Moments

As teachers, we are tasked with teaching content and helping kids grow into productive and successful citizens. We are given a set of content standards we must cover and a battery of assessments to determine if we have succeeded in doing so. Our evaluations are based on how we plan and deliver our lessons as well as other professional duties. However, I think the greatest impact we have on kids is not something we can measure but simply observe. It is the impact when you see one of those “moments”. They are hard to explain, difficult to plan and nearly impossible to measure. 

Last week a teacher came to me and told me she had a lesson plan fall through and wondered if the kids could come to the library and read for the period. Of course, I said yes and the 30+ 8th graders settled into the library. I could tell they were burned out on reading given a week of standardized testing they had just completed. So, I pulled out our Keva planks and had them complete some building challenges. The kids were having a blast and really got into the challenges. As we neared the end of the period I gave them the final challenge of seeing how tall of a tower they could build. It was then, that the “moment” started taking shape without my knowledge. 

A group of boys started building and were making some great progress with their tower. It swiftly reached 5 feet and then 7 feet and then topped 10 feet. As the period was winding down, the boys kept building and me and the teacher let them keep going. The bell rang and the boys kept going. Kids began spilling out of classrooms and stopped to watch the tower being built. As the tower reached the 11-foot mark, the boys reached out to taller classmates to come over and join in the build. It was awesome. Almost the entire grade level was circling the tower and cheering the boys on. It was a “moment” to remember. The boys decided to end their build and knock their tower down to thunderous applause from their peers and teachers. 

To take it a step further the group asked if they could come in at lunch to build a tower that touched the ceiling which is around 14 feet tall. Naturally, I said yes and they showed up to build again. This time we had to bring in a ladder and they succeeded in “touching” the ceiling as their classmates were coming back from lunch. Again their efforts were greeted with applause and high fives. 

Building the tower started out as an activity to kill some time and give kids a break from testing and reading. Yet, it became more than that for these kids. I promise you, a moment was created for them they will not soon forget. It is not something that will show up on an assessment or evaluation and not something you can measure. In fact, it is even hard for me to put into words the moment created by and for these kids. It’s was just one of those, “you know it when you experience it” moments. 

As teachers, we need to be better at recognizing when these moments are taking shape and let them happen. At one point I will confess a teacher stepped out and yelled at the kids to get to class during the passing period. I am also happy to confess the kids didn’t listen and went on cheering their building classmates on with the full support of every other teacher in the library. 

Naturally, I took videos and pictures to make a short iMovie trailer to capture the moment. 



The Belt Buckle

Have you ever said, “I will never do that.”? Well, this time last year, I said those exact words to my father after he finished a 50-mile trail run. He had done a few 50K runs (31 miles) and that was his first 50 miler. While I was impressed with my dad and his accomplishment, there was just no way I would ever tackle that challenge. Fast forward one year and I sit here blogging about this past weekend where I ran a 50-mile trail run with my father and brother. Yes, I ran a 50-mile race with my 60-year-old father and my older brother. We earned the belt buckle. 

There are so many aspects of the training and the run itself that I want to share and reflect upon. I am aware most people have already given up reading this post given that they are not runners. I am also aware that even some runners will stop reading because running 50 miles at once seen silly and borderline dumb. I know, I share those same feelings even after having run that distance myself. However, I still want to put into words what the experience has meant to me personally and I will attempt to make some connections to my work as an educator. 

Training Matters
Yes, this should be a no-brainer. Over the course of three months, I put in roughly 480 miles of training which included six runs of 18 miles or more and culminated in a 31-mile training run two weeks before the 50-mile race. In addition, I took on cross-training in a boot camp class to strengthen my core, legs and upper body. It goes without saying, that I could not have completed the 50-mile race without training. 

I relied heavily on my father who had trained for this distance before as well as my boot camp trainer who is an expert in overall fitness. To bring this into a school setting, training is key to everything we do. Our students can not be expected to perform without proper training or instruction. Obviously, this is true with coaches and athletes but same is true for teachers and learners. Our students can not be expected to perform at high levels without being trained on how to do so. We as educators are the experts with experience who can provide the training plans for students who want to achieve greatness in school and in life. 

Small Goals Lead to Big Accomplishments
During the nearly 15 hours we were running, jogging, climbing, and power walking we set small goals for ourselves. “Let’s run to the next hill and then walk up the hill.” “Let’s walk while we eat some PB&J and then jog the last mile to our checkpoint.” Throughout our 50 mile journey, we constantly set small goals that resulted in completing the “big” goal of the 50 miles. The small goal setting allowed us to focus on manageable milestones and not be overwhelmed with the big picture. 

I think this is so important from a mindset standpoint for kids and teachers. Too often we set lofty goals for huge projects that are daunting and too much to take in. Instead, we should be focusing on small attainable and short-term goals that lead us towards the bigger picture. 

Enjoy the Moment
This was without a doubt the best part of running this race with my dad and my brother. Yes, the training was tough and for me was done on my own. Many days I got up at 4am to run my 8 miles and doubted if I really wanted to keep training for this insane race. However, the moments on the trail with my dad and brother will be moments I treasure and carry with me for a lifetime. Many of the conversations and talks on the trail are for me alone and will not be shared. Yet, walking across the finish line arm in arm with my dad and brother is a moment I will never forget. The emotion and feelings that come with completing such a race are intense on their own, but doing it with family takes it to a level that can’t be put into words. Yes, I was exhausted, in pain, and cursing every hill we climbed. Yet I will always look back on those miles with fondness as it was a bonding experience I think few people will ever experience. 


I think in our schools we spend so much time focused on the “training” and the “race” that we lose sight of the important moments. Rather than spend time getting to know a kid and connecting with them as a person, we obsess over their reading or math scores. Instead of enjoying moments of joy and celebration, we are often focused on getting our curriculum covered and meeting our deadlines. Too much of school is focused on the mechanics and game of education. I feel we need far more moments where we celebrate the emotions of accomplishments, failures and progress. 

Lessons From the Run

On January 1st, 2012 I took on a challenge to run at least one mile every day for a whole year. On January 9th, 2012 I ended my streak due to an injury. I took two days off and started back up on January 12th, 2012 and have not missed a day since. My run streak has covered over 6,000 miles, 38 US states, and countless hours of meditation and snot rockets. :) During that time I have reflected on a great many things which I wanted to put down in writing. 

Goals are Essential

Yes, we all have heard about the importance of goals. For me, my first goal was to make it 365 days of running each day. It turned out that was the easiest goal I’ve set thus far. Every year I make a new goal. In 2018, I am currently working towards my goal of running a 50 miler. Stay tuned because I am signed up for one in April. Every year of the #runstreak I have set goals that ranged from a 1,000-mile year or running a half marathon every month to run a sub 20-minute 5k and run 4-hour marathon. The goals keep me focused and motivated. 

I think about my work with students and how important it is to have goals. However, I fear far too often our students’ goals are created by the adults. We create reading goals or behavioral goals for kids and track their progress. Kids typically don’t buy-in because they don’t care about those goals. Kids care about doing things they are interested in and creating goals around those areas. I am currently working with students whose goal is to create a customized arcade machine using a Raspberry Pi and various components bought off the internet. They are all in because it is their goal, not mine. 

Kids need to make goals for themselves, not for us. 

I Hate Running

While this is not entirely true, there are days where I want to give the 4am alarm an inappropriate hand gesture or a violent reaction. Some days I am running and counting down the steps until I am done. This is especially true when the wind chills are 30 below zero and body parts start freezing. Yet, even in those moments of disgust and general disdain for running, I’ve yet to finish a run and regret it. Although, there was that one run in Huntsville, Alabama. If you ever get me in person, I will tell you the story. :)

I see so many connections with this to school work and what we ask kids and teachers to do. Some of the stuff we ask kids to do is not fun and they will hate it. This goes the same for teachers. However, some things we ask kids and teachers to do may be less than desirable but we know it will help them in the long run. While I am an advocate of joy and fun, the reality is somethings are hard and boring but need to be done. Period.

Moral of the story, something you hate from time to time can be good for you in the long run.

Unplug

The greatest aspect of running for me is the time to unplug and reflect on life. I almost view my time as a form of meditation. Many hours on the trails have provided me time to reflect on all aspects of my life from parenting and teaching to my marriage and gardening. It is both amazing and scary where the mind can wander when out running for up to 6 hours at a time. Some of my best teaching ideas have come while out pushing through some early morning miles. 

For me, this is likely the best lesson I have learned from my running. Too much of our lives are dominated by a hyper-connected state through devices. Adults and kids alike are glued to their screens and constantly bombarded with media in a firehose of information. As parents and teachers, we have to be fine with and even encourage kids taking time off away from the screens. Let them run around outside, play, get dirty and heaven forbid; be bored. 

I have run many miles and hopefully, I have much more on the horizon. Running has pushed me to limits I didn’t know I had and reflect on my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. While I don’t think everyone needs to go out and run daily, I think everyone needs something to keep them focused, motivated and moving forward.  

Lessons from the Library Makerspace

As I continue to evolve in my role as a Junior High Librarian and Learning Commons Director, I want to constantly reflect on my practice. One thing I get a lot of feedback on is the work we are doing in our Maker Lab. In some cases, I have received criticism about some of the work we are doing and some of the activities we have done. For example, I have been asked why a library needs Makey Makey kits or a 3D printer. To be clear, it doesn’t. I also get questioned how a CNC desktop router or robots help support the core curriculum. To be honest, often, they do not. On top of it all, I get questioned how a library can be a center of reading and support literacy growth while having the distractions of all the so-called toys and gadgets. Every single one of those questions and criticisms are fair and in some cases accurate. 

Do we need 3D printers?

We can easily replace 3D printers with drones, robots, Legos, Makey Makey, or a host of things we often see in library Makerspaces. The simple answer to the question is, no, you do not need any of these things in your library. On top of that, the presence of these tools won’t guarantee an innovative space or creativity among students. 

However, they certainly can bring about a type of learning and thinking far too often missing from our overly standardized classrooms. I have seen students use the Makey Makey to create controllers to play video games. While this may not seem like a big deal, it has lit a spark of creativity in two particular students who now spend their lunch in the library every single day to tinker and see what else they can create. 




The 3D printer, coupled with Tinkercad, has opened up a whole new world of design and creation for our students. Students are able to create something in the Tinkercad space and then see their design in a tangible product. The process students go through to create something in a 3 dimension format is a level of thinking most kids have little or no experience in. For most it is a struggle and takes constant revision and reworking. One of my 7th grade students had to redo a particular design numerous times before finally getting it right. The fact that students are willing to fail at something and keep going until they get it “right” is empowering for me to watch.



Do Makerspaces support the core curriculum?


The mostwell-stockedd library or Makerspace will not always support the core curriculum. For me there are two ways of looking at that. For one, I am completely fine with learning that is outside the core curriculum. In fact, some of the most engaged learning activities I have seen in my career have been outside the curriculum. Students designing “Battle Armor” for their Spheros is certainly not on a curriculum map but I can promise a high level of learning was happening. Students were creating prototypes, testing, retooling and constantly improving their designs. In addition, the social and emotional learning that takes place in this type of competitive environment is crucial to a student’s development. Many kids who are not athletes or musicians rarely have a competitive outlet and things like this help teach those skills. I had to work with numerous kids on how to win and lose in a socially appropriate manner.


The other way of looking at these activities is finding ways in which they can support the core curriculum in a meaningful and engaging way. For example, we use our Sphero robots for math students to write programs. They can then run the programs and use the sensor data to create linear equations which ties directly to their content. Another resource in our library is the Google Expeditions Virtual Reality kit that allows our students to “see” locations and content in a whole new light. Talking to health students about the respiratory system is one thing, but taking them inside the lungs themselves is a whole other level of learning.



How can you focus on reading and literature in a library full of toys and gadgets?

I get this question often. People assume with all of the Makerspace activities going on, I can’t possibly have a focus on literature or reading. That could not be further from the truth. In the past two years as we have made a push to increase Maker activities the overall circulation in the library has gone up. Kids are actually in the library checking out books more than ever before. The answer is really simple. Kids want to be in the library. The Makerspace activities has helped me create an environment so appealing to kids it is now being used as a reward on student behavior charts. :) Simply bringing kids into the library has allowed me to engage them in conversations about everything, including reading. Just as a teacher who builds a positive relationship with a kid can get them to do their work, a librarian who builds those positive relationships can get a kid to read anything.  

Stop Teaching Kids to Read

For 13 years I taught Language Arts to junior high students. I had a list of reading standards that I needed to teach on a yearly basis. I had to make sure kids knew the theme, perspective, conflict, author’s purpose, create beautiful plots lines, and many other standards. During that time we read lots of short stories, novels, articles, and a wide variety of other reading materials. Nearly every time kids were reading, they were doing something with the text. They had to annotate, fill in an organizer, do notes and many other things. However, after this last year teaching in the library, I am beginning to wonder if teaching reading is something we really should be doing. Or at the very least, we need to look at it differently.


Let me be clear that yes, we need to teach kids how to read. They need to know the vocabulary and be able to comprehend what they are reading. Reading is a foundational skill that all kids, and adults for that matter, need to master. However, at some point much of the reading standards we ask kids to learn don’t serve any purpose beyond filling in a bubble or checking off a list of standards. I wonder if there might be another way to go about it.


This past year as I spent my time working with students in the library I had a much different perspective on reading. I talked to kids every single day about what they were reading. Frankly, I talked more about reading this past year as the librarian than any other year as a Language Arts teacher. When talking to kids, I wasn’t asking them to interpret the text or seeking out right answers about what they were reading. Instead, we just talked about the books. Period. We talked about what made them laugh, cry or think about their world. Those conversations were not only enjoyable to me but it appeared as though lots of kids were just excited to talk about what they were reading.


With that in mind, I wonder if we can shift how we approach reading in our classes. I fear we have become obsessed with over teaching and seeking “right” answers, we are missing the bigger picture which is creating kids who love reading. I firmly believe literature can be used as a gateway into learning far beyond the learning standards teachers are asked to teach.


Reading can create empathy within our students when they are exposed to ways of life different than their own. Check out I Will Always Write Back for a fantastic example of looking at life through another lens. I had a great conversation with my own children about homelessness after we read Crenshaw together as a family. Empathy is so critical in our world and many books help kids put on someone else's shoes.


A great book can help students connect with characters who may be struggling with the same personal challenges the reader is. Gracefully Grayson and El Deafo are two solid examples of characters dealing with their identities and the discomforts they encounter. Kids often don’t know how to talk to people about their struggles and a character in a book can often give insights and guide them through troublesome times. Or at the very least give them hope they are not alone.



As we see evidence of a lack of perspective and understanding of others in this often unjust world, literature can be a way to start difficult conversations we need to be having. For me, The Hate U Give and Full Cicada Moon are solid stories to help start a critical conversation. It is too easy to brush these conversations off because as adults we are uncomfortable but literature can be the jumpstart we need.

I think it’s time to lay down the rubrics or reader’s workshop checklists and just talk to kids about the books they love and even those they hate. If we approach teaching reading with the mindset there are right answers, we are doing it wrong. The beauty of reading is there are no right or wrong answers. There are just perspectives and every reader has one of their own. There are lots of kids that love reading until we teach the love out of them. It’s time to shift to helping kids use reading as an avenue to learning about themselves and the world around them.