The Mighty Thor #274 (published in 1978) became my gateway to a new childhood love - comics. I don't remember precisely how this gem came to me, but I think my mom and grandma snagged a whole bunch of comics at a garage sale one day to bring out to our summer camp on Lake Superior. For a curious and busy little guy like I was, I was sure it was in hope that I could sit and chill for a while, especially in the mornings when they were trying to sleep, or in the evenings when they were wishing I might fall asleep.
This issue sat at the back of the pack for a long time. I preferred Archie and other kid-friendly favorites like Garfield and Family Circus. But the artwork and captions ("Balder the Brave is DEAD") on the front cover always had my attention. Each summer I would return to camp to devour the same comics again and again, but it wasn't until a few summers after it's original discovery that I was finally ready for The Mighty Thor.
A funny thing happens when you pick up a comic series 274 issues into the series, and your brain has to work extra hard to try and figure out what the heck is going on. It was easy to figure out who Thor was, but if you take a look at the cover there were dozens of characters, an alternate universe, a rainbow bridge, and of course all of the connections to Norse mythology. I was hooked.
Day after day, I re-read that same comic. Where there was information I didn't have, or more likely, things I didn't yet quite understand due to my age, I simply made it up. While I wasn't really an artist, I learned to draw Thor. I figured out that if I held the comic up to the window I could trace very well. I spent hours and hours making my own comics.
Outside, on the beach, and in the waters and woods surrounding my camp, I became Thor. I had a red beach towel as my cape, held tight by a clothespin from the line (my grandma used to get so mad because I used so many pins). I had to work extra hard just to be able to first pick up, and then run around with the old sledgehammer my great grandpa kept in the tool shed next to the outhouse. Knowing how heavy sledgehammers are now, I can't believe my skinny little 9-year old self could have even moved it. Maybe I WAS Thor. I organized all my friends to play superhero games. As I think about it now I wonder how all our camp neighbors felt watching the horde of kids running around with beach towels flowing behind them and that one kid carrying a sledgehammer. The visual is hilarious to me now.
Back in town for the fall, winter and spring, I found myself seeking out new comics. I naturally gravitated to the Avengers (as Thor was a key member), and then graduated to more complex titles. While I would never really become a hardcore collector, I certainly had a passion for comics. They were my go-to literature of choice. As I became a bit older, and into my teens, I started to read more books, but I always made time for some comics. At night I would read some of whatever book I was reading, and my "treat" for reading a chapter or two was always that I could fall asleep to reading a comic. Of course, the attention to comics faded over time, until they were all just another childhood memory, stored in a box in my mom's basement.
As I became a teacher, I always rallied against what I perceived to be a professional aversion to comics in the classroom. Teaching grade five and six students suddenly created a new opportunity for the box of comics in the basement. To my surprise, many of my students could have cared less about the comic box I was so eager to share. There were however, a few students who took to them and I bet you could guess who those students were - yep, my struggling readers. While they had some trouble engaging with the text (you would be very much surprised by the vocabulary of comic books), they could engage with the artwork. And, I think it was because they had a teacher who supported their new love, they didn't feel singled out or different. Those students then started to share their favorite comics with their friends and before long I had more and more comic book fans in the classroom. Kids started to bring their own, and parents would bring in their collections or finds from garage sales. The words and vocabulary the students used in class was beginning to connect to similar encounters in their comics ("Hey, I think I saw that same thing in X-Men #whatever"). The students asked to stay in at recess to draw, and thanks to the miracle of Comic Life, they could begin to create their own comics too. And to come full-circle, those struggling readers, supported through additional daily interventions, became readers.
While I know comic books did not turn these students into readers, I think I can better relate to what the conversation about Joyful Literacy is all about. I was Thor, but it was so much more: I read the comic, I drew the pictures, I wrote the captions, I became the character, I improvised character lines, I collaborated with friends, I connected to deeper learning, and I came back for more. Looking back, the most interesting part of all was that I was totally oblivious to the fact my love was even literacy. It was pure joy.
This past Friday, thanks to the help of my wonderful Assistant Principal, Poppy Johnson (@poppyjohnsonedu) I got to relive my childhood love. For one more day, I became Thor. Mjolnir will now forever reside in my office reminding me of the importance of a joyful youth, and the literacy connections made over many summers on the shores of Lake Superior.
This week, our school had the privilege of working alongisde the Curriculum and Pathways team. During this time our students worked through the Design Thinking process. This flexible 5-step process leads students through Discovery (Empathy), Interpretation (Define), Ideation, Experimentation (Prototype) and Evolution (Test).
As I get a bit older, I find my faint memories of my elementary school experience fading further and further away. One of the moments I do remember quite distinctly was during a grade 2 math class in which I just couldn't seem to get my head around subtraction. The worksheet featured a bunch of quick math facts asking to subtract 1, 2 and 3 from two digit numbers less than 20. My teacher, would circulate the class with the classic red pencil and put checkmarks on the correct ones, and a big old X beside the incorrect ones. My page featured a bunch of Xs. I felt dejected, and I did was most 7-year olds would do when frustrated, I cried. I remember my worksheet becoming riddled with my own tears, causing the red pencil to run, making me even more upset. What happened next was equally memorable, a classmate sitting in front of me named Jan, turned around and showed me how to do it. I think she showed me how to use my ruler to figure them out. That simple trick helped me out, and I got the sheet done. I was the last in the class to finish, and I remember that equally well because I was eager to get out for recess.
My High School experiences with math class fluctuated between "a-ha moments" and similar frustrations. What I do remember about those classes were thick textbooks, a lot of homework, and a series of "Charlie Brown teachers" talking really fast, and really knowledgeably about new learning that seemed hard to grasp. What I ended up taking away with from my math classes was that I "just wasn't a math person". It wasn't until I started working with students in my 20s that I re-discorvered mathematics, and how beautiful it could be. Suddenly, I was being asked to teach math, but I was armed with teaching strategies. I had master teachers, and colleagues who helped me learn how to teach children to understand basic, intermediate and complex concepts. And you know what the result was? I discovered I was indeed a "math person". The concepts that had proven difficult in my youth suddenly made sense. I became a confident teacher, but more directly I started to implement math more instinctively in my day-to-day life. Mental math and estimation were automatic.
This week, I saw a great Tweet from one of my teachers, which featured a quote from a student:
"Today I realized I'm actually really good at math! Was never confident to share my math with others but now I am for sure!"
I don't know what it was about that moment, but I found all those aforementioned experiences came flooding back. I pictured myself as that student, and realized how amazing it would have been if I had experienced that feeling in elementary school. I wonder if my educational experiences would have changed, or if my paths, course selections, and interests may have led me elsewhere.
I came across a great article a while back entitled "Why We're Bad at Math: It's a Confidence Thing" (http://educationpost.org/why-were-bad-at-math-its-a-confidence-thing) and I realized that this is a very common theme. As a school administrator I have encountered many colleagues, parents, and other professionals who have all told me stories similar to the ones I have shared. Adults seem to have no problem whatsoever in sharing their proficiency (less so) or deficit (more so) as a math learner. I hear the same refrain over and over: "I'm just not a math person" which is almost always followed up with a story full of rich and vivid memories.
Listening to, and learning from afar from Dr. Gina Cherkowski (@gcherkowski) has helped me to understand what an important job we have in ensuring success for our students in mathematics. Her work with STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) has illustrated that helping establish the right attitudes for students, and ensuring they are engaged is essential to the learning process. She illustrates her work through studies and research that show how vital a strong mathematics foundation is for jobs and careers that will be available to our students.
I realize we, as teachers and parents, have to be better at shaping the right attitudes toward proficiency in mathematics, and it starts with adding one word to "I'm not a math person", and that word is "yet". Creating a healthy growth mindset for mathematics learning is key to success for our students and children. Some simple steps to assisting in this include:
1) actively listen to your student / child as they talk about their math learning experiences
2) teachers must personalize instruction through formative assessment and a specific plan
3) at indication of struggle, seek to show things in a different way - there are many ways to discover math other than "how we learned it in school". Khan Academy videos are a great example of a useful support (https://www.khanacademy.org)
4) recognize that "getting it" might not happen right away, and that's ok
5) accept that practice, repetition, application, extension, and connection are all parts of the math process, and that learning math is more that a checkmark or an x on a page
As educators, we aggressively teach and support our non-readers. We would never accept a student saying something like "I'm just not a reader". I think we need to have the same attitude toward teaching students needing a boost in math. It's important that we always respond directly to our students / children when they say "I'm just not a math person". Simply state, "You mean you're just not a math person, yet."
ps. picture at the top is from Good Will Hunting, one of my fave movies that always made me wish I was a math genius
"How do you do the claw part again?"
- overheard at a staff practice session for Thriller
This past week I got to participate in my first staff staff lip sync performance. The event takes place in this early stage of the school year in conjunction with our fundraising initiatives for our Terry Fox Run, and has become a fun and anticipated part of the calendar. But as mentioned, this was my first one.
Our school is not unique in our choreographed showcase for students. In fact, I was very impressed by the Salisbury High Staff Grad video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=KATD9DpGdkg) among several others making the rounds on social media. After every one I always say "That's awesome! We should do that!", and I am sure all of you do too.
It was amazing how quickly it all came together. Here's the honest part, about a week away from the event we were still conceptualizing what songs people were going to do, and we weren't even practicing yet. Then came the Monday before the Thursday performance, and the call went out announcing practice at 3:10pm. Soon, the gym was full, and everyone was getting into MJ mode.
Thirller is not an easy dance to replicate. Thankfully, we have some really talented staff members who took their own time to learn and master the dance, making it easy for the eager others to join in and follow. After three practices, we "had it", and were ready for the assembly on Thursday. The dance was preceded by a few amazing numbers (Shake it Off, Safety Dance, Life of the Party, Pen-Pineapple-Apple Pen, and Lose Yourself) before the ensemble cast of teachers took the stage for Thriller.
The message behind this post is pretty simple, sometimes you just got to put it out there. We talk about the need for our students to be collaborative, creative, risk-takers. Well, I can tell you that agreeing to get up in front of the school and strut your stuff to the complexities of Thriller embody all of that. More importantly, we as a staff created a collective experience with which we could share some good times and a few laughs. It was a collective effort and a lot of fun. So, if you're like me and you see one of those great staff videos and you wonder if you can do it too. Well, just shut up and dance.
If you're able to check out our Thriller, try www.facebook.com/daniel.polsky/videos/10101906038919731/
Finally, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I am thankful that you take your time to check in with my blog, and for the inspiration you bring to myself and our profession.
“Every child you pass in the hall has a story that needs to be heard. Maybe you were the one meant to hear it.”
I came across this inspirational quote on Twitter some time ago, and I can honestly say that it has stuck with me every day since. I won’t say that it totally changed my practice, as I feel that I’ve always been the kind of principal that would make time for students, but serves me as friendly reminder. Once you’re really tuned in to it you will be surprised how many times you hear “Can I tell you something?” from your students.
I had the pleasure of walking into the building the other morning with our kindergarten students. If you haven’t experienced this before, I liken it to one of those feel-good videos of puppies in a ball pit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gaiw2hk3Be0). It’s all wonder, all curiosity, all excitement, all the time. And you know what? Every single student wanted to tell me a story. I can tell you the visit wasn’t on my agenda for the day, but making and taking the time for those students made a good day great, not only for me, but (I hope) for those students too.
The experience extended to visits with many students, in all grades, throughout the week. Despite the age or grade of the student, they all wanted to tell me a story. Some took a bit more encouragement than others (our grade 6 students aren’t quite puppies in a ball pit), but they were all happy to talk. I learn so much about, and from, our students in a simple, casual conversation.
One of the words that I hear constantly is “busy”. Adults are busy, kids are busy…life is busy. It’s become an almost automatic response in small talk. I don’t disagree, life IS busy. However, in our profession we have to remember that no matter how busy we are, there is always a student and a story that takes precedence over the work of the day.
Over the next few days, I encourage you to make this kind of time for your students. Your interest, time and visibility make a real difference in your building. I also hope that sharing this powerful motivational quote might serve as a friendly reminder of the importance of this commitment.