Elisa Waingorthttps://elisamusingoutloud.wordpress.comI am currently a grade 5 teacher in the Spanish bilingual program in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I have been teaching for more than 30 years in South and North America. I love working with kids and adults. I am a teacher who reads voraciously. I love adult, YA, MG and picture books equally. I am a proud teacher writer. Every day I look forward to the challenge of learning to be a better teacher and a better human. Join me.
Every year, in January, I struggle to find the word that will guide me through the New Year. Most of the time, before February rolls around, I either forget what word I chose or the word I picked just doesn’t resonate with me anymore.
This year is no different.
I started with CREATE.
Who can argue that’s not a great word? I mean, who doesn’t want to immerse themselves in a year dedicated to creating and making things?
Yet, at the last minute, I discarded the word CREATE.
Why, you ask?
Well, I decided that if wanted to be true to myself, I would have to recognize that it just felt fake.
Not that I don’t want to create things or that I don’t typically create anything because I do.
As a teacher-writer, I am always creating.
I create lesson plans.
I write feedback for students.
I reflect in my teacher journal.
I write for my students.
I create and publish blog posts.
I am a creator.
But this is not the word I think should guide my year; it didn’t grab me or find me like I’d hoped it would.
It didn’t feel authentic.
So, I put it aside.
And, the other night, as I tossed and turned in my sleep, other words started seeping through my consciousness.
And, then I realized that I didn’t have to just have one word. I could have many words.
I almost climbed out of bed to write down those three words in my notebook. Instead I kept repeating them to myself, over and over again, in the hopes that when I woke up in the morning they’d be the first words I’d utter to myself.
Well, it worked!
I wrote them in my notebook and later looked for synonyms.
What I discovered is that each of these three words – evolve, change and grow – appear in each other’s lists of synonyms.
I knew then that I’d hit on the right set of words. Next, I chose the one that I thought could guide everything I do this year: EVOLVE.
Every month, I will choose a different word to focus on because having one for the year is just too overwhelming and doesn’t work for me. If the word I chose for a particular month feels like it should continue into the next month, who am I to argue with that feeling? I will keep it until it has served its purpose.
So, my word for January is SHIFT. That in and of itself could be someone’s #OLW. But I’m going to take it slowly. I will find ways to shift my teaching, my thinking about myself, my thinking about others, my advocacy work and my relationships. Just to name a few! LOL!
I see so much in my life that could benefit from a slight shift here or there. So much work that I still need to do on myself.
In fact, I’ve already seen a shift in the way I engage with the challenges of teaching online.
I subscribe to Poetry Minute, a website curated by former Poet Laureate Ken Nesbitt. A recent post featured Kalli Dakos’ poem, There’s a New Me This Year, which inspired me to reflect on all of the ways I try to reinvent myself.I wrote the call and response piece below in an attempt to sort through my conflicted feelings and thoughts about becoming a NEW ME.
There’s a New ME This Year
An organized ME.
I’m already pretty organized. At least that’s what everyone tells me even though I don’t see myself that way. So, can I become a new and improved, organized ME that can see me for what I am and says: that’s good enough?
A find-everything-when-I-need-it ME.
That would certainly be a good thing! I may be organized but when I need something, I can’t find it. What good is being organized if I can’t find the things I need when I need them?
A focused-on-my-important-goals ME.
Oh, this is so hard! I always have so many goals I want to focus on. Which ones are the truly important ones? The ones that will leave a mark? Will be my legacy?
A start-to-finish-I-can-do-it ME.
A not-afraid-of-everything ME. A worst-scenario-is-the-last-scenario-I-will-consider ME.
Working on both of those for sure!
A not-everything-is-about-me-someone’s-out-to-get-me ME. I’m-not-a-victim-anymore Me.
This has been my defence mechanism for so long that I don’t know if I would be able to tell the difference if I’m being targeted by someone of if I’m being targeted by myself!
The problem is that parts of the NEW ME
are not like ME
Is that so bad? Can I reinvent and sustain a NEW ME even if it will feel strange at first? Even if it will feel like I’m pretending to be a ME I don’t recognize? Or will all of these intentions just flitter away at the end of January?
If you are not familiar with Austin Kleon, including his books and regular email posts, then you need to stop what you’re doing and get cozy with one of the best creator minds out there.
What I love about Austin Kleon’s work is that it can apply to anyone in any field who is doing creative work. And, what is creative work, you may ask? Well, in my mind, creative work is anything you do to invent or reinvent ideas, projects, products, etc that teach, help, support or entertain others.
As a teacher, I consider myself a creator, and not because I create lesson plans, though there’s that, but because I am constantly inventing ways to better teach and connect with my students.
As a teacher-writer I create writing for myself and others that hopefully inspires and nudges others to do whatever they are moved to do. And that is another reason I like Austin Klein’s work: it is never prescriptive, always inventive and I can often find a personal or professional application to everything he shares. And he shares a lot!
So, today I want to share how he has taken the idea of morning pages, transformed it, and allowed me to see even further possibilities.
In his email newsletter this week, Austin Kleon wrote about how he has taken Julia Cameron’s morning pages idea and adapted it to his needs. To me this is the sign of an innovative mind: someone who hears about an idea and that remixes it to address a need they have. Austin Kleon has done this and I have taken it and adapted it to my situation as a teacher.
Morning pages are similar to a brain dump. You just write what’s in your head in a stream of consciousness style for a designated number of words, pages or minutes. The original morning pages idea was to write three pages, first thing in the morning, about whatever comes into your mind.
This is very therapeutic and helps set the tone for the day. It may help clear your mind of noise to make room for what’s important to you.
It may highlight important ideas or projects you want to address.
It may help create a list of projects for your work day.
It can be a way to get unstuck when you don’t know what to write about. A kind of mental meditation habit to clear your mind. Once on the page, it can be set aside.
Austin Kleon writes three things he notices on one day and then the next day he’ll write about it in an extended way. This is one of the ways he has adapted the original morning pages idea. The three things he notices fits in with his practice of keeping track of his daily activities.
When I read this, I had a lightbulb moment. What if I focus in on one student every day and write down three things I notice during our online classes. Then, later that day, I write long about each of those things? What might it reveal about that child? What might it reveal about what I tend to focus on? What might this practice tell me about what I may be missing and need to uncover?
So, I started doing this two days ago in my teacher journal. And, it is helping me synthesize and pinpoint areas to focus on for each child. Once I’ve done a few children, I may discover a pattern or a trend to address in my teaching.
The possibilities are endless, but right now it is helping me feel like I’m doing deeper work to get to know and understand my students so that I can connect with them better and focus my teaching to their needs.
We recently adopted a puppy. She is about a year old and is a German Shepherd mix. I knew she was for us the first time we met her.
I love dogs and I don’t like cats. (I just had to say that.) All of the dogs we’ve owned have been outdoor dogs. That was when we lived in Ecuador. Now we live in Canada and so Osa is an indoor dog.
I didn’t know how we would do with an indoor dog. I didn’t know how I would do with an indoor dog.
The feedings – I feed her in the mornings and let her roam around the yard.
The winter walks – my son is in charge of that, and he loves it.
All the hair around the house; chewing stuff that she shouldn’t be chewing; accidents and more. Well, all of that and the more too has been part of life with Osa during the past month.
What has been a revelation to me is that she seeks me out. She nudges me to play. She literally throws herself on her side so I can pet her. She locks her paws around my foot as if to say, “Stay. I want more.”
Earlier this month, I co-led a Conversation to Build Capacity, titled: Building Community in Digital Spaces with Garry Smolyansky, @gar_small, for @TheMentoree.
There were seven of us in the conversation and during the one hour session we started to build a community of adult learners on Zoom.
How did that happen, you ask?
I think we set this in mention because we agreed to adhere to a few norms of participation that allowed all members opportunities to have their voices heard. That’s why we intentionally keep these conversations to no more than 10 participants, not counting the presenter(s).
This intentional design allows everyone to speak up and be heard. The presenters guide the conversation based on a limited number of carefully crafted questions that invite participants to actively engage in the discussion, whether through the chat, unmuting your mic, adding comments to a jamboard, or by sharing the link to the presentation and inviting the participants to respond to questions or prompts by writing directly on the slides. Although I would have never thought to do that, my creative co-presenter made it it work allowing everyone to have a new way to join in on the conversation.
As I listened to the voices in the Zoom meeting, my most important takeaway was this: the way to create community in online spaces is to remember our humanity.
Sounds simple, but it requires a particular mindset. It means that we teachers need to let go of negative biases about what would happen if we opened up online spaces so that ALL our students are included.
Let the kids share their pets.
Let them stretch and turn off their cameras.
Let the occasional sibling into the classroom.
Let them use the chat!
Let them show you a piece of their lives. And, make sure you share something of yourself, too.
My students have said they want time to talk to their friends. Who doesn’t?
Building community is about getting to know each other, making connections, discovering commonalities and learning how we are different and celebrating those differences in meaningful ways. That does not change when in a virtual space. It’s just a little harder and takes more time, but it’s doable.
So, I log in to our Google Meet a few minutes before each class so kids can chat with each other. They can also come in to the drop-in times to chat with their friends then.
I always ask if they need to talk to me first. If not, I am just a presence in the room. I keep my headphones and my camera on. My mic is muted. I listen in. And my students chat about the stuff that 9 and 10-year-olds like to chat about. Unless someone needs to talk with me, I use the time to work in the background. If I need to talk with a student who is present, I ask them if it’s OK to do that with everyone there. Usually that’s not a problem and the other kids are treated to vicarious learning by eavesdropping.
Connections matter. The more the kids connect with each other by cementing previous friendships and starting new ones – my students come from three different schools in two different areas of the city – the more likely they will be to engage in learning and the more they will be willing to support each other throughout our time together.
Admittedly, a highly contested aspect of our class online experience has been the use and misuse of the CHAT. Although we are struggling and learning together, I am adamant (obsessed might be a better word) that we figure it out together. I will be writing more about that in another blog post.
I don’t have all the answers, or even most of the answers, to how to build community in an online space. I am observing, reading, chatting about it here and there. So, I invite you to continue this conversation with me.
Leave a comment below about how you are building community (online or offline – we can adapt) or what questions, suggestions, ideas etc come up for you about what I’ve shared here. Pushback is welcomed! And in the spirit of collaboration, I thank you for your contribution!
The teacher listening more than talking, still matters.
Laughter still matters.
Meaningful assessment still matters.
What matters hasn’t changed. Only the ways we are inventing the space for what matters, online or otherwise, is what is changing.
Today, during one of the three drop-in times I offer students throughout the day, two girls stayed on just to chat. They didn’t have any questions about assignments or the big ideas we are studying. No. Instead, after everyone else had logged off they got to chatting about their Leggo creations.
During reading workshop we talked about how we can celebrate when we finish reading. Most of the ideas were doable and then there were two that didn’t sit well with me for different reasons: (1) eating and (2) watching a movie after reading 10 books. My first reaction was, “Nope. We ain’t doing that.” The first for obvious reasons and the second one for even more obvious reasons.
Then, I thought. Well, eating is what people do; they break bread. What if a student wants to celebrate with food? What if we everyone brings something to eat during reading workshop? I can live with that!
I am not about external motivation, especially for reading. I never had pizza parties in my classroom to reward students for reading 100 books in the year. I think we can do better than that to encourage a life-long love of reading in our students.
So, watching a movie after reading 10 books just doesn’t sit well with me. Yet, I want to make sure my students feel heard and respected. So, I suggested watching a movie, either commercial or one a student creates, as something we can do during a drop-in time.
Patience is key.
Being flexible while remembering what matters is essential.
If you are teaching online, what is working for you? I’d love to hear your ideas.