My Extreme Learners

foreshallI remember Santiago, the old fisherman who brought his mangled hand and the half-eaten marlin back ashore. For days and nights, he fought back against that fish even if that meant the fish was to be eaten up by sharks. From the outsiders, he was an up-to-go-good man with nothing to share but what he found was the battle within himself — the ultimate reward a man could have. He fought for it and he brought that game back home. You think to yourself that old man was crazy to bring a fishbone back home.

Yes, he is an extreme learner. A man who is not afraid to sail out to see what’s awaiting him, a man who believes that exploration is an outward sign of inner strength and battles. A man who marches to his own drumbeat, a man who is not afraid to get to a different place than what he had planned.

So are some middle schoolers. They might or might not do well academically or perhaps share little about their school life. Their lens constantly shifts and turns like ocean waves. Some have masked their motivation underneath refusing to share with you for the fear of judgment or being questioned by the adults around them. Their passion isn’t just about taking classes that interest them but actually starting with a driving question using the world as their text, foreseeing possible problems and hurdles and articulating its premises, and designing, presenting, and sharing their multiple solutions with the world.

Beyond the matrices of cognitive and achievement abilities, the teens are wired to innovate, gamify, and create their worlds and share out our ideas to make differences.

Yes, today’s teens have developed social, emotional, and communal identities beyond cognitive and achievement matrices. The disconnect and the sense of inadequacy the parents feel towards this generation have to do with their inability in directing their thinking processes towards something that are productive and purpose driven. These children grew up embracing digitalized realities and in return, they are able to access innovation, creativity, and multiplicity of values.

Come on guys, it’s time to get on the boat and sail on to the deep!

References

https://www.edutopia.org/article/nurturing-intrinsic-motivation-students

http://www.roseforshall.com/

https://la.utexas.edu/users/jmciver/Honors/Fiction%202013/Hemmingway_The%20Old%20Man%20and%20the%20Sea_1952.pdf

Saving Our Boys

JF2I grew up with a brother who struggled with mental illness.

My parents must have looked at the boy and thought something was wrong. He wet his pants in his third-grade classroom or hesitated to mix in with other shirtless boys who didn’t mind getting their shoes muddied from outdoor activities.

As a talented and sensitive artist, my brother did not cope well with the conflicting parenting styles; while our father harnessed him with reigns and latches to man him up, our mother hovered around him to compensate for what she thought he didn’t get from her husband.

By the time I was born seven years later, my brother saw my presence as a reflection of his own incompetence and an emblem of shame. I was my parents’ hope of what he could have been. At a young age, I witnessed his unmasked agony, which was raw and wild, often manifesting itself in verbal and emotional violence against me.

Looking back, his world of what it meant to be a man was a collage of parental obsession, a false sense of masculinity, and overprotection. An already a sensitive child who loved simple things in life, my parents’ norms and pressure drove him to run after the things he abhorred: power, success, and masculinity.

 Parents must invite their sons to be sad, afraid, hurt, silly and affectionate, and must embrace them as often as they snuggle their daughters. Sweet boys learn early on that they can defend themselves against loneliness by reaching out and asking for support rather than turning into people who, literally, grab for power.   

-Faith Salie @TIMES “How to Raise a Sweet Son in the Era of Angry Men” 

In his early 50’s, he is still searching for the boyhood he never had nor will ever know.

Before Father passed away, I remember how he summoned his courage to tell me that, as a father, he had so much anxiety about raising a son who seemed aloof, distant, and fragile. He didn’t know how to instruct him as he himself was raised by a father who always expected his to be “the man”.

I am not sure how to navigate this field of boyhood, becoming a man, or even how to listen to them.

Perhaps there’s nothing I can do to help the parents and the boys who struggle. Maybe “help” is not a right word to use here. Perhaps that’s the point. They don’t need my help. I just have to listen and know that they struggle to come to terms with their spaces.

 

 

Middle School Gifted Specialists: The Lone Wolves

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 10.42.48 AMFor all middle school educators who are itinerant, half-time, or split among multiple schools, welcome aboard! 

As a solo practitioner in the field of Gifted Education in two middle schools, my journey has been full of both wonder and loneliness: First, gifted population I serve is a bundle of hormonal joyride whose parents grabble with the changes their children experience each day. The beginning of autonomy, their flight towards independence, and multiple aspects of interdependence to their peers are a road less traveled for the adults around them. Giftedness, for the teens, has more to do with existential musings than completing an extra set of quadratic equations and engaging in tiered tasks: struggling with locating motivation, discovering truths, developing perspectives for world problems, and asking themselves, why me, and where am I going are the types of learning they desire. (Read more about Claudia Wallis’s “The Benefits of Helping Teens Identify Their Purposes in Life”

Secondly, Middleville, particularly for the rising 6th graders, isn’t an easy place to be. The children are pushed into a structured environment to adjust to four to five different core content teachers who have different expectations regardless of students’ personal journey. Unless the content and curriculum are specifically designed to target their existential struggles, these children are situated to “catch up” with what each teacher demands of them. In a district where 30 % of the student population is identified gifted, my job as half-time Gifted Specialists in two middle schools is nothing but nominal and superficial through the lens of community stakeholders.

My counterpart and I serve a total of more or less 1000 gifted identified students while participating instructional teams,  coaching and mentoring teachers who need help with differentiation for gifted learners, and attending parent-teacher conferences, 504 and IEP meetings for those who are diagnosed with both gifted and learning disabilities. That’s not all. Every year, we have teachers sign Differentiation Education Plan (DEP) a.k.a. IEP(Individual Education Plan) in other districts and make sure to have those strategies in place for gifted students in mixed-ability classrooms. Depending on what administrative and instructional hats we wear in school buildings, some jobs get done, but most don’t get done because it is not possible to hold 1000 students accountable. 

To the lone wolves out there,  I, too, have howled and moaned at the full moon. Meanwhile, I have told myself that I will not give up the fight yet. In the midst of my inefficiency, I have discovered some gems on how to survive being itinerant.

  • Waiting is the highest virtue: Work with mature and confident teachers who will welcome you to their classrooms to work with their students.  After a year or two, you will see some teachers approaching you to take their teaching to the next level. You will end up working with some of the best teachers in each school building. There are always 1 or 2 teachers whose teaching methods are rooted in who they are.  As Tamara has shared on her blog, we understand that for some strange reason, others find you repulsive and cocky because of what you represent. Waiting makes a difference.
  • Find a mentor for personal growth: Since the nature of your job is closely tied to the misconceptions and myths your colleagues may have about what you do and who you serve, your presence may steer some teachers away from you. Since you are the only resource person in the building for the high-ability or high-potential students, others will probably measure you up from different lens depending on their past experiences working with the gifted population in their classrooms. Teachers work closely with interventionists who are experts for middle and bottom down, and assume that intermediate to top students are “fine on their own”. 
  • Keep a journal to reflect your daily engagement. What I also suggest is that you carry a notebook for journaling. Why? Instead of writing down your schedule that doesn’t exist, reflect on your practices, interaction, and other ideas that come to your mind. Don’t get caught up worrying about fitting Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 10.34.40 AMyourself into a Professional Learning Community or instructional teams. At this point, cherish and honor the few teachers you have worked with and celebrate the students who you have reached out and have grown.
  • Be a proactive listener for the parents of the children you serve:  Develop listening skills. We live in a culture of expressions and opinions, and who we need are the listeners. Some parents want to have their voices heard, but from grading papers and handling behavioral issues in class, teachers can’t make the time for the parents who need more for their children. Before the parents leave a voicemail on their teachers’ desks, schedule conferences with the parents who are doing well and also with those who aren’t doing well. Bring some coffee, sit down, and spend time getting to know the parents, so that you gain insight into their lives, pattern, and learning styles. Be a listener.  With parents’ permission, share some insight about their children with the teachers.

 

Questions for you:

Do you feel like a lone wolf in your professional learning community? In your school? How do you cope with incompetency, inefficiency, or loneliness?

Image source

Parents, Our Strongest Allies

Building a strong relationship with middle school parents isn’t on the priority list for many educators. Considering North Carolina’s teacher pay is ranked #35 in the nation,  who would want to carve out extra hours calling parents to introduce themselves and give positive feedback for every child? For that matter,  most conferences for the gifted children have been done around angry parents, Individual Education Plan(IEP), behavioral issues, or failing grades. What we end up doing is we keep empathy out and use hard data to justify that we are doing the best we can to do our job as educators.

And I’m tired of this fight of advocating for the children and parents of the gifted.

We as teachers forget that parents are not our foes. Parents don’t get to hear much about how gifted services are delivered in classrooms because most of my time is spent on managing neglect and lack of differentiation in classrooms. They want to know more but by the time they want to know more, it’s around the mid-year. The phones start ringing at both ends of school and home when something goes wrong.

As these children enter into the season of autonomy and communities of their own, parents and teachers are the ones to closely communicate with each other to hold our children accountable. It’s a must for adults to communicate to each other. 

So here’s my suggestion. First, I start early. Pick out a week to call the parents after school to introduce myself. There are many ways to introduce ourselves through digital means, but nothing is as productive and meaningful as phone calls or personalized emails. What this does is it opens doors for transparency and communications. 100 students is a lot to email but when we think about it, spending 1 week to make phone calls and emails isn’t too bad to set the tone for the entire year.

Secondly, listening to parents’ concern, struggles, and celebration is like gathering data on their children’s lives and all other areas I cannot otherwise observe in their classrooms. Through the mouths and eyes of the parents, I have access to their children’s private lives. Parents, too, need teacher support.

Thirdly, find ways to engage our parents as part of our classroom culture. Often times, they will have access to community resources that they bring to enrich our experiences.

In my tiny quarter in the 7th grade hallway,  I delight in engaging with the parents who care about their children. Our conversation ranges from what to do for their new-to-district child to how the child is doing in their classes. Surprisingly, I hear so much positive feedback on how our teachers are doing a great job recognizing the needs of their children. I don’t think we allow our parents to speak the truth about their children.

Parents are not aliens; they are our allies.