It’s Going to Be a Fantabulous Year!

I was hiking a few weeks ago, and ended up hiking out fairly late. With a few miles to go the sun was setting. Far before I reached the end, it was dark and I was tired. The darkness and the tiredness made me a bit fearful, not particularly joyful, and interestingly enough, a bit more tired.

Realizing my plight, I chose a few positive thoughts to repeat to myself as I walked. “I am strong. I am fierce. I am brave.” As it got darker, and I got more tired, I upped my positivity game. “I am strong and getting stronger. I am fierce and getting fiercer. I am brave and getting braver.” (And yes I realize fiercer is not really a word, but it worked for me.)

Thankfully I wasn’t hiking out alone, and we had flashlights. The lights were small but still enabled us to search for the blaze, and then illuminate the path a few steps ahead. We relied on the blaze we had just seen, our assessment of the ground before us, our ability to traverse rocky and root filled paths, and our memory. My brother occasionally reminded me “One step at a time.” With the camaraderie, the light, and the positive thinking — inside and outside of my own brain — we made it back to the car without incident.

As we drove home, I thought about the new school year, and the hike I had just finished. The hike seemed the perfect metaphor for the school year. As educators we start the year with grand ideas, wonderful plans, and a good bit of exuberance. At some point, or hey, at many points, we end up tired and in darkness (literally and figuratively). Often we can only see the blaze right before us.

That’s OK. No worries! It’s at those moments — even more than usual — that we have to rely on each other. And, alone or together, we must trust our thinking, our assessment of the situation, and our ability to move — even in the dark.

It’s helpful to remind ourselves of the tools we have — even if they aren’t the tools we wish we had — and use our big beautiful creative brains to elevate their usefulness. I usually have a headlamp when I hike. Unfortunately I forgot to pack it this hike, so I only had a very small flashlight. It was tough to hold it and use my hiking poles at the same time.

At some point, I realized I could make a headlamp. I was wearing a fleece hat, and my sunglasses were perched on top of it. I stopped for a moment, positioned the flashlight under my hat, and secured it with my sunglasses. It worked fantabulously!

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The success and enjoyment of my hikes, and my school year depends on my preparation,  my language, my breath, the people I surround myself with, and the story I tell myself. Just like when I hike it’s all about one step at a time. And if I can only see that one step ahead, I need to take it and move in the direction that seems right. At some point it will either be confirmed and I will continue, or I will realize I’ve made a wrong turn, back track a bit, and start again. It’s all good. It’s all growth. It’s all fascinating.

So, my educator peeps. Get your headlamps ready. Gather your friends. Breathe deep. Be positive. Be fierce. Be brave.

It’s going to be a fantabulous new school year.

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How Fascinating!

Have you ever heard of Benjamin Zander? No? Until about a week ago, neither had I.

I’m happy to finally be in the know. I enjoy his quirky positivity and joie de vivre, and his commitment to possibility.  I’ve been exploring the many resources on his website and the net, and am interested to notice how many of his thoughts and actions are similar to mine.

He has a saying — “How fascinating!” — which is only fully expressed by proclaiming it with raised arms, and a gleefully smiling face. Take a look at a clip from his Poptech 2018 presentation.

“Now, don’t make a face. (Raising his arms …) How fascinating!”

That cracks me up each time I watch it — and I’ve watched it quite a few times!

Benjamin suggests the movement counteracts the tendency to contract our body when we make a mistake. I think — and bet he would agree — that it also counteracts our tendency to contract our brains. “How fascinating!” signals to our brain that something interesting — something positive rather than negative — is occurring. It encourages us to view the moment, and the mistake, as an opportunity to explore and examine, rather than a problem to fret over, hide, and regret.

I fence. I’m taking lessons from my brother (a rather brainy, fantabulous coach). Lots of  times our lessons are filled with ambiguity. Hence, being frustrated and making a mistake are quite probable. I know mistakes aren’t a big deal. But boy, do I hate making them!

I’ve been trying to reprogram myself and change my reactions when I make a mistake. My goal is to be a bit more alright with my mistakes, and most importantly, to learn from them. I’ve been doing ok, but it’s still a struggle.

When I heard, and saw, Benjamin’s “How fascinating!” I decided to give it a go in my next lesson — mostly, I think, I found it so amusing. Turns out, that exact fact — that it makes me laugh — may be a large part of the effectiveness of “How fascinating!”

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson — University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor, and Director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab — has researched and written a lot about positive emotions and how they affect us.

In a 2004 article, she states that “positive emotions broaden peoples’ momentary thought–action repertoires, widening the array of the thoughts and actions that come to mind.” And in a 2011 article published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, she credits positive emotions with increased creativity,  idea generation, and resilience.

That’s how I experience “How fascinating!” It makes me chuckle, and injects a moment of positive emotion into an otherwise frustration-inducing moment. It suggests there is something valuable in my mistake. It helps me change my frame of mind from judgement to curiosity.  “This is fascinating. It’s not an indication that I suck! My mistake — the process — is fascinating! Find out how/why.” I’ve noticed when I use it, I’m more able to think, consider new ideas, see nuances in the process, problem solve, and try again.

My students are a lot like me as a fencer. They really want to do well. Often times they are pretty driven. Mistakes are rarely fascinating. Usually they see mistakes as a reason for negative self judgement or negative emotions, rather than opportunities for positivity and learning.

They need “How fascinating!” So, how do I incorporate it into my classroom culture? How might I increase positive emotions, and curiosity in my student’s learning, and as a response to mistakes ? 

I think it will need to be a multi-pronged approach:

  • My language and behavior has to suggest and affirm the fascination and possibility inherent in our mistakes.
  • My response to mistakes must include curiosity, wonder, and conversation. And, I must share my own “How fascinating!” moments — including how I felt, what I did, what I learned, and how I changed.
  • Exploration of our mistakes must become the norm.
  • Including “How fascinating!” in a lesson, read aloud, activity might help us begin to embrace it in the classroom.
  • A “How fascinating!” partnership with parents will be key.  Sharing research that backs it up might help.

It’s funny, I know in some ways it’s a mindset, and “How fascinating!” isn’t completely necessary. And yet, in another way I think there is something very necessary about it. I can remember moments when “How fascinating!” would have really helped my learners by inducing laugher, breath, enhanced posture, and a bit more conversation.

The silliness of “How fascinating!” may really grab my young students. While I want them to fully embrace and use it, I think I must also teach them prudence. Discussing when might or might not be the best time to use it will be helpful. Also, exploring ways to modify it so as to be able to always use it are key.

We shall see. “How fascinating!” is in my toolbox, and will definitely be pulled out this coming school year.

Looking forward to it!

 

 

 

 

 

Classroom Setup 2017-18

Merriam-Webster’s sixth definition of setup is “the manner in which the elements or components of a machine, apparatus, or system are arranged, designed, or assembled.”

I love to remind myself of this definition while I’m going about my classroom setup. I am designing a system in which I, and my students, colleagues, and parents, will work, create, play, and learn. If I’m any example, creating a classroom system requires a lot of thought, reflection, iteration, sweat, and muscle!

As I worked, thought, and sweated, I reminded myself of the truth about myself and my students. We are “rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent(Loris Malaguzzi quoted in The Hundred Languages of Children, 2nd addition, p. 275). I also thought back to my MA research where I considered the environment that might best support creativity and academic excellence.

I read so many thought provoking things as I researched for my MA. I synthesized them in an article in Creative Education.  If I were writing my dissertation, or the article now, I think I might title it Managing the Classroom for Creative and Cognitive Excellence. I want my classroom setup to support creative excellence, and cognitive excellence. To do that, it has to include and support the 6 elements of Teresa Amabile’s KEYS I adapted for classroom management in Managing the Classroom for Creativity:

  • Freedom which enables and and encourages ownership, motivation, and engagement of all the learners.
  • Positive challenge which helps everyone know the tasks/skills they engage in are important and valuable.
  • Supervisory Encouragement which values work and thought, and encourages inquiry and exploration.
  • Work group support which encourages the generation and exchange of new ideas.
  • Easy access to sufficient resources.
  • Organizational Support of our shared vision and an infrastructure that enables and empowers everyone in my learning space.

I’ve finished my initial classroom set up, and am super happy with the result. There is more work to be done, but I’m ready for my learners to join me in the space.

In addition to including the 6 elements listed above, I worked on including more visibility this year. I was mindful of balancing beauty and utility. I wanted our work, vision, thought, prototypes, iterations and our creative and cognitive “mess” to be visible. It adds a richness to the space — telling our story while increasing curiosity, inquiry, wonder, learning, understanding, creativity and excellence!

 

Here are a few photos with my reflections.

Last year our maker projects where stored in a classroom cabinet. This year, some awesome maintenance people ripped out the cabinet, and I replaced it with this open shelving unit. The wall behind and beside it is covered with a large art piece my students made last year. (How awesome is that?!!!) The use of that artwork, the trays for student work, and the words on the front of the shelving unit let everyone know these things are valued and supported.

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A second smaller shelving unit — on the coolest, gigantic wheels — keeps our tools neat and easily accessible. There’s opportunity for remarkable exploration and learning through the use of these tools.

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The maker trolley has always been a part of the makerspace, but this year I am repurposing the back to hold more materials, and storing our large item bins in the open. I am hopeful this will increase use and understanding.

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The two classroom easels provide opportunities for creative art experiences outside the regular art curriculum. The second is actually a double easel – fabulous for conversation and inspiration! I love leaving the dried paint on the easels. It adds an element of beauty and history to the space, and allows for freedom as one paints.

I’m thinking about the resources I have that might enable me to store paper beneath the easels — enabling the artists to be autonomous in their work. I have some ideas I’m going to try this week.

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I love the connection between my learners’ art experience and mine (the watercolors are my work). I also like the suggestion of a connection between painting, shapes, blocks and building.

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Print is plentiful and purposeful in my learning space. I want my students to read the room and learn. I want them to become more skilled at letter recognition and use, and to be inspired — to see, read, absorb, and live, what is important.

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I love all the little print treasures in my space, so it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite. However, I am enjoying this one quite a bit!  I wonder what it will evoke or awaken in those who see it. For me it stirs up joy, possibility, positivity, and continuing even when obstacles arise.

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And this, partially hidden gem, out of the way of traffic, is a message from me, to me. “Be a superhero every day. The kids and the world deserve it!”

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All the best to all my fellow educators. Arm yourself with another Malaguzzi truth “Nothing without joy!” and have a fantabulous year!

 

NOTE:

Whenever I write, I think of all the remarkable people I’ve read, talked with, and researched . I think about adding tons of links to each post. Instead, I offer my deep gratitude to all those who informed my research and learning,  and remind my readers there is a great bibliography at the end of my Creative Education article.

 

 

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Memories of Clementines

Driving to a late day meeting, I unzip my lovely new cooler bag, and fish around for this …

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Before I even see it, I imagine peeling it, and think of where I might leave the peelings. In my mind’s eye (or is it nose? lol) I can already smell the beautiful, citrus fragrance. I can’t wait to experience it as it fills my car with lusciousness!

At that moment my mind returned to this fabulous little hand …

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This hand belongs to one of my kindergarteners from last year. I loved the exchange we had, so I asked if I could photograph her hand with the peel in it. She looked quizzically at me when I asked, but agreed.

“I love your idea,” I explained, “and I want to write about it on my blog! I never thought of it as a possibility, and I want to share it with others.” She smiled a soft, small smile, and agreed.

Finally, I am sharing.

When she came to me her eyes were bright.

She said “Look, Miss James!”

I looked at her hand, and then back to her face for an explanation.

She responded, “I’m going to use it in our supermarket build!”

(We visit a supermarket, create field guides, and then re-create the market in our classroom with blocks and various other items.)

I reply, “You are? What will you do with it?”

She said, “I’m going to use it to add an orange smell to my paper oranges. You know, like a scratch and sniff!”

I burst out laughing, and with a huge smile say “WOW! That is fantabulous!!! What a great, creative idea! I never thought of that! Thanks for sharing your idea with me!”

Amazing, right? I wondered why she was showing me a clementine peel. It didn’t immediately come to mind that the small piece of peel could be used so creatively.

Often, my students ideas are large, sometimes even bigger than mine. I enjoy their exuberance, and their big ideas. And, I trust that my support, my openness and positivity, and my joy in their awesomeness, encourages them to adopt, trust and live their big ideas!

Cancer, Creativity and Possibility

Never let it be said that creativity is purposeless! If you have ever thought that, or begin to think or say it now, bite your tongue! lol

Creativity has many joyous, important, and profound purposes in our lives and world. Not the least of which is the ability to express ourselves, sort through our thoughts and feelings, and emerge, a bit stronger, with more understanding, and possibly, a nice piece of creative work.

I have cancer. A rare form with a ridiculously long name — Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia (WM). It’s a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I used to joke that once I learned how to spell it, I should be granted a cure! lol

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But, though I can spell it, I still have it. I’m doing great, but from time to time, I am a bit overwhelmed sharing my body with WM. And, sometimes even more overwhelming than sharing my body with it, is sharing my mind and spirit it.

A couple days ago, I had the idea to write a poem – in the hopes that it would help me pull my thoughts and emotions back from the edge, into a place of greater strength, joy, and positivity — really just a place that is more me.

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For truly, I am strong, fierce, powerful, joy-filled, positive, awesome, and full of life! I am a warrior. My life is full of possibility.

 

Impossible?

Is anything undeniably impossible?

My spirit rebels at the suggestion that good things might be impossible.

Possibility surrounds me, and gives my soul joyous pause.

Of course, fear and doubt mingle in, at times rising to the top, obscuring joy and hope.

So much is unsure.

Success is not guaranteed, and solutions are not yet seen, found, created, done, or lived.

I breathe deep breaths, and fortify myself with these thoughts:

Be brave and stubborn. Believe all is possible.

Live as though success is inevitable, and your actions and thoughts encourage its coming.

Expect, and eagerly embrace, the awesomeness and miracles that surround, and are, you!