Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pauline and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Last night I got home closer to 9pm than I wanted for the second night in a row, knowing I wouldn’t be home until the same time tonight because of parent/teacher conferences. Utterly drained, I went straight to bed, safe in the knowledge that I would get up at 5:30 am with plenty of time to wake my kids, feed them, prepare lunches, iron clothes, drop them off at kids club and arrive at school for my 7:30 am meeting. Today began with my husband shaking me awake with the news that the alarm had failed to go off and it was 7:10 am. And so began my Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad day.

In utter panic I jumped up, dragged my son out of bed and while toasting his frozen pancakes I texted a colleague to alert her to the fact that I wasn’t going to make my meeting and asked her to look out for a student who I had invited to join us. Her reply was: No worries! Scouring the clean laundry pile and pantry I threw together outfits and lunches, splashed my face with cold water and dragged my boy towards the car while shoving him into his coat. I don’t recall whether or not I brushed my hair!

As soon as I opened the garage I knew I was in danger of not making it in time for my first class of the day let alone my meeting. Of course it was snowing and the roads were a disaster. After twenty minutes I had traveled a total of two miles, experienced inertia first hand as my car resisted the brakes and drifted into oncoming traffic, and realized that I was utterly decaffeinated. Time to call for back up! Blearily negotiating the roads I called two of my 5/6 colleagues for assistance. Both were stuck in traffic but assured me that they would arrive ahead of me, organize my kids and get my first class up and running. I got to my son’s school relieved that my first class was covered but still rushed down the hallway to drop him safely at Kids Club. That’s when I epically wiped out. Both feet went up in the air and I landed flat on my back. Since my hip has been bothering me for the last two weeks this wasn’t the greatest thing that could have happened. In extreme pain I assured my kid I was okay and once he verified the fact that we were alone in the hallway, I took a moment to remain prostrate, lament my fortune and gather my thoughts about my scattered life.

I signed him in with a kiss goodbye and limped back to my car. I entered my class three minutes after the bell rang and my teaching partner Rick Joseph was there, with both of our classes, taking attendance and getting them set for the day. We arranged our special schedule, raided the fridge in the teacher lounge for a breakfast consisting of leftovers from the PTSA conference dinner the night before and had a great morning of learning. I introduced a cartoon activity I thought the students would be excited about and when one of them asked if he could do a Powerpoint version instead, I felt good about the fact that my kids feel comfortable negotiating with me about how they demonstrate their learning.

 During lunch I prepared guest teacher plans for tomorrow when I will continue conferences for my math students, and my 5/6 science partner Tammy Brown brought me back a much needed, heartwarming soup lunch!Conferences began at 1pm and at 3pm my partner had to head for the airport to present at the NCTE conference in Washington D.C. Happy for him to go and learn and grow, I was also sad to complete the evening without him as it’s always good to have my other half to bounce off during conferences. A wonderful dinner was provided for us by my principal and vice principal and I headed back to the final three hours of conferences reenergized, albeit nervous about the continuing snow fall, the state of the roads, and the fact I had no snowbrush with me to clean up my car. 

At 6pm a parent arrived late for her conference and was completely understanding of the fact that the full schedule meant I couldn’t fit her in without inconveniencing all my other appointments for the night. She left happy to reschedule and, I suspect, unaware of how truly appreciative I was of her flexibility. Throughout the rest of the night I was glad to share the successes and future goals of my students, and receive well wishes for my transition into my new role as instructional specialist. One of my last students of the night arrived with a cake he had made for me, and  I headed for the car park ready to deal with my inevitably snow buried car.To my amazement I found my truck free and clear of snow, in stark contrast to it’s neighbors. I can only imagine that someone had blessed me with a random act of kindness and cleared my car for me. It was such a relief at the end of a long day and permitted me to concentrate on getting home in time to kiss my own children goodnight.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that when you work at Birmingham Covington School there really is no such thing as a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad day. I am so lucky to work with an amazing team of educators who I can turn to in times of trauma and I know they have my back, no questions asked. They nurture and support me and I cannot express my gratitude for them enough. My students are total troopers and have the skills and maturity to bend and adapt to the flow of an unusual day. Their parents have the unique ability to make me feel like a super star and I am honored to know and serve them. My bucket overflows tonight as I check my alarm is set, and prepare to do it all again tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Walking With Giants-Literally!

This weekend I was honored to walk with giants around Washington DC. The giants were thirty of my past and present students who were invited to present at the 2014 National Forum on Character Education.

The journey began last Thursday as we piled on to the bus at 5:30am. I was expecting a few moans and groans about the early take off, but was only met with eager and enthusiastic comments as we loaded suitcases, pillows, blankets and jewelry making equipment. The ten hour travel time flew by as we watched movies, chatted and played games and I was amazed since I’ve been on much shorter bus rides with students that seemed to last for eons!


Our first stop was the Air Force Memorial which seemed so fitting as the purpose is to show pride in our past and faith in our future. The monument itself soars 270 feet high and I was so moved to be there in the presence of students who have learned how to soar themselves. Etched on granite walls are the three core values of the Air Force.: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do. I read aloud the following quote on the wall: The future is always decided by those who put their imagination to work, who challenge the unknown, and who are not afraid to risk failure.An eighth grade student standing next to me said, “That’s us Mrs. Roberts isn’t it?” That was the first of many teary moments I had in the presence of these giants over the next few days.


 Walking into the conference hotel at 7am on Saturday morning heading a group of thirty children caused quite a stir. As people stopped and stared at us I saw my students shoulders go back and their chins go up. They realized for the first time the true significance of their presence there and they immediately adopted a demeanor that they maintained throughout the remainder of the trip. They were proud to be invited, to share their incredible story, promote their project and to represent their school, which they did impeccably. They set up their booth with no adult direction or assistance and began to engage passing adults and making jewelry to sell. As each team rotated through their booth shift I was amazed at how well they articulated their passion and commitment.


I hope this Halloween stands out in their memories as much as it will stand out in mine. Dressed in their costumes we embarked on a nighttime tour of the war memorials and the Lincoln memorial and they managed to remain respectful, deferential and deeply interested in what the tour guide was telling us. So many of them during that tour thanked me for the opportunity and told me how glad they were that they gave up their usual trick or treating routine to be there.






















The next day, despite being tired they were outstanding during their presentation. They so eloquently demonstrated to other teachers what is possible when teachers get out of the way and let students explore their passions and curiosities and allow them to fail forward. Feedback from attendees included:

"Empower and trust the students! Fail Forward! Outstanding, Meaningful, and all around Inspiring!"

"Each of you did a great job presenting. I'm inspired to listen to my students and step back to follow their lead."

"I want to make our service learning more meaningful. You guys are awesome!"


The students' own reflections included:

"In Washington I learned that our project is not only raising money for Chilipula, but showing the world that no project is too big for kids." Vivian, 6th grader.
 
" I learned what can happen when a group comes together for a good cause. I learned that sometimes kids can do things that adults can't, and we should all step up to that." Helen, 7th grader.

"If you give students a voice through a meaningful project they will each become a leader in their own way." Jake, 6th grader.

I can honestly say I have never been prouder as an educator! Despite the fact that this group consisted of 3-8 graders, some of whom had never really met before, they bonded together in their dedication to Project Cope. For me personally, it was a joy to bring together past and present students and be able to see how much they have learned and grown. Their true character was reflected in the way they interacted with each other and the attendees of the conference. There were too many examples of kindness, perseverance, integrity, honesty and responsibility for me to mention but I will treasure every one.

This trip would not have been possible without the support of the BCS PTSA and the Birmingham Education Foundation (BEF). Their financial support made it possible for all our students to participate in this incredible learning experience. When character.org asked for our students to present at the national forum they never imagined we would bring 30!

A special thanks to the parents and staff members who chaperoned this trip. The logistics involved in navigating a group of 30 middle schoolers through a two day national conference was overwhelming but their willingness to do whatever it takes and ability to support one another is what makes BCS such a great place to be.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Tamra Nast our school counselor who worked tirelessly with Cindy Balicki to make this opportunity a reality for our students. Principal Mark Morawski thank you for supporting the trip and Linda Stone , and Mat Brown thank you for joining us and being amazing colleagues that I am lucky to work with every day.

The theme of the conference was inspiring greatness. These giants, these students, inspire me every day. Who inspires you? More importantly, how do you inspire others?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Walking With Giants

Several weeks ago I posted this on Facebook:

As the first hectic week of school comes to a close I am reminded once again that I am so fortunate to walk with giants every day. Not giants in stature, but giants in terms of the size of their hearts, the strength of their spirit, and the depths of their understanding and humanity. I'm humbled by both students and colleagues, who uplift and inspire me beyond words. Look for the giants that surround you-they are often disguised by humility.

It occurred to me that I should share their stories as they are key characters in my own story. This is the first of a series of posts about the giants in my life. I hope they inspire you as they have inspired me.

On Friday morning I opened an email with the following attachment:


This is the culmination of months of collaboration between one of my students and Grant Anderson and his mother, Julie Anderson. Grant and his mom came to visit my school last year as part of a disability workshop. Grant shared with my students the story of how he suffered a traumatic brain injury several years earlier in a car accident. Two hundred and twenty students sat enthralled as he shared images and movies of his grueling recovery process. His message was clear: work hard, persevere, and remain positive. One of Grant’s passions is music and before long he had all of us singing along to one of his own compositions. He touched every single person in the room that day, but he especially inspired one student in particular.

She had written lyrics for a song about our school partnership with Project Cope, a non-profit organization working to eliminate poverty in rural Zambia in a single generation. Having no composition experience, the song and melody was trapped inside her head, but in Grant she recognized an opportunity. We asked Grant and his mom if they could help and over the next few months they visited school several times to work on the song with my student. Seeing the product of their efforts on Friday reduced me to tears. 

I am humbled and honored to know people like Grant and his mom, giving so generously of their time not only to support a good cause, but to help a little girl realize a dream. They truly are giants, teaching both myself and my students much more than any written curriculum could.  If you are looking for a guest speaker to inspire your students I cannot recommend Grant highly enough. Click on the image below to learn more about Grant’s story, as he was deservedly recognized as someone who makes a difference on The Heart of Detroit. Who are the giants who make a difference in the lives of you and your students?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_ZJFMKJkEI&index=11&list=UU1jZv6zPfAQFi1GKMUA42xA

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

#ISTE2014 Where Were You?

It was my privilege to attend and present at the ISTE conference in Atlanta this weekend. Eighteen thousand educators, education leaders and corporate entities gathered to share, learn and explore the many amazing resources and initiatives that are happening all around the world. The major challenge for most attendees is being able to be everywhere and see everything!

I spent a long time in a long line to see Ashley Judd’s opening keynote. I expected to learn more about her global advocacy work but instead was surprised to hear the story of her troubled childhood. She poignantly shared with us her memories of abuse, abandonment, and depression and how she more often than not dealt with these issues alone. She often repeated the phrase, “Where were you?” not in an accusatory context, but to remind us that as educators we have a huge responsibility to know our students. “The most important thing you can do is believe the child who comes to you. It is incumbent on us to see, to ask questions,” she said. She highlighted teachers and educators who saved her life by giving simple words of encouragement, by demonstrating faith her in abilities, by showing that they cared. It was a powerful start to my conference experience.

The next two days were spent running around trying to learn more about the maker movement, S.T.E.A.M, augmented reality, genius hour and so much more. The Expo alone would have taken days to explore and the whole place was fairly buzzing with excitement, exhilaration and passion. In the hours leading up to my own presentation about teaching kids to harness the power of technology to solve global problems I experienced many moments of abject terror. What could I possibly have to say that would be original or inspiring or worthy? But the lovely Krissy Venosdale calmed my nerves with her constant encouragement to all teachers to share, share, share! And ultimately it’s that sharing, connecting, and engaging with peers that makes ISTE such a significant event.

I was so fortunate to be able to spend quality time with outstanding educators like Kelli Etheredge whose knowledge, compassion and commitment to students inspires me every day. Joli Barker, fearless educator and author of The Fearless Classroom rejuvenates my joy and motivates me to dream big. Adina Popa ,School Improvement and Accountability Specialist at Loudoun County Public Schools strives for excellence and encourages me to unleash student potential through innovation and transformation. At the birds of a feather session hosted by Suzie Boss I was able to make new connections with educators from all over the nation who share my love of project-based learning and I look forward to the new learning journeys we will embark on together. I left the conference energized and uplifted but my bubble was burst when I got to the airport.

While sitting at the gate I received tragic news about a former student and I've spent the last twenty four hours scouring my memories of the time I was lucky enough to spend with her. ISTE is a truly amazing event and learning about new products and services and tech integration strategies was invaluable. But I have to remain mindful of the fact that the tools and the toys must not distract me from my primary responsibility-the kids. Ashley Judd’s keynote has left an indelible mark on me and I take away from #ISTE2014 three simple words: Where were you?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Umbrellas!

I’m weary this morning after listening to storms rage through the night. Rain always reminds me of home and at some point in the small hours I found myself thinking of my lovely St. Anne’s in England and a wonderful guest teacher we had.

The first time George came to our school we were in a period of unrest. Our principal was on long term medical leave due to stress, an OFSTED inspection was looming and our staff, consisting of six ladies from the ages of twenty two to fifty two, was feeling the strain. George was older, retired and completely awesome. He knew what he was doing, needed little direction, he was wonderful with the kids, and more importantly he was wonderful with us. He was the consummate gentleman, ensuring each of us had hot steaming cups of tea waiting for us in the staffroom, and once we were all settled in he would entertain us with tales from his long career in education. He quickly became a favorite and was a regular visitor; he somehow brought stability during that uncertain time.

During one lunch break I asked George why he had retired as he obviously had a lot more to give as an educator. “I couldn’t hold up my umbrella anymore,” he replied quietly. I was obviously confused so he explained that when he retired he was a principal. He expected his teachers to be like umbrellas to students, shielding them from educational storms and reforms, protecting them from scary unknowns so that under their care, children could learn and grow safely and happily. He perceived his own role as an umbrella for his teachers, shielding them from similar storms so that they as educators could learn and grow safely to better serve their students. The school board was his umbrella; theirs was the local education authority and theirs the legislators. Each umbrella protecting those below so that at all layers of education people could feel secure enough within their realm to take risks, fail forward and ultimately do their best to ensure quality learning was happening.

“At some point,” he said, “the umbrellas above me began to collapse. The storm became too strong for me to withstand and when I couldn’t hold up my umbrella and protect and shield my teachers, I had to leave.” I don’t think I ever saw him look so sad and then understood why we were all so drawn to him; he had made us feel safe. I also felt the true weight of my own responsibilities as a teacher, seeing clearly for the first time that a classroom simply has to be a safe and happy place for students to realize their true potential.

Summer is a time for educators to mend holes in their umbrellas; to recover from the storms of the previous year, to reflect on their effectiveness, to follow their own learning journeys, to restore their sense of self. When we take time to re-evaluate and care for ourselves over the summer, we can ensure that as umbrellas, we return to school robust enough to weather another year. I hope the umbrellas above me are taking the time to do the same.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Flip Your Mindset!

Several weeks ago classroom conversations included ways we could finish the year strong. One of my students asked if we could have a party if every student achieved an A Grade by the end of the quarter. I told him no, but said that we could push the boat out if my gradebook showed no missing assignments, as that would indicate to me that everyone was engaged and invested in their learning journey-and that would be something I would be more than happy to celebrate!

While I thought I was offering a much better deal, several students groaned and eye rolled. When I asked why, they insisted that it was an impossible task because there were always some kids who didn’t complete their work. Sensing defeat before we had even started I asked the class why they thought that was the case. I invited them to question why assignments did not get completed. The responses were diverse and enlightening:

I forget to finish assignments

I sometimes don’t know what I’m supposed to do

I don’t want to do homework

I have no access to technology at home

I can’t get organized and lose papers

I have so many after school activities I’m overwhelmed

I don’t know when assignments are due

I need help but don’t like to ask

I need help but have nobody to ask

The list goes on but as we recorded responses on the board I began to see some of my kid’s faces reflect surprise and revelation. One student summed it up perfectly when he said, “Wow! I just thought people were slackers!” Now that we had gained some insight, I charged the students to generate solutions to these barriers and they have astounded me with their commitment to help each other through these final weeks of the school year. They have been calling and Skyping one other at home to pass on reminders and guidance. Students have asked for sherpas and many a lunch period has been foregone in the quest to support their peers. They have been tweeting, emailing, taking photos and I was thrilled when a parent told me she was pleased to see her child engaged in conversations and conferences about assignments with kids in the class he had never mentioned before.

I reached a landmark today, closing my gradebook for the first time with every single assignment turned in and accounted for. My students not only finished strong but engaged in some of the most important learning of the year. When we put aside our own assumptions, when we flip our mindset and actively listen to each other, we can generate successful, user centered solutions. Tomorrow I will be sad to say goodbye to my sixth graders, but look forward to my fifth graders returning next year, armed with some powerful tools to help them embrace our new team members with empathy and compassion.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Barcelona and Beyond!

I am incredibly fortunate to have experienced my third Microsoft in Education Global Forum event in Barcelona, Spain, last week. Being able to gather with peers, education policy leaders and innovative school leaders from around the world has a direct impact not only on me but also on my students.

There are so many outstanding moments and learning experiences crammed into this amazing event that it is difficult to articulate succinctly the full effect it has on me as an educator. One of the most challenging aspects of the conference for me was the Learn-a-thon activity. I was teamed with three other teachers from Spain, the Czech Republic and Costa Rica. We were charged with developing a learning experience for our students with a central focus of poverty, gender equality or sustainability.

The process required me to employ the same 21st Century skills that I demand of my students daily: communication, collaboration, perseverance, flexibility and productivity. Initially we were excited to get to know each other’s strengths and interests and learn about our respective roles at school, but as we tried to reach consensus about the direction and content of our project, frustration levels grew due to language barriers.

It was a fantastic opportunity for me to walk in my students shoes and be reminded of the difficulties they face every day working in teams, and implement the strategies I teach them to overcome barriers and be successful. And ultimately we were successful because we found common ground: we were all passionate and invested in the project, we appreciated and utilized the diverse talents we brought to the table and we were motivated to do the best job we could. There were moments of struggle and tussle, and moments of joy and laughter and in the end we walked away feeling good about our work. More importantly we walked away as friends.

Therein lays the key to what makes the Microsoft Global Forum so powerful. It’s about bringing like-minded people together to talk and share and learn from and with each other. My personal learning network grows exponentially and I return to school supercharged with energy and ideas and the knowledge that I have a web of colleagues who I can turn to for advice and support, encouragement and inspiration. It’s about connecting and empowering people who want to make a difference in the lives of their students.

My only wish is that my students could be there with me. They also deserve to experience the exhilaration of being around like-minded peers, to share and learn and grow from collaborative learning experiences with students from all over the globe. They need to be uplifted by expert presenters and gain sustenance from building meaningful, authentic global relationships. My desire to somehow make this happen has filled me with a new sense of purpose, and I am thrilled that I can immediately start making progress towards achieving my new goal.

I am beyond excited that my students have been invited to Skype into the We Day event in Seattle tomorrow. We Day brings together students from around the nation who aspire to make a positive change in the world. Participation is earned through service and my students will be sharing the work they have done this year with Project Cope. Every time I watch the We Day video I am overwhelmed with emotion as the purpose is to empower students to redefine what is possible.

I am hopeful that the experience tomorrow will prove to my students that by working together, they can make the world a better place.
   I am hopeful that Skyping into the event is the first step towards my students attending the event in person next year so that they too can experience for themselves the power of gathering with peers, leaders and policy makers. I am determined to provide them with the opportunity to experience their own Barcelona!
                                      Image Courtesy of Partners in Learning Network