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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Stop and Listen

As promised in my last post, I have been working hard to maintain my classroom resolutions. First, I've been trying to make more time for myself to read and write and cook and generally take a break from work. I just finished binge reading Kiera Cass's Selection Series, and if you're looking for an addictive YA read, I completely recommend it! I finished all three books in two weeks and put myself well on my way to meeting my GoodReads reading goal for 2015. So I'm going to count that as a personal win for the new year.

I'm also keeping my resolution to slow down at work and be more reflective. Tomorrow, I get to begin working with my first student teacher. Guys. I am SO excited! And I've been excited about her time in my classroom since I found out that she would be teaching with me last November. However, this week I also got really nervous. I remember my student teaching semester so vividly. It was a stressful, exhausting time, but it was also incredibly rewarding, and I huge part of that awesomeness was my amazing mentor teacher. My mentor teacher really helped me become the teacher I wanted to be. She gave me the space to grow creatively, but she also challenged me to think critically and to fully engage in my work with students every day. As I've been at school each day this week, I have thought to myself, can I do that, too? I don't want to just share my classroom; I want to share my love for this profession and share the reward of what we get to do everyday. 

In an effort to prepare for tomorrow, I took some time this evening to go back and read all my blog posts from 2010 when I was an intern teacher. It was so interesting to walk back through that semester and see the way I grew as a professional and as a person. I could read in those words not only the joy I found in learning from that experience, but I could also recall the personal changes and challenges in my life at that time. I didn't write them out, but I could see them hiding behind my words and hanging in the lessons I learned from my students each day. I began that semester searching. I could see it in this very first post: 

 I think the key to being a successful student teacher is having an open mind and, more importantly, open ears.  You have to listen to what's going on around you. So, for the rest of the semester, I'll being listening for pieces of wisdom from the middle.  Of course, this wisdom will be gained from my mentor teacher and the other teachers and administrators at the middle school where I'm assigned to student teach.  But even more importantly, I can gain so much from listening to students.  

So much of what I do in my classroom is talking, but the listening is really where the learning takes place, not just for my students, but for me as well. I've always had a restless spirit; I'm constantly wanting to grow and change and learn more than I already know. I've never been one to be able to settle in because I'm always thinking about where I need to go next. I hope that this semester is a time of growth, not just for my student teacher, but for me as well. I can't wait to see what we learn when we slow down and listen. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Let's Not Make Wishes

Happy 2015! As a new year begins, I can't help but think of ways I want to improve and grow. I'm a sucker for resolutions (even if I don't always stick with them the way that I should). One thing that I love about teaching is that I feel like I get two chances every year to make resolutions since my life is still split into semesters. While the holidays can be stressful, they can also be a time to recharge and refocus my energy. As I was looking back on blog posts from this last semester, I found that I took less time to reflect than I would have liked. It may sound trite, but I truly believe that a teacher is only as good as his or her ability to reflect on what happens in the classroom, and sometimes that requires one to step away from the work. Hence, Christmas break is the perfect time to take a look at what's working and what's not and to think about how I can make 2015 my best teaching year yet.

During the fall semester, I feel like I wrote a lot about my struggle to stay positive.  I found myself overwhelmed by the number of things that had to be done in a day. However, as the semester came to a close, I found that all those things I thought just had to be completed didn't actually have to get checked off my to-do list immediately. A girl can only accomplish so much in twenty-four hours. This semester, I resolve to look at the big picture instead of focusing on the tiny details of my day-to-day. 

While I believe that servant leadership is the most effective way to create a positive school environment, I realized this semester that you can't help others if you don't first help yourself. I'm a better teacher if I take time to read books for fun, exercise, and just generally give my brain a break from work. I resolve to make time for myself to step away and leave school at school. 

I also feel like I often found myself racing through the day in such a way that it all turned into a blur.  I started this blog as a way to record the small tidbits of talk I caught from students each day.  It was a way for me to remind myself that students will blow you away with their insight and their wit if you only slow down long enough to catch them at it. This semester, I want to get back to that. I resolve to look for those small, perfect pieces of wisdom from the middle every day in my classroom. 

On New Year's Day I read a reflection that said there's a big difference between resolutions and wishes.  Wishes are big, broad statements with no action to back them up. Resolutions are measurable ways that one wants to create change. I don't want to make wishes. I want to take a step back and take the time to be better and more present in my classroom each day this semester. What's your plan? Are you going to make wishes or resolutions this year? 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Carol Scavenger Hunt

For the past couple of years, I've really wanted to do a QR code scavenger hunt with my students.  When my 7th grade team member, Ms. Dibble, was in her interview, she talked about doing a QR code scavenger hunt with sixth graders when they were learning about The Dust Bowl and were reading Out of the Dust. Some might think I should have just gone for it, but here's the thing.  There are a lot of factors that have to line up for this type of activity to work. 
  1. You have to have a supportive administration that is comfortable with your students being out of your classroom and roaming the halls in search of clues.
  2. You have to have other faculty members who are willing to support the activity. For example, our students had clues in the library, the main office, the counselor's office, and the cafeteria.  Those adults had to be comfortable with our students disrupting their normal schedules.
  3. You have to be able to justify the activity as an instructional activity that's aligned with objectives.
Fortunately, we have all of these things at our middle school, and when we emailed our colleagues to ask if our students could come complete Christmas Carol-related challenges around the school, they all jumped on board immediately. What I loved about this activity is that it could be accomplished in one 50-minute class period, and it got students up out of their seats, which was perfect for the last week of school before Christmas break. I wish you could have heard the students' reaction to the idea that we were going to let them search for clues around the school!

You mean we get to, like, leave the classroom?!
Ms. Herring. You want us to search for clues AND take an iPad with us?!
So we get to walk around and stuff. We aren't watching a movie?

Success! They were so excited about this activity that I didn't even have to really build it up and make it "cool." However, sometimes that excitement can lead to a behavior struggle, so I started the class period by showing students my expectations for their behavior during the scavenger hunt. 
I find that giving students a small number of expectations that leave room for discussion is the most effective way to ensure that students will understand and live up to those behavioral expectations. Once we had discussed these expectations, each group of 3-4 students received an iPad and a folder with their first clue and a checklist of locations they would need to visit.  In order to prevent a bottleneck of students in any one location, each group of students received a different starting clue. The scavenger hunt included six locations, and students were to complete a small challenge related to our study of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at each location; each group used their iPad to record a video or take a photo that proved they had completed the challenge.  They also used the QR scanner app on the iPad to scan the next clue once they had completed the challenge. 
Our Christmas Carol scavenger hunt took students to the following locations to complete these challenges: 
  • Cafeteria: Film your group singing a Christmas carol to the cafeteria workers.
  • Main office: Film your group saying Tiny Tim's famous line, God Bless Us, Everyone.
  • Counselor's office: Film a member of your group reading Fred's famous Christmas speech.
  • Library: Film two members of your group acting out the scene in which Scrooge raises Cratchit's salary.
  • Outdoor courtyard: Film your group spreading "Christmas cheer," (in our case, this was confetti) like the Ghost of Christmas Present.
  • Anywhere in the school: Take a "Scrooge-faced selfie" with either a custodian or a principal.
I created little poems for each clue, and then turned them into QR codes for students to scan. There are two reasons that I loved this activity. First, I loved seeing the joy and excitement that it brought to my students.  Every group that successfully returned to my classroom with all of their videos and photos on their iPad received a small reward.  This meant that every student, all day, felt like they had "won." In my opinion, this is so much better than having one winning group in each class period.  This wasn't an assessment; it was simply a culminating activity that helped every student remember their study of this novel. 

The second reason, and the thing I loved the very most about this activity, was seeing the joy that it brought to the other adults in the building who participated in the various activities. You want to talk about collegial actions? These awesome coworkers -- principals, secretaries, counselors, librarians, custodians, and cafeteria workers -- all worked with our students to make this activity a success. Not only did they work with them, they did it joyfully. Seeing the way that they cheered for students and encouraged them as they acted out scenes from the play, seeing they way they sang Christmas carols along with our students and took selfies and let themselves be silly and feel the Christmas spirit, was so incredibly rewarding. Christmas can be a very joyful time, but for many adults, especially tired educators, it can be a very stressful, exhausting time. I loved every minute of watching the joy that this activity created in our school, and I'm so glad I work in a place where this kind of activity can create happiness instead of more stress. I hope you can spread, as well as accept, a little holiday cheer this Christmas season! Merry Christmas!

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.