trying to turn (everything to the positive)

When I was in elementary school, I spent a lot of time learning about letter writing and envelope addressing. I had a few pen pals, but my personal interest in snail mail communication exploded when I noticed a consumer contact address on the back of a bottle of my favorite hair conditioner. (Seriously. I couldn’t make this up.) I really did love how my moisturizing conditioner got all of the knots out of my hair, so I sent a letter of appreciation to Salon Selectives. A few months later, a response with a bunch of coupons arrived in my family’s mailbox. This set me on a roll. I remember writing to actresses, authors, newspapers, and maybe even the Pop-Tarts people.

When American Girl Magazine had its premier issue, I noticed that there was a call for kids looking for advice for their “Help!” column. I wanted in, but this was a challenge. Writing gushy letters was one thing, but writing about my own problems was another. Was there anything with which I could use Help?

I remember brainstorming and considering all of my weaknesses-those that I felt I could publicly print (even with a pseudonym) and those that I’d rather keep under my hat. I ended up writing about my lack of cartwheeling ability. As soon as I dropped my note in the mailbox, I waited for the next magazine to be printed. Scanning the Help! section for my letter became part of my new-magazine-reading routine. My piece was never printed in the magazine, but at that point I was used to only receiving responses for every few letters I mailed out. I didn’t mind too much.

A few years later, I saw in a bookstore that Pleasant Company/American Girl printed an entire book of Help! questions and answers. Of course, I had to flip through it. When I arrived at pages 12 and 13, there were my words. THERE WERE MY WORDS!!! Scott Nash had even illustrated them and included my “Trying to Turn” signature in my own handwriting and everything. I had pretty much outgrown AG at that point, but I. was. psyched.

I’m writing about this now because I just found the book in my house, and that sense of accomplishment-as well as all that went into the writing in and waiting and reflecting on what I could ask in the first place-came flooding back. I am still so proud about this little thing. Why?

I feel that vulnerability gets a bad rap sometimes. People might be scared to show/admit/address weaknesses or mistakes out of fear that it’ll change others’ perceptions, get in the way of potential opportunities, or worse. I’ve tried to embrace the opposite, and I think the cartwheel reflection is probably one of the first times I was able to do that. Sure, there are things I don’t want to point out to the wider world, but it’s important to think about those and work on them privately too. If I can own my mistakes or weaknesses, I can actively work to change them. And even if I can’t change or improve on them (heck, I still can’t do a straight cartwheel), I can find pride in the knowing of them and maybe even discover ways to celebrate them as they are.

carthweel1cartwheel2

Citing the book:
Holyoke, Nancy. Help!: An Absolutely Indispensable Guide to Life for Girls! Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company, 1995. Print.

try this at home

My school just got a vinyl cutter! Better yet, my school’s Ed Tech director gave a vinyl cutter demonstration last week and let me take the machine home to test it out. I love this idea of at-home experimentation. It’s low-stress, open-ended, and just really fun. I was able to learn by doing, experience first-hand the challenges that others using the tool might face, and brainstorm how the vinyl cutter might be used. I was also able to create this demo video (in case others want to see how it works):


[CORRECTION: I said Symphony when I meant Silhouette!]

The best news here is that the machine is SUPER EASY to use and the materials aren’t too costly. I stuck to regular vinyl this time around, but there are so many other options and even more library possibilities. I could use the cutter to make bulletin board shapes, labels for materials, upcycled book crafts, rubber stamps, new signage, and more. And that’s not even considering how students might use it to cut out their own bookmarks, greeting cards, stickers, T-shirt transfers, temporary tattoos…I could go on forever.

Simply put, this machine rocks. Do you have a vinyl cutter in your school or library? How have you used it to enhance your classroom or your library space? I’d love to hear about what you all are doing.

doing and thinking – routines matter

Talk to any teacher and you’ll learn how important it is to establish procedures and routines from the first day of school. When kids learn early (and are reminded often) of expectations, and especially when they have a voice in creating and maintaining them, they often exceed them with flying colors.

Routines exist for lots of reasons. They save time. They can lower the need for behavioral interventions. They can make students more comfortable and able to learn. They also teach kids transferable skills. Learning to whisper in a busy hallway teaches kids to be mindful of their volume in public spaces. When children color-code folders or write assignments in homework notebooks, they are practicing positive organizational patterns.

This year, while I am working with students to set routines and norms for classroom sharing, listening, checkout, and more, I am also establishing thinking routines. Thinking routines are sets of questions or prompts that encourage learners to follow a pattern in thinking deeply about whatever concepts or questions are being explored. I’ve been a fan of thinking routines for some time, but only recently did I realize the benefit of introducing TRs alongside other beginning-of-year procedures and using the same routines often throughout the school year. (The repetition is what makes it a routine-*Duh!*) I’ll admit that I used to worry about using the same routine over and over with students: Wouldn’t it get boring? Aren’t I supposed to use a variety of strategies? But mixing things up only goes so far. The process of participating in a thinking routine-whether it’s taking a different perspective, looking at something up-close, or just engaging in metacognition-can be internalized with practice. Just like learning to line up for the bathroom or how best to ask for help from a teacher, thinking deeply can become habitual.

At Project Zero Classroom this summer, Mark Church said something that I just can’t get off my mind. I’m paraphrasing here, but he talked about the flood of “Is this right?” or “Do you like this?” questions teachers are often asked. He suggested that this phenomenon is a result of years and years of teachers telling students to “Go back to your desk and THINK about it.” How is a six-year-old supposed to know what that means? Perhaps in asking questions with more simple (yes or no) answers, students are stepping away from the more difficult challenge of being vaguely told to “think” without being given the process or tools to do so meaningfully. If instead, I can say to a child, “I’d like for you to engage in a Think Puzzle Explore about your topic,” and that is a routine the child knows well, expectations will be clear. The child can skip the guesswork and step right into the thinking.

In establishing TRs, I believe I am giving students the ability to think about their thinking and also to make their thoughts known to others in our community.  It is only after one’s thinking is made visible that we can know it, celebrate it, and grow from it together.

ThinkPuzzleExplore