Tuesday, January 10, 2017

#OneWord 2017

Aligned in spirit with my colleagues, I chose my #OneWord for the year as I stood among my prayer flags.

And in honor of those Tibetan prayer flags, I'm throwing my #OneWord into the wind.


You see, prayer flags have a continuous history dating back to ancient Tibet, China, Persia and India. Used in Tibet, Nepal, India, and many other places, prayer flags are beautiful reminders of the many blessings that surround us. In Tibetan, "Dar Cho" is a "prayer flag";  "Dar" means to increase life, health and fortune, while "Cho" means all sentient beings. Powered by the energy of the natural wind and breezes, prayers and mantras impartially spread goodwill, compassion, and happiness among all living beings. Word has it that just as a drop of water can permeate the ocean, prayers dissolved in the wind extend to fill all of space.

Pretty amazing to consider, isn't it?

Even proper flag-raising happens with a prayers akin to: "May all beings everywhere receive benefit and find happiness."

Now, I'm not equating my creations with divinity, to be sure. I just love the idea of goodness and happiness powered by nature, and for me, a return to nature, presence, and simplicity. Standing outside, listening to prayer flags flapping in the wind is a peaceful reminder for me to slow my thoughts, breathe, and observe.
We all need more of that. And when I create, that's how I feel.

Some will find this whole concept idealistic, and perhaps it is a bit, sure.  But I do know that when I create, whether with writing and words, photography, visual notes, or some type of art or craft, my mind is still, present, and in flow. When I feel that, I am much more useful for the world.

For me, creating is active, sometimes intentional, sometimes serendipitous. Here's my plan:
Create with words, continue to write.
Create with visual notes, synthesizing ideas and drawing with less constraint.
Create with paint and try different materials.
Create questions, so that I stop taking so much for granted.
Create space for wonder, in my son, my students, myself.
Create time to be outside more often and more walks in the woods.
Create more time for friends and family.
Create windows to express gratitude daily.
Create with new tools, learn to use new tools and media, the hand-held type rather than tech-related.
Create priorities of doing what resonates most with my soul when possible.

When I create, either physically, emotionally, or mentally, and am in flow, I create from a space of important gratitude. I hope 2017 is the year I invoke the spirit of prayer flags and impartially spread goodwill, compassion, and happiness to all I meet. My stretch goal is to embody the words of Mother Teresa:
"Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier." -Mother Teresa

What about YOU? What's YOUR word for 2017? And how were you inspired to find it? 
What makes your soul shine?

PS--Another cool fact about prayer flags? They should never be placed on the ground or in the trash--instead, they're burned so that even the smoke can carry their blessings to the heavens. Lasting goodness. Gotta love that.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

This Would Have Made Me Cry...

...if I had read it in my earlier years of teaching.

Honestly? Probably just a few years ago, it would have brought me to tears. I love to ask students for feedback in my classes, what's working and what's not. Which activities, strategies, and resources were most helpful. Which were not. When students feel comfortable enough to be honest rather than feel like they have to write something to please me, that's the kind of feedback that helps the most.

This was recent feedback from one of my students this semester, and I've had a really tough time connecting with him. What would you have done?

In response to "what did you learn from this project": (to read about the project click here)

"I didn't learn anything. I just wasted time on it and I don't like to work as a team I prefer to do my work by myself.
The reason because I didn't learn anything; it's simple, the project wasn't interesting so I didn't effort on this but anyway I did part of our work.
I hope you be more inteligent when you gave us a work again Because I want to learn something good I don't want to be drawing that make no sense."

I figured I had two choices. I could get upset (READ: Cry BIG alligator tears!), or I could consider it a learning moment. Truth be told, I was impressed with this language learners attempt at writing more complex sentences! Then I looked again at what he was saying, and I (surprisingly) found myself thrilled at his honesty.

I talked to him about it one on one, and when I thanked him for his honesty, he was genuinely surprised and thought for sure I'd be upset. Then he opened up and talked about how hard it is for him to work in groups. He actually did enjoy the art piece of the project, but was so frustrated he didn't know how else to say it. It was an unexpected conversation, and one I walked away from all the richer. Our connection became one smidge closer.


I know it would have brought me to angry tears years ago, but I realize how important student feedback has become in my instructional practice and growth.

If you've never tried it, here's a great post by Larry Ferlazzo where you can start for ideas, then tweak it to suit your own context. Use exit tickets, google forms, dot stickers, surveys, questions at the end of tests, and so on. Make some questions a little more on the fun side, and know that the first time you ask your students to respond, it may be a little nerve wracking! Prepare to laugh (what do I need to change for next year? "Ms. Wendi, you need new shoes"  might be one of my other top responses) and get your #realitycheck. But appreciate it, and make use of it. The formats for gathering information are endless--and so are the benefits.

Please, let me know what works best for you as you invite your students into the world of teacher evaluation!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"Minga", Japanese peers, and collaborative work, oh my!

This year, during our annual ArtLink Connection, the theme centered around the idea of "minga". Minga is a Quechua word in Ecuador, dating back to the Incas. Minga is collaborative work in which friends and neighbors volunteer their time, effort, and sometimes money to achieve a shared goal for the betterment of the community (for example, building a home, harvesting food or repairing roads). 

Rather than simply create individual art pieces, students worked in Project-Based Learning style, with one week to complete 4 outcomes, for the benefit of an authentic audience of peers in Hiroshima, Japan. 

Students were tasked with the following:

1. Write an informative essay (2-3 paragraphs) describing the minga of your choice, and its political, economic, and social causes and impacts.
2. A thoughtfully created piece of artwork depicting the minga you researched. 
3. A 1-minute video describing your artwork. 
4. Complete an artist description sheet with biographical information and descriptions about
the art piece.

The rub was that since the theme was collaborative work and efforts, my students had to complete their tasks as small groups! It was an ideal project for working together, for navigating organizational and logistical challenges together, and for preparing outcomes for an authentic audience--peers in Hiroshima, Japan. Our artwork is already on its way across the Pacific!
We started on day one by assessing how they felt about working in groups, using stickers placed on this simple chart. Then the project was explained, the outline was handed out, the details detailed.

Alas, can I just say that day one was a disaster? Students were placed in mixed ability groups, and had 4 items on Monday's checklist to complete. Many did not want to take the time to go through their notes to see what they needed to do, and it was as if they'd never done independent work before. They needed guidance each step of the way. 

At the start of day two, students assessed themselves again using the 1-4 rubric on the chart, using stickers. As you can see, a couple of students were honest enough to admit that, ahem, they had more work they could do. Only one student rated himself as a 4.  

By day two, students seemed to understand the outline and checklist provided for them a little better, that it was ok to believe the teacher created it to actually guide them more efficiently to do their work. However, about half were fully engaged without consistent redirection and reminders. 

By the end of the week, the tasks were complete, except for a couple of pieces of the 4 outcomes. Quality was across the board, so there was a big discussion of dignity and pride for one's work, along with some revision requirements. I know it was new for them, and it was a rigorous set of expectations and outcomes, especially for newcomers, but we had to try it. And I learned more about groupwork than they did, which is good since we'll certainly be trying it again and evaluating our own progress. 

Overall, I admit the positive aspects equalled the negative. I know I have to keep hammering away at the idea of "independently" determining next steps. (and I say that in quotes, since they had a checklist for each day, outcomes listed, multiple explanations, and group members to rely upon when they wondered what was next). It was disheartening to see students finish one step and honestly tell me they were done.  They even showed me the checklist with one step checked, and nothing else---yet, they considered their work complete.  Sigh. 

I learned I have to push through my frustrations, armed with the belief that this idea of determining the next step and planning / organizing multiple elements is critical and completely worth the time it takes for them to get it. That's not to say no one figured it out. There are enough planners, organizers, and thinkers in the class to compensate for those who struggled, but the ones who struggled also struggle to care. And that's hard.

Although I spent the weekend considering what other profession I could do, after the hard slog of this project,  I'm proud of what they eventually turned out. And although it was an "art" project, it is so much more. It's a way of integrating culture, metacognition, and organization into their research, and art just happens to be the manifestation of their learning, as well as the impetus. Details equated to evidence supporting the main idea, so the research had to be thorough! Because this is a class of language learners, it's imperative to incorporate all domains as often as possible, too, so it couldn't be a single-dimension, silent activity. That's why we included research (reading),  a 1-minute video (speaking), LOTS of writing--the research paper and script for the video, and listening in small groups and whole class.  Pictures are below, plus one video sample with the art description. When students know they are going to be recorded, it truly helps to motivate them!

Let me know what else I could have added to make this better.  If you're interested in the checklist or standards attached to the lesson, please contact me and I'll send those, too. 

Once students completed their artwork, they created
videos to explain their art, and any details they wished
to add. Each group member contributed to the video.

Day one of research
Helping each other with research and finding sites
Working together with art and research 

Looks promising! 
Collaborating and comparing notes 
Love seeing high school students working on a single piece of
artwork together!
Going to peers for help and  questions
Seeking image ideas and more information

Examples of their artwork:
Students discovered groups who work toward alleviating poverty, building houses, 
empowering women, and community volunteers who help build the local church. 
Other groups thought NASA exemplified group work and collaboration, and although 
not "volunteer", they are certainly right about the extensive partnerships. 
You can see an Amish barn, representing an Amish barn-raising, and a funeral procession 
that has been taken care of at various stages by volunteers in the community. 
Two other groups focused on how communities come together to help those without 
enough food, and lastly, the US Army. Interestingly enough, the last picture demonstrates
the aid aspect of the military, and how they help communities during war, after war, and provide much-needed resources. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

JETS Lending a Hand

Iris, Vanesa, and Esmeralda, collecting hands, teaching others. Doesn't get
much better than this. 
"It's not about a big change, it's about many small changes!" --Vanesa, senior at JMHS
Today's post is a guest post from a team of risk-takers and students who aim to make this world better.  Read what they have to say about their current challenge:

Let's make hands to "lend a hand"!

This challenge is "awesome", you should try it. It is easy, fun, and wonderful, and we're sure that you will love it as we do. Please note that you can make a positive change in many others' lives just with making a hand. 

The Youth Uplift Challenge, which has as a sponsor the Bezos Family Foundation, will donate $1.90 for every hand you make, to fight poverty. Your hands can save the children's programs and empower youth in Nicaragua and Indonesia to rise into a life they dream for themselves.  The reason for $1.90 is because that's the average amount students like us survive on each day. 

To make hands is really easy. You just need to draw your own hand on a paper, cut it out and finally, write a thoughtful message of how you can help others. 

For example, here are some ideas as we have done:

  • Smile at all the people you see!
  • Explaining math to someone who has difficulty with it. 
  • Be kind.
  • Talk to someone who is sad. 
Any idea you have will be awesome, no matter what! Note that you can make the hands in Spanish or in English. 

The reason why they decided to make hands is because hands are unique; there are hands that are small, large, some with long fingers, and some with short. Our hands represent our identity and all the work we have done for others. Hands can be how we connect, how we work, how we give, and how we receive. 

This experience will also change your life, your points of view in life as it did with me...After making some hands you reflect how easy and grateful it is to help others who dream and wish for more opportunities to make real their dreams.

You can give back a little of what life gave you. Now we live in a world in which each one just think about their own self, forgetting that there are people outside who might need you. Let's work together to change this type of life, and also emphasize that dreams are created to become real!

Give this change to all those kids who wish for a better future for everyone in their community. Please, make a hand to "Lend a Hand"!

--Vanesa, Esmeralda, Iris, and the JMHS team

Getting ready to fill up this space with helping hands!

Ideas for you. You can join us, too!

**For those of you interested in conducting this challenge sponsored through Students Rebuild at your school, check out these links:

For information and resources, check this link here and get started!

Monday, November 14, 2016

How to Thank a Veteran: (Survey responses, part 3/3)

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of questions, both about veterans and for them. I hear and read a lot about them, especially in the days leading up to Veterans’ Day. This year, rather than merely wonder what my fellow veterans think, I decided to conduct a survey. Done through Google Forms, and various social media sites, it is about as informal as they come, but responses were passionate and specific, from both male and female veterans, from all branches of service, active and reserve. What follows may surprise you.

Parts one and two are linked below:
Survey Responses from Veterans that may surprise you: (part one) Wishes
Survey Responses, part two: What Veterans Want Others to Know

One of my burning questions for Veterans has always been:
When people want to thank you for your service, how would you like them to show their gratitude? What is most meaningful for you?

Many stated that a simple thank you is best and goes a long way, "a genuine thank you is good enough" or is "usually fine", and a simple handshake added to it all is a bonus.  They are adamant that they don't do what they do to have things given to them, that they don't feel they deserve any special treatments, but they do want respect for their service. Most consider it an honor, a duty, and a privilege to serve.

Others simply implored not to thank them and expected or wanted "nothing" as thanks. Quite a few "prefer not to be thanked at all", saying they didn't serve for the thanks, or they just don't feel like they need to be thanked. Period. Some admit they don't like to be thanked because they don't feel like they ever did anything heroic or out of the norm--but then added a "simple thank you is sufficient". Still more advised they don't feel they need thanks, that more often than not it comes off as an empty gesture anyways, or makes them feel self-conscious or awkward. Not all soldiers are perfect, or above reproach or criticism, so don't believe the myths that we are all perfectly infallible patriotic paragons. Many of us, in fact, join the military because we aren't perfect. We are still human beings.

They claim heartily that actions speak louder than words, which leads us into what I absolutely love:

Overwhelmingly, military personnel, whether active, reserve, retired, and from any branch, want action from you, from us. Show, don't tell us your thanks. Saying thank you is fine, but giving back in some form matters more.

Not sure how to do that? They provided plenty of examples, and I'll share just a handful of those here to get you thinking about what you can do. Keep in mind that many of the respondents mentioned how blessed and fortunate they are in their lives, while recognizing that many of their brethren are not. So, remember your good fortune, and help us add to the list of how to thank a vet:

  • Thank us by caring for the wounded and the families of the dead and wounded. 
  • Help a homeless vet with a meal, some money, or a listening ear.
  • Donate your time, talent or treasure to a veterans' organization.
  • A handshake, a hug, the acknowledgment of female vets as well as their male counterparts, and no terrible comments about women in YOUR military. 
  • Don't bad mouth America and correct others who say ignorant things about our country. 
  • Respect our country's flag. 
  • People, ALL people, are capable of change. Refrain from judging others when you don't know all the circumstances.
  • Support Veterans in need by standing up for veteran policy and benefits, and help all these veterans who are struggling day to day. 
  • Don't be embarrassed to love your country. 
  • Vote (please) and be active in one's community.
  • BE KIND TO OTHER PEOPLE. Offer compassion to people, especially to people who look, talk, and think differently than you. "I wore a uniform so that people, all people, every single person in our country, had the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Trying to curtail those freedoms because you don't agree with someone else's opinion is a slap in my face."
  • When you see an elderly person wearing a VFW, American Legion, or DAV hat, think of how they came to be wearing that. Listen to their stories. Hug them or shake their hands. You will be amazed not at what it does for them, but what it does for you. 
  • Remember, and take the time to think about, what veterans have done, sacrificed, seen, and experienced to be where they are at now, positive and negative aspects alike.

In my conversations with veterans and fellow soldiers, I'm heartened by their constant reprise that it's not about them, that the lessons they have learned highlight the importance of taking action and in essence, paying the goodness forward. 

These responses were my favorite encapsulations of several responses, and they are not only ways to thank a veteran, but also to lead by example, to teach our kids, to make sense of life when it is confusing:
"Live a life worthy of the sacrifices made to secure your freedoms."
"The world is our child. Go out and do what it takes to make a difference, to make this world a better place. " 
The gestalt of responses showed pride in being a veteran, for having served in the military, and for learning skills that otherwise would never have been learned. That pride was coupled with one caveat, though: if you don't respect our soldiers and the sacrifices they have made for others, you have no place in their presence. Respecting others' work, working to help others, and understanding that freedom is not free are the key desires voiced by veterans.

What can you add to the list? How will you thank those who have served? How can you show your gratitude for those who have paid the ultimate price for our country?

One veteran shared this video, and I encourage you to watch it. It is a haunting rendition of Mark Twain's short story entitled "War Prayer". Written during the Philippine-American War of 1889-1902, it will shift your thinking, particularly about what you wish for in time of war.   

In closing, I'll leave you the thoughts of one of our soldiers:
You are worthy of your human rights by virtue of you being on this planet. We swear to defend those rights to our dying breath even though we did not give you your rights. This is important, because if the military "gave" you rights we could take them away. But this is not the American way. Your rights are inherent and nobody can take them away.
You deserve to have your rights protected. This includes the right to question needless wars our troops are sent to fight in, to support our troops, and not be any less of a patriot.
Your duty is to be mindful and help defend everyone's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, through some kind of service, whether it's in the military or another way.

So, go on. Civilian or military, we all have responsibilities for service to each other to make this world a better place. Let's go make it happen.

And that's how you thank a veteran.