Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Teaching: It's Just Like Driving a Car

We've officially made it to September! It's starting to feel a little less like summer, and everyone is getting into their school year routines.  We've already started our first class novel in English, The Diary of Anne Frank.  Things are really just moving right along!

One fun, new thing that I'm doing this semester is working with a group of graduate students who are in a Models of Teaching course.  I really love this course because it's so practical for pre-service teachers. It helps them build an instructional toolkit that they can take into their future classrooms, so they don't rely on the old "stand and deliver" lecture methods that are traditionally used to convey information in secondary classrooms.  One of my favorite models of instruction is the Synectic Model of comparison.  I love this model because it really stretches learners to think beyond their initial ideas about a particular concept, so they end up coming to completely new, and often deeper, understandings.

I used the Synectic Model with these grad students last Monday, beginning with the idea of "teaching." We started by making a list of words or phrases that the group might use to describe the act of teaching.  In true pre-service teacher style, they said words like reflective, rewarding, and wonderful. I, having driven to our meeting straight from the middle school, threw in words like stressful and overwhelming. It's interesting how one's perspective changes with time...

Anyway, after brainstorming a solid list, I asked them to think of a plant that could be described with the same words and phrases.  They settled on a squash, saying that a squash is stressed during the growing process as it gets bigger and becomes overwhelmed as more and more plants grow on the vine.  It is also rewarding to grow a squash plant from a tiny seed, and it provides wonderful food.  So hopefully you're seeing that these students were really stretching to make every word fit our new analogy.  We continued through our series of analogies until we came back to our original idea of "teaching." In our final analogy, I asked the group to explain to me how teaching was like a car.

At first, they all looked at me like I was crazy.  But after a few seconds of think time, they started to come up with some awesome metaphors:

  • Teaching, like being in a car, requires a person in the driver's seat; someone to take control the minute class starts.  
  • Just like many cars have a GPS system to provide a road map, teachers must have a lesson plan to provide a road map for the class period and a bigger plan for the whole course.
  • Cars require regular maintenance, much like students require formative assessment, so everyone can stay on track.
  • There are all different kinds of cars, just like there are all different kinds of students.  
  • You have to make sure everyone is following the "traffic laws," or the rules, and going the right direction.
This activity made my heart so happy! It's so easy in the middle of a long day of teaching to forget all the wonderful, optimistic thoughts we had about teaching before we entered our classroom and got in the driver's seat.  This activity was such a heartwarming reminder about why I adore what I do each day.  It was also fantastically encouraging to hear these grad students talk about teaching this way.  To be fair, we've all got to be just a little idealistic to enter the classroom and want to stay there.  We teach because we want to make the world just a little bit better each day. So this week, I'm going to carry on with this analogy and work to drive my classroom in the right direction.  Here goes nothing...

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.