Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Make the Work Worth It

The month of October has been super busy! I apologize to my small but loyal crew of readers for the lack of blog posts. I swear it's not for lack of material at the middle school. It just feels like the past three weeks have flown past us.  First quarter ended this week, and I couldn't believe it.  Where does the time go? I think there's a general consensus among teachers today that time flies all the time.  There are countless articles and blog posts written for teachers and by teachers that bemoan the lack of hours in a day or promote handy dandy ways to maximize the use of time in your classroom.  The graduate students I'm teaching this semester cite time as the biggest roadblock to using student-centered and student-led methods of instruction.  Today I was talking to one of my principals during homeroom, and he said, "It wasn't like this when I started teaching. There just weren't as many things to fit into a teacher's day."  Another teacher chimed in and said that even when she had to handwrite and calculate her whole gradebook, she still worked less hours than she works in 2014.  Crazy, right?

While I haven't been in the classroom long enough to see that many big pendulum swings in policy, I can say I've stayed later and worked more hours this year than I've ever worked, even as a first year teacher.  Part of that is related to changes in curriculum, some of it is related to policies and programs that are newly in place, and most of it has to do with the fact that I'd rather spend my day with students, teaching and learning, than doing administrative tasks like grading and filling out paperwork.  And both of those things have to be done, so there's that.

I looked back at some posts from September of this year and reflected back on frustrated conversations I had at the start of this school year, and I realized that I was not in a good mind space at all.  I was overwhelmed and struggling in a paralyzing, unproductive way.  However, October has felt different.  October has felt like a positive, exciting, optimistic month.  I've seen my students make some pretty awesome connections between pieces of literature, and I've guided them through research writing and analytical writing. I've read some absolutely fantastic narratives, and I even heard a students say, "You know, I really like that Gary Soto" to his mom. I'd say that's an English teacher win for sure!

So if you're a teacher and you're reading this, I just hope you know that you are awesome.  And that the number of responsibilities you are juggling every day is, indeed, ridiculous.  But you know what? You're making it work, and that's the only thing that matters.  Here's to a positive end to the week and to a renewed sense of spirit in the classroom.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I Love Edcamp

Sometimes, I find myself in a teaching slump.  I catch myself slogging through the tedium of giving a test or grading essays or narratives, and I forget how much I love being a teacher because I've zeroed in on just how much I dislike a particular task.  Most of these tasks involve paper-pushing that just has to be done.  If only every teacher had their own secretary to do things like enter grades and alphabetize papers and fill out paperwork, then we'd really get to focus all our energy on our interactions with students.  How great would that be?! 

Anyway, toward the end of last week, I was really starting to feel sorry for myself as I surveyed the ever-multiplying stacks of paper on my desk and the increasingly long to-do list staring me down from next to my computer keyboard.  I left on Friday feeling like I was headed toward a very long Sunday of grading papers. And, to be perfectly honest, that is what I had to do on Sunday.  But before that, Saturday arrived, and I attended my first Edcamp.

Edcamp is an "unconference," meaning that participants set the schedule when they arrive in the morning.  Instead of having presenters who prep beforehand, you get a schedule of events made up of authentic dialogue among teachers about topics that everyone wants to learn more about.  Here's what the schedule ended up looking like at Edcamp Arkansas last Saturday:


While I went to some awesome sessions and got some great new ideas for my classroom.  That wasn't even my favorite part of the day.  The best thing about Edcamp was meeting and talking to pre-service teachers.  Remember like three paragraphs ago, when I said I had let myself get into a slump? Thankfully, these pre-service teachers snapped me out of it.  I had an awesome conversation at lunch with some soon-to-be-teachers about how to move toward a paperless classroom.  We also talked about how to stay positive when there's so many things that teachers are asked to do in a day.  We talked about helping students become writers and not just kids who write because we force them to do so, and we talked about how young educators can create change in their school buildings and impact school culture.  

Ya'll, UCA is putting out some great teachers.  I seriously cannot wait to see what these ladies and gentlemen do when they start teaching in their own classrooms.  They are so excited to work with kids and to make their future schools even more awesome than they already are.  I left Edcamp on Saturday so inspired, and I walked into work on Monday determined to be a positive beacon of light in my classroom.  My mantra this week is "think like a pre-service teacher."  I needed to renew a little bit of my idealistic nature, and Edcamp did that for me.  It's Wednesday now, and I'm happy to say that I'm still smiling and working really hard to be the positive beacon of light that I know I can be.  I'm so thankful for an ever-growing community of educators who challenge me to be my best for kids everyday.  And today I'm especially thankful that I remembered how important it is to maintain the balance of idealism and reality in my classroom.  I can't kill myself trying to be everyone's "yes man," but if I'm going to set the bar high for my students, I need to set it even higher for myself.

Here's to setting the bar high, guys. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reasons I'm Thankful I'm a Teacher

This past week and a half has been a whirlwind.  I've been on the hunt for the ever-elusive sense of balance that I seem to struggle to find in my working life as a teacher.  I find that it's more difficult to enjoy what's happening during instruction in my classroom when I'm thinking about the ten other things that need to be done before the day ends.  However, amidst all the hustle and bustle of the school day, I did stop to reflect today on some moments for which I'm so very thankful.  A school is only as good as the people that work to create it's culture, and I'm very fortunate to work in a school full of fantastic people.

So here's what I'm thankful for this week...

  • I'm thankful for the opportunity to work with an absolutely fantastic co-teacher this year. I look forward to teaching with her every single day.  
  • I'm thankful for a seventh grade team of teachers that works together to make things happen.  I hit the biggest jackpot when it comes to the people I get to spend my workday with each day.
  • I'm thankful for caring, sweet, sympathetic students.  I've been under the weather for the past few days, and I can't even describe to you how perfectly well-behaved and wonderful all my classes have been! 
  • I'm also thankful for students who are full of grit and determination to complete tough tasks.  We're in the middle of a long writing assignment, and my students are knocking it out of the park! I'm beaming with pride right now, guys.
I made a goal this past Sunday to spend this week being more positive about my job.  I found myself feeling terribly negative last week.  It's just so easy to get bogged down in the busy work of teaching and forget for a moment that I'm incredibly fortunate to go to a job that I love every day. Hopefully, if you're taking a moment to read this, you'll find a moment to reflect on the things for which you can be thankful this week, too. I promise it'll give you a happier heart! :)


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tweets from the Secret Annex

Today was a super fun lesson! I've talked before about using Padlet as a discussion forum in my classroom, but today I used it a little bit differently than I've used it in the past.  We're currently reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and we're to the point in our independent reading when students tend to really get bogged down in the monotony of Anne's life in the Secret Annex.  It's totally understandable.  Anne's life is rough for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that she has to be quiet and still most of the day and has to maintain a very rigid schedule.  No matter how many times we discuss this and work to build empathy, students still struggle with this part of the book. 

So today I decided to wake my kids back up and try to rekindle their interest in the text.  We're a little more than halfway through the book, which is when Anne starts to develop a crush on Peter Van Pels. This is normally a winning point for female students, who perk up at the hint of a love story, but it's an even bigger turn off for boys, who are already sick of listening to Anne's feelings and could care less about this love story.

Today, we used Padlet like Twitter for a role play activity.  Instead of having students tweet their own thoughts, I asked them to tweet as either Anne or Peter.  First, we had to choose Twitter handles for each person.  Classes voted to make these decisions. You'll see in the pictures below that one class chose @DiaryLover13 for Anne and @BigPete for Peter while the other class chose @flirtygirl2735 for Anne and @PeteyTweety for Peter.  It was fun to see how the students viewed these two characters and how their perspectives were reflected in the Twitter handles they chose. Then students started tweeting.  The first round of tweets dealt with Anne and Peter's feelings toward each other. The second round of tweets dealt with Anne's feelings toward her family members at this point in the diary.  I haven't seen my students this engaged in Anne's story in several days.  It was so fun to see how they reacted to each other's tweets and really put themselves in the characters' shoes.  Not only did it help them build empathy for the people in the story, it rebuilt their interest in the story as we move forward.  I'll let their "tweets" speak for themselves. If you click on the pictures, they'll get bigger, so you can read their tweets.  Some show higher level thinking than others, but to be perfectly honest, I was just thrilled to have every student totally engaged in class discussion, and I really believe that students walked away from this lesson with a better understanding of the relationships in this book.  Sometimes, it only takes 140 characters to say what needs to be said.  It's a great exercise in brevity.   



This is definitely a lesson I hope to bring back with future texts.  We read several older texts throughout the year, and this activity was the perfect way to bring book characters into the 21st century and make them more relatable to students. Hope you enjoy our "tweets from the Secret Annex"!

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.