Building on our strengths

When you get up in the morning, what are you excited about?  For most of us, the thing that gets us going in the morning is also the thing that drives us throughout the day.  It’s also typically something that we feel confident about, that we think we do well, and we enjoy doing.  Most importantly, that thing is also something we would identify as a strength.

I feel that often in education, we get drawn into thinking about weaknesses.  As a teacher, we have to identify weaknesses in our students in order to find ways to support their growth.  As an administrator, evaluations often include identifying weaknesses of the staff in our building, and planning to lead to future growth.  We get caught in a cycle of looking for the weaknesses around us.  If our strengths are the things that motivate us, isn’t it safe to assume that our learners would be motivated by their strengths?

A few years ago, as an ongoing activity throughout our unit on Ancient Rome, I provided students with a list of possible ways they could articulate learning.  These choices involved aspects of Roman society and culture.  I was amazed by the projects that students were able to create based on their strengths.  I had students designing roman outfits based on research because they were interested in style and design.  I had a student write a children’s picture book about the Roman Empire because they felt they were good writers and illustrators.  And probably my favorite, I had a student, Patrick, who had struggled all year long but designed and built a scale model of a Roman Aqueduct that was SPECTACULAR (it’s still in my office today) because he liked to build things.  While we were doing in class activities for learning, students were also researching for these projects.  They were able to select a project that fit their strength, and the results were amazing.  Having students present something that they had learned that also fit with their strengths was such a rewarding experience for me, and I’m sure led to a greater transfer of learning for each of them.  I would guarantee that none of them would be able to answer any of the questions we had on a summative exam, however I would also bet they could tell you about what they created for that project.

Knowing how strengths can motivate all of us reminds me to be on the lookout for strengths as I am walking the halls.  I am challenging myself to look for the strengths or everyone, and recognize those strengths!  I challenge you to do the same.

Be thinking about the data that you collect on students.  Don’t just look for patterns in terms of weaknesses.  Also look at the data that supports their strengths.  Give them the opportunity to build upon those strengths.  Most of our students will choose a career path based on their interests and passions.  Wouldn’t school be a better place if we gave our students the opportunity to accentuate their strengths?  I’m not saying we ignore areas where a student needs to grow, but I can tell you that all the time that my sophomore English teacher had me spend diagraming sentences is not what has led me to be a good writer, a good reader, or any of the other skills I have developed.  All it did was make me hate sophomore year English (sorry English teachers!).

Take a few moments in the coming days to seek out the positives in the students that are in your classroom.  Identify the things you see, and share it with your students.  See how they react to some strength-based feedback.

The bear trap analogy

Today I was sitting with a student who had a rough start to the day.  He had gotten himself into some trouble because of a poor choice he made in class.  We were talking about what happened, and instead of talking about the incident today, the student started sharing with me about an argument he had with his dad yesterday.  It was almost lunch time and this student’s frustration was not with anything that happened today.  It was an eye opener to me – here’s a kid who had been in our building for almost 3 hours.  He was angry about something that happened yesterday, but he hadn’t had a chance to process those feelings with anyone.

As we started talking about what happened over the weekend and how it related to his incident in class, this student came up with a brilliant analogy.  He shared a story about a picnic, and I’m going to try to recreate it here:

Imagine going on a picnic, you have your lunch set up, and then you realize that you left something you needed in the car.  You walk back to the car to get what you need, and when you return there’s a bear eating your picnic lunch.

So maybe the next time you go on a picnic, you set a bear trap to keep the bear away, but while you’re busy watching for the bear, a bird sneaks up, and tries to takes some of the food, but the bear trap chomps down on the bird.

Somet
Sometimes the bear isn’t really here at school.

The student shared with me that in this analogy, the picnic lunch represents the student’s peace of mind.  The bear represents the true thing that the student was truly upset about, for this student it was the anger about yesterday’s argument.  The bear trap represents the student’s anger – for this kiddo it’s set and ready to go off at any time.  The bird can represent that thing that happens here at school that sets off an angry student – it could be another student, it could be something a teacher says, it could be the bus driver, etc.

More often than not, the students who walk in with their bear trap set are not actually on edge because of things that are going on here at school.  Even though this student “went off” here at school, his bear wasn’t in this building.  Instead a bird managed to set him off.

None of us are able to read our students minds, so we can’t always know who it is that is walking around with anger bottled up inside, however we all know who it is in our class that often seems to be the one who does lose their temper.  These are the students that we need to be aware of at all times.  Make it a point to check in with your students who might be that bear trap just waiting to go off.  It seems like more often than not, these students who reach their breaking point do so right before or after a break – sometimes even just the break of a weekend.  It also seems that for most of these students, once they have a chance to talk, a chance to process, they are much more likely to hold it together for the rest of the day (or sometimes even longer).

If you have a student like this in your homeroom, seek them out, check in, build relationships, let them know that you care, and make sure that they know you are there for them.  If you aren’t able to connect with that kiddo, maybe there’s someone else who can – a teammate, another teacher, a counselor, or someone in the office.  We want these kiddos to feel like they have a trusted adult and a connection here at school.  If you find a student who seems to be ready to lose it, talk with them.  See if you can figure out what’s wrong, if they don’t want to talk to you, see if they would like to talk with that other trusted adult.  Keep looking for ways to support the struggling student.  Through these steps, you might be able to help protect the birds who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Have you ever had one of those moments with a student?  They are really upset about something beyond our control, but they reach their breaking point in your room.  What has worked well?  What hasn’t worked so well?  Share your experiences in the comments below.

Civil discourse

It’s a fact that we cannot control what happens every moment of our student’s lives.  We can’t prevent poor choices in the hallway, unkind statements in the lunchroom, or hurtful words on the bus.  However, we can try to right the ship in our own classrooms.

As a member of our building’s diversity team, this message came through loud and clear during a presentation at our most recent Diversity Coaches Meeting.  During this meeting, we spent an hour with Janet Chandler discussing the concept of Civil Discourse.  During the most recent presidential election cycle we saw endless attacks from various candidates, and many were not living up to the decorum that we might hope for from our elected officials.  The facts are that this type of climate has been in existence for a much longer period of time than just the past couple of years.

“A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams “a hideously hermaphroditical character.”  Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr “bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country,” an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.

Go through the nation’s history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval.” – Ann Gerhart (The Washington Post, In Today’s Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tounge?, October 11, 2009).

Although uncivil discourse has been a part of our history, with today’s world of 24-hour news, social media, and technology, the noise of the less than civil statements seems to be nonstop.  So what are we to do when that spills over into our classroom?  Here are some tips that I took away from our conversation last week, as well as a link to a great resource from Teaching Tolerance (the link will be at the bottom of this post).  These tips are in no particular order, but hopefully will provide you with some ideas about how to handle discussions that may be a little difficult within your classroom.

If not us, who?

maslows-hierarchy-of-needsIt would be easy to say that these conversations on civil discourse are not our responsibility, but the fact is, there are uncivil things being said in our school building.  We simply cannot have the attitude of “it’s not my problem.”  When we become aware of issues, we have a responsibility to step in.  I can’t recall, nor can I find, where I first heard this, but the quote “we’ve got to take care of the Maslow stuff before you can ever hope to get to the Blooms stuff” comes to mind.  Our students can’t learn without their basic needs being met!

Set the example, not just the expectations!

It’s easy to talk about expectations.  We can say again and again what we expect.  But if, even once, we slip up, some of our students may follow our lead on this.  In a civil discussion we use titles: Mister, Misses, or Miss; President; Senator; Representative, etc.  If we refer to people without those terms, we diminish their role.  Just looking at my Facebook feed in the past couple of weeks, there have been a lot of people who aren’t using titles.  I’ve had people tell me that they won’t use certain titles because of a lack of respect in a person.  Isn’t that part of the issue here?  If you then read through Facebook comments on political posts, you see less than civil statements being made.  When you use a title, you add a level of civility and respect.  By modeling civility in your classroom discussions, you will help your students understand what that looks and sounds like.  Remember – kids act in a way they they see the adults in their lives behaving.  Modeling civil discourse will help lead to more civil conversations in the hallways.

Facts vs. Alternative Facts

I’ve referred to social media a couple of times, and I’m going to do so once again.  No matter your political beliefs, your party affiliation, etc., I think that any of us who have been on Facebook can agree that there are some outrageous statements being made.  The phrase fake news and alternative facts has become something of a joke.  Earlier this school year I posted a blog titled “Finding the author’s purpose” (if you want to go back to it, click here: http://wp.me/p6BRrr-6J).  In this post, I reminded you of the definition of nonfiction that Beers & Probst used in their book Reading Nonfiction:

“Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.” (emphasis added)

In that post, I went on to encourage you to teach our students to have a questioning stance when reading nonfiction.  Every author has a purpose in what they have written – sometimes that purpose is not simply to inform.  Facts can be twisted and manipulated to support either side of the political spectrum, and social media is one of the most likely places to see this play out.  More often than not, the articles with the most extreme language seem to be coming from sites that are extremely liberal or conservative, or from sites you’ve never heard of before.

One important piece of a civil discussion is that it has to be based in fact (I could probably do a full post on the definition of the word fact…).  If you are having a civil discussion and someone shares a “fact” that is truly extreme, or is something that is not agreed on by most in the class, it’s time to talk about the idea of triangulating sources – can we find that fact from more than one source?  Do most people agree on this fact?  These conversations are so important because as Beers & Probst remind us that there is a greater purpose to teaching our kids the nonfiction signposts:

“Far more important than the ability to capture a teacher’s information and thoughts is the ability to acquire information on ones’ own, to test ideas against one another, and to decide for one’s self what notions have merit and which should be rejected or abandoned.”

If you read through the Teaching Tolerance link at the bottom, you’ll find a whole section on the three parts of an argument.  Here’s a quick breakdown:

  1. Assertion – The simple statement that is the basis or main point of the argument.
  2. Reasoning – This is the because part of an argument.
  3. Evidence – This is where you truly back your argument.  This may include statements from experts, statistics, data, or other research that supports you assertion and reasoning.

If you’re trying to have a civil conversation, encourage your students to include all three of these parts of an argument.  If you’d like more info on this, it can be found in Teaching Tolerance link below.

Respect

Probably the most important reason to work with our students on the concept of civil discourse is simply the idea of respect.  We are all entitled to our opinions, and we are all allowed to disagree with one another, but we have to make sure that these conversations are happening respectfully.  Our students need help to learn that it’s okay to agree to disagree.  Again, we can’t control what happens everywhere for our students, but we can do our best to make things right once they come in to our classrooms.

What experiences have you had in working with your students on civil discourse?  What has worked well?  What hasn’t?  Does the idea of having conversations like this in the classroom simply freak you out?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.  We can all learn from one another!

http://www.tolerance.org/publication/civil-discourse-classroom

We can all be a mentor

In last week’s post I shared with you a bit about the concept that language matters.  The words we use in our classroom have such a way of showing our students what we value.  But words can matter in so many more ways.  Who knows what words you might say in your classroom, in the hallway, in the lunchroom, or at recess that might resonate with a student for the rest of their life.

ted-logoI’ve shared with you before that I love the NPR Show titled TED Radio Hour.  It’s great as a podcast because I can download it to my phone and listen whenever I have a chance.  If you have never heard of the TED Radio Hour, each episode has a common theme, and portions of various talks are shared that fit into that theme.  The host, Guy Raz, also inserts portions of interviews with the speaker.  I was listening to the most recent episode, titled “A Hero’s Journey,” while I was on a run.  One of the Talks resonated with me as an educator and a mentor, so I wanted to share the story with you here.

This portion of the show is from a TED Talk by Jarrett Krosoczka, a children’s author.  He went through a difficult childhood, being adopted by his grandparents when he was 3, having a mother who would come in and out of his life, and a father that he did not meet until he was 17.  He had a couple of mentors who made major impacts in his life, and some were through such simple acts.  When you have a chance, listen to this section of the episode.

Follow the first link below to listen to the story.  I have also included a link to the full episode (the second link), if you’d like to hear more about the topic of “A Hero’s Journey.”  On the TED Radio Hour page, you can also find links to the full TED Talk of each person featured on the show.  Enjoy!

How Can Mentors Turn An Uncertain Journey Into A Heroic One?

Here’s the full episode:

http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/458496650/the-heros-journey?showDate=2017-01-06

How do you use words to be a mentor to your students?  Are there kids that you’ve seen make a major change just by the words that we use to help motivate them?  Share your experiences in the comments below!

How do we respond to student behaviors?

In last week’s post we discussed the role of trauma in student behaviors we see.  Each one of us can think of one or two students who manage to get under our skin and push our buttons.  What we have to remember is that for some of these students, they are acting out due to something that we cannot control – they have been through some type of trauma in their life.  It leads to behaviors we don’t understand, and that makes it difficult for us to respond in the appropriate way.  The goal of this post is to think carefully about how we respond to those students so that we are intervening in a way that offers support.

Imagine for a moment that you were to look up from your computer right now, and see this:

Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?
Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?

What would you do?  How would you react?

For our students who have been impacted by trauma, every adult that they meet is a bear like the one you see above.  That includes their teachers!  For these students, they are constantly watching for the dangerous bear.  They may not be able to interpret an innocent or neutral look, action, or touch from their teacher or others at school as being benign.  The brains of our traumatized youth lose the ability to understand the difference between safety and danger, and will falsely signal danger and hostility EVERYWHERE.  As a result, these students behave in ways that are not considered appropriate in the normal school environment.  They lack the language skills to be able to describe how they feel, so they act out in ways that we might describe as reactive, impulsive, aggressive, withdrawn, or defiant.  These challenging behaviors have become coping skills that help them survive in abusive or neglectful situations.  Remember from last week’s post, children who have dealt with trauma are living with their focus on the survival portion of the brain (fight, flight, or fright).  Since all of life is about survival for these students, they generalize the behavior to all other environments – even school where we think they should feel safe.

So when students are acting out, especially students that we believe (or possibly even know) have lived through one of the traumas addressed last week, we need to shift our perspective in how we react.  Oftentimes we see this behavior as willfully acting out or disrupting class, or consciously refusing to engage with learning.  Instead, we need to see that:

  1. These responses are based on personal experiences
  2. Students are seeking to meet their needs
  3. They have difficulty regulating emotions
  4. They lack some of the important skills to be successful in school
  5. They believe that adults cannot be trusted

troubled-childrenWe need to put into place supports and other interventions to address these issues.  Instead of seeing the behavior and asking (or even thinking) “What’s wrong with you?” we need to shift our mindset to “What happened and how can I help?”  In order to be sensitive to trauma, we must recognize the prevalence and impact of trauma in our students’ lives and create a framework that provides support, is sensitive to the unique needs of students, and is mindful of avoiding re-traumatization.  I’m sure that some of you are looking now for a list of exactly what to do in each situation.  It doesn’t exist.  Each child is different, their needs are different.  You must take the time to offer your support, your help, and let these children know that you truly care for them.  You do this through paraverbals (tone of voice, body language, volume, and cadence of speech).  Deliberately slow your speech, soften your voice, choose a kind tone, and be supportive of the student.  Students who feel supported are more likely to feel safe.

I think we can all agree that when students feel safe, they are more likely to act in ways that are safe, so how can we support that?  First, we need to ask ourselves if the student is fearful, anxious, frustrated, or tense.  Next, our responses to inappropriate behaviors need to be predictable, and our students who struggle need to have an agreed upon safe haven (maybe the resource room, maybe the counselor’s office, maybe with another teacher) where they can go to work through their complex emotions.  Finally, when that student is ready to return to class, we must find an opportunity to rebuild rapport with that student (this step is quite possibly the MOST important in helping students to feel supported).  Continue to let them know you care, and that you are here to help.  Ask them to let you know how you can help.  They may not have an answer today or tomorrow, but eventually they may have an idea that will support them.  We also have to remember – for students to behave appropriately, we must model and teach the behavior we want to see (this is not the same as telling students what we expect).

In order to help students feel connected in schools, we should work hard to build relationships – especially with the students who struggle the most.  Greet each student at the door of your classroom every day.  Be aware of your student’s likes and interests (these can be used as a distraction in times of crisis).  As I’ve said before, know your kids and love them for who they are.

While we can’t protect our students from all the evils of the world, we can be allies, mentors, and role models.  The relationships we build with our students will help them as they grow, recover, and begin to heal from their trauma.

What experiences have you had with students who have been through trauma?  Have you found strategies that seem to be successful?  Let us know what has worked for you in the comments below.

 

The role of trauma in student behavior

We’ve all been there, you’re in the middle of class, things seem to be going well, and then you notice what one student is doing.  Maybe they have completely shut down, maybe they are talking to a neighbor, or maybe they are acting out in some way that draws the attention of other students from the current activity to the student who is misbehaving.  The natural (and often simplest) reaction is to redirect, sign a behavior card, raise our voice, or maybe even submit an office referral.

In my personal opinion, a lot of the time that acting out behavior stems from something that has absolutely nothing to do with you, your class, or the students in your classroom, but from something that we as teachers have no influence over.

A couple days ago, I was at a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) training with several other members of the PBIS team in my school, as well as some of the other PBIS teams in our district.  We spent a portion of time discussing the role that trauma plays in student behavior and learning.  So, as a working definition, here is how we’re going to define trauma for this post:

Trauma refers to extreme or chronic stress that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and results in feeling vulnerable, helpless, and afraid.  The event(s) that led to trauma may be witnessed or experienced directly.  Trauma often interferes with relationships, self-regulation, and fundamental beliefs about oneself, others, and one’s place in the world.

the-hurt-that-troubled-children-create-is-never-greater-than-the-hurt-they-feelTrauma can occur from lots of different things – there is simple trauma (serious accident, disaster, one-time physical assault); complex/developmental trauma (witness domestic violence, death of a parent / caretaker, ongoing physical or emotional abuse, ongoing neglect, homelessness, living with family members with untreated mental illness or substance abuse, or having a family member deployed in the military); and finally historical / generational trauma.  Children who have been through traumas like those listed above can have various levels of stress, but those who are living with high levels of stress spend much of their life in the fight, flight, or fright mode.  These children respond to the world as a place of constant fear.

All this stress leads to issues with brain functions and development, and make it very difficult for students to focus on learning.  Oftentimes these students fall behind in school; fail to develop healthy relationships with peers; and/or create problems in classrooms and at school because they are unable to trust adults.

So now that we know a little about where this trauma and stress comes from, we need to examine what it may look like in the classroom.  Let’s first look at the development of the brain.  For typical children, who do not have toxic levels of stress in their lives, they are able to spend very little of their time focused on survival, and as a result are able to spend much more of their time devoted to cognition and social-emotional functions.  For the children who have experienced developmental trauma, the majority of the brain’s attention is focused on survival skills (the fight, flight, or fright reactions), which means there is little time or energy to devote to cognition or the social-emotional functions.

When students have experienced trauma, you may notice some of the following traits:

  • Day dreaming
  • Impaired social & emotional function
  • Difficulty retaining information
  • Labeled as learning disabled
  • Can sit in classroom and not learn
  • Less mature problem solving
  • Use violence as a tool
  • Feel the need to control their environment

These traits can lead to various effects on learning, including the ability to: acquire language & communication skills; understand cause and effect; take another’s perspective; attend to classroom instruction; regulate emotions; engage in the curriculum; and utilize executive function (make plans, organize work, follow classroom rules).

So now we’ve talked a bit about what trauma is, what may have caused trauma in our students, and some of the traits that may happen as a result.  Next week we will look at how our responses can play a role in student behavior, especially those who have experienced some form of trauma in their lives.

In the comments below share your thoughts on this topic.  Have you had experiences working with students who have lived through trauma?  What worked?  What didn’t work?

What our students see

Today I was walking the around our school thinking about the fact that in less than 2 weeks the halls will be full of almost a thousand 5th and 6th grade students.  Many of the classrooms that I walk past are still in various stages of preparation for all of those students.  Thinking about those students got me excited!  But as I walked through the halls today, I tried to look around with a different perspective.  Instead of walking around with the eyes of an adult, an educator, or an administrator, I tried to look around and see what our students might notice.  What do the things that are posted on the walls say to the 10, 11, and 12 year old students who will be walking these halls?

Many times as educators, we put things up in the hallway or our classroom because we like them.  We might intend to share something of ourselves with a student, we might intend to be funny, or we might intend to set up expectations that we have for our class and our students.  Unfortunately, our students can’t read our mind and know our intentions.  Sometimes your students may see that sign that you think is setting expectations, and instead see it as harsh, judgmental, or possibly even confrontational.  Think about what you have hanging up both outside and inside your classroom. How will it make your students feel when they walk into the room?  Are they going to feel welcome, or are they going to feel intimidated?  Does your room encourage them to be a part of the learning process, or does your room discourage their participation?

From The Thinker Builder: http://www.thethinkerbuilder.com/
From The Thinker Builder: http://www.thethinkerbuilder.com/

I saw a recent post on the blog The Thinker Builder that had a pretty cool idea (at least I thought so).  Instead of covering his bulletin boards with amazing decorations to set up a classroom, the author begins his year with a blank bulletin board and puts a reserved sign on it (I have a screenshot of the sign to the right).  If you’d like to see his post, or be able to download the sign, check out this post – “Reserved” Signs: A Bulletin Board Stress Reliever.  What does a sign like this say to the students and parents that walk into your room?  To me, it shows that you value the thoughts and opinions of the students who will be in your classroom.

Remember, your students will notice what you have posted on the walls both inside and outside of your classroom before you have said one word to them.  Based on what they notice, they are going to form opinions about you.  They will create expectations about what this school year is going to be like.  They will also decide whether they feel that the classroom is a place that they are safe to express themselves and become part of the learning community.

One of my takeaways from the book Mindset by Carol Dweck was that a person’s environment can play a role in what mindset they take.  Posters that use terms that make us think in a fixed way, or make us think that we don’t have any choice or control will generally lead us to behave in a manner that shows a fixed mindset.  On the other hand, things we display that show phrases that encourage a growth mindset will lead us to behave in a manner that shows a growth mindset.

Kids Deserve ItThis year, as you are preparing your classroom, take a few moments to take stock of what kids will see in the hallway outside of your room, as well as when they walk into your room.  Do the words on those posters have a positive connotation, or are they negative?  Are they giving your students an idea of what they will be doing, or of what they will not be allowed to do?  We only get one chance to make a first impression!  Make sure that the impression that you make sets the students up for their best possible year!

Continue the conversation in the comments below.  What are some things you are planning to do to help your students feel welcome in your classroom?  How will they know that they are a valued member of the learning community?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!