Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Too Many Unicorns In The Forest

Right now, I am stranded in the middle of nowhere. I look around and all I see are the tall trees around me. I’m spending so much time looking closely at these withering trees, that I’ve forgotten that I am even in a forest.  Off in the distance, I hear snapping twigs and rustling leaves echo through the quiet air.  I look up, and what do I see appearing before me?  Unicorns. There are so many white, winged unicorns dancing around me, filling the forest with magic and fantasy.

No. I’m not on any painkillers. I promise.

There’s that old proverbial saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.”  In essence, this means that a person is unable to see the big picture because he/she focuses on the small, often trivial, details.  Recently, a friend reminded me of this saying after I told her about the struggles I’ve been having in my classroom these past few weeks.  When a person is too close to a situation, he/she fails to step back and get a little perspective.  Instead of looking around and noticing the big picture, I’ve been too caught up thinking about the details.  I'm having a crisis of confidence.  This idiom perfectly describes how I’m feeling these days.

The forest is my classroom.  It is a place where my students and I work hard every day to ensure it is a positive, supportive learning environment.  In this forest, we are readers, writers, bloggers, problem solvers, goal-setters, and collaborators.  We work hard at doing our best, and encouraging others to do their best. But those darn trees are drawing my attention away from this big picture.  In the forest, I want to empower and engage my students as active learners and critical thinkers.  But, these days, I’m spending so much time studying what each and every tree looks like, it’s very difficult see of the overall view.

So, what are these trees that are blocking my view? The trees are all the state, district, school and grade-level initiatives that are in place. Pre-assessing, post-assessing, data teams, learning targets, reading workshop, writing workshop, mini-lessons, interactive read aloud, guided reading, reading conferences, reading journals, writing journals, mentor texts, Number talks, inquiry-based instruction, project-based learning, standards-based grading, 21st century skills, the 5th grade capstone project, innovation, genius hour, mystery Skype, Global Read Aloud and OTES (Ohio’s teacher evaluation system)—just to name a few. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. This is my first year teaching a whole new curriculum, with the Common Core standards and the new Ohio science and social studies model curriculum. Right now, it seems like I am standing in the middle of the Redwood National Forest.

Are these trees trivial? On the contrary, in education, often times the details are hardly miniscule. In fact, I believe every item has it’s place in the classroom of an accomplished teacher. Without the trees, there is no forest. Without these elements, there is no 21st century classroom.

So, where do the unicorns fit in? Well, the unicorn is a mythical creature that is pure, innocent and magical. It enchants you with its beauty and grace. It comes from a land of rainbows and fluffy white clouds. A unicorn is anything that looks and sounds great.

But, it doesn’t exist.

The unicorns are not the state, district and school expectations.  Rather, the unicorns are the personal expectations I place on myself.  For some reason, I sometimes get this idea that I can do everything perfectly all the time. It’s irrational, I know, but I believe in “going big or going home.” Why do anything half-way? I want to be the best teacher I can possibly be. It’s not about being competitive and trying to be better than other teachers. I work with some amazing educators at JW Reason Elementary, and there is no competition in our teachers lounge.  My concerns are coming from a place of passion, not ego. It’s about being the best teacher I can be.  I want to be the teacher that my nieces deserve to have.  The unicorns are when these grandiose thoughts of perfection fly into my head.  I feel like I need to be everything to everyone.  Every minilesson needs to be perfect.  Every exit ticket needs to show 100% of my students can add fractions.  These ideas sound fantastic, but end up being unattainable all at once.  Sometimes, I need to remember that being the best teacher is not about doing everything perfectly all the time.  It’s about being a better teacher than you were the day before.  Being an accomplished teacher is about being proactive, purposeful and reflective.

I check Twitter every night.  I read professional development books from Ralph Fletcher, Dave Burgess, Ken O’Conner, and Donalyn Miller.  I visit amazing blogs by the likes of Katherine Sokolowski, Pernille Ripp, Franki Sibberson, Paul Solarz, Tonya Buelow and Jacki Prati.  These wonderful educators inspire and embolden me to try and be great.  I always learn so many wonderful strategies that help me be a better teacher.  I am made up of bits and pieces of all the wonderful educators that I come in contact with every day.

But, I am in a forest; I have to remember that.  I must cultivate my learning community for the 24 young minds that appear through the door every morning.  To do that, I must remind myself to zoom out and see the overall picture, instead of focusing on a large list of individual initiatives, mandates and best practices.

As for the unicorns? Well, it’s hunting season.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What's Next In The Queue?

Do you see this stack of books in the picture above? This pile of literature has been sitting by my bed since about March, and it keeps growing and growing. This seemingly innocent stack of books sits in my bedroom, taunting me every time I walk by. Perched along the wall, they look at me each and every night, reminding me that I need to turn off the TV or put down the iPad.

Some of these books have not been opened. Some of them, I've read the first few chapters. Some of them have highlighters stuck in the center because I was marking "a-ha moments" from the likes of Donalyn Miller and Ralph Fletcher. Made up of mostly young adult fiction and professional books, this is my "To Read" pile. They are the books that I've bought, but haven't quiet made it to yet. You see, I've been know to make trips to books stores on a whim. "Let's just see what they have," I say. "I'm not going to buy anything." 45 minutes and $45 later, I'm walking out of the store excited to get started. I get home, and all I do is add them to my "To Read" pile.

These all too frequent trips to the book store to see what's on the "Just Released" shelf are becoming an addiction. I need therapy. Or maybe just more time. Nope, therapy.

Two nights ago, I got this feeling that maybe I should get therapy by showing this stack to my students and admitting that I have a problem. Eleven year olds know how to solve any problem, right?! Yes, I needed to share this totem pole of stories with my class. Why? Because I wanted them to see that readers should always have a vision of what's coming next - a reading plan.

"Mr. Jones, it's kinda like the movies in my Netflix Queue," one student said.
"Well, Colin, I guess it is exactly like the movies in your Netflix queue."
"My dad won't let me delete anything from our queue at home."
"Bummer, Colin."

I felt this would be a good way to begin our discussion about creating a To Read List. After showing my stack to the class, describing the reasons why I bought each book, and explaining the reasons that I haven't read them yet (which some students said were LAME. "Hey, Pipe down, Colin!"), it was time for the kids to start thinking about what book they would put on their To Read list--their reading queue.

As the minilesson ended and reading workshop began, all I heard was the sound of pages in their reading journals being flipped, plastic book boxes on the shelves being dragged and the rattle and hum of chattering 11 year old readers discussing the books their adding to their To Read list. It was a sight to behold. It was evidence of our reading community growing stronger. Some students wrote down one or two titles on their To Read list. Others had enough written down to fill an entire page. (See the pictures of students holding their To Read books here). Either way, these readers were doing what readers should do--answering the question, "What am I going to read next?"

Whether it's books on Goodreads.com or episodes of our favorite TV show on Netflix, it's nice to have a plan of what's next. A look into the future to see what's on the horizon. It's fun to anticipate something, and I hope that my students will continue to anticipate their next good book. The perfect time for me to empower them is during my reading conferences with students. Going forward, I plan to end each conference with the question, "What's next in your reading queue?" "What's next on your To Read list?" "What do you plan to read next?" I think my community of readers will benefit from this small change, and they continue to add to their To Read list with the same tenacity as they did today.