List of Fives; or Dear Diary, School is over and I’m feeling introspective.

One of my twitter “friends” is Maria Andersen. I guess I shouldn’t say “friend” because although I read her tweets and blog, she doesn’t know me (and I’m not the prolific blogger she is– yet). But I’m quite sure we would be friends if geography and circumstances were different. I like that she is reflective and it seems to me she has good systems in place. Or at least I have inferred that, based upon the extraordinary schedule she seems to keep. Recently on her blog she offered a list of fives– five questions with five answers she uses to create an optimum working environment with her assistants. I’m intrigued because I love lists, those neat and tidy bundles of facts and concreteness… which often guide me out of the concrete and into some more abstract and wandering thought. I need to be guided into such a space regularly, and so I offer the beginnings of my List of Fives.

From @busynessgirl ‘s Blog:

1. What are your five biggest strengths?

  • connecting with people
  • connecting people with other people (networking)
  • renovating/revamping existing curriculum/plans
  • organizing/administrative/planning tasks
  • group work/coming to consensus/working through blocks/synthesizing seemingly divergent perspectives

2. What are five things that you enjoy learning about?

  • things that are pretty – food, home
  • healthy living – mind/body, work/life balance, intro/extrovert care
  • organizational psychology and development – group dynamics
  • things that are clever – new ways of looking at something familiar

3. What are five topics you’d like to learn about that are unfamiliar to you?

  • flipped classroom concept – what do I do with classtime?
  • enlivening Algebra with technology
  • how to teach students effective group work practices
  • feedback/grading practices that feel feasible/palatable to me. I hate grading papers. But talking over a problem with a student, that’s something I could do all day.

4. What are five skills or strengths that you’d like to get better at?

  • connecting with students individually in order to guide them better
  • not procrastinating (for example, get my copies made the day before, not that morning!)
  • taking care of myself so I have more to give every day
  • finishing things (oh, the irony of all of the unfinished lists of fives here)

5. What are your five favorite sources of inspiration? [books/websites/articles/poems/videos/songs]

  • my twitter feed of people I’ve met at EdCamps
  • NAIS
  • ASCD
  • Anna Blinstein and others in my math department, in large part because we disagree well. I love our discussions and long for more time to collaborate. My division colleagues are terrific as well. I really am enlivened by discussion.

I haven’t even completed my Fives… and my mind is reeling. I had intended to rework some curriculum this summer; much of it was handed down to me and I haven’t really made it my own yet (it’s very good as it is, I’d just like to feel some ownership in it and make it fit me better). I was intending to do some flipped work because it can benefit the students; from reading my list and chewing on some other peripheral thoughts I’m realizing I want to focus my efforts on how to change my curriculum and teaching style so that it benefits ME. How very selfish, says the voice in my head. I want to be a teacher for a long time, I reply, and I want my classes to fit me. I want a personalized, sustainable pace, tempo, environment, feel, milieu… I want healthy and happy me, and healthy and happy students. I think if I focus my efforts this summer on how to make the course fit my personality and passions better, I’ll be happier and I’ll feel more authentic in my classroom. Which will lead to stronger relationships with students. And a happier teacher.

Five surprising revelations I’ve had from this exercise so far:

  • I really want to connect one-on-one with students more
  • I need quiet time and space every day; I need to nurture my introvertedness and care for it. I want to have only one tab open in my browser more often, literally and figuratively.
  • Maybe I should be a Home Ec teacher
  • I want to connect with adults more often than I do now
  • I think I’m over-inspired. Too much twitter, blogs, pinterest… I need to connect with what is inside me and start there.

Note-to-self caveat: it’s the last day of school. I’m exhausted physically and mentally. Nothing about Algebra interests me at the moment. But I remember days of working in corporate America, marketing textbooks or building houses, and I rest in the truth I know: I love teaching immeasurably more. Don’t run off and join a circus, Kath; rather, reflect and journal. No tabs open, no twitter notifications binging.

Perfect summer instructions.


Community service learning

Today we took all of the seventh grade students and advisors to do a community service day. We went to a camp about an hour away that serves campers with disabilities. It’s a non-profit which relies heavily upon volunteers, and they were willing to accept 122 thirteen-year-olds. It’s tough to find a place that can put 122 thirteen-year-olds to work for a day.

We’ve just arrived back at school, and I’m beat. But aglow. I’m so thankful that service is enough of a priority that we take a full day to do this. I’m thankful that my fellow advisees rearranged their schedules and attended with us– that feels really supportive. I’m impressed with the kids– their work ethic, their personalities… it’s tough to herd 122 thirteen-year-olds and in a large group they can be overwhelming. But individually, they are really thoughtful kids, full of heart. I miss them already, and they haven’t gone off to 8th grade yet.

I hope that today was more than just a day off of academic classes. I hope that students add it to their list of daily activities to help someone they’ll never meet (campers weren’t there). I know that many students had never cleaned before, so they learned how to wring out a rag, how to clean the. whole. surface. and not just swipe the middle, how to mop. I hope that that my colleagues felt it was a valuable use of time. I hope we all grew a little bit.

Deepening community

I sent an all-school email today. I invited my entire school’s faculty to EdCamp Milwaukee! I attended EdCamp Chicago in February and was tremendously touched and inspired; I hope that a few from my school will join me in Milwaukee and benefit from learning in such a rich and brilliant community of educators.

It feels like a risk. In my all-school email I mentioned that some of the Chicago sessions were about technology, and I know that any mention of technology can polarize a group of educators. Some jump in and try fearlessly, others sit back and wait to see what works, and still others don’t really want to change how they teach. It can feel threatening when someone makes what she feels is an innocuous suggestion; perhaps she is insinuating that my work is inferior? She’s only been at this school for a year and a half; who is she to suggest things like this? Of course these responses are natural. The heart of what I hope to do in inviting the faculty is to offer some inspiration and opportunities for those who wish to grow in this manner, to deepen the learning community I have. So ostensibly it’s out of a generous spirit that I emailed, but really it is selfish. I want to learn with you and from you!

What’s new?

I’m struggling today with the fact that my classroom doesn’t look any different than it perhaps did 100 years ago. Aside from fancier ways to do direct teaching (projector, aged smartboard), it’s not innovative. Desks are arranged in pairs (mostly because they’re so large) and rows. Blackboards line the walls. There is one desktop computer in the back of the room that doesn’t print anywhere. And I’m not thinking innovative-ly about my teaching these days, as my level of exhaustion grows with each day we get closer to spring break. I think I need some new books to read.

Middle School 2-Minute Impromptu TED Talks

Today is Diversity Day for our middle schoolers. Students travel in their Vertical groups (mixed-grade groups) to five 55-minute sessions, one for each of our tenets (Support, Affirm, Include, Listen, Learn… as you would have others do for you). I chose to facilitate discussion around the notion that each of us has something valuable to contribute toward the body of knowledge– a perspective, experience, curiosity, angle.

I started with introducing TED talks– how I came to find them, how I’m curious about things other than my teaching subject matter and enjoy these fewer-than-20 minute sound bytes. TED talks serve as inspiration when I’m in a rut, and often propel me into deeper research on topics which pique my interest. They always remind me that there are interesting perspectives and interests other than mine, which is refreshing!

I talked about the origins of TED talks, and how there are now TEDx talks, even for teens and kids! (Which makes me wonder… why aren’t there more TEDxKids talks? Should I initiate this in Chicago?

I then showed the following TED talks to illustrate the variety of interesting things one can learn.
Hurdy Gurdy
What an interesting instrument! I never knew about this until yesterday! And it’s so complicated! What talent she has.
Thomas Suarez
He was a 6th grader (I think) when he started selling his self-made apps. What an interesting person! And how cool is it that he’s thinking beyond just doing something for his own interest or for money?!
I reminded students that in a pressure-filled environment such as our school, or such as Harvard, we often treat FAIL as a four-letter-f-word. But these two speakers failed, and lived to tell about it, and even encourage us to consider failure as valuable. What a shift in perspective for overachievers like us!
(the bells one I saved in case there was extra time at the end, which there wasn’t)

Then I announced that I believe that each student has an experience, perspective, or curiosity to share and add to the collective body of knowledge. I told them that we were going to do our own TED talks, sort of. Each student has 90-120 seconds to share something that is unique to them.  I gave a minute for them to mull, then offered the following prompts:

Something interesting I learned recently is… Something I learned from one of my favorite books is… Something I’ve learned from my parent(s) is… Something helpful I have learned from my friends is… Something helpful I have learned from my family is… Something helpful I have learned from my religion is… Something I wish more people knew how to do is… If I had one day to live, I would want to tell everyone… I think that social media is a great/terrible thing because… One thing adults really underestimate about kids is… One thing adults really don’t understand about kids is… When I am an adult / a parent, I will change… One thing that defines a really good friend is… The biggest problem with schools is… I wish people understood _____ about me… The best way to deal with sibling fights is… I think the most effective way to motivate kids is… One thing I would do to improve the government is… One thing I would do to improve the internet is… One thing I would do to improve Chicago is… One thing I would do to improve our school is… I wish more people would… One thing I wish people would do for the environment is… An actor or actress who I think makes a positive impact on the world is … because… I think kids grow up too fast because… One of the most important things people learn in school is… A person who has had an impact on my life is… because… One of the best television shows for middle school kids is… because… I am knowledgeable about ____ and want to share it with you… I dream of a world where…

The basic outline for a quick talk could include:

A) What point do you want to make/share? Why? Why does it matter? How has it inspired you? What are you curious about?

B) Background, evidence, examples, stories…

C) Finish; summarize, extend…

I gave the students about 7 minutes to ponder and make notes for themselves, then we wrote our names on post-its and threw them into a bucket. Each student shared his or her talk, then chose the name of the next person until all had shared.


I had fun! I love sharing non-math things with kids! I love hearing their ideas and perspectives! It was energizing for me! As a math teacher I feel like I’m sometimes inadequate at facilitating meaningful discussions on topics other than math, and I feel a bit insecure about this. I’m sure it could have been a brilliant, life-changing session if given by someone else, but even so I feel like it was valuable!

If I could improve this I would perhaps give fewer prompts and have one brilliant, though-provoking open question. I could also have spent more time talking about the structure of a good speech. About half of the speeches were interesting. A few were trite, like the students were just trying to please the teacher. A few were way out there and did not contribute to our body of knowledge. But overall students did a really great job! I imagine that some were terrified of impromptu forced public speaking, but very few stumbled. I’ll do this again.

Some of the topics were: how to use chapstick to soothe papercuts, why it’s important to give people a second chance, what if we used all the money spent on Superbowl commercials to address the problem of poverty in America, how making brownies using orange juice improves their flavor, that having parents from different backgrounds makes for tricky family dynamics,  and so many more.

Why learn in community?

I taught for two and half years in Baltimore, in an idyllic, happy school going through a rough transition. I loved committee work, but felt alone in my teaching.

I taught for two years in a Chicago suburb, in a wonderful, whole-child-approach school. I loved faculty meetings, but felt alone in my teaching.

I taught for six months in a south Florida Title I school, where the administrators were overwhelmed with district mandates and faculty meetings were volatile. I felt alone in my teaching, and burned out before November.

I took a year off from teaching.

I taught for two years at a university in Florida, where I got to collaborate a bit with colleagues, but mostly felt alone in my teaching.

I managed part of a No Child Left Behind-funded tutoring company. I flitted from administrative task to administrative task. I felt alone.

I burned out. No one knew, because I was alone in my teaching. I took periodic breaks from teaching, considering alternative careers.

Then I went to graduate school for education leadership in private schools.

I was not alone!

The bliss of discussion, the energizing collaboration, the personal relationships, the professional network… I was reborn, and my passion for education was renewed.

I now teach in a Chicago school where collaboration within my department is encouraged, expected, scheduled-for. My teaching is richer. My colleagues know me and I know them. We share resources freely. We edit each other’s work. We haggle over fine points of detail when creating a test. It is delightful.

I want more. I want to extend my community. I want to integrate ideas from teachers outside of my school. I want to skype, tweet, google-doc, piazza, until my lessons are brilliant. I want to strengthen relationships with fellow curious colleagues and form new ones with colleagues I haven’t met yet.

Learning in community is life-giving. When my passion-flame flickers, another’s joins mine to burn brightly. When another is feeling all but blown out, I light a flame and encourage.

Last month I felt burned out. After grades were due, I was due for a pep talk. I was inspired by invaluable EdCamp Chicago attendees and my flame is burning more brightly. My twitter feed (I discovered tweetdeck at EdCamp!) is fatter! I have extended my learning community.