Breathe: Have the presence of mind

What is one of the most important life skills impacting health, relationships, and achievement? Self-regulation.

Self-regulation can be broadly defined as the ability to manage and control oneself. This relates to one’s emotions (moods and feelings) as well as one’s behaviors (actions). It is recognizing when you are experiencing stress or over excitement. It is how you use tools and strategies to adjust your moods and work through feelings. It is exhibiting appropriate behaviors in spite of what you are feeling.

As educators and/or parents, we teach self-regulation to children constantly. It’s what we are doing when we help them complete a task they don’t feel like doing but should (eg. sharing and cleaning up after themselves). It’s also what we are doing when we help children work through emotions such as sadness or frustration.

It’s important to note that research is increasingly showing the connection between a child’s self-regulation and that of their adult caretakers. Meaning, we influence a child’s self-regulation not just through our teaching, but also through our modeling and practice of self-regulation skills. At any moment, how we manage our own emotions and behaviors – that show up in the words and tone we use or through the thoughtful or impulsive decisions we make – can determine how a child responds. It is a cyclical process. So, how can we as the more social-emotionally skilled person in an interaction with a child manage our own emotions and behaviors and support him/her to a favorable outcome? Breathe.

One of my favorite TEDTalks is Breathing happiness by Emma Seppälä. In this Talk, Seppälä uses examples of work with military in combat and veterans experiencing PTSD to explain how we can manage our breathing to change our mood and gain “the presence of mind” to negotiate the most difficult and stressful situations. Seppälä describes the strategy of “square breathing” (inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four and repeating) as a way to lower the heart rate and gain composure. I have found this strategy to be a helpful tool to use with students and for myself. Note: I alter the language when working with young students to “Suck in like you are drinking a juice box; hold it. Now, blow out like birthday candles.”

Self-regulation is a skill we continue to develop throughout adulthood. Square breathing is hopefully a helpful tool you can add to your belt. I wish you a wonderful school year and happy breathing!

Learner, Thinker, Writer: Rhonda Mitchell serves Trinity School as the Early Elementary Division Head

Passing Along Our Faith

I have very few memories of showing anyone my report card during my school years.  No one checked that I did my homework or studied for a test.  It wasn’t due to a lack of interest in my academic success.  My family understood the importance of a quality education, and we lived in a neighborhood that provided the best public education available in the city.  Grades in school were simply not their measure of success.

I do remember many talks with my family about making good choices – choices about who I considered a friend (because the answer to their question of “Who are their people?” when I mentioned a new name provided my family with all they needed to know about this person; choices in how I presented myself to others (because respect and decency came before anything else); and choices about what I did with my time (I still hear my grandmother saying “Make sure you do something with yourself.”).  It was always clear to me that people make choices in life, and I was called to reflect on mine regularly.

My family collectively worked to provide me with opportunities, modeled and explicitly taught what they believed were core character traits and habits of mind, and they regularly expressed their faith in me to be my best self.  The message of faith was so prevalent that it transferred to me, and I developed faith in myself.

My family’s faith built my confidence by reminding me of the skills, abilities, and accomplishments I’d worked to attain.  It caused me to set goals for myself and develop a sense of responsibility.  It motivated me to work through difficulties and setbacks so I could live up to the expectations that they set for me and I adopted for myself.

As parents and educators, we work to provide children with the best learning experiences and opportunities we can provide.  We strive to cultivate curious, lifelong learners and often find ourselves wondering what more we can do to prepare our children to be thoughtful, contributing members of society.   This question persists in my mind as a school administrator and parent of two teenagers.

As I was thinking about my grandmother recently I found myself wondering, what would happen if we were more intentional about passing along our faith to children – to our own and other’s?  I don’t mean shallow praise or fleeting compliments but empowering messages of belief and expectation.

What if we shared our faith in them and their abilities, imploring them to believe in their own worth and beauty in spite of what others may say about them?  What would come of regularly reminding children of the skills they have developed and the knowledge they have acquired, encouraging them to stand firmly on their past efforts and accomplishments?  What about deliberately coaching them to look to examples of those who came before them as evidence of what is possible and as motivation to persevere when times are hard?  Would it build them up inside?

Then, what if we made it clear to them that our faith is not hope alone but is coupled with expectation and a history of planning, preparation, and sacrifice?  How would they feel about a warning that we’ll be trusting them to do something with themselves – something greater for all of us.  What if our words and actions taught them that life is full of choices and then we gave them some to practice so they would know for themselves.  Would this promote a sense of responsibility and agency?

Research on locus of control and the Adlerian theory were not on my family’s reading list.  Yet the ideas of choice and autonomy promoting motivation (internal locus of control) and the need for a sense of belonging along with contribution (Positive Discipline) resonate with me as a critical part of my childhood experience.  Since these practices shaped me so strongly, I will use them more intentionally in my own parenting and teaching practices.  However, please note that I will continue to check progress reports.

Learner, Thinker, Writer: Rhonda Mitchell serves Trinity School as Early Elementary Division Head.

Fresh Eyes

job teams.jpgGrand Day is one of my favorite events at school for so many reasons, not the least of which is seeing the pride of students, teachers, and grands over the accomplishments of learning and friendships.  Beyond that, listening to grandparents talk to each other about what they perceive as happening with and for their grandchildren allows me to see what we do with fresh eyes.  I don’t know if it is the wisdom grandparents have earned over time or an appreciation for fundamentals now overlooked, but grandparents seem to recognize the implicit learning objectives built into our teaching as readily as they see the obvious, stated objectives.  One grandparent stopped me to ask if we have always given the students “jobs” in the classroom.  I thought, “Yes! We vertically align learning objectives and facilitate interdisciplinary experiences to deepen student understanding while empowering them with skills and strategies all of the time.  Thank you for noticing.”  I did not say that.  After I explained the jobs chart, he was so impressed with the idea of developing academic skills while promoting a sense of personal responsibility and community.  But, I wonder if we think about the depth of learning that will occur each year when those charts are set up.  Or, have we done it so long that we just know “jobs” are what we do?

I have enjoyed the work we do as a professional learning community analyzing our curriculum and teaching practices to consider how we can get better.  One of the things I have tried to do is bridge the perceived gap between early learning objectives and those of more advanced grade levels.  On the surface, there may seem to be little connection between the tactile table and essay writing or color sorting and algebra, but foundational knowledge and skills are critical for future academic success.  Is the connection difficult to see because we focus on the activity/lesson and not the why behind it?  In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek says, “It is not just WHAT or HOW you do things that matters; what matters more is that WHAT and HOW you do things is consistent with your WHY.  Only then will your practices indeed be best.”  Are we starting with WHY when we plan our lessons?  How might that look?

  1. Why:  We believe students need a firm foundation of early literacy and math skills and habits that include conceptual understanding as well as procedural knowledge.
  2. What:  We build number sense and phonological awareness while emphasizing strategies, communication, and flexible thinking.
  3. How:  Daily lessons include number talks with subitizing activities and differentiated small groups during literacy block.

One might argue that it doesn’t make a difference where you begin if you end up in the same place.  Only, I don’t think we always end up in the same place when we begin with the activity or lesson rather than with the WHY.  So, I will continue to bridge the gap by pointing out the connections between early learning and upper grades, and highlighting how our WHY is the building of foundational skills/strategies for later success.   I will always work to see what we do with fresh eyes.

(cross-posted on The Possibilities in Understanding)

Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio, 2009. Print.

Learner, Thinker, Writer: Rhonda Mitchell serves the Trinity School community as the Early Elementary Division Head.


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I attended my first bar mitzvah last month.  It was for two boys I have known since they were four years old.  So, it was an honor to be a part of such a meaningful experience to them and their families.  I appreciate so many things about the bar mitzvah.  I respect the commitment the boys make to their faith; the investment of time in lessons and service projects, and the demonstration of understanding exhibited during the ceremony when they read the Torah and applied the message to contemporary issues.  I loved the family’s involvement in the process which included special blessings and hopes for the future.  But what stood out to me the most was one moment in the ceremony.  After the boys completed the bulk of their responsibilities, they stood in front of the entire audience and had a private conversation with their rabbis.  I say it was private because while the audience could see this one minute conversation, we were unable to hear what was being said.  I was so intrigued by this I couldn’t wait to ask about it.  After giving the parents heartfelt congratulations for their family’s achievement, I asked one of the mothers to explain what I saw.  She said that the boys received individual feedback about their experience from their rabbi.  Wow.  Right there in the moment they received feedback.  It was considered so important that it was embedded into the ceremony.

I was reminded about how I felt at the bar mitzvah this week while attending the Assessment NOW conference.   Some of the conference topics focused on the tools associated with assessing student learning.  However, a vast majority of the conference focused on how we use information gathered by these tools to move learning forward.  Feedback was a topic covered in almost every presentation because it has been shown to have a powerful effect on student achievement when clear, timely, specific and actionable.  In thinking about the bar mitzvah, I couldn’t hear what was being said by the rabbis, but if it was feedback, it was certainly timely. I wonder how much more impactful that ceremony became as a result of that moment spent reflecting and coaching.  Did it allow the boys to absorb the experience and appreciate how much they accomplished?  I know the rabbis didn’t end at “good job” because there was obvious acknowledgement of understanding through head nodding.  Were they receiving clear and specific points to consider about the message they delivered based on the scripture?

I’ll never know what the rabbis said to the boys that day, but I believe it was impactful.  And, if they took the time to offer feedback at the ceremony, I’m confident the rabbis offered feedback during Hebrew and public speaking lessons.  It was evident from the articulate and confident way the boys spoke.  What the rabbis did say to all of us about the boys is how much ownership they took of the process.  They never had to be reminded of assignments and practice.  They took their time in class very seriously.  I imagine how different the ceremony might have been if the rabbis had only offered “good job” instead of clear, timely, specific, and actionable feedback about the big stuff and the day-to-day stuff. I’m sure they would have made it through, but I’m not sure that they would have walked away quite as empowered.

Learner, Thinker, Writer: Rhonda Mitchell serves Trinity School as the Personalized Learning Specialist.  You can follow her on Twitter @rgmteach.

Embedded Assessment: Why Educational Achievement Matters

I like need to reread things, especially when I am really trying to connect to the content.  I read Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment in an effort to learn more about how we can empower students to understand themselves and their learning.  I finished the book feeling energized and ready to learn as much as possible about formative assessment practices.  But, I found myself needing to go back to his text to keep myself focused and on the right path.  Is that right?  I enjoyed reading this book like one enjoys eating something delicious.  I couldn’t wait for the next chapter, but didn’t want the book to end.  I wanted to taste every flavor and be able to decipher the ingredients to make the recipe my own.  I found a friend in New Yorker author, Ian Crouch, who said, “But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.”

In Embedded Formative Assessment, Wiliam explains why focusing on classroom practices that provide timely feedback to the teacher and student on an ongoing basis is the most impactful thing we can do to improve the quality of education.  I look forward to rereading it and processing my thoughts about each chapter as part of our book study. I aspire to truly and honestly know.

“Pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught”.

In Chapter One, Wiliam starts with why.  He offers research to explain why educational achievement matters.  He shares information indicating that while today’s students are more intelligent and skilled than previous generations, they are not exhibiting the skills needed for our rapidly changing economy. He then briefly describes the various ways we have tried to reform education, from structure to curriculum, and why those reforms have been ineffective.  Wiliam asserts that “pedagogy trumps curriculum”, or “pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught”.  Wiliam makes the assumption that the improvement of teaching practices is the critical element to developing necessary student skills.

So, I guess I argue with the author on the point that it is not the curriculum, but the pedagogy.  It is really more of a ‘yes, and’ rather than a ‘yes, but’.  Yes, teaching practices that focus on the skills necessary to face new and unseen challenges are critical, and we must reconsider what we assess and report altogether.  Is it really how we teach, measure, and report reading or science? Or, is it more important to think about how we teach, measure, and report the skills we expect and need students to have such as researching, empathizing, problem identification, analyzing, and innovating?  Should those skills be a byproduct of the learning experience or the primary focus of learning with content and subject matter being the byproduct?

“…education can compensate for society provided it is of high quality.”
I agree that education can be the great equalizer, and that what we have in our country right now is not of high quality for many learners.  Without high quality education, education has a minimal impact relative to societal factors.  Someday we may live in a society where all children have everything they need to be productive and positively contributing members, including a quality education.  Today, teachers can decide to implement research-based practices that make their classrooms places that provide preparation and opportunity.
“It turns out that these substantial differences between how much students learn in different classes have little to do with class size, how the teacher groups the students for instruction, or even the presence of between-class grouping practices (for example tracking). The most critical difference is simply the quality of the teacher.”
I aspire to be a part of making high-quality education the standard for all learners.  I don’t think formative assessment or any one practice is the answer to the many questions in education, but Wiliam provides solid evidence for why we must look to teaching quality as the focus of our efforts.  I aspire to be a high-quality teacher and empowered learner. I aspire to truly and honestly know.

Wiliam, Dylan. Embedded Formative Assessment.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 2011. Print.

What’s Your Social Media Personality?


If someone had asked me about my social media personality a year ago, I would have described it as barely existent.  I have a Facebook page that I put together a few years ago, but I rarely check it or update it.  I guess I don’t consider myself to be especially witty, and I believe there’s a rule that says stories about kids, pets, or a significant other must be funny or emotional for publication.  Plus, I’m generally a pretty private person.  However, this infographic made me think about how I have found a place for social media in my life.  I use it for professional development.

While researching student portfolios and reflective practices, I have truly appreciated the information that others have taken the time to share with the world through blogs.   Many of these people are educators like any one of us, but they are sharing their thoughts, ideas, efforts, and “failures” for the benefit of students everywhere.  And, at the encouragement of our Director of Teaching and Learning, Jill (@jgough), I have pushed myself out onto Twitter.  While I am no expert at tweeting, I am growing more confident and hopeful that my thoughts, ideas, efforts, and “failures” might benefit students somewhere.  At the moment, I consume far more than I share (known as lurking in the infographic), but I add my virtual two cents occasionally.  I highly recommend spending just 15 minutes a day on Twitter learning from other educators and thought leaders.  Here are just a few examples of what I’ve learned recently:



This New York Times article is just another example of how reflective people use what they know about themselves to effectively manage themselves and their situations.



Trinity Sixth Graders’ Random Acts of Kindness week made me curious to watch this inspirational short film made by author, Daniel Pink’s daughter.  Honk If You Love Someone



First Grade teacher, Mrs. Wideen, shares how she uses iPads in her classroom for literacy and math development.  Her most recent tweet was a link to her blog post, From 1 iPad to 20 iPads and How It Has Changed My Classroom.



I read all kinds of interesting things on the Farnam Street blog.  The most recent article is a summary of the book, Brain Rules.

What’s your social media personality?  Will you lurk for a little while, or dive right in?

Learner, Thinker, Writer: Rhonda Mitchell serves the Trinity School community as the Personalized Learning Specialist. @rgmteach

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

There is a squirrel in my house. Actually, it is a flying squirrel that moves inside the wall along one side of the house. While I am extremely grateful that it is a squirrel rather than any other member of the rodent family (verified by a professional), I am very opposed to sharing my home with it. In fact, I was quite panicked when I first heard sounds in my wall and did not know what was making them. Because flying squirrels are nocturnal, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a gnawing sound behind my bed. I could have been classified as a flying person that night based on the way I left my room. My reaction led my husband to quickly search and research the problem and solution, not because he was overly concerned about the intruder, but for fear of having to relocate to a hotel or hear me fret incessantly.

Flying squirrel removal is apparently a process that takes a little time. Knowing the full status makes me more comfortable and has alleviated the angst. So, when my sweet daughter crawled into our bed one night because she wasn’t sleeping well, and asked about the sound she heard coming from the wall behind the bed, I had a decision to make. I thought of a recent conversation I had with a friend who is an Executive Coach. She was telling me how she helps people better understand their own personalities and communication styles in order to communicate effectively and produce a desired outcome. After considering my initial reaction to that sound and knowing my daughter, I very calmly stated, “It’s a squirrel. Go to sleep.”



Learner, Thinker, Writer: Rhonda Mitchell serves the Trinity School community as the Personalized Learning Specialist. @rgmteach