Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sharing Comfort

Since my mind is so scattered right now with the overload of grading a million things and finishing out the semester, I think it's best to share student writing instead of trying to wrangle my thoughts into submission.  I promise you'll thank me for this.

I have a student who asked me last week if she could share something she wrote with our class. This student is very quiet and rarely talks in class. However, we bonded early in the year over our shared love of Harry Potter and Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. I was surprised when she asked to share in front of the whole class but excited that she was willing to put herself out there.  For a writer to share her work can be a stressful thing.  Here's what she read to us...

A lone girl walked along the shoreline humming and old tune. She stopped in the middle of the shoreline, holding her head high. To anyone else the girl would seem quite alone, but the girl savored the feeling of being by herself for it gave the beach an air of calmness. She looked out at the water watching the waves come in, seeing the white foam of the ocean as it hit the rocks littered among the edge of the beach. The girl looked out, but she could only see ocean for as far as the eyes could see. Sighing, she closed her eyes, breathing in the salty breeze of the ocean. She wiggled her bare toes in the warm, soft sand, then moved closer to the shoreline so she could feel he water lap at her toes and the mushy , wet sand squish beneath her feet. The girl listened to the sound of the waves, but they sounded neither loud nor what most would call quiet. Yet it was soft and gentle like the soothing whisper of a mother to her child. The girl whispered to the wind and the ocean, telling them to wait; that she just wanted to stay a bit longer. 

She opened her mouth and breathed in, tasting the ocean on her tongue. The wind whipped at her hair, but it felt to her as if someone was brushing her hair. She breathed to the wind the words "This must be what it feels like to be alive," for at the time she had never felt more alive. The girl wiggled her toes in the sand and moved her hands in a dance through the air. "Yes," she said, "this is what it feels like." She opened her eyes ad said to the sky in a small yet strong voice, "I'm ready to go now." Then she closed her eyes and felt a peaceful feeling course through her, and she smiled. 

In a hospital room, somewhere in the world, sat three brothers who all were huddled around the bed of their mother. One brother, the eldest, held his mother's hand, feeling as it slowly turned cold. The youngest brother brushed his fingers through her mother's hair, colored silver with age. Last, the middle brother kissed the cold cheek of his mother, feeling the upturned corner of her mouth. 

The brothers did not cry for their mother nor did they frown. They looked quite the opposite actually. The brothers all held smiles on their faces as they looked at their mother, who had passed on with a smile on her face. The fact that their mother was happy in death made them smile, but what calmed them , though it was unexplained, was how the dull hospital room was filled with the smell of a calming ocean breeze. 

The holidays can be a difficult time for those who have experienced the loss of a family member.  As I heard this shared with my class, I couldn't help but think of the many people I know who will be missing someone dear this season.  I also got just real excited about the imagery she chose to express herself. What a beautiful way to look at the cycle of life. I hope you'll share this writing with someone you know who may find it comforting.  Take a minute this week to slow down and smell the ocean breeze.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Don't Let Acronyms Steal Your Joy

It's been almost a month since the last time I've had a chance to sit still and write.  As I know I've said in previous posts, this year of teaching has definitely been my most busy.  I'm not complaining; this level of busy-ness is of my own doing.  My seventh grade English class has essentially become a writing class.  This has created more work in the form of reading and editing and revising various pieces of writing almost constantly with students, but that's something about which I'm very excited and proud.  When I completed my first year of teaching, I felt like my biggest deficiency was in teaching my students how to write.  I love to write, and I always have, but I couldn't seem to articulate to students how to carry out the writing process in the most effective way.  After much professional reading and personal reflection, I came to the understanding that everyone's writing process is unique and personal. I can provide the general steps, but the best way for me to teach my students to write is to model my love for writing and my life as a writer.  I blog with them. I write analytical essays with them. And most importantly, I conference with them.  This has become much more convenient with the use of Google Drive and Kidblog, and it's been the biggest and most beneficial change in my writing workshop. Now, I can be right next to a student in his or her struggle to write.  It's awesome, and I've seen a huge difference in the depth of analysis and thought in my students' writing. 

It's also incredibly time consuming.  Hence, I am writing a lot of stuff on Kidblog and with my students, but I've not had the most time to write any Wisdom from the Middle. 

Now that I've provided that very lengthy introduction, I have a confession to make. A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the AMLE conference in Nashville, and while I was there I had the opportunity to reflect on my school year so far. In those moments of reflection away from the children, I realized that this year I have caved to the pressure of curriculum and testing in a big way.  As I sat listening to keynote speakers and presenters discuss the importance of relationships and rapport at the middle level, I couldn't help but think of all the times I've been too busy to talk with a student in between classes this year or the times that I really needed two days for a lesson, but the pacing guide only allowed me the one day. Sitting in an incredibly cold conference room at AMLE, I resolved to take a metaphorical chill pill when it comes to PARCC and CCSS and every other acronym that is attempting to steal my love for teaching and my positive attitude and my desire to genuinely make the world a better place for my students.

As sad as it is to admit, it's pretty easy to let the everyday requirements of teaching get you down.  You know what I realized? Test scores don't bring back my joy.  Smiling kids who are excited to come in my classroom and write in their blogs and share their stories with me are what bring me joy every. single. day. Kids who check Harry Potter out of my classroom library and exhibit the same excitement that I did as a kid bring me joy every day. And you know what? If kids feel safe and valued in the classroom, if they feel like it's a safe place to make mistakes and grow and become better readers and writers, they're going to do just fine on whatever test the state decides they have to take.  The most important thing I can do as a teacher is show kids that they matter, and in middle school, a time when you start to question who you are or doubt your worth, showing kids that their ideas and their work matter is probably the most important lesson I can impart.

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...