My Wish Tree

I was in Copenhagen, Denmark last summer.  There was an installation along the waterfront by Yoko Ono that consisted of a grove of wish trees.  Passersby were asked to take a white tag, make a wish, and tie it on one of the trees.  That was it.  Art! I thought about that wish tree today as I spent time in a number of classrooms with children ranging in age from 8 to 16.  If we had a grove of trees planted in our district (or in any district), what wishes would I tie to the tree limbs?

Here’s the beginning of my very long list:

I wish:

  • All students would receive the highest quality instruction possible.
  • All students would feel loved and honored for who they are.
  • All students would be highly engaged in the work they are doing.
  • All students would get exactly what they need when they need it.
  • All students would feel that they have both choice and voice.
  • All students would find joy in their academic pursuits.
  • All students had dreams and aspirations.
  • All children owned their learning processes.
  • All children could talk well about their learning.
  • All teachers and parents and administrators had high expectations and hopes for all children.
  • All teachers demonstrated passion about the critically important work they are doing.
  • All teachers would recognize their importance (and power) in the lives of kids.
  • All teachers had choice and voice in what they are teaching (and what children are learning).
  • All teachers owned their teaching and learning processes.
  • All teachers had dreams and aspirations (for themselves and their students).
  • All teachers would find joy in their work.

I could go on and on, but this is a good start.

Thank you, Yoko, for always hoping and dreaming and wishing that the world will continue to become a more beautiful and peaceful and meaningful place.

Rethinking Feedback

This weekend, I listened to a podcast from Cult of Pedagogy about giving effective feedback.  In this podcast, Jennifer interviews Joe Hirsch, teacher, PhD candidate, and author of The Feedback Fix.  Hirsch asks us to take a new look at how we give feedback.  He suggests that feedback needs to be more focused on the future, which will lead to greater reflection,  greater agency, and a growth mindset.

Hirsch suggests that traditional feedback is about command and control, is given infrequently, is based on what the observer has seen (and so has already occurred) and involves ratings. Since we can’t change what has already happened, this kind of feedback can lead to a mental shut down, a fixed mindset, and even create learned helplessness; clearly the opposite of what we are hoping for when giving feedback.  So Hirsch is asking us to consider a new paradigm he calls “feedforward.”

Instead of rating and judging a person’s performance in the past, feedforward has us focus on a person’s future actions and push for reflection. Hirsch gives the following example:

Suppose my student is writing an essay. Instead of waiting until she is finished, then marking up all the errors and giving it a grade, I would read parts of the essay while she is writing it, point out things I’m noticing, and ask her questions to get her thinking about how she might improve it.

The person providing feedforward is to ask reflective questions instead of providing ideas or “fixes” to what they’ve seen (This kind of feedback is less like looking through a window and more like encouraging the staff member to look in a mirror).

Hirsch uses the acronym REPAIR to help us understand what is included in feedforward.

R: It Regenerates Talent

E: It Expands Possibilities

P: It is Particular

A: It is Authentic

I: It has Impact

R: It Refines Group Dynamics

I do think that when we teach from a constructivist framework, and focus on the reading and writing process, we are working within a model where this kind of forward-focused feedback can and does happen.  This podcast provided me with important reminders about how to give effective feedback to students and to the teachers I work with (and even to my friends and family).  I have seen enough to know that telling someone how to make their teaching better is absolutely not the way to build capacity or to grow a professional learning community.

And finally, this quote drove it home for me –

“We don’t fear change.  We fear being changed.”

If you are interested in listening to this podcast, you can find it at Cult of Pedagogy (Podcast #87).

Another Draft of “No Tears for Pogo”

As many of you know, I’ve been trying to work through the writing process with a small piece about losing my childhood dog.  I had to put it aside for a while as I really didn’t know where to go with it.  What was I trying to say?  What was the “heart” of the story?  Who was my audience? After the holidays I pulled it out again and did some revision work.  I’m still not quite sure where I’m heading with this, but here’s where we are now.  If you have any feedback, I’m interested! I’m really struggling with the ending (as you will surely see).

No Tears for Pogo 

Until the age of ten, life had treated me well.  My parents, sister, dog, and I lived in a nice house with a nice yard on a nice street in the same town where my parents had been raised and my grandparents still lived. My sister and I walked to the nearby elementary school, had Sunday lunches with one set of grandparents and Thursday dinners with the other.  Then Pogo went missing and life changed.

Pogo had never gone missing before. In fact, he never moved much at all! Pogo was a ten year old basset hound, and big for his breed.  My parents had purchased him the year I was born, so I considered him to be my dog. His days followed a predictable routine.  Pogo started the day with breakfast and then headed to his favorite spot; laying in the middle of the road where the sunshine warmed the pavement. Pogo would sleep there until he felt the vibration of a car that was coming down the hill. He would get up, stretch his long body, and lumber to the side of the road, dragging his long ears and sagging belly with him.  Once the car had passed, Pogo would return to his original spot on the road. In those days, there were no leashes or invisible fences, and nobody seemed to care whether or not dogs were wandering around the neighborhood.  In the evenings, Pogo would eat again and then, in the winter, spread himself out in front of the fireplace so that Christina and I could lay our heads on his long belly and rest by the fire. He was, without question, the best dog ever. And then, one day, he just didn’t come home.

For days, we looked for Pogo.  We walked to and from school, searching along the route and calling out Pogo’s name.  Like a group of carolers, the gang of kids we walked home with would sing out, “Pogo…Come here you big little puppy!  Come on, pup.  Come out wherever you are! Pogo…Come here you big little puppy…..” But to no avail.  Pogo didn’t appear.  We walked up and down our street, through the woods to the neighbor’s house, knocked on doors, put up flyers.  Still nothing.

It was on the fifth day that I heard the words I never wanted to hear.  Dad was driving.  My sister was in the front seat, and I was in the back. We were on our regular evening trip to the train station to pick up mom. It was quiet in the car.  Too quiet.  My dad cleared his throat.

“Girls…….about Pogo. He was an old dog, you know.  Ten is a pretty good age for a dog.”

More quiet.  

“I hate to tell you this, but Pogo died. I found him today. In the woods. Across the street. You know animals wander off when they get old.  They know how to handle things.  He must have known he was dying and wandered off to find a place to die gracefully and without upsetting you girls too much.  I know how you loved Pogo.  I loved him too (Here dad’s voice cracked for a minute. I looked in the rear view mirror and could see the pain in his eyes.).

As dad was talking, I just stared out the car window watching the trees and cars and houses rush by.  Everything felt blurry and somehow unreal.  Then I heard my sister start to sob.  She was crying and I could see her back shaking.  My dad reached over and touched her shoulder. She cried louder.

But not me. There were no tears.  I just stared and stared.  I wanted desperately to cry, to sob, to wail.  I wanted to yell out, “Nooooo! Not Pogo.  Not my dog. My best friend in the whole wide world!  No!” But nothing came.  Not even a gentle tear. My eyes weren’t even red or wet.  I just kept staring.  What is wrong with me?  Why can’t I cry?  I tried to make myself cry.  I tried to push tears out of my eyes.  I tried to hunch over and curl up in a ball like my sister had done.  But nothing.  

The days passed, the weeks, even months.  Still, no tears.  Then it just got to be too late to cry hysterically about a dog I had lost so long ago.  I know I loved Pogo. Losing him was my first experience with loss.  It was my first recognition that life was not always going to have the easy ebb and flow I had experienced for my first ten years. I know I cared.  I just don’t understand why there were no tears for Pogo.

TLW – Three Little Words

I have really enjoyed the annual Two Writing Teachers’ OLW (One Little Word) event.  When one year ends and the next one begins, I look forward to reading all about the words people will select to guide them through the year ahead.  TWT bloggers pick such beautiful and powerful words: joy, peace, note, hope, focus, rest. I think my favorite part of this whole event is reading the “backstories” writers share about their process of, and reasons for, selecting their one important word. I love the way these writers reflect on their lives (personal and professional) and make plans for an even better year.

All of these posts make me feel inspired (and, to be honest, a bit pressured) to select my own perfect word.  This year has been a real struggle.  I’ve listed many words that I think will work:

Peace 

Family

Hope

Perseverance

Patience

Focus

But then when I consider selecting one of them as the OLW for the whole year, there is always something that just doesn’t feel quite right.  The word isn’t big enough, or it’s too big.  The word seems perfect for certain parts of my life, but wholly inadequate for others.  The word seems perfect for an hour or two, and then it just feels wrong. I’ve been trying to find my OLW for weeks now.   

I finally decided that I wasn’t going to find my OLW this year.  I was just going to have to wait until next year and try again.  It was then that I read an article in the New York Times titled How to Keep Your Resolutions by David Desteno.  In the article, Desteno suggests that we struggle (and usually fail) to keep our resolutions because we count on willpower and “muscling through” instead of paying more attention to our emotions and our relationships with others.  Desteno encourages readers to cultivate our social emotions, specifically compassion, gratitude, and pride (not hubris).  He says that developing these emotions will give us not only grit, but grace. 

And so it is that I have decided to go with TLW (Three Little Words) this year.  I am going to be guided by compassion, gratitude and pride. Let’s see where this takes me!