Saturday, June 27, 2015

It's Been A Long Year Without You My Friend

"Grief is a journey, often perilous and without clear direction, that must be taken. The experience of grieving cannot be ordered or categorized, hurried or controlled, pushed aside or ignored indefinitely. It is inevitable as breathing, as change, as love. It may be postponed, but it will not be denied."
Molly Fumia

As a teacher, I spend about the same amount of time with my colleagues as I do with my family. For thirteen wonderful years I have been a member of the 5/6 team at Birmingham Covington School. We formed, stormed, normed and were performing like a well-oiled machine. The machine broke in January with the death of one of our core members.

Fitz was not only a teacher at BCS, she was also a former student and she was the heart of our crew. She was a passionate educator who strived to help her students find joy in reading and writing. She brought the same energy to our team and inspired us to work harder, push further and demand more of ourselves and our students each and every day. Most importantly she made us laugh. Oh, she made us laugh!

Fitz,your passing rocked our entire community. You touched the lives of so many parents, students and colleagues in countless ways and your impact is immeasurable. The 5/6 team shattered, so heartbroken at losing you so young, so devastated for your daughters to whom you were devoted and whose lives will never be the same. But as educators we knew we had to help our students first. We have wiped away tears, listened to students tell their favorite stories about you, understood when they lost focus, struggled to concentrate or just felt anxious or sad. In nurturing the youngest members of our community through this difficult time we have postponed our own grief and battled on to make it the end of the year. But summer is here, the pace has slowed, responsibilities have eased and now it is time.

I miss you. I miss you bouncing into school in your ridiculous spring heeled shoes with a twinkle in your eye. I miss your enthusiasm, your happiness, your capacity for mischief. I miss our rituals, our daily lunches where we shared all of the ups and downs of life; the struggles, the joys. I miss sharing books with you and spending hours on the phone discussing the themes and plot twists, the characters and how they made us laugh or tore at our heart strings. I miss your honesty and vulnerability which you were always prepared to share. I miss your courage and your fearlessness in standing up for what you believed to be best for kids. I miss your wit, your fire, your vivacity, voraciousness and vim. I miss your aches and pains, your smiles and giggles. I miss my friend and I always will, but now I am ready.

I’m ready to come out from under the cloud and start thinking and writing again. I’m ready to embrace a world without you and face the challenges it brings. I know when we return to school in the fall I will be slapped with reminders of you everywhere and there will be sudden impulses to cry as the realization of your loss sweeps over me again. But my sadness will be eased with the support and love of my 5/6 team, my work family, your work family. We will continue to work hard and be the best educators we can, forever inspired and forever changed for having known and loved you.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trust, Respect and Relationships.

As teachers we are often stuck in our own bubble so when I was offered the chance to visit Kent Innovation High (KIH) this morning I jumped at the opportunity. KIH is a relatively young school, opened in 2011, and it has a unique project-based learning focus. Students spend the first part of their day there studying English, Math, Science and Social Studies in an interdisciplinary setting before returning to their home schools for a more traditional experience in electives and extra-curricular activities.

 Upon entering I was immediately struck by learning space envy. Classrooms are huge light and airy spaces with glass walls. Because of the interdisciplinary approach, each room can hold fifty students and two teachers and there are multiple big screens around the room. Hallways serve as collaborative learning spaces with couches, booths and tables fitted with screens the students can hook up their laptops to. My meeting room had four tables, each with their own big screen and it was a joy for me to be able to fully participate in the presentation without having to strain my old and tired eyes to see a screen at the front of the room.

After a quick introduction to the school by American Studies teacher Mike Kaechele we were divided into small groups and handed over to students for a tour. Each student confidently shook our hands and introduced themselves with full eye contact, and while that seems like a small thing, I knew by this first interaction that I was in a special place. My guides Megan and Katie immediately engaged us in conversation as we walked, telling us what the school was about, what each space was for and how classes were organized. They assuredly answered all of our questions and I thought they must have been hand-picked to impress visitors. As we went from room to room however, I began to think that any of the 400 students in the building could have conducted the tour just as well. In every classroom students greeted us naturally and informally and were happy to tell us what they were doing. I never felt like we were interrupting as there was a learning buzz and relaxed atmosphere in every room , with students and teachers engaged in independent, group and class activities.

My learning space envy grew as we visited classrooms with tall whiteboard walls, high cafĂ© tables, stools, and couches alongside regular tables. In the third classroom we visited I realized that I hadn’t seen a teacher’s desk anywhere. Megan showed me where the teachers’ desks where-all located in one room alongside each other. Later in the day teacher Jeff Bush told me that he felt this alternative version of a teachers lounge was one of the most important factors in the success of the building. It facilitates deep and meaningful communication between the staff as well as encouraging collaboration and sharing. Another thing that was notably absent was lockers. Open cubbies could be found outside classrooms stuffed with coats, instruments and backpacks and when I asked Megan about that her response was: It’s all about trust here. We are a family.

This sentiment was repeated several times during the final portion of my visit when we sat with a panel of students. I was so impressed with how articulate these young men and women were as they shared their own learning journeys. Colin told us how he had repeated the same math class at his more traditional home school, despite knowing the content, because he struggled to turn in homework assignments. He reported that he is flourishing at KIH because of the positive mindset of his facilitators (teachers) and the fact that he doesn’t get homework. He gets told what he needs to do and he is trusted to do it when he chooses to do it. Other students enthused about the constant feedback they got from their facilitators because that meant they knew how to improve their assignments and work towards mastery , a stark contrast to their more traditional home schools, where they fail but aren’t quite sure why. And the feedback isn’t a one way street. Reese explained that students provide constant feedback to their facilitators so that they too can learn and grow.

All students were completely aware of the standards they were working towards and appreciated the variety of assessments methods used by their teachers such as oral tests, written responses and one to one interviews, made possible with two teachers in every classroom. While rigor was evident, the most striking aspect of this school was the significance placed upon relationships. When asked what was challenging about being a student at KIH Colin told us the first two weeks were challenging because you have to flip your mindset. You have to learn how to work with others, how to be responsible how to focus on learning about each other. Every single hour of every single day begins with students sharing good news, every student knows each others name and this simple five minute sharing allows them to get to know each other. Keeley shared this with us:

I’m in love with this school. The facilitators are alive and alert and love what they do. They raise us to be like a family, we are comfortable with each other, we trust each other, we value each other. They want to engage us, to learn about our home lives and what is happening with us. We strive to succeed, to be the best we can be, to be diverse and honest; and the facilitators want us to succeed too.

So much about this school was impressive: the physical space, the technology integration, the 1:1 laptop program, the level of student voice, the interdisciplinary approach, the ping pong table, and the project-based focus. But for me personally, what really makes it a special place is the omnipresent emphasis on trust, respect and relationships. I had the opportunity to chat briefly with some staff members over lunch, but I’m hoping that I get to spend more time learning from them at the NovaNow conference in February. If you get offered the chance to attend this event, jump at it!

Inspirational pin-board in student bathroom

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 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?

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


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.