Tuesday, December 31, 2013

No Excuses - My Kyle Maynard Story

I wanted to write a reflective piece on the year and what I've learned during 2013. Twitter has opened my world up to so many experiences and new opportunities as a teacher: Flipped Classroom, Skype in the Classroom, Global Classroom, etc. But today I would like to tell another story...one that didn't even happen in 2013.....

The Idea:
In May of 2012, I was assigned to be our school's Anti-Bullying coordinator. I also was in charge of a full day event called Choices Day that was scheduled for Oct. 5, 2012. After seeing the video below in early August, I knew that I wanted Kyle Maynard (@KyleMaynard) to be our keynote speaker for Choices Day - a day dedicated to helping students make good choices in the areas of Health, Safety and Character. Kyle, a quadruple amputee from birth, not only has an amazing story but an equally amazing spirit.  Please take three minutes to watch this incredible video:

After viewing the above video, I knew I had to get Kyle to my school to share his message in person. I reached out to his publicist, Joey Leonardo, (@JosephLeonardo) to inquire about a possible appearance and the fee associated. Joey informed me that Kyle was already booked on Oct. 5 and that they could possibly schedule a visit to my school when they were in Cleveland or Cincinnati. I was disappointed, but not deterred. He also informed me of his typical speaking fee but said it was negotiable, which of course I appreciated.

Joey and I kept in contact for the next several months and in late October I got the email I had hoped for! Kyle was scheduled to visit a school in Dayton and was willing to drive to my school near Columbus to speak.....I know it sounds crazy, but instead of being ecstatic....I was terribly disheartened.....

The Roadblocks:
Also in October, we got news that our school (for the first time I think in our school’s history) was rated as a “Least Effective School.” Our end of the year test scores did not meet what the state deems as effective and it was a big hit for our staff. We were embarrassed. We felt like we let each other, our administration, our district, our community and our students down. The subsequent staff meetings that followed were difficult and very stressful. We were told we had to go through a year long state mandated review process that requires us to change many of our school’s policies and practices. Therefore, my principal said we had to take a hard look at what we do that takes our focus away from the academic areas we need to teach. 

Throughout the process my staff fought for LESS outside of the classroom so we could focus on what we needed to teach within the classroom. Less assemblies, less weekly initiatives, less paperwork, less of anything that didn't directly relate to the curriculum.... We were overwhelmed to say the least.

That was the attitude of my staff in late October when Joey emailed me and told me about the trip to Dayton and that they would be willing to drive to Columbus with no extra expenses besides the speaking fee. If it were at any other point I would have hit the roof. But I didn’t. I was discouraged and disappointed. I was burnt out and thought that I couldn’t propose “one more thing.” (In the modified plan I was going to cancel Anti-Bullying week altogether and asking for an assembly would not have even been an option.) I knew the funding would be difficult to get, the timing wasn’t right, the morale of our staff was the lowest it had ever been in the four years I’d been at the school, my principal had just told me to scale back some of my plans, and so much more.

I read Joey’s email on the way to Washington DC to visit my brother. My parents, sister and I rode together for six hours each way and I didn’t bring up that I had received an email from Joey. After arriving at my parents on the return trip home, I briefly mentioned to them that Joey emailed me with great news, but everything seemed wrong about the situation. They were surprised that I hadn’t talked about it the whole trip, or that I wasn’t already figuring out a plan to make it happen. They told me to think about it some more because I’ve never been one to give up.

So, when I arrived home I got on Kyle's website, watched the intro video again and got my answer. Ironically his mantra was what I needed to adopt. Kyle's message was NO EXCUSES right? And I got to thinking: Everything that was stopping me was just an excuse. The timing wasn't right. Everyone was frustrated - including myself. We most likely won't be able to raise the money. I couldn't ask for just one more thing. There’s no way I would be able to pull this off in just a few weeks -- But, I couldn’t make excuses! Honestly, the staff and I needed to hear Kyle's message just as much as the kids did! 

So, I went for it! And unbelievably within the next few weeks, we were able to secure the money from PTA and Student Council, my principal was on board and the idea was pitched to the staff. I work with a great staff whose priority is always the students. They were excited for Kyle's arrival and agreed to introduce his story before his appearance along with some other activities that we put together for Anti-Bullying Week. Here's a flyer we sent home to the parents:

The Appearance:
Kyle was gracious enough to speak to two separate groups - the 5th graders and the 6th graders. Many parents were able to come and staff members who typically aren't able to attend assemblies made it a point to hear Kyle's story. Kyle agreed to be interviewed for a few newspapers beforehand, posed for pictures before and after and of course gave two amazing assemblies. (He even wore our school's Anti-Bullying T-shirt :)

He wrote a special message for the students and signed his name on a large dry erase board...

He walked on his hands...
And even showed his skill in an impromptu cup-stacking competition!

He was funny, cordial, engaging and incredibly inspiring.

I didn't have a blog last November, but I did write a little about his appearance. Here's an excerpt:

Everything came together the second Kyle and Joey arrived.  The students were literally pounding on the doors to be let in to meet Kyle - I've never seen anything like it! Instead of getting in line for breakfast, they crowded around him as he signed his books before school started. They were respectful and polite and asked great questions. I was so proud of the students!

Afterward everyone wanted to meet Kyle and get their picture taken with him and I felt bad turning kids away. I could already hear the comments from the teachers and students “Best assembly we’ve ever had” “What an amazing story” “He’s so inspirational.” “I want to be like him!” “Not dead, don’t quit!” "Can he please stay longer?" and so on.

Unfortunately, after the second assembly, Kyle and Joey had to rush back on the road so they could make the appearance in Dayton. After they left, I grabbed my things and started walking back to class so I could hear my students’ reaction. I didn’t make it very far though, because I broke down. I just started crying right there in the hallway. I had watched so many of Kyle's videos online, I read his book and I knew what his message was about, but to have over 700 students, some families and our whole staff hear his inspirational message was too much for me. And to think just a few weeks prior I could have said "Thanks but no thanks." I learned a very important lesson right then and there: It's good to take risks. I could have easily been told "No," but thankfully the idea was supported by many people who could have prevented it! 

Over the next several days I had so many teachers, students, my principals and even a few parents tell me how incredible his message was. Kyle's message uplifted our staff as much as it did the student body. We continue to focus on building each other up and not tearing each other down - one of Kyle's main lessons. And even when our backs are against the wall, we don’t give up. We have such a wonderful job, although it is a very difficult one. We need to remain positive and I know Kyle's message will continue to be echoed through the halls of our school for a long time to come!

The Skype Call and Future Impact
Although Kyle visited our school in November, I don't think anyone in attendance will soon forget his message. After discovering Skype in the Classroom in May, I thought I would reach out to Joey again to see if Kyle could possibly set up a call with the students in my class. Of course, he found time to talk to my students during our last week of school. He showed us around his kitchen and where he plays video games. Every student who wanted to ask a question, got the chance via Skype. Of ALL the Skype calls we did at the end of the year, many students said Kyle's call was their favorite. 

This year, I have Kyle's picture hanging in my room next to a poster I made. 

Early in the year, many of my students asked me who I was pictured with and who wrote the sign. I briefly explained who Kyle was and I swore to my students that I was the one who made the sign. The students refused to believe me because it was so 'sloppy.' Little did they know that I wrote the message with my elbows - to try to put myself in "Kyle's shoes." It was an activity that all the students last year completed before Kyle's appearance. Many students said it was impossible, but after several tries and a lot of perseverance and encouragement the students also felt successful. More importantly they just had to remember to make NO EXCUSES! It was a great activity and one that I think helped the students relate to Kyle before his appearance. After telling the students this year that I wrote the sign with my elbows, their attitudes changed and they congratulated me on my success! It's funny how perspective can change everything!

The most amazing thing when I think about this story is that Kyle came to our school nearly fourteen months ago. He spoke for a little over an hour altogether and the impact he left is amazing. I still have students from last year talk to me about him and, just today, I had a student email me about Kyle. We still have signs in our school that read "No Excuses!" and we're hoping to get Kyle to come back again next year to speak to a new set of 5th and 6th graders. There are just certain people in this world who have the unique ability to make an amazing impact in such a short time. Kyle is one of those people. He's sincere, appreciative and approachable with a never-say-die attitude. There are numerous life lessons that both adults and students can learn from hearing Kyle's story, therefore....

The Recommendations:
I would recommend sharing Kyle's story with your students - no matter what grade level you teach! Here's a link to his site that includes the video above.

I would recommend sharing Kyle's story with your staff - there are times when we get discouraged, when we want to give up. It's important to remember that we can't give up even when our backs are against the wall!

I would recommend adopting Kyle's mantra of "No Excuses" and even trying the "Writing with Elbows" activity with your students. It's difficult, but great conversation and lessons will come from it!

I would recommend ordering a copy of Kyle's book for your classroom library - It's a great read and any wrestling lover will surely enjoy it! 

Finally, I would recommend looking into having Kyle speak at your school! Here's the information from his website.  Like anything in life, if you hit roadblocks, you may just have to find a creative way around them! 

I'd like to thank Kyle and Joey for what they do everyday to change lives. They are two people on a mission to spread an incredibly uplifting story and an even more important message. On November 15, 2012, they changed over 750 lives at my school - and I'm very thankful that mine was one of them.

Have a great 2014 - Make it the year of No Excuses!