Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Happy First Day of School!

Yesterday was the first day of my fourth year of teaching.  On my way to work this morning, I recalled a teacher who worked in my building when I got hired here.  She ran into me in the hall one day during the summer before I started teaching and, in an attempt at encouragement, said, "Oh, you won't know what you're doing until you get through the first three years."  At the time, I remember thinking that this wasn't the most encouraging or comforting thing for someone to say to me as I anxiously prepared for my first First Day of School.  However, looking back on past first days, I'd say every one has gotten a little better and a little more comfortable.

I loved meeting my new students yesterday.  It's always so exciting to see a new group come in, some looking impossibly tired and bewildered, but most looking happy and anxious and timidly excited.  My goal this year is to get to know each one of them well, to take the time to find out what each one is needing out of school, and to try and fill some gap that's there.

Last week at in-service, I found myself feeling so overwhelmed I could have cried.  Education is constantly changing, and I've yet to teach a year in my classroom when we weren't implementing a new curriculum or assessment system or teacher evaluation system.  When I think about all the administrative tasks that have to be completed in a day, I sometimes wonder how to get it all done and still have time to teach! But then I have a day like yesterday, and I remember why I chose this profession.  I chose this job because I thrive on seeing kids walk in the door, excited about a new challenge and a new school year, even if some of them are trying their hardest to look disinterested.

So to all you other teachers out there who may be feeling like me, a little scattered, a little overwhelmed, a little annoyed with all the acronyms you're required to remember in a day, I hope you also had a great first day of school.  I hope you had the kind of First Day that reminded you how much you enjoy the most important part of your job--the part where you get to teach children.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Teaching Isn't Tough, It's the Other Stuff

Recently, I was scrolling through Facebook in a moment of boredom, and I came across this blog post from a Virginia Teacher of the Year named Josh Waldron.  In his post, he outlines his tough decision to leave the classroom and describes how school systems can retain great teachers by doing five things:

  1. Tear Down the Hoops
  2. Have a Plan for the Future
  3. Scrap Obsession with Flawed Assessments
  4. Build a Community that Supports Assessment
  5. Fairly Compensate Educators
You should read it.  As I read through his post, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with his opinions.  I also found myself feeling angry.  Why should this guy have to leave a job he loves?  There's such a big conversation about the shortage of teachers, about what a large percentage of educators leave the field in the first five years.  In my own district, I mentored a first year teacher last school year, and I couldn't help but notice how administrators stressed throughout new teacher orientation that they didn't just want to hire great teachers, they wanted to keep them.  

Here's the thing, Mr. Waldron came up with five ways that districts can retain great teachers.  I can sum it all up into one, easy-to-complete task: 

Treat teachers like professionals.

Teachers who attend a College of Education program like I did spend a lot of time learning how to be a professional. Just like students in a writing program spend a lot of time learning how to be writers, so they can be professional writers when they graduate. Just like students who earn an accounting degree spend a lot of time learning how to become professional accountants. Just like people in every professional field spend a lot of time learning, and continuing to learn their trade, so they can be good at their job.  It's exhausting to be in a field in which people don't seem to trust you to do your job appropriately.  

Instead, they expect people who aren't in a classroom, and probably haven't been in one for a while, to create accountability measures for you.  So instead of focusing on creating great lessons and pouring yourself into teaching, you have to pull your attention away from what matters and focus on compiling artifacts of your teaching, so someone in an office somewhere can see that you are a great teacher, a teacher who is capable of uploading a .pdf file.  I would much rather that person in that office somewhere drive to my school and sit in my classroom and watch my students learn.  That would be a much better measure of my teaching ability because it would be authentic. Isn't that what we're going for in education these days, authentic learning and teaching?  

I hate to rant about this for two reasons. First, I kind of feel like the vast majority of people think teachers who stand up for themselves are being whiny.  They want us to continue to pile on the spinning plates and do our jobs and balance everything and quit complaining.  Second, I do my best every day to be positive about my work.  I love teaching kids. I love that spark of understanding and recognition when new knowledge clicks.  I love getting to know my students as individuals, and I love watching them grow as people and become better versions of themselves.  But like Josh Waldron, I think a lot of teachers eventually start to struggle with the cost-benefit analysis.  Sure you love teaching, but is it worth continuing to take on the increasing amounts of stress that come with the ever-growing set of hoops through which classroom teachers must jump? Right now, my love for teaching has created a pretty high tolerance for all the non-instructional tasks I must complete, but when teachers explain why they can't teach anymore, I get it.

So I say all this mostly because I need to get it off my chest.  It bothers me a lot when I read news articles about great teachers leaving the classroom.  It bothers me even more when I read news articles about politicians who say we need stronger teachers in our classrooms if we're ever going to close the "achievement gap."  I wonder how many of those politicians actually spend time in classrooms and see the magic moments that happen when students respond to great teaching.  I'd be willing to bet that they haven't been watching much teaching lately.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

PARCC Made Me Panic...Then I Got Over It

The children have been out of school for about two weeks now, but my summer is just getting started. This is the first summer since I began teaching that I haven't taught summer school.  I just got so antsy for something new during the spring semester that I decided I would spend the month of June working with grownups instead of children.  It's been interesting.  Since school let out so late this year due to a very snowy and icy winter, there really wasn't even a glimpse of summertime before we started completing professional development to get ready for next year.  Our middle school is going to a more interdisciplinary model next year, and I'm so excited about the literacy connections and cross-curricular teaming we'll be doing next year in seventh grade!  I work with some truly awesome, open-minded educators.  After a day of interdisciplinary productive struggle, our middle school English department met the next day to explore PARCC.

We decided the best way to begin the day was to take a PARCC practice test on the website.  Here's what's funny about my teaching so far. After my first year of teaching, I knew I would have to basically start from scratch in order to implement Common Core.  But after last year, I just knew that this summer would be a breeze!! We'd be able to keep most of the curriculum and materials we created in place! All of our hard work would be so worth it when our English department was lounging by the pool all summer this year! Then, we took a PARCC test.  I know that the purpose of CCSS and PARCC is to increase rigor and prepare students for college, and after taking the test, I definitely think that's what it does.  I also think we're going to see a pretty significant implementation dip in test scores. All I can say it, that test is hard, ya'll. Our students have never written literary analysis essays in seventh grade before because, honestly, who writes literary analysis essays in seventh grade? In many respects, middle school English will essentially become a writing class to prepare students for college and career readiness (and to prepare them not have a panic attack when they take their first PARCC assessment).

After my initial panic subsided regarding how I will shepherd my students toward a mind space where they can all not only identify tone in two poems but also write a coherent essay comparing the tone of the two poems and explaining how figurative language contributes to the tone, I took a deep breath and decided that, ultimately, it's all going to be alright.  I really do believe that my students need to know how to write an analytical essay.  They need to be critical thinkers and writers.  They need to be able to analyze literature and argument and research in order to succeed in a college classroom and in life.  Ok, maybe they won't need to analyze literature to succeed in life, but they'll definitely have to be able to do it to pass freshman lit class.  I'm always up for a new challenge, and this, apparently, is my new challenge.

The thing that inspired me most during this somewhat stressful two days of planning for PARCC was the fact that no one on my team really freaked out.  Sure, we all got a little stressed and questioned how this increased academic rigor would play out in our classrooms.  How will analytical writing look in SPED classes? inclusion classes? Pre-AP?  How can we scaffold this skill for students who are struggling to write a paragraph? what about students who struggle to write a complete sentence?  These are all valid questions and we're still trying to figure out the answers.  But what I love so much about the awesome ladies I work with is that no one threw up her hands and said, "This is impossible! My students could never do this! This test is too hard!"  Instead, everyone took a "how can we make this work attitude."  I think that says a lot about our school culture and the high expectations we hold for the kids we teach.

So I am telling you the story of how we panicked, got over it, and got to work for two reasons.  First, because if you are a teacher, I encourage you to take a PARCC test, no matter what content area you teach.  It's going to take a unified, whole-school approach for students to succeed.  Second, I hope you'll learn from our stress, skip that part, and go straight to the part where you figure out how to make this work for your students.  Even though it seems overwhelming, these are necessary skills, and I know that if students receive quality instruction in these skills beginning in middle school, they will be more prepared for college.

Finally, I hope your summer is off to a fantastic start!  Hopefully, I'll be basking in the glow of summer break soon, too.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Teaching "The Pedestrian" and the Art of Unplugging

Today marks our last week of school, and I got to spend last week teaching one of my favorite short stories, Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian." If you've never read the story, here's a link to it. It's the story about a guy named Leonard who still goes on walks, even though the rest of the world is addicted to television and can't leave home. I think this story holds great significance for the students that I'm teaching now.  When I teach this story, I allow students to read it on their own first and draw their own conclusions about what's going on in Leonard's world.  Then, I show them this animated version of the story on Vimeo. The story is a great way to teach foreshadowing and has a lot of suspense, but students who struggle with comprehension find the video really helpful in decoding the story.

Next, I ask students to raise their hands if they can think of a way that this story, written in 1951, can apply to life today.  Every hand in the room goes up.  Today's students are very aware that the world is addicted to technology. After reading this story, I had my accelerated classes read this CNN Tech article about embeddable technology. It's a great modern-day connection and makes Bradbury's story (and his fears about technology) seem applicable in today's world.  Many of them noted that, while Bradbury set "The Pedestrian" in 2053,  the technology addiction he was warning against is very much a problem in 2014.  Many of them wrote about the negative side effects of technology, including the changing landscape of socialization that we're all experiencing.  Seriously, who ever thought that families would have to develop a "cell phone policy" for the dinner table?

While my accelerated classes focused on debating the ever-present threat of being taken over by technology, I chose to focus on creating narrative with the rest of my students.  We debated and discussed the same themes and issues in "The Pedestrian," and I asked my students to write the story of the "21st Century Pedestrian." Here's what one student wrote on his class blog:

The year is 2115; the government doesn’t matter anymore. There are no crimes or wars for them to deal with. Nothing is the same. No street lights are on. The city below is dark, broken, and dirty. After the cars started hovering, no one was on the ground. They are all up there; I see them, forgetting about the worries of life, especially after the phones got smart enough to control everything. Humans have no control, no say in what they will do today; the machines do everything for us. They have tried to make me a slave to the technology, but I know better.
We have lived in a world where we rely on a phone to remind us to say hi to our grandma and not to forget milk when we're shopping. No one ever thought that we wouldn’t have control over a piece of plastic with wires, but this is life. If only we had taken the time to set our phones down, go for a walk, and talk to a stranger, maybe it would be different.
There are few like me. The ones that refused the technology, or maybe they just couldn’t afford it. After they took over, they basically built a whole new world, burying the old one in dust and scrap parts. Very little lives on the ground. Most are up there, with there heads in the clouds. They're like zombies, glued to the screens of light, no one exercising. They're all fat and unhealthy, like the being lifted out of bed by a mini crane fat…yeah.
Tokyo and China were the first to go, then the U.S. Africa is fine; no technology there to rule. We have no control over our world. We saw this coming, and we ignored it. Now there is no going back.  This is the end...or is it...

If you think about it, this student is probably not that far off track.  How many times in the past week have you had a face-to-face conversation with someone while staring at your phone at the same time?  I know I'm guilty. This week, as we wind down the last few days of school, I'm going to take some time for a little face-to-face, "old school" interaction.  I'll be sad to see this group of students leave our middle school, and I need to soak up these last few days for the wonderful time that they can be.  Happy almost-Summer, everyone!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Teaching My Student Bloggers

I've been really struggling to write recently.  The year is winding down.  I'm tired. My students are tired.  We're all ready for summer break to hurry up and get here already.  This slow march toward the last day of school is compounded this year by the addition of five snow days to the end of our school calendar, making everyone even more antsy than they might otherwise be at this time of year.

Even though I'm counting down to summer right along with the children, one thing I have really enjoyed about this last nine weeks is blogging.  After giving Google Drive a try with two of my six classes when we returned from Christmas break, I decided that after Spring Break I was going to try using Kidblog for my students' journaling in the other four classes I teach. Instead of grouping students into blogging groups by class period, I split up all one hundred-ish students into two blogging groups of fifty or so students each.  This gave them an opportunity to enjoy an expanded audience and to read writing from peers of all different ability levels.

From the first day I introduced Kidblog, I saw a huge difference in the engagement of my students, especially my reluctant writers.  I've learned that some of my students struggle with writing simply because they haven't developed all the necessary motor skills over time.  Writing with a pencil in literally a painful experience for them.  Typing, however, removes this burden and allows these writers to truly express themselves.  Others struggled because I was their only audience, and that gets old after awhile.  I raised the stakes when I told my students that they were becoming "published Internet bloggers."  This meant that their peers would be reading their work, and that meant it needed to be worth reading.  Finally, the simple novelty of knowing they were writing on an iPad or personal device rather than in a notebook seemed to intrigue my students.

Over the past quarter, I've seen a definite improvement in the depth and breadth of writing that my students are composing. I recently had my summative evaluation for the year, and I told my principal that one area of teaching that I've worked hard to improve since the start of my career is my writing instruction.  Everyone's writing process is different.  Yes, there's the general process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing, but not everyone follows the same process successfully. I feel like this year I've hit a much better stride in my writing instruction, and I've seen a noticeable change in the way my students came to me as writers and in the way they are leaving me as editors and authors of their own work and the work of their peers.  I truly believe that a major part of that improvement has been the implementation of technology in the writing process.  It's much easier to workshop with students and check in regularly when I can access their work anywhere, from my phone or iPad. It's been a really cool experience that I've enjoyed immensely.

So, yes, I'm ready for my sweet seventh graders to be eighth graders. I'm also so incredibly proud of the way I've seen them grow intellectually this year, and I'm confident in the fact that they're leaving me as better learners.  And that thought is just the positive, happy realization I need to get through the next two weeks!

Happy Monday!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How to Really Appreciate Teachers

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. Even though I am a teacher, I tend to spend this week reflecting on how much I appreciate my teachers, both past and present, rather than spending my time thinking about how I should be appreciated more often.  To be totally honest, if I spent my time thinking about how I needed to be more appreciated by my former and current students, I'd probably think myself into another profession. Above all else, teaching is a service profession. I didn't choose my job because I looked forward to lots of perks and incentives; I chose it because I wanted to make the world a better place, as cliche as that may sound.  Anyway, enough of that little rant...

I want to take a moment this week to thank my teachers and let them know that they are the many reasons that I love school enough to want to spend all my adult working days in a school building. In first grade my mother took this picture of me in Mrs. Buckley's classroom. I'm sure she had no idea at the time that I'd grow up to write on a chalkboard everyday. 

Mrs. Buckley loved all her students.  I'll never forget when she attended my birthday party that year.  I still have the sterling silver jewelry box she gave my as a birthday gift.  There are two significant things about this story. The first is that I adored my teacher enough to want to invite her to my birthday party.  The second is that she showed up.  Mrs. Buckley truly loved her students, whether they were in her classroom or not, and that can do more for a student than any amount of content or pedagogical knowledge.

In middle school, Mrs. Boone was my sixth grade teacher.  She taught social studies in a way that made world history come to life.  We created our own mummies and turned our classroom into an Egyptian tomb. Mrs. Halley was my seventh and eighth grade English teacher.  She taught me how to write my first research paper and introduced me to How to Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, and The Diary of Anne Frank. These two women taught me what it is to love your content area so much that you can't help but breathe life into it as you share it with students.  Their vibrant enthusiasm filled up their classrooms every single day. As a teacher now, I realize how exhausting that can be, that conscious decision to fill each day in your classroom with excitement. I appreciate them more now than I probably ever did in middle school. 

In high school, my teachers taught me that being an expert in your content area is important, but building relationships with your students is what really hooks them on learning.  Coach McCullough, thank you for introducing me to Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Janie will always be one of my favorite characters.  Thank you even more for having a Risky Business cardboard cutout of Tom Cruise in your classroom and for being so funny and approachable.  Sometimes, the most important quality a teacher can have is a smile that lights up a room. Thank you, Charlotte Miller, for teaching me how to write.  You made my life very difficult sophomore year of high school, but you also made my life in college much easier.  Thank you, Dr. Fontaine, for making me a better human being and teaching me history in the process.  You are the only teacher that I have shed a tear for as we parted ways.  You can never truly know the impact you had on my life. Thank you, Father Fred, for teaching me physics and giving me LOTS of extra credit opportunities to supplement my lacking scientific thinking skills, but more importantly, thank you for your booming laughter heard all through the halls of my high school.

Now, I work in a wonderful middle school, full of teachers who are dedicated to their students and their profession.  Thank you to my colleagues, who listen to me vent on frustrating days and listen to me celebrate when things go well.  Thank you all for sharing your practice with me and for pushing me, whether you realize it or not, to be better at my job each day.  I am so fortunate to work in a place with such a positive school culture, a place where everyone is constantly raising the bar.

This week, please take a moment to really thank a teacher.  Don't buy him or her a gift card to Starbucks or a box of donuts, although those things would surely be appreciated.  Instead, take the time to find a teacher who changed things for you or put you on a path in life or made you work harder than you thought you could, and tell that person thank you.  That will mean more than anything else possibly could. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

That Moment When You Know Your Lesson was a Win

This week, we started an interdisciplinary unit that our literacy team developed with the 7th grade science team.  Our students read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, one of my favorites! In English class, we get to focus on elements of writing, like tone, mood, style, and syntax.  Because science helps us out by doing a lot of in-class reading, we're really able to dig in to the text and do some close reading and analysis.  In science, students study the solar system and discuss the ways that science fiction bends the rules of true scientific fact.  Overall, I think the kids really enjoy this unit, and it's definitely one of the teaching highlights of my year.

Yesterday, my lesson focused on descriptive language.  We began the lesson by looking at a passage from a new book I'm reading, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender Here's the passage:

After analyzing this passage together and discussing the use of sensory imagery to create a full experience for the reader, students used a QR Code to access a Padlet wall, where they posted pictures of descriptive passages from chapter 3 of A Wrinkle in Time. We used the Padlet wall examples to discuss the various ways that authors use language to create imagery.  Finally, my students used theses model passages to write their own descriptive paragraphs.  They could write about anything they wanted, real or imagined.  The only direction I gave them was to be descriptive without using "fluffy" language or using too many words.  Below are some of the passages they wrote:

The corner of Maple Street was alive with fragrances.  Kids would congregate outside to see who would get the treats.  When the door opened, the heavy fragrances of fresh flour and strawberry icing and the vivid clinks of the cash register polluted the air. Kids were bribing their parents for one more scrumptious treat that made their mouths water.  The sound of the unfolding of brightly decorated candy wrappers was heard by all ages.  Through the glass, you could see the heat of the freshly made dessert all waiting for the kids.

The alley is a great place to get hurt.  Rats eating out of the trash; fire in barrels. Homeless people hug the wall for comfort. Gangs looking for trouble and store owners ready for anything. Trash litters the alley floor, leaving only an unhealthy habitat. 

Serene and beautiful, calm and quiet.  The woods call, as the wind talks to the slightly swaying trees. A babbling brook teaming with life, gently sounds as it flows over the rocks. You can smell the flowers from the not-so-far away meadow.  They smell sour and sweet. The colony of bees buzzes, for the honey is sweet, but the journey is treacherous. The shapes of fish blocked by the fading shadows of the weeping willows, a place tucked inside a land dotted by river bends.

The dusty baseball field is old. The bases are worn and battered from all the sliding.  The spotlights are cracked and losing their light. Three bats, all dented, lay against a rusty metal fence. The lights shut off as the sun sets after a long day at the ballpark. 

In the afternoons, I go to a place of peace and quiet.  It is a place with two softhearted people who love to help search for requests.  It's a place with the smell of wood and paper, and a hint of coconut pie.  When I look around, I see people sitting in bean bags, enjoying themselves.  I see people touching the smooth texture of words.  I sometimes hear people whispering to themselves, or the bubbling of the fish tank filled with goldfish swimming while their fins glitter in the light.  The place I go to is the amazing library. 

As she stood on the ledge, she could feel the cold steel of her foot blade pressing up against the bottom of her smooth baby soft skin.  She could smell the polluted air of the big city.  She could hear the planes soaring high in the jet streams, and the task force rushing up the stairs ready to fire the 300 degree metal shells into her cold, weak body.  Blood dripping slowly from her wounds.  Slowly she leans forward and dives, the wind rushing over her, and the dark shirt she got on a  warm Christmas morning flapping in the wind. Then, right before she hits the ground, she wakes up in her safe bed. 

What I love about each of these paragraphs is that they're so different.  You can see a little slice of each student's personality in the way that they craft their writing.  What I loved about this lesson was that each student was totally engaged in the process.  They worked hard to search for strong examples of description because they wanted to post the best pictures on the board.  They took their time and revised their writing because they wanted to make it on my blog.  In this case, technology wasn't the center of the lesson; beautifully crafted writing was.  Instead the technology served to create an authentic audience in each step of the lesson, and that's just the way it should be.