Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Can the Underdog Take the Win?

I never saw myself coaching a Lego Robotics League, but for 3 years now my husband and I have led the First Lego League (FLL) Robotics team at our school, Mulberry Elementary. My husband started the team quickly when he started working at Mulberry. After he excitedly told me he accepted this huge responsibility he asked if I would join him in coaching. I thought about it and knew I would learn a lot about coding and how to run a club, so I accepted.  Selfishly I also knew I would be able to hang out with my husband, Mike so that was also a win.

I learned quickly that Robotics is not just about coding robots. It involves a lot more than that. A big part of it is Core Values which is learning how to be a member of a team and learning how to handle failure in a positive way. This teaches you to grow and learn from your mistakes and embrace your other team members.

This year my husband and I had a lot on our plate going into the club. I went back full time as a kindergarten teacher as the year before I was part time, we moved into a new house 45 minutes away from work, and we were parenting three little girls 7, 5, and 18 months. We knew that the time we did devote to Robotics needed to count every time. Knowing this beforehand Mike and I planned to keep everything in the meetings to the essentials and to look at this time as a learning experience, but we also made sure to plan for relationship building and time for fun to grow together as a team.

From August to the beginning of December we had the kids build the robotics board, code the robots, get to know each other with fun games or reflective questions. We often had the students practice quick 2 minute impossible tasks to practice trying and not giving up, practice encouraging others, and learning to fail and get back up from it.

We encouraged each other and our students throughout each weekly meeting and we taught them how to encourage and help each other shine out, not just think about ourselves. We really stressed the importance of Team.

When it came time to competition we felt we were ready, but we also felt our students could code more or do more to prepare, but we had to let it go and focus on what we had accomplished. We had to go back to our original goals which were to stay focused on the most important things, to grow, and to have fun!  

We told each other the night before the competition that we would have fun and enjoy each moment no matter what. We would have our three girls with us and we knew it would be a long day, but we would be together as a family. We wanted to let go of the stress and pressure that FLL Robotics can bring, by reminding each other that what was important was trying our best and having fun while doing it.

The competition was Saturday, December 14, 2019. My husband and I arrived early with our three girls. A few of our ten students already arrived looking excited for the day. We set up our table and instead of practicing right away we chatted and played a few rounds of Uno with the kids. Mike checked our team in and The Mulberry Falcons were ready to soar. 

The day was a jam packed one. We started off with the Core Values section. This is the time where the kids have to do a task together and show how they work together as a team. The task is usually near impossible to complete. The judges are looking to see how they work together and what they do if and when they fail. Before the students went in the room, I did my job of encouraging the students with a pep talk. The kids smiled as they heard me tell them as a group and individually what they brought to the table and how we had worked so hard, but we also knew the goal was to work together and have FUN. As the students went through the door, my husband and I got together quietly with our girls and prayed for our team. We prayed they would have strength, their nerves would calm, and they would have fun working together. We actually did this for every section they had and every room they entered. This was important to us. 

When the students came out 10 minutes later they were so excited. They couldn't tell us any information about what happened in the room as this is TOP Secret, but they did tell us, "We had fun!" They did tell us, "We worked together." My husband, Mike and I gave them high fives and we went back to our tables to talk about the rest of the day. 

Our team then had some snacks, practiced a little coding at the practice tables, and practiced our skit. But what we didn't do is stress out our kids. Many of times Mike and I saw coaches and kids getting frustrated and continuing to practice. When we saw any frustration from our kids we had them play a game together or walk around to look at other tables or go and talk to other teams. We knew it was important to keep their spirits up and for them to walk in each section confident.

The day continued and the students worked together at the robotics tables during the competition. We got to go to the table 4 different times and allow two students each time to compete with the robot. We chose different kids each time to go up to the table with the robot as we knew they each needed a chance to shine. Many of times other teams had the same four kids going up. This can be helpful when you have strong coders, but it also takes the chance from other kids who have worked hard to compete with the robot and go to the table. The students did a great job with the robot at the table. Many of times their robot failed, but they would talk together as a group and discuss why it failed, playing around with the coding to see if they could fix it for the next group up.

The students had their skit to perform and even though we were not allowed to go in the room with them. We were able to peek in and we saw the kids relaxed and happy looking. After the skit the kids came out and said the judges said they should perform the skit for others schools as it was really good. As coaches we were thrilled with this response and the kids felt good about pushing forward. The students finished the last section with Robot Design. This is where they explained how they designed their robot and the code they created for the missions.

It was finally time to see who won the different sections and who won the whole competition. Our team is made up of seven 4th graders and three 5th graders. We knew this would be a tough competition as we were competing against 10 middle schools and 8 elementary schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia.  We knew we were the underdogs in this competition, but we knew we had a shot in some of the sections as the students came out of each section with such positive attitudes.

We told the students before they called the winners, that they rocked this competition and that we were so proud of them no matter what award we won or didn't win. We also told them that we had a great chance of taking away something from this meet and we thought Core Values might be the award we could win.

Our Mulberry students were very excited to hear the winners, so our team went right up to the front. When they called the first award it was Core Values. I was so excited as I thought this might be our shot at an award. They called the winners and... it was not us.

One of my 5th grade students, Andrew looked back at me sadly. I gave him a smile and said no worries, it's okay. He quickly gave me a smile and a thumbs up and continued to watch.

Each award came and each time they called it, we did not win. Our kids would clap for each school that won. Our students kept saying it is okay. We had fun. We tried our best. 

I know that we taught them those things, but as a coach when you are looking at your students faces as they hear the award calling, you want the win for them and you want it bad. You just want all that hard work to be noticed. You want them to see they are enough. But you also have to know they are enough no matter what is called. You also have to know that as a coach you did your personal best and it is not all about winning, truly.

The judges finally came to the last award, which is the final award of the evening. It is the winner of the whole regional competition. 10 middle schools and 8 elementary schools.  The room all became silent as everyone wanted to hear the winning team.

And then we heard it, Team 3...0...5...9...7 Mulberry Falcons is the winner of this years regional robotics competition. 

We all started screaming. I was holding my baby Kate and running to give them all hugs. My husband was high fiving the students and helping the kids go together to get the trophy and raise it high.

I cannot express in words the feelings we all had right then. But I can tell you we were joyful, humbled, and in shock. The emotions I felt for the work these kids put in and the kindness they showed to each other is unbelievable. I still sit in shock as I type these words. 


How we supposedly the underdogs won the competition just floors me.
(Picture above is right after the win. My little girls are being held by me, in the pink shirt, and in the stripes. The other little ones are my sweet kindergarten students who accompanied their siblings)

We had a blast at that competition and we learned some very important things that I think I will always need to remember.

Be an Encourager At All Times-Encourage others and your teammates to be their best, help them shine out, and remember that everyone needs to share.

Focus on the Essentials-Many of times we had to reflect back to our main goal and think is this fulfill that goal? If the answer was no we had to let that idea go. Working on what was most important at all times helped our students stay focused.

Have Fun-In life and in the classroom you have to make sure that you have fun. If you don't have any fun at all then why would you do it. Having fun takes the stress off you and the students. When we allow ourselves to have fun we can feel good about what we are doing and who we are.

Work as a Team- Many of times it is easier to go it alone, but on a team you have to work together. In robotics you have to work as a group in everything. You have to trust your teammates and enjoy them too. Having our team get to know each other this year and play games throughout the sessions was important. It helped our team bond and it helped all of us love coming to robotics each week.

I will always remember this competition as it taught me so much and it was packed with memories of my whole family and my students. I will always remember those sweet faces waiting for the winning team's name....and then it being US. 

But you know what I hope everyone remembers about our team? I hope they remember our joy and our kindness. We were so happy each moment of the day even in the hard times and we were always kind to those around us whether is was our high school mentor, the staff, the parents, or the judges. Those things truly matter. We weren't just a winning team, we were a team that enjoyed working together.

Can the Underdog take the win? Yes, they can and that is what makes me smile the most!

(Holding the winning trophy with Carlos, See you at the Super Regionals in January)

Alana Stanton is a kindergarten teacher at Mulberry Elementary in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She has taught several grades over her 14 year career including K-3 literacy special, first grade, second grade, kindergarten, and technology special. Alana believes that relationships always come first in the classroom and the classroom should be a place where students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. She currently writes for her blog, More Than A Lesson where she shares the stories of her classroom and her heart.
Twitter: @stantonalana

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Gift of the Chalk Truck

The past 3 years my husband, Mike and I have worked on decluttering our home with our 3 children. We teamed up together and successfully simplified our lives, making our house a place we love coming home to. What made the biggest difference in our journey was not the decluttering, no that was just the beginning. Over time we learned that decluttering was not just about stuff, best said by Joshua Becker, "It was about the removal of anything that distracted us from being present in the lives of those we loved." It was about loving the life we had and owning our lives in a way that was more intentional, becoming intentional about how we invested our time, money, and most of all our love. We learned that by giving to others and giving often we could reap the benefits of joy. 

Over the years we have given many things away, often to people in need. But what we have gained is worth so much more than anything we gave away. As we gave away more and had less we gained more time with our loved ones, owned a more peaceful home, and the biggest gift of all has been the feeling that we finally had enough, the true feeling of gratitude. 

Recently my husband and I had an experience that only could have taken place with our new attitude of giving. My mother and father have an old black truck, a truck with no air conditioning. We live in Georgia and the heat in the summer can become unbearable and at times dangerous for those of a young or older age. Our hearts began having concerns about my parents who are in their seventies dealing with extreme heat. On the days my mother would come over to visit , her cheeks would be flushed red and she would need water immediately on arrival. I could also tell she was reluctant to go home later in the afternoon as the heat became tougher to endure. 

My husband and I after much discussion finally decided to ask my parents to trade cars. We would give them our Nission Sentra with air conditioning and they would give us their truck. Our second vehicle is a Volkswagen Jetta, so we knew we would have one car with air. The decision was finally made when we discussed how we both work at the same school, which is only ten minutes away, driving most days together. We called my parents and while at first they were confused and then reluctant, when we mentioned the concern for their safety they finally gave in. My mother came over that weekend and we exchanged cars. She explained to us she felt she could never repay us, as we assured her that her safety was payment enough. Seeing my mother drive away in her new car with a big smile on her face made us feel blessed. Knowing that this summer they would be safe, more free to take adventures, and seeing her more was in itself a huge gift. A priceless gift.

As she pulled away my husband was excited to get in the old truck, so he took the girls for a spin around the block. When he got back home he and the girls started to wash it up. Then he decided to get some black spray paint and spray over the rust. The truck is about 25 years old, so it started to have a lot of wear and tear on it. As he painted it, he got an idea, what if he painted the back with chalkboard paint, then our 3 girls could chalk the back.

Then he got a BIGGER idea....what if he painted the entire truck with chalkboard paint. He ran in the house to tell me about his vision. At first, I was like "You're going to do the whole thing?" Then I thought, hey if he was willing to give up his comfortable, air conditioning Sentra then he should be able to do whatever he wants with it. As he told me his vision for the chalk board paint, I started to get excited too, visualizing the girls chalking the truck, playing outside, and even having friends draw on it. My husband explained that he could bring it to church or school events and let kids draw making each event more special.

How simple, but how much fun did this all sound? Isn't this what I strived for all along? For us to be a family who appreciated time with each other and experiencing a life full of living?

Mike bought the paint right then and there and finished the truck in a few hours. The girls helped him prime the truck with a layer of chalk and then they hosed it down together, playing in the water.

He then went to the store to get a bucket filled with chalk and when he came back it was good to go.

The girls and us chalked it up, then we brought it to his parents and they chalked it up, a few neighbors who were curious joined in and added some beautiful art, and the next day we took it to the Memorial Day Parade and many people in the community chalked it or at least enjoyed seeing all the art work.

I only heard positive comments throughout the parade. Each person who saw the truck either smiled, asked to chalk it, or quite frankly looked puzzled...most likely thinking why would someone do that to a truck. But in my mind anyone who questions the reasoning might come up with some pretty interesting answers.

The real answer is we did it to create a positive experience for our children and to create lasting memories. Memories that show our children we didn't value things over them, we valued them. We didn't care what the naysayers would say, instead we loved life enough to spread it around for others to enjoy.

When I showed my parents what we had done to the truck and how much the family and community enjoyed it, they felt so joyful. Their humble hearts had a hard time accepting the gift at first, but when they saw we turned the truck into something special, something fun, they felt comfortable knowing that by trading vehicles they had also given us a gift too.

Now on every holiday, we will be taking our newly named Chalk Truck with us, drawing different pictures for each season. Can you imagine how fun this will be for children and adults this Fourth of July while waiting for the fireworks to begin? Can you imagine the conversations we will have with those people around us, building new relationships, and all because we let go of a comfort car and took on a vehicle a little rough around the edges.

In life we have a choice, we can live for stuff or we can live for others. May my family and I continue to learn how to be people with giving hearts, who love others enough to offer the gift of what they need. May our children learn that they have one life to live and that the value of people is more important than the value of stuff.

Alana Stanton is a kindergarten and technology specials teacher at Mulberry Elementary in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She has taught several grades over her 14 year career including K-3 literacy special, first grade, second grade, and kindergarten. Alana believes that relationships always come first in the classroom and the classroom should be a place where students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. She currently writes for her blog, More Than A Lesson where she shares the stories of her classroom and her heart.
Twitter: @stantonalana

Saturday, May 25, 2019

In Small Moments, Remember The Big Picture

A month ago I attended one of my favorite teachers retirement party. Mrs. Malone was my third grade teacher who always made learning fun and made all of us students feel like we were a favorite. In the year 2000, I was shocked when she showed up at my graduation. She found me among my friends and right away I knew her smile. She gave me a great big hug, told me congratulations, and she was proud of me and always had been. This meant so much to me and I never forgot it.

At her retirement party I started thinking about graduation coming up and if any of my classes would be graduating. I thought maybe I could attend one of my student's graduations.

In my mind one student came up, Lisbeth.
Lisbeth was a student in my second, first grade class. She was a beautiful, kind, and energetic girl who always had compassion for those around her. I will never forget when I first met her on registration. She was my first child to run in the room and was way ahead of her parents. Her smile lit up the classroom and my heart from her first "Hi!" I loved teaching Lisbeth as she had such an enthusiasm for learning.

I learned over time that Lisbeth was a perfectionist and I often had to encourage her to try her best, but to also know we can't strive to be perfect. I worked with her that year to understand you don't have to do everything perfectly, that she was wonderful just as she was and that no score defined her. I taught her how to do positive self talk and often I could tell she was doing just that. Over the year she learned to be proud of her personal best and her anxiety subsided helping her become stronger.

My husband Mike, later taught her in 4th grade. He appreciated Lisbeth's humor and her persisting spirit. The kid always gave her best and she was always herself no matter what. Mike later played a huge role as he helped her family through a tough medical diagnosis. Lisbeth's mother was concerned she should quit her job and home school Lisbeth. Both Mike and I reached out to her mother in person explaining how much Lisbeth loved school and to please reconsider. Her mother with more encouragement from Mike decided to give it the rest of the year. Luckily her teachers were able to show the family that school was the place Lisbeth truly shined.

Over the years Mike and I attended many of her birthday parties and were honored to attend her 5th grade graduation celebration. The family always treated us like royalty, letting us know that being a teacher in their child's life mattered.

I decided I would attend Lisbeth's graduation. I found out which high school she attended and her graduation date. I had 3 weeks to try to get in touch with her family. I started researching and I was able to find her brother and Lisbeth's old social media page.

  In one of her pictures she had the name star I had given her that first grade year, this little star motivated me to keep trying. I looked for emails and phone numbers, but I could't find anything.

After a few weeks, I started to lose hope, so I resorted to pray. "Lord if it is at all possible to see Lisbeth on her graduation day, I would be grateful, but if not please let her know she is loved by Mike and I in some way."

On her graduation day, Today, May 25th I decided it was not in the cards. I was disappointed, but I knew it did not mean I failed, I had loved her, prayed for her, and supported her in many ways and I would have to believe that would be enough.

Then at 8:30 in the morning TODAY, Lisbeth's mother reached out to me in a text. She sent a picture of the high schools graduation. She let me know she appreciated Mike and I and the love we gave her daughter. That Lisbeth loved us and still talked about us.

I am not a crier, but as her graduation pictures started coming in, I bawled like a baby, the tears poured down. Is this the little girl I taught, now a beautiful young woman.

I let the family know how thankful I was to receive their message and how I had been desperately trying to reach out to one of them. I asked if there was anyway we could see her today or this weekend as we had letters we had both written her. The next text made me cry more as she responded,

I called Mike and he immediately left small group and we responded to her parents that we were headed down to her graduation.

We all quickly walked toward the entrance of graduation. It was packed. I knew if I had just come to find her in the crowd without her mother's text we would never be able to find her. I let them know we were under a tent and a few minutes later I could see them walking towards us. I quickly took my girls hands and met them. Lisbeth did not know we were there as her parents made it a surprise. She looked just as she did when she was a little girl, but this time she was a beautiful young lady.

We both looked at each other and had huge smiles, both with a few tears in our eyes. I got to talk to her and tell her how proud I am.  She is headed to The University of Alabama and will be Bama bound. Mike and I always knew she continued to work hard after elementary school.
Before leaving I told her, "Lisbeth I have taught for 14 years and out of all my students you will always remain one of my very favorites. You are so kind, determined, and strong. I want you to know Mr. Stanton and I will always be here for you if you need anything. You will always have a piece of our hearts."

As we left her mother and I hugged. Her mother told me, "I am not sure what happened, but a week ago, Lisbeth said I really miss Mr. and Mrs. Stanton, they were very special to me." I told her thank you for listening to the prompt and reaching out to me.

Being a teacher is a wonderful job and it's one I cherish, but if you are a teacher you know there are times it is tough...tougher than tough. And to be honest at times it can feel thankless. There can be moments that you ask yourself, is what I am doing really matter, do I make a real difference....not just in a day, but in the lives of these children who one day become adults.

Then there are moments like Today, miraculous moments where you truly see you mattered.

You mattered to a family and you mattered to a student. I could not be more grateful for this moment.
I have been blessed and I will never forget it. Mike and I will be printing this picture for our future classrooms.

Why? Because the picture of all of us shows Mike and I teamed up and made a difference in the life of a child. We will look back on that picture many times in the coming years because there will be those days where we need to see the bigger picture.

Life in the classroom can be made up of many small moments. These moments can often seem mundane and routined, but throughout the days, weeks, months, and years those small moments become a bigger picture.

What we do in those small daily moments matter for the big picture. When we are in them we don't always see the impact, but years later we might get the chance to look back and finally see it. See the little girl become a strong woman who shines her light out.

Today Mike and I took a small part in her journey and for me that moment, that journey, is priceless.

Educators and Parents keep up the fight in those small moments because you will make a difference in the bigger picture more than you will ever know.

To My Lisbeth:
You have a heart of gold! Keep shining that light for all to see. How bright the world is with you in it. I love you and I will always be here cheering you on! -Mrs. Stanton

Alana Stanton is a kindergarten and technology specials teacher at Mulberry Elementary in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She has taught several grades over her 14 year career including K-3 literacy special, first grade, second grade, and kindergarten. Alana believes that relationships always come first in the classroom and the classroom should be a place where students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. She currently writes for her blog, More Than A Lesson where she shares the stories of her classroom and her heart.
Twitter: @stantonalana