Thursday, April 30, 2015

Stirring Up Fresh Life, Endlessly

We completed PARCC testing today. Before we started the test yesterday, a student asked me, "Ms. Herring, does the PARCC test help me get into anything?" I asked him what he meant, and he said, "like, will this help me get into 8th grade? or high school? or college?" I said that his performance on this test would not, in fact, get him into or out of anything. However, his performance would potentially be a reflection on my teaching ability, so I would appreciate it if he would just try his very hardest to do his best. He smiled and said he would do that for me.

After the test, I was flipping through a copy of Madeleine L'engle's A Wrinkle in Time that was sitting on my desk. We just finished reading the novel earlier this week before testing began. As I flipped through the back of the novel, I noticed that her 1963 Newberry Award acceptance speech was printed after the last chapter.  I had never read it before, so I stopped to read those few pages. You can read the full text here. As I was reading, this particular passage really stuck out to me:

Because of the very nature of the world as it is today, our children receive in school a heavy load of scientific and analytic subjects, so it is in their reading for fun, for pleasure, that they must be guided into creativity. These are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe that we can help our children avoid by providing them with "explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly."

Guys, she wrote this in 1963. I read that, and I couldn't help but think about the fact that I had just administered a test which is both standardized and regimented. So much of education does give the appearance, as L'engle suggests, of making "muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin." But that's not why I became a teacher. I became a teacher because I wanted to engage students in a true, in-depth look at who they want to be as unique and awesome human beings. I became a teacher because I want to provide students with that explosive material that will stir up real life and stir up imagined worlds that they can create in their own minds and stir up all the infinite possibilities that lie ahead of them if they only manage to hold on to their creativity in a world of education that sometimes seems to just value filling in the blank.

I want my students to be so excited to walk into my classroom. I want them to know that it's cool to make mistakes because that's what leads to innovation. I don't want to contribute to "the drying, dissipating universe." I mean, yikes! That's some strong language. I wonder what Madeleine L'engle would think about today's educational landscape. There are so many amazing teachers encouraging their students to be change-makers and inventors and writers. However, for every teacher who is doing everything they can to ignite creativity and a passion for learning, it feels like there is also a politician who is trying to steal autonomy and creativity away from teachers. I don't have any of the answers. All I know if that I'm on Team L'engle. I want to create little sparks of excitement for learning every. single. day.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Differences Make Us Stronger

In this year's study of A Wrinkle in Time, I've decided to really focus on characterization. I love all the characters in this fantastic book, but my favorite character is definitely Meg Murry. I love how awkward and unsure of herself she is because I feel like so many of my seventh graders can relate to her. Meg sees herself as a "biological mistake," but without her perceived weaknesses, she would never be able to find her strength and save the day at the end of the book.

Before having students analyze the characters in the book this week, I asked them to analyze themselves. I told them not to give me the first answer that came to mind or the answer that they thought I wanted to hear. I reminded them that we don't just read books for the sake of reading; we read books to get to know ourselves better and to make us better, more informed human beings. I was amazed at how many of my students really listened and took what I said to heart. Most of my students throughout the day sat and really, truly thought about their personal traits. It was so interesting to me how many of my students stared blankly at their papers, struggling to decide on a personal trait, maybe even a personal "weakness" that could make them stronger.

Here are some of my favorite answers...

Everyone knows that I'm a shy, isolated person. But sometimes I can use it to my advantage. No, the shyness doesn't give me strength, but choosing to isolate myself does. It allows me to think about the good and bad things that have happened each day and what I could have done or said. That helps me with tomorrow because I will push myself into being a better person tomorrow. 
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I think one special trait that has helped me in life is that I'm weird. A good weird. I'm like a mix of every personality balled up into one human. I'm sporty; I'm outgoing, but I'm also shy. I like to look nice, but not too fancy. I have many friends, but not enough to make me "popular." It has given me strength because it allows me to be friends with all kinds of people, and it's easy to work with many people. I use this quality every day. 
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To me, the ability to be imaginative is a very important part of my personality because my imagination has a very big effect on how I go about life. My imagination allows me to be open-minded to new ideas in life, but does not affect my stubbornness in other things like my loyalty to my friends. Imagination is also what fuels my love for writing, art, reading, and music, among other things. But above all these things, imagination is what fuels my ability to believe and to add life to my stories. 
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One special trait that has helped me through life is that I don't care what people say I can't do. It has given me strength because even though people say I can't do something, it just makes me want to do that thing even more. I use this trait everyday and always. Our differences make us stronger because we are unique in our own way. 
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The one thing about me that makes me unique is my creativeness. The inside of my head is an entire city of things and characters. Everyday my creativeness and imagination will forge a new thought from the fires of my spinal cord, and the forge masters of my brain. Some days, I brings them to life, whether on paper, or by Legos and video games. My creativity is my best friend and my only escape. 

What I loved the most about this assignment was that I feel like I rediscovered some of my students. As we muddle through "testing season" at school, it's easy to feel overloaded with clerical tasks and test prep and altered daily schedules. This assignment was like a breath of fresh air. It was so delightful to see my students open this door into their personalities for me. Their differences definitely make them stronger, and knowing what they value in themselves encourages me to be a stronger teacher, the kind of teacher that values their individuality and fosters their strengths everyday.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Serenity Prayer for Teachers

One year for Christmas, when I was in college, my mom got me a little silver plaque with the Serenity Prayer engraved on it. She's always known that I like to be in control, and apparently she knew much better than I did that I needed a constant reminder that I don't always get to make the decisions. When I first started teaching, that little Serenity Prayer plaque was the first thing I set up on my very first teacher desk. It's been on my desk at work, in basically the same place, ever since then. Honestly, there are many days when I forget that it's there at all. But lately, I've found myself repeating that little prayer in my head throughout the day.

If you've every read any post I have ever written before, you may have a sense that I am a girl who likes to be in control of things. I like order and focus and a clear plan of action. However, I have been reminded in so many ways over the past month or so that I simply can't have all those things all the time. Our English team at the middle school has been doing a book study on Deliberate Optimism by Debbie Silver, Jack Berckemeyer, and Judith Baenen since January and today in our discussion I was reminded all over again that I may not always get to make the choices, but I definitely get to choose how I live with them. In honor of my fellow teachers, I would like to recommit myself today to being more deliberately optimistic. We may not get to make all the choices, and we may sometimes feel like we're under attack with all the choices that are being made for us. I'm not saying we need to just lay down and take that. I'm simply saying that there are adult-centered mindsets and then there are student-centered mindsets, and we have to remember why we choose to get up and walk into our classrooms each and every day. 

So here's the Serenity Prayer I've been saying recently:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...
  • I can't change the fact that I have to give a state mandated standardized test that takes away from instructional time.
  • I can't change the fact that this legislative session has felt like an attack on my professionalism.
  • I can't change the fact that there are more administrative tasks to be done in my classroom than hours in a day.
Courage to change the things I can...
  • I can change my attitude toward tasks I'd rather not complete.
  • I can change my emotional reaction to things beyond my control.
  • I can change my approach to each day by choosing to focus on the positive.
And wisdom to know the difference...

This is the real struggle. I find that it's in my nature to want to fix things that aren't working. However, there are moments when we just have to realize that, while parts of the system are struggling, there are some really awesome bright spots in education. There are fantastic educators making amazing, student-centered choices everyday in public education, and I want to be one of those people. I want to keep making lemonade out of my lemons. I had a very awesome, very student-centered principal who used to start every morning by reminding the students and teachers to "Make it a great day or not; the choice is yours." I've been so conscious of that choice lately. I hope I can find the serenity to always make the right ones. 


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Busy Doesn't Equal "Not Bored"

I have really been struggling to find my voice over the past couple of weeks. The month of March has been ridiculously busy so far. I spent the first week of March trying to recuperate from snow days and triage my lesson plans and pacing guide after missing seven school days in three weeks. Then I spent the second week of March at SXSWedu in Austin experiencing so many fantastic panels and sessions and meeting so many wonderful people in the ed tech landscape. Now, I'm spending the third week of March PARCC testing my students and scrambling to get grades posted for report cards, so that I can enjoy spring break during the fourth week of March. And just like that, the month of March is gone.

Each time I've had a moment to breathe in the past two or three weeks, I've opened my laptop to blog, and nothing productive has come out of my brain. I've deleted several drafts after reading them and feeling like there was nothing there that I really wanted to say. It's been so frustrating to have so many thoughts in my brain and feel like I can't really articulate them in any kind of cohesive way.

However, for the past week I have had the same quote ringing through my brain, and it won't go away. One of the keynote speakers at SXSWedu this year was Emily Pilloton, the founder and director of Project H. During her presentation about empowering kids through design, she said, "No one has any reason, in the entire world, to be bored. There are so many things that need to be done." Dang.

Now, I know this statement to be true. I preach it to my students every day. I have this Louis CK poster in my room to remind my students every day that they literally have zero reasons to be bored every day.
But here's the thing. I think sometimes we confuse being busy with being "not bored." And I think that is something that I do constantly. I love teaching kids, and I work in a vibrant, exciting school culture. I am constantly saying yes to any opportunity that comes my way because I don't want to miss out on anything that could make me a better, stronger, wiser version of my teaching self. I'm more busy than I probably need to be. Over this past year, I feel like I've written several posts about feeling overwhelmed, yet I just keep adding things to my life plate. Maybe it's not about being busy. Maybe it's about finding the thing that really, really needs to be done and working hard to make it happen. 

As a teacher, I sometimes feel like I'm spinning my wheels and struggling to fit in all the required things that need to be accomplished in a class period and in an instructional day. I think sometimes just the monotony of that kind of rote busyness can be exhausting. Last week in Austin, I presented on a panel with three other educators about the importance of hacking professional development and allowing time for teachers to explore more passion-based professional learning. I know after coming back from Austin, I feel so incredibly excited to innovate in new ways in my classroom instruction, and I don't want to let that excitement wane as I "actively monitor" during PARCC testing this week.  I want to model for my students that it's not ok to say "I'm bored." There are so many things that need to be done. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Searching for the Answer

In the past two weeks, the state of Arkansas has been experiencing its annual snow-pocalypse, which basically means we don't go to school if there is a threat of snow or ice. While this has given me plenty of much needed work time, I am now out of projects that I want to complete and very ready to get back to work in my classroom. Last week, we were out for winter weather Monday through Wednesday, and Thursday when we returned I taught a research lesson to my students. My students have been researching small things all year, but I felt like we needed a quick refresher before we started a more involved research unit that will end in an argumentative writing project.

I began the lesson by giving students a search scenario. I told them I wanted to find a video online. In particular, because I have had a tough day, I would like to find a video of a kitten playing with a baby turtle. Then, I asked them this question: If I type the word "kitten" into the search bar on Google, how many response do you think I will get?

I got an impressively broad range of guesses. Some guessed as low and six or twelve results. Others guessed as high as 2 million or 5 billion. The actual answer is 52.8 million results. We googled it together in class. Obviously, none of the top results in our search for kittens fulfilled my initial desire to find a video of a cute kitten playing with a baby turtle. Students predicted that this would be the case, and this led to a discussion on narrowing and focusing search terms to reduce the number of results. As students helped me brainstorm better search terms, I typed them in on Google each time, and the students were amazed at how different search terms made the number of results jump around. Essentially my goal was to guide my students to the conclusion that ineffective search terms waste time. We have this vast resource at our fingertips, but we have to know how to use it effectively and responsibly.

After this little introduction, students worked through a research review presentation on their iPads to review the parts of the search results page and how to choose the best result to find the information they want. Making this student-led instead of teacher-led really gave students the time they needed to think about the information and answer their own questions about internet searching. It was a very effective and enjoyable way to spend our very short two-day week at school.

Hopefully, my students took away stronger searching skills from this lesson. My takeaway from this lesson was that people are incredibly incorrect when they say that our students are "digital natives." Sure, the kids I teach now have never known life without mobile devices, but they weren't born knowing how to choose the best emoji. When I asked students how many search results we would get for the "kittens" search, I was amazed that any student would guess below the hundreds of thousands. However, I shouldn't have been. Our students have such a varied range of experiences with online content. Some spend their lives online while others could care less about their digital presence. Even within that section of kids who are glued to their phones, knowing how to post a picture on Instagram doesn't equal knowing how to use the Internet for academic purposes or even knowing how to determine whether that Instagram post is appropriate or not. My job as a teacher has changed dramatically, even in the four years I've been doing this. Not only do I need to be teaching my students how to make sense of what they find online, but I also need to be teaching them awareness of what they create.

It was good to go back and do this little refresher. It reminded me that I've got a big job to do. Now that our three snow days for this week have come to a close, hopefully I can get back to work tomorrow with it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Taking an English Walk

Yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to go on an "English walk" around our district's secondary campuses.  Our secondary literacy specialist, Mrs. Pinkerton, worked with the secondary principals to set up various days throughout the second semester for all English teachers to have the chance to visit each other's classrooms and get a glimpse into how we all do our jobs. One of the things I miss most about being a new teacher is the required observations of other teachers in our building and district. We can learn so much from each other, and yet watching others in practice is one of the things we make the least time to do.

I started my day at our junior high. I visited six teachers, and I was so amazed by the ubiquity of technology in their classrooms. Each classroom was 1:1 and the routines these teachers set in their classrooms made the use of devices seem as common as the use of paper and pencils. All the classes I visited were at some point in the writing process, which is what our students were doing in seventh grade last week. It was so refreshing to gain new perspective on how others are teaching writing. It's one thing to browse social media and the internet for bright, new ideas; it's another thing completely to be able to see it in action in a classroom.

One of my favorite things to do when I walk into a new classroom is to find the teacher's expectations. At the junior high, there was one set of expectations that I especially loved, first for its succinct nature and second for the alliteration. I can't help myself. I'm an English teacher. Her expectations were

Always Be...
  • Prompt
  • Prepared
  • Productive
  • Polite
  • Patient
How perfect are those?! If students live up to these expectations each day, it's going to be a great school year. What was even more awesome was seeing her students follow through on these expectations and participate productively and patiently in the lesson, even when the server was moving slowly and their devices weren't cooperating as they may have wanted.  In another classroom, I noticed that each class had signed its own "responsible use" poster, using resources from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/. These class contracts were proudly displayed on a bulletin board. What an awesome way to gain buy-in and ownership from students.

At the high school, I visited two teachers, and I loved the obvious respect and rapport that had been developed in these classrooms. The interactions among students and between students and teachers that I witnessed in both these classrooms made it clear that these teachers modeled their expectations for students every day. In one classroom there were only two expectations: Be courteous, Be accountable. If only we could all be these two things every day, the world would be a kinder, more organized place! 

Visiting with each of these teachers on my English walk and watching the way their classrooms work inspired me to grow in my own practice and try some new things in my instruction. I'm particularly excited about an argumentative writing handout that one teacher shared with me, and I was able to share some of our analytical writing resources with another teacher. Sharing our practice is a pivotal part of being the best teachers we can be each day. It's rejuvenating to take a step back from the stress and constant hustle of our day-to-day reality in the classroom. It's refreshing to share the struggles of what's tough and the triumphs of what's working with others who get it. I can't even tell you what a great way it was to spend my Monday. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

We've Got a Ways to Go

Our third nine weeks unit is easily my favorite unit that we teach. We spend three months, from January to March, teaching our students texts from and about the American Civil Rights Movement. This year, this unit of study has taken on a new significance for me. In past years, the unrest of our society has been more subdued and has lived further in the background of everyday life. However, that anger and anxiety and unrest has risen again to the front pages of our newspapers and the forefront of our thoughts as events like those in Ferguson, Missouri have reminded Americans that we've still got work to do.

As an educator, I want to move beyond "teaching tolerance." I don't want to teach children to tolerate each other, to see their difference as something to simply be allowed. I want to teach acceptance. I want to teach justice. I want to teach equity. Life won't always be fair, but we should strive to ensure that it is just. In an effort to bring these ideas to an applicable level in my middle schoolers' lives, I ask students to write their own "I Have a Dream" speeches, to denounce bullying and honor the work and writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I've shared excerpts of these speeches in previous blog posts, but as I sat at Starbucks this morning grading this group of speeches, I came across one that I could not help but share in its entirety. This student's speech spoke straight to my heart, and it I hope it will speak to yours, too. 

The Bottom Line
Bullying stands as a great obstacle in the face of today's society. On a daily basis, there are about 2.1 million bullies bullying over 2.7 million victims in American schools alone. Bullying has never been such an urgent matter as it is in this generation. But I believe that the great fires of hatred and discrimination may be put out by the sweetest waters of kindness. But I believe that the great shadow of bullying that looms over its victims can and will go away by the brightest lights of friendship. But I believe that if we stand together as one against this great tyrant we face today, we will overcome it. 

Students who are victims of this great terror, stand together! We will not tolerate the pain that these bully terrorists have put on the children of our schools, our playgrounds, and our very homes. I want a world free of the fear of going to school to learn and receive a free education because of the bullies that await them. I want a world free of turning on the TV and seeing another suicide story about a kid who was a victim of bullying. I want a world free of the heavy chains of dealing with a bully weighing down upon kids' shoulders. I want a world free from bullying.  

Dr. King had a dream years ago not much different from the one I present before you today. Just as African Americans were bearing the weight of racism, students bear the weight of bullying. Just as King once said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," I have a dream that no matter what color, size, shape, form, or fashion you are, you will not be judged. This pertains to all people, to those who are red, yellow, black, and white; no matter your race, you will not be judged. 

Those of us who are not victims, we must not forget those who are. We must not forget the pain, the guilt, the suffering they must be going through! Victims, you must not forget that as long as this great menace called bullying torments and rips at your soul, we will stand with you and try to put out this great fire that scorches you today. Bullies! You must not forget that others have feelings, too. And although you may have been a victim yourself, that gives you no right, NO RIGHT to put others in the line of fire. "15% of all school absenteeism is directly related to fears of being bullied as school. It is estimated that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students." That is 160,000 children that could be learning and taking advantage of their right to a free education but aren't because of bullying. 

The bottom line is that bullying is wrong. It can cause so much pain that kids die every day by their own hand. Hey, and newsflash! Bullying is illegal! And yet, "90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of bullying." I'll say it once and I'll say it again, stopping bullying has never been such an urgent matter. We must put an end to it. 

I hope that in your interactions with others this week, you will think about the way your actions and words reflect your feelings and thoughts. Dr. King said "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." We can only continue to make our world better if we constantly and deliberately strive to put light and love into the world around us. We've got a ways to go, but we know where we're headed. Let's be sure we walk in the light.