Making the Impossible Possible

This is my third season to coach Cross Country, and there is still absolutely nothing like the first meet of the season. This is the first time that even the returning runners get what I have been telling them from the very beginning:

You have to make the impossible, possible.

I tell them these words early and often to combat those two words that I hear more often than I like:

I can’t.

I remind them that not only can they run, they will run well. And yet, they don’t seem to believe me.

So I stand with them at the start line, convincing them that they will neither throw up nor die, and remind them that they can make the impossible, possible.

The start gun goes off, and off they go. And I wait at the finish line…

And here come the ones who said prior injuries would be an issue, who are way out in the front of the pack. The one who started running late, and hits the finish line passing two people at the last second. The never before runners who said they were scared they would not finish the race came flying across the line. The ones who are growing so quickly and are really starting to develop as runners, the ones who are looking for their niche, the ones who just wanted to be on a team, the returning runners who had a rough last season, all of them running to the finish. Running – not walking. And the one or two runners who you had been working with for weeks and had never completed a mile…not only did they run the entire mile, but they did it well.

All of these runners made their own impossible, possible.

This is the joy of this sport for me – showing these runners, from 6th grade to seniors, that they can run, and they can run well.

You cannot help but truly love that moment.

And you can’t help but truly love the high fives, selfies, and sweaty group hugs that come afterwards.

I’m looking forward to returning to school on Monday to watch them confidently walk into the building, the result of a lesson well-learned.

I am so blessed that they call me Coach.

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Lessons from Mommy Bird

For the past fourteen years, I have been teaching students at transitional points in their education.  Either I have been getting them ready for high school, or transitioning them into high school.  It is a very funny age because the students are wanting their independence, but also wanting to cling to you for answers, reassurance, and support…much like you are Google with encouragement and the ability to quickly check their work.

Which leads to a number of questions that I don’t answer:

Can you look at this essay and tell me what grade I will make?  Is this okay?  Is this what you want? Is this right?  Is this the answer?  Can you read this over and tell me all of the stuff I need to fix?  Is this good?  I need to make an A on this paper.  Is this an A paper?” 

I don’t answer these questions because I am mean, although my students will tell me that I am; I don’t answer them because these questions do not make the students independent thinkers.  In fact, these questions don’t really require them to do much thinking at all.  They just want me to serve as their “Google it” feature so that they get immediate feedback and can be done.  It becomes nothing more than something to check off their list.

I want them to think it through, reason it out, and take their answers to their logical end.  And to answer their knee-jerk need reassurance that I am right although I have no idea how I arrived at that answer questions simply invalidates the need to think.  That has led to my talk with my students in the last few weeks:

“This Mommy Bird is shoving you out of the nest.  It is not that Mommy Bird does not love you, but it is time for you to do this on your own and fly.  There is no reason that you cannot do this.  If you are in real trouble – like you are on fire or being eaten by a bear – then Mommy Bird will come rescue you.  But your not being able to put things from the novel in your own words after three seconds of thought is not real trouble, and I am not coming to rescue you.  Now get out of my nest and fly.”

The students thought that was a good analogy, and it lasted about three minutes.  Then, they were back.

“But I can’t…”

Yes, you can.  Now go try.

“You have to help me…”

I am.  I am making you think.  You will thank me later.

“Help!  Mommy Bird!”

Fire?  Bear?  If the answer to those is no, you don’t need me.

“You are being mean.”

Nope.  Now get out of my nest.  I’m redecorating your room.

“Really???”

And despite all of the protests to the contrary, my little flock of seemingly helpless birds will come to class the next day with beautifully reasoned out arguments for their beliefs, which they have to rush into my room as soon as the first bell rings to share with me.  They are flying.  It is not perfect flight, but they do figure out that they are more capable than what they thought they were.  They also figure out that there is sometimes not a right or wrong answer, for the world is not always objective questions, but ones that must be answered from inside them.

Sometimes the best thing a Mommy Bird can do is shove the baby birds out of the nest and let them figure some things out for themselves.  I know that I have taught them to the best of my abilities, and they simply need to use what they have been taught so that they can fly.  It is a natural transition.

And it makes this Mommy Bird very proud.

Choose Your Battles

I have great empathy for teachers who “float” throughout their teaching day.  Been there.  Done that.  I floated the first year I taught – actually I trudged between two buildings and five classrooms.  Two periods a day, I shared a room with a teacher who was really likable and fun…outside of her classroom.

The inside of her classroom was a different story.  She was the teacher who would not allow backpacks in her room, gave detention for a student’s feet being in the aisle, reset her rows at the end of each class, and was intolerant of the least disruption of the routine.  All blanks had to be filled in, all of your I’s dotted and T’s crossed, and the mimeographed worksheets had to be submitted exactly on time and in exactly the correct format.   I dared not come into her classroom two seconds early, and I made sure to be out of her room almost before the students.  Those were the battles she chose to fight, and she fought them well.  I respected her boundaries, as did the students.

When I finally won the lottery for an open room, I too, chose my battles.  My students were responsible for moving their desks into whatever configuration the lesson of the day required.  My room was rearranged several times a day.  Backpacks were allowed but had to stay out of the way.  And because of the standardized testing at the end of the year, my students worked their tail ends off every day.  My biggest battle was ensuring that every student had improved that year.  Laziness, poor effort, and not turning in assignments were not tolerated.  Those were my battles, and I fought them every day.

And years later, I ran into one of my former students at the mall.  She had classes taught by me and the other teacher.  And in our conversation, she said how much she had appreciated both of us.

What?  I really liked her, but she fought me tooth and nail some days.

She went on to explain that her life was missing something, and that between the two of us, we had managed to teach her.  From us, she had learned the self-discipline that she needed to finish high school.  We would not accept less than her best, and she learned she was worth giving her best…as well as her son who she was raising while finishing high school.  She said that she did not always like the lesson at that exact moment, but over time, she had realized exactly what both of us had taught her.  She was grateful.

That was one of those moments that made fighting the battles completely worth it

You see, as teachers, we all choose the battles that are most important to us, and those that we feel will benefit our students the most.  One battle is not more important than another, since they all come together to benefit the entire student.  Even the ones who will fight tooth and nail because they don’t like the lessons at that moment in time.

Eventually, they get it.  And if we get lucky, they get to tell us about it.

Tell Me What I Did Right

I am just like most other teachers – harried, stressed out, exhausted, working under impossible deadlines with mountains of papers to grade, emails to answer, forms to submit, meetings to attend, and students to teach.  With all of the demands placed on teachers, I just as easily fell into the trap of grading, especially essays.  I spent long hours making comments in margins, writing some of the same things a squillion times on each set of papers, only to have all of my efforts ignored as students only looked at their grades and then threw the papers away or complained about their grades without even looking at the comments that I had taken hours to write.  Feeling frustrated and undervalued does not even come close to describing how I felt on those days.

And then something changed.  I was attending an AP workshop during the summer, and the presenter handed out a list of numbered comments to us.  These were comments that she typically made on papers, and instead of writing “Your thesis statement in unclear” or “The topic sentence is in the wrong place” fifty times, you could simply write a number, and students would have to refer back to the numbered comment sheet to understand what that number meant.  This numbered system also had positive comments to let the students know what they had done correctly.  She assured us, and she was absolutely right, that this method would cut our grading time, so that we could give more feedback more quickly to the students.

Awesome!  I was going to start using it immediately, as I taught both Pre AP and AP English at the time, and the grading was crazy.

Indeed, using this system did cut my grading time significantly.  But something else amazing also happened.  As I handed back papers, students stopped immediately digging for their grades.  They started counting their even numbers – the positive comments – to see how many they had, and what they had done well on.  Some would be thrilled that for the first time ever, they had received a “4” on their thesis statement, which meant they had a well-written thesis.  Some students would compete to see who could get the most even numbers.  They could finally have a paper back that not only did not look like I had bled all over it, but also let them know what they had done correctly.

You see, that is the trap.  As teachers, we are so crunched for time that too often we focus only on the things that were done incorrectly, and neglect to let the students know what they did well on so that they can do it again.  I had fallen in to that trap, and I am now so glad that I am out of it.

Because now, by and large, students keep their papers and refer back to them to see how to write something now based on the correct model that they already created.  Their questions are better, instead of why did I not get an A, it is now how can I improve this so that it is worthy of an even number.  And they are better judges of their own writing now, and base their evaluation of improvement on more even numbers, as opposed to less writing in the margins or a grade.  The focus is now in the right place – what did I do well.

As stressed out, harried, exhausted adults in this crazy messed-up world, we also tend to focus on the “what went wrongs” instead of the “what went rights” of the day.  We all need to take a time out from that, and instead of bleeding in the margins of the essay of our lives negative comments on all of the things that we messed up, we need to take a deep breath and start acknowledging what went right.  We all did something right that day; give yourself a break and a little credit.  Do the same thing the next day, and then the next.

When you start to look at all of the things that went right, it makes fixing the things that did not go right a little more doable.

Focusing on the positive makes the impossible possible.

Follow ALL of the Steps

It takes a series of steps to get from point A to point B.  That is also one of the hardest things for people to remember – that this is a process.  We do not immediately go from thought to finished product without some work in between those two; or quite frankly, quite a bit of work.

Still, one of the questions I get far too often is, “Do we have to follow all of the steps in order?”

“Yes, that is why I wrote them in that order.  And no skipping steps either.”

“You mean I have to do all of this?  Why can’t I just…”

“Negative.  Do all of the steps in order.  No other way around it.  Put in the work.”

In my classroom, I share my journey in CrossFit with my students, especially since it is so relevant to this particular question.  I explain to them that when I signed up for CrossFit, I did not walk in and immediately start lifting heavy weights.  I had to put in the work.  I had to do all of the things to build strength – some of which I DID NOT enjoy – so that I could do what I do today.  I have to continue to work to continue to improve, and keep doing the things that are my least favorite.  And this means doing all of the steps in order.

Students have to learn to be patient with the groundwork of learning.  Sure, they may not think that doing things such as writing in journals or following sentence patterns is a relevant part of the process.   They may not like critical reading and annotation.  There are days that they don’t like following directions.   But they have to put in the work, even the parts they deem yucky, to be able to produce a meaningful finished product that draws all of those skills together, and one in which they have invested the necessary time and thought to complete.

It is the same with any kind of learning or project or process in the adult world. There has to be groundwork. There are steps that must be followed in order so that the project can be completed.  Some of the steps will not seem very relevant, and some will not be in the least bit enjoyable, but they are ALL a part of the process.  Putting in the work is essential, but it must be the kind of work that produces not just any product, but a quality product.

This process is a journey – one which requires time, energy, work, and personal investment.  Enjoy it, learn from it, and be sure to stop and look at how far you have come.

It will be well worth it.

Put in the Work

It is an every day battle in my classroom.  When I give an assignment, more than one student will spend less than five minutes on it and then come up to my desk and demand to know, “Is this good?”  The answer is normally a resounding no, because the student has clearly not put in the work.  It continues with the response of the student, “But I did it.”

Sigh…

Undoubtedly, they are a little unclear on the concept.  Just because you spent five whole minutes on it does not make it quality work; it is simply putting in minimal time.  It is putting in the work that makes all of the difference.

Let’s face it – we live in a world of instant gratification.  ATM’s will spit out money any time of the day and night, pizza places will deliver at your whim, and if all else fails…google it…on any number of electronic devices at your fingertips.  Working, really working, for something seems to have become a bit of a foreign concept.

But anything worth doing is worth putting in the work.  And I mean real work.

January is coming, and with it will be a slew of new resolutions to lose weight, exercise, become more organized, and so forth.  Some of those resolutions will be done with in less than a week because there are no instantaneous results for those, and people who tell you there can be are simply selling something.  Learning and change require you to put in the work.  You cannot expect to put in minimal work and get maximum results.  That is the stuff of infomercials.

I’ve spent two years in Crossfit, and am pretty good about being there three to five days a week.  I run a few days a week as well.    I put in the work.  And I am seeing results – PR’s on lifts, much better times on my runs, and all sorts of little improvements here and there.  And is the work worth it?  Absolutely.

My son’s classes have started to really put some demands on him, and he is truly having to be organized and put in some real time studying – sometimes six and seven hours a night.  It is a struggle for him to keep all of the plates spinning sometimes, but he is putting in the work.  He, too, is seeing the results in his grades.  Is the work worth it to him?  Absolutely.

Nothing comes easily.  It takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes dedication, determination.  It sometimes means starting all over and trying again.

It takes work.

But anything worth doing is worth putting in the work.

How to Survive Semester Exams

Today is the last day of finals, for which we are grateful.  My school is one of the anomalies in the area in that we have finals before the Christmas Break.  So many schools in the area have exams in January.

I’ve been watching students for a long time prepare for exams.  Here are some strategies that I have taught them to take the anxiety out of exams:

  1.  Study early – start reviewing early to avoid the last minute rush.  I am one of those teachers who hands out the review to students almost three weeks ahead of time.  However, not everyone does.  Still, students can look over all of their old tests and quizzes and begin to generate what they need to study for the final.
  2. Use online resources – there are several apps – Quizlet is one of the favorites at my school – where students can create study materials.  Some of the apps let students create flashcards, and then let them play games or review or learn.  This is great since it plays to the wired nature of today’s teenager and it is far lighter to carry a phone than it is textbooks and binders.
  3. Pool resources – this is so helpful and can help lighten the load.  Students can get together and divide the work of preparing study materials.  Using some of the online resources, students can each prepare a portion of the study materials that everyone can share.  It is important that if your student does work with a group, that it is a group of people that he or she can depend on to complete the work.
  4. Take breaks – studying for hours on end will lead to exhaustion and frustration.  Studying in small increments with breaks will help with rest and refocus, which leads to better retention and less frustration.
  5. Vary the order of what you study – if you always start with studying math, and always start at the beginning of the material, the last subject or material studied will always suffer.  Start with math one night, English the next, and history the next.  Start in different places each time you study the subject.
  6. Try to have fun – my students create review games, and have even played charades, to review material.  They sing songs, make up rhymes, and draw pictures.  Use your creativity to make this process a little less stressful.
  7. Do the math – calculate what score you will need to make on your exam to maintain or raise your average.  For some classes, you may only need to pass the exam, and others, you may need to make 150 on the exam to get that A, which we all know won’t happen. Either way, having a realistic picture of where you need to be numerically goes a long way toward setting priorities and alleviating stress.

It is important that students in late middle school and high school take control of their studying for exams, and these steps can help them take that control without completely stressing themselves out.