Saturday, November 8, 2014

Finding Joy in the Struggle

The last three weeks have been tough.

I had a wonderful Fall Break.  Time with my family, time in my favorite place on Earth (The Smoky Mountains), time to rest and recharge. The mental break was needed and enjoyed, and I was ready to go back to school and charge full-steam ahead all the way to Christmas.

I knew by looking at the calendar that the end of October all the way into the first part of December would be busy.  But I was rested; I was ready!

I was wrong.

By the end of the second week I was feeling like I had been knocked on my keister.

It was a perfect storm.  Many different circumstances came together to make these past 3 weeks the most challenging of the school year so far.

The busy schedule.  Lots of afternoon and evening activities. Two Saturdays in a row of math tournaments (all day affairs including bus travel). Sunday afternoons at school to do/finish work I was unable to finish during the week.

A topsy-turvy school schedule. Our high school volleyball girls made it to the state playoffs (Go, Knights!). But it meant I had to adjust my plans for days students would be absent to attend the games. Flipped lessons make it possible for students to not miss instruction, but middle school students who know they are going to be allowed to be absent aren't always the most focused on what is going on in the classroom while they are gone.

Personal sickness.  A sinus infection one week, a stomach virus the next. I hate not feeling my best. It is hard to give what I need to give in the classroom when it's not all there to give.

Academic challenges. Beginning with The Too-Long Video, my algebra students entered a period of experiencing difficulty with material that was new and more challenging than what they have seen before. Student absences contributed to the feeling of lostness. There was a flipped lesson (direct variation) I was really unhappy with (no connections for the students or a sense of why it mattered). There was a flipped lesson (function notation) that I know blows students' minds, and the practice I provided didn't do a good job of clarifying the material.  There was a quiz (after the topsy-turvy days) on slope and graphing in slope-intercept form on which many students did not do well.

Every year, every group hits "the wall." The time they realize this is not going to be "math as usual" and they have to decide what they need to do to be successful. And I have to decide how to provide the necessary support to help them be successful.

I know to expect this wall. I knew the weeks following Fall Break would be challenging. But I had no idea how challenging, somehow the wall still took me off guard, and I found myself despairing. Doubting myself. Wishing for the educational bliss of the first nine weeks.

In a conversation with my principal earlier in the school year, I mentioned I felt like a baseball player who was seeing the ball clearly. Lots of hits, a couple of them out of the park, and only a few strikeouts.

But these past three weeks saw me not being able to get the bat on the ball to save my life. I was still swinging, but every pitch was making me look bad. And I began to reel.

This past week - working around the stomach virus - I tried to take steps to get my algebra students back on the right track. We had a discussion about not being able to "wing it" anymore and taking responsibility for our learning. I made warm-ups for the week to review/reteach concepts students were having difficulty with. I chose focused practice activities for students to become more comfortable with material.

And by Thursday I was seeing progress. I was able to work with students one-on-one. I was able to answer lots and lots of questions. Light bulbs were coming on where there had previously been darkness.

The retake/redo policy gave students hope. They could redo assignments they had misunderstood. They could do more practice and preparation (that maybe had not been done the first time) and retake that quiz.

After the big test on linear equations on Friday, many said "That was easy!" The material was NOT easy; they were prepared!

Things are beginning to look better.  I am feeling better physically and mentally. My students' confidence is higher, and so is mine.

So...what can I learn from these past three weeks?

I talk a lot about wanting my students to find joy in the struggle. I want them to know that when they struggle they can grow. I learned about "Growth Mindset" this past summer and have been trying to change my students' self-talk to reflect a growth mindset. My bulletin boards are covered in growth mindset statements!

I realized toward the end of the week I was not applying these statements to myself. That I was whining about the struggle. That I was displaying a fixed mindset.

There WILL be challenging days, weeks, months...even years. But just because I encounter challenging periods, it does not mean I am a failure. It does not mean everything I've been trying is not working and has been a waste of time. It just means I need to find what I can learn from the difficulties. See the areas that need improvement and work on them.

Find joy in the struggle because when I struggle I can grow.

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