Friday, November 22, 2013

Building a Village #SAVMP

As teachers, we cannot educate our kids alone. I am often awed when I think about how limited my own experiences are, and how important it is to bring varying points of view into my own students' learning. My students and I are lucky to be surrounded by such a diverse population within our school and community.

One of our greatest resources is the wide-range of perspectives our parents can bring to our school community. As a middle school teacher, it isn't often we get parent volunteers in our classrooms, as this is often mortifying for our adolescents. But, our school is really great at engaging parents outside of the classroom.

Last week we hosted two major events that attracted a lot of parents. The first, our annual Reading Night, invited parents to learn about reading strategies they could use at home with their children. This was completely organized by rum teachers, but the students were really at the center of the event. The teachers and students worked with parents to guide them through fun and powerful fluency-building activities that could be used at home.

For the middle school portion of this evening, we have four times as many students as parents for the session. The students demonstrated our readers theater and repeated reading strategies. They answered parent questions and guided them through the lessons. It was amazing to see our students engage with adults with such confidence.
PPPCS Reading Night
Two days later we hosted our school's first ever Astronomy Night. This event was very special because it was nurtured out of our FedEx Professional Development Day. Our science teacher, and novice astronomer, wanted to marry his passion for space and our schools amazing Sky Lab open roof-top space. Thus, Astronomy Night was born.

This event attracted enough people to completely fill our science lab. For two hours parents and children rotated through the never-dying line to look at the moon through a telescope. Many people there told me this was the first time they had looked at anything in the night's sky through a telescope. Children and adults alike were in awe of the power of both technology and our natural universe.

PPPCS Astronomy Night
At a time in history when we have more information and resources available than ever before, we need not overlook the power that comes from gathering a community together. Parents are the most powerful force in our students lives. They love them more than we will ever be able to, so we must partner with them to help foster experiences and growth in our kids. We must help grow our parents through new experiences, support them in learning, and guide them in helping our students in all areas of life.

How are we encouraging parents to grow alongside their children? How do we empower our parents to be a connected resource for our school community? How we provide opportunities for our village to build an unshakable foundation in the vision of supporting our students? If your school lacks parental involvement, how do you tap into your parents' collective passions to build a village and strengthen learning?

As we move into the holiday season, remember that parents often need support and encouragement just as much as our students. Offering opportunities to bring parents together, build community, and connect people can have an intense impact on the work we all do with our kids. Remember that a kind word, a short note, and smile and invitation to be part of something bigger can provide opportunities to cement a foundation of strength for our families.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thinning the Walls of Our Hearts

It is almost inconceivable when I think about the uniqueness of my school. Our story, our growth, our mission, every person involved in growing our kids. Every aspect of Patterson Park Public Charter School is deeply rooted in what is best for our students and the community we serve. At the foundation of this is the belief in educating the whole child. The heart and soul of what we do surrounds a mission that strives to reach the emotional, academic, physical, and creative needs of our children. I cannot imagine working towards a greater mission for my students.

Last week I traveled to Philadelphia with our 8th graders. The expectation is that our grade-level teams plan at least one thematically-connected field each quarter for our students. Needless to say, we take field trips pretty seriously around PPPCS. So, we packed the kids up onto the bus at 6am and headed across state lines. 

It felt good, traveling with my students and being out of the building. Field trips are always fun, but something about this trip felt different. This particular trip involved a much smaller group of students, just half of the 8th grade class, which equalled about 24 kids. It was also a trip that correlated with social studies content, as we were walking in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers that day. Thematically, the trip addressed our first quarter theme of "Breaking Traditions," but I was a little out of my elements. I felt excited to learn right along with my students. 

What I learned during this trip was not just content, it was experiential and it was powerful.

As we smoothly road along to Philly, we threw a movie and the kids immediately settled in. Some watching the screens, some listening to music, others quietly having discussions with friends. The bus was almost silent. Anyone that has ever been on a bus with twenty-four 8th graders can attest to the strangeness of the situation I am describing. It was calm, peaceful, and we road in ease.

At we moved out of Maryland, the sun began to rise. Crossing a large bridge, the sunrise beamed into the bus. I quickly grabbed my phone to snap a picture of the beautiful scene. As I turned to share my love for this sight with the kids, I saw something striking- we were all doing the same thing. The kids had grabbed their phones and were taking pictures of the scene in front of them. I felt so connected my students sharing this moment and reaction to beauty. 

As we made our way through Philly, we had so much to do and see. It was an action packed day. Our social studies teacher was thoughtful and strategic in his planning for us. We viewed the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Constitution Hall, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, in addition to some guided tours. We got to explore our country's powerful and foundational history, that which our freedom's rest upon. It was a great day of learning.

In reflecting upon this trip, though, it felt deeper than all those things mentioned above. It felt stronger and more meaningful. For me, I was a learner among learner on this trip. I smiles, laughed, and complained right along with the kids. At one point during the trip, we sat through a lesson about archaeology. I was very in tune to my students and my own habits throughout the presentation. When the kids were excited and engaged, so was I. When the content was a little too heavy, we felt bored. When a student cracked a joke at something the presenter said, I'm pretty sure I laughed the loudest and was the most disruptive. 

I am just like my students. I learn like them. I am amazed like them. I am bored like them. I am hungry when they get hungry. We laugh at the same things and find beauty in the same places.

When I allow myself to collide with my students, breaking down barriers created by knowing everything and I take an attitude of a learner, I discovered more about myself than I ever expected. When we experience the world together, we experience connections that did not exist before. I was always the trusted adult on that trip, I guided and led the way. Even then, a few key kids were better at directions than me and made sure we really went the right way. 

I came away from this trip with such an immense respect for my students and colleagues. We engaged in an experience that allowed me to trust and embrace others' strengths, see so much beauty, and learn more about myself and others.

How are we allowing ourselves and our students to learn about the world around us? What experiences are we giving our students, and are we fully engaging in them ourselves? What are our students teaching us? What can we learn from them? Are we leaving our own isolated world of the classroom often enough to be stunned by the beauty that surrounds us? What are we learning to learn?

Moving forward, I will remember that the experience is more important than the answers. The feelings are more important than the content. Our actions together lead to greater understanding, trust, and connections based upon our individual needs and strength. I will strive to thin the walls of not only my classroom, but my heart. When my heart is open is when the real learning happens. Let's open our hearts together and discover a deeper truth about ourselves and our world.

Monday, November 4, 2013

When Devastation and Hope Collide

(Photo by Richard Shaw)
At times, we all struggle. The weight of our combined responsibilities and expectations can seem too much. The thought of completing even the simplest tasks can be daunting. We feel sensitive and take things way too personally. Everyone around us appears to be gliding through life with great ease, while we are floundering to keep our noses above the waterline. At times, life is just tough.

These scenarios can apply to anyone. The smiling teacher next door or the students we teach. Sometimes, the struggle is obvious and shines like a naked light bulb in an empty room. Other times, the situations are more hidden, illusive, even unknown to the people around us. The scariest can be when you realize someone has been struggling for miles, right in front of you on the same journey, yet you were blind to their pain.

As the days get shorter and darker, as winter creeps in and the air is cold, I am reminded that people are not always as they seem. There is very real pain that lies within many of us, pain that we often do not reveal easily or willingly. For our students, it often bubbles to the surface through undesirable behaviors that are dealt with in frustration and consequences, all devoid of hope.

How do we recognize this pain? How do we help? What hope can we bring to those that feel deep, personal devastation, even if it is fleeting? Do we stop when we think someone isn't acting like themself and take a moment to offer a partner in exploring the hope that lies at the end of each of our struggles? Or, do we busy through the day only worried about ourselves and our own lives?

Let us not forgot the hope that the human connection brings. Being in tune to the feelings, emotions, and actions of those in your care, and those you care about, can be the most powerful hope you can offer. A moment to check-in, say hello, look deeply into another's face and search for their feelings at that moment. A moment to offer your attention to explore and listen if there is something more to be expressed.

As we move into this holiday season, a time that may bring more pain than joy for some of our families and friends, I will take time to observe fully and acknowledge openly the feelings of others. I will try, in moments of my struggle, to find the place where devastation and hope collide, crash together, bring light into the darkness. I challenge you to be this light in another's life, and to accept the light of others when you feel such darkness. Because together we can do that which we cannot do alone.