In Memory of My Nonna

I’m getting a little more personal than usual with this reflection, but nonetheless reflecting on a person who has hugely impacted my life. Exactly 2 weeks ago today on Thursday, May 14th, 2020, Joann Norma Eacho Turner, my grandmother and my person, passed away in her sleep. I lovingly called her Nonna (the Italian word for grandmother), or more commonly Nonnie (the nickname I made up for her when I was little that always stuck); and she was a strong, loving, and special woman. I have admired and adored my Nonna since I was a little girl, and our strong bond only continued to grow over the years. Reflecting on her life and our times together reminds me of the amazing impact she’s had on me and how thankful I am to have learned from and been loved by her for 28 years.

Nonna moved to be closer to family in Raleigh over 5 years ago, which is time I’m so thankful to have had close by to her. It was during this time in our lives that she and I grew to be more like best friends. These past 5 years were an amazing phase that we had as such a strong part in one another’s lives- my first 5 years of post grad life after college and what we did not know would be her last 5 years of aging and living.

Growing up, I remember Nonna being such a unique grandmother figure. Compared to many other grandparents I had been around, she was hip, relatable, silly, endearing, and more in touch with pop culture than I ever have been. Not to mention, as a young girl, the pride that I took in Nonna’s good looks. She used to always remind me of the day when I told her proudly that I was the only child in my class with a grandparent who didn’t have gray hair. That’s the day Nonna broke me the news that she dyed her hair brown. She always thought my devastation about her true hair color was hilarious, and she re-told me that story many times.

I will say, Nonna really enjoyed skin care and beauty routines, something else that made her such a fun grandmother growing up. When I was little, she would let me go through all her powders, blushes, eye shadows, & lipsticks, and put on her make up. We would even spend time mixing together concoctions of her old makeup to make new homeade makeup colors. I learned a lot about skin care and beauty from her, and she always loved to shower me with new products to try. I was shocked the first time she gave me an anti-aging cream a few years ago, but she felt strongly I should start preventing wrinkles early. She never did care much for aging. During the many months of her hospitalization and transitions that consumed the past half a year of her life, the nurses always got a kick out of how she insisted on having her Number 7 moisturizer and Obsession perfume (just to name a couple) on her bedside table.

When I think back on my 28 years I spent with Nonna in my life, so many other wonderful memories and stories come to mind too. The Italian heritage she passed down to me was something special we shared, and I am so lucky for around 15 years of opportunities that I have gotten to cook and spend time in the kitchen with her. Cooking together was always an all day event. She would buy ingredients in bulk, and we would make giant pots-full of something delicious covered in red sauce. I do remember how picky and blatantly honest she was if she thought a batch of meatballs and sauce just didn’t turn out “right” that time. But I also remember how proud she would be to share our cooking with other family members if the batch met her standards. She loved to give away containers upon containers of frozen homeade goods to family near and far. And this didn’t start when Nonna moved to Raleigh- she had been cooking her go-to Italian meals in bulk and sharing with family for as long as I can remember. We would always leave her Charlotte home stocked up on all the best Italian cooking.

My Nonna was truly a giving person. She always took genuine joy in giving me little gifts and surprises. When we were younger, my parents couldn’t escape the piles of nick nacks and Dollar Store goodies she would excitedly share and send us home with. And throughout her time in Raleigh, she used to get so excited to head back to her closet to bring out little random surprises she had picked up for me that week. She absolutely loved to buy things for my classroom and students too. Nonna cared deeply about my job as a teacher and about my students, and she would check on them and ask about them by name.

Nonna’s big heart didn’t end there, but extended to the dogs in her life too. It may seem silly to devote 2 paragraphs to her love for dogs; but she absolutely adored her dog Nee Cee, as well as her great granddogs and every friend and family dog in her life. She was just a total dog lover of a person. Being around dogs honestly brought out a joy in her unlike any other. She would actually tell me that she liked and understood dogs more than people, which I think may have been true and always made me laugh. Prior to all the life transitions Nonna experienced over the past 6 months, Josh and I would bring the dogs over for weekly visits with Nonna and her dog Nee Cee. During our visits, she loved to spoil our own dogs with way too many treats and toys. For Nonna, our visits were all about playing with the 3 dogs and giving them love and attention. This time was the highlight of her weeks and ours too.

Years ago, it was very hard for Nonna to cope with the loss of her collie Mechelle in Charlotte, so when she moved to Raleigh it was important to my family that we help her find another dog to fill that void. Having Nee Cee in her life brought her more purpose and happiness than we ever could’ve hoped. I’m so glad that Nee Cee got to spend the first few years of her life with Nonna, and that they each had each other during Nonna’s time living in Raleigh.

Our time with Nonna in Raleigh has also had its challenges at times. But I often reflect more so on the things that she has overcome in her life, things on a level that many of us haven’t had to handle or work through in our own lives. And Nonna had significant obstacles to overcome not just during her childhood; but also as a young, single mom; as a working woman in a male-dominated work force; and as a senior. Those obstacles undoubtedly impacted her as a person, but they also gave her a strength and determination and wisdom that I will always look up to.

There are certain things that I will always think of when I think back on Nonnie: her bright-colored, extra tall plastic cups she’d love to fill with a fresh coke; her favorite comfy clothes of nothing less than 100% cotton; her 2 freezers always stocked full of red sauce meals to eat and share; her silly rhymes and songs she’d make up and sing to us as children and later to all the pups; her sweet tooth and love of anything dark chocolate; our many long conversations, paired with her open-mindedness, deep perspective, and genuine, judgment-free advice I could always count on; her forever love of the 70s and the classic music of that and surrounding decades; her self-made success and the resulting strength and independence she held onto throughout her final years and months; the list goes on. I will continue to miss weekend visits more than words can say, and I wish we could have at least one more hug or one more good talk or laugh together. Nonna showed me such immense love during our time together, which for me has been my whole life until now. Figuring out life without her will be difficult, and I know my life won’t ever be the same without her in it. But Nonna always expressed how proud she is of me, and as I reflect on her life, I also want to express how proud I am of her.

Nonnie, I love you, I miss you so much, and I’m holding onto you forever in my heart. No words can express how thankful I am to be your granddaughter.

I. Teachers demonstrate leadership. · III. Teachers know the content they teach. · IV. Teachers facilitate learning for their students. · V. Teachers reflect on their practice.

#kindersCAN Embrace Failure, and So Can We!

You know it’s been a while away from the blog when this post has been sitting in your drafts for months and it features only pictures of last year’s students! It’s been quiet on here for a while, not because I haven’t been “Learning with the Littles,” but because I have not been as intentional as I’d like in terms of reflecting on that learning. I figured now is a better time than ever to stop neglecting the important process of teacher reflection and resume/finally share this post that sheds light on where I am right now in my journey!

Not so recently, I highlighted the imperfections of a typical day in Kindergarten, both to reflect the reality of a day in the life, and to begin bringing new meaning to the word failure. That post can be found here. Growing up, failure was something I avoided at ALL costs. Granted, it has never stopped me from trying like it might have for some, but until recently, failure has never been something I’ve embraced.  For a long time, I even struggled taking constructive criticism, because I felt like I had done a “bad job” or wasn’t “good.” I’m so thankful that failure never caused me to quit, but it DID affect my mindset negatively and cause me to dread any experience that could result in failure.

It breaks my heart to see how even Kindergarteners are already aware of failure, and many have developed fully negative connotations of the word. I really started to think about failure more when I read Hacking Project Based Learning. This idea stood out to me:

After reading this book, I went into the following school year ready to use the horrifying “f word”…failure…in my everyday language, but as a positive term. The Class Dojo growth mindset and perseverance videos have been the perfect outlet to integrate the word failure during morning meeting time. These videos help teach students the science behind exercising and growing our brains by doing challenging things, and how we can learn and grow from moments of failure by reflecting on our mistakes.

Our work around failure and attempt to bring the term new meaning was especially crucial in implementing my 3 Kenan Fellowship lessons during the previous school year. I created these science lessons in an attempt to bring a chemistry experience to Kindergartners. Some of the failure along the way has been on my end, and some on their end; but that is the beauty in learning alongside one another. Failure has led to learning for both them and me. Here are the 3 lessons I designed as a result of my fellowship, along with some of the fails along the way and how we responded to them:

Lesson One: Creating Adhesives and Testing Varying Force Among Samples

For this lesson, I created my own adhesive (wet glue) recipe that students would create batches of in table teams. It took lots of my own tests and tweaks for me to settle on the recipe we would implement in class. After the students learned some of the scientific vocabulary we’d be using and discovered real world examples of how adhesives impact our world, it was time for students to put my adhesive recipe into action! The day before they created, I modeled the process for them, making the wet glue and bonding different pairs of wooden craft sticks together with my own batch of adhesive just as they would do the following day.

When I came into school the next morning, NONE of my samples were bonded together anymore (*insert horrified emoji here*)!!!!!!! My mind all of a sudden went to the “worst” case scenario. I had volunteers coming today, all student ingredients pre-measured and ready, and students were SO amped up for the creation process……and what if THEY came in 24 hours after creating samples and none of THEIR samples had remained bonded?!?!?!!? In a Kindergartener’s world, that would lead to devastation and disappointment because the glue simply “didn’t work”! 

But when I thought back to what scientists do everyday, this actually seemed like a perfect comparison of failure scientists encounter daily. Even at LORD Corporation, scientists were creating failed sample after sample to get to the “just-right” creation they wanted. So I now had an example of my own failure to share with students, and one that could result in one of two learning paths that we could take as scientists:

  1. If the student samples were not bonded together the next day, I as a scientist, with the help of my students, needed to continue tweaking my adhesive recipe for us to try it again.
  2. Maybe students would have more success with their samples than I did, meaning we would need to further analyze what variables had impacted different levels of bonding among mine and theirs when we had all used the same adhesive recipe.

This was a REAL science moment, not failure as we often think of it. No matter how it ended for students, I was confident that both students and I could learn together through whatever “fails” came our way. When I shared what had happened to my samples, and that the same could happen to theirs, they were fully on board and understood that we would reflect and try again if all of our samples came apart the next day.

When testing day came, they were thrilled that most student samples stayed bonded the next day. We would determine the strength of the different tables’ wet glue batches by using a spring scale and measuring the force it took to pull the 2 bonded craft sticks apart. The whole goal was for students to see how different variables could cause different results of force, even when we all used the same adhesive recipe.

However during testing, I could still hear comments that showed me we had work to do on our mindset of failure:

  • “YES!!! Ours took more force to pull it apart! We won!”
  • “WE GOT TO 50 NEWTONS!!!!!!”
  • “Noooooo ours fell apart!!”
  • “UGH ours barely held together…only 5 Newtons to pull it apart!”

Those comments revealed a mindset that science was about winning and losing, not about learning and reflecting. It’s amazing how a learning experience is consumed by passing versus failing even in our youngest learners.

Lesson Two: 2D and 3D Wooden Structures Bonded with Varying Adhesives

See this post I mentioned earlier for a full list of imperfect moments from this particular lesson, that guided how I knew both I and my students needed to do some reflecting. It’s crazy how failure and imperfections can be embedded in such an amazing learning experience…or is it?

Lesson Three: The Culmination- Building Cargo Ships with Adhesives

Any STEM project is full of fails…and fails can easily become discouraging due to the mindset we so often maintain regarding failure. So last year, I created some unique steps to launching a product, from a combination of the engineering design process and LORD’s Stage Gate Business model. Rather than the traditional steps to create, test, and improve; I made the first of those steps “Create initial design,” in hopes that students would go ahead and expect failure, with the following step to “Test and tweak.” After my time at LORD, I saw that it’s the testing and tweaking that takes the most time, and that the initial creation hardly ever works. So when students also go into creation expecting to have to test and tweak, they aren’t as discouraged when their product doesn’t work at first.

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Before students started to create their cargo ships, I asked them to be on the lookout for fails…any little thing that went wrong, didn’t work, or needed tweaking as they designed. We would post “fails” to a failure board in the classroom after the initial creation.

IMG_3367During the creation, students definitely experienced frustrations. It was so beneficial for them to see the struggles involved in genuine, challenging learning. So often, students think learning should feel easy and they want to give up when it isn’t. Granted, there were different levels of struggle among different groups of students, based on who had more or less adult support and what materials, adhesives, and design they had decided on. But they persevered amazingly! I even caught a picture of one big fail moment – multiple open wet glue bottles, a glue spill on the foam and table, and a tipped over stool. This fail photo may look like a mess from the outside, but I felt like Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus, embracing chaos and craziness that previously would have sent me over the edge. It’s like I had impacted my own mindset in efforts to impact theirs. We enjoyed sharing and posting fails on our own failure board after the lesson. Students were able to laugh them off and relay them with a positive mindset.

We reflected on what was easy and hard after the project. Failure shouldn’t just stop right after the fail- it’s what we DO with failure that matters. And journal reflection is a great way to think about and learn from challenges!

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When testing time came, they took their fails with determination and perseverance…after all, we were in the “Test and Tweak” phase and there would be plenty of time to improve the ships and keep testing!

My students and I still have work to do on embracing failure, after all, we each have years of the opposite mindset in the making to counteract. I hope that in education, we can continue to bring new meaning to the word failure, because it could take decades to counteract the damage. It will also take the consistency of students hearing a common positive message about failure from year to year of their schooling. And as long as grades and testing data have such a strong emphasis, it will be hard to reverse the damage being done to the way our students think and learn, which is also the way that most of their parents were trained to think and learn in school. But for now, I will hold onto these special moments…AMAZING moments of failure, imperfection, mistakes, struggle…and hope that my students will continue to remember the learning and success that can result from these moments.

I. Teachers demonstrate leadership. · II. Teachers establish a respectful environment for a diverse population of students. · IV. Teachers facilitate learning for their students. · V. Teachers reflect on their practice.

Collaborative Learning: Misconceptions, Misrepresentations, & What We’re Doing About It

Students and parents, raise your hand if you jump up and down when you hear the words “group work”?! If you’re raising your hand, you are not the norm. For most, phrases like “group work” or “group projects” create anxiety, dread, and resent. But why??? Collaboration as a means of 21st century learning has been a buzz word since before I started teaching 4 and a half years ago, and for great reason! Collaborative learning is an authentic replication of work in the real world, a way for students to learn from one another and experience other perspectives, a way of appealing to the interpersonal intelligence for those whose are motivated to learn with others, and so much more. Sure, collaboration is challenging…no one every said that putting a bunch of different ideas in the mix made it easier to come to an agreement. But collaborative learning should be seen as an engaging and worthwhile challenge for both those participating (students) and watching from afar (parents). I’ve noticed parents requesting more worksheets over collaborative learning, and heard of parents not choosing particular schools because of a focus on collaborative work. So why do the people being affected by collaborative learning often dislike it so much? They are the ones who should be benefiting!

In shifting from the role of a student myself to a teacher, I’ve gradually noticed a shift in my own perspective on collaboration as a means of learning. As a student, I generally didn’t care for it. As the stereotypical student overachiever, working in groups generally resulted in me attempting to micromanage the whole project as if it were my own individual project, or if that didn’t work, resulted in me stressing over whether others would follow through with their parts or negatively affect my grade. In both types of scenarios, grades were the focus and learning was stifled for me and/or other group members. Additionally, these types of activities were more about dividing the large project into smaller “sub-projects,” so each group member usually ended up working independently rather than collaboratively. But my shift to the role of teacher has opened my eyes to the value that collaboration can genuinely have on both social-emotional and content-specific learning. So what exactly are the problems students are experiencing in this dreaded type of collaborative learning, and what can we teachers do about it?

1. Teamwork vs. Collaboration

First things first, let’s be clear on the definitions of terms. Many “group projects” are not collaborative in nature, but activities requiring teamwork.

Teamwork is when everyone takes on a smaller piece of the larger project; and when each of those small pieces are put together, the larger project is complete. There is definitely a time and place for teamwork, whether students each take on a specific job in the work or complete a certain section of the work. Yes, in the real world, this is a realistic model for work completion. But the goal of these activities should not necessarily be to teach the concept of working together, or collaboration. When taking part in teamwork, people work more so individually.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is when a group creates something together from the ground up. The team creates the idea collectively, and all members pitch in however possible to put the idea into action. These collaborative activities are the ones that genuinely teach students how to work effectively with others, appreciate perspectives different from their own, and respond to different ideas and opinions.

2. Grades vs. Reflection

In either situation, whether teamwork or collaboration, the emphasis should be on reflection to become better rather than on grades.

Grades often squelch learning, particularly collaborative learning, which is already a challenge without tying a grade to it. Placing a grade on collaborative activities creates a pressure that causes the learners involved increased frustration and resentment. When disagreements arise, now the goal has shifted from “How can we effectively come to an agreement?” to “If we don’t hurry up and come to an agreement, we won’t get a good grade,” or “If these people don’t listen to my idea we’re gonna fail.” Grades have the potential to teach ineffective collaboration and add frustration to an already challenging process.

Reflection helps learners think back on the experience in an honest way. Without the pressure of grades, students can feel freedom to be realistic about their learning and collaborative efforts in a given activity. When reflecting honestly, students can acknowledge mistakes they might have made during the process, in efforts to learn from those mistakes and become better for next time. In fact, reflection (over grades) might help learners see the positive, rather than the negative and failure, in mistakes.

3. Culminating Projects vs. Learning

Collaborative learning often takes place at the end of a unit, as a summative project reflecting what students learned (to give a grade), rather than as PART of the learning process.

Culminating projects involving collaboration usually remove learning from the experience. Often, collaborative projects are simply supposed to reflect what members of the group have learned for a final grade. Similar to the idea of projects versus project-based learning, a culminating project may as well be the word “test,” again creating added pressure to an already challenging skill.

Learning happens throughout a unit, not at the end. Collaboration is a great, engaging way to teach new content, while also building students’ collaborative skillset. A collaborative type of activity should more often happen along the way as students learn, not always at the end of the unit. If it could just be approached as part of the learning process, rather than a final “show what you know” group project, it might not be so intimidating and stressful.

In closing, if collaboration isn’t challenging students in a motivating way, something is wrong. So let’s reflect on our teaching practices, so that we can do something about it!