What Will Your Legacy Be?


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I spent some time yesterday watching the History Channel. Featured were extraordinary people who left behind an immeasurable influence on the world. I started thinking about people like Martin Luther King, Jr. John F. Kennedy. Nelson Mandela. Michelangelo. What do these people have in common? They created lasting legacies on the common human experience.

Legacies exist on a continuum. They can be for the good, or not (Hitler comes to mind). But either way they leave a mark on the world, they create and shape the world and the people who come after them. A legacy might be one of hope, or peace, or service. It might be a legacy of possibilities, or perseverance, or creativity. It might be oppression, or intolerance. It might even be a system or structure, such as the Peace Corps or the Vietnam Memorial, that symbolizes a collective legacy. Lasting legacies shape and define people. We might be influenced by legacies of a  widespread scale such as these examples, or a smaller scale, such as the legacy left by one’s grandmother, or dad. A teacher, coach, or pastor.

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One thing that I think is important for us to do from time to time is think about our own future legacies. This is a bigger picture idea; we all want our lives to have mattered. It helps move us out of selfishness and live a life with purpose. It allows us to see beyond ourselves and consider our actions and behaviors as they relate to and help to shape or define that legacy. It forces us to commit to something beyond ourselves. To have an impact on a life, or lives, requires unselfish goals and a steadfast commitment to living a life that matters. It requires human connections and authenticity.

In thinking about my own journey,  I wrote down a few ideas that represent significant values and hold important meaning for me. Values and aspirations that, when pursued passionately and fiercely, will hopefully join forces to create that legacy. Here are three of those thoughts:

I want to encourage dreamers to not only have dreams, but chase them. Pursue them with all their might.

I want to validate. For others to know they are valuable simply because they exist. That their personal worth is not something that is up for debate-not now, or in 10 years, or in 30 years…

I want to inspire someone to create, or invent, or produce, or discover, or write, or spend years trying to solve what once was considered a mathematical impossibility.

And then it hit me:

My own legacy might be seen in the legacies that will be left not by me, but by future generations.

I am an educator. Every day, I have the opportunity to do that fierce pursuing, to live out those aspirations and defining values that I hope will become a part of my own legacy. Maybe even to touch the legacies of people yet to grow into their own aspirations. My legacy just might be that of a Legacy Builder.

And I’ll take that.

Here’s to all my fellow Legacy Builders, as you go about  fiercely pursuing your own passions and shaping the legacies to come. I am honored to be in your company.

What might your legacy be? What steps are you taking each day to reaffirm and build upon it?

Five Ideas For Creating A Classroom Community

I love the above video “Have A Seat-Make A Friend”, from Soul Pancake. No matter what type of teaching system we are in, be it self contained, team teaching, or departmentalized, creating a community of learners is one of the most important things we can do. Research has shown again and again that students will not open themselves up to learning, or contributing to the learning community, unless they feel safe, respected, and valued.

Building relationships is the key to our work with students, and we strive to help support strong student-to-student relationships as well. As I continue to think about the importance of students feeling connected to the school community (recent post is here), I wanted to share five simple ideas for building and sustaining an authentic classroom community:

1. Celebrate Uniqueness.

Each student brings unique perspectives and ideas to our classrooms. By getting to know our students, and what intrinsically drives them, we can highlight their individual strengths and perspectives.

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I will sometimes ask my students what things are on their bucket list; it’s a great way I’ve found to not only learn about them, but a good way for them to make connections with other kids. We often watch Kid President videos, and through these we have some great conversations which help to build one very important thing: how each of our unique selves are striving for the same common ground. This is a powerful way to model a love of diversity. By posing questions, inviting unique ideas and asking simple “How do you see it?” questions, we open the door for students to feel valued for who they are, individually.

2. Value Mistakes.

The closing of a lesson is a great opportunity to showcase mistakes as valuable learning tools. Often I purposely bring a mistake to our closing sessions. I will ask students to share a mistake they made, and how they worked through it. I identify these instances during the work period and plan them into the closing, so that I am not just highlighting those who got something right, but those who hit a snag! If the mistake hasn’t been worked out, often times that opens the door to rich discussions and collaboration around that mistake. Priceless! This is a simple way to put power behind the words and authentically show the value of mistakes as an important part of the learning process. Being transparent and owning my own mistakes is also a great way to do this. I share mistakes often and freely!

3. Honor Student Voice.

We are wise to give students a voice that matters in our instructional design and assessment processes. Allowing for a variety of ways to show learning is one way to give students a voice in their own learning. Another way is to solicit feedback from students on our own practices. I recently did this here and it was a great learning experience for me! It also solidified to students that their voice mattered, not only by giving me this feedback, but watching me make adjustments based on what I learned from them. Differentiation and allowing for student choice are further ways we can honor student voice in our classrooms. Finally, providing multiple opportunities for students to give feedback to one another builds trust, and trust is a key for a flourishing community. Students celebrate, push, question, and honor each other through each interaction they have. I recently came across this tool from @teachheath and I think it is really useful for strengthening student dialogue (and building a trusting environment):

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4. Identify Experts.

We all have students who excel in different areas; set them up as experts! Our schools are full of students waiting to be dubbed the go-to for all things math, or writing, or football, or technology, or good reads, or….you get the idea. Not only does this allow them to experience the joy of helping others, it also pushes their own thinking. When we can teach someone else, we truly own the learning. Championing our students’ gifts and setting up our classrooms so that those gifts are sought after is a great way to help create an inspiring classroom community. It is also a powerful way to build collaboration within the community; removing me from “knowledge keeper” status and allowing students to truly learn with and through each other. My teaching has taken on greater depth as I have handed over the “expert” hat to my kids, and after all- I am no expert! I enjoy the freedom of being able to listen and learn from them. Maria Montesorri said, “The children are now working as if I did not exist”. I strive for that every day, because the learning is better and the community is stronger when we are all learning from one another.

5. Scaffold Learning.

None of us is ever going to be completely able in all experiences. We continue learning all our life, and don’t we scaffold for ourselves all the time? I know when I am making a new dish, or creating a piece of Mixed Media Art, I am always seeking input and feedback from those around me. I also need scaffolding, such as the recipe, or a picture next to it which is even better! I consult my artist friends for help on something I am trying to create, such as a textured background, and some of my earlier pieces took a great deal of scaffolding. When we honor the learning and maintain the integrity of the lesson, while scaffolding our students’ steps on their mastery journey, we set each other up for successes. And success builds success. By carefully scaffolding to their strengths and needs, we have engaged each student in that lesson. Day after day, this helps build an environment that supports risk-taking and nurtures feelings of being safe, understood, and included.

Creating a community is perhaps the most important thing we can do, not only to support and drive student achievement, but to support the social and emotional needs of the whole child.  But let’s don’t stop there! We can also use these same ideas as we build our staff communities.

What ideas do you have for building a classroom and/or school community? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Engaged And Connected Kids

We all know the value of building relationships with kids. I would say that is the key to all of our other efforts  in schools.  Recently I thought about this as I was watching a news report of yet another recent school tragedy, this time involving a student in Pennsylvania. One common theme that seems to surface is that the student(s) carrying out these acts are often described as “loners”; not appearing to be connected to school, not engaged with the school community. I know this isn’t the case 100% of the time, but it is the majority.

In an article published by ASCD, Robert Blum shares this frightening statistic from Klem and Connell (2004):

By high school, as many as 40 to 60 percent of all students—urban, suburban, and rural—are chronically disengaged from school. (p. 262)

We need to start early! We build relationships with kids—but are they building relationships with others? Are they engaged around, within, and through the school? Here are just a few ideas I wanted to share as we continue the important dialogue about student engagement and relationships:

Developing Resiliency. Adversity and hardships present themselves to all at one time or another, and those who have a strong sense of resiliency have tools to help them deal with and overcome challenges that arise in their lives. Having character programs in school is one avenue toward this. School and classroom culture that promotes problem solving and highlight things like grit and tenacity really align well with this. Supportive, caring adults who watch for and respond to struggles by providing a support network help kids develop a sense of resiliency as well. To further our message of support, we sometimes play a song during our school wide weekly assemblies called “Lean On Me” (Video Above), and the entire school community sings along. The lyrics are important reminders for our young kiddos:

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong. And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on”.

Creating Opportunities For Relationships. Extracurricular activities provide ways to develop and highlight student strengths, build confidence and nurturing a feeling of involvement. As well, student clubs are a great way for kids to seek out those with common interests and develop relationships with peers whom they may not have contact with in their classroom settings. Making connections. Whether we are talking about clubs, classroom activities, after-school programs or elective offerings, variety is important. Getting to know students as individuals and engaging in casual conversations, even a quick 5 minute interaction in the hall between passing periods or by chatting them up at lunch,  we can evaluate needs and interests and provide a greater variety of opportunities for student involvement.

Family Engagement. This can have many facets. Inviting families into the school, arranging and hosting after school events, harnessing social media to reach out to parents and encourage their partnership, the possibilities are many for making family connections. And when families are connected, it’s likely their child will also feel a connection. If you have limited attendance at after  hours events, consider how your staff might bring the activity to them. We have a “Reading Posse” that periodically drives through neighborhoods in our community to “catch kids reading” and hand out books to kids. We advertise the locations and times so that families know when and where we will be. I think this is a great way to engage with the community and build connections. It doesn’t always have to take place at school (effectively excluding those who may not be able to come due to family obligations, work or transportation issues).

Team Togetherness. In small schools, everyone knows everyone else. But in larger environments, and even within small schools, some students can still feel invisible. One way for us to help promote a sense of belonging is to create teams within schools, and special identifiers for those teams. For example, some grade levels have their own shirts, or slogans, or a particular experience that is reserved only for that grade level (at my school, 4th graders always put on the Poetry Slam). These milestone events are a way to create something special about each grade level, and the students who are part of it can feel a sense of purpose and belonging – even through something small like their team shirt. Don’t we all feel connected to our favorite sports team when we wear their gear? They become “our team” and we proudly identify. We can do the same in school.

Peer Groups. I like the idea of peer mediation groups who help students work through differences or difficulties. Leadership clubs are also a great way to develop school ambassadors who can then reach out to other kids. When my daughter was a new student at a junior high in my current district, she was welcomed by a group of students who were the designated “welcoming committee” on campus. This really helped her feel like she belonged and navigate a new school and system. She also had immediate “friends” who were glad she was there, and introduced her to other students and potential friends. This was a huge benefit! It’s a very good way of getting kids connected and plugged in—from their first day of arrival.

Mentoring. Community connections are important in helping students feel a sense of belonging. Bringing in adults to act as mentors and having groups like Watch Dogs  are some ways of introducing students to other adults who they can make connections with. Here is a video about that program:

Teachers who mentor students who are not their own is another way we can reach out to kids. Administrators and support staff play a huge role in providing another pathway for students to connect with someone. I know for a fact there are things my principal knows about a kid or two in my own class that I was not even aware of, because that student felt a special connection there and shared something with her.  It takes a village!

These are just a few of the ways we can help kids feel connected, contributing, and valued.  We all need to feel a sense of belonging. What other ideas do you have for engaging kids and helping them avoid isolation? What creative ways has your school found for doing this? Please share!

My thoughts and prayers go out to the community of Murrysville, PA.