The ebbs and flows of education can keep you on the edge of your seat. The days are full and all the minutes you live can pass you by if you let them. When you enter spaces of reflection, you can rewind time and recognize that the minutes are small moments in time. They are a courageous compilation of big and small wins, challenges, a plethora of learning experiences and interactions that are stirring within.
An educator’s collection of minutes are rooted in the well-intended spirit of supporting colleagues, community, and the most important stakeholders…students. While you walk through many unpredictable minutes in your days, it is clear that you are continually yearning for spaces to connect, collaborate, share your voice, actively listen to others, network, and sit in the driver’s seat of your learning so you can expand your impact and broaden your influence.
The sentiments shared above may have you wondering…
Where can you find both like minds and different minds?
Who are the people who will reaffirm your unique trajectory and where are the others who will push your perspectives to new places?
Who will lift you higher, celebrate your successes, embrace your failures, and love you harder when you step into the mess of learning?
The #EdCampLI Learning Ecosystem
Welcome to #EdCampLI, a participant-driven learning ecosystem blanketed in a sea of educators who will enthusiastically wake up on a Saturday to reflect on the educators they were, are, and are continuously striving to be. The contagious spirit of an #EdCampLI room lights up with the hopes, wishes, and dreams to learn and infinitely grow a solid professional learning network. It doesn’t matter where you are on the continuum of your educational journey. At an #EdCampLI event, the professional learning playing field is leveled. You are embraced. You are welcomed. You have a seat at the table. There is no hierarchy and there are no titles when talking about learning and teaching. I used to call it teaching and learning, but this is the new phrase I learned from Nicole Hunn and Joseph Wiener during the 3rd session of the 7th annual #EdCampLI event, held on October 15, 2022 at Bethpage High School. While I was participating in a conversation with the educators around me about this phrase, it made me think about the George Couros quote, “If you want to be a master teacher, you have to be a master learner.” And although I facilitated two sessions at #EdCampLI, I felt no different being a participant in another. You will find yourself in learning spaces that are collaborative, not evaluative. You will know that in this learning ecosystem, everyone is a teacher and a learner and everyone is valued as a leader of their learning.
The Session Board Lives
As educators swarm into an EdCamp, you will watch them hover around a living and growing session board. As they chat with colleagues old and new, they are simultaneously, personalizing their session schedules to meet their individual learning needs. While attending sessions, it is known that if one session doesn’t meet your needs, you can drift to another and then maybe another. That’s the #EdCampLI way! There are no egos. There is no judgment. There is only acceptance and kindness. Your time is valued. Your time is precious. YOU choose how you will learn.
Reconnecting and Connecting
At #EdCampLI you reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. You will leave with your own stories and moments of impact. The interactions you may have had at #EdCampLI may seem like a microcosm of your day. But, you will see, those interactions will be much bigger than that. It’s the collection of small moments with various people that become your stories to share. They will be waiting for you to courageously unwrap at the right place, at the right time, with the right people.
#EdCampLI Will Lift You Higher
So for the next #EdCampLI, be ready to share the goodness you bring to education. Be ready to be an active learner who takes it all in at your own pace. Be ready to be the educator who unexpectedly finds yourself launched into a session of your own because you were inspired by the energy and the gifts of others. You have found your place. Take your seat at the table because #EdCampLI will lift you higher!
As I was waiting for my flight to board from a much needed vacation this week, I decided to take one last quick scroll through a few of my inboxes before my journey home. While scrolling, I recognized a name I hadn’t quite thought about in recent years. I carefully scrolled back up my smartphone screen as my thumb finger hovered over a name that was frequently seen and vocalized in my household 8 years ago. It suddenly dawned on me that this was a message from my oldest son’s kindergarten teacher. As I gazed at her name, my mind took me back in time. I could clearly see my now 13 year old son’s 5 year old kindergarten face skipping joyfully to the bus stop, filled with enthusiasm and excitement as he was always ready for a new day of wonder and discovering what it means to be a learner. “Mrs. H is so kind, Mommy. She is always smiling when I walk into the classroom, she never yells, and tells me I’m a reader, I’m a writer, I can do things.” were the daily sentiments that rested on his lighthearted, malleable heart. My thoughts were interrupted by me curiously clicking on the unexpected and unpredictable message.
As I began reading the message, I remembered hearing that she had moved from New York to Florida many years ago. She had crossed my mind every time I looked at old photos or projects my son lovingly and eagerly created in her class. I anticipated that the message would be a quick hello, possibly checking-in on my son, her former student, or perhaps because she knew I was in education, she would have a question or two about a topic on her mind. Instead, I received this message:
Tears collected in my grateful eyes as I pictured Mrs. H over 1,000 miles away listening to her principal read a blog post titled Riding the Waves of Change to her faculty that I had written during the height of the pandemic. I had written that post with a lot of emotion and change pushing on my heart and resting on my shoulders. And some way, somehow, her principal found my writing appropriate to read on the first day of school to help set the tone for the year to possibly motivate, inspire, and influence her staff. Together, they can ride the waves of change, collectively celebrate their big and small wins, and overcome any obstacles that can be unexpectedly thrust upon them in the ever changing landscape of education.
Why Do I Write?
This message encouraged me to revisit the following, “Why do you write, Lauren?” is a question I am asked frequently. I do not have one particular answer. The truth is, there are many reasons, but here are a few that rise to the top of my list. Perhaps these may be the very reasons that inspire both you and your students to take the leap and write a little more than you have considered before.
To Document My Learning – A few years ago, I connected with George Couros through using his book the Innovator’s Mindset for a book study in the mentor program I facilitated in a previous school district. I was always inspired and influenced by George’s writing and had several opportunities to share my thinking and ideas with him. One day, during a virtual mentor meeting that he visited, he challenged me in front of the group of mentors/mentees to start blogging on my own platform. “But George, what would I have to share that no one else knows or has seen before?” I often shared. “Lauren, you write for yourself to reflect on your own learning,” George would confidently reply. He went on to say that what may be obvious to you, is not always obvious to others. That made me pause. He is right. How many times have you shared an idea that was obvious to you, but were shocked to learn that others were hearing it for the first time? We revisited this dialogue and my writing journey in THIS #InnovatorsMindset podcast titled, Why Mentorship Matters! Here is a wonderful video that is shared in the podcast mentioned above titled, Obvious to you. Amazing to Others. It will take less than 2 minutes to watch and can be encouraging for writers (educators and students) who may feel hesitant to share their ideas in writing.
2. ToMake the Invisible, Visible – Adam Grant recently shared the following graphic and sentiment in a tweet below. “Writing isn’t what you do after you have an idea. It’s how you develop an inkling into an insight. Turning thoughts into words sharpens reasoning. What’s fuzzy in your head is clear on the page. “I’m not a writer” shouldn’t stop you from writing. Writing is a tool for thinking.” I think I read this tweet several times. Each time I read it, I said the big word YES in my head even more! Like most educators, I cannot turn off my thinking switch. I am constantly creating ideas in my head and when I get into that zone, I need to write! Some are ideas that have already been implemented and others are newer versions of those ideas. One of the strategies I used to craft ideas, is that I use the notes section in my phone to write what I am thinking. That is exactly what I started to do in the airport and on the airplane as I thought about writing this post. In addition to that, I use it as a space to collect notes and quotes from books I read and presentations I attend. Just like a puzzle, I piece those ideas together to form new ones, I write about and implement them. Overtime, I have been able to bring more clarity to my thinking by writing. I can then continuously revisit that space to curate my resources and refine my practices.
3. To Connect with Others – I am not concerned with the amount of “likes”, retweets, or comments my writing receives. That’s not why I write.I write to reflect on my own learning and for that reason, I am not always aware that my collection of writing has inadvertentlyexpanded my impact and broadened my reach to other people I may have not known before. I know that writing brings people together. This has been proven to me time and time again as I have connected with educators by asking me questions about my writing, practices, and perspectives on various educational topics. I have collaborated with some of those educators on writing projects, presentations, and other educational endeavors. I have even visited and gone on vacations with some! Most of these amazing people have become a vital part of my professional learning network and serve as sounding boards, mentors, and guides. Your impact can reach far and wide through writing and the connections you make can forge significant collaborations and friendships that can sharpen your lens and impact your future.
Back to the Beginning
I took my seat on the airplane and thought about the message I received the entire plane ride home. Isn’t it ironic how a teacher who made a significant impact on my son’s perception of learning was now sitting in her new school listening to her principal read a piece of writing I wrote a few years ago? In that particular post, I shared, “As we move forward in an ever-changing educational landscape and make teaching and learning practices more accessible for students, families, and educators, it could also be a good time to revalue decisions that involve change. Go below the surface, explore the inner workings of the system…there is so much more to take in.”
You’re a Writer Are you thinking about going below the surface to deepen your reflections and share your voice with others? YOU have so much to offer and others have so much more to take in. Writing has the potential to travel into the hands of those who need it. The beautiful part about it is that it doesn’t need a stamp or shipping box. It needs a space to manifest your spirit, nurture your ideas, and capture your inner thoughts. Writing can cultivate courage in others. Writing is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be. Your impact stretches farther and resonates more deeply than you think. The world will be a little better with your voice in it. YOU are a writer… you can do these things.
In New York, educators and students are halfway through the summer. You may have needed this space and time to reconnect with what you value, recharge to nourish the spirit and joy for what you do, and reflect on the past to plan for a better future. Educators are aware that there will never be enough time to meet the demands and all that is required in our daily personal and professional lives. In fact, I have never met an educator who didn’t appreciate how precious time is and work towards using it to deliver above and beyond the norm.
Leaning into Time
Leaning into time allows you to manifest the right personal energy that is a key ingredient to feeling connected to your work. Energy is contagious and your engagement in your work is a choice. As you continue to breathe and think about how to approach a new school year with intention, passion, and purpose, you will also continue to keep your most precious stakeholders at the forefront of your planning. Make no mistake about it, the curriculum will always be there, but how can you give your learners access to it without putting THEM first?
A New School Year Breathes Life
To me, a new school year breathes life into awakening opportunities to let your learners guide your planning. In George Couros’ latest blogpost, 4 Things to Consider When Moving Into a New Position, he shares, “The beautiful thing about new beginnings is that you not only get a fresh start but so does everyone around you with whom you interact.” That said, I am going to share some ideas to think about as you embark on a new season of being the legacy-building, great leader and educator who has the ability to open hearts and minds while giving new meaning to what it means to be a compassionate, empathetic citizen and learner. My hope is that these ideas will encourage leaders and teachers to ask the following questions that were inspired by George Couros:
Would I want to be an administrator or teacher in the building/district I serve?
Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?
4 Interconnected Ideas to Consider When Planning For a New School Year
1 . Connection is a Learning Tool
When we become more worried about data than the students who are represented by that data, we have lost our way. Before assessing my students and their learning in any capacity, I have always considered getting to know them as human beings first. You will be creating a variety of learning experiences for students over the course of the year so why not get their input as to what inspires and motivates them as people? Capitalize on their strengths and show them that their voice matters. When I was in the classroom, these 5 questions created by George Couros helped me develop learner profiles that gave me insight beyond what any other data could provide for me. The answers to these questions will glean vital information about your learners and support you in crafting learning activities with your students’ interests in mind. Revisit these questions to empower students to own their learning. They can answer them a few times over the course of the year so you can see their evolution as human beings and learners. By embedding their thinking into questions you may ask them in the future, will help foster meaningful relationships and establish trust. For school leaders, you may consider flipping these questions to ask your faculty and staff. For example, What are the qualities you look for in a leader?
During my recent administrative retreat with my school district, Laura Campbell, John Maxwell certified leadership and life coach, invited our administrative team to explore and identify our top 5 core values. Susan M. Heathfield’s definition of core values is, “Core values are traits or qualities that are not just worthwhile, they represent an individual’s or an organization’s highest priorities, deeply held beliefs, and core, fundamental driving forces. They are the heart of what your organization and its employees stand for in the world.” By connecting to yourself, you will be able to connect better to everyone else you serve. The relationship we have with ourselves is a mirror. When you see who you are and know what you value, you can better serve and understand others. Why is this important in education? Knowing the people who surround you, can help you understand how to respond to their strengths and can provide you with essential tools to support their needs. Let’s be clear, if you are working in an educational organization, consider yourself a leader for kids and colleagues. You will always be making shifts in your leadership. Having a plan and knowing what you and others bring to the table will help others do great things. CLICK HERE to find an activity that can help you, your colleagues, and students identify their core values. CLICK HERE to find a list of core values to choose from when engaging in the activity.
3. Instill Hope and Joy
I don’t remember a specific lesson a teacher taught me. What I remember is the joy, the fun, the hope a teacher instilled in my heart…this Edutopia tweet caught my attention:
How can we bring hope and joy into our schools and classrooms? This could be a relevant activity to invite your students and staff to engage in in order to gain a deeper understanding of what others perceive the purpose of school to be. Additionally, to me, bringing hope and joy into our spaces begins and ends with the feeling of gratitude. In the Edutopia article, 3 Gratitude Practices That Don’t Involve Journaling by Lainie Rowell, she shares gratitude practices you can implement in your classroom spaces tomorrow. These practices include a gratitude wall that helps to appreciate the good in others, expressing positive affirmations to see the good in ourselves, and a Notice-think-feel-do activity that helps us to cultivate gratitude as a habit. You might ask, what do these gratitude activities have to do with hope and joy? My answer is that when we live grateful lives, we can embody hope and feel the joys life has to offer. Hope gives us and our students the direction, faith, and guidance to acknowledge where we are, where we are going, and how we will get there.
4. Reimagine Learning Spaces
I get the best ideas for writing while driving in the car. I generate and nurture those ideas while laying on the couch. Then, I start my writing at the dining room table and after that, I move back to the couch. Sometimes I will take my laptop outside when I have writer’s block to try and develop some new ideas. What does this tell you about the way I think and learn best? Now, let’s step into the shoes of our learners and ask yourselves the following:
Where do learners get their best ideas?
Where can they grow and nurture them?
How can you explore opportunities that allow your colleagues and students to create deeper connections to their learning environments?
During the administrative retreat I mentioned above, the inspiring and engaging Jolene Levin, CEO at NorvaNivel, leading designer, manufacturer, and supplier of collaborative learning environments empowered our team to think about whether we are setting up our learning spaces to merely just accommodate instead of engaging our learners. Think about it, years ago, you may have walked into a classroom to observe and work on desks arranged in traditional rows with uncomfortable chairs pushed underneath. Especially at the elementary level, learners were and still might be expected to sit and learn in that space for extended periods of time whether they were/are comfortable or not. Now there are many other options for learning spaces that can support students in having positive social, emotional, and academic learning outcomes. I also understand that there are organizations that may not have the resources to acquire the materials needed for more creative and flexible learning spaces. But, it can start with a conversation about its benefits. As Jolene shared, “A facility’s intellectual and physical quality lets every stakeholder know they are worthy.”
How do you plan to organize your learning spaces for your students?
We were encouraged to use an Empathy Mapping activity to put ourselves in the hearts and minds of our learners. Definition: An empathy map is a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to 1) create a shared understanding of user needs, and 2) aid in decision making. CLICK HERE to learn more about Empathy Mapping. When engaging in this activity and conversation, think about the following questions:
What are the user’s goals? What do they all need to do? What jobs do they need to get done? How will they know they are successful?
CLICK HERE to access an Edutopia article titled, The Architecture of Ideal Learning Environments to learn more about modern school design and its impact on student learning.
As you begin to think about how you will approach a new school year with intention, passion, and purpose, remember, the curriculum will ALWAYS be there. When you keep your students, the most precious stakeholders at the heart of your decision-making, your impact and influence can expand beyond the school season you live in. Putting students first is time well spent. Lean into that time and manifest the energy needed to stay connected and engaged in the work. It’s worth it.
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?
Cultivate authentic and caring relationships with everyone around you.
Listen to understand and provide support with advice meant to change lives.
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
It was a pleasure to collaborate on this blog post with Dr. Rob Wottawa!
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.
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:
What are some ways we can leverage relationships to create meaningful opportunities to discuss the moments that matter?
How can we better trust our instincts to “feel” that we are on the right path?
When can we utilize and maximize the expertise of our colleagues to build capacity within?
Can we recognize our cognitive blindspots by inviting people with different perspectives into our conversations?
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.
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?
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 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!
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.
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).
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.
“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!
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.
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.
Call me stubborn, but I refuse to quit! T.R.U.E. G.R.I.T. is the foundation to success in learning and life! Exploring the dynamics of a successful classroom and how grit is a vital characteristic for student achievement