Friday, January 9, 2015

Healthy Striving

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.
~Maya Angelou

In my seventeen years of teaching, I have had partners and colleagues who have mentored me every step of the way. Many have become dear friends. One thing they all have in common is that they are constantly striving for professional excellence.

I recently finished an outstanding book that is making me consider the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism. In The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, BrenĂ© Brown says that healthy striving is self-focused, whereas perfectionism is other-focused. Healthy striving asks, “How can I improve?” Perfectionism asks, “What will others think?” She goes so far as to say that perfectionism hampers success.

And I think that perfectionism not only hampers success, but robs us of pleasure, because we can never measure up to impossible standards. However, if we are striving in a healthy way, there will be something inherently joyful in the journey, and we’ll discover that we like ourselves, like what we do, and indeed, even like how we do it. I think that may be the intangible characteristic so many of my friends and colleagues possess. They reflect often, celebrate success, and adjust as necessary. As I strive to improve in my own practice, I will look to yet another trait they model so proficiently, and endeavor to focus my efforts on this kind of healthy striving.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What's the Score?

Words with Friends is an app on my phone. I rarely look at the score, but when I do, especially when playing my friend who teaches high school English, I inevitably see that I am getting crushed (see photo). If I ever get serious about winning, it will require looking at the score more often and a shift from making random moves to making strategic moves.

I recently met a wonderful group of educators who shared the joys and struggles they are experiencing in their role as coaches. One of their biggest challenges is conveying to some of their teachers the importance of one-on-one conferring. They confessed to feeling dismay when they walk past certain classroom doors time after time and see students working independently while teachers sit behind their desks.

It occurred to me that those teachers are working a bit like I play Words with Friends, but unlike my game, which isn’t really important, they are missing out on critical opportunities to help children win. Our students come to us at different stages with differing needs, and they need different kinds of teaching to accelerate their growth. One-on-one conferring is like checking to see what the score is. When we hunker next to a child, providing undivided attention and individualized instruction, we can make strategic moves that will optimize every speck of their learning potential.

If one-on-one conferring is out of your comfort zone, may I encourage you to consider its benefits for you and your students? One-on-one conferring provides an opportunity to
  • build relationships by giving children our deserved and undivided attention;
  • notice and name individual strengths;
  • differentiate, set goals, monitor progress, and establish next steps; and
  • collect essential data points.
If we want to be focused and intentional, it is important that we establish a system whereby we can keep track of
  • student strengths and areas of need, 
  • the instruction we delivered, 
  • data to monitor progress, and
  • a list of possible next steps.  
For me, a conferring notebook is the easiest and most efficient way to do this.

Finally, if you would benefit from some personalized professional development in the area of one-on-one conferring, there are great books that can help. Just type one-on-one conferring into the Amazon search bar and you can read the synopses and reviews of many of my favorites. And if you are fortunate enough to have a good coach in your building, ask him or her to partner with you. Once you experience the benefits, you’ll want to make use of every moment that students are working independently to talk with them one-on-one.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Second Impressions

The guy who was going to install our new carpet was two hours late. No phone call. No e-mail. Just late.

I hadn't met him yet. When he finally arrived, I opened the door and saw a, tough-looking, tall man with a shaved head and a tattoo on each arm. My first impression wasn't very good, but it didn't last very long. He was quite apologetic, explaining that a mission to find a Hello Kitty backpack for his five-year-old daughter, who had lost hers the day before, had detained him. It had taken longer than he'd thought it would, because he'd had to keep sending photos of potential possibilities home before he found a replacement she would accept.

The saying You can't judge a book by it's cover never felt more relevant. I ended up loving the burly installer, and even asked my husband to take a photo of the two of us when the job was complete.

It occurred to me that a lesson on first impressions and second chances might be one we need to teach our students about good-fit books—especially when I consider that three of my all-time favorite books do not have covers that would have ever induced me to pick them up and devour the cherished contents.

So perhaps we should browse our book tubs for treasures that are steadily ignored and undiscovered because of their covers. We can do book talks, private recommendations, and have students share books with one another that are worth a second-impression chance.

What undiscovered treasures are in your tubs?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Corn Fields


It is fairly difficult to play I Spy on a road trip in Iowa. I was recently amazed as hours and hours went by and the view out the car windows remained the same; enormous fields of corn, with the sporadic exception of a soybean field here and there. I will never see corn again without thinking of Iowa.

The purpose of the trip was to spend time with teachers in Iowa and our Daily 5 and CAFE workshops in Illinois. It was a joyful time. As Gail, Joan, Allison, and I got to know passionate, devoted educators, I couldn’t help but notice the delightful things that made each one unique.

Lisa Wilkins promises to keep her mini-lessons mini, so she wears Minnie Mouse ears when she delivers her focus lessons.


Jessica Hellberg has an infectious laugh and a deep level of appreciation for students. It was obvious in every interaction we witnessed that her students feel deeply valued by her.

When Karen Shannon reads to her students, they feel like they are in the book. She provides a variety of seating options because she believes her students should be comfortable.

Like the fields of corn that make Iowa memorable, it is the things that make us unique that our students will remember long after they leave us.

I recently ran into one of my former first graders who is now a college student. She remembered that I pulled her tooth and the teeth of others in the school, especially when parents sent notes begging me to remove the dangling pearls.

My mother recently heard from a student she had 46 years ago. “Dear Mrs. Smedley, you were a great instrument in my life. When I landed in your classroom a short while after the death of my sister, you read to us every day. During that time, a miraculous healing was taking place in my heart and your reading was a great time of comfort. Thank you. Thank you.”

What is it about the landscape of your classroom, the unique way you teach, or your personal characteristics that will take your students back to a place and time many years from now? Preparing students for high-stakes tests and working hard to make sure they all meet rigorous standards is important. But we shouldn't underestimate the wonder and power of the things that make us unique. They are our rows of corn. We need to cherish them, embrace them, and let them shine.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Something Completely Different

We were on our way to the grocery store when my son, who was very young at the time, yelled, “To! To!” Initial panic calmed when my brain registered that we don’t yell “To! To!” in an emergency, so it must be something else. It turns out he was elated to recognize the word to on the sign Photos to Go, a local business. It was the day he became a reader, so we’ve always felt a special affection for the business.

We popped in from time to time to drop off film, visiting with Chung Kim, the owner. For 15 years, Mr. Kim carefully processed and preserved innumerable faces, places, and memories for his customers.

With the birth of digital photography and its increasing popularity, his business dwindled to nearly nothing. Though we no longer dropped off rolls of film, we’d wave as we walked by. Then one day, the monstrous processing equipment was gone and the doors were closed.

A couple of months later, a shiny new Baskin-Robbins ice cream store took its place. And behind the counter was Mr. Kim! Instead of preserving memories, he has spent the past seven years serving up sweet treats, rain or shine.



I can’t help but admire Mr. Kim and think about what we can learn from his example. As educators, we often reflect on our lessons and practice, refining the good to make it great. Standards and stakes are so high though, that we need to be brutally honest as we evaluate what we do and realize that if something is no longer working, we may need to start from scratch and try something completely different. The result may be just as sweet.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Too Good to Be True

Once in a while as I was growing up, my father told me that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Although I believed him completely, I have succumbed to powerful sales pitches only to be disappointed that the pounds did not, in fact, fall off, and though I followed the directions in detail, my hair did not radiate with glossy shine. Years ago, when I saw a commercial for an automatic shower cleaner, my father’s still, small voice whispered in my mind, but I swiftly pushed it aside, trusting that I would never again have to clean soap scum because of the glory of scrubbing bubbles.

I’m not sure if that press-a-button-once-a-day product is available anymore, but what I do know is that the only scrubbing bubble that really works is myself (and since the magic diet pill didn’t work, bubble isn't too far from the right term here). A textured sponge and effort is required if our shower is to meet the standard of cleanliness we want to live with.

Likewise, there isn’t one program we can spray at our students and expect them to all meet standard. There just isn’t. So we shouldn’t get our hopes up. And any program that is being lauded as such right now won’t even be available in a few years because the early adopters will quickly realize, yet again, that the only things that really work are the right tools and effort.

The right tools include
  • books—lots and lots of them, for a wide variety of interests and abilities, and
  • assessments—not just any assessments, but great diagnostic assessments that truly inform our instruction.
The right effort includes
  • instruction—providing focused, intentional instruction that is directly related to the needs of the children in front of us, and
  • time—for students to read and for us to confer.
It sounds simple, and in a sense, it is. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t magic, and it isn’t too good to be true. It’s just true.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Teacher Tuck-In

One of the things I love to donate to our school carnival is a Teacher Tuck-In. I got the idea years ago from Joan Moser, and like any good teacher, stole it for myself.


The idea is that the winner of the auction or raffle, whichever the case may be, receives a home visit from me, in my pajamas, with cocoa, cookies, and good books in hand. After a snack, we curl up for bedtime stories (which I leave with the family when we are done). It is ridiculously fun.

It is usually won by a beloved first or second grader, but this year a former student slipped her raffle tickets into my Teacher Tuck-In drawing, hoping to win. Much to her surprise and mine, her name was drawn.

I laughed when her mom called to figure out a time that would work for both of us. We had to work around soccer and driver's ed!  

Realizing my favorite picture books weren’t going to work this time, I headed to Barnes and Noble for a couple of my favorite chapter books.

When the day arrived, it was uncharacteristically warm (90 degrees and sunny instead of cold and rainy), so cocoa wouldn’t do. We started with ice cream bars, a great catching-up visit, and then curled up on the couch to read the first chapter of both of the books I had brought. What fun.

The point is that reading aloud is magic. So no matter how busy we are, no matter what classroom pressures and time constraints we face, we must make reading aloud to our students one of our priorities. It has the power to turn ordinary children into book lovers. It is so magical, in fact, that our students may still want to hear us read years after they have left our classrooms.