Mentorship: How Can We Invest in Teachers to Shape Our Future?

Mentorship is crucial to the work we do as teachers and leaders. Over 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years and since the current educational landscape has currently shifted, retaining new and veteran teachers has never been more vital. It is important to recognize that teachers may require different supports that are crucial for sustainability.

Why is it critical for school districts to invest in building strong foundations for new teachers that will lead to long meaningful careers?

Educators have limitless possibilities for shaping and developing the mindsets, actions, and choices for many future generations over the course of their career timelines. They have unique opportunities to create experiences that empower learners to choose a lens that paves the way to purposeful pathways of happiness and success. Since education is in a constant state of transformation, it is critical that educators are provided with the essential tools and support to navigate the changes, challenges, and systems they live in. These supports will help them develop agency, self-efficacy, instill the confidence to share their own strengths, and unleash the talents of every human being they will ever encounter on their journey. Educators also understand that time is valuable and can be difficult to balance. Every minute, every interaction, every moment in their days are precious. However, out of all the ways educators spend their time, mentoring has one of the highest returns on investment. – Lauren

I recently completed a study with a doctoral student who examined a teacher’s job satisfaction, and the results have impacted the way I work with our teachers. Six of the eight factors discovered were centered around RELATIONSHIPS and the number one factor to impact a teacher’s satisfaction is the relationship with their supervisors. In discovering this factor, I now meet bi-weekly with our new teachers and the results have been rewarding for myself and the teachers have expressed how helpful the time we spend reviewing the book “Leaders of their Own Learning” and the Danielson Rubric together. Bringing me to the question; what is a mentor? -Rob

Here is what we get if we “google” the term:

OR to go a little deeper:

How can you leverage your expertise to build perspective around what it means to be a mentor?

Recognize Teachers are Leaders

Authentically, mentoring is grounded upon trust and supportive relationships among individuals who are willing to “do the work” to grow. I have had the great pleasure of working with Kyle Krueger and Will Law (Lighthouse Educator Development – https://theledproject.com/) while in New Mexico and was featured on two of their LED podcasts to further develop the ideals and concepts of leading/mentoring teachers to support students. This work guided me in my leadership/teacher role. I typically use the terms teacher and leader synonymously because teachers lead and mentor students to make life changing decisions; and, leaders work to lead and mentor teachers to inspire great lessons and relationships with their students. Simply stated, the influence we have as mentors has the power to change many lives dramatically.-Rob

No matter what your role is within an organization, if you have been afforded the special opportunity to work with kids, you are a leader, a mentor, someone who is working toward leaving behind a legacy that will leave an impact that reaches beyond the traditional time you spend together. Those imprints will latch onto the hearts and minds of every student and educator who crosses your path. This makes the induction years a critical component of the learning journey. -Lauren

What reflective practices allow you to build capacity within?

Use the Wisdom Around You

Teachers/Leaders are role models for children and adults alike and have the ability to change lives through words and actions. I had a choral teacher mentor, Paula Willis, who always said, “Rob, our students are the jewels of their parents’ eyes, treat them delicately.” I used this advice as a teacher and as a leader, it has shaped my empathetic lens and helped me to listen to understand rather than to respond.-Rob

Look around you, if you take a moment to view all of the people in your world as mentors, you will be able to mirror the qualities of those who have empowered you, while releasing practices you would never consider implementing from others. As we seek out mentors, it is vital to recognize that we must keep the students we serve at the core of the conversations. Our kids are watching us. They take in our every move, hang onto our words, and they will perpetuate the actions we model. So I ask you, what type of educator and mentor do you want to be? -Lauren

What actions can you take to shape the legacy you leave behind?

Show Vulnerability and Humility  

As I have moved through experiences I find myself reminded of the idea, “do what is right, even when no one is looking.” As a mentor and role model, I believe it is essential to have a positive core and be self-aware of your words and actions because we understand the power and must yield that power for others benefit. “It is the little things that make a BIG difference.”-Rob

A mentor is a role model who exudes a confident and intellectual humility. They possess a depth of knowledge and understand what it feels like to walk on paths of exploration and self-discovery. They impart what they have learned over the course of time to their mentees. A strong mentor will also acknowledge what they don’t know; they value the perspective that creativity, ideas, and innovation can live within anyone. Therefore, mentor/mentee partnerships embody a symbiotic synergy. Continuous communication, reciprocity, and collaboration are at the heart of learning, development, and growth. -Lauren

How do you walk softly in your role to guide with humble and authentic intent?

Level the Playing Field

People want to feel valued by their mentor, establish trust between one another, understand that the mentor is competent, and that the mentor cultivates the mentee’s security and sense of independence without seeing the growth as a threat. These four qualities are the foundation of a positive working relationship that will encourage growth for both the mentor and mentee. In any true relationship, both members are growing and learning.-Rob

Feelings are at the heart of trusting relationships. Mentors who trust their own vulnerability, are honest about their personal strengths and areas for growth, and are comfortable asking for help have greater success establishing circles of psychological safety with their mentee. Mentors who serve as systems of support create cultures of empowerment, communication, collaboration, and collective thinking. They are able to tap into an emotional drive that propels their mentees to trust their instincts as they embark on a path to become successful leaders, creators, and innovators. The quality of the journey will ultimately not be determined by what you think about it, but what you feel about it. -Lauren

How do you allow yourself to be open and vulnerable with your mentor/mentee?

  1. Cultivate authentic and caring relationships with everyone around you.
  2. Listen to understand and provide support with advice meant to change lives.
  3. Think before you speak: Is it helpful? Is it kind? Is it inspiring?

Leaders and mentors are competent in what they do and have been recognized by others as a “person to trust.” Through a successful record of experiences, a “surface” or foundational trust helps establish and then build a relationship through shared connections. The more the mentee feels valued and the deeper the relationship grows, the greater the trust becomes which leads the mentee towards independence. The mentor/leader is not threatened by this independence but rather stands proud alongside the mentee to learn and grow together, this further nourishes the sense of value in both individuals. This process is to be treasured because there are only a small handful of people who touch our lives that can withstand the tests of these “ebb and flow” relationships.-Rob

The mentor/mentee relationship is symbiotic in nature. The qualities and attributes in both mentees and mentors are synonymous. There is no magic wand for mentoring. The success of strong mentor/mentee relationships rests on the shoulders of WHO. WHO puts in the effort, WHO has sensibility, WHO has the dedication, WHO commits to the process. All of these things matter, but there is a little bit of strategy that goes along with this too. It is vital to consider WHO will be the right people to guide and create strong foundations for new teachers that lead to long, meaningful, impactful careers. When mentorship is approached from a holistic lens, it has the power to build social capital and unlock human potential. -Lauren

I believe our advice to any mentor would be to model the behaviors you want to see in a mentee because they will emulate all the nuances. As a parent, I am sure many of us can see ourselves (especially the not so good selves) mirrored back through our children. As for a mentee, listen twice as much as you speak, enjoy the journey, and be patient because growth and success take time. Similar to any great slow cooked BBQ dish, the smell may tempt us to jump into the smoker and grab a taste, but if we do not wait we will either get raw meat or burn our mouth. Take time to let things marinate and simmer otherwise we could wind up on fire and/or burn out too quickly. –Rob

     

Click HERE to print question card for discussion

It was a pleasure to collaborate on this blog post with Dr. Rob Wottawa!

Click HERE to learn more about Dr. Rob Wottawa

Impact Moves With You

Collecting Experiences 

We live a collection of memories and experiences that have been accumulated over the course of time. Within every role we serve, we are afforded opportunities that invite us to think about the educators we were and who we want to be. Over time, we establish and develop relationships, garner a multitude of teaching and learning practices, take part in numerous conversations, and make an impact on countless families, colleagues, and students who were destined to know us. As we proceed with our lives, we encounter new opportunities and people who are waiting to meet us. It can be exciting to think about a team of people we have not yet met, but will eventually become a constant in our lives. Or perhaps there will be people who enter your life for a short time; they serve as signposts who guide and create pathways that can lead to opportunities you have yet to know to exist. Every experience you will ever endure leads to the type of educator you wish to become. 

My Last Year in the Classroom

I have been thinking quite often about last year, the year that would become my last in the classroom. I certainly didn’t realize I’d be back in the classroom during a pandemic and one of the most challenging years in educational history. After all, for 5 years before that, I was serving as an instructional coach, a position I loved and adored. With change resting on my shoulders and 14 years at the elementary level, I requested to make a move to the middle school where I would be teaching literacy to learners in grades 6-8. Taking on new challenges has always been a part of my growth and development as a human being, educator, learner, leader, and practitioner. It is one of the myriads of ways I stay on the cutting edge of best practice, grow my skill set, and elevate others. I thought about how exciting it would be to take all of the learning I had ever been gifted and share it in new spaces. Little did I know, I would be sharing and growing my learning in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously and it would be my last opportunity to make an impact in that very space.

Cultures of Learning Are Built on Connection

In what seemed like an instant, I learned that all of my knowledge about literacy, had no bearing or influence on my students unless I could create authentic ways to cultivate connection. They were not interested in my content expertise; they were interested in the person I was, the person I am, and the person I was still striving to be. They were interested in me getting to know who they were, who they are, and who they wanted to be. If you want to develop a culture of learning, communication, collaboration, and empowerment, you must show your students who you are and make an effort to invest in their hearts. 

Small Moves Can Make Big Impact

I keep thinking about what my friend Meghan Lawson says, “Small moves can make a big impact.” On one of my last days in the classroom, I read my students Only One You by Linda Kranz. The book inspired me to use all I had learned about my students and write them a personal note of inspiration and gratitude. With that, I also left them a special rock with the one word I felt embodied who they are and who they will continue to be. I remember my student Steven picking up his rock “Happiness” and studying it carefully. “Mrs. Kaufman, do you really think I can bring happiness to people wherever I go?” I replied, “Steven, your happiness is contagious and will bring joy to whomever you meet. Your happiness will change the world.”

Impact Moves with You

And just like that, it’s less than a year later…I am now serving as an assistant principal with a new team of people I was destined to know. The last interaction I had with Steven was just one moment in the collection of small moves I employed that would later influence the school leader I am learning to become. I often reflect on the small moves I am choosing to make to connect with people. One of the best parts of my new role is visiting classrooms to spend time with students and teachers. Recently, a student named James delightfully approached me with a piece of writing he wanted to share. One sentiment he included was, “When you walk by, say hi to Mrs. Kaufman. Don’t you want to make her day? Mrs. Kaufman is wonderful because she makes sure everyone has a good day.” As I read James’ piece of writing, it brought me back to the exchange I had with Steven. It made me think about how Steven’s contagious happiness became a part of me. It seemed as though I was inadvertently bringing that same happiness to James. Perhaps I have been carrying many years of my students’ and colleagues’ positive attributes with me. At that moment, I asked myself…”How can we continuously recognize that a collection of small actions have the potential to make someone else’s day better?”

Who is the Educator You Wish to Become?

When you make an effort to continually build connections with people, it becomes an intrinsic act of gratitude. In the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he says, “Your life bends in the direction of your habits. Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.” When I reflect on my past and present experiences, I often ask myself, “Who is the leader you wish to become Lauren?” My answer is “I wish to become the leader I always needed.” No matter where your journey takes you, your actions create a collection of experiences that can positively impact others. Your impact moves with you.

Harnessing the Minutes

Minutes are Meaningful

The first few months of school are suddenly behind us, but the collection of details from our loaded days are left in mind memory boxes that are waiting to be courageously unwrapped. Sometimes we wonder how time can just pass us by along with the magical moments that transpire in every minute of our days. I have seen educators approach those minutes in the day with courage, conviction, passion, perseverance, pride, and joy for what they were always destined to do. And now that we’ve settled in, the compilation of memories from our first few months is waiting for us to view them through questions of reflection when the timing is right. Sometimes, when we experience the moments in a day in real-time, it is difficult to see the depth of our impact. Sometimes we are not sure if what we are saying and doing matters. As educators, our jobs are to help people see the strength of their influence, the power of their presence, and the significance of the imprints they leave in the hearts and minds of the lives they touch. 

Pause to Reflect

Educators do so much on a daily basis to meet the needs of all of their learners, that it could be challenging to absorb the meaningful moments that manifest over the course of a day. It would be easy to let them just pass you by. Pausing to reflect on the big and small wins can motivate us to share stories and build momentum in others. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak, Couros discusses the importance of looking back on your educational journey, “You’ll look back and see how you’ve changed and how your practice has improved. In a profession where learning is the focus of our job, growth is essential and the target is always moving.” How can we create space and time for educators to pause and reflect on their daily interactions with the multitude of people, tasks, and experiences they encounter across the minutes of a day? It doesn’t have to be a formal interaction. Perhaps it’s a hallway conversation, a simple email exchange of ideas, a text, a lunch conversation…  Could those reflections spark new and better ideas for the colleagues, students, and communities we serve?

Some questions I’ve been thinking about:

  1. What are some ways we can leverage relationships to create meaningful opportunities to discuss the moments that matter?
  2. How can we better trust our instincts to “feel” that we are on the right path?
  3. When can we utilize and maximize the expertise of our colleagues to build capacity within?
  4. Can we recognize our cognitive blindspots by inviting people with different perspectives into our conversations?
  5. How can we work to feel more comfortable with acknowledging what we don’t know to personally and professionally grow?

Harnessing the Minutes

George is right, the target IS always moving and we have to be intentional about the way we approach our reflections and practice as educators. My friend Meghan Lawson says that “small moves can have big impact.” I have been sharing this sentiment with colleagues because when we talk about teaching and learning, we don’t always have to make big shifts to see growth.   Our students are the key drivers of our decision-making. They will tell us where we need to go and it’s usually the small moves that catapult them to success. Time moves fast, don’t wait too long to harness the idea of reflection and embrace the meaningful minutes in your days as an investment in yourselves, your colleagues, and the greatest gifts, your learners. What you do matters.

3 Ways to Shift from Consumption to Creation

The start of a school year is a time for new beginnings, cultivating connections, navigating various systems, understanding policies and procedures, digesting new curricula, and applying new learning we encounter in the ever changing educational landscape we live in. Sometimes we become so consumed with taking in so much newness and information that the experience itself can cause barriers to pathways of innovation and creation.

There are moments when we become so overwhelmed with the feeling of consumption that our brains are working in overtime to process multiple ideas simultaneously. So what could be getting in the way of our ability to shift from consumption to creation? According to Barbara Oakley, PhD and Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, authors of Learning How To Learn: A Guide For Kids and Teens, there are times our brains need to lose concentration to think more clearly and problem solve. During those moments when we are less focused on learning, our ability to apply something new increases. 

Neuroscientists have discovered that there are two different modes our brains require that are important to the learning process: focus mode and diffuse mode

Oakley and Dejnowski define the modes in their book:

Focus Mode: “When you’re in focus mode, it means that you’re paying attention. For example, you might be trying to figure out a math problem. Or you might be looking at or listening to your teacher… when you’re focusing you’re putting specific parts of the brain to work.”

Diffuse Mode: “Diffuse mode is when your mind is relaxed and free. You’re thinking about nothing in particular. You’re in diffuse mode when you’re daydreaming or doodling just for fun. If your teacher tells you to concentrate, you may have slipped into diffuse mode.”

When we are in the process of learning something new, we focus and ignite those parts of the brain that initiate the learning process. In diffuse mode, there is an invisible potential to the endless possibilities that lead to making connections that forge your ability to imagine and create.

How can we create conditions for educators and students to shift between focus and diffuse modes to ensure they can apply learning in meaningful ways?

  1. Preserve time to reflect on roadblocks to creation with colleagues/peers. 

According to Adam Grant, author of Think Again, it is important to possess the qualities of confident humility. Acknowledge your struggles, know what you don’t know, and share your learning and questions with others. Provide opportunities to have protected, intentional collaborative time to discuss potential roadblocks to internalizing and applying new learning. Talk with colleagues or peers about what is causing your brain congestion. Thinking out loud with partners who may value different perspectives can provide new insights that help connect the dots to previous and new learning. Additionally, you may choose to use this time to shift from learner to teacher. Try teaching your new learning to your colleagues/peers in an effort to make your learning stick.

2. Engage in activities that support fluid movement between focus and diffuse modes. 

Be mindful about stepping away from routines that put you into a constant state of consuming new information. Engaging in some mindless activities can help you weave together new learning that can ultimately lead to pathways of creation. Turning up the volume on your music as you drive, taking a walk, drawing, painting, and/or watching your favorite movie or television show can breathe life into new ideas. There is another important activity to embrace: getting a good night’s sleep! This is when your brain gets an upgrade and you unintentionally rehearse what you’ve learned. When you are learning something new and have revisited the concepts several times, sleep on it! Then, attempt pulling those new ideas out of your mind the next day. It gets easier to recall and apply that new information each time.

3. Pause to observe the details in the world around you. 

Actively observing and noticing the details in the world around you can help you make connections that spark new ideas. Watching people, nature, and interactions can help you build neural structures for learning and application. You may consider putting yourself into a completely different environment than your norm as this can disrupt your thinking and help you develop new and better ideas. As you’re reflecting on your observations, invite curiosity and ask yourself questions about what you see. What environments inspired you to connect the puzzle pieces of new learning to visualize and apply new and beautiful understandings to the real world?

When you feel like your learning is in overdrive and you are looking for ways to bypass the traffic, make an effort to move from focus to diffuse mode by pausing and reaching out to a thinking partner, turning on your music, and appreciating the details in the world around you. Eventually, signposts in the roads will appear, offering a new direction to creation, development, and growth.

Collaboration is a Conduit to Creation

Collaboration Breathes Life

Collaboration is a powerful action; it breathes new life into percolating plans and nurtures seeds of inspiration. It is the gatekeeper that weaves together concepts and manifests hopes and dreams. It’s a magnetic force that pulls people together, creates unexpected synergy, and ignites dialogue, growth, and change. How can we capitalize on the strength of collaboration to be the driving force that permeates the evolution of our professional and personal development?

Who Has Shown You The Way?

There have been many leaders who have shown us the way. They have modeled what it means to be a communicator, collaborator, connector, and creator. They have shown the value in bringing others into conversations that have the potential to create meaningful change. They have organically used the words “we” not “I”; it’s in the fabric of their being. They have taken others under their wing and elevated the room’s contributions. They embrace the ideas of others and give the right people the recognition when they show up to the table. They are more “collaborative and less competitive” (Stephanie Rothstein). They understand the idea that we are better together. Collaborators give us wings to fly and feel deep pride to watch us soar. They feel a great sense of gratitude to watch others cultivate collective success. They are not jealous, they are proud. Have you ever taken a moment to think about people in your life that have encouraged you to collaborate and have unleashed the creator in you? I have and that’s why I’d like to share some strategies for collaboration that have made me better.

6 Ideas For Collaboration

Connect with Colleagues: Think about reaching out to someone you have known or someone new. You never know where your next ideas can flourish. I have admired many people from afar who have suddenly become regular thinking partners and collaborators in my daily life. Don’t forget to capitalize on the room you’re in. Every person who is in that room knows something you don’t know! Also, do not be afraid to share YOUR knowledge and ideas. In the book Because Of A Teacher, Meghan Lawson shared a profound Peter Block quote, “How do you change the world? One room at a time. Which room? The one you’re in.”

Lean into Resources: Read an article, book, and/or listen to a podcast and have a conversation about it. You never know what ideas can emerge from that discussion. It is the most informal, yet meaningful way to experience professional learning in the most organic way. In the recent Edutopia article Taking Control of Your Professional Growth, Stephanie Rothstein and I share a number of ways to bring professional learning to you! These ideas may generate some relevant opportunities for collaboration AND creation.

Co-author a Writing Piece or Present with a Colleague: What better way to share your learning than to collaborate on a writing piece that highlights your thinking, philosophies, and instructional practices. Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Lainie Rowell on the Edutopia article Revisiting and Rethinking Our Priorities. Through this collaboration, Lainie taught me how to merge our ideas in very succinct and purposeful ways. She also served as an accountability partner through the process. She pushed my thinking and made me a better writer. I love presenting my learning at conferences with dynamic colleagues. This is an opportunity to share and spread our learning and growth to other educational communities. I have had the pleasure of collaborating on multiple presentations with Natasha Nurse and Christine LaMarca, two outstanding educators.

Frame the Conversation: Use your personal and professional goals to frame a collaborative conversation. This strategy will be supportive in streamlining your thinking and creation process. You will know your why, what you want to accomplish, and develop an actionable plan about how to get there. Select passionate and productive thinking partners that will foster your exponential growth. Lorie Beard, educator and middle school principal has been an unwavering thinking partner in my life. We have always framed our professional conversations with purpose and discuss actionable steps for implementation. Our ongoing dialogue has inspired me to take risks and be a better version of myself.

Disrupt your Thinking: There are times when you will want to bring other people and new perspectives into your collaboration. Those disruptions will push you to see a project in a better and different way. Although this change may alter your course of action, you and your collaborators will be better for it! 

Vary Your Communication: I think we have learned that there are multiple ways to communicate. Use technology to your advantage! Through phone conversations, texting, video conferencing, and working on shared Google documents, the possibilities for collaboration are endless! Sean Gallaird and Lainie Rowell recently facilitated the summer Voxer chat series #CampFireConvosEdu where participants were given open-ended topics to discuss and respond to asynchronously. This self-paced style of collaboration was a low stakes way of sharing knowledge and practices that could be implemented in classrooms tomorrow in fulfilling and worthwhile ways! 

Collaboration is a Conduit to Creation

Collaboration is a conduit to creation. It’s an opportunity to go through an imperfect process that unlocks the hidden potential in others. It’s a time to discover passions and interests that you never knew existed. It’s a place to be a part of critical moments that become new beautiful stories in your journey.  In a recent #PrincipalLinerNotes podcast, Sean Gallaird eloquently says “Don’t let fear become a barrier to a collaboration that may yield something good and meaningful…we are better when we pool our strengths and gifts together in service of our students and families.” You never know where your next ideas can flourish. Reach out to someone and share your thoughts, it may lead you down paths of unexpected opportunities!

A Global Learning Experience with John Hattie: Quotes to Ignite Discussion

Bridging the Distance

Professional learning is in a constant state of transformation due to an ever-changing educational landscape. Great educators are finding innovative ways to learn and connect with others in order to expand a repertoire of their possible selves. They are bridging the distance and shattering the walls of isolation by way of various technological platforms; no matter what time zone or part of the world they live in, they can instantly be in the same virtual learning space; all they have to do is have the desire and intrinsic motivation to want to learn from others, be open to new and better ideas, be interested in finding out what they don’t know, and seek out the perspectives and voices of others. 

A Global Learning Experience

Recently, global educator Naomi Toland, founder of #Empathetic_Educators seamlessly brought great educators together from around the world by creating 12 hours of LIVE professional learning during the 1st #EEConQuest event. Sessions were facilitated by educators who shared their expertise about a wide range of topics and engaged in meaningful dialogue. The trend in all of the conversations over the course of the day was clear: Educators are looking to expand their impact and influence over the most precious stakeholders in education – their learners. 

I had the privilege and opportunity to co-host a Q & A with Naomi, featuring special guest John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The magic of technology brought educators from 4 parts of the world including New York, Japan, Thailand, and Australia together in one space. As a result, this event stretched my thinking and invited new understandings into my approaches to teaching and learning.

Quotes that Ignite Discussion

I am grateful to be able to share a short clip and a collection of John Hattie quotes that emerged from our global conversation. Consider using them to pique curiosity, ignite discussion within your professional learning communities and beyond, and reflect on what it means to be a teacher AND learner:

Video quote to think about: “How do we stop looking for failure and trying to fix it and how do we instead look for success?”

#EEConQuest John Hattie Quotes to Ignite Discussion CLICK HERE to print discussion card

Some Questions I’m Thinking About as a Result of this Conversation

How can we create learning spaces that encourage productive struggle and empower learners to be their own teachers? What resources can we continue to utilize to meet learners where they are, accurately assess their progress, make them aware of the standards, learning targets, and their personal learning goals? When can we create time and space to give learners ongoing, cyclical, relevant feedback to move their learning forward? How can we ensure that learners are processing the feedback educators provide, understand it thoroughly, and implement it in their everyday learning? How can school leaders create protected time for educators to come together to regularly reflect on the innovative practices they have learned over the past year and discuss how they plan on utilizing those practices in their physical spaces? What effects do poor grades on transcripts have on learners? How can we focus more on what learners can do and not what they can’t do? Are we making sure that there is active learning transpiring in our classrooms that leads to deeper learning and transfer? Are we utilizing the gradual release of responsibility at the right times?

Unlocking the Joy of Discovery

We cannot overlook the opportunities that have been afforded to us through technological advances. As we navigate a global society that is saturated with people who bring their personal experiences, knowledge, and curiosity to learning spaces, we recognize the value of powerful conversations. These are the conversations that unlock the joy of discovery and create learning zones that continually shape our identities, belief systems, and reveal new possibilities.

4 Ways to Spark Written Conversations with Dialogue Journals

This post is inspired by the book The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers . . . K-12 (Corwin Literacy) by  Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Elaine Daniels

Learning and Shifting

Over the last year, every educator on the planet has learned a great deal about themselves, their students, and new ways to teach and implement instructional practices. During a global pandemic, they have graciously rolled up their sleeves, taken risks, and have connected with learners in innovative and meaningful ways. They have mined a variety of digital learning management systems, discovered new technological tools to elevate instruction, and have truly “showed up” for their students, colleagues, families, and communities! As the world shifts back to some sense of normalcy, educators across the country and beyond are beginning to reconnect with learners as they acclimate to the physical spaces they have always called home.

Challenges are Opportunities

During the most challenging times, educators have also found creative ways to rally learners, structure meaningful conversations, leverage intentional dialogue, and create a sense of psychological safety in their virtual and physical learning spaces. As educators and learners transition back to traditional learning environments, more than ever, it is recognized how the impact of human interaction can influence connection and elevate the social, emotional, and academic growth of students. Educators will continuously look for ways to create purposeful learning opportunities that strengthen relationships, cultivate connection, and manifest greatness within every learner they encounter. Life’s unexpected challenges are windows of opportunities waiting to be explored. That being said, “How can educators foster meaningful communication, reconnect with learners and create spaces where students experience deep, meaningful learning?” For me, dialogue journals have been a powerful way to tap into my students’ hearts, learn more about their passions and interests and monitor their learning in purposeful, intentional ways.

What Are Dialogue Journals?

Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! This is when you write for a long period of time without stopping! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely. 

Benefits of Dialogue Journals

  • Builds connection and relationships between teacher to students and student to student.
  • Levels the playing field because all writers (teachers and students) are viewed as learners.
  • Fosters circles of psychological safety and trust within the classroom community.
  • Creates inclusive spaces where all learners voices and perspectives are heard in a written format.
  • Develops writing fluency and stamina since students are writing for a longer period of time during the back and forth conversation style writing.
  • Writers can respond to various print and digital content while they explore and show their knowledge about various content areas.
  • Formative Assessment: Although it’s not suggested that teachers grade dialogue journal writing as this can prevent writers from writing fast and furiously and develop the confidence to get their ideas out, teachers can notice trends in writing and plan instructional moves to use at another time (whole class, small group, one-to-one).
  • Teachers’  and other students’ writing becomes a mentor text for the students.
  • Teachers use this opportunity to provide on demand feedback and personalized instruction (i.e. a student is capitalizing proper nouns, using punctuation at the end of a sentence, adding details).

Grounded in ALL of the New York State NGLS Lifelong Practices For Writers

What Supplies Do You Need?

  • Notebook/Digital Document (Google Doc)
  • Pencil/Pen
  • Writing Prompts
  • Teacher and Student Active Participation

How Can Writers Respond?

  • Make a comment
  • Ask a question
  • Share a connection
  • Agree and give reasons
  • Disagree and give reasons
  • Create illustrations/insert digital images

4 Ways to Spark Written Conversations with Dialogue Journals

Literature and Informational Text

Students can actively engage in reading, listening, and responding by utilizing a variety of diverse texts. Educators can use dialogue journals as an opportunity to read aloud or have the students independently read a plethora of novels, short stories, picture books, and articles that serve as launchpads for meaningful discussion. These written conversations about literature can evolve into talking more deeply about story elements such as character development, theme, setting, conflict, plot, and resolution. When writing about informational text, the conversations can develop around different topics in history or current events. Students may notice various text features and structures that help them make meaning of the text.

Photographs/Illustrations

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a common expression many of us are familiar with. Visual media allows learners to analyze the details in images, talk about them, make observations, inferences, and generate questions. These images tap into a range of historical information and allow learners to make comparisons with the present and describe historical changes. They can also take on the perspectives of people in the past and develop their own wonderings. This can lead to inquiry and researching various topics in history in groups or independently. 

Short Video Clips

Video clips can be an engaging way to introduce new information, concepts, and often frame learning for students in a multi-model visual way. Videos are a great way to amplify and support understanding for all learners. Teachers will have to search video clips that are connected to students’ interests, pertinent themes, and topics that are relevant to the class. Video clips can be up to 7-10 minutes in length, but should not take too much time since the purpose of the clip is to inspire written conversation. Teachers can be selective as they want the video to make an impact and set the purpose for watching the video. Turn on closed captioning for learners too! This helps them access the digital content in a different way and invites them to read as they watch! 

Phenomena

When embarking on this experience, it is important to ground choices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because more than ever before, science education is central to our lives. Science literacy is critical to making sense of complex topics that affect our world. Science is at the heart of designing, innovating, and creating jobs for the future. Read here for more information on why Science Standards matter.

For a scientist, phenomena is an observable event (i.e. a fall/autumn day, slip/fall, organisms eating, seasonal patterns). By using phenomena, learners are motivated to use written conversation to explain a topic. The focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens. The focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the written conversation. 

Find NGSS phenomena here

Peeling Back the Layers

Dialogue journals give every student an opportunity to make meaningful contributions in safe spaces, share their voice, and develop an empathetic lens when learning about different perspectives within their classroom and school communities. One-to-one written conversations are invitations to peel back layers of the heart and mind; they uncover beautiful personal stories learners are awaiting to be acknowledged and shared.

EXAMPLES OF STUDENT DIALOGUE JOURNALS

The Power of a #Hashtag

Connections lead us to paths of growth and opportunity. When you least expect it, the invisible team members you were destined to know suddenly arrive. And in that space and time you know they were meant to be placed in your universe to elevate, transform, and partner in being a driving force towards your vision; the vision that tugs at your heart, keeps your spirit alive, and becomes so insistent that it keeps us reaching to those who can help us act on it.  -Lauren

Collaboration can generate a sense of belonging; physically, digitally, emotionally, mentally and so much more. Understanding our purpose and passion can be a lifelong mission that many strive for and finding others that speak our language can enhance that ever-changing journey. Connection to ourselves and those around us has been a central part of being human since the beginning of time and understanding this foundational pillar can help us foster authentic relationships on a local and global scale. – Naomi 

A connection is not something you try to find, true connection finds you. Connection builds bridges to hearts, minds, and stories. Connections are fueled by passions and our ability to think beyond ourselves. Connection creates circles of safety and trust. When we trust our instincts we are able to invite others to become more vulnerable in the spaces we create. It’s an opportunity to overcome our fears and embrace the moment. Trusting our instincts helps us gravitate towards connection and collaboration; it’s a feeling of wonder that sparks the curiosity that lives within. -Lauren

Curiosity, openness, and growth are all things that can help when creating foundations for known and unknown collaborations. For example, I was on a mission to connect with others who were sharing their learnings from George Couros’ book The #InnovatorsMindset. This is when I stumbled upon the fabulous co author of this post – Lauren Kaufman. This connection and the possibilities that have come about because of it really have taught me the power of a hashtag. – Naomi

When I opened the Twitter app on my iPhone in the early morning hours, I stumbled upon a message from an unfamiliar name in my inbox. Curiosity was the engine that awakened my tired eyes. As I read Naomi’s message, I could feel her positive spirit luring me into her world. My inner voice felt a sense of confusion. How could someone whom I’ve never met and lives across the world have the ability to stop my precious time, pause in the moment, and consider adding another commitment to my daily life plans? My intuition knows that surprise disruptors in our lives live as moments that lead us to paths of promise. Exploring new collaborations, partnerships, and friendships are gatekeepers to transformation. -Lauren

Sometimes walking up to a random stranger in the street can be very daunting or in some places a downright weird thing to do, which may result in more than just a dirty look. But online there is a different type of atmosphere where cold calling and sending a message to a stranger can be very much acceptable. This in itself can bring about positive and negative outcomes as we have seen across the world, keyboard warriors being created due to the disconnect and lack of empathy for the person on the other side of the screen. However, I have experienced the power of reaching out and speaking with someone I didn’t know and reaping the rewards of that leap of faith. Taking the risk and knowing that the power of many can be greater than the power of one. When I first entered into the Twitterverse, I didn’t know what to expect. I had only ever used social media for personal reasons and in my teacher training we were so aware of our ‘online presence’ that I didn’t know if it was even appropriate to be online. But the more I explored what Twitter and other platforms had to offer, the more I realised that there were an abundance of people and resources at my fingertips who I could learn and grow with. – Naomi 

“But Naomi, how did you find me in the midst of a crowded sea of strangers?” I asked. “Oh, it’s simple Lauren, I searched the hashtag #InnovatorsMindset and came across the work you had done with the book!” In that instant, my mental file cabinet traveled back in time to the moment I used the very same iPhone to retrieve Naomi’s message to search for a professional book I could utilize as a framework to guide conversations with the new teachers in the mentor program I was hired to facilitate. Before then, I had never heard of the book The #InnovatorsMindset and couldn’t have imagined the many powerful connections and opportunities I would cultivate because of the power of a hashtag! -Lauren

One of my passions is to connect with others and create spaces where people, from all different walks of life, can come together to feel safe and share their experiences. This is how #Empathetic_Educators was born. Since connecting, Lauren has been a guest and a cohost on the show alongside many others along the way. These connections have added value to the show beyond what I ever could have dreamed of. That leads me to one of my biggest lessons from the power of the hashtag. -Naomi

Life is not meant to be a solo sport. You’re playing on a team, but you may not necessarily know who all the players are yet. I think it is safe to say that there will be players on your timeline that you will start with, but not necessarily grow with. You will carry those connections with you because they have supported your personal and professional evolution; those connections have shaped your mission and have propelled you toward your ultimate purpose. Hold onto the faith that there are people who will become an important part of your life that you have not met yet. -Lauren

“We find that when we open up, people respond and accept us for what we are. Instead of feeling vulnerable we become free, alive, vibrant and awakened in ways we never experienced before.”

John Kehoe – Mind Power 

Just like the quote above implies, since joining the online community of educators inside and outside of schools I have been open to the endless possibilities that are available to us, if we just take the time to look. I am so grateful for the connections made in the ‘digital’ world but one of my other passions in life is travel and when the clouds start to lift and we can travel again I can not wait to continue allowing these relationships to flourish in ‘physical’ spaces too. I could not be more grateful for the support, guidance, laughter and connection that my online presence has gifted me. And now more than ever I feel like we should be helping our learners realise the positive potential the power of the hashtag can have. -Naomi

You cannot thrive in isolation. Collective thinking leads to innovation, creativity, and growth. I too am grateful for the invisible team members who were destined to place themselves in my path and join me on an infinite learning journey. Together, we are rowing towards a vision, exploring needed conversations, encountering new experiences, and provoking new thinking. In an ever changing global society, educators have a unique opportunity to model the power of connection, collaboration, and new possibilities they were destined to be a part of. They have the ability to show learners and educators alike how the power of a hashtag will connect you to the new teammates you were always meant to know! -Lauren

How have you felt the power of the hashtag? How can it be used positively to impact others? We would love to hear from you!

More about Naomi Toland:

Follow the hashtag #Empathetic_Educators

Follow Naomi on Twitter: @naomi_toland

Follow Naomi on Instagram: @naomi.m.t

Naomi’s website: www.naomitoland.com