24 June 2009

For Every Action, There is ...

We all know the end of this basic tenet in physics, "an equal and opposite reaction." Stated another way, we can say that actions have consequences. A word I realize carries negative connotations, erroneously so I might add. Think of it this way, consequence simply provides another, more concise way to speak about equal and opposite reactions. It also applies better to discussion about people's choices with respect to actions we take in our everyday lives. When my children and I talk about consequences for choices they make, we're talking about the natural reaction the world and the people in it have in response to a choice they enacted. If my son chooses to take a candy bar without paying for it and someone in the store notices, they may very likely respond angrily to his choice, report what they saw to the store owner, or even call the police. The person isn't attempting to control my son by manipulating his behavior, as Alphie Kohn seems to imply, but reacting to the intentional breaking of a law.

Everywhere we go, every action that we undertake, leads to a natural consequence that may ultimately be positive, negative, or even neutral. I failed to receive an instruction manual for parenting with the birth of my first and successive children, but grew to understand that my job description entail assisting their understanding of this basic facts. We all have choice, free will, to do as we please, and need to understand that exercising our free will does in fact carry consequences. I choose to help a neighbor through an illness, and the natural consequence or outcome is that I feel good about myself, and my neighbor may or may not express gratitude for that help. I harm another person, and as a natural consequence the society in which I've chosen to live applies the rules under which we collectively live. Perhaps I am ostracized, perhaps even punished by the legal system.

I absolutely embraced the philosophy of the Love and Logic material as a parent, and continue to apply those concepts in the course of raising my children. Regardless of where we go to visit with others or spend quality family time in a public activity, someone invariably approaches our family to commend us all on my children, their behavior, how the show respect for others, or how they handled conflict. I believe this results from our approach to learning and life itself, and that I chose to explicitly teach my children that they ALWAYS have choice, and to recognize the consequences those choices may carry when enacted. Am I imposing a consequence, a 'punishment light' as Mr. Kohn refers to it? No, I am attempting to teach my children to accept responsibility for their actions and the outcome, I am teaching them to be accountable, and to understand that we don't grow up in a vacuum. Do I ever impose more than the "logical" consequence? Actually, I do, but within guidelines and in an attempt to educate my children about some of the more abstract, difficult to understand ideas and values such as honesty.

Amnesty. As a family, that's what we say when referring to our system for natural and parentally imposed consequences. More than anything else, I want my children to know that we all make mistakes, that we learn from them, and move on, and more importantly, that honesty is of paramount importance. I remember my childhood, how afraid I was of my parents' anger, and of being punished. I recall how, throughout my childhood in the 70's, children were meant to be seen, not heard, and it was assumed that all children were dishonest and motivated less than ideal charater traits like greed. I made myself a promise that as a parent I would talk to my children, listen and attempt to understand their motivation for taking action, and avoid if at all possible parentally imposed punishment, particularly of the physical variety. My intial attempts at parenting in this manner met with varying levels of success and failure unitl I read Cline & Fay.

Even with that, my attempts to provide guidance, acknowledge and respect the value of my children's mistakes, and raise them to value honesty, integrity etc. still floundered. When my oldest hit 13, and I knew internally that she and the less than savory characters she now called friends engaged in some fairly unhealthy or dangerous activities, it hit me. I waited for a time when I knew she'd hidden a number of events, some I could guess at while others I had not clue about, and explained my idea. We were going out for dinner and a night of Amnesty. She could tell me, without fear of reprisal, parentally imposed consequences, yelling (on my part), or any other typically "Mom's mad" behavior about anything she or her friends had done in the last three months, particularly those things she might have hidden or lied about.

Of course she didn't believe me, and it took us awhile to get started. I had to exercise incredible control of my reactions and urge to (occassionally) scream, either in disbelief or horror. She started slow, tested the waters, eventually began to say more as I listened intently but failed to react normally. Soon, the flood gates opened and we relocated ourselves to more private, yet still neutral ground. Starting out close to 9:00 PM, we ended up talking until four in the morning. I learned much about my daughter, about her fear of me and my reactions as an angry parent, and how she felt about herself internally having kept all this a secret. I learned more than I ever really wanted to know, but truly needed to hear and understand. We talked at length about what the natural consequences might have been, not the "what parents do when they catch you doing this", but what might have happened had they been caught, had the pot been tainted with other drugs, etc. We made a list, and then kept adding everything she could think of that she or her friends did or might want to do, and what could possibly happen as a result.

In the end, we had an agreement. Everyone makes errors in judgement. That's simply life, and I chose to acknowledge that rather than punish it. From that day forward she had 48 hours to call for an Amnesty and tell me about her own or a friend's error in judgement, and I promised to simply listen. To help her and anyone else understand what the natural consequence was, and how to face it. I promised to do this without yelling, without reacting negatively, etc. The only time I would impose a parental consequence would be if I learned of something she kept hidden or secret beyond that 48 hour window. For that, we looked at the behaviors, all the you may nots and your not supposed to's and figured out what I would normally do in reaction. It was her idea to make parentally imposed consequences be three times the normal if she actively hid something, which surprised me until I later realized why. She needed help in understanding the natural consequences. She needed help in navigating her way through these, and she was relieved to find that help in a parent. She was relieved to find she could be honest and make every mistake a learning opportunity.

Ultimatley, the plan worked better than either she or I expected or even fully understood until now, when her brother nears those preteen years and knows this is how we do things, and tells me things most eleven 12 year old boys would avoid telling even a big sis. For me, I get it, I understand that it's my job to explicitly teach and walk them through making the choices, accepting the reaction to their action, and embracing mistakes as learning opportunities. I've even incorporated aspects of this into my teaching and conversations with my students, and had them thank me for being one of the few adults who listens and understands that sometimes they really don't know why they did something. Sure, I'm biased, but I disagree with much of what Alphie Kohn proclaims. I've experienced children's learning in the face of logical consequences, witnessed exponential growth in understanding, and know that it can be combined with - no, is - a part of them having choice in what they do.

16 June 2009

Agony of 'de Feet

Waiting for my appointment at the doctor office was definitely not my brightest move. Now that I failed to go in in a timely manner, my foot is decidedly keeping me awake. What do I do with that new found, currently unwanted, extra time? I figure out how to blog via cell phone! How insane is that? Have I nothing better to do with my time? For instance, figuring out how to sleep despite the throbbing foot might just make better sense. The irony given some of the discussions I've had with classmates and friends about the role of technology in our lives, in lost family time, in the classroom and whether that's positive or not... I find that as much as I love new technology, my geeky fondness of all things computerized results in a distinct loss of productivity and sleep. Don't get me wrong, I'm not blaming the gadgets and I recognize it is a choice that I make. It is, however, one more thing to illustrate the truly double edged nature of the bells and whistles in our lives.

Ooh, I think I just bored myself enough to finally fall asleep, and there's no computer to turn off. Huh, imagine that - I managed to find a silver lining even in this. ;)

Musings on Creating the Social Context of a Classroom

In our motivation class we're discussing the social context of learning, and how we foster motivation and support our students in the classroom environment.I would argue that the social learning context embodies three distinct areas of consideration: the organization of the physical classroom space, community building activities, and finally, curriculum design and implementation. In the article Welcome to Room 202b, Ford (2005) provides an analogy in which she compares the careful planning and work we undertake when readying our home for a guest to the considerations and planning we must undertake in the classroom to ensure that we welcome all students.

In preparation for our guests, we frequently rearrange furniture to their liking, and add items and scents intended to beautify the atmosphere. We do these things in an effort to ensure that our guests feel welcome, and to show that we care about them. With respect to food and dinner menus, our selections represent our guests preferred tastes and favorites, and throughout their stay, we attempt to attend to our guests every need further solidifying their understanding and trust that they matter to us. Ford argues that we must take the same care in creating the learning environment for our students.

We must carefully plan our physical space to ensure safety, ease of movement, and an area that is conducive to learning. We can foster a positive atmosphere by ensuring that every student feels welcome, and by clearly conveying our belief in each student’s ability to learn and succeed. Our menu of curricular offerings and teaching styles must take into consideration the likes and dislikes of each student, the past experiences each brings, and how these varying learning needs fit together in a cohesive whole.

I strongly believe in the importance of giving children the opportunity to transition to each school day, allowing them to enter a space where they can be present, as well as time throughout the day for quiet reflection. I believe we need to actively foster our students’ awareness and recognition of emotions, and their ability to self regulate (Shriver & Weissberg, 2005). In addition to supporting the development of self, we support our students’ understanding of self in relation to others by modeling and encouraging positive relationships. It is imperative that as educators, we remain present and connected for our students, and provide a safe environment and time for students to express themselves (Kessler, 2000). As teachers, we must pay careful attention to atmosphere and building a cohesive classroom community where all students, regardless of social, economic, or cultural background, feel welcome, valued, and accepted

A safe and supportive environment fosters our belief in our ability to learn, and willingness to take risks. Feeling unsafe, or possessing a lack of trust in the environment has a disastrous impact on our students’ willingness to engage in learning. Likewise, noisy, cluttered spaces serve to distract children, and often derail successful learning even when the learner is committed to learning. An instructor’s passion for learning and belief in his or her students’ abilities greatly influences learning success. I'm sure every one of us experienced the sinking realization that those around us doubted our ability to perform an action or see a project through. For many of us, this alone served to decrease the time and effort we put into attempting the project. On the other hand, a teacher’s outward expression of belief in each student’s abilities influences work effort just as strongly, though in a much more positive manner.

In the article The Teaching Presence, Kessler states that, “Who we are, and the environment we create in class, are at least as important as the teaching skills we possess” (2000). That resonates deeply with my core beliefs. I know that as a teacher, I must take great care to create an environment that fosters positive relationships and successful learning opportunities. I dream of a classroom where the organization of our room creates natural areas for collaborative work, social interactions, and quiet reflection. The layout of materials and furniture invites exploration, and provides a safe haven for appropriate risk taking. In this setting, I aim to create a space with a variety of materials and activities with which students create meaningful experiences, yet avoid creating excessive sensory stimulation (Novick, 1996). In order to address the social / emotional needs of students, I want to build an atmosphere that clearly values each child, and respects their individual strengths, needs, and cultural backgrounds (Gibbs, 1995; SREB, 1994).

Within this environmental / social context, I know that I must utilize a variety of instructional strategies, and strike for a balance of teacher directed and child directed activities that build my students’ confidence in their own learning abilities. I possess a commitment to use flexible grouping (rather than ability grouping) and collaborative group projects in order to provide an opportunity for appropriate peer-to-peer scaffolding. Similarly, I recognize a strong desire to use thematic units because they serve to engage students in in-depth exploration of a unit across the disciplines, and they allow students to demonstrate conceptual understanding through practice and application in a variety of mediums.

I see places and potential to incorporate technology throughout all of that, and in ways that result in a true feeling of shared responsibility for all members of the class. I perceive beautiful opportunities for growth as a cohesive group, and for improved social interaction, but I also see a dark side. I sense the unwitting, accidental creation of a technology divide in my class between those who know and those who don't. We live in a society where many adults, young and old, measure their sense of success and self worth by the gadgets owned and mastered. I perceive the unintentional act of offending the parent who prefers to limit screen time and use of all things technological.

These musings force me to stop, reconsider, and reflect on my excitement for incorporating technology in my classroom. I will, and am sure it carries great benefit for all. At the same time, I believe I must first explore my motivation for incorporating a specific technological tool. What is my anticipated outcome? How will it foster community and engagement? Am I fostering growth within the group dynamic and individual understanding, or am I engaging students in the gadget itself. Does use of this technology allow equitable use, or are their students who might disengage due to lack of familiarity?

I read once that the worry and concern over how we create and maintain a social learning environment seemed somewhat silly given the apparent ease of this task. I would argue quite the opposite. In a reflective approach to teaching, there exist many considerations with respect to the learning community, from the arrangement of our physical space and the community building we endeavor to incorporate, to the teaching strategies and tools we introduce. Underlying all that, I perceive a need to reflect on how I interact with my students, how they interact with each other, and what strategies I use to support, encourage, and motivate each student and the group as a whole. In essence, it is not a task one undertakes at the beginning of each school year, but an ongoing, always growing, reflective process.

10 June 2009

The best motivation video

My head feels full of conflicting ideas about motivation, goals, whether or not we can ever truly perceive a goal as completely withing our control and / or doable, I set out to approach the day with a more positive attitude. My success at even this felt floundering and insufficient, at least until a friend posted this video on facebook. I don't know who the true author of the video is, this on YouTube, or the gentleman who posted on FB. Regardless, it is truly inspirational and ties together my thoughts about the importance of failure, and the importance of pursuing even potentially unachievable goals. Perhaps I fall short of the goal this time, but with each successive attempt I am guaranteed to come closer. And truly, that is all that matters.

04 June 2009

Which Comes First, Stress or Low Self Efficacy?

Yes, it's a bit cliche, but still an honest question and pertinent to everything going on in my life right now. I've blogged plenty about the craziness of moving, wrapping up teaching, my licensure program coming to an end, and ongoing masters classes all in the face of actively searching for a teaching job. Am I stressed out? You betcha, and I've noticed my outlook of late seems a bit less than positive.

What really struck me after yesterday is the amount of time I spent stressed out and feeling depressed or dejected, just waiting for my phone to ring. This is far different from my attitude last spring, or even when I applied for nursing school. Back then, I simply knew in my gut that I would gain acceptance into both programs. Not so this summer. I sit by while colleagues receive call after call for interviews and wonder what's wrong with me. Where the heck did that come from? I don't doubt my ability to land a job, ever. Sure, I get nervous - very nervous. I'm not overly confident and spend scads of time going over my answers to potential questions, holding mock interviews in my head. This summer, I'm am terrified that I am simply not good enough, there must be something inherently wrong with me and what I'm doing. Why else am I not receiving a single phone call?

That's the internal speech I detected ongoing in my mind last night, and it's unlike me. So it makes me wonder, does stress contribute to low self-efficacy. Clearly I am beyond physically, mentally, and emotionally stressed, and if stress does contribute to a weakened sense of self-efficacy does it follow that this affects how we present ourselves. We know that doubt in oneself shows through clearly, so does this new line of self-doubt manifest itself in my interview process? Good grief, I hope not. With awareness comes opportunity, opportunity to consciously correct the self-talk and unintentional negative focus.

All that aside, it's more food for thought for how I conduct myself in the classroom, and how I respond to both group think and individual manifestations of self doubt. It tells me I must not only be cognizant of where my students are developmentally in terms of self worth and efficacy, but that the atmosphere and learning environment we create ranks even more important than I previously thought. That's a profound statement considering the fact that I already view the classroom environment as paramount in our students' learning success.

03 June 2009

More frustrated than ever

This feels like a Lose Lose on all sides, rather than any kind of win or growing experience. The kids big sis stopped by and took them to practice, decked out in dry land appropriate attire. The phone rings, it's her, and I debate answering. I'm so not into the drama this morning. It's only 8:30 and we've had far too much already, but I answer anyway. The pool is packed with children stretching, garbed in suits only. What - the - Heck? It's only 43 F out, they aren't supposed to enter the water if it's below 50... My kids won't leave the car because they didn't bring suits, and they're the only two in sweats alone. "But Mom, we'll look stupid if we're the only people without our suits!"

Perhaps. And perhaps you'll miss the opportunity to swim your first meet on Saturday because you failed to show up at practice. Dumb response, that's what the Boy Wonder wants to hear. He's decided to attribute his attitude this morning to a dislike of all things swim team, and insists he NEVER wanted to do this. Right. He was so proud of himself for persevering last year, and spouted exuberance at the coming season. Now that it's here, and I know he fears failure in the face of his age level jerk mates, I mean teammates. And there's the rub, the boys in his age bracket really are jerks. They, with the exception of one other kid, all go to the same middle school. They all have girlfriends, a fact my own child secretly finds ridiculous and gross. I'd say whatever, but they're relentless in their ridicule of anyone different from the pack, and I hurt for my son. Underlying it all is my gut knowledge that he MUST have an activity to channel his energy into this summer, and this one's paid for at a rather hefty price. We're committed, and challenges to face or not, it's one we need to see through - together.

I sit here wondering how, how do I convince him we can do more than simply persevere, that we can enjoy this and make it fun? How do I convince him that meeting this head on promises a new found sense of pride in his ability to stick it out, to rise above the norm? Yes, he has a pack of jerk mates to contend with, and coaches who express favoritism, intentionally or not. Yes, it's early in the morning, and hard to get up in the wee pre-dawn hours to face an hour of hard workout. In the end, honesty is the best policy, and my hope is that we can work it out together.

“Avoid popularity; it has many snares, and no real benefit.” William Penn

I never experienced the joy / misfortune of popularity. Ever the dorky, out of shape, overweight misfit, I was always picked last, ridiculed, and often the butt of a joke. I erroneously hoped my children would escape the trials and tribulations I faced as a child. I say mistakenly for two reasons. First, as my father often points out, worry is nothing more than a prayer for what you fear most, and in that sense all three of my children reaped what I prayed for. At the same time, my oldest child possesses such drop dead, Goddess like beauty that many befriended and simultaneously hated her for her looks. She became 'popular', but at such a personal, deeply core level cost I cringe at the thought of what she endured.

At 21 she continues to struggle with self concept, her sense of self worth, and I credit her emerging strength of belief in herself for her continued perseverance. My son, only eleven years old, and youngest daughter of nine years, face similar trials and tribulations. Approaching middle school, he seeks to overcome his lanky, non-athletic, rather skinny build by following the pack. Ever afraid of making a move, dressing in some manner, looking - for even a second - uncool, he is driven to antics that raise my blood pressure and carry us into arguments filled with heated passion. His arises from a fear that he's not good enough, that no one likes him, and mine stems from the fear that my charismatic, funny, caring child will fail to see the merit of being his own incredible, dynamic self. I am afraid of what following will carry him to, and he is afraid of what failure to follow won't carry him to. So, at 6:00 in the morning we argue by text and phone over attending swim practice, and what constitutes appropriate work-out attire. He wants not to go, to wear jeans for dry land practice, and I'm filled with anxiety over his choices. Who works out in jeans? Well, duh mom, the kids motivated by a desire to be popular and liked workout in jeans. Isn't that obvious?

I have to step back and ask myself, "What's the real problem here?" Why is it that he doesn't want to go, whereas my sweet, adorable, and admittedly overweight child does? She's up, wearing sweats, ready to go over an hour early. My head spins, the tables seem turned and the world topsy turvy. It's not, though. They're both coming from the same place; they both feel unliked and unwanted by their peers. He wants to conform, she wants to take steps to get in shape, polar opposite plans aimed at the same destination. Both are motivated by the drive to be liked and ultimately popular. Why, oh why, do we base our self worth on what others think of us? I am as guilty as they, even today. I have an interview this morning, and spent the last two days worried, not about what I might say that reflects myself as teacher, but about what they will think of what I say, how I look, what I wear, how I present myself.

Oh dear, it isn't enough to wonder about our students and their developing self-efficacy. I need to check in and understand my own, reflect on what I do as a result of my own level of self-efficacy, and what in turn I model for my own children and the students in my classroom. I look at all three of my children and realize they've developed negative ideas of self, and it is in part a reflection of my own self-worth. I thought I finally understood that popularity comes at a steep price, that love of self ranks more important than like by others, and yet in my own children's actions I see that I (unintentionally) modeled the hidden thoughts, beliefs, and fears over not being good enough.

A phone call away, he feels worlds away, but I remind how loved he is, how charismatic, dynamic, funny, and caring barely encompass the child the world sees in action. I honestly tell him my fears, the source of my sadness, and we agree to talk. The world isn't right, but it's moving in the right direction. We both know that we take our hurt and fear out on those we love most, that the argument isn't over us, but over what each perceives as motivation in the other. Maybe he'll go to practice, maybe not. There are bigger fish in the ocean to wrestle with this morning.

01 June 2009

The Sword of Truth & Other Musings of a Tired MommaKat

I’ve been reading, wading really, through the assigned readings in my motivation class. Even though the topic this week relates to one of my favorite topics, self-efficacy, I’m tired and burned out. School came to a close, the move from hell finally came to an end late last night. Well, the move out ended; now on to unpacking and cleaning up what is meant to be our new home, only it doesn’t feel like it yet. Why not?

Perhaps it’s because I don’t see an end in sight, or because I so strongly doubted my ability to juggle teaching, class, overlapping summer classes, traveling to Cal-Wood, submitting resumes, interviewing, and – oh, yeah – parenting. Any sane person would look at a list such as this and simply freak out, get caught up in all that must be accomplished rather than analyze, sort it out, and prioritize a plan of action. Wouldn’t they?

Not my oldest. She took one look at me, one look out our old house, and simply whipped into action. Lists were constructed, tasks assigned, steps prioritized, help identified and called into action. The essence of calm in the face of chaos, she had my move organized in a heart beat. Whatever was the difference? She believed she / we could manage the job. She believed so fully, and so strongly that she simply knew that we could. She also knew that it would take work, that there were steps to what needed to be done, and put it all into motion.

Reflecting back, I realize that this is the basis of almost every fantasy series I have ever fallen in love with. The Sword of Truth series, The Belgariad, even the Shannara books follow the trials and triumphs of a main character who must learn to both trust and believe in their ability to accomplish a seemingly impossible goal on which world survival depends. Some wizened wizard walks both hero / heroine and reader through a basic understanding of The Will and the Word. Simply put, a task is achievable provided the questor has sufficient belief (in his / her ability), sufficient desire (really wants this to come to pass), and willingness (to do the work, which implies steps taken to achieve an end result.) That’s funny, that sounds an awful lot like what Bandura tells us about self-efficacy and the relationship between strong self efficacy and achievement. We ask whether or not we can teach our students to possess strong self-efficacy (at least I did) while Frodo Baggins sits on my living room shelf ready to illustrate the answer. Of course one can learn to overcome, to persevere, to think critically and identify the needed steps. Once started, I managed an enormously difficult move and walked away feeling the better for it, though to be honest I much prefer a task and associated journey similar to Frodo’s or BelGarion’s!