That’s 13,776 feet?


FotorCreatedA couple of years ago my husband and I took a 20th Anniversary trip.  The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone have always been on our our bucket list so we decided to go to out west.

I remember reading about the Tetons and the elevation of Grand Teton …. an elevation of 13,776 feet.  Almost 2 miles.  What makes the Tetons particularly awe-inspiring is the landscape next to it.  They are at at the edge of a flat valley which allows for the stunning views.  You can step back and appreciate them in full.  And there is no gentle slope up or foothills – it’s a fault-block mountain so – BAM there they are!  Imagine how you drew a mountain as a kid – those triangles popping up out of the grass.  That’s what the Grand Tetons looked like.  It is truly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and I’m a bit obsessed now.

We’ve camped in West Virginia where we climbed Spruce Knob, which is (for this area) a healthy 4,863 feet.  We’ve been to the Smoky Mountains several times and hiked to the top Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 feet – tallest peak of the Smokies.   I could not wait to see what 13,776 looked like!

But when we got there, I was surprised.  Please don’t take this for disappointment – but 13,776 didn’t look nearly as “tall” as I had imagined.  And that’s when it struck me – I hadn’t considered the prominence of a mountain.

Elevation is an absolute number based on sea level.  Prominence is relative – how much taller is a peak than its surrounding landscape.  Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains has a prominence of  4,505 ft. Grand Teton peak is 6,524 ft.  I had forgotten that Jackson Hole area has elevations at 6,500 feet and above.  That means to my eyes, Grand Teton was only about 2,000 feet higher than Clingman’s Dome.  Taller, but certainly not the twice as tall as I was expecting!

This concept of elevation vs. prominence really struck me in many ways.    It made me ask a lot of questions to myself, and honestly, I’m not sure of all the answers.  Some of my thoughts encouraged me.   13,775 ft is not that daunting when you look around and realize that you’re already 1/2 way there and didn’t know it!  I didn’t think there was any way we could hike to the top, so I wasn’t upset that the trails would be closed.  Had I thought about prominence I might have been more mindful of opportunities to hike the mountain. I was so focused on the top, that I didn’t consider where I was relative to it. I wasn’t in that bad of a position to reach the top.  Certainly more doable than I had originally thought.  What an great mindset message for my students.  Yes it’s tall on paper … but look where we are already!

But it also made me really think hard about privilege.  Economic, social, racial, academic…. – it is much easier to climb to those heights when you start at 7,000 feet. What if you’re not at that elevation already?  What would Grand Teton look like if it was placed right next to Clingman’s Dome – reaching skyward at more than twice the height.

It’s easy to talk about every child reaching the same elevation -and it all sounds very equal and fair.  But we can’t forget that for each and every child, the prominence of that peak is unique.





Riding the Wave

Waves_in_pacifica_1As teachers, we all need a mental happy place.  A place where we can close our eyes and take a quick mental vacation.  If you see me behind my
desk with my eyes closed for a second, I’m probably at the ocean.   Wiggling my toes in warm sand.  Sun warming my face and my soul.  And since it’s mental vacation – I have a fruity drink with a little umbrella that is served in tiki-inspired glassware.  And yes – I do have a good book.

It’s safe on the beach.  Not much to hurt me there – but that’s not where my kids are.  My kids are in the ocean.  In. The. Ocean.  It’s dangerous in the ocean, I’m not overly fond of the waves.   However, since that’s where my kids are, then that’s where I need to be too.

The waves do come.  Fortunately for me, I was given great advice by someone once.  First she said always keep your eye on the waves so that they don’t catch you by surprise.  Then she told me that when a wave comes you have 3 choices.  If you’re feeling scared, just hold your nose and dive under it.  Avoid it and stay below the surface.  It’s not glamorous, but it keeps you safe.   If you’re feeling confident and energetic – jump up and rise above it. Float along the top and you’ll land in exactly the same spot – letting it all pass beneath you.  You might even be able to keep your hair dry.

But if you really want an adventure – ride the wave and see where it takes you!  Let go, relax, and make the wave work to your advantage.  Have fun – it can be exhilarating.  Surfers surf for a reason!

But when you fight the wave or try to stand unmoving – you’re going to get knocked down. There is no fighting a wave – it will always win. It will exhaust you. It will beat you down into the ocean floor.  It is a force of nature and it will drown you.

The thing is – when I was given this advice, it had nothing to do with going to the beach and everything about life.

We as teachers have to be in the Ocean.  That is where our kiddos are.  We don’t have the luxury of sitting calmly on the beach watching safely with our toes (and heads) in the sand.  We have to be out in the water, eyes alert ready for the next wave and preparing ourselves as to how to handle it.  There are undoubtedly fights worth fighting, the storms that we have to brace ourselves against and fight – the tidal surges and tsunamis that threaten what we hold dear.  Fight those! With all your might.  But I’m just talking about the day to day everyday waves that chip away at us.

Everyday is a new challenge.  A new wave.  The question is – what are you going to do with it?   Because whether you get knocked down or not is up to you.


Is it impossible?

Last night I started catching up on some time with some friends of mine – namely the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy.  I do not watch it to be intellectually challenged or to be inspired.

But there it is.  In the middle of my Mommy-escape time one episode really made me think and reflect on my teaching (something I was not looking to do at that time).  Imagine that?  You just never know where your inspiration is going to come!!

Throughout the episode a doctor (Dr. Amelia Shepherd) is giving a lecture series about the ground breaking surgery she will do on another character (Dr. Herman.)  A surgery to remove a massive brain tumor that no one but her believes is possible to remove.  And throughout the episode she is delivering a series of lectures about the upcoming procedure.

And the passion, the eloquence, the creativity, the connection she had to her topic – for that hour – made me want to learn about neurosurgery.  Made me believe I could!  Made me interested in something I never had thought about being interested in or thought I could be interested in.  Made the impossible sound possible – simply because she believed it so.

And I know it’s TV, but I thought “Wow!” “If for even 10 minutes a day I could teach with that passion, that conviction, what couldn’t I do with my kids.”

There is so much that we have to teach our kids that perhaps we think just is not age-appropriate -that it’s too rigorous, too complicated, too hard.  But if we approach it with that attitude we doom our lesson before we even begin.  We’re not giving them the chance to surprise us.  And nothing is more fun in teaching than to be surprised by what your kids can do!

I am not denying for a second that there are things that I feel like my kiddos are being asked to do that just aren’t developmentally where they are…yet.  Perhaps the standard is indeed too rigorous for most students, perhaps I have a group that even struggles with below grade level skills.  And it is incredibly frustrating and upsetting when you know that you are being held accountable for teaching something that you just don’t feel your students are ready for…yet.

But I really thought about the fact that if I go into it with that negative mindset before I even try, then my lesson is doomed before it begins.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I’ve lost my motivation to give my best because subconsciously, I think it’s a waste of time.  And certainly a positive mindset doesn’t mean that they are going to magically get it..yet.  But if I believe that they can’t before I even start, then they absolutely won’t.   It’s up to me to believe that today could possibly be “the day” if I just use the right approach or use the right tools.  That today is Yetday.

It’s up to me to see if I can try to give a Dr. Amelia Shepherd lesson and at least give them the absolute best chance I have.

I have to not expect the impossible, but expect that sometimes what we think is impossible turns out to be possible after all!

This blog post isn’t about making all kids reach some arbitrary standard, and it’s certainly not about kids not reaching that standard being the fault of poor teaching.  This is simply about not going into something with a “this isn’t going to work” attitude.

Before she started on her surgery she struck a superhero pose, stating that she had heard that it gives you confidence.  (A fact I confirmed from a TED blog).

So – Next time I set out to teach improper fractions to 8 year olds I’m going get REALLY creative, strike a super hero pose, believe I can do it, and see if they surprise me.

True Grit part 2: My little guy & the “big test”

In my last blog post – I talked about having Grit...

My kids had to show more a lot of grit with the new test.

And I have one sweet, eager to please friend… that sometimes struggles with reading.

He fell apart during day 1 of Reading.  Got stuck, didn’t know what to do, and just went around in circles.  I could see the panic in his eyes.

I rubbed his back every now and then, and slipped him an extra couple of mints.  I did everything the rule book would allow.  Which wasn’t much.  It’s all I could do.

But I had to face the truth – they were all falling apart a little bit.  This was the their first time ever with high-stakes testing and it showed.  Almost two years of teaching the SAME strategies, and about 2 kids used them.  I wanted to just melt.   I felt I had failed my students.  I had armed them with a tool box full of tools that they didn’t know when to use during go-time.  And this was only Day 1.

I needed to have grit.

So – I knew we needed to debrief and reflect – as much as the rule book would allow. Which wasn’t much.  But it’s all I could do.

Often we are often tempted to ask kids things like “how do you think you did?” – and they honestly don’t really know.  Or  “Was it hard/easy?” which doesn’t really allow them to reflect and build.

So instead – I posed these questions to them to reflect on

  • “What strategies did you use?”  (they should have used reading the text with a pencil, close reading the questions, rereading the text/looking back in the text to confirm answer choices,  eliminating clearly wrong answer choices, creating a graphic organizer for their writing on scratch paper).
  •  “Where there any strategies that you didn’t use that you should have?”  “If not .. why?” 
  • “Did you manage your time okay?” “Did you have too much time left over or not enough time?”
  • “Did you use most of the all the space for writing (or did you run out of room?)  If you didn’t use all the space, why not?”

I even shared these questions with parents in an email

I started out the next day before our testing session with the usual pre-test pep talk, and I pulled a note from the sports world and told them “close your eyes, imagine using your strategies. What does it look like?  What are you doing?”

And later that morning we began testing.  And I did see a big improvement overall. Perhaps I hadn’t failed them after all.  Between getting that first day under their belts, the self-analysis, and the visualization – they were doing a much better of applying their strategies. They were showing their grit.

But this really made my heart soar.  My little guy – my struggler from the day before, started out the test by listing all the strategies I had taught them that on his scrap paper.  He was so proud of his list.  He said it would help him if he got stuck.  And he used it.  And he finished feeling good.  He had a goal, he made a plan, and he knew what to do when he got stuck.

That was TRUE GRIT!

Cutting the legs & wings off

My mother in law tells a joke.  It goes like this….

One Thanksgiving, a young wife began preparing her first turkey.  She follows the process handed down to her by her mother.  Safely thaw, remove giblets, rinse, brine, rub with butter, cut off the wings & legs.  Her new husband, trying to not rock the boat, gently asked her about this last step.  He had never seen this done before.  “Why do you do that?” he inquired.  Her response.  “That’s the way my mom did it.”   She was now curious, never realizing that this wasn’t standard practice in all kitchens.  So she called her mom and asked the same question.  “Why.”  Her mom replied.   “That’s the way my mom did it.”  Now, seeking a better answer, she called her grandmother.  “Oh” grandmother replied “my oven was too small, so that was the only way the turkey would fit.”

What is meant as a humorous story makes a profound statement on what we do as parents and as teachers.  We do what we know, we do what we’ve always done, but how often to we stop to ask “Why?” and change our habits to reflect the answer.


Time is so precious, that we need to make sure that everything we do is purposeful and for a good reason.

Take the time to ask yourself “Why am I doing this?”  “Is this the really best way to achieve my goal?” “Am I only doing this because this is what I know?”

“Is it still relevant?”

If the answer isn’t satisfactory, be brave and leave the turkey whole.

White noise awesome.

Moms are great for telling you how awesome you are.  But I don’t always feel awesome.

And during one such conversation with my mom, we laughed about the idea of “white noise awesome.”  Not the winning distinguished this or that type of awesome, but the kind that most people are in their own way and no one notices.   I decided that I wasn’t comfortable saying that I was awesome in the loud, noticeable kind of way – but I could be okay thinking that I had the kind of awesomeness that isn’t noticed, until it’s gone – like them hum of the refrigerator, the drone of the HV/AC.  (Remember the days when you’d fall asleep watching TV and wake up to the TV snow – ).

Everyday there is background awesomeness that we have learned to tune out and ignore and take for granted.  Living under the flight plan of a major airport, one of my most vivid memories of 9/11 was the silence from not hearing the planes go overhead.  Funny.  I hardly had ever looked up when I heard a plane go by, only the really big, really loud plane ones – then I would notice.  However, no one notices all the planes that go above us every day.  At least I hadn’t until they had been grounded.

I wondered… we do so much celebrating of the loud awesome.  The straight A’s, the sport wins, the cream of the crop achievements.  What are we doing to acknowledge the white noise awesomeness going on around us everyday?  What can we do?

Celebrating the child that as achieved success in something not as flashy as a varsity sport.  Maybe the child that is quietly overcoming a challenge we don’t even really know much about because she doesn’t want to share.  Or the child that worked so very hard, for that C.   Kids that have demonstrated privately the grit it takes, and we don’t notice because it doesn’t fit our traditional view of awesome. Those kids have already mastered the idea of a growth mindset and we don’t even realize it.

Their end game for them isn’t acknowledgement, it’s being better than they were yesterday – and they don’t even know it!

As a mom, I try to champion my own kid’s white noise awesome, and that’s easy.  I can brag, advocate, post.   But my job as a teacher is a bit tougher, I have to make sure that I’m fostering a classroom where white noise awesome is just as amazing as the awesome that is louder.

We often don’t give kids enough time to privately reflect and to think about this.  So – last Tuesday I issued a Snow Day Challenge (Mrs. Smith’s Snow Day Challenge began last year when we had a ton a snow days.  Every snow day I’d email my students a fun challenge to break up the monotony of another day – and since I looped with my kids and I have the same ones, they look forward to them again.)

This went out to my kids:

It’s a SNOW DAY!!

I’ve decided to do a snow day challenge today (for those new to my room, I try to give the kids something “to do” on a snow day to combat boredom!)

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things that makes us special and feel proud. It’s easy to feel proud of the things every one knows about – winning a game or getting an A.

Some of us feel proud of accomplishments that are easy to brag about.  But sometimes we have faced something hard that we’ve worked through, a tough situation, something that was challenging for us. Or we’re really good at something that we think most people wouldn’t understand or get.  And sometimes, those things are private and personal because we think it might be embarrassing in some way – so we don’t share them.  

(For example: when I was in 6th grade, I was SO PROUD of myself for going away to 6th grade camp at Camp Greentop because I had a lot of anxiety – but I never told anyone because I was embarrassed that I was scared.   And one time, I won a big award for 4-H and was SO PROUD, but was embarrassed to tell anyone because I thought they wouldn’t think it was cool I was in 4-H.  And I was really SO PROUD of my C in Chemistry because I worked hard for it, but was too embarrassed because my friends were getting As and Bs.)

In school, things aren’t often very private, so on this snow day, I want you to write, draw, type, create something – anything – that expresses something (or more than one thing) you feel really proud of on the inside. And since this is private, you can do anything you want – something like winning a game, but also something private like sleeping over at camp.

And keep it. This is just for you. Share with me that you did it and I’ll give you a Dojo point… and maybe something else…, but I want you to keep on the inside that feeling of what you did that makes you feel proud of yourself.

And if you want, you can put a word or a symbol on a sticky note at school that represents what you feel proud of, and leave it on your desk. Just for you. No one will know what it really means but you, but every time you look at it you will be reminded of how awesome you really are! 🙂

I was really surprised at the number of kids that took me up on the offer and did this exercise – and brought in their sticky notes.  We took a moment to talk as a class and I gave a sticky note to all the kids and had them write something they were proud of for their desks.  At the end of the day, I took a picture of a sampling….  (the bottom left is supposed to be a Cub Scout patch… too cute!)

collage_20150218164937463_20150218164949376 (1)

It’s important that kids take the time to think about it – and sometimes they need to do it privately.  This is one idea that I had to help them tap into their inner white noise awesomeness that they didn’t even know they have – and to be inspired by it…. in their own 3rd grade way.  I’m going to keep searching for more ….