Monday, December 10, 2012

Keep It Fresh

Merry 10 days until Christmas Break!  I'm currently in countdown mode, and so are my students.  That much is obvious when you watch them try to sit still in class.  It seems like the world's most impossible task these days.  I can't complain too much since I'm the same way, though.  I made all my copies for the entire month of December the week after Thanksgiving.  Can you say antsy?  Anyway, despite the antsy behavior, my students this year have miraculously managed to avoid the "second quarter slump," a term I coined last year when I realized all my students decided to give up on being productive students who turn their work in from Thanksgiving to the end of the semester.  This group of kids has managed to turn everything in (mostly) on time, and they have done it (mostly) with smiles on their faces.  Thankfully, we're currently studying Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the only novel in our current curriculum that I also taught last year.  It's been a huge relief to be able to finally pull something out of a filing cabinet that I worked really hard on last year and actually put it to use again.

I did add one new assignment this December that I had never done before, though, and I must say that I think it's my new favorite.  This year, I volunteered to pilot a "bring your own device" policy in my classroom.  I haven't had much of a chance to put it to use quite yet because I also have a classroom set of iPads.  This means that there's no point in kids bringing their own devices for most class activities.  (Sidenote to teachers reading this: I realize that I am totally blessed by the educational technology gods to have all these resources.  I swear I'm not bragging).  Anyway, I finally decided to use my BYOD privileges this month for an extra credit project using the social network Instagram.

Each week, my students post pictures of English/language arts related things from the real world.  Last week, they had to find a grammar or spelling error, and they did a great job! They even caught my spelling mistake when I sent a homework reminder text home one day.  It really seemed to alert them to the grammar around them.  This week, starting today, they can turn in a picture of a simile, metaphor, pun, or oxymoron.  So far, I have received some super cheesy puns, and it has absolutely made my week.  Every time I check my phone, I seem to have a new notification about a picture someone has posted.

Probably my favorite part of this project is how excited my kids have been about it.  When I accidentally misspelled a word in their homework reminder text, a student posted it to Instagram almost immediately after the text was sent.  Then, three students commented on the picture using our vocabulary words of the week!  I love when I can trick my students into being English nerds.  It's my favorite. Anyway, the lesson I learned in all this is to keep it fresh.  I was so excited to keep my lessons and handouts from last year to teach A Christmas Carol this month, but I ended up being way more excited to do something new and fun.  What a great reminder of why I love being a middle school teacher. And now, let the Christmas countdown continue...

Monday, November 19, 2012

I'm So Thankful

I normally begin an entry by apologizing for my hiatus if I know it's been a while since the last time I wrote. But I've decided that, at least for this year, I'm going to have to stop doing that.  If I apologize every time that it's been too long since I last blogged, then I'm going to end up started every single entry with an apology.  This year has just been so busy!

Amidst all the busyness, it can be so easy to get overwhelmed.  I have spent a lot of time this semester just trying to keep my head above water when it comes to school and grad school.  It's just a LOT.  I know I've talked with several teachers in my building who feel the same way this year.  Implementing a new curriculum is hard work.  Implementing a new curriculum and having a family, friends, and a life outside of work can be even harder.  However, it's doable.  It's just more doable when you find a light at the end of the tunnel on which to focus.  We all need a little beacon of hope in our day-to-day.  Mine is Christmas break.  Only four more weeks :)

In addition to finding that light at the end of the tunnel, I think it's important to pause in the midst of all the chaos and deadlines and memos and due dates and remember to be thankful.  Today, I want to reflect on why I am thankful.

I am thankful to be surrounded by wonderful people at home, at work, and in my community.  I know there are many people who don't have a support system to lean on when things get tough.

I am thankful to have a job that, while sometimes exhausting and frustrating, is rewarding and exciting everyday.  I know there are many people who don't have a job at all.

Above all, I have recently decided that I am thankful for enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm, in many ways, is a lost art.  I think that as people become adults and slide into the grind of working, they lose their enthusiasm.  I realized this week, as I was reflecting on my thankfulness, that enthusiasm is one of the qualities that I adore in middle school students.  If I ask them to come get their graded papers ninja-style, they do it with gusto.  If I ask them to sell an Industrial Revolution invention to the class like the Oxyclean man, they make up a cheer about the piano on the spot.  If I have a bad day, they write me letters of encouragement and put them on my desk when I'm not looking.  When you're thirteen, you still see the fun and the excitement in the little things in life, and you latch onto that fun.  To me, that's something worth emulating as an adult.  I want to be as enthusiastic as they are.  I want to encourage them when they have a bad day.  Most of all, I want to continue to be inspired by my students.

In the middle of all the craziness that 2012 had brought with it, I am immensely grateful to be teaching the group of students that I am teaching this year.  What a blessing to be surrounded by so much enthusiasm.  I hope it's contagious.  I'll definitely be needing to catch some in order to make it to Christmas.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Living to Work

I am the worst.  It's been a month since the last time I had a chance to sit down and write.  Let me just tell you that it has been one busy month.  I feel like my life recently has been one giant to-do list after another.  A friend told me recently that the key to not getting overwhelmed by everything is to realize that we really are living to work.  We spend 90% of our time at work, and so it's better to just accept the fact that sometimes, or a lot of the time, it's going to take over our lives.

That's why I have recently decided that it's so important that, at least occasionally, we get paid to play.  I decided this after I did a couple activities with my students this week that felt like getting "paid to play."  On Tuesday of this week, I had to figure out a way to teach color symbolism is a meaningful, memorable, and somewhat concrete way to a group of 7th graders whose abstract thinking skills are still developing.  This ended up turning into a little game I created on the fly that I will henceforth be calling "Color Symbolism Charades."  I gave each student a color symbolism chart and asked them to choose one color and study its positive and negative associations.  Then, they had to draw a picture that represented that color and its associations.  When the students brought them back the next day, I was simply going to have them present their drawings.  After a few kids in 1st period sleepily shared their pictures with the class, I decided we needed to wake up a bit and make this a guessing game.  I told the student to describe or act out their picture and have the other students in the class guess which color they had chosen using their chart....

Talk about engagement!!  I was quickly left out of the game as the students guessed each other's color symbolism, explained the color symbolism to people around them and excitedly participated in the game.  I think I could have left the room, and they would have kept playing.  I couldn't help but smile at how awesome it was that my students were being totally nerdy and yelling competitively about color symbolism.  It was music to an English teacher's ears :)

After finishing color symbolism, I decided it was time to get in the Halloween spirit.  I turned off the lights, playing scary music, and read a scary story to my class today.  Of course, then they had to analyze it for the five elements of a short story, but not before they had the opportunity to get a little scared.  One student even said, "Ms. Herring, you have a great scary story voice."

Anyway, I say all that to say that not all jobs allow you to get "paid to play," but a lot of times my job allows that.  Grading's not always so fun, and instruction can't be exciting every day, but on the days when the kids are so excited they could keep the lesson going on their own, or on the days when I grade an essay with such vivid voice that I can't help but smile from ear to ear, I know that I'm getting paid to play.  It's on those days that I feel ok about living to work.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I Think Those People Lied....

I think people lied when they told me that this year would be easier.  Last year, everyone kept saying things like, "Next year will be a breeze!"  or "You feel overwhelmed this year, but next year will be so worth it!" or "Just wait 'til you have all this planning done, and you can pull it out of you filing cabinet and copy it."  Lies.  That's all I can say.  I think that maybe this is because last year I was too naive to realize I should be more overwhelmed.  Or maybe it's because I realize now that I thought last year was great, but I could have made it so much better.  Either way, I know that Common Core State Standards have increased my working week hours considerably since the year started.  And I haven't pulled one thing out of my filing cabinet.  Dangit.

Now, I am not complaining, I promise.  I know that you read that first paragraph and thought, "get over yourself, girl.  Life's tough, work's hard, just quit complaining and get down to business."  I agree 100%.  I came home Monday evening from work feeling very sorry for myself.  In my "poor me" state, I was totally prepared to mourn my sorrows in a blog post, but I stopped myself.  I realized that I needed a couple of days of perspective before I blogged about our new curriculum and my new year.  Trust me, had I written this on Monday, I would have lost all two of my avid readers.

Anyway, what this week of perspective-taking made me realize is that, yes, I'm coming home tired at night, but I'm also coming home more excited about what my students are achieving.  I shared my plan for our first research essay in a team meeting this week, and someone on my team commented about what high standards I was setting for all my students, whether they be regular ed. or Pre-AP.  I thought about that and realized that not only do I set the bar high for my kids, but I set the bar high for myself, too.  This year wouldn't be harder  than last year if I didn't think I could outdo today what I did or taught yesterday.

My favorite quote of all time is a Margaret Thatcher quote that says, "Well-behaved women never made history."  We all have to break a few rules to get to the root of where we want to be, but there's also a great Thatcher quote that I found a lot of comfort in this week: "What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose."  I know, without a doubt, that I am passionate about what I do.  Even if I get tired, and even if I have a frustrating day, I have never woken up and not wanted to go to work.  Seeing the light bulb go off in my students' minds gives me a sense of purpose and excitement.  I absolutely adore those moments of cognition. 

I'm not changing my mind.  Everyone did lie when they said this year would be soooooo much easier.  However, I am apologizing publicly for even taking one moment to feel sorry for myself.  What I've done before is not enough.  I can only hope that what I will grow to do will be better, not easier. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wisdom from the Middle: People are Like Vending Machines, and Other Exciti...

Wisdom from the Middle: People are Like Vending Machines, and Other Exciti...: Last week my classes began reading  The Diary of Anne Frank .  Technically, Anne's diary is a nonfiction narrative, not a novel, but it's ou...

People are Like Vending Machines, and Other Exciting Analogies

Last week my classes began reading The Diary of Anne Frank.  Technically, Anne's diary is a nonfiction narrative, not a novel, but it's our first extended text of the year.  When I read the book this summer, I began thinking about what I wanted to focus on and how I wanted to teach the book. There's really no exciting plot line since it's just the musing of a 13-year-old girl.  However, I was struck with the character development that takes place over the course of the text. Anne goes from being an egocentric, childish young adolescent to a thoughtful, strong-willed young woman whose musings have guided thousands of readers to embrace cultural tolerance.  Having said all that, I decided that I would briefly breeze through comprehension each day and focus heavily on analyzing Anne's growth as a character and the qualities that make her relatable to my students.

In an effort to guide my students through a character analysis this week, I used a model that I learned in a grad school class last year called Synectics.  It's basically an extended comparison model.  The purpose of the Synectic is to pull students as far away from the original concept as possible before finally bringing them back to that original concept.  Thus, by the end of the lesson they are comparing the original concept, Anne Frank, to something that they never, ever would have compared her to on their own.  It's a serious exercise in critical and creative thinking, and it forces kids to struggle to find answers, which I think is an important skill, especially for kids who are used to always having the right answers.

I did this lesson with three classes, and they each found their way to three different final comparisons.  One class ended up discussing how Anne Frank is like a mechanical pencil.  Another group analyzed how Anne Frank is like a copier.  By far, the most interesting (and difficult) final comparison was explored by my 8th period class; Anne Frank is like a vending machine.

I'll admit.  I was nervous for them.  How on Earth would these kids be able to explain to me the ways that Anne Frank was like a vending machine?!  Did they even have vending machines in 1943?  We finished the lesson, and I sent them home to think about how they would explain their final comparison the next day in class.  Today, I was astounded and impressed by their connections:

Anne Frank is like a vending machine because she is full of both good and bad things.  Some things (qualities) we like about her and some we don't like.  Sometimes she's happy (good things inside) and sometimes she's angry (bad things).

Anne Frank is like a vending machine because she gets shaken up and pushed around, like when you push the vending machine around to try to get what you want.  That's how the other people in the Annex push Anne around.

Anne Frank is like a vending machine because sometimes people push her buttons, and a vending machine has buttons that you push, too.  Mrs.  Van Daan pushes Anne's buttons and makes her angry a lot.  

Anne can be both sweet and salty with her moods the way a vending machine has both sweet and salty things inside.

Have I mentioned how awesome my students are this year?  I was truly impressed by their thinking and their willingness to jump out of their comfort zone and go for it.  As I read through their answers tonight while grading, I came to the conclusion that maybe we're all a little bit like vending machines.  We're all full of thoughts, ideas, stressors, and other "stuff" that can be either good or bad for us.  Sometimes we get shaken up over something that didn't go our way, or we feel pushed around by someone in our personal or professional life.  I know I'll be the first to admit that I have both sweet and salty moods, and it is best not to be around for the salty ones.  I think the biggest way we're like vending machines is that we get out what we put in.  If we take the time to fill ourselves up with positivity, good thoughts, choices, and actions, then we'll get out of ourselves a more productive, happy life.  So this week, my wisdom from the middle is that I am, indeed, like a vending machine, and I'll only get out of myself the product of my input.  I better make sure it's for the best.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Reasons 7th grade is Awesome

Oh, Labor Day weekend...there is something about a Monday off work that lulls me into a false sense of security.  Last night, I had completely convinced myself that I was all ready for this short week.  Alas, at 11 p.m., one of the teachers on my team emailed me her part of our discussion questions, which reminded me that I, too, has discussion questions to write.  Oops....

Fortunately, the questions were written and all was well today at the middle school.  One thing I've noticed about this particular group of students is their willingness to please.  I tried from Day One to build a rapport with all of my students.  I truly do believe that a mutual respect goes a long way, but I have been both impressed and amazed by how promptly this group of kids, whether low or high achieving, has turned in their assignments and prepared for class.  I mentioned this to my principal last week, and her response was "well maybe they want to impress you..."

Maybe they do want to impress me.  Maybe they just have very involved parents.  Or maybe I'm just getting to a place where I have enough guts to back up my classroom policies.  Last year, I had a homework policy, but I also was a big softy when it came to late work.  I would rather a kid turn something in a month late and learn something than never turn it in at all.  I guess I'll never know the reason why these kids are so awesome, but I sure hope they keep it up all year.  It's making my school life so wonderfully pleasant right now.

In addition to their excellent on-time-homework-record, this group of students also possesses a stellar collective sense of humor.  Today, in an effort to quietly hand back papers during 8th period, I asked the students to come get their papers "silent Ninja style," which meant that they were required to be both stealthy and silent.  I am not lying when I tell you that those boys were sneaking behind chairs and silently karate-chopping their way to the front of the room.  One student even did a forward roll out of his chair to get his paper, and I didn't even care because it was absolutely silent.  Silent Ninja paper hand-out was the most quiet I had in my classroom all day.  I think this is a perfect example of why I adore 7th grade.  There's still a sense of wonder in learning and a desire to be silly and play and be a child.  At the same time, they want the respect that comes with growing up.  They don't want to be babied, and that's important for me, the girl who professes to be neither a shoe-tier or a hand holder.  So I guess there's really no "wisdom from the middle"in this entry.  There is only a renewed realization that I am so very blessed to have this job and to feel perfect for my purpose.  There is no better realization to stumble upon anew each day.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Take It Easy

The first week of school has come to an end!  It was a wonderful week, regardless of the fact that I was exhausted at the end of every day.  It was a good kind of tired--the kind of tired you are when you know that it was a productive day.  I was talking this afternoon with another teacher in my building who also started her second year this week, and we both agreed that it's nice not to be new.  There's a little more excitement and a little less anxiety in knowing that you've done the first day of school before.   However, there's still that newness and freshness that I love about a new school year.

I have to admit that I was a little nervous about my new group of students.  What if they don't get my jokes?  What if they come in and immediately commence in complete anarchy?  Of course, these are silly worries.  Whether or not they get my jokes at first, they're stuck with me, and if anarchy broke loose, I'd just go get the resource officer in the office.  Fortunately, neither one of these things happened this week.  I have an excellent group of students this year, and at least one person in each class period smiled/laughed at my lame, corny jokes.  I think the lesson I learned this week was to take it easy.

I guess there are plenty of things I could stress myself out about--new curriculum, more students, new core texts to teach, and the list goes on.... Last year, I would have let the stress win.  But I found this week that I had a newfound confidence in front of my students and with my coworkers.  As the teacher across the hall told me during hall duty between classes, "It's a natural inclination to stay tightly wound about everything, but I've found that it all goes more smoothly if I just loosen up."  I couldn't have described myself any better than she described herself.  Everybody has stressors; it's just that we all handle them differently, and they year I want to handle mine differently.  I want to take it easy.

They best part of this week was when another teacher showed me a couple of her get-to-know-you handouts from the first day of school.  Two of my former students wrote that I was their favorite teacher because I made learning fun.  Little validations like that remind me that more learning happens when I have fun with my kids.  So while I have several personal goals this year, like making grammar instruction more memorable and delving deeper into the analysis of core texts, my biggest goal is to disguise all those things as "fun."  And most importantly, I want to take it easy on myself.  I can already tell this year is going to be better than the last, and I want to slow down enough to savor the moments that make it special.  I'm so excited to see what small, sweet moments I find between now and May.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What Teachers Make

Well, I have taken a little bit of a hiatus from blogging this past month.  This has occurred mostly because I mentally gave myself the month of July to take a break from thinking about school.  Of course, that didn't happen.  I read our new class novels and worked on lesson plans and rethought my approach to the first day of school this year.  I did have the excellent good fortune to do some traveling this past month.  I went to Chicago for the first time and loved it; I went to Branson to watch my little sister compete in a national dance competition, and I finished out the month at the beach in Florida. (And, yes, I did look up job openings before I left.  I could seriously live Jimmy Buffett-style in Florida for the rest of my days.)  Alas, teachers make less in Florida than they do in Arkansas, and the cost of living is decidedly higher, so my teach-at-the-beach dreams were dashed.  I also happen to teach at an awesome middle school here in central Arkansas, so I'd be pretty dumb to give that up....

On the subject of "what teachers make," I read an excellent "get pumped up" back-to-school book while I was lounging and listening to the ocean.  It's called What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali.  This book was published in March of this year, but it's based on a poem that Mr. Mali wrote in 2006.  You can watch him perform it at a slam poetry reading here.  I had never read the poem "What Teachers Make" until I happened to pick up this little book at Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago when I went to pick up some books for my classroom.  Standing in the middle of the store, reading the poem, I wanted to shout "Amen! Preach it!"  What he says in the poem is all so resoundingly true.  Teachers get paid in intrinsic dividends.  We reap our rewards in the light bulb moments of our students and in the awesome emails from parents that say "Thank you so much for helping my kid love English."  It's in those small, sweet moments that I am constantly reminded that I do this job because it is a challenge that I can rise to meet every day that I walk into my classroom, and I have always loved a challenge.

Mr. Mali says in his book, "I teach for the fire, the moment of ignition, the spark, the lightbulb of cognition going on in the dark over an adolescent's head...They say those who teach must never cease to learn. I teach for the moment everything catches fire and finally starts to burn."  I don't care how idealistic it sounds, this is why I teach.  I teach for the chance to burn down some kid's misconceptions and personal doubt and replace it with understanding and confidence.  I know there are teachers in the world who are tired.  They feel like the kids are too difficult or too different from how they used to be, or the administration isn't supportive enough, or they don't have the right tools and technology.  And I get it.  All those things are probably true.  But the real challenge and the real success comes in getting over all that and realizing that one person can make a big difference, even if that big difference is only happening for one kid who needs it more than anything.

As I look toward tomorrow and the next two weeks of rebuilding my classroom and preparing for a new group of students, I am also looking back to this time last year.  I am looking back to the nervousness and excitement that I felt about the journey I was beginning as a "real" teacher.  I am looking back at the successes and mistakes and joys and disappointments, both professional and personal, that were my first year, and I am making a promise to learn from them.  I don't have that first year nervousness anymore, but I do have that spark, that desire "not to produce Ivy League graduates, but to encourage the development of naturally curious, confident, flexible, and happy learners who are ready for whatever the future has in store."  I hope that's something I always have with me.  Because that is truly what teachers make.

Friday, June 29, 2012


My last post was titled "summer school part one," which denotes that there should have been a "summer school part two" post.  There was not, although I promise that I had excellent intentions of writing part two.  Sometimes intentions just aren't meant to become actions.  I can say that the second half of summer school was just as enjoyable as the first.  Everyone passed on to begin their eighth grade careers and leave the middle school behind.

The week after summer school, I went to an Advanced Placement summer institute for the week.  I went for three reasons. 1) I knocked out five of my seven days of professional development for the summer, which means I don't have to worry about PD until August, 2) it's some of the most useful PD that I think you can attend, and 3) it renews my certification to teach pre-AP courses at the middle school.  I felt like it was a really productive week, and I learned a lot of strategies that I will definitely be using in my classroom next year.  June PD accomplished!  Let the summer fun begin....

Almost. While I was doing all these school things, I also decided that it was an excellent idea to take two online courses.  I'm trying to knock out my masters quickly, for reasons unknown even to me.  The thing is, I'm a big nerd, and I love school.  I'll probably be in college forever.  Anyway, I should have known from the beginning that I was overextending myself for the month of June.  I've written I don't know how many blog posts about the evils of being too busy and how I'm committing myself to a slower pace....yeah right.  I'm a "yes man" to the core, and I LOVE being busy and feeling productive.  I know that I'm like that because I look at my friends and they're like that too, "Sisters, doing it for themselves," to quote one of my favorite songs.

So, while I am beyond excited for the break that I know is coming in the month of July, I just felt the need to say that there is nothing wrong with being busy.  Yes, it will lead to occasional small breakdowns and the need to sometimes have chocolate and frozen yogurt for dinner, but busyness keeps the world running.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Small Successes: summer school part one

Right now, I am blogging because it will give me thirty minutes or so where I will not have to think about the pile of homework I just received from the two classes I started today to work toward my masters. It will give me thirty minutes or so to not think about my own personal frustrations. It will give me thirty minutes or so not to think about the fact that I REALLY need to clean my house.  It will give me thirty minutes to only focus on one aspect of my life in June that I anticipated being as frustrating as the previous statements, but has come to be a really awesome part of my day. Summer School.

I can readily admit that I agreed to teach summer school as soon as my principal asked, but I fully believed that it was going to be terrible.  In my mind, I saw the summer school classes that we all see in the movies.  I saw a bunch of kids who were resentful toward me about having to be there, completely unwilling to learn, and throwing paper wads and spit balls at me and others when my back was turned.  I could not have been more wrong.  I have had the pleasure to teach the first five days of a fifteen-day summer school session to some of the sweetest, most willing kids you could imagine.

Now, I'm not saying school is their favorite place in the whole world.  They're in summer school because they have not succeeded this year.  For some of them, it was because they would rather act up and get sent out of class than make an attempt at school and fail.  For others, there were some major learning gaps that just could not be regained in a class of 28 kids during the regular school year.  Regardless of why they were there, the students in my two summer school classes have thrived with the smaller class size and the individual tutoring time.  It's been thrilling to me to see the "light bulb" affect happen for these kids.

For most of them, the key is validation.  They're so afraid to believe they're right that they second guess themselves.  Building their self confidence in English is what they need more than anything.  I told a kid yesterday, "You can do this. You're so smart." He looked at me like I was a crazy person.  For some, the idea of being "smart" is against the group norms in which they live; it's not "cool" to be smart. For others, who have struggled for years, the concept of being "smart" seems silly and foreign.

The thing is, that everyone is smart.  We're just all different kinds of smart.  Some of those kids can see things and find things in video games that take so much critical thinking it blows my mind. Others are strong athletes, even for their age, and can analyze a basketball court in a split second. Others are amazingly creative and artistic; they can draw so well it makes me jealous.  Regardless of our talents, we all deserve to be praised for our successes, both large and small.  Even if that small praise is just a sparkly smiley face sticker on a worksheet, a little goes a long way.  So this week, I think the lesson I learned is to be a "validator." It's not just the big things that deserve a pat on the back, and that's an easy thing to forget in the busyness of everyday life.  When all we do is rush, the simple successes that others have go unnoticed.  Be a noticer. Be a validator. Celebrate the small successes.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The "Be-attitudes"

Tomorrow is officially my last day as a first year teacher.  With the exception of a few minor mental breakdowns and several days that required either chocolate or ice cream (or both) in order to improve the day, this year surpassed all my expectations.  In all seriousness, I do feel like I did far more than survive this year, which is what most teachers and college of ed professors will tell you is the thing first year teachers should hope to do.  I thrived this year, both professionally and personally.  I feel like I built a foundation and gained a clearer understanding of where I want to go and what I want to do in my career and in my life, and on top of that I got to spend five days a week with some pretty awesome kids.  I learned about their hopes and fears, saw their silliness and seriousness, loved their intelligence and their childlike excitement.  Middle school is perfect to me because there is a sense of both childhood and adulthood in the same place.  They want so badly to grow up, but when you "hook them" on a topic or a lesson, the child inside them comes bubbling back to the surface and you can see the curiosity and excitement in their eyes.  It's my favorite sliver of time--the light bulb moment that makes me love being a teacher.

When I finished student teaching a year and a half ago, I capped off my time at that middle school with a "Top Ten of 2010" list.  I wanted to do something similar with this post.  Every year at my middle school, we have a theme.  This year our theme was "Just Be It."  We encouraged the students all year to be their best each day, be respectful, be readers, be hard workers.  So, in honor  of our theme, I present to you:

The Top 5 Things I Learned to BE:

  • Be respectful.  This was the #1 rule in my classroom this year.  In my last post, I wrote about the Letters to Self that my 7th graders wrote for their final project.  Part of the letter was to write about the most important thing they learned in English this year.  One student wrote that he learned that respect is the most important thing you can have.  He said, "Ms. Herring shows us respect, so we show her respect.  If we don't do our part, it's hard for her to do hers."  I tried not only to respect my peers and coworkers, but to also respect my students everyday.  By nurturing an atmosphere of respect in my classroom, my students were able to grow in maturity and interact more effectively.
  • Be flexible. When all else fails, monitor and adjust.  As a first year teacher, I had no idea about the yearly activities and traditions and schedule changes that come with teaching.  There is literally no way that whatever calendar you draw up in August will stay set in stone until May. In fact, I threw away the calendar I mapped out for this school year in October of last year.  Things don't always go the way we plan, but if we're flexible, they'll go the way they're supposed to go.  It's all about attitude.
  • Be honest. I love every single one of my students from this school year.  They were all special and unique in their own way, and each one of them taught me their own lesson.  However, I had a couple students who taught me one of the most important lessons I learned this year, and it's a lesson I will carry with me throughout my career in the classroom.  Be honest. Be yourself. Be genuine. I realized with great sadness this year that for some students, a teacher may be the only adult that is honest and caring and genuine.  When home is like hell, school can either be an extension of that environment, or it can provide a haven.  I want to be able to provide a safe place, an honest place, for my students to know that they can be honest with me, and I will be honest right back.
  • Be positive. Early this year, I had a conversation this someone who previously worked in our district, but moved on to pursue a university career.  During that conversation, he told me, "Keep smiling. You have the power to set a tone where you are.  Use it."  What he meant was, Be positive in all things.  When you're positive with the students, they follow your lead.  When you're positive with your peers and coworkers, it creates an atmosphere of cooperation.  It is so easy to fall prey to negative talk and grumbling, but in the long run, I have so much to be thankful for that I end up feeling guilty for my grumbling.  So I try each day to be positive, to smile at everyone I pass in the hall, to ask how someone's day is going.  The littlest things make the biggest impact on the people around you.
  • Be healthy. While I love my job, I had to learn this year to leave my work at work.  I picked up running, which I previously loathed, and ran two half marathons this year.  Running became a time for thinking or mind-clearing, depending on whatever I needed it to be each day.  I started eating a healthier (kind of) diet.  I mean, a girl still needs her sugar and the occasional Diet Coke....And I started getting more sleep this year.  I love my job, but it's much more difficult to enjoy each day and feel like I'm doing a good job when I'm not taking care of myself.  Being healthy is a personal goal that I try to be better at everyday, but it bleeds over into work and makes me better at it.  It also makes me pretty happy.
These are the  things I want to remember to BE each day and each school year as I continue my time as a teacher, my "BE-attitudes" so to speak.  It's been a great school year, and I'm looking forward to many more.  In the meantime, get excited for summer school blog posts in the next few weeks :)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Letter to Self

In my last post, I promised to make the most of the next 22 days of school, and we'll just say that is the reason that I haven't posted in a couple weeks.  In all honesty, I have made the most of the past two weeks, and they have absolutely flown by.  I can't believe I have less than two full school weeks left in my first year.  Two weekends ago, I took a mental break from school and road-tripped to Memphis with the boyfriend to listen to awesome music for three days at Memphis in May.  Last weekend, I went out of town to one of the most gorgeous weddings I have ever attended when one of my friends from high school got married.  I have to admit that I love my job, but these little mini-vacations have really helped to keep me out of a slump during this last month of school.  If I've learned one thing this year, it's that I am the best teacher I can be whenever I am living a balanced life.  That means having a personal/social life so that I can take a break from work.

With only two weeks left, one of which will consist of us playing outside during English class because I don't have to give a final, I gave my seventh grade students one final English assignment to complete for the year.  It's a Letter to Self.  Another teacher at my school does this assignment, and I think it's such a neat idea.  The students will write a letter to themselves, turn it in, and I will return it to them at the end of their 9th grade year.  Just think about how much growing happens in those two years.  They may all be mad at me for giving them one last big assignment now, but they'll be glad they have it to look back on later.  In a way, this blog is kind of my "letter to self."  Sometimes I go back to look at posts from my student teaching. or the time before I found this job, or even earlier in this school year, and I'm amazed at the growth I've made as a teacher and as a person.  The imperceptible baby steps we make each day seem so much more monumental when we look back on them from a distance.

In honor of my students' last assignment, I decided that I, too, would participate in the assignment and write a letter to myself.

Dear future Ms. Herring, 
Here are just a few words of advice from the "new teacher" version of you, learning new things everyday:

  • Go to bed early.  You are not only nicer, but you are better at your job when you get a solid 7-8 hours of sleep.
  • Smile always.  A smile is the ultimate "fake it 'til you make it" cover up.  You can have absolutely no clue what's happening or be heavily opposed to what's happening, and a smile can help you survive until you can fix it or change it later.
  • Mistakes help you grow.  It's great to be a perfectionist, but you found a lot of perfection within your mistakes and monitored adjustments this year.  Bumps in the road keep things interesting.
  • Be a leader, a mentor, and a friend.  Above all, your job is not to teach infinitives and prepositional phrases.  Your job is to be a positive role model, a confidante, a secret-keeper, an encourager, a cheerleader.  During this year, the reality that teachers may be the only positive adult figures in a child's life has become terribly and sadly obvious.  Be the person your students may lack and supplement the positive people  that they do have.
  • You get out what you put in.  Enough said.
Everyone has a "thing," something that they're great at doing and inspired to be better at. However, not everyone gets to make that thing their job.  You do.  Appreciate that, enjoy it, embrace it.  Be thankful that each day brings new amusements and challenges.  This is your "thing." Be thankful for it always and never be a settler.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

22 Days

22 days of school left.  Today I felt like this was my bittersweet mantra.  The kids are just itching for summer, and therefore their behavior and ability to focus has taken a steep decline.  In moments of frustration, I found myself repeating "22 days, 22 days, 22 days..." exasperatedly in my mind.  But then one of those small, sweet moments would sneak in, and I would find my mind whispering "22 days, 22 days, 22 days..." with the little sadness of knowing that "my kids" would only still be my kids for a little bit longer.  Looking back, I have seen amazing development and maturity occur over this year.  On a day to day basis, these things are hard to see, but then I'll have a moment of clarity where I realize that they all look a little more grown up and turn their work in on time a little more often....for some students it's still those baby steps of progress that make my day.

I take stock in the success of these kids.  I want to know that when they move on, they've got the tools they need to succeed.  More importantly, I want them to know that they can come back for a visit if they feel like they might fail.  I don't think I ever realized how attached I would grow to this group of kids.  Maybe that's how I know that this is what I'm meant to do and where I'm meant to be.  Even on the most frustrating days, my students are worth the little headaches.  

Over the past week and a half, we've been writing poetry in English.  Today, my students turned in their writing and I was thrilled to see such creativity on the pages of their journals.  Even the kids that hated poetry made me laugh with their witty poems about hating poetry. But there were also moments when my heart broke in half as I read about the sad, dark places where some of my kids are stuck right now.  I had to go to the counselor about a few students whose poetry held suggestions of self-harm and self-hatred.  Just knowing that at thirteen years old, a child's life can seem so terrible that they would think about the possibility of giving up is unbearable to me.  There is so much good and excitement and perfection in this life that they need to know and feel and see.  Having to acknowledge that I had never noticed the signs of their sadness before I only had 22 days left with them also hurt my heart.  How could I miss something that was crying to be noticed from the pages of their notebooks and the sad smiles on their faces?  On the other side of that coin, at least I have 22 days left to do all I can to help them see that someone cares.

After an emotional roller coaster of a day, grading and listening to poetry, I happened to receive a pleasant surprise from a student that I have written a lot about lately.  This kid just will never cease to amaze me.  After doing time in detention this afternoon, my newly appointed homeroom student aide and 7th grade English student popped her head in my door.

"Ms. Herring, I wrote you a note in detention!" I had checked on her in detention and made her promise to read a book. You can only win so many battles....

As she walked across the room to my desk, I began my lecture on the value of reading and how tomorrow  is a reading day and I don't need her causing chaos because I know she hates reading and she'll try to cause chaos....blah, blah, blah....she just could not stop smiling.  She nodded her head and said, "I know, Ms. Herring," dropped a note on my desk, and left.

"See ya tomorrow, girl."  That's right.  I'm her "girl."

Dear Ms. Herring, 
GIRL, Thank you so much for your help this year and for being my teacher.  You have taught me bundles of stuff this year, and I actually got a good grade because of you. Thank you for your help again. I appreciate it a lot. In other words, you're freaking AWESOME.

Consider my day made.  Time to make the next 22 count.  A lot.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thanks for helping me

ONE MORE DAY.....One more day, and I am done with my first Benchmark week as a teacher.  I had good intentions of blogging over Easter weekend to sum up my "countdown to Benchmark" experience.  I'll be honest.  The "countdown to Benchmark" experience can be summed up in about five words. Stress. Tired. Tension. Anxiety. Tired. I put tired twice because I have quickly found that dealing with middle school behavior in the height of spring fever makes me tired, and middle school students in the height of spring fever are tired of hearing me preach about the value of main ideas and making inferences.  Needless to say, if I can sum up a whole potential blog post in five words, it does not need to be a blog post at all.

Instead, I went into this week with a smile and a positive attitude, determined to keep the kids as pumped up as possible as they faced hours of silent concentration each morning.  I just knew that something wonderful would strike me this week as a little piece of wisdom from my favorite middle schoolers.  That, in fact, did happen today as soon as the first bell rang.  I never name students in my blog, for confidentiality reasons, but the student who gave me this little piece of wisdom is a student I have mentioned before.  I spent most of the first semester thinking she was going to punch me in the face if I made any serious attempts to teach her something.  During third quarter, I moved her to the front row.  A little over a month ago, I started working with her during Benchmark Academy after school, and three weeks ago she became my unofficial student aide during homeroom.  This is a kid who spends a lot of time in the office, and who burned some serious bridges with her teachers last year, but the thing is, I really like this kid.  She has a serious wall built up, and she is tough as nails, but deep down she's just looking for attention like every other human being in the world.

Anyway, this morning this student comes running in my room asking to borrow pencils.  Our post-benchmark activity this afternoon was to go to a play.  The alternative to the play was two hours of silent reading at school.  As I was handing her some sharpened pencils, I asked this student if she was going to the play.  She replied no, that she didn't have a dollar to go to the play.  I then told her that the alternative was to read a book.  She looked at me like I was crazy.  This child was not about to read for two hours.  I still can't get her to read much longer than two minutes.  I gave her the pencils and a dollar in quarters and asked her what she was going to do on her essay today during testing.  She said was going to write five paragraphs and take up two pages and reread her work.  She finished her statement by saying, " just like you told me to do, Ms. Herring."

Later, as I was walking around the room during testing, I looked over at the "Benchmark Promises" that I had my students write on the last day before testing.  I put them on the wall this week to cover up all my posters.  As I looked over it, I found this child's promise:

I promise to do my very best and check my work because you helped me in class and at Benchmark Camp. Thank you for helping me :)

The combination of our morning exchange and this promise on my wall made my day.  I'm no child whisperer.  I can't get to the root of every child's deep-rooted problems in my classroom, and I have plenty of students who I am sure cannot wait to never hear me preach the importance of the parts of speech ever, ever again.  I'm learning everyday, and my students are my teachers.  One of the most important lessons I have learned this year is that my job is not to be a buddy.  My job is to set a boundary and an expectation, to support my students until they get there, and then to help them surpass my expectations.  Not every student will do that, but I can sure help them try. The thanks that this student displayed made me thankful.  I'm thankful for all 135 of my "student teachers" that I get to see everyday.  They teach me so, so much.  They teach me humility.  They teach me patience.  They teach me gratitude. They teach me tolerance. I can't believe that in six short weeks they'll move on.  I couldn't have asked for a better group of kids as my very first group, and I can think of quite a few of them that I'll never forget.  But for today, I am thankful.  I am especially thankful for small words and smiles of thanks from my students.  They mean more than those kids will ever know.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Choose to be Extraordinary

It's been a few weeks since my last post because it's been a few weeks since I've had time to decompress and think about all the busyness that's been going on at work.  As we head into the final week before Benchmark testing, you can tell that everyone is a little tense; everyone is just ready to slide into home plate after all the hard work that's been put in.  You can see it in the teachers and the students.  This time of year in general seems to breed a type of restless apathy.  We'd all rather be out in the sunshine or on vacation than in our classrooms and offices being productive.

I'm right there with everybody else.  I want to be out in the sunshine way more than I want to review main idea, author's purpose, and inferencing, but we all have to do things we don't necessarily want to do. This is something I've been having to tell my students a lot lately.

There's one particular quote that has stuck with me these past few weeks since I've posted.  It comes from a book that my principal lent me called Monday Morning Leadership. This book comes from the business world, but is filled with connections to education.  While there are many great lessons in this extremely short book (it's only about 100 pages), my favorite quote from the book is also one of the simplest.  It simply states:

If you want to be extraordinary, the first thing you have to do is quit being ordinary.

That sounds easy enough.  Choose to be extraordinary.  However, when you really make a mental effort to choose non-ordinary behavior everyday, it is pretty darn hard.  Ordinary behavior might mean handing out an assignment and letting kids work independently so you can save your voice.  It might be using  a PowerPoint and taking notes, when you could do a more hands-on activity.  The thing is, being extraordinary means taking a lot of risks, and taking a lot of risks mean running the chance of making more than one mistake.  When you quit being ordinary, you choose to forfeit the comfort that goes with following the crowd.

As we prepare for Benchmark week, I want to rise to the occasion, just like I'm asking my students to rise to the occasion on their testing.  If they have to work hard, then I should have to work hard, too.  So children, I hope you are all ready for some extraordinary lesson plans next week!  I am choosing not to be ordinary.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Caring is Key

On February 29th, I looked forward to the two weeks standing between myself and spring break, and I saw a series of legit hurdles standing in front of me--my first half marathon on March 4th, my Praxis 3 on March 6, a standardized module test for my kids on March 14th, and a mid-term and twenty minute presentation in my grad school class on March 17th. I have to admit that on February 29th, I found myself weighing my options, taking a lot of deep breaths, and deciding which one of these items would be the least unfortunate on which to drop the ball.

I was staring all of this in the face when I wrote my last post about balance.  I promised myself in that post that, above all else, I would make a constant effort to be positive as I worked my way through my first-half-of-March-to-do list.  I have made a sincere effort to keep this promise to myself, although I must admit that I have not had perfect success.  There were a few days on which I was doing super well just to put on a smile as I was walking down the hall.  An example of this was last Tuesday.  

Last Tuesday, I taught my first Benchmark Academy lesson after school.  This was the same day that I had my Praxis 3 in the morning, so I have to admit that I was pretty spent by the time I got ready to teach a group of twenty kids, who wanted to stay after school for "extra school" about as much as a group of felons wants to spend extra time in prison.  My exhaustion, plus their lack of interest in doing anything that required them to pick up a pencil, created a perfect storm of chaos.  Now, I don't blame those kids.  At 3:00 p.m., I don't want to pick up a pencil anymore either, and I was so spent from the rest of the day that I had not even kind of mentally prepared myself to make this hour of our lives fun.  When I say that a perfect storm of chaos ensued, what I mean is that from 3:00-4:05 last Tuesday, I had my first experience with complete and total lack of control in my classroom. We got through the lesson, but by the time 4:05 rolled around, I felt totally deflated and had all but decided that maybe my Praxis assessor shouldn't pass me after all.  In direct contradiction to my promise to stay positive, I let myself mope for a while.  After I felt sufficiently sorry for myself and what a long day it had been, I somehow came to the conclusion in my mind that Benchmark Camp was going to be my new challenge, and I was going to win because, as anyone who know me knows, I am a terribly competitive human being.

I began brainstorming ideas about how to conquer my Benchmark Academy chaos, and slowly but surely ideas started coming to me.  I asked my principal for some background on a couple of the kids in my group who I've never taught before and don't know well.  I thought some insight might help me prevent their disruptions.  I made a point to say hello and how's your day to my Academy kids anytime I saw them in the hall.  I decided that if they could figure out that I cared enough to ask about them outside of Tuesday afternoons, that they might be more willing to give me their respect for one hour out of their week.  I made a deal with one of my more disruptive kids that involved an exchange of one Jolly Rancher for every 10 minutes of quiet, respectful behavior.  Pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.  And finally, I found a way to help a kid, who may be the most kinesthetic learner I have ever met, pay attention in class by cutting his worksheets up into a puzzle, making him put them back together, and then having to answer all the questions.  To my surprise, all of these things seemed to actually work to some extent. Now, don't get me wrong, it wasn't perfect.  But it was SO much better than Week 1 that I couldn't help but want to jump up and down with happiness at 4:05 this Tuesday.

I learned an important lesson from Benchmark Academy.  Caring is key. I could have easily muddled through the four weeks of after-school lessons, and all of us could have been terribly miserable.  My other option was the CARE--care about the students' learning, care about how their school day was going, care about my own sanity, and find a way to make that after school hour as productive as possible for everyone.  It was a good lesson in problem solving that, in hindsight, I am thankful I got.  I've always loved a good challenge.

As for all the other first-half-of-March stuff, I finished my half marathon and look forward to improving my 13.1 mile time in future runs (which means I didn't completely feel like dying at the end), I felt good about my Praxis and my students were perfect little show-offs, just as expected, and all 132 of my students improved significantly from their last module test to the one they took today.  Some class averages went up of 20%!! I. Was. Jazzed. So in short, it's been a good, but busy, two weeks. Now, this teacher is ready for spring break in TWO DAYS! Happy Spring everyone!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Balancing Act

Life is about balance.  When I think about this statement, I visualize a seesaw on a playground.  In all aspects of life, people tend to "seesaw" through things.  If we were really to balance our lives, that seesaw would be flat as a board, but let's be real, that's super difficult to achieve.  I have found that throughout my kind of adult life, I would say since high school, that I have had a difficult time with balance. I tend to throw my whole self into something, so that my seesaw looks like two little kids are tipping the scales with great enthusiasm. This, however, typically leads to what I like to refer to as a "mental health day," during which I sleep in, stay in bed all day, and generally have a mini-meltdown for 24 hours before throwing myself back into my terrible attempt at a balancing act.  This happens about every six months. Hey, at least I know myself well enough to admit this cycle now.

When I started teaching in August, I promised myself that I would make a valiant attempt NOT to continue this vicious cycle of non-balance.  I got into the habit of regular exercise, decided not to rely on chocolate as my primary means of fighting stress, and set a limit on how long I would let myself think about work each day.  While these were noble promises to make to myself, they haven't exactly been implemented flawlessly.  I have totally relied on chocolate (and occasionally ice cream) to fix a bad day, and there have been other stumbles in my attempt at balance.

I've found that my biggest downfall in this balancing act is caving to negativity.  You see, balance isn't just about taking on too much or too little or just enough.  It's about balancing mind, body, and spirit.  My problem is that I seem to have a hard time remembering that maintaining all three is the key to finding true balance in life.  When my desk gets covered in paperwork or I have a lot of grading to do or I have a tough day, I tend to hyper focus on my problem and forget about all the other things that are going on in my life that are awesome.  For example, I could (and should) change my focus to the fact that I'm super lucky just to have a job.  I have a friend from high school that used to say "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative."  I think that is quite possibly one of the most difficult things to do when you are out of balance, because you just can't see the forest for the trees.

As I look at the next month ahead of me, I have lots of things that have the potential to overwhelm me at work.  I will have to choose every day whether I will accentuate the positive or eliminate the negative.  My goal for March is to choose the positive.  I can view my Praxis observation as a big, stressful, scary thing or as an opportunity for me to show off my smart, wonderful students.  I can look at Benchmark as overwhelming and out of my control, or I can look at it as a challenge to do my best teaching now.  In order to choose the positive and avoid an impending "mental health day," I'm going to have to improve my balancing act, but I think that's very possible.  My mind is committed, and I think that's an excellent first step.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

No Giving Up Here Please

Today I decided it was going to be a "blog day."  While I would say that life has definitely not been short on material lately, I just haven't felt terribly inspired to write about anything that's going on right now.  I think I can attribute that to an overwhelming sense of being overwhelmed by things recently.  I have paperwork on my desk with acronyms for which I don't know the full names.  I have my first experience with Benchmark testing looming over my head, and my Praxis 3 assessment is in three weeks.  I guess what I'm saying is, there's so much I could write about that I find it difficult to reflect on one, specific thing.

In need of a purpose for writing, I decided to look back at two previous posts.  One of these was my post from Lent last year, which is timely since we start all that sacrificing tomorrow.  The other post was my final post from student teaching, in which I talked about the top ten lessons I learned as a student teacher.  One particular lesson struck me and sent me on my contemplative way towards a new post. It simply said:

Never give up on a kid.  I almost did that.  I felt like I had tried absolutely everything, but then I sat and thought about how many other teachers tried absolutely everything and decided to give up.  Middle school is when kids start to completely check out.  I want to keep my kids checked in, but more importantly, I want them to have a reason to want to come to school.  If knowing that one teacher refuses to give up is the only reason, then so be it.

Lately, I must confess, I've been having some hopeless feelings towards a few of my students.  I was starting to feel like I had tried everything.  But I have not tried everything.  There is a plethora of good ideas I haven't even thought of yet.  I'm new at this.  I will grow every year.  I may fail terribly at some of my lessons and explanations and attempts at discipline (which I am terrible at because I can't be mean), but at least I'm failing enthusiastically.  And I will continuously try again, until all of them at least kind of get it.  I need to constantly remind myself of these things.  

Last week, I got a little boost when I had the pleasure of teaching a dance class to our Fundamentals Club after school.  I haven't taught dance in forever, and I was honestly very nervous about working with this group of girls.  Fundamentals Club is for "at-risk" students, who may consider dropping out later or who are, to say the least, not excited about school every morning when they show up.  I was nervous because I could have easily failed in this attempt.  They could have thought dance was dumb, or I was annoyingly upbeat, or any number of negative thoughts, but instead they jumped in feet first.  It was literally the most fun I have had at school maybe ever.  Their smiles were bigger than their faces, and I probably looked like a crazy person teaching them a hip hop dance.  Ever since last Wednesday, almost every one of those girls has stopped by my room to say hi or to ask when our next dance class will be.  They needed a reason to be excited about school, a reason to not give up.  And, in that moment, right before I taught that class, I needed a reason to be excited about school, too.  Amidst the standards and testing and stress, the truest wisdom from the middle school is that to make it work, you have to make connections, whether it's in or out of the classroom.  Those kids may not remember adverbial phrases, but they'll remember the teacher who stayed after school and danced around the classroom.  That's the teacher I always want to be.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Middle School "Love" Letters

For Valentine's Day, I asked my students to write love letters.  I only gave them three rules.

1. They can write to anyone or anyTHING.
2. They must be appropriate, because I'm going to read them.
3. I would like for them to be cheesy and make me laugh.

Here's a few of my favorites.....

Dear light pole on Main Street, 
   They way you sway in the moonlight makes me want to dance with you.  You are so slick and minty fresh like four day old gum.  The way you shine is like Megan Fox walking into my bedroom.  You have that sexy hourglass figure.  Your light surrounds me like girls surround Justin Bieber.  Every time I think of you, I think of the song "My Girl."  Please be my Valentine?

These next few were excellent expressions of my own love of chocolate.  Very well worded, if you ask me.

Dear Cocoa Bean, 
    Thank you for making it possible for all the women in the world to have chocolate. We would probably have killed some people if it weren't for you.  We all love you.

Dear Chocolate,
     I love you so much! You taste so good, but yet you're so mean and make people fat!  Why do you have to be so mean?  You should try to be nicer like salad.

Dear Hershey chocolate bar, 
    Thanks for tasting so good.  You help me get the sweet tooth away.  You're not just a chocolate bar. You're my friend.  I love your sweet taste, and I love the way you look.  You are better than fruit and vegetables.  You are the best thing I have ever eaten.  I love you Hershey chocolate bar.

This one was nice.  Mostly because there are some days that I appreciate blatant sucking up.  This student wrote this right after he earned detention for his behavior in class.  I think he was trying to get out of it.

Dear Ms. Herring, 
     I love your class like a pencil loves paper, like language loves its teacher, like the sun loves the planets.  Ms. Herring, you are my favorite teacher.  Happy Valentine's Day.

And on the flip side, there are students who could care less what I say....

Dear Nail on the wall in Ms. Herring's class, 
     Not many people notice you.  You are on the seventeenth block on the second row above the Smartboard.  I have often stared at your for a whole class period.  Thanks for being there for me.

What I was reminded of, as I read all these letters, was the fact that I love my students and their various personalities.  No matter how frustrating, overwhelming, or exasperating a day of work can be, at the end of that day, I have the best job in the world.  Happy post-Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Grin & Bear It

Last night I was grading grammar packets about the types of sentences.  After reading the last writing assignment that my students completed, I realized that we needed a refresher course on correctly written compound and complex sentences.  In one section of the packet, students were asked to write compound sentences.  One student in my 2nd period wrote this:

I don't like my 2nd period, but I am glad that I have Ms. Herring.

At first, I was frustrated that she used her grammar packet to make a statement, even if her sentence was grammatically correct.  However, it didn't take me long to realize that she felt like this was the only way for her to get her point across to me.  This student has made it pretty plain all year that she is not a fan of English.  For a long time, I thought it was me, and I tried to talk to her in the halls, say hello between classes, ask about her weekend, and basically find any way to connect with her that was not related to language arts.   Through all of this, I guess my hope was that our interactions would lead to her discovering a newfound love for the English language.  My, how idealistic I can be...

This one, little compound sentence reminded me of my purpose.  My job is not to somehow be so grammatically inspiring that my students just fall in love with the beauty of prepositional phrases.  My job is to help them understand that correctly written work gets you a farther in life.  You don't have to like it, or even appreciate it as an art, but you do have to attempt to learn it.  I've been dealing with what feels like a lot of apathy in my classes lately.  I'm sure it has something to do with the time of year.  It's just blah right now, and even I feel it.  But maybe that's the problem.  If I can't foster a great love for the art of writing, I can at least make it bearable for those who have no desire to enjoy it.  I want my students to all be "glad they have Ms. Herring," even if they will never like English.  Hear's to grinning and bearing it.  Happy Wednesday everyone!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Reminders Why I Love My Job

Today I received a reminder why I love being a teacher.  My students were asked to respond to a random, expository prompt to help them begin to prepare for their next module test. I think this can speak for itself, without me needing to provide any insightful commentary.  Mostly, this just makes me smile a whole lot.

The subject I like best is...
The subject I like best is English, because it's way more fun and exuberant for me. English is also my favorite because Ms. Herring is young, nice, fun, and teaches us in a more fun way.  We are having fun and learning new things in English. I have English 8th period, which is awesome because it's the end of the day, but my classmates and I get a little noisy.  But Ms. Herring always warns us before she puts the D-Hall list up. English is more fun because we do mostly activities for all of our learning, but we have to listen and control the noise level, or we can do the not fun way. That's why English is my favorite.

There is no better way to end a Monday.  Have a great week, everyone!

Friday, January 27, 2012

You'll do things for me that you hate

I had a blog basically written and saved, but I deleted it in favor of a more pressing post that's been on my mind.  I feel like the time since I came back to school from Christmas break has been a type of controlled chaos that I have only controlled on occasion.  I initially found that things were unexpectedly hectic for me at work.  However, I quickly came to the realization that it shouldn't have been unexpected.  "Benchmark" could be heard buzzing in the brains and mouths of students, teachers, and administrators.  As unassuming and typically gloomy as the month of January has always seemed to me, a new day has dawned in my "teacher life."  January is now synonymous with "get down to business and teach those kids something they'll remember on a standardized test" time.

My personal life has also been unexpectedly chaotic  in the post-Christmas season.  I make it a rule of thumb not to discuss the intimate details of my personal, family, and social life in this blog.  I am a private person for the most part, and my life isn't terribly interesting anyway.  However, it seems to be one thing after another this month.  I love my real family, my "friend family," and my work family, and I'm thankful for all my families everyday.  I think we all have a divine or at least fate-driven purpose for being in the right place at the right time with the right people at any given time in our lives.  I know that I have learned, and continue to learn, that I am perfect for my purpose.  Although, I confess, I am not always sure what that purpose is.

Anyway, amidst all of this stuff, and the exhaustion that has inevitably come from it, I started reading a new book.  I find that the two best mind-clearers for me these days are books and running.  Books take you out of your world and into someone else's, and running literally allows you to run away, even if it's only for thirty minutes.  I've been running a lot lately, but I also started a book by one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Safran Foer.  I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close around this time last year and fell in love with the beautiful sadness that Foer conveys in his writing.  That sounds weird I think, but I'm saying it anyway because it's true.  He creates these perfectly painted images with his words that are heartbreakingly gorgeous and strangely relatable.  I just started reading Everything is Illuminated,  and I found the same perfect honesty that I did in his other book.  There's one quote that especially struck me the other day:

"One day you will do things for me that you hate.  That is what it means to be family."

Now, I'm aware that this sounds harsh, but if you're really honest with yourself you know this is true of all of us.  We do things we hate for people we value, whether it's our real family, our "friend family," or our work family.  For example, I will teach test-taking strategies and open responses and writing prompt responses for my work family until I want to die from it, because I love my students and value the people I work with.  I once tried to watch a scary movie with my boyfriend, because he loves them.  I only made it through five minutes, but I attempted to do something I hated for someone I love....I'm still working on it.

This quote is particularly true for your real family.  When you're young, your parents make sacrifices for you because they love you.  When you're old, you will make sacrifices for your parents because you love them. This love manifests itself not only in sacrifices, but also in small submissions, like attempting to value your parents' opinion, even when you don't have to agree with it anymore because you're a "grownup;" like speaking up and staying quiet at all the appropriate times; like creating time instead of filling it with other people and things.  These aren't always things we "hate," necessarily, but they can be things we struggle with, both as children and adults.

Essentially, I think the key here, something I've been keenly focused on this week, is the attempt to put others first.  In all my own "chaos," it was easy to forget my purpose or forget other people and turn in on myself and my own wants and needs.  I think the lesson of selflessness is by far the hardest to grasp for most human beings-- it is a constant effort on my part to say the least.  So to close, I hope this week that you do something you hate for someone you love, no matter what family they're a part of.

Monday, January 16, 2012

How I Spent MLK Day

Martin Luther King Day, I now believe, is a necessary holiday for teachers.

I say that, because I would have surely been lost without this lovely little "catch up day." After being spoiled with a wonderful Christmas break, I was thrilled to go back to school and see my students and get back to work.  But, man was I tired when that end-of-the-day bell rung.  Therefore, I was terribly unproductive after school everyday.  I went home with a big bag of work and the best of intentions, but you know where those intentions lead, and I could not make myself get a thing done.  Today, I went to school, even though we were out, and finished my plans for this week and entered grades and did all the things that I could not force myself to do on Friday afternoon after the children left.  I was also lucky enough to have an excellent best friend and little sister to drag along with me in order to get my classroom library alphabetized and back in order.  That was something that I'd been pushing to the bottom of the teacher to-do list for quite some time now.

So anyway, I used at least part of my MLK day to fulfill my dream of being ahead of the game, a dream which I have found to be one of those impossible dreams during my first year of teaching.  However, I think it is an honorable thing to strive for.  While I was at work today, I listened to and watched two of Dr. King's speeches in preparation for teaching my 7th graders about rhetorical devices and persuasive/motivational writing this week.  I literally sat in awe as I listened to Dr. King deliver a message so controversial for its time with such power and grace.  I think my friend said it best as she was alphabetizing my classroom library--"That man really was a genius."

After listening to his speeches, I decided to look up a Martin Luther King quote to put on my message board outside of my classroom for the week. This quote struck me as particularly important in my own life:

"Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase."

What a perfect image.  How many times in my life have I thought and thought and thought about something, to the point that I thought my way out of an opportunity?  How often do we avoid discomfort and ride the status quo because we can't see where the staircase leads?  When people talk about faith, I think the most prevalent image that exists is the idea of a "leap of faith"--jumping off into the great expanse of nothingness that is the unknown, and hoping and praying for the best.  I think it's completely human to be utterly terrified of what exists at the top of that staircase of faith, but I think what's important about this image is that, although you are unsure about where faith may take you, at least it's taking you upward.  Dr. King had to have had moments of doubt or fear about his own journey toward equality, but at least he kept working his way up.  I may not be the resolution-making type, but I do believe in striving.  I want to keep striving my way up that staircase, even when it's scary and even when it's uncomfortable.  I want to express more faith in myself and my abilities, more faith in my students, and more faith in the goodness and kindness of humanity.  So today I learned my own lesson from Dr. King, not about the past, but about the future.  I hope it's a lesson I don't forget any time soon.  

Monday, January 2, 2012

Thoughts on a New Year

If you have read this blog at any time before, you may have figured out that I love Mark Twain.  Not only is he an exemplary Southern writer, but he also provides so many little snippets of honest wisdom in his letters and other short writings.  As I've been thinking about the New Year over the past week or so, a Mark Twain quote has, once again, summed up my thoughts for me: 

"New Year's Day:  Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions.  Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."  Mark Twain

As we all know, the road to hell does happen to be paved with good intentions.  This year, I found myself musing more than usual about the reasons that we celebrate New Year's Eve and Day in the way that we do.  I mean, seriously, people refer to New Year's Day as National Hangover Day....I'm confused about how this connects to all those well-intentioned desires to eat better, exercise more, or quit smoking.  

Therefore, I have decided to write, this New Year's, about my favorite things in 2011 instead of my well-intentioned 2012.  I feel like somebody out there should pay homage to last year, instead of saying good riddance and moving on.

In 2011 I: 

  • decided to continue blogging, despite the fact that my reason for blogging technically ended when I graduated college in 2010.  It was a good choice, as it has been an excellent exercise in mind-clearing.
  • chose to be perfectly content with myself no matter what is going on in my life, while still gently pushing myself to be better every day.  I would say this has been a noble cause to follow.
  • learned to manage my time (at least somewhat better than before).
  • started taking yoga and running more regularly.
  • promised myself I would make a sincere effort to complain less about things that everyone complains about, and (kind of) succeeded (a little bit).
  • got hired and started my first "real" teaching job at a wonderful school with fantastic kids and an awesome group of teachers.
  • found a lot of people and things and situations for which I am so, very thankful.
In 2012, more than anything, I think I'd just like to maintain.  No need to set unrealistic expectations.  I think 2011 was a good start to many things.  And, as Mark Twain so kindly reminded me this morning, if I don't make resolutions, I don't have to worry about paving that ill-fated road of good intentions.