Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What is Motivation Made of?

So, there it is. I ask a big question that many out there are asking as well.  I kind of have a clue on this one. Maybe a tiny clue, but a clue, nonetheless.  Unlike other topics on Twitter where I just say, "Whoah, I didn't know about that glitzy new tool," the business of student engagement and motivation is very interesting to me and I actually know a tiny bit about it!
I run my classroom like a lab, ( not in the white coat, sterile sense, don't worry!) making notes as to what happens when I make small changes. I have to be careful, though, not to assume that I have caused change with my actions. Correlation is not causation.  In any case, the daily reflection helps me transform my classroom into a place where 5 year olds can build the internal self talk and belief : "Yes, I can do it!"
This year, my big focus: student autonomy. No, this does not mean that students run the show (although, if you asked them to tell you the way the classroom "works" they could undoubtedly tell you), but the students are members of a community that thrives and blossoms as a result of their active engagement. Every day each student has a job, each group has a leader that rotates, and students discuss and practice how they will become responsible for themselves as learners. At the end of the day, instead of being rated on their behavior by the teacher, they rate themselves. They ask themselves the questions:  "How did I succeed in doing my work, cooperating with peers and the teacher, and being safe with my body"? They answer these questions individually and share the information with their parents.
When I hear a comment like, "I'm bored," which, thank goodness, I don't hear too often, we take a  moment to talk about how we have to learn certain "material" at school, but it's up to us together to make the journey exciting and memorable. I evaluate my practice when I hear these words, and I examine what is happening in that child's head/body/life that could perhaps interfere with engagement. Am I being irrelevant? Do they not identify with or care about what I am teaching? We live in a world of constant commotion and attention- demanding distractions so it's no wonder that kids seek entertainment in the classroom. With tv's blazing and computers running 24/7, do kids also imitate adults who may be constantly seeking stimulation? Are "we", the adults, able to model a less distracted learning scenario?
As teachers and administrators hold external rewards over the heads of innocent children, and not so innocent adults, I wonder if they have read the research about motivation, about efficacy, and the power of a mindset. If the practices in our schools revolve around giving out medals at an awards ceremony when kids  are "Advanced" or "Proficient", then we will surely lose those children who haven't developed the powerful belief, "Yes, I can." Is it an 8 year old's fault that his name isn't posted up on that wall or that he hasn't received a shiny new medallion? Does watching his friend receive all the glory inspire him to work  harder next time? Or does he shrink down in his chair, dreading the next benchmark test, followed by the next "humiliation" assembly where he will be excluded from a photo of his teachers and their "prides and joys."
I fear that our system is set up to sabotage the very engagement and motivation that will lead us out of this dismal achievement gap situation. We must constantly reflect on our practices and ensure that everything we do gives all kids the message that they can and will be successful.  Our mindsets are revealed in not just what we say, but in "how" and "what" we do each day.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Are You Brave Enough to Stand Up?

As I was running up a muddy path today, berating myself for choosing the muddiest path ever on which to christen my brand new running shoes ( yes, they are white and aqua no less) I began to reflect about the discussions I have engaged in this weekend on Twitter and a Facebook group, "The Educator's Neighborhood". I have ventured into discussions with folks I might have previously been intimidated by; their passion and advocacy for kids is fueled by experiences, both personal and educational, and backgrounds of which I am only a bystander. I was a single parent for 18 years but I must admit that being a white single parent in a suburban area does not necessarily mean that I know what every single parent experiences.
As I ran, it seemed like a voice inside was interrogating me.   How can I speak about equity as a white middle class woman? Does anyone care what I  have to say? Wouldn't it be even more powerful for me, as a leader at my site, to have learned from as many of my online colleagues as possible, as I work on this equity team?
As my shoes got muddy and less than pure white, I thought about how this whole issue of equity and my role on the "equity team" at my school is not going to be clean and pretty. We are a relatively non-diverse group of teachers teaching a somewhat diverse group of kids. Is there any wonder that we have an achievement gap?
I know that this road to equity is going to be bumpy and that the proverbial crap will inevitably hit the fan as folks are led to truly evaluate their roles in maintaining barriers to equity in our school. Although we may know how to "say the right things" when the equity consultant visits for a 2 hour meeting, do we know how to practice in a way that gives all kids what they need to believe in themselves and achieve? Do we take the time to really understand our kids, listen to them and reach out to their families?  I have a feeling that I am going to be much less popular as the year continues. And that's okay with me, as long as one more child gets what he/she needs.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Writer's Block: Perfectionism Rearing it's Ugly Head?

It's ironic to me that as soon as I begin a blog with "365" a goal to write each day, I am frozen. Although millions of ideas flow through my busy mind each day, I cannot settle and get myself to write!

My reflections on the top 10 reasons for this block:
  1. My mind is too cluttered. I get up early every morning with the intention of writing as an entry to my day. I have fallen into the habit of checking my Twitter stream to read the latest and greatest from those I follow. Bottom line:  I need to write "before" I read.
  2. Comparing myself to others.  I feel like a little fish in a big sea. The more blogs and articles I read, the more I wonder if my writing contributes anything new or measures up. The irony is, I should write more to develop my voice and style.   
  3. Does anyone really care about what I have to say?  I don't write about anything unless I care deeply about it. The risk in sharing is that my deepest, most passionate convictions could be ignored. Which leads me to a deeper reflection: Who cares if they care?
  4. I need to use drafts more. Begin writing and edit later. There is no pressure to post immediately, yet I feel urgent as others seem to blog so often and I have chosen this "365" format.
  5. My potential audience has grown.  I have over 500 followers on Twitter and I am finally brave enough to tweet when I blog. Granted, I only usually tweet once as to not annoy anyone.  Translation: FEAR of FAILURE! Or maybe it's fear of a bad first impression. Once again, does everyone have to like me? 
  6. I am in a "learning" mode lately.* I have discovered so many resources for integrating new practices in my teaching that I am "brain tired." ( *Yes, this is just an excuse, humor me, please!)
  7. Not every post has to be perfect. I am shocked that it took this long to use "that" dreaded word, perfect. Every post should be carefully edited, as I have little tolerance for poor grammar, spelling and passive voice. Does every post need to be perfect? What is perfect anyway?
  8. I am afraid to get into trouble.  Sometimes I want to write about something school-related that I feel passionate about, but I am afraid that I might get myself fired for expressing my convictions. I  need to critically examine this obstacle. Other teachers seem to be able to express convictions without this fear. I do have tenure, but am I prepared to be the sacrificial lamb if I speak up too strongly?
  9. I feel the need to finish what I start. Somewhat related to the earlier item about drafts, I need to be okay with writing something that doesn't lead to publishing.  Sometimes brainstorming and pre-writing lead to other ideas that will be completed later. Some drafts are  more like diary entries that are key for my understanding but not for all eyes to see. 
  10. I have many varied interests.  Now why would this be a barrier to writing? I suppose it's more about deciding "which" blog to post something on that holds me back at times.  I am very interested in the cross-section between brain research, strengths, positive psychology and education. I teach kindergarten full-time but also coach/tutor students between the ages of 8 and 18. My experiences as a former therapist and foster care social worker have colored my view of working on strengths in kids, not deficits.  Many people I talk to are interested in one of those areas but not all of them.
I would love to hear what some of the barriers are for you. What holds you back in your writing? How do you conquer these obstacles? 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Life Flashes Before Your Eyes..

Last night, I walked along E. Cliff Dr., against the backdrop of the pounding sea and starry sky.  Hand in hand with my husband, trailing behind my son(23) and daughter(21) I found myself watching the backs of their heads, marveling at how they have blossomed into two amazing adults. As my son answered questions about thermodynamics, enjoying the banter with his curious sister, I enjoyed the time to reflect. My mind was like a memory album on a slideshow, flashing from a time they were 6 and 4 playing at the beach to other memories of them pondering the universe, devising experiments and making up their own language.  I felt a bit teary, not in a sad way, but more in a "gratitude" way. I hope that when they both finish school they will land back in this area so we can have more of this special time together.  Most importantly, when we have that opportunity, I vow to never take it for granted. Life does fly by..savor the special moments.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tuning in to Loved Ones...

My kids are coming home this weekend and I am so excited about spending time with them. Both far away at college, one at MIT and one at CSU Humboldt, there are rare moments when all of our schedules converge and we can be together.
SO, what is the point of this ramble? After a week of hearing about losses of loved ones from friends and coworkers, I am committing myself to a weekend free of distractions. I plan on being "tuned in" to my kids. Though they are adults, they need me as much as they did when they were younger, though now  in an emotionally supportive and intellectually inspiring way. 
This moment is all we really have to show our love for our family and friends. What can you do today to "tune in" to your loved ones? I plan to listen more fully.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Insert Foot in Mouth....

I have a routine each morning which helps me ease into the day. I get up at 5:00 a.m., make my coffee, check email and tune in to read tweets from educators and interesting psychology folks on Twitter around the globe. This morning I was a bit bleary-eyed as I answered a question from a fellow tweeter who asked: "What technology would you have in your classroom if you were given the choice?".
I pondered this for a moment, thought of the SMART board in our computer lab and how I would love to have one in my classroom, along with student computers that work!  I tweeted this answer and was met with a question: "Why?" Why would I want an interactive white board? Was this a trick question? In a kindergarten classroom, if you don't have engagement, you have chaos. With bells and whistles and tools, you can engage young learners who will do ANYTHING for a try at touching and interacting with technology. Each week we only have 30 minutes in our school computer lab and the kids are transfixed and focused; they try to read words and learn patterns just over their comfort level, and experiment with new sites and programs. It is a time in my week when every student is engaged.
I answered "student engagement" as my tweet answer and I was met with "How does a SMART board engage students?" I felt as if I had fallen into a trap. I decided to ponder my answer during my commute, got to school and answered: "in the K classroom it's all about "HOW" you use a tool; young students are very attracted to "cool" tools that they can touch". And as I had been driving to work I realized that I really need to think about my goals for my students and thoroughly evaluate which technologies would help me reach those goals. So I tweeted this: "In summary, I clearly need to explore options and think more critically about what I want; then write a proposal to get funded". I was not answered a reply at that point.

So what's my main point here? We need to discover the best tools out there and search for the means to get them in our classroom! Why?  So that we can keep our teaching relevant to kids, engaging and help them prepare for a changing world. I do believe that netbooks or other handheld tools would be great to have in class but  I disagree with some folks who say that interactive white boards are not engaging. Many highly effective teachers use the boards throughout their days, through whole class teaching as well as with small groups of kids who are highly engaged and motivated to learn. I would seek out all possible training and become a teacher who used the tool to open up her students' worlds and expose them to the many resources for learning.  If there are better tools, so be it. I am open minded and aware that I must stay educated and advocate for my kids.  I welcome the discussion that made me stop and think. But I did feel a bit like I had put my foot in my mouth..
What technology do you think a K-6 teacher shouldn't live without?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mindfulness is...

 In an attempt to describe mindful practice, these words come to mind: 

Mentally aware
How do these characteristics play out in daily life? By being mentally aware, I reduce the tempation to multi-task, which brain researcher Dr. John Medina in Brain Rules reports is not an efficient way to function. By practicing mindfulness, I gain insights by quieting my mind and listening to the ideas that move forward to my consciousness. Necessary refers to the power of an often neglected practice of quieting the mind for at least 5-10 minutes a day. Deep refers to the powerful meaning and insights gained during mindfulness practice. Fulfilling relates to the sense of meaning and purpose I experience when I reflect on my daily experience and how it relates to my overall mission in life. Underutilized corresponds to my perception that mindfulness is something that many ascribe to but don't follow through with, as our culture perpetuates such a busy mind and active life that it's difficult to stop, reduce the mental clutter and work on purposeful awarenss and action. Listening refers to listening to one's own heart as well as those around him/her.
Mindful living is not an easy feat in a stimulating, often chaotic world.  What  can you do today, to embrace mindfulness and experience its simple power?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I recently listened to Zen meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh's, The Art of Mindful Learning.   His quote: "Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful" is simple, yet very powerful. Yesterday,  I set out to smile more, to let go of the rambling worries that occupied my mind, and be more present with my students. I smiled in excitement and delight as a student identified letters he previously did not know. He stared at me for a split second, (as if he was wondering, Why is SHE so happy?) and burst out into a huge smile of his own, proud of his accomplishment. The smile might not seem like much at first glance, but it revealed a connection between us, this young boy working so hard to learn English, and me, working diligently each day to foster his belief that he can learn.
A smile can go beyond words and make a moment beautiful. Being fully present brings opportunities to find humor and joy in the everyday moments. I hope that today we can all just smile a bit more; our world needs the beauty.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Monday Morning Moment

Mondays, particularly the first Monday back to school after a vacation, can be a challenge to any teacher. (heck, it's a challenge for parents too, racing through the morning routines to get kids ready and to school before the bell rings!) As I survey the anxious feelings in my body: tense shoulders, butterflied stomach, and racing thoughts, I then think: How will the kids feel today? Did they lose sleep last night? Will they be ready to jump back into the routine?
My vow today is to be gentle and patient, with myself and with them. I want to enjoy the smiles as they greet me and each other. I will need to re-establish the safe, positive learning environment with a warm but firm command.  We have lots to learn today, but our first lesson is to be peacefully present.
What is your promise to yourself on this first Monday in January?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Moment in Nature: A Beautiful Sunset

I took advantage of the beautiful weather and ventured out to savor a sunset. I had been struggling today with anxiety over the return to school and realized that a dose of nature might help. The solution: completely free, uncomplicated and only took 30 minutes of the day. I focused on the crashing of the waves as the sun dipped serenely into the ocean.  And I was mindful: savoring the beauty of a sunset.
When was the last time you savored a moment in nature?

So, What is Mindfulness?

I think it's important to begin simply with the definition of what I am about to explore. According to one of my heroes in the area of mindfulness and meditation, Jon Kabat- Zinn:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
    On purpose, in the present moment, and
So what have I undertaken for myself, committing to a blog entry every day when I live a very busy life filled with teaching and tutoring. What was I thinking?
Being mindful only takes a shift of thought, a purposeful awareness to stop and think before and while acting. By committing to writing each day, I hope to train myself to stop and smell the flowers ( so cliché but so true!) and to be more in the moment when interacting with the precious 5 year olds I encounter each day. It only takes a moment of insensitivity to say or do something that threatens the trust you have been building with students.  I hope that this journey will lead me to more awareness and self-discipline in my work of building efficacy in young learners.  I also hope to inspire others to take some time to explore the value of incorporating more “mindful” moments in their daily lives.
What is one area you would like to improve in your life? Would increasing your "mindfulness" help you to achieve that goal? Please share!