposed to make me a better teacher, but in reality, cages me and my students into a pre fabbed box I didn’t even get to build. In this week’s #IMMOOC, guest Brad Gustafson suggests that these innovative experiences should be the “norm” and not just once in awhile occurrence (2016). That is what I strive for in my classroom. As educators we must work together to share stories, ideas, and inspire one another to grow in ways that best impact our students. As teachers we can help lead the change by allowing our students to plant firm roots, but also grow wings and soar.
We have been talking about innovation “inside the box” and how to, essentially, take the bureaucratic lemons of standardized testing and prescribed “curriculum” and make the learning experience one that is worthy of our students’ ( and our!) time, attention and focus. As George Couros suggests, we must look for the light when sometimes it’s really much easier to see darkness. This week in my class, we read a story in our Springboard text, an excerpt from Walter Dean Myers’ memoir “Bad Boy”. At first the story and corresponding worksheet graphic organizers we were expected to do looked like all the rest. But amazing things started happening when we let the story take us on a new and different adventure. Kids starting asking questions we didn’t have the answers to. I encouraged them to ask, discuss, find out and share. What was the Battle of the Bulge and was it real? Were teachers really able to use corporal punishment when Walter describes being locked in the closet for misbehaving as a “bad boy” in class? When was that legal? Do other countries still use it now? Why was it unheard of that his white teacher walked him home? What was Segregation? When did it end? Where was Harlem NY? Is it dangerous? The questions came with rapid fire excitement. My athletes in the class wanted to know more about Stoop ball. Kids were curious and asking questions and finding answers, and although we never did really get around to the graphic organizer, so much more happened that day. Walter Dean Myers’ shared his story, and in turn we had stories of our own to share. One student told me, “Wow, Ms. Var….this is my story,” when reading the excerpt from the novel, he felt so connected to the piece. So although it wasn’t particularly innovative, it was new and better, because it gave my students a chance to have a voice and a choice in what they wanted to know more about. As Dr. Katie Martin suggests, “Improving student outcome” is key and I must say, there was huge improvement just in this one shift (2016). It gave students a platform on which to ask questions, seek answers, and make connections. The bubbly conversation of the day left me with so much joy because it came from the “student ownership lens” (Gustafson, 2016). I know that I can’t change the standardized testing reality of the era we live in, or even take my Springboard workbooks and have the biggest bonfire of all time (but I do envision that beautiful day), I can take what I have and make it better. George Couros says, “…it can seem easier to stay with a “known bad” than take the chance on the possibility of a “great” new opportunity,” but we owe it to our students to make the shift wherever and whenever possible (2015). And that is the promise I will make to my them- to empower my students, allow them to lead the way and always honor what is best and most relevant for them (Gustafson, 2016).
We all truly have a story to tell. To weave our dreams into reality by sharing our struggles, experiences and successes with the world. And in doing so, create something amazing for ourselves and others. Ashley, in her short time on this earth, knew something much wiser than her years. She knew that we must work to chase away our fears, hold fast to our dreams, and reach for the stars. To take those dream catchers of life and hold tight to what we are passionate about and to share those passions with the world. Thank you, sweet Ashley, for that reminder. I will carry your memory in my heart and “continue to shine your light on to the world” by taking your zest for life into my classroom and beyond (Couros, 2016). Rest in peace beautiful Dreamweaverr.