I have been an urban teacher for my entire 6 years teaching.  I have always worked at a school with over 90% of kids on free or reduced lunch. I have always worked at schools that are classified as underperforming.  I have always worked in a school where kids face challenges that no child should face.  They face issues of poverty, violence, family issues, gangs, absent parents due to death or incarceration, and they live in an access and resource desert.  Then we as their teachers face them.  We face them and ask them to focus, to learn, to achieve and to grow.  I have been thinking a lot lately about ideas and activities teachers are discussing on twitter.  I have been thinking about how those things work in different settings.  I have been thinking about what is the same for all kids?  And what is different for urban kids?  I am not talking about funding of schools, or political decisions about promotion or test scores.  I am thinking about the make up of our children and how they are universal and also unique.  I don’t know the answers because I only know one setting.  But I wonder about it.  I wonder how we can make it better.

I viewed an amazing documentary this week with some fellow teachers called The Interrupters.  The Interrupters trailer gives the premise of the doc, and how the members of CeaseFire in Chicago are working to interrupt violence in the communities that are hotbeds for violence.  The one idea that was presented over and over by the violence interrupters and ceasefire members was that violence is a learned behavior and a disease, its the answer to disrespect, its survival.  This documentary shows the power of interruption, a way of intervention to cool the trigger response to disagreement.  The documentary said over and over, pride and respect are the backbone of the lives in these communities.  If either of those are threatened its a threat to the life of the person, it cuts that deep.  I have seen this true in young children I teach as well.  Fighting over a cross look, a insult of a family member or a personal insult.  I have spent many minutes, hours and days discussing other solutions to those problems.  I have had conversations with students about better choices and they know what to say they can verbalize other strategies, they know them well. But at the end of the day, they go home, they live in the neighborhood, and they solve their problems.  So how do we reduce this in school?  How do we make schools a safe zone for learning and not have children fearing others or fighting others?

I don’t have the answers to fix it.  But I think we must find ways to make it better so that more learning is possible.  The interrupters were successful in their job of interrupting violence because they listened.  They often talked very little in fact.  We need to listen to our students. We don’t do this enough. They were successful because they had relationships with people involved in these situations.  We need to build relationships with students that are some of the most important in their lives.  They need to know we care about them, believe in them, and hear them when they speak.  We need to build relationships among our students.  The interrupters brought feuding parties together.  They listened, they supported and they helped work out issues.  These are noble tasks, they are time consuming and they are emotional, but they are necessary.

My title is teacher, but my job is so much more than that.  We have a responsibility to the children we teach to listen, to care, to create safe zones and meaningful relationships. This I think is universal.

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With no child left behind are we not letting any children get ahead?  One of my wonderings lately, this talk of getting kids to “meet” standards, response to intervention to get every kid caught up, teachers spending the most time with the struggling student so that everyone can get on the same level.  I have read blogs recently about standardized tests, but I am wondering if we are missing something by having our students “proficient” at everything but exceptional at nothing?

At a seminar today with Joyce Van Tassel-Baska giving a curriculum design and development for gifted learners she stated to make gifted education and curriculum strong it should have: advancement and acceleration, complexity, depth, challenges, and creativity.  Then she said this, to paraphrase “Creativity is where when we give kids choice and they chose something they are strong in it leads to more creativity because its what we know best and it also allows for “play” and exploration.”  It reminded me of some examples in the world of the people we often tag with “brilliant” or “talented” in my mind what we should be striving to foster when we teach young people.  The best athletes often have the most creative moves and skills, artists, musicians, and performers often are doing something beyond the average when we look at them as star examples.  In the business world it is the people who look at things from a new view point or are creative in the model they use to deliver their product.

I want well-rounded students, we all do, but there is something to be said about letting someone do something they are good at, that they like to do that they are willing to push themselves to be more creative in using it.  We are always trying to shore up weaknesses and get in extra practice at skills we think our kids need more practice with, but what about letting them do what they love? I think of my own example as an athlete, the parts of the sport I loved I would practice for hours and enjoy every moment, the parts that were not so appealing to me often got shelved.  My point is to not let kids always chose only what they want to do and forget the things they like less, but maybe we need to honor the passion of students and see how high they can soar with those talents too.  I don’t think it is an either/or question I think its a yes/and answer.

So as I move forward in my teaching journey I am not only going to honor talents and gifts but interests and passions.   When we limit our students to the standards in the core curriculum we are missing the things that may ignite their learning even more.  Allowing creativity is something that strengthens curriculum not weakens it.

A great TED talk to explain it a bit further.

Being new is not easy.  We see it in our classrooms, we see it at our jobs, we see it out at social events.  I was never the new kid at school, I did K-12 in the same district, only ever was new at University with thousands of kids in the same boat which to me doesn’t qualify as “new.”  As I logged on to twitter today I noticed a post by someone I follow, @s_bearden, noted about tech snobbery, written by Angela Watson.  And I thought, that is so true!  This post was more about implementation levels and tech but it reminded me of the other snobbery I had been thinking about.  People are here and everywhere to learn and we should’t be putting up our nose to those who are further behind.  Especially as teachers, what would you do if your students acted this way toward a new student, how would you handle it? We should also be remembering what it feels like to be new at something.

I remember back to when I joined twitter and I literally thought I am not going to post anything I am just going to leech off people’s work and ideas.  Look at me now, involved in chats, commenting on people’s posts, blogging for goodness sakes!  But the first time was scary.  I was lucky to have my first comments with a group of people who were/are inviting, warm, friendly, understanding and really true to the “learning” aspect of the network.  They are learning, but they also realize so is everyone else.  They mentor and I have to assume “remember” what being new is like.

Now I could list all the great people who reciprocate, help, guide, work with others regardless of level of implementation because they are by far the majority.  I don’t have enough space to list them all here.  These are the people who follow you back,  thank you for your input on their tweets, who answer yours when you put them out to hashtag or group.  But there are a few who are turning their backs to the circle and just working within “their” PLN and not the greater PLN.  To them I ask you why?  Why are you above it?  Why are you being a snob?   Now hey, those people probably (definitely) are not going to read my post because I am not friends with their friends and they don’t tweet out my blog because of it.  But maybe as a tweet by Chris Lehmann tonight applies to the PLN as well, “Our waitress joined in our design discussion tonight. Lesson – be open to ideas and expertise wherever you find it.”

So you may not think someone’s tweets are valuable until they are at a certain number of tweets, followers, lists, etc.  Maybe you think grade levels, subjects, geographic location matters to the relevance.  So maybe your circle is complete, you and “your” PLN are satisfied and happy with what you are working with, but maybe you are missing out on some of the ideas and expertise that are being offered by some of the “New Kids” in the PLN, and maybe in turn you could offer them some of the ideas and expertise you have to share.

Breaking up is hard to do.  Isn’t it just like the universe when everything seems to be going so great to throw a bit of a wrench into things?  I feel like I have been on a bit of a roll lately, learning new things, engaging in exciting opportunities, enjoying the world and what it  has to offer…..This week I found out that my position at my school for next year may not be renewed due to enrollment.  The old, its not you its me.  I’ve heard that before, shoot, I have said it before.  And it took me by surprise because things have been going so well.  I have been with my school for four years, we had our ups and downs but at the end of the day it’s where I want to be.

So I don’t want to break up.  Now, I have broken up before, with guys, with friends, with apartments, with schools, even with cities.  It’s hard.  You get to a point when you are so comfortable you can’t imagine it any other way, you only remember the good things, all the fun, all the laughs and slowly forget the bad times and the things that you wish you could change about the other. It seems only time and distance let us see the past in real focus.  Trust me I know I’ve changed too.  I am ready to try new ideas, get out of the mundane teaching habits, bring in new things.  It’s what twitter PLN has done to me.  I don’t blame twitter, in fact twitter had nothing to do with this situation, except maybe prepare me for a break out instead of a break up.  Because maybe it is me.

Break out new ideas, break out new collaborations, break out a new school or a new grade.  Break out some fresh views, shed the old and try on the new. So if this is really over, I may not be ready for it, but I know I have a lot to offer the next relationship and who knows maybe the next one will offer me more than I can even imagine.

This is what popped into my head, as I was tweeting with Lisa Dabbs  and others about EBC11 topic of bring your own device.  The comment that brought this to me was, “bringing your own device is a more sustainable model than district or school purchase.”  I immediate thought “impossible.”  We all view the world through our own lens and mine is one hued by my high poverty teaching situation.  I am blessed to be the winner of a 1:1 ipad grant that I spent HOURS writing and honing to communicate how passionate I am about bringing technology to a place where there is little access.  But had I not written the grant and had this opportunity, where would I be and where would my students be?  I know the answer and it saddens me, but the better question is how can I make this better?

Well leave it to the Beatles for some inspiration.  It is so easy to sit back and shout “unfair” but how can we work to make it more fair, more equal? I could spend all my time coming up with the why of this situation, but I think my energy is better spent asking, how can I make it better.  “Remember to let her into your heart, then you can start to make it better…. let it out and let it in….. hey Jude begin to make it better”  Let’s make technology the love that needs to be let in and out of teachers, students and schools.  I am hoping to use my 1:1 device grant to be the technology to create the “technology spring” at my school.  I want to allow access to students, but also parents, and share the learning with the community so all can see its value.  One thing I have learned is the power of access and sharing.  Twitter has given me this access and I think ipads can do it for my kids who in the past have used technology for testing almost exclusively (now that’s a sad song!)

Change is hard, I am not sure if it’s human nature to resist it, but I know its hard for some teachers, and here is where I think the students can be the role models.  Children are the most flexible people I know, especially when it comes to new things.  Technology is something that when used properly will really excite them.   When I go back to the idea of what fairness is I think technology done RIGHT can be the ultimate equalizer.  Now don’t get me wrong, like textbooks or other curriculum tools HOW you use them is the most important factor.  If my students use the computer lab in my school for testing, I think its misuse of the tool.  Here is the thing about using any tool right….You have to work at it and its usually not easy at first.  But what a great way to learn along with the students.  Showing them how this is new and excited for everyone and learning together is important.   I am hoping that if I can work hard and teach with ipads in my class and produce results in learning, teachers, parents, administrators, etc will become interested in what is working.

What I know is that what works usually requires a lot of work from all involved, but again another “teachable moment.”  But that is how it gets better.  My idea once I have something established with my classroom ipads is to create a ipads 101 for parents and teachers.  The teacher end would be doing small workshops for interested teachers in my building with some quick wins for learning.  This seems a little counterproductive considering we want engaged learners as creators, but if this starts as a safe entry point I think its one worth exploring.  The idea for parents would be to get experience with how their children are learning and see how technology is changing their child’s education.  Parents at my school tend to have other children at the school and also extended family members.  If enough get interested and involved maybe this will lead to a revolution of technology.  Like all revolutions starting with a spark of an idea is the beginning.

So as the Beatles so eloquently stated, let’s try to make it better!

One of my favorite idea people on twitter is David Wees purely for the reason that he is looking to make it(schools, classrooms, the system in general) better and is usually doing it in creative ways and as a tip, if you don’t follow him you should!  I don’t know him personally but through his tweets I have gathered some ideas about him and ideas about myself and what I am aspiring to in my own school and my own classroom and what I hope to transfer to my students.  I recently saw a post he commented on about year round schools, and how it could not and should not replace the learning that happens for kids over summer vacation.   I teach in a year round classroom and this hit home for me.  Sadly, because it was not the experience my students had in the summer.  I am trying to be reflective in my practice so I starting pondering all of the things my students didn’t have, all the problems in the schools, violence in neighborhoods, etc.  David is always pushing to find the “what could be better angle” in his postings so this lead me to the question of how can I change the focus even if its for my students in my classroom alone?  I started to think about what would make a perfect school, or a perfect classroom since I can’t change the grading, the testing, the length of the day or the schedule, what could I do that could make it a little closer to the idea of ideal? After I commented to David Wees about how my own childhood had these rich summer experiences, I started to think if I were a student today what would I want from an “education?”  A lot of twitter inspired ideas came to mind, but one factor that stuck with me was this idea of friendships.  I would hate to go to a school and have all the wonderful technology to learn through, subjects I was interested in, projects that suited me and my learning plan,etc. but have to do it alone, or worse do it in a hostile human environment.  It is something from my childhood just like summer learning that I know a majority of my students do not know just like they don’t know summer camping.

When I examine my own life, I have a friend who’s birthday is today, she turned 32, this is the 22nd time I have celebrated it with her.  Friendship is something that I have known my whole life, I had school friends, neighborhood friends, sports friends, and family friends, and to this day these are still the people I celebrate with and support and who support me when I need it. Imagine what it would feel like to not have that support, it would be pretty lonely I imagine. So why is this missing from my students and my classroom?  I could ask that about a lot of the challenges they face and I face with them, but that seems a waste of time.   How can I share this gift with them?  It comes back to teaching.  No one has taught them how to be friends, they don’t have models, they rarely see it happen.  So its like asking a fourth grader to do calculus, if you haven’t taught it to them why do you think they can do it?  Yet over and over I hear people including myself asking this of them without teaching them how to do it.   So this means I am going to approach it the same way I would a topic they haven’t been introduced to yet as well: pre-assess, lessons, and a post-assessment project to show what they have learned.  I am sure I can locate some core standards to support these vital skills.

I teach in a district that has the fewest minutes in a school day and a school that has the pressure of testing, scores and grades, and in the past this has pushed me to be so focused on academics and routines to maximize students’ time, and in that the social element has been sacrificed in the amount of attention it has received.   I have worked on this issue in the past, but more reactively than proactively.  Community and friendship are going to be a theme I work on all year.  Along with my Identity Day that I plan to implement early in the year, I am going to have my students present projects on friendship and what they have discovered and learned about it.  And if it comes up about standards I am sure I will have some, but I think the human standard and happiness standard will suffice for my reasons for the lessons.

I recently joined Twitter (how many blogs start like this I wonder?) and discovered a lot of things and in fact it was a bit overwhelming to say the least.  At first, I was joining to see what it was all about, then I found it was a great place to find resources, especially for technology, then I discovered it was a place of collaboration and learning.  I stumbled upon #4thchat out of luck one night and felt this was going to be my “circle” and I found some great people to follow, great ideas to borrow  (more…)