Build Their Character – Don’t Make Them Become One

It’s late and as usual, I give my social media accounts a glance before bed. This summer, while being at home with my kids who are 5, 3 and 1, (I won’t go by months, because I know how annoying that is for some people :P), I’ve been conscious about not being on my phone so much and to be present and engaged so that I catch those moments that slip by so easily when we are hiding behind screens. (Note that I am all for Social Media and that when the time comes, I will be teaching my kids how and when to use it appropriately so they understand the importance of having a positive digital footprint- Social LEADia  IS my next read, after all!! :).

Forgive me for rambling-I’m known to do so on occasion as my mind wonders and wanders!! As I was saying – as I was sitting in bed checking our school #SageCreekLRSD, I came across a Tweet from my principal wanting to know our thoughts on this picture. I had to get out of bed and blog about it, because 140 characters didn’t allow me to express my thoughts thoroughly. I’m also known to be a night owl so here I go….why not?!

Immediately- I agreed with Tom Loud‘s tweet. Since I joined the world of Twitter for the purpose of growing my PLN and learning from people who are passionate and driven, I find myself liking and retweeting many of his thoughts. When I read something that resonates with me, I like it and retweet it so I can reference it later. But then, my principal pushed my thinking by asking us to reflect on this statement. If it was an either or, I would definitely chose the later statement because as we know it, success can be defined in more ways than one and if I were to teach my students how to be successful based on my definition of the word, I would be unsuccessful in doing so. But in this case, I don’t believe it’s a one or none option. That, is the beauty of teaching, leading and learning.

I believe resiliency needs to be taught and modeled in classrooms and in homes- but being successful and what it means to be successful is a topic that deserves to be discussed with our students. I do agree it is crucial to teach them how to respond when they are not successful, but would also add that it is as important, if not more important to discuss how to respond when others aren’t succeeding. Do we stare, let them be, give them space? Do we offer help, ask them a question, notice their struggle? That whole collaboration piece can be and usually is the solution. Brian Aspinall said it himself – when we’re stuck and need ideas, we go to google. Responding to others’ needs and offering help (and asking for help) is empathy at its finest – which is a point I think we can all agree on –  that empathy is an ability we want our students and children to develop.

Earlier this week, I was watching one of Brian Aspinall‘s TEdx Talks on Education Reform. At one point, he explains the impact his Papa had on him growing up and how his teachings changed once he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Brian then shares with us how he still continued to learn from his Papa, even though he had Alzheimer’s, by watching him work. This man never gave up and was determined to find a solution to a given problem. He remained persistent even when the task became challenging. In a classroom setting, having explicit discussions are important, but we can’t forget that our students also learn from observation. They are always watching, feeling, and tuned-in, which is why it is so important we respond appropriately when we, as teachers, are not successful. What we choose to say and what we don’t say both give students a message. I believe the statement in this picture can and should be a message intended not only for kids themselves, but adults as well. This tweet also ties in well to Brian Aspinall‘s latest Golf Cart Vlog Reflection – How Do We Evaluate Failure?In his vlog, Brian mentions the importance of defining failure, the concept of embracing it, providing good feedback, and reevaluating evaluation.

In the picture shown at the top of the post, we talk about not being successful. My interpretation of these few words is synonymous to failure. Keep in mind though that I am one of those who believe failure is proof that we are trying. That failure gives us feedback into trying again but while changing a variable, tweaking, tinkering and reflecting to ultimately find a solution or to better ourselves. Failing is a way to move forward. To me failing is a reason to not give up and to persist in order to reach the objective we’ve set for our self. I am one of those fail-forward-type-thinking people. Failing is not black and white as long as we are learning from the moments when we are “not successful”. Attitude has so much to do with how we see failure and/or success for that matter.

To wrap it up, because I don’t like reading long blog posts myself – I think the best thing we can do for kids as teachers is to reflect on such statements and push our own thinking, especially in times where we are unsuccessful, which subsequently will have an impact on our students mindset and mindsight. As Brian puts it, and the saying on the picture suggests – “We need to shift our(their) thinking from failure is bad, to failure is good.”

I also want my students to create content and not just consume it. Consumption is playing the game of school. George Couros has mentioned this many times before including when he spoke to our staff in April. I don’t want my students playing the game of school because I played that game and like many of my PLN friends, even though I won each and every year, in the end I came out losing. I lost opportunities to think critically, to speak my own mind, to fail and take risks and embrace the process of learning. It’s only since becoming a teacher that I am catching up alongside my students. They say that as a parent, you want your child to have a better upbringing than you had yourself. The same is true for what I want for my students.

I want my students to be makers not fakers. Read John Spencer‘s post “Seven Things That Happen When Kids Embrace a Maker Mindset” here , to understand why making and creating is so important when developing students’ character. I want these qualities to last their lifetime – not just the duration of the school year. As my title suggests, I want my students to build their character while staying true to who they are….not become a character in an everyday play for ten months to “succeed”. This isn’t a play or a game. School is a big part of their everyday life. Make it matter.

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Brain Train

Since reading Sheila Vick’s  post on teaching kids about the brain and self-regulation, followed by Annick Rauch’s post on how she followed up these lessons with different breathing strategies, I found it necessary that my grade ones follow suit. The brain is so complex and I immediately knew I wanted my students to better understand how their brain works in terms and visuals they could understand. The earlier they can name their own emotions and identify how they are feeling, the earlier they can develop their own tools and techniques to self-regulate. Subsequently, they’ll be able to do the same with others who are struggling and will be able to offer them help and support. It’s a true lesson in empathy because we all know there are times where we are all overcome with big emotions. We must not add fuel to the fire. Giving the students the proper vocabulary to use during these times is essential for them to be able to verbalize their feelings and begin to understand them.

My current school uses Diane Gossen’s Restitution to build school culture. Each class follows a set of monthly activities to determine each individual’s needs and together, we create an environment based on trust and understanding that is always solution- focused. This month’s task was a lesson on the brain and I knew I wanted to blend Sheila’s lesson on Big Brain, Little Brain and introduce Siegel’s hand brain model to what we were already doing in our school. Siegel's hand brain model

After our Big Brain, Little Brain lesson, I gave each of my students a Tootsie pop. This sweet treat was a great way to have students see the prefrontal cortex as the Big Brain and the amygdala as the Little Brain. It was a clear visual to them that the soft, dark, chewy center (amygdala) was malleable and could be molded to interpret or misinterpret information that could cause a person to “flip their lid”. The hard, clear candy shell was a perfect representation of how the Big Brain can think clearly and can reason with the amygdala to make good decisions. Two heads are better than one. Both the Little and Big Brains have to communicate effectively to work together and they cannot do so until we are calm and can think logically.

Inspired by these posts and videos as well as Caelin Phillipot’s bulletin board, my class decided to make a video of their own calm down strategies to use when they “flip their lid”. They were full of ideas…and making this video allowed them to understand what they can do to regain control of their bodies and minds and get back to thinking with their Big Brain. These are such important lessons to learn. It’s a no-brainer that these need to taught! 😉

Merci Annick, Caelin et surtout Sheila de votre partage et de vos connaissances!


Empathy: Beyond One’s Self

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In my classroom of five and six year olds, my students have the ability to understand and express how they are feeling once they learn the vocabulary associated to their states of well being and emotions. Developmentally, students of this age group are also becoming more aware of  other’s emotions, but just like every other aspect of child development, everyone learns and develops at their own pace.

Every year, I have a few students who are just not there yet for a variety of reasons. At first, they are self-centered and care only about how they are feeling. But as the school year progresses, one of my main objectives is to help them see that they are part of a bigger picture and that their actions and reactions have a direct impact on themselves and on those around them.

Understanding that everyone in the class is equal but different is essential as the year begins. It is critical for them to learn. With my students this year, I used Paul Solarz’s Marble Theory (#LearnLAP) to turn this abstract concept into a concrete activity as he does with his group of 5th graders. Although some of my students may not get it right away, the earlier I introduce it and the more I refer to it, the quicker they develop their empathetic ability. I started the year out with this activity so all studimg_0708ents knew that in this space, everyone is equal, important and that our individual talents are diverse, which in turn, makes us an incredible group of learners. It also allows us to learn many things from one another and enables the students to see that although they may not be the best (add noun here – reader, author, friend, listener..), that they can develop any trait to be the best that they can be. They’re just not there yet* (key word in my classroom!).

How do I do this with my group of five and six year olds? It all starts with them being able use appropriate vocabulary in regards to one’s emotions. Once they can express how they feel, they’ll be better equipped to explain how others  may feel in a given situation, or at the very least identify how they are feeling. This is why throughout the year, I engage the students in a variety of activities to develop empathy in our classroom and strengthen our relationships. One way is through books. Every character has feelings and we discuss, using the vocabulary, how these characters are feeling and acting. Some books have amazing illustrations and story lines that help teach empathy to young ones.TVBD3706[1].jpg

Empathy is developed through socialization which is why in my classroom, those hard to reach and hard to teach students stay in my classroom and don’t get referred to the school counselor right away. To be able to understand what another may be feeling or experiencing, one must interact with others and listen attentively. Here are a few other activities I’ve done with my students this year:

  1. How Full is Your Bucket?, by Carol McCloud. We learn how to be bucket fillers. xrfr12671
  2. My heart is in your hands. I give a piece of paper to my students. They can do whatever they want to this piece of paper. Some fold it, some crumple it and throw it across the room, others tear it or stomp on it. I img_08451wait long enough until they all have marks on their paper. I then ask them to put it in the original crisp condition it was when I gave it to them. As much as they try, they cannot remove the many creases they’ve created. I then tell them that their piece of paper represents their heart. They then understand that every time they hurt someone’s feelings, they mark that person’s heart permanently. Even apologizing doesn’t take the wrinkles out. I put my heart on the whiteboard as a reminder to all students to be kind with their words, bodies and actions.
  3. It’s all about perspective- put yourself in my place. On a poster, I wrote the number 6 (you could use the letters M, b, d, n or bigger numbers for older students).  I have two students stand on either side of the poster so their perspective is different than the person standing across them. I then ask them what number or letter they see. They argue for a while, until they physically walk around to meet the student and look at the poster from their perspective. They then agree that both students are entitled to their opinions and that there is truth to both sides of the poster board depending on what side they are on. I then make them see that it is important in a disagreement to try and understand the other person’s perspective.
    fatp32891Thinking about it now, next year, I would set up a mini debate and separate the class in two teams. One team would be 16 and the other team would be 91. They would come up with points to explain why their number is best. For example, our number is the largest, it represents more, or 16 is easier to count up to and takes less time etc. I could also use the letters u and n and they could come up with words that start with these letters to make an argument. Once they present their points to the other team, I would stop and make them realize, by just turning their card up-side-down that they actually have the same number/letter. It just depends which way you look it. Sometimes, we need to nuance our thinking, because there are more than just black and white answers. There are many shades of grey.
  4. Choose your words (and actions) wisely. When I saw Rosie Dutton’s powerful lesson on bullying that went viral last summer on social media, I knew I had to do this with my students. Check out her video:
    http://globalnews.ca/news/2781692/gone-viral-teacher-uses-two-apples-to-explain-bullying-to-kids/ rwum28251With my students, I did this activity and tweaked it a little. We talked about what a bully is and what it isn’t. I explained to them that we were to do an experiment to see how we feel inside when we are bullied and how we make others feel when we mistreat them. We then passed one of the apples around and called it a whole bunch of names. I actually felt bad for the apple. At first, some students had a difficult time being mean to this apple, because they  know name calling is hurtful. After I told them it was just an experiment, they followed through. One student said a comment that made everyone laugh, and I took the time to tell them that even if they weren’t the one who called the apple that specific name, the fact that they all laughed  contributed to the apple’s bruising. To this lesson, after passing around the apple and calling it names, I replaced the apples in their hands with a mirror. Would you ever call yourself these names? No, so what makes it okay to call someone else these names? It doesn’t. This was powerful. I also made a reference to the students negative self-talk. When they say I can’t (spell this word, draw with detail, find this answer…etc.), they are hurting themselves and not valuing their worth. I go back to the Marble Theory and tell them that with practice and passion, they’ll soon be able to do what they can’t yet* and that we would figure it out and learn together. It is so important students love themselves. We end the activity with a compliment share. They say one thing they love about themselves and give one compliment to the person on their left. I will definitely be doing this activity next year. What was most powerful, was when a student of mine went to the washroom and overheard the “older girls” talking badly about another girl in their class. She came back to me and said “Even though they weren’t calling me names, my heart was hurt because I felt bad for the girl who wasn’t there” (même s’ils ne parlaient pas de moi, mon coeur était blessé pour l’autre fille!!). Empathy in grade 1. I was amazed and my heart was full. Imagine if she had the courage to tell those “older girls” how inappropriate it was to be speaking of someone else that way. This just might be my next lesson…standing up for the greater good.
  5. In my flex classroom, students get to choose where they sit and learn. However in our learning centers each day, I make up the groups to make sure students are building relationships with everyone and to ensure students are problem solving with all students – even those hard to reach and hard to teach students.

It is so important students develop empathy and even more important teachers have empathy – to build on relationships and connect with every student in our classrooms. To truly help our students, we must first know how it feels to be in their shoes. That’s why it is so critical to self reflect on our day, and imagine how our students feel inside and outside of their classroom. When we begin to imagine how it feels to be a student in our classroom, we’ll be able to have much more of an impact and the students in turn will develop empathy because they are living it and seeing it daily in their classroom from a teacher who cares. It comes down to the golden rule: Treat others they way you want to be treated. Be kind. To yourself. To others. Always.