I was listening to the radio today and they were interviewing Andy Grammer. The DJ asked what advice he’d’ have for musicians that haven’t “made it” yet. He said, “Fail spectacularly.” He went on to say that you can be an enormous success, or you can be an enormous failure, but if you are just riding the middle ground, then you are going nowhere. That middle ground is also known as the comfort zone.
Do we encourage students to not only aim, but draw the bow with all their might? Do we expect them to fail spectacularly? Or do we reinforce the comfort of the middle ground? If students never take a risk, they might not ever truly learn.
I spent the majority of my career as a second-grade teacher. I loved teaching children at that age. The kids came to school happy to see me, happy to be at school, and even requested homework from time to time. I don’t assume it was the actual work that they wanted, but the I’m-big-stuff-now feeling that came with homework and the assignment of letter grades. They wanted As and Bs on their papers rather than stickers, smileys, or even percentage points. Most had heard older siblings, neighbors, or fellow bus riders discussing the letter grade system, and they were eager to earn their stripes.
The thing is, I bristled against these traditional classroom systems even as a brand-new teacher. I wanted them to love learning for the sake of learning. I wanted them to have their afternoons and evenings free to play outside, be with their families, and participate in extracurricular activities. Yes, I may have been a bit starry-eyed based on my own childhood, but what I didn’t want was to send my students home with a night full of needless homework. Some students need extra practice on a skill or concept. But all students don’t need the same homework assignment every night. So, see, I’m not saying all homework is evil. I’m just saying the traditional look at homework is outdated, unnecessary, and in some extreme cases, detrimental to learning.
This year my daughter is in seventh grade. She had a student teacher for part of her semester. Often she would come home with anywhere between 20-30 math problems to do each night. It was all this educator-mom could do to hold my tongue on the ridiculousness of those assignments. If a student already understands how to work the problems, then 20-30 more of them at night is enough to make any kid hate school. If they don’t understand the work, then 20-30 problems to do at home (where the majority of parents can’t/won’t help seventh graders on their math) is enough to cause a breakdown. And what are the students learning from these kinds of assignments? And do they even see how this links to their everyday life? And do not even get me started on graded reading logs!
Often, homework has become synonymous with school work. But let me tell you something, kids don’t need homework to succeed in life. You know what they need? Time to be kids.
My dad is a car guy. In his life, he has owned some pretty awesome cars. He also instilled an appreciation for beautiful vehicles in me. I recognize gorgeous cars of all varieties, but I am pretty partial to Camaros and Corvettes. If anyone offers to give me a car of my choice, I’m picking one of those. Oh, I know there are much more valuable vehicles, but I would still make the same choice.
On my recent birthday, my fabulous husband surprised me by getting a stunning 2016 silver Camaro RS for the night. Between us, I’m kind of glad no one was video taping my reaction. There was some squealing and jumping around, and I’m pretty sure I just gave the neighbors a good laugh. But I was beyond excited to drive that beast. And it didn’t disappoint.
So, in honor of my love for fast cars, this post compares being a leader to driving a Camaro.
In both instances, you need to:
- Be cautious and aware – So while I love muscle cars, luxury vehicles, and sports cars, I’m not the most free-spirited individual. While driving my (I’m claiming it for the night, okay, give me that) Camaro, I was a little cautious, and very aware of my surroundings. Leaders need to do the same. When you are leading people, in any capacity, you need to be aware of those around you and any concerns they may be harboring. Proceed cautiously, but confidently.
- Take control – For those who know me well, you know I like to be in control. I couldn’t wait to jump in that driver’s seat and see what that baby could do. Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to take control. They are in leadership positions for a reason, and it’s to lead.
- Go fast – Some people may be disagreeing with me here. Obviously, I didn’t go fast through our small town. I waited until I was on the highway with no police cars in sight (ahem). In leadership, there is a place for careful planning, and moving slowly, but leaders also need to know when it’s time to get moving and go fast.
- Have fun – My husband took some pictures of me while I was driving and I realized that I was smiling like a fool in all of them. That’s because I was having fun. I couldn’t have not smiled even if I tried. Thankfully, I get to have a lot of fun in my job, as well. I get to have fun leading others, but I also love working for/with leaders who are having fun. Leaders need to know how to build relationships with their people. Life will be better for everyone involved.
- Take others along for the ride – When I had my Camaro, I got to drive my husband around on our date. I picked up our kids the next day from a friend’s house and my parents’ house. I got to share the fun of the car with others, and it made it better for me. Leaders can’t lead by themselves. Share the vision, and help others get on board with the vision. And, just like I let my husband drive some, put others in leadership roles and enjoy the ride.
If you are under the age of 40, I know what you are thinking about my title…that’s only something that old people say. If you are around 40 or older, though, I bet you are nodding and agreeing with me. I never thought I’d be one of those people who was bothered by the number, but as 40 crept closer and closer over the past couple of years, I’d find myself cringing at the thought. Even as of last week I wasn’t really looking forward to it. But I can honestly say today, that 40 is better than 20.
When I was twenty, I was in the middle of college. I thought I knew what I was doing with my life. I studied hard, had a job, and joined a couple of extracurricular clubs so I could get a good teaching position when I graduated. I had always pretty much been a rule-follower, and I continued that into my university years. I was sure that I was going to marry my high school sweetheart, move back to North Manchester, have a family and retire from teaching when I was older.
When I was twenty, I compared myself to others and found myself wanting. I frowned about my Freshman 15, and worked hard to get rid of it. I was still testing out my independence. I was somewhat introverted at the time, and not great at the whole friend thing.
Fast forward twenty years (yikes, ok, so that makes me feel old), and so much has changed. Over those years I have lived out many of my twenty-year-old plans. I did marry my high school sweetheart, but life wasn’t always marital bliss. We are stronger for the struggles. We have two amazing children who are bigger blessings than I could have ever imagined. We did move back to our home town, and I’m incredibly thankful to be so close to family.
I did become an elementary teacher and followed that calling for fourteen years. But, I took a risk and left the classroom to become a curriculum director. That move was scary, but it reignited a passion in me for education that had been flickering at best. I took another risk a few years later and started my own educational consulting company, and found a niche that I wouldn’t have dreamed of in college.
I have found incredible friends who make my life richer every single day. I rediscovered my inner extrovert (that may be an oxymoron, but it’s true), and thrive on deep and/or fun conversations with others.
And, I no longer compare my physical qualities with others. I love myself the way I am. I wish I could go back and tell my twenty-year-old self to love that body, to stand tall, and smile often. I’d also tell her to take more risks….live a little more loudly. But the beauty of it is, that I can do all of that now. And I am.
Forty brings freedom. It brings empowerment. It brings wisdom and experience. I can’t wait to see what is to come.
I taught in the primary grades for fifteen years. In general, primary grade teachers are all literacy leaders. Teaching students to read and write are top priorities every day in their classrooms. That importance doesn’t go away, however, just because kids get older. Most students are successful as independent readers and writers by the time they get to middle school, but do they know how to read and write in each content area? Are they still allowed to choose books/magazines/articles that appeal to them? Are they encouraged to read text at their instructional level? Are they given time to read for pleasure during the school day? These are not relegated to elementary schools. They need to be carried on as students progress through middle and high school if we want to create people who are not only successful readers and writers but people who enjoy reading and writing.
Fortunately for me, I have always loved to read, and a bonus is that I really enjoy teaching writing. I took my elementary teacher mindset with me when I became a district curriculum director. I was disheartened when I was told by multiple secondary teachers that teaching students how to read was not their job. How can that even be a thought? If your student can’t read and comprehend the materials you are using in your instruction, then how is that not your job to teach them those skills as well? And so, I became a champion for teaching reading skills in the content areas for secondary students.
There are certain things that educators need, however, to be literacy leaders.
- They need a vision of why teaching literacy strategies to their students is vitally important (regardless of the age or subject that they teach).
- This vision should be embraced at the highest level of educators in the district. Expectations surrounding the vision need to be clearly, and continuously communicated with all teachers.
- They need ongoing training on how to best teach these strategies.
- In defense of my secondary-teaching friends, the majority of them have never been taught how to teach reading. We can’t expect them to be literacy leaders if we don’t equip them with the knowledge and tools to succeed. Districts with a vision for literacy leadership must be willing to invest time and money in providing top-notch professional development for teachers of all subjects and grade levels.
- They and their students need access to varied reading materials.
- Books, magazines, newspapers – digital, hard copy – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that students have access to all genres, at all reading levels.
- They need to encourage student choice in what they read and write about.
- I’ve had students tell me that their “pleasure” books had to be approved by their English teacher. That same student loved reading graphic novels, but they didn’t meet the “requirements” in this teacher’s mind of what quality reading material looked like. Guess what impact that had? Negative impact. I don’t have anyone approving of my book choices for pleasure reading, so why do we feel the need to dictate what students read in their “choice” time? If a student wants to read Field and Stream magazine, then by all means, let them. We are encouraging reading for enjoyment. And the hidden bonus is that these kids are increasing their reading and comprehension skills at the same time. Give students some freedom and see what happens.
So the responsibility of being literacy leaders falls on every educator. Administrators need to provide the vision, resources, and training for teachers. Teachers need to provide high-quality, intentional instruction and encouragement. Together they can help students feel confident in their reading and writing abilities, and leave high school on the road to being literacy leaders themselves.
I recently had coffee with a good teacher friend. He was telling me that their district is moving from iPads to Chromebooks for next school year. Some of the other teachers were rejoicing because then the students “wouldn’t be playing games during class.” He pointed out to them that kids can, in fact, still play games on Chromebooks and the reply was “but they aren’t fun games.” He inwardly sighed and was thinking what most good teachers would think – this is a classroom management issue, not a device problem. So, how do we make sure students are engaged in the classroom?
There has been much research to show that students (or anyone, for that matter) learn more when they have to teach someone else. I recently came across an article that takes it a step further, they learn more when they think they will need to teach someone at some point. Students are able to analyze, define, create, and evaluate information, skills, and concepts when they are actually doing something in the learning process. Add to active learning environments, a way to share the learning with an authentic audience, and the engagement (and bonus: the learning!) skyrockets.
I’ve written posts before about the importance of authentic learning, and presenting the learning to authentic audiences. If students know they are going to be demonstrating their learning in front of experts in the field, their peers, and/or other adults (outside of the classroom teacher), they take more time to put forth their best effort. It goes a step further if they are sharing their work, globally, via some type of digital avenue.
Questions we need to be asking: How do we increase the likelihood of student engagement? Make sure you are not lecturing from the front of the classroom (or worse, while sitting down at your desk for the entire period – kill me now…). Would you want to learn in your own classroom? How much interaction are the students having with one another, and with people outside of the classroom? Are the students moving around and driving their own learning trajectories during class? How are they showing their learning? To whom are they teaching?
“Teaching” someone else can be as simple as having them turn and tell a partner what they just learned. This shouldn’t be the norm, but is a great method to get students thinking about their learning in a deeper manner. They can also blog about what they just learned. There are very simple solutions, and there are much deeper opportunities, as well. Each class, each lesson, and each student in unique – engage them accordingly.
Please share some awesome ways you’ve seen students teach others to enhance their own learning experiences.