Be Brave on The Road Less Traveled

“Take the road less traveled”

“Go against the grain”

“March to the beat of your own drummer”


These quotes seem so exciting and invigorating!  Just reading them aloud gets me fired up to change the world!  But, then I think about actually going against the grain in practice;  Actually travelling an uncommonly travelled path in my own organization; Actually adopting innovative practices and thought patterns.  Hmm..  Suddenly innovating in education (a profession characterized by policy, regulations, and deep tradition) becomes easier said than done.

True learning (the kind defined by new thought patterns and connections), takes more than fancy language and reciting inspiring quotes.  True innovation takes bravery.   It takes courage to step out of our comfort zones and truly take the risks that are needed to innovate our mindsets and shift our practices.

Part of this shift involves modelling not only mistake making, but also the thought processes associated with allowing oneself to be in a space where mistakes are not only okay, but encouraged.  For us educators, this takes embracing mistake and error in both our students and ourselves.  It is about cultivating a culture where ‘not-yetness’ (@amcollier) is welcomed.

Learning is about making connections across content areas and experiences (@joboaler).  For rich connections to be made, students must be given the opportunity to take learning wherever it leads.  The connections students make in their minds, and the meaning that they build based on these connections, will be unique for each student.  Therefore, teachers need to create an environment where it is possible for students to personalize these connection pathways.  Actually doing this in the classroom will mean letting go of some of the control, and not having a full sense of exactly where each lesson will lead.  Lesson plans will need empty space- space left to filled by students.  If we choose not to allow for these unique learning pathways – if we choose to stay the course, consistently carving the learning paths for our students,  not only will they fail to make their own personalized connections, but the level of learning that occurs in our classrooms will never surpass that of our own understanding.  As @katiemartinedu said so eloquently in #IMMOOC Season 3, Session 1: “If we (as teachers) have to have all the answers – how are we ever going to allow kids to surpass us and do better than what we currently know?”  Isn’t the goal for our students to exceed what we have planned for them – to surpass the constraints of our own thoughts?

Facilitating this environment means being able to be innovative, even in systems governed by policy, regulation, and tradition. Educators must innovate inside the box we are given- being brave enough to step out of our comfort zones to advocate for putting students at the center of teaching and learning. This won’t be comfortable.  It will mean carving a new path that challenges the more commonly traveled path of tradition (think: “timed math tests are common in my school”, “homework is mandatory in my district”, “I have to follow the textbook exactly”).  It means facing adversity and seeing disagreement as an opportunity to push the discussion forward, challenge our own thinking, and build new schemas. Then, and only then, will be truly be modeling for students what it means to take risks in learning.


Open House Remix

Tonight I attended Open House at my son’s elementary school – the very school where I spent much of my teaching career.  Leaving the school grounds, I was reminded how exhausted I always was at the end of nights like these when, after days of planning and anticipation, the last of the families finally left (toddlers and balloons in tow) and another Open House was successfully in the books.   Early in my career, I would fret about nights like tonight – the nervous anticipation of meeting families building as I washed desks, organized and rearranged furniture, printed colorful sign up sheets, and carefully selected the perfect student work samples to display.

It wasn’t until tonight, as I walked through the building where I had spent a decade welcoming parents into my own fourth grade classroom, that I realized that I just may have had my Open House planning all wrong.    I’ve spent the last few hours thinking – As an educator, and as the mom of a spunky, animal loving, first grader, – what exactly is it that I would like to see tonight?  What would show me that my boy’s days are spent in an environment where he is valued and loved?  What might demonstrate that his learning environment is one that fosters differences, creativity, and flexibility?  What could I find within these classroom walls to illustrate that he is asked to try and fail, think and rethink?

I’m afraid that the answers to these questions aren’t found in neatly stacked textbooks or colorful name tagged cubbies.  No, you’ll have to go much deeper into the messiness to find the makings of the true, meaningful learning experiences that I would like a glimpse of.  Rather than an Open House focused on the periphery of learning, I propose an Open House Remix.


Team Building Activity or Get to Know You Game:   Have an ongoing game occurring in a portion of the classroom.   Brain teasers, word play games like Whozit, puzzles, and other traditional classroom games are a great way to break the ice while demonstrating a commitment to collaboration, team building, and fun.

Twitterfall:  Utilize a classroom hashtag or Twitter account to share the learning happening in your classroom.  During Open House, display a Twitterfall of the posts by the class account or a search of your class hashtag.

Student Work Thought: During my years of ten years of teaching, I often had student work displayed for parents to view during Open House.  Think about how powerful it would be though, had I shifted this focus from student work to student thought.  Rather than displaying traditional student ‘work’, invite parents to see the inquiry that occurs in your class.  Make the current problems students are tackling available during open house so that children can share their progress and current thinking with their families.

Empathy:  Use the Open House as an opportunity to share the community service projects your students are engaged in and the connections they are making with other classrooms both in and out of the school.  Invite parents to join in the work by sharing their expertise, resources, and ideas for extending learning beyond the classroom walls and spreading empathy and love in the community.

Student Agency:  Offering student choice and voice in the classroom is essential when creating an environment for learning.  Consider how your everyday pedagogical decisions and classroom procedures allow for student choice and opinion.  Display some evidence of student agency like choice centers, a variety of tools to select from, evidence of varied assessment options, etc.  In one classroom at our local middle school, I spotted this bulletin board that got me thinking:

How often do we communicate the specific traits we’d like our students to exhibit, yet fail to ask them what they look for in a quality teacher?  I love this simple way of polling which ‘teacher traits’ are most important to our students.

‘Get To Know Your Teacher’:  Just as you strive to truly know and connect with your class,  your students and their parents want to know who you are as well!  Display a few artifacts and/or photos that allow guests a glimpse into your hobbies, interests, and goals.  Encourage your students and their families to interact with you around the artifacts, share stories, and make connections.

Relationship Building:  What evidence will parents see at Open House to show that you love their child and strive to build a meaningful relationship with them?   Provide space and time in your classroom to let student interests, hobbies, and talents shine.  Prioritize creating meaningful, lasting connections with each of your students and their families -and let this be the central focus of your Open House.

“Let creating meaningful, lasting connections be the focus of Open House  . . .  and everyday of the year”








Keeping Why Present

As I reflect on today’s events in 2001 and on the rescue and restoration efforts of this hurricane season, I am reminded of how easily everyday life can muddy what is truly important, and how often my focus is pulled from those that matter most.   My messy home, needy children, and  hectic workday are all vying for my attention until suddenly, the most valuable moments of life slip into the back seat.

Until disaster strikes.

I’m not sure why it often takes tragedy to spark pause and reflection, but today I am reminded that building relationships with others can’t take a backseat to dirty dishes or lost car keys.   Spreading love can’t be sidelined when the budget is tight, my kids are sick, or I miss a deadline.  Promoting peace shouldn’t have to fight for time in my busy day.

Designating time for intentional self reflection helps me monitor my human nature tendency to undervalue relationships, to prioritize material goods, and deemphasize love.  Self reflection helps bring clarity to the muddiness of life, bringing to the surface the why in our work, the meaning in our actions, and purpose in our lives.

Thoughtful self reflection keeps the why ever present.

What strategies do you have for monitoring your own thoughts, balancing your responsibilities, and ensuring that your time, efforts, and energies are spent doing work that matters?   What stop gaps do you have built into your day that prompt you to refocus, self assess & reflect?