As you begin a new school year, it is natural to think that you will do as well academically as you did last year. If, for example, you performed at a high level in reading and writing, but not quite as well in math and science, you may assume that all this will stay the same as you enter a new grade. It is easy to think that your strengths will still be strengths and your areas of difficulty will remain areas of difficulty.
It doesn't have to be this way.
If you say that you have never had much of an interest in reading for pleasure, this can be the year you develop a genuine love of reading. If you say that you have always been a poor speller, this can be the year you become a stronger speller. This year can be anything you want it to be.
In my opinion, as important as it is to be a great reader, writer, and mathematician, it is just as important to be a great dreamer and goal-setter. As human beings we have the wonderful ability to think about our lives, identify the things we like about our lives and the things we donâ€™t like, and choose to make a change. We can decide that we want better for ourselves.
Once we figure out what we want, we can focus our incredible energy on achieving the goals that will make a powerful difference in our lives. If you can think big and follow up those dreams with consistent hard work and dedication, you will gain a feeling of pride and happiness that nobody else can give you and nobody can take away from you. If you have a goal that you care about and if you are willing to put in a little extra time and effort, then extraordinary results can follow. You can make this the best year of school you have ever had. You may even surprise yourself by what you can accomplish.
All of this starts with a simple choice.
Last year one of my students made this choice, and watching the transformation that occurred after she made it was one of the highlights of my teaching career. During the first two months of the school year, this girl did many things well, but she also had her share of struggles. She didnâ€™t always complete her homework, and she missed two important publishing deadlines in our Writing Workshop. She and I had a meeting with her parents about these difficulties on a Friday afternoon, and she returned to school the following Monday a different person.
She had made the choice to dedicate herself 100% to becoming a quality student. She knew she wasnâ€™t living up to her enormous potential, and she wanted better for herself. That decision ignited a fantastic chain reaction. Immediately, she started trying harder and caring more about her school work. Then she began to receive positive feedback from her parents, her classmates, and myself about the improved quality of her work. Her confidence increased, and she felt prouder and more enthusiastic about school. After that, the most powerful step in the chain reaction happened.
She began to expect more from herself.
Her parents and I were there to support her, but she didnâ€™t need us very much. She was now the owner of her education, and she was fiercely determined to make every piece of work her best piece of work. She turned in excellent homework each Friday, her work became neater, and she wanted to excel in every subject area, even the ones she never believed were her strengths. She was operating with an attitude of no excuses and no limits.
This school year I strongly encourage you to make this same choice and dedicate yourself 100% to becoming the best student and person you can be. You can achieve anything you want to achieve - if youâ€™re willing to work like a champion with an enthusiastic, determined attitude.
If you are thinking that you canâ€™t do this, I am telling you that yes, you can. You can do anything to which you set your mind. Many people are ready to help you make this the best year of school you have ever had, but the choice is yours. The dedication and the desire have to come from you.
I once heard an inspiring TED Talk entitled â€œThe Happy Secret to Better Workâ€ by Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc. A big idea in his 12-minute presentation is that in our society people tend to believe that we should work hard in order to be happy. Achor suggests that this way of thinking could be backwards. He argues that happiness makes us more productive, creative, and successful. Consequently, happiness should come first.
My eighteen years as a classroom teacher tell me that Achorâ€™s words contain a great deal of truth. I know, for example, that when my students start their school day in a good mood, they are likely to work hard, get along well with their classmates, embrace challenges, and produce quality work. On the other hand, when students enter the room angry about something that is happening with their friends or upset about something occurring at home, focusing on their school work can be a mighty struggle. It is an even larger struggle for kids who feel this way on most days.
Whenever I notice that someone in class appears to be off to a rough start on a given morning, I make it a point to speak privately with that person as soon as I can. As much as I want to jump in and focus on academic work, I understand that it is very difficult to relate to people on this level when they are preoccupied with other concerns. I need to help them change their mindset first. Once students are in a more positive frame of mind, then we can talk academics.
The question becomes, how do you achieve a more positive mindset when youâ€™re not feeling happy? At the end of his TED talk, Achor shares some ways that people can use to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and become happier. One of his ideas resonated with me, and upon hearing it, I immediately decided to incorporate it into my teaching. Achor asserts that individuals who try this idea for 21 straight days can train themselves to think differently about their lives and actually re-wire their brains.
The idea is to think of three things in your life for which you are grateful. So, for three weeks (fifteen consecutive school days) my students and I did this. At the end of our daily, morning movement warm-up routine, I gave everyone about a minute of quiet â€œthinkâ€ time. Then several volunteers shared their ideas with the class. During this daily gratitude activity the primary challenge was to think of new things every day. By the end of our three-week endeavor, the hope is that students, over time, would realize just how many positive things they have in their lives, and as a result, the classroom environment would change.
That is exactly what happened. I have a few students who tend to pout or complain when things donâ€™t go their way, and that behavior largely disappeared. Of course, I canâ€™t know for sure whether out daily gratitude activity was responsible for causing that change, but it is reasonable to believe that it played an important part. During this three-week period other positive signs emerged. The most powerful occurred anytime I met one-on-one with a student who seemed to be sad or lacking confidence. Though I met with the kids to discuss academic work, I didnâ€™t start talking with them about the task at hand right away. Instead, I first asked them to tell me their three ideas from that morning.
Doing that seemed to bolster their spirits, and then we could address the school work. The overall mood and effort level in the classroom also improved. Over the three weeks I was curious to see how student responses would evolve. Initially, I thought the kids might have difficulty generating new ideas after mentioning family, friends, school, food, shelter, and other familiar ideas, but that really didnâ€™t happen. Instead, the kids shared a wide variety of responses, including: health, our countryâ€™s freedom, classmates, freedom of religion, siblings, William Shakespeare, the environment, math, money, the opportunity to learn, peace, baseball teams, food, books, basketball, art, pets, the protection offered by police officers and firefighters, surgeons, trees, technology, the Sun, a warm bed, medicines, the library, grocery stores, tools, an efficient math system, and electronics.
Even though my students and I have concluded this initiative, I can now use it as a reference point for the remainder of the year. Our Putting Happiness First project is something we can revisit on a regular basis to help us build and maintain a sense of gratitude in our lives and a sense of perspective. During those inevitable times when things donâ€™t go your way and the bad seems to outweigh the good, you can remember coming up with forty-five positive things for which you feel grateful. Maybe that can help you ride out those difficult times and maintain a positive attitude, even when it feels difficult to do so.
Give this idea a try. It may help you find that positive mindset that is so critical for performing at your highest level and producing your highest quality, most creative work.
Many kids who have read my Chase Manning Mysteries have asked me which books I enjoyed reading as a child. The first author that comes to mind is Judy Blume. Two of her books, in particular, were my favorites: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. I must have read each of these books at least ten times.
When I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I would always put myself in Peter Hatcher's shoes and think about what it must be like to have a younger brother. I'm the youngest of three kids and don't have a younger sibling. I think about how embarrassing it must have been for Peter to have lunch with Fudge and watch him smear mashed potatoes on the wall of the restaurant or go shopping for shoes and see Fudge throw a tantrum on the floor. I thought that Peter and I had a lot in common, and I really connected with him. I like this book so much that I now read it aloud to my students every year.
I liked Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great for the exact opposite reason. My personality was nothing like Sheila Tubman's, and I think that's why I enjoyed reading about her. She whined, she complained, and she had a negative attitude. Even though these are not the character traits I endorse and promote to my students, I have to admit I found her to be very entertaining and funny.
In addition to Judy Blume's books, I loved reading the Encyclopedia Brown series, and this is probably where I acquired my love of mysteries. I must have read every book in the series, but the funny thing was, I could never solve any of the cases. Not once. If you're unfamiliar with the format of this series, each book contains approximately ten short mysteries. There is always one clue in each mystery that the reader needs to find to solve the case, and I couldn't do it!
My experience reading the Encyclopedia Brown series influenced me greatly as I set out to write my first mystery, Chase Against Time. As much as I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books, I didn't want my readers to encounter the same level of frustration that I had. Therefore, instead of having a set of shorter stories with only one suspect and one main clue in each, as those books tended to have, I decided to have only one mystery in each book and have multiple suspects in play and many clues that the reader would have to sort through. That way, readers would have more time and more opportunities to try to identify the real thief. Let's see if you can do it!
One of my very favorite things to do in my free time is exercise. I love to lift weights at the gym, take yoga classes, and run on the beach. I also enjoy playing golf and going for walks. With most of these activities, I can get a great workout while also spending time with my family and friends or listening to music.
Every year in my classroom, I ask my students what types of exercise they enjoy. Swimming, skateboarding, and playing handball and soccer are usually the most popular answers they give me. Many kids also mention activities, such as basketball, martial arts, and tennis.
Exercise is incredibly important for many reasons. First, itâ€™s a great way to stay in shape and get stronger. As I said earlier, itâ€™s also a way to spend time with others and have fun. You probably already knew this. What you might not know is that exercise can also help us do better in school. Physical activity has a powerful effect on our brains and makes it easier for us to pay attention in class and work hard for long periods of time without getting tired.
This is especially true if youâ€™re able to exercise before school. Some of my students ride their bikes in the morning, take walks with their families, or play games on the playground if they get to school early. Many schools are starting to schedule their PE or gym classes at the beginning of the day so that everyone can start their day with physical activity. I think thatâ€™s pretty cool.
I'm interested in finding out what you like to do for exercise. If you want to send me your ideas, Iâ€™d love to read them. Feel free to contact me.