Finding Success in Failure: Growth Mindset in Action

This is the 5th installment of an awesome blog hop on Mindsets in the Classroom by Mary Cay Ricci.  If you haven't already, you might want to check out the first four posts.

How do you handle failure?  What do you do when failure is possible or may even be imminent?  In all my deepest honesty, I avoid failure at every possible cost.  I will shrink away from responsibility or even avoid an activity all together if I know I won't be successful.  Learning that "...failure can be a reward, for it is through failure that we can learn the most," has not been something I have been personally willing to accept as of yet.

While students with a growth mindset try to learn from their mistakes and approach new tasks in a new way or with more effort.  Those with a fixed mindset often give up and give in to stereotypical phrases, such as "I'm dumb," "I'll never get this," "I'm not good at x."  

What is needed is for educators to develop an environment where failure is accepted and even celebrated, so that students can learn how to reflect on their learning and redirect themselves in new ways.  Take for instance this great scene from Meet the Robinsons.

Hand in hand with a discussion of failure is one on motivation and effort.  It is an examination of these attributes that were a precursor to that of growth mindset.  The book reminds us of that study and that effort and success are usually brought about by internalization of actions and beliefs, while failure is attributed to skill difficulty and sheer luck.

To help bring about that internalization of actions and beliefs, students must be trained to accept intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards.  Praise and positive feelings about effort and persistence do much more for the development of the child than money, certificates, trinkets, or prizes ever could. Giving students autonomy is another catalyst in growth mindset as well.

Overall we must change how we look at failure.  We need to teach students to see it as feedback and data, not as a judgment on their person.  We need to allow kids to fail so they can learn how to deal with it, make adjustments, and move on.  Failure can build resiliency, but only if we look at it as a means to a new end, and not as the end.


Growth Mindset & Self Worth

I saw something pretty incredible on Saturday night.  It was stunning.  It was beautiful.  It was fun, and crazy.  And it was awe-inspiring.

It was Taylor Swift in concert.

I've been to a Taylor show before.  This was actually my third.  The first time I went, I honestly had no idea who Taylor really was.  I simply went to chauffeur and chaperone my daughter.  By the second concert, I was a closet fan.  This time I was fully engaged - ogling at the souvenir tables, dancing in my seat, and singing lyrics at the top of my voice.  She has won me over.

Yet this time, she was different.  She was more human.  She was more vulnerable.  And she talked to the girls (& boys) in the audience about something she has never done before and it struck a chord with me.  She said, "You are not the opinion of someone else's choosing."  She spoke a lot about making mistakes and allowing those mistakes to make you stronger, not tear you down.  She talked about not beating ourselves up inside with words of self-doubt or self-hate.  

Yes, she may have a lot of songs about break ups and love stories gone wrong, but she also sings about being strong, not wallowing in that break up, not being all emo and falling into a pit of despair over a boy.  She teaches young girls that it's okay to lose at love, because self-love is better than any other love that is out there.  That you must get to know yourself and love who you are and who you were meant to be, that you can't let a man control your world.  And this concert, she actually told the young girls, like my daughter, that.  It was beautiful the way she talked to the audience and admitted her own doubts and self-realizations.  I only wish I had gotten my phone out sooner and captured more of this moment.  It was truly beautiful.

I know I have some friends and mothers who don't like Taylor Swift.  But if this young lady can come out on stage and wear the modest attire she wears, not shake her tongue, twerk her butt, flaunt "f" bombs and do what else is considered "hip" now a days, she has a vote from me.  If she can speak to my daughter about real world issues like self-love, self-doubt, confidence, and more and help bolster the messages I try to send then she has my admiration.  And if she can do it all while singing a catchy tune and dancing out a story, then that is one awesome female role model and I'm all for her having a piece of influence in my daughter's life.  In my honest opinion, we need more strong females, having more honest heartfelt discussions with our girls, just like this one.  I'm not one to turn that opportunity away.


Setting Up Your Classroom for Success

Almost all my friends headed back to their classrooms today to get ready for school starting next week.  It's a busy time getting classrooms ready, sitting through endless professional development, learning the latest trends, completing data analysis, meeting new teammates, and prepping curriculum.  I always found it hard to sit through those meetings when all I wanted to do was be in my classroom prepping for my newest students, so I usually went in a week early.

Sorting & Sifting

I would spend a week, usually by myself, sifting through the things I shoved in my closet and file cabinet before I left.  I'm not one to sort and organize in May or June when I am burnt out and exhausted, so I usually pile and hide and wait until I'm fresh to conquer those messes and see what I really care to keep and reuse.  It might take me covering every desk in my classroom with a stack of papers and buying up file folders from office stores like they're going out of business, but I would soon have every paper in a folder in a file in a drawer.  Well that, or in a trashcan.

Next, I would get to decorating my walls and prepping my bulletin boards.  Unfortunately, where I live, the fire marshall is a bit strict and so a lot of the cute things I see on other blogs and on Pinterest boards would never be allowed here.  Fabric?  No.  Rugs?  No.  Plants?  No.  Lots of wall coverings?  No.  You get the idea.  In fact I only had one bulletin board, and I used it for my behavior plan, so it wasn't much to look at.  I did, however, decorate some of the other walls with character posters or content posters, so I had a little bit more to do than just one bulletin board.  But as you can see, I'm not the world's best decorator.

Color-Coding with the Rainbow

One thing I would do before school starting, is to get my system of organization into place.  I teach the kids a lot of routines and habits of organization to help them adjust to middle school, but also to help with my sanity.  Probably the most helpful system I have used over the years is my use of color to organize and track classes.  Every class is assigned a color for the year and I use that color for everything I do with that class.  Whether it's writing on the whiteboard, passing out papers, managing their rewards, storing their portfolios, etc. everything I do is in that class color.  It's also a technique I recommend to the students when they go to organize their supplies for each class and many who follow my advice come back to thank me for it later.

Reflection Space

Another area I like to set up is my Reflection Space.  This is a little corner out of the way where students can go to take a time-out and think about their behavior when they're having a rough day.  It's not much.  It's simply a desk and chair, a few character posters to help strike the mood, and a pocket folder with my behavior journals tucked inside.  Students simply pull out a behavior journal and complete the questions which ask them to describe their behavior and what better choices could have been made.  When they're ready to rejoin the class, they hand it over to me, and we set up a time to call their parents.

A Piece of Home

Finally, my last step in setting up my classroom is to prepare my own little space.  I figure that since we spend more waking hours in our classroom than we do at home during the week, that we ought to have a little slice of home while we are away.  So I set up a corner, behind my desk, that makes me feel calm and comfy.  It helps me when I'm having a rough day, and it helps the kids to connect to me and see that I really am more than just a teacher, that I am a person with a whole life around me.  

So that is how I set up my classroom to prepare for the year.  Of course, don't forget all those papers to go home on the first day.  I keep mine on my prep table up front, ready to go.  I'm kind of missing it this year, but not enough to go back into the classroom...maybe just enough to offer my assistance to a friend.  We'll see.  Good luck to those of you headed back.  I wish you the best with your students.  I know what you do isn't easy, and I commend you for doing it.


Differentiation & the Brain - Chapter 3: Curriculum

I've been doing a lot of reading lately and one book I've been reading with my Tools for Teaching Teens Team is Differentiation and the Brain by David Sousa and Carol Tomlinson.  I'm here to talk about chapter 3, Curriculum & Differentiation, but if you haven't read Chapter 1 yet head back to Ellie's blog.  And Chapter 2 is on Brigid's blog.

Chapter 3 spends most of its time defining what qualifies as quality curriculum because the quality of the curriculum not only communicates to the student our regard for them and their potential, but also without quality curriculum we fail to really teach our students no matter how much we differentiate the material.  In defining quality curriculum the authors lay out 5 key characteristics.
1. The curriculum should be organized around essential content goals.
2. The curriculum should be aligned with the content goals, assessments, and learning experiences.
3. It should be focused on student understanding.
4. The curriculum should be engaging for the students.
5. It must be authentic.

Through further explanation of these characteristics we learn that two key questions must be answerable for students when they are given material to learn and digest.
*** Does this make sense?
*** Does this have meaning?

When learning both makes sense and has meaning for a student, it is more likely to be remembered and retained in their memory for recall and use later.  Therefore, if we can integrate the curriculum more, rather than compartmentalize learning, it will help to establish meaning and thus increase learning.

Who hasn't had a student ask, "Why do we have to know this? When am I ever going to use this?" The quality curriculum that has meaning and makes sense, answers these two questions.  If a student is asking these two questions, they clearly have not reached meaning or sense of the information as of yet.

Along with this is the idea that learning must be relevant to the student to enhance their understanding of the material.  When learning is relevant, it increases student motivation, which develops neural circuitry, which in turns increases student achievement.  Thus the most important tasks are those that ask students to take their basic knowledge and skills and use them to explore and extend their understanding, not simply recall facts and figures.

Something that struck me in the reading and is very different than how I was taught to differentiate curriculum in college is that the authors do not believe that curriculum should come first and then be differentiated to meet student's needs.  Rather they believe that differences in students should be anticipated and incorporated as the curriculum is being developed.

This chapter points us towards a better outcome by encouraging the use of meaningful, appropriate lessons based around how we lead the students to reach an objective of attaining expertise in a content goal. We do this by applying what we know about the students to the lesson, rather than simply applying a hard curriculum to the students. The lesson should be molded to the students in order to let the knowledge sink in.

Now, to read on and learn about chapter four and Assessment and Differentiation, visit Leah's blog.


Love Isn't Always Easy

Things have been trying lately, but I wouldn't change it for the world.  See I'm married to my high school sweetheart as they call it, although I only knew him for a whole 9 weeks while we were actually in high school.  Our first date was June 2, 1988 (27 years ago), on his last day of high school and from that day on we were smitten.  We were engaged one month later, married four years later, and had our first child 2 years after that.  Twenty-three (married years) later we are still going strong, although now we sometimes have to work at it, to make things spark or sail or fly along.


Love isn't always easy.  Some days it takes work.  Some days we disagree and have to reach a healthy resolution.  Some days one of us might just wake up disagreeable and the other person has to realize it's nothing personal.  Some days, weeks, or months (in this particular case) our job pulls us farther and farther away from one another and we have to know that it's all for the greater good; that the work being put in now will benefit us in the not too distant future.  We have to understand that if we can weather a few storms today, we can find shelter together in a beautiful tomorrow.  Love isn't always easy, but if it's love, you're willing to endure some hardships for the beauty, togetherness, and happiness that waits on the other side.


When I'm left to fill the void left by husband as he ventures off to his job, I work on another love of mine, albeit one that is not as torturous to the heart nor as consuming as my own profession - gardening.  I love to get my hands dirty and dig in the dirt.  I never wear gloves when I'm out there.  I'd much rather feel the dirt between my fingers even if I have to jump and squeal from the occasional spider or centipede.  I love the peace and quiet (and shade of my favorite garden) as I sit and weed for an hour or two every week.  I love the beauty that comes from the blooming flowers and the compliments from the neighbors.  It just all brings about a peace and a serenity that I don't often get in my life.
What isn't easy about this passion is that every year I have to start over because I stink at gardening so badly.  Even my favorite garden, which is a perennial garden, somehow manages to need starting over every year.  They're perennials because they're supposed to come back year after year, but not mine.  This beautiful garden that my husband built me has about 14 plants in it, and usually each year I must replant at least half the plants as I have somehow managed to kill them by not properly preparing them for the Colorado winter.  The plant industry must love people like me.

Interactive Notebooks

Another thing I love but yet takes a lot of energy, heart and soul in doing so, is my Interactive Notebooks.  I love creating Interactive Notebooks, or living books as we used to call them back when I started teaching.  I love getting kids involved, making lessons that are creative, and figuring ways to teach something with a flippable, foldable, or spinnable activity.  I love putting my lessons out there for others to use and considering the idea that hundreds or thousands of students could be learning about something because I made it accessible to them.  That's a pretty awesome feeling.

 Egypt Interactive Notebook

With every Interactive Notebook, however, also comes a time where I hit a wall in my creativity, and I have to take a break from it before I explode.  I also find that it's not always easy to put my books out there.  With my own children being grown, these books are like my babies.  I'm invested in them and I've sunk so much of my time and energy, passion and creativity into them, it's like putting a piece of your soul out there to be criticized.  It can be hard to watch the reviews come in, but like everything you's not always easy, but if it's truly something you love than it's worth it to make it better.


Mile High TPT Meet Up

Last Saturday I was able to partake in my first TPT meet up, and it was a great first experience.

Around 2 dozen Colorado sellers got together in southern Denver at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant for some great discussion, fun exchanges, and lots of laughs.  It was such a thrill to finally meet Leah Popinski, Pamela Kranz, Jean Martin, and many other sellers, not to mention Ashley Cook of Teaching in Bronco Country who put our festivities together and did a stellar job.  I was really glad to meet some friendly faces before I head to Vegas for the big conference in July.

We had a delightful lunch and then partook in a school supply white elephant exchange.  I got giant post-it notes; I didn't even know they existed that large.  I gave away a package of my favorite flair pens, some post-it notes, and a bag of M&Ms.

Once the school supply exchange was over, we then had a raffle for great prizes donated by awesome companies.  A big thank you goes out to Learning Resources, Little Knits Studio, Lakeshore Learning, Scentco, BIC, GoNoodle, Learning Expeditions, Gifts By Gaby, Classroom Friendly Supplies, KristyBear Designs, and Plan Book.

If that wasn't enough we also got an incredible swag bag full of great items to use in our classrooms.  My favorites were the assortments of pens and pencils from Bic and the scented pen from Smens.  What can I say, I'm a office supply-aholic.

Now it's your turn.  You can win one of our swag bags too.
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5 Young Adult Books to Read to Help You Stay In Touch with your Students

You can know a lot about someone by what they choose to read during their free time.  Someone who loves horror stories is probably more likely to be a thrill seeker, while someone who loves contemporary novels may be more solitary and enjoy the creature comforts of home.  So reading some popular novels that your students may be reading this summer may help you to understand who they are, what they like, and what makes them tick.

The first set of novels I've chosen is the Divergent series by Veronica Roth.  This is actually a set of three books, with a companion novel, which has been out for some time, but is still very popular due to the movies which are currently being released.  The original book, Divergent, features Beatrice Prior who must make the decision of who she is and which faction of life she will follow for her future.  This dystopian novel has something for everyone including action, romance, self-realization, and thrills.  It's sequels, Insurgent and Allegiant, continue to follow Tris in her path of coming to age and finding love amongst a chaotic and changing society.

The next novel you should undertake is Paper Towns by John Green.  Paper Towns is a stand alone book which is being released as a movie this summer.  It follows the close but yet complicated relationship of two friends, Q and Margo, and the quest that Q must undertake to find Margo when she goes missing.  This book features mystery, romance, and learning how to step out of your comfort zone.

Once you're done with Paper Towns, pick up the fun and quirky, relatable story Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.  Cath and Wren are sisters who grew up with the popular novels "Simon Snow".  Now that they are going to college, Wren is starting to make her own way, but Cath is still dependent on her sister.  When Cath is stuck with a new roommate, and her clingy boyfriend, she has to learn how to be independent and live on her own.  This romantic, funny, coming of age story will have you looking for the next book by Rainbow Rowell.

An emotional, heart-wrenching work of fiction is If I Stay by Gayle Forman.  This book features Mia, a classical music loving, cello playing, high school student who falls head over heels in love with Adam, the resident rock star of the local grunge band scene.  Their worlds intertwine and collide until on a snowy, winter day, an accident happens that turns Mia's world upside down and forces her to make the biggest decision of her life.  This book will have you cheering for love and crying for hard choices.  The sequel, Where She Went, is also available.

Finally the thrilling, action book, The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, is an older series, but like Divergent, with the movies coming out is regaining in popularity right now.  This follows the story of Thomas, a boy sent into "the glade" to live amongst other boys, all trying to find a way out of the maze surrounding them.  This may sound easy but there are monsters lurking around every corner.  When a surprise person is sent into the glade, everything begins to change and the need to get out becomes that much more desperate.  This dystopian novel features thrills, action, and adventure and is great for the young men in your life who need something to read.

These five books will be sure to keep you busy over the summer and will help you to connect to your students in the coming years.  I hope you enjoy them and learn something about the youth of today.

** Warning: Being that these are young adult works, they may contain items that you find offensive.  Please be aware of that before beginning any of these novels.

To read another great tip of how not to waste your summer, visit History Gal's blog.


Why I Made My Daughter Take the PARCC Exam

I have never been sky diving.  So, if I was to argue about the potential harm from sky diving, the emotional effects it has on a person, the dangers inherent in it, and how stupid you would have to be to even try it, then I would be highly criticized by those who endorse sky diving, and justifiably so.  I would be arguing from a point of view based on ignorance of the actual activity. That's why I had my daughter take the PARCC test this year, because I can't argue against something without actually seeing what it is.

To set the stage, I left my teaching position in December, so I have not had the full-year PARCC experience that many teachers have had. Instead, I've had the parent experience, "living vicariously" through my daughter's experience with the test. I had heard all the arguments about how off base the test was for level appropriateness, but I hadn't seen the test or the results of that test compared to the level I know my daughter is at, both from former testing and day to day working with her on homework.

So, I opted her in for testing.

Granted, my daughter is not a innocent first year tester in third grade. She will not crumble when being asked to describe the author’s meaning divined from a poem meant for sixth graders.  Nor is she a hard core willfully defiant renegade who would sleep through the majority of testing and try to see how many ways she could annoy the proctor during the 2 hour exam.  She’s a strong, independent, hard-working eighth grader who is proud of her accomplishments, and wants to make others proud as well. Yet she knows enough about herself to not wither under someone else’s glare.  I knew I could send her into testing and receive back a happy, healthy child who was still confident that she was smart, and that the test was ridiculous.  What surprised me most is how little she actually even thought about the test and the questions it asked.  She never once questioned herself or got in the car quizzical about the day’s testing.  She simply took the test and went on with her life, being the happy and healthy 14 year old that I love.

Besides our discussions about the test and the questions that were asked, the other reason I opted my child into the test is for the results we will get back in the next few months.  I am expecting them to come back and say that my child is wildly unprepared for the next grade and for life, when I know that to be untrue.  If this happens, it will give me yet another leg to stand on when I go to argue the lack of validity in the PARCC test and the reason it should be removed from our schools.  Having hard results in my hand for comparison’s sake will make arguments that much easier and stronger than having a 0 because I opted my child out of testing.

It will be an interesting fall and an interesting follow up to this discussion when the results are finally released, but I’m glad I chose to make my child take the PARCC test so that I can walk into a discussion with hard proof to back up my arguments when I decide to discuss the harmful and misguided PARCC exam.

An Extra Chance to get Kids Hooked on Math

As this Saturday approaches one of the most epic math days approaches.  Of course I am speaking about pi day on March 14.  This year makes it especially wonderful because it won't just be pi day on 3/14, but it will be super pi day on 3/14/15 at 9:26:53 when 10 digits of pi align to the date of the year.  That's just cool!

Pi Day is the perfect opportunity to get kids hooked on math.  Too often, as educators, we hear, "Math is too hard," "I can't do it," etc.  But Pi Day allows you to have fun with math, and it allows kids to see that math doesn't just have to be a list of numbers and equations and repetitive practice after practice. Pi Day lets kids see that math can be shapes, figures, fractals, colors, diagrams, exploration, discovery, and more.

For the younger students Pi Day presents a wealth of crafts that can be created related to circles.  Anything with circles can be cut, glued, beaded, sewn, and strung together to make circles the focus.  Add in a little history explaining how the ratio was discovered, who assigned the Greek letter of pi to it, and how pi is used today, and you've got yourself a lesson.  Some craft suggestions include assigning a different color to each digit, 0-9, and then using that guide to create bracelets and keychains, decorate pi quilt squares, make a paper chain representing the digits of pi, and more.

For slightly older children, Pi Day allows them to explore mathematical concepts without the weight of a grade or the worry of a test.  They can graph the digits of pi, measure circumferences and diameters and find the ratio themselves, explore volume of different sized cylinders and see how the base (area) of the circle affects the volume more than the height of the object, etc.

Then finally, for your older students, Pi Day allows you to capture some amazement and excitement with explorations and labs in math.  Think of all the fun the science teacher gets to have with labs, and now you get to do it too, but without the frog guts.  Students can re-create the early stages of Archimedes experiment with polygons and discover the ratio of pi.  They can test Buffon's Needle and be amazed at how toothpicks on a paper predict the value of pi.  Let them predict what will happen as you cut apart various loops of paper and create moebius strips. Or let them research and evaluate how circles and parallelograms are related.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg.  There is so much you can do with circles and so many ways you can explore how Pi has impacted the world around us.  So celebrate Pi Day this Saturday, celebrate it with your students beforehand or afterwards, but let math be fun, let math be exciting, and maybe, just maybe, we can turn one of those "It's too hard," kids into the next young mathematicians of the decade.

For these activities and more...


Formative Assessments in a Snap

Formative assessments are a range of formal and informal assessments that teachers use during the learning process in order to determine where their students learning is at, if teaching and instruction needs to be modified, and if instruction can be fast-forwarded to new skills that have yet to be mastered.

Formative assessments can happen in a variety of ways with the most popular being quizzes, homework, and in class participation.  It's that formative assessment through in-class participation where I've created a system that makes it quick, easy, and fun to assess and participate.

Response cards provide an interactive way for students to participate in the lesson at hand.  They have a limited number of answers on them and can be used in a variety of subjects.  The card pictured above is a universally useful response card as it fits all multiple choice and true/false questions.  I've also seen response cards that are more specific to the subject, such as elements from the list of noble gases being used in chemistry class, or a set of Spanish explorers being used in a social studies class.

This universal set of response cards come in a variety of colors and arrangements to suit many purposes.  There is a black and white set for those that don't have access to color printers.  There are single colored sets for those that have a class color they prefer, and there are two and four color sets for those that want to have team competitions in their rooms.

Give each student a card and ask them multiple choice and/or true/false questions.  Students put their finger or thumb over their answer.  When printed back to back, according to the directions provided, the same letter/word will be covered in the front as in the back and the teacher can see it no matter where they are in the room.  It provides immediate feedback to everyone in the room.

It's simple, fun, colorful, engaging for the students and easy for the teacher.  It's formative assessment in a snap.

Pick up these Formative Assessment Response Cards in my Teachers Pay Teachers store today.