Monday, January 23, 2017

How to Start a Movement...Or How I Lucked into Building a Speech Team

The CG Speech Team - 2010

So, you have how many kids on your speech team? 65!?! How do you have 65 kids on your team? This question is a common question I am asked by my colleagues and friends on the speech circuit and one that I was posed with again this past weekend. Having a large team is certainly a wonderful situation. We fill a bus (and several times - two buses), practices are lively and busy, and finding an audience to practice in front of is never a problem. A team this sizable requires A LOT of coaching time (each student needs to perform individually), organization, effort, and careful planning. To compensate for the lack of time and multiply myself, I watch film most mornings, coach every day of the school year starting in August until the end of February, and sacrifice sleep (and sometimes my sanity) to do so. While some people might initially think considerable roster numbers guarantees success and makes the acquisition of a team trophy easier, I assure you that having a substantial number of students means having to coach and care for said students. The "big team" paradox is at times best described by the Notorious B.I.G. when he suggested that with, "Mo' money [comes] mo' problems."

When I started coaching, a mere two students were on the Speech Team. Two. The task of growing a team seemed daunting, and my 22 year-old-self did not know where to begin. First, I thought I would approach the task of recruiting students by zealously and enthusiastically talking to English classes. If I show how passionate I am about a cause, some student is bound to demonstrate some interest, right? This approach did work, and we ended the year with about 15 students. With this 15 students, we competed in the group event - Performance in the Round and then later competed with the same students in Group Interpretation. These two group events created a sense of unity and allowed students to forge relationships with one another. Once relationships and bonds began to form, momentum began to build. Relationships are essential to the success of any organization or group. Friendship leads to an increased sense of commitment, a desire to support others, and accountability to furthering a cause. When my students became good friends outside of the team, I saw numbers grow, performances improve, and confidence emerge. Once that foundation had been laid in year two, I began to consider how to start increasing scores and develop talent - a topic that I want to reflect upon in more detail in a future post.

As I reflect upon the idea of "starting a movement," I am reminded of the three-minute TED Talk by Derek Sivers. In it, Sivers notes that a movement does not begin with one person, but rather it starts with the first follower. A movement truly starts when one person stands up and takes action with an instigator of change. I lucked into finding the right students who were willing to take this journey with me and forge a path for countless students in the future. Together we created traditions and students have been working to perpetuate those traditions year after year. The first students I worked with are now teachers, enrolled in graduate school, and making positive impacts on the world. They are adults finding their own paths and continuing to use their voices and their energy for good.

Lack of sleep aside, I am incredibly grateful for what the last decade has taught me regarding igniting passion in others, teaching students to be the best people they can be, and learning to cope with adversity (both personal and with my students). As I reflect, I return to the aforementioned question. How did two students become 65 students? How did the speech team momentum start? Fervor, passion, grit, or unabashed commitment to a cause? The real answer lies in a love for kids, a desire to see them grow into incredible people who will make a positive impact on this world, and a culture that celebrates hard work and loves to have fun.

I am so grateful to have watched students grow as performers and speakers, discover the ability to stand tall in the face of failure, and show vulnerability in front of a crowd of people as they share ideas and messages that they hold close to their hearts. Our words are powerful, and our connections and the relationships we build allow us to accomplish extraordinary feats.

The CG Speech Team - 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reflections on the Innovator's Mindset and George Couros's PD Presentation

My mind is still processing all of the ideas and challenges presented by George Couros during our most recent institute day this past Friday. After this day of professional development, I feel revitalized, encouraged, and motivated to stretch my teaching muscles and rethink how I incite learning in my classroom. Technology has opened a world of opportunity for us as learners, but as Uncle Ben quips in Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility."

When technology is implemented effectively, and when it is not merely a replacement for paper or a required element of a lesson, technology can help both students and teachers to gain access to information, demonstrate knowledge in unique ways, and communicate with authentic audiences. The ability to share information is infinite as students become not only consumers but creators of ideas as well.

Here are my takeaways:

What does this mean for my classroom?

During Couros's presentation, he asked us to think about whether we would want to be a student in our classrooms. This question is a compelling one to consider and should be considered every day. Are there days when we need to use direct instruction to disseminate knowledge? Absolutely. At the same time, this question made me think about how I vary instruction, differentiate, and promote student engagement each day. Students, like technology, are always evolving. As new groups enter my classroom, so too I must change, and this requires careful reflection, observations of my current students, and daily adaptations to deliver the best instructional experiences to my students as possible.

What do I do on day one?

Rethinking one's classroom does not mean scrapping every lesson plan or assignment that one has ever included in the classroom. The purpose of this speaker's message was simply to challenge us to think about the "how" students will acquire and demonstrate knowledge and consider "why" we choose certain modalities to learn content in our classrooms. The biggest immediate takeaway I have is to make sure that I am empowering my students to take ownership of their learning. How that ownership will manifest will varies from class to class, but it is an important first step in ensuring my students are active learners and innovative thinkers.

As I have been reflecting, I have a few learning activities that I want to consider:

  1. Using blogger or edublogs to publicize student writing and create more authentic audiences for students. I have dabbled with portfolios for my Speech courses, but I want to be more intentional and specific with encouraging students of all levels to write for real audiences. Students should have opportunities to share their work on a larger stage (Even if that is simply creating private blogs for our class only. It is important to start somewhere!). 
  2. Teaching students to explicitly write emails and write for online audiences in a variety of contexts. Students certainly need instruction in this area of writing and are doing this type of writing all the time without the skills and foresight as to how what they post will reflect upon them as individuals and creators of content. 
  3. Addressing digital footprints, professional presences online, and how to network. These are real skills that students will need to possess in the future. Being aware of online presences can help students to promote their best selves and showcase talents. A positive digital presence can lead to job opportunities and connections that they may never have imagined. 
  4. Providing students with more choice in demonstrating knowledge, differentiate pacing for students (especially at the lower level), and vary assessments. Students can learn a great deal from assessments and projects that are not necessarily multiple choice. Videos, different forms of writing, visual representations, podcasts, websites, etc. can showcase student knowledge and provide memorable and meaningful experiences for students. 
  5. Showcasing educational wins and success of my students. Using Twitter, blogging, Instagram, and other platforms (even Snapchat) can allow me to focus on the positives, highlighted exceptional students, demonstrate student growth, share successful instructional experiences, and demonstrate how exciting learning can be. The use of these platforms also allows me to connect to other inspiring educators and utilize the knowledge of my colleagues to make my students' experiences in my classroom better! This type of connectivity is game-changing and an important part of the learning process for both my students and me. 

What effect will assuming an innovator's mindset have on my students?

Couros shared many video clips that highlighted the power of innovation on students. His examples reminded me that relationships matter, and when we encourage our students and foster strong ties, amazing results will occur. As the video below highlights, access to technology and enriching experiences can not only allow a small child to hear his mother, but it can open all students' minds to greater educational opportunities.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

That's a Wrap: Ending a Semester Long Class

Half over. This school year is already half over. As I sit in my quiet classroom at 5:32 AM on the first day of final exams, I am in awe at how quickly this school year has passed by me. Essays have been (mostly) diligent written and meticulously graded, speeches have been well-crafted and delivered, and memories have been forged, which I hope my students will carry with them as they venture off to a fresh semester of classes and new experiences. Teaching seniors at my school means that English classes are electives and therefore only a semester long. I am closing the books on one course, and a new elective is on the horizon. I am saying goodbye to many students and only keeping a few. This past week, I have spent contemplating what makes an effective ending. When concluding this course, what do I want my students to recall when they walk out my door for the last time? How do I highlight the most important lessons I want my students to take with them while leaving impressions that will make them fondly remember public speaking? How can I instill in them one last time the notion that their words are powerful and must be used wisely?

Yes, the adage that "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” is true. I have taught seniors long enough to know that even though my words are fleeting sentiments, the feelings they experience are not. Public speaking is such a vital part of life, and I want my students to feel empowered, confident, and prepared when they are called upon to do it in the various settings that they will find themselves in weeks from now and years from now.

So how does one spend the last week in a senior-level public speaking class?

1. Encourage students to celebrate each other and the growth that has occurred.

In the week after winter break and before finals, I enjoy allowing the students to do most of the talking. The floor is theirs to share last minute messages with their peers. Because there is little time to prepare, I often have students deliver impromptu speeches, but give the assignment a twist. Instead of handing students a proverb or a random word, I place all of the students' names into a hat and ask the class to select a name on which to deliver a speech randomly. Then, I review the elements of a commemorative speech, challenge students to remember how their subject has contributed to the class over the past semester, and have students one-by-one deliver a brief and celebratory speech on each member of the class. Not only does this speech incite positive, sentimental feelings about the class, but it also encourages students to self-reflect on how their presence has impacted the class as a whole. This assignment usually takes two days to complete, and I love every minute. These two days are full of laughter, encouragement, and remembrance. "Remember the time..." or "I loved it when..." are phrases that spark conversation and reflection in us all. After the final speech has been delivered, I ask students to hand-write a thank you note to the person who spoke about them. Reminding us that our words, both oral and written, are powerful, students spend time showing gratitude and returning the appreciation to their peers. 

2. Ask students to self-evaluate and self-reflect.

The Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety (PRPSA) is a self-assessment I administer at the beginning of the speech semester and the end. This assessment is designed to have students reflect on their confidence level as speakers in a variety of settings. We then compare our scores with national statistics and discuss how to overcome stage fright at the beginning of the year. This assessment is nice also to do at the end of the semester to show student growth, reflect on how students have gained confidence, and open a dialogue about how our class experiences have changed their perception of public speaking. Another way to self-reflect is to have them grade themselves. Writing a personal reflection in which they are asked to express their thoughts on their own strengths and weaknesses as a public speaker encourages students to consider their growth, their effort, and their abilities. Students might not enjoy self-reflecting, but they are usually quite honest. When they begin discussing how they have improved or how they could improve, it opens the door to rich conversation about their progress as students and speakers. 

3. Open the floor for suggestions on how to improve the course in the future. 

At the end of the semester, I want real feedback. I want to know how my teaching has helped students and what I can do to improve the experience for future students. We are all constantly working toward improving our crafts, and students are always changing, too. As the world evolves, so do the needs of our students. Because of life's constant cycle of change, I want my students to tell me what worked well, what was worth our time, and how I can make the most of their learning experience. Using Google Forms, I can collect both quantitative and qualitative feedback relatively quickly. I also leave a question at the end for a note or any last minute idea they want to share with me. I am always pleasantly surprised and touched by the kind words, statements of thanks, or words of encouragement from students! While the idea of opening up the floor for feedback can be intimidating, I have found it to be a meaningful exercise and encouraging! 

4. Laugh.

Laughter is such a simple concept and yet there are times that we forget to do it. Laughter promotes joy, play, and silliness, which are important aspects of creativity and happiness. Recently, I read an interesting article on Laughter and Learning from Edutopia. In it, author Matt Bellace encourages teachers to incorporate humor and improvisation into lessons. Encouraging laughter increases comfort level and promotes a positive environment. When students feel comfortable, they are more likely to relate to the teachers/peers, and they are more engaged. I do not consider myself a comedian by any means. Most of my laughter is the direct result of my own self-deprecation, but I have come to realize that laughing at my own spastic outbursts encourages my students to laugh a little more at themselves, too. We all make mistakes, and our shortcomings can be valuable learning experiences, especially if we learn to embrace them and have a hearty laugh.

5. Impart words of wisdom... or at least try by delivering a final speech.

 After a semester of evaluating speeches, I believe it is only fair that I impart one final speech to my students. Yes, I remind them that I craft and deliver speeches to them every day as their teacher, but the formality and finality of one last speech seems fitting. My biggest life lessons include: be kind, be prepared, and believe in the power of your words. With commitment and kindness, positive experiences will happen. Remembering to be mindful of our words, how they affect others, and how they can inspire change for the better is critical, too. While my words may be quickly forgotten, I hope that demonstrating strong structure, passion, and sincerity instill the importance of public speaking (and just generally being a nice person... kindness really does take a person far in this life!).

 6. Write personalized notes. 

Writing personalized notes on the back of our class picture has been a tradition of mine for several years. While students are taking their finals, I distribute a personalized note to each student. I love watching their faces as they pause their testing for a moment to read what I've written. Even if it is only treasured for a brief moment, this small bit of positivity makes students feel motivated to finish their final. At the end of this class, I hope this minuscule gesture reminds students of the memories we have shared and the community we have built. While these notes might mean more to some than others, it is always my hope that years from now, they'll find this picture tucked into a book or an old folder and smile at the memories they have from high school. Our words really are powerful and can be used to make us feel empowered, motivated, and encouraged. I love taking this last opportunity to wish my students well and reinforce the idea that words hold great power.

There are countless ways to finish a course. As I reflect and grow, I hope I can continue to discover the perfect way to wrap up an entire semester's worth of learning and make our time together meaningful. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Promoting Productivity in a Culture of Busy

"I don't have time," "I have too much to do," or "I'm exhausted," are phrases that we hear on a daily basis. These expressions are commonplace as they are used to commiserate on how stressful life is. We live in a culture that celebrates busyness and encourages individuals to measure self-worth by the length of our to-do lists. In a teacher's world, being busy is a reality. Between lesson planning, instruction time, working one-on-one with individual students, coaching and sponsoring extracurricular activities, and simply being emotionally present to support students, we have countless responsibilities and roles to juggle. I have not even taken into account clerical tasks, meetings, professional development, or grading (How could I forget about grading?).

This school year, I have reflected on the concepts productive and busy with my Speech Team. Through much personal contemplation on the implications of these words and wanting to prevent the burnout I inevitably find myself experiencing, I decided to eradicate use the word busy to describe my life. Yes, I am a teacher, coach, mother of two beautiful baby girls, wife, friend, daughter, cousin, etc., but I no longer want to be a person who feels drained by my commitments. I love teaching and embracing everything that comes with this vocational choice, but I cannot fulfill this role to my highest ability if I allow myself to continuously feeling frazzled.

As I was writing out my coaching philosophy and focus of the season, I decided to embrace productivity and have worked to instill this in my students. The subtle differences between the words busy and productive are minuscule, but the implications of their connotative meanings can significantly impact a person's outlook on daily experiences.  Being productive implies, that while I may have many tasks to accomplish at one time, I am never too busy to stop and talk to a student having a difficult day. I am never too busy to share a file with a colleague, and I am never too busy to reach out to a parent of a student for which I have concern. When a person needs my attention, I will always make that person a priority. Productivity is a mindset that reminds us to treasure our time and make the most of the opportunities we are given. This term also implies that when we are working on a given task, we must give that task our complete attention and focus thus ensuring the best possible outcome and the highest quality work. Embracing the philosophy of productivity has allowed me to witness significant growth in my Speech students, my family, and myself. Here's what I have learned from a season of productivity:

1. Productive people are more positive. 

The word busy causes me a great deal of anxiety. The notion of being busy leaves me feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and consumed by stress. Productivity, on the other hand, promotes positivity. With a productive attitude, I am more effective, efficient, and happier. The joy I experience with a productive attitude is also contagious. When I am cheerfully working, my students are more likely to find practice beneficial and want to increase their commitment. We laugh more, enjoy each other's company, and thus, we want to devote more of our time to the aforementioned practice. Our attitudes determine how we respond to and perceive challenging responsibilities. A person's attitude is his choice, and choosing to be busy often results in products that are less than our best. As Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor states in his 2011 TED talk, "It's not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which [our brains] view the world." When my students (who are often involved in too many activities and advanced classes to count) think about how busy they are or how many expectations are placed upon them, I see them shut down. When I see them optimistically accepting the tasks before them, I see powerful, positive growth occur.

2. Productive people are more focused. 

Worrying about what has to be done on a given day can consume valuable time and energy. The feeling of busyness thus reduces our ability to focus on the work that is right in front of us. In a culture of busy, I find that my students are so worried about their next math test, musical practice, or game that the time they are spending with me becomes less focused. The work that needs to be accomplished in a given moment is incomplete or unsuccessful. Inspired by the book Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg, I knew at the beginning of the Speech season that I wanted to find a way to maximize my students' practice time; I wanted my students to work smarter not harder. Being more focused and committed during the actual practice time has actually increased the quality of my students' performances while reducing the time they spend working. Encouraging students to be productive or more efficient and focused has increased their performance results and also their overall happiness.

3. Productive people are more reflective and actively work toward achieving goals.

Productive people make the most of their time. To ensure that practice is beneficial and my performers are making the greatest progress possible in their performances, students need to self-reflect. As a coach, one of my first question to my students is "what your goal today?" I also want to know what their goals are for the week and outside of Speech. If students want to witness success on my team, I firmly believe that they need to know what they're working toward both in Speech and in life. Reflecting and goal setting is not a new concept - especially at the beginning of a new year. As stated in Jim Collin's Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't, setting lofty long-term goals and small, attainable daily goals can lead individuals and the organization to which they belong to thrive.

In addition to talking about and setting both short term and larger goals, productive people write down their goals. According to NPR education writer, Anya Kamenetz, writing about life goals, dreams, and happiness not only make students more productive, but it also can increase achievement in significant ways. Productive people are actively reflecting on their performance and working toward goals. They know what they need to improve upon and are continually assessing if they are accomplishing their objectives.

4. Productive people have strong relationships.   

When students feel safe and happy to be in their environment, they are more motivated and willing to work harder. When they work harder, they are more likely to perform better. This is true in the classroom and extracurricular activities. Relationships are fundamental to the success of any team or group. Building strong relationships allow individuals to achieve their long term goals under the support, guidance, and encouragement of their peers. Interpersonal relationships increase our commitment to an organization because people feel connected. In the book The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, author Chris Bailey addresses the psychological effect positive relationships have on our brains. Strong connections to others stimulate our prefrontal cortexes, which ultimately increases our ability to concentrate and allows us to avoid autopilot. Strong relationships encourage us to not only be more productive as individuals but also be more productive as a collective group.

5. Promoting a productive attitude among a group encourages people to hold each other accountable and leads to group success. 

Along with building stronger relationships, people who embrace productivity learn to hold each other accountable. Having conversations about productive attitudes verses busy attitudes have encouraged my students to support one another in a quest to make the most of each practice and each moment. We all experience stress and have days that are a little more hectic than others. When a group of people strives to embrace productive, they can lend a listening ear to others when stress becomes too much. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, my students learn to support one another and remind each other how to prioritize, plan, and work to make the most of any situation. All of us need comfort and encouragement from time to time. Realizing this need as a collective whole allows my team to pick up their friends as needed and increased productivity as a whole.

At the onset of a new year, I hope to continue to embrace productivity in a culture that tells me that my value is only measured in how "busy" people perceive me to be. While I do move a mile a minute, I hope to remember that I am never too busy to make time for the people and relationships that matter.  Instead of succumbing to the culture of busy, I hope always to remember that I can make the most of each moment I am given. I cannot create more time in a day, but I can promote meaningful uses of the opportunities I encounter. Here's to a fantastic and productive 2017.

  • Achor, Shawn. “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” TEDxBloomington, Bloomington, TED.
  • Bailey, Chris. The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy Better. New York, Crown Business, 2016.
  • Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't. New York, NY, HarperBusiness, 2001.
  • Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: the Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York, Random House, 2016.
  • Kamenetz, Anya. “The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives.” NPREd, 10 July 2015.

Tweets by @Steph_SMac