Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Spreading a Little Sunshine on my PLN

Here we go! Michael Mills (@aquiamigo) has pulled me into some Twitter fun and convinced me to share a little bit about my life outside of teaching.  Here's a link to his post as well as a link to the post that nominated him, written by Sandy Kendell (@edtechsandyk).  I only presently know Sandy through Twitter as a member of my PLN, but I'm really excited to be sitting on a panel with both Michael and Sandy at SXSWedu in March 2014!

From what I've read on several blogs, this challenge started out with the Sunshine Award and became a way for educators to share about themselves and learn about other members of their PLNs.

Here are the rules…

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.  They should be bloggers you believe deserve a little recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they’ve been nominated.  (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)
1. Michael Mills nominated me for this, teaches me awesome ways to use technology in my classroom, and has presented and worked with me several times in the past few years.  As our mutual friend Donna Wake says, "He's the next big thing in education." (and I'm super fortunate to work with him!)

2. Random Facts: 
  1. When I was a toddler, I slept with books instead of stuffed animals.  My love for books has not died down since.
  2. I received my favorite birthday present ever in my whole life on my 8th birthday.  My dad rented a hot air balloon and surprised me with a ride around town.  It's one of my most vivid memories.  
  3. In college, I competed in the Miss Arkansas pageant twice.  I made the Top Ten both times and received enough scholarship money to pay for my senior year of college.  I never did capture the Miss Arkansas crown, though.  I quit competing the day I was offered my first teaching job.
  4. My perfect day would involve sleeping in, waking up to hot coffee and an excellent book, and literally doing nothing else all day. 
  5. I move at a frenetic pace, and I always have.  When I has a kid, I used to always get in trouble for walking ahead of my parents.  At work people make fun of me (in a nice way) for always "clacking" down the hall. 
  6. As a young educator with no children of my own, I still call my students "my kids."  I hope I always, always love my students enough to refer to them as "my kids," even when I really do have my own kids.
  7. My favorite food will forever and always be peanut butter. 
  8. I went to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth for my freshman year of college, but then I got homesick and transferred to the University of Central Arkansas to finish my degree.  UCA allowed me to build relationships with professors and educators in Arkansas that may never have otherwise developed, so I feel like it was definitely the right call in the end.
  9. I am a truly left-handed person.  Most left-handed people can do at least some tasks right-handed. I cannot do anything right-handed at all.
  10. I can only sneeze in twos.  Never just one sneeze, never three sneezes.  Just two. Every time.  
  11. It is a sad but true fact that I never truly learned how to ride a bike.  Maybe someday someone will teach me!
3. Answers to Michael's questions:
  1. If you could choose who would play you in a movie, who would it be? Tiny Fey.  I don't even have to think about it.  I adore her and we're both brunettes!
  2. If you had to work a minimum wage job, what would it be? I would probably work in women's retail.  That's what I did before I started teaching, and I loved getting to meet people and dress them up!
  3. What decade produced the best music and why? 90s.  Pop princesses. Indie rock. Boy bands. Grunge.  I could listen to 90s Pandora radio all day, everyday.
  4. What movie makes you cry every time you watch it? The Blindside.  So much kindness and generosity.  It's just beautiful to me that those kinds of stories can come from real life.
  5. What book took you the most amount of time to read? Gone with the Wind.  I read it for the first time in 6th grade. It took me a whole semester, but I was determined to finish it. As an adult, it takes me a lot longer to read anything nonfiction.  
  6. What television show not on now would you like to see return? 30 Rock.  See above comments about my love for Tina Fey.  I would also have loved it if The Office never ended, but all good things, eventually, must come to an end.
  7. If you could have a vacation home anywhere, where would it be? Fiji.  I want one of those little bungalows out in the middle of the ocean.  I've pinned about ten of them on Pinterest.  Unfortunately, they are all out of my teacher's salary price range on vacation homes :)
  8. If you could have dinner with anyone living today, who would it be? That's a really tough question.  I think Maya Angelou.  Her work is really inspiring to me, and I would want her to teach me how to teach my students to love poetry. It's probably cheating if I write down two, but I would also really like to sit down to coffee with J.K. Rowling and talk about Harry Potter for several hours. Could I maybe have dinner with Maya and after-dinner coffee and dessert with J.K.?
  9. Which is better, Star Trek or Star Wars, and why? I pick Star Trek.  I don't have a good reason why.  I think it's just a matter of preference.
  10. If you could make one federal law by fiat, what would it be? This is a tough one.  I think I would make a law that requires adults to retake their driving test every 10 years.  However, I may only currently feel this way because holiday traffic has been awful and I live by the mall.
  11. What’s your favorite Schoolhouse Rock video? Conjunction Junction. Not even a contest.
4. Eleven people I'm glad I follow on Twitter: 
Note: This list is a combination of people I have never met but constantly find myself favoriting and retweeting on Twitter mixed with people I know and admire in "real life." Also, they are in no particular order.  I copied and pasted them from my "following" list on Twitter :)
  1. Christopher Lehman ‏ @iChrisLehman
  2. Dana Huff ‏ @danamhuff
  3. Justin Stortz ‏ @newfirewithin
  4. Kelly Gallagher ‏ @KellyGToGo
  5. Noel Gieringer ‏ @msgieringer
  6. Vicki Davis ‏ @coolcatteacher
  7. Sandy Kendell ‏ @EdTechSandyK
  8. Michael S. Mills ‏ @AquiAmigo
  9. Dixie Keyes ‏ @DixieKeyes
  10. Eric Sheninger ‏ @NMHS_Principal
  11. Ben Kuhlman ‏ @bkuhl2you
5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they’ve been nominated.
  1. What is your favorite topic to teach in your classroom?
  2. What's the title and author of the last book you read just for fun?
  3. What's the title and author of the last book you Book Talked to your students?
  4. What is your favorite technology tool and how do you use it?
  5. What is your favorite childhood memory?
  6. Describe your perfect meal.
  7. If you could go back in time and be any age again, how old would you be? Why?
  8. What's your favorite weekend activity/hobby?
  9. What made you decide to become an educator?
  10. What's the funniest/most memorable thing a student has ever said to you?
  11. If you could institute any new policy in your school, what would it be and why?
Ok, done and done!  Thanks, Michael! Time to pass it on…

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Are You a Scrooge?

One of my favorite parts of my job is introducing my students to great works of literature that they might never pick up and read on their own.  During second quarter, we teach Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  I really love the seventh grade curriculum that our team of teachers has built over the past couple of years as we've implemented Common Core, but I have to say that teaching this particular work is one of the highlights of my school year.  What I love so much about A Christmas Carol is the fact that there is so much depth to Ebenezer Scrooge's character.  It seems like every year I'm fortunate to learn something new about this character from the understandings of each new group of students.  I love how they look at this work in a new way each year and focus in on different aspects of Scrooge's character.

This week as we read the play, class after class kept focusing on the same thing--Scrooge's childhood.  Poor Ebenezer Scrooge has a pretty crummy childhood. He has little to no relationship with his father, he is isolated and has few friends, and the only person he loves, his sister, dies as a young woman.  In almost every class, at least one student brought up the point that it's not hard to see how Ebenezer Scrooge became a mean, isolated old miser.  He was a product of his childhood experiences.  Instead of showing resilience and overcoming his childhood isolation and sadness, he let it define him.

To say the least, I was really impressed that my students got to this particular point on their own.  I ask guiding questions as we read, but this particular understanding of Scrooge's character came straight from my students.  It caused me to reflect on how this idea of being defined by our circumstances holds parallel to our own everyday lives as teachers. Many of our students struggle not to be defined by their circumstances.  I teach a very socioeconomically diverse group of students.  Some of them have incredibly supportive, involved families while some of my students are practically raising themselves.  It's not difficult to see the impact of their environment on their social and academic lives.

I also started to reflect on how this idea of being a product of our surroundings could connect to teachers.  Our school surroundings try to impact us all the time.  In the three years I've been teaching full-time, I've been part of completely overhauling a curriculum, implementing new policies, and learning a new teacher evaluation system.  I'd say those things could have a pretty large impact on my teaching.  Teachers, in general, seem to always be having new things heaped on them or thrown at them.  Instead of removing some tasks and replacing them with others, it seems to me that, many times, more and more things are added to our proverbial "plates" until we have so much on our plate that it can't all feasibly get accomplished.

Here's the thing, though.  We have to decide, collectively, if we will be a product of our environment or with we will choose, instead, to define our schools.  Now, obviously, I don't mean that we can decide what we want to do and don't want to do and just say "shove it" to everything else.  What I mean is that we can choose to let our struggles (i.e., teacher evaluation, high stakes testing, crazy parents, crazy students, mountains of paperwork, etc.) define our day-to-day, or we can face these things knowing that despite them, we will do what it takes to impact the lives of the children we teach and we will reflect on and appreciate the small, sweet moments when our students have a positive impact on us.

Personally, I don't want to be a Scrooge. However, I know there are days when I'm a Scrooge about the plethora of tasks involved in doing my job.  My Christmas resolution is to be less of a Scrooge and more of a Tiny Tim.  I want to appreciate the little positive things in my day instead of focusing on the big frustrating things.  I want to define my environment, not let it define me.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

An Update on My Goals for Better Teaching

Yesterday, I got to enjoy a lovely "ice day" off from school, thanks to our most recent Arkansas "winter weather event."  I don't think it's been nearly as bad as our trusty weathermen and weatherwomen predicted, but that could also be because they told me I would most likely lose power.  Instead, I've been warm and toasty in my yoga pants, drinking lots of coffee and reading books.  I could have blogged yesterday, but I decided it sounded much more attractive to sleep in and do a whole lot of nothing.

I did do a little bit of work yesterday, actually.  A couple posts ago, I reflected on my NCTE experience and gave myself three goals for how my work would change. My first goal was to Book Talk more often.  I made a strong start this past Monday by Book Talking two books that I read over Thanksgiving break/on my way to and from Boston.  I gave my stamp of approval to Ender's Game, and all six of my classroom copies were checked out that day, as well as Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachman, which I only had on my iPad.  I now have two copies on the way from Amazon after getting multiple requests to check it out.  I have always required my students to Book Talk, but this year I've really dropped the ball on sharing my own reading.  It was so fun to see kids excited about these two books, and I'm looking forward to sharing my Snow Day reading next week.

Another one of my goals was to implement Google Docs into my writing instruction.  That required more people than just me signing on. Since my students are under 13 years of age for most of the school year, I have to carefully consider CIPA and COPA laws when I make my Internet decisions.  However, I received the go-ahead from my principal and our technology director last week to pilot the use of Google Drive with two classes. Yesterday, I spent my morning setting up their classes and playing around with Doctopus and some other scripts, reading blogs, and watching videos about different uses of the Drive.  I'm really excited to get started!  I think it's going to be really interesting to see if moving writing instruction to the Drive has a significant impact on my students' work.  I'm really looking forward to comparing the length and quality of student writing in the Google Drive classes to the length and quality of writing produced in the traditional composition notebooks.  Yay for action research! :)  I'll keep you guys posted on how it goes, promise!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dear Students, Thank you

While I was at NCTE last week, I left my students a writing assignment.  I asked them to write a thank you letter to any adult in our middle school. I told them it could be a teacher, principal, counselor, lunch lady, custodian, substitute, any adult.  My only requirement was that they choose someone who has helped them through middle school and that they make it meaningful.  I wanted them to share with that grown-up his or her true impact.  I knew that I was really needing a pick-me-up before our Thanksgiving break, and, judging by recent lunch conversations, my colleagues were really needing a pick-me-up, too. 

We have the whole week off for Thanksgiving this year, so yesterday I had the opportunity to spend a quiet, uninterrupted day in my classroom reading their letters.  I was amazed and pleased to find that, without receiving any direction from me to do so, my students managed to write at least one thank you letter to every seventh grade teacher, every counselor, every principal, the lunch ladies, the secretaries, the librarian, and the custodians. Reading their kind, thoughtful, honest letters inspired me to write my own thank you letter. I've found this year, that my students seem to really like it when I have to do the homework assignment, too.

Dear Students, 

My name is Ms. Herring, and I am thankful for you. I'm thankful for your smiles and greetings on mornings when I'm sleepy or sad or frustrated. I'm thankful for your encouragement and patience when a lesson doesn't go as I planned, or when our wireless internet quits working, or when the network fails to save your paper that you spent two days typing. I'm thankful for the mutual respect we've developed as our year has progressed, and I'm thankful for the trust you've put in me to be your teacher and to, in some small way, prepare you for your future.

I'm thankful for the times when you laugh at my nerdy teacher jokes, and I'm thankful for the times you say thank you after a lesson, either with your words or with the "light bulb moment" I can see on your face.  I'm thankful for the times I have to ask you to be quiet and get focused because it means you're excited to be at school (whether you'll admit it or not), and I'm thankful for the opportunity to channel that energy and excitement into your learning. 

Most of all, I'm thankful for the opportunity to get to know you.  I'm thankful that I get to be surrounded by interesting, funny, smart kids all day.  I'm thankful that I get to read your writing and hear your thinking in class.  I'm thankful that you come into my classroom everyday prepared to let me stretch your mind in some way. On this particular Thanksgiving, I am especially thankful for a job that I love and for students that make it an easy job to adore. 

Ms. Herring

Monday, November 25, 2013

Reflections on NCTE: How My Work Will Change

A week ago, I cannot even begin to explain to you how excited I was for Thanksgiving break. I love my job and my students, but I was TIRED.  My students were also TIRED, and more than that, they were ANTSY, which made me even more tired.  We were all greatly in need of a little time off to recharge.  Now that I have returned from NCTE in Boston, I am the farthest thing from tired; I am so excited to get back to my classroom and share my learning with my students!  I knew that NCTE would be a great opportunity for me to learn new things, but I don't think I anticipated the renewal that would come from attending the conference.  Being surrounded by English teachers and authors who were as excited as me to nerd out and talk about reading and writing was like a little slice of my own personal nerd heaven.  It. Was. Awesome.  I also had the opportunity to present with some of my colleagues, and not only did people show up at eight o'clock in the morning to listen to us, we had a full room with people in the hall!  Talk about a humbling experience.

One thing I loved about the conference was following the #ncte13 conversation on Twitter.  I added some new educators and authors to my small but growing PLN, and I was able to attend sessions presented by people I had only previously known from Twitter.  Pretty cool. Unfortunately, I was only able to be in one place at a time, as I have not been able to find any way to create a Harry Potter-style time-turner, but thanks to #ncte13, I was able to feel like I was catching the high points of sessions I wasn't able to attend.  I left NCTE feeling more connected and with a desire to help my students feel more connected in the classroom.  I think that new feeling of connectedness and support led to a greater feeling of renewal in my own work.  I was reminded that thousands of teachers across the country are fired up about making a difference.  Thousands of teachers are passionate about changing the face of education.  Thousands of teachers are hungry to grow and change their practice for the benefit of their students.  I am one of many.  My students deserve to feel that kind of renewal, too.  They are one of millions across our country.  Far from shrinking their individual importance, that increases their significance.  They are not alone.  Someone in our world feels they way they do, and there are so many opportunities for them to connect and find that to be true.  I can facilitate that connection through writing and reading. 

Now that I've had about 24 hours to reflect on my NCTE experience, I've come up with some goals for guiding my students toward greater connectedness...
  1. Book Talk more books!  I read constantly, but I don't share my own reading with students often enough.  They need to see that they can connect with me through reading, and that they can connect with new characters in books.
  2. Experiment with using Google Docs for the writing process.  The first session I attended at NCTE was about this topic, and I left the session ready to make this happen in my room.  I really believe this can change the way I facilitate the writing process, and it can change the way my students communicate with each other and me about their work.
  3. Even the playing field.  Carl Anderson discussed the importance of sharing our own writing and reading with our students and empowering our students to identify themselves as writers and readers.  I want to strive to talk to my students as equals in their process.  I want to encourage them to use the language of readers and writers.  This will strengthen their skills and my own skills as well.
Ultimately, I want to turn to more of a workshop approach in my classroom.  With the pressure of standards and testing, it can be difficult to relinquish control and flip the classroom, but our students deserve to learn how to guide their own process. I'm ready and excited to make that happen.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Finding Your Audience

This year, I seem to have more students than I have had in the past who crave connections.  In general, seventh graders seek approval.  They're still young enough to want to please their teachers (most of the time), but they're old enough to also demonstrate self-sufficiency.  I feel like it's the perfect balance between childhood neediness and the angst of adolescence.  At least, it is for me.  Anyway, I have always used writer's notebooks in my English classroom, loosely based on Ralph Fletcher's model of the writer's notebook.  I think it's important for students to record all kinds of writing, from small snippets to longer trains of thought.  There are ten entries each quarter that they are required to write, but they are also welcome to use their notebook for personal purposes as often as they want.  If they want me to read their writing, they know that they are welcome to turn their notebooks in at any time, and I will write back.

In previous years, I have had an occasional student or two who took me up on this offer.  Rarely were they writing about anything too serious.  I have, however, read about and responded to some pretty interesting seventh grade love triangle stories.  This year, I have a handful of students who turn their notebooks in to me at least weekly.  This group of students writes about problems with siblings, fights with parents, and disagreements with friends.  They write about the frustrations of being in the awkward middle school phase of life; they write about the seemingly unnecessary drama that has continued to grow in magnitude and frequency among children, thanks to reality television and other outside influences.  These are real life problems. They're all things that I remember feeling at their age, but I never thought to write them down, and I definitely never thought to share them with a teacher.

I've been thinking a lot lately about why there is this shift in the way that my students are sharing their personal lives and struggles with me.  There are many possible conclusions that I could make, but beyond all of them, I think it's important to recognize that our students, more than ever before, want an audience.  Sometimes, they want an audience of one, an audience who can read and respond with empathy and understanding.  Sometimes, they want an audience of thousands.  I have implemented Instagram into my classroom as a visual literacy tool, and I am always shocked at the ridiculous number of followers my students have accumulated at such a young age.  Children have always wanted to be heard.  The writer's notebook gives them a small avenue for publishing to a narrow audience.  The Internet and social media opens a Pandora's box of publishing options, and my students seem to crave the validation of knowing that other people are watching what's going on, Truman Show-style.

This week, I read this article about how digital writing is making kids smarter.  It made me start to wonder if I can leverage my students' desire for an audience to help them create stronger, more polished writing.  I'll be attending my first NCTE conference this weekend in Boston, and thanks to the mobile app, I've already bookmarked several sessions on the topic.  I can't wait to learn, grow, and help my students find a broader audience for their lives and their writing.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why I Love Professional Development

Happy November!  The Christmas season (my favorite season) is drawing closer!  I used to be a Christmas purist, who refused to acknowledge the Christmas season until Thanksgiving had come and gone, but now that I teach A Christmas Carol as my core text for the second quarter, I wholeheartedly jump into the Christmas spirit right after Halloween.  This is a season of sparkly decorations and fun times with friends and holiday drinks at Starbucks, and I am a fan.

I'm also a fan of professional development.  Yes.  I said it.  I love professional development.  Now, I'm not necessarily talking about the mind-numbing, sleep inducing, turn-down-the-lights-and-show-a-PowerPoint professional development that all teachers have to attend at some point in their careers.  I'm talking more about the kind of professional development that allows teachers from different places to meet, share, and have discourse about how they improve learning for their students.

Last week on Thursday and Friday, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the Arkansas Curriculum Conference in Little Rock.  I had the opportunity to listen to some awesome teachers,  preservice teachers, university faculty, and authors talk about things they are doing to help students learn.  It was so refreshing to listen to people who are so fired up and passionate about what they are doing each day.  It's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, and I think it's really important to rekindle that fire and passion for our profession.  I also think it's really important to share what's working in my own classroom with others who may also find success with it in their own schools.

I shared some of the technology tools that I use in my own classroom in a session I presented with Dr. Michael Mills from UCA.  I also have to give credit to the awesome media specialist at my school, Jacqueline Vergason, for introducing me to some of the sites in this Live Binder.  Feel free to use any of these sites, and if you have questions, send me a message! I'd love to learn how you plan to use these technology tools in your own classroom, or answer questions about how I've used them with my students.

ACC was a good reminder to me that it's important to share knowledge with our colleagues, not just our students.  Let's spread some Christmas season love by sharing our professional practice with those in our buildings, by problem solving together, and by being better teachers tomorrow than we were today.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Don't Grow Tired of Doing Good

This year, my school district decided to fully implement a Bring Your Own Device policy on all secondary school campuses.  Last year, I piloted BYOD, or BYOT as some people call it, and I saw a lot of success in the work that my students were creating.  I found that they were engaged in a whole new way when they were able to bring their own technology and work together to create a product or participate in technology enhanced discussion.  Because of my experiences last school year, I was thrilled to know that our whole campus would be implementing the policy this year.

But here's the thing.  Technology fails sometimes; kids fail sometimes, too, in drawing the line in what is acceptable school technology use and what is not.  This past week, both types of failures happened at my school.  Technology failed at a time when we least needed it to do so--during literacy and math quarterly standardized testing.  As a measure to prepare for PARCC testing, our district decided to administer all quarterly testing for math and literacy fully online.  That meant no back-up paper copies.  That meant that when the portal failed (like it did on Tuesday and Wednesday) and when the school's network connectivity went down (like it did on Thursday and Friday) kids were frustrated and teachers were frustrated and everyone went home tired and begging for a paper test.

Back up to before any of that even occurred...on Monday I received a note in my box that three of my students had been suspended from technology for two weeks for taking photos of other students on their devices without the permission of these students in health class.  Not cool.  It specifically states in our acceptable use policy and in our BYOD agreements AND in the digital citizenship session our students are required to attend when school starts that they are not to take students' photograph without their express permission.  These students got caught up in the fact that they had their phones with them, they were bored, and, hey, when kids aren't in school, what are they doing?  Taking pictures of each other, sending snapchats, and posting on Instagram.  That's their real life.

BYOD problems occur at other campuses as well.  I realize that our problems this past week are not unique.  It's just part of the implementation curve.  But this is my concern.  Many times, when problems occur in succession, it becomes easy to want to give up on the change.  I think giving up on this particular change has huge implications for our students.  Our students have been taught, almost since birth, that a cell phone or a tablet is a great "toy." It plays movie to keep them occupied; it has games on it that will keep their faces staring at the screen for hours; it takes pictures and movies.  It's a world of entertainment at their fingertips.  Before they had their own devices, they had their parents' devices.  What our students need to learn through BYOD is that their devices are not just toys.  They're instructional tools and life tools.  Those phones don't just hold games and movies. They hold a wealth of information.

In addition, so many of our students lack any type of digital etiquette.  Let's face it.  So many of the adults we see everyday lack any type of digital etiquette.  They place calls or check Facebook in the checkout line at the grocery store.  They text during meetings.  They send snapchat selfies in their cars at stoplights.  This is the world we live in, and I am just as guilty as the next guy who is choosing an Instagram filter at the dinner table instead of enjoying face to face conversation with the other people there.  Our students have to learn when those entertainment choices are and are not appropriate.  It has always been our obligation as teachers to educate our students for the world they live in now AND the world they'll live in as grownups.  I think the world we live in now could use some soon-to-be adults who know how to use technology for good, necessary reasons, not just to be their daily boredom-killer.

So, as my devotional challenged me on this gorgeous Sunday morning, I will not grow tired of doing good.  I will not grow tired, in a moment of frustration and exhaustion, of teaching my students to be better digital citizens.  As idealistic as it may sound, I do completely believe that my job is not just to teach English, it's to create smarter, more involved, more respectful future-adults. Even when it's frustrating.  Even when there are failures along the way.  Here's to a new week, and a new opportunity to turn failures in to teachable moments and do some good.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Spreading Happiness

It's been an exciting two weeks at the middle school, not to mention that last week was birthday week.  I realize that most people probably view my obsession with birthday celebration as a little over the top, but it sure is fun.  So as long as I can keep it up, the tradition of week-long birthday fun will continue. This year was a much more subdued, less hectic version of birthday week, but it was still awesome.  The fun wound down last night with Girls Night painting at one of those BYOB painting places.  It was such a wonderful reminder that I am blessed with some seriously wonderful friends.

At school, lots has been going on, too.  We finished our study of The Diary of Anne Frank, and now we're writing our first research paper.  Last week, thanks to our school's awesome library media specialist, our seventh graders were able to Skype with a Holocaust survivor as part of their preliminary research for their paper.  Talk about a primary source!  Mr. Finkel was captured by the Nazis in Poland when he was eight years old and wasn't released until he was thirteen.  His story of survival is amazing, inspiring, and incredibly heartbreaking.  His goal in speaking with students is to ensure that future generations continue to fight against racial injustices.  He was so sweet as he answered the students' questions and interacted with them during the Skype, and I feel like they learned a lot.  I feel like I learned a lot, too.  It was so eye-opening to hear about the atrocities of the Holocaust from a firsthand perspective.

This week, our school got another awesome opportunity when we became the first school in Arkansas to partner with the American Heart Association and Teaching Gardens to build a Teaching Garden.  Our school is receiving the supplies to build and maintain a self-sustaining garden that will supply fresh produce to our cafeteria.  It is such an awesome opportunity for our students to learn where food comes from and how to cultivate and cook fresh, natural ingredients.

Needless to say, all of these awesome opportunities have enhanced our students' educational experience in the past two weeks.  It's been so fun to watch their reactions to these events!  Some of them are so excited and involved while others seem to be totally clueless to the awesomeness of these opportunities.  It's been a good reminder to me that our job everyday is to help kids "plug in."  Excitement and happiness is contagious. Even when I have a bad day, or I'm tired, or I'm not in the best mood, it's still my job to spread excitement and happiness to my students because their day might be going even worse than mine.  It's been easy to be excited with all the fun things that have been going on lately, but as we really dig in to writing a research paper, the struggle to make class "fun" really begins.  Here's to spreading some happiness to my students as they send me death glares while writing their first research paper.  It's going to be a great week!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Remaining Cool and Unruffled

Constitution Day was this week.  In honor of the writing of this document, I'd like to do a little writing of my own, based on a quote from one of the architects of our great nation.  This quote also happens to speak directly to the the kind of advice I needed someone to give me this week.

“Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”        ― Thomas Jefferson

What a smart guy.  If only I could follow this advice every day and never find myself frustrated by a particular group of seventh graders whose chattiness at the end of the day borders on disrespect... If only I could remain calm, cool, and collected every time the copier breaks (again) or a child asks me a question I literally. just. answered.  By Thursday, all of the patience and peace that was accumulated over the previous weekend has typically worn down to a more emotional response to said roadblocks in the day. I feel like no matter what your profession, this pattern can be seen. When the pace of work is more frenetic, when the people with whom we are interacting make what we feel like are unfair demands  that make our lives harder, then it also gets a lot tougher to "remain always cool and unruffled."

Yesterday, during the last class of the day.  I did not manage to stay cool and unruffled.  My class could not stop talking.  This class is made up of a group of kids who, for the most part, have been friends since elementary school.  I felt like I set a strong precedent for behavior during the first two weeks of school, but we've been in a downhill descent for the last week and a half.  Yesterday, they won.  I busted out my "real teacher voice" and told them exactly who was in charge.  This particular approach, one I like to call "yelling," is obviously the least effective of the classroom management tools in my toolbox, but I was frustrated.  By allowing myself to get emotional, I gave them the advantage, and they took it.  Now, they didn't do this on purpose.  This is a sweet, well-meaning, smart group of seventh graders.  But putting all their redeeming qualities aside, they are still 12-year-olds who are trying to sit still and focus for the final hour of an eight hour stretch of sitting still and focusing.  It's a tough life.

Anyway, the bell rang at the end of the day yesterday, and I knew I needed a new approach to make this work.  Preferably, I needed a "calm and unruffled" approach.  I looked at the seating chart to see who I could switch around.  Nothing.  When a class of twenty-eight children are almost all buddies, and you have thirty chairs, there's not a whole lot that shuffling the seating chart can really do.  But then I realized (lightbulb moment!) that they didn't know that. All they knew was that I allowed them to pick their seats during the first week of school, and they were really enjoying their personal seating choices.

So here's what I did today.  The bell rang, and I said in a calm and unruffled voice," The first time I ask you to stop talking today, I will change the seating chart. The second time I ask you to stop talking, the whole class will have lunch detention Monday.  The third time I ask you to stop talking, I will start giving individual, after school detentions.  Now please get out your bellringers, so we can go over the directions."  The rest of that fifty minutes was glorious!  Not a single child spoke one word without raising his or her hand.  Thomas Jefferson turned out to be right.

My goal for the coming week is to maintain the upper hand by remaining calm and unruffled.  I have to remind myself that things outside my sphere of influence just have to be faced.  Complaining about them isn't going to change them or make them go away.  I'm going to focus this week on finding some inner peace and keeping it, even when it's tough.  Even in the presence of the chaos that is seventh grade.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Turning an Epic Fail into a Win: An EdTech Story

Ok, so today could have been terrible.  I mean absolutely awful.  I had planned to do a Bring Your Own Device lesson today, since I'm in the process of making my classroom a more "EdTech friendly" environment.  I even enlisted the help of my colleague from UCA, Dr. Michael Mills, who is always ready with an awesome creative lesson idea.  Once again he succeeded in amazing me with a fantastic, high level thinking activity, requiring students to analyze multiple primary and secondary sources and evaluate their relevance to a particular research question.

The BYOD/technology piece here is that each source is accessible to students through a QR code.  Now, I love a good QR code.  It bypasses the need to have a large number of students logged on to the wifi network, which can cause a pretty solid traffic jam sometimes, creating a situation where nobody can get on the Internet.  QR codes also eliminate the need for students to type in lengthy website addresses, should they be accessing the Internet.  All things considered, I think QR codes are GREAT. When they work.  When they work, they're just fantastic.  However, today they did not work.

In our efforts to bypass our need for the Internet, our QR codes connected to text turned out so complex that the QR scanner apps on the devices couldn't read them.  And thus, we have come to the center of my love/hate relationship with technology.  I adore technology.  In fact, I probably have an addiction to several social networks.  I don't know how I would survive without my iPhone, and (true confession) I've never taught without a SmartBoard.  But when technology fails, it's not just a minor hiccup.  It's an epic fail.  In the moment when Dr. Mills and I realized that the QR codes weren't going to work, we could have panicked.  We could have said, forget it kids, we'll just read Diary of Anne Frank today, so you don't have homework.  Most people would have found that perfectly acceptable.  But not us.  I refuse to lose to a computer.

So we did what every good teacher does.  We decided to monitor and adjust.  In first and second period, we struggled through the process of frantically downloading new QR scanners and trying to increase the size of the codes to see if they scanned more easily.  This helped, sort of.  Some codes would scan, and some wouldn't.  We pulled up some of the sources on the SmartBoard and worked through part of the activity as a class.  Amazingly (and thankfully) my first two classes of the day were incredibly well behaved and perceptive to the fact that we were doing our very best to make things work.  They did the best they could with what they had, and they instinctively worked cooperatively with others around them to try their best to get the work done.  I was so thrilled I could have cried tears of joy.  That first week foundation that was laid and creating our classroom vision statements really seemed to come into play today.  My kids were living out their commitment to create an awesome learning environment, and I didn't even have to ask them to do it.  It was a proud, although still stressful, moment.

By third period, we solved the problem.  Rather than having students scan codes to access the sources, we put the text on the handout and had students cut the the sources out into twelve squares.  They then had to sort their sources into three groups: images, primary sources, and secondary sources.

After sorting their sources, students used their devices to identify the people in each of the images.  Since we've been reading Anne Frank, they knew exactly who Anne was.  I mean, she's on the front of their book!  But they were a little unsure about some of the other images.  Since we couldn't use the QR codes, this was a great way to still integrate technology into the lesson.  It ended up being a really meaningful mini-lesson in identifying appropriate search terms, which is both a Common Core technology standard and a pretty important life skill these days.

The last step was to sift through the evidence with a partner and determine which pieces of evidence were relevant to the question.  We gave students twelve pieces of evidence, and they only needed eight of them to answer their two questions, four pieces of evidence for each of our two questions.  This meant that students had to sift out the four unnecessary sources, and then determine which sources applied to each question.  

Once they evaluated the evidence and selected the correct pieces, they could answer each question, and glue their evidence to their paper.  By seventh period, we finally hit our rhythm with this lesson, and even had time to spare!  Students used that time to reflect on their process during the lesson.

Overall, I learned two things today.  First, I learned that a strong classroom management foundation is essential in implementing a BYOD program in any classroom.  A mutual trust and respect must be built in order for students to be successful in the process of learning how to use their devices for instructional and educational purposes and not just as playthings. Second, if you think you have to be flexible when a traditional lesson tanks, you just multiply that by 100, and that's how flexible you'll need to be if a technology-based lesson tanks.  I'm pretty Type A, so it can be hard for me to switch gears quickly in a lot of situations.  But like I said earlier, I also hate to lose, and I'm definitely not losing to an iPad.  With any lesson, it's important to have a Plan B, but I was reminded today just how necessary it is to take what you're given, no matter how frustrating it is, and turn it into a win for the students.  

Before I call it a night, I have to thank Dr. Mills and our school's media specialist for jumping in and fixing the problem with me.  I don't think I would have survived the adventure of today without an awesome co-teacher to keep my sense of humor intact and help me monitor and adjust.  It made for an awesome lesson and an even better story :)    

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tabletop Twitter

Today was an AWESOME day, thanks to my coworker Amy.  Because she introduced me to my new favorite lesson -- Tabletop Twitter.  I had SO much fun doing this with my students today!  I think the best part about this lesson is that it's completely student directed.  I set it up with about five minutes of instructions at most, and then every single class totally engaged in teaching each other (YAY!!) and analyzing passages from The Diary of Anne Frank.  Watching my students truly engage in cooperative learning and monitor their own on-task behaviors was like a little slice of heaven.  And I think I even tricked them into thinking they were just "having fun." ;)

Ok, so here's how it works...our team of teachers picked five passages from the reading homework.  Each passage was 2-3 paragraphs.  Then, each passage was put on plain butcher paper.  When students came in, they were split into five groups.  Each group starts at their own piece of butcher paper.  Everyone has two silent minutes to reread their passage.  When the timer goes off, each group has two minutes to talk, come to a consensus, and "tweet" their response to the reading on their piece of butcher paper.  We focused on inferring emotions and developing empathy with Anne Frank.  Students are also allowed to "hashtag" their responses.  Here's the tricky part...no "retweets" are allowed.  That means that students have to come up with new ideas each time they come to a new passage.  By the time a group reaches their fifth passage, this gets tricky, and students really have to read between the lines.

Here are some pictures from our lesson today...


Any day that I get through six class periods, and every single class says they want to do this lesson again, it's a HUGE victory!  So thanks to Amy, I had an absolutely awesome day in my classroom.  I can't wait to do this activity again this year with new content.  It will be fun to see what kids are able to do with it, now that they've done it once.

Looking forward to more #TabletopTwitter as the year goes on! #success

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Few Thoughts on TESS...

The children are off to a great start!  We jumped right in to our first book study with The Diary of Anne Frank this week.  It was quite a change of pace from our bright and cheery first week of school fun last week to discussing the Holocaust this week.  I was really impressed with the amount of prior knowledge that this group of students brought to our discussion!  Thanks, sixth grade teachers!!  Each class period added something different to our conversation, and it was so fun to see how each class seemed to focus on different key facts and ideas.

As this year began, I was hopeful that I would find all this new "free time."  With no more grad school to take up my evenings, I just knew I was going to be able to insert all these new, fun things into my post-school hours... So far, those post-work hours have been filled with more work; mostly, I feel like I have TESS to thank for my new work duties.  TESS is the new teacher evaluation system in Arkansas. I know that programs like this have been in existence in other states for many years, but I also know that for many teachers in Arkansas, it's totally rocked their world.

For me, I just feel like I'm in college again.  The standards by which we'll be assessed are almost exactly the same as those that I lived by in my student teaching.  Today, I picked up my "evaluation timeline" for this year, and died a little inside.  So. Much. Paperwork.  However, I also feel like, even though I find myself occasionally annoyed and trying to decide which days I want to stay late at work to build my portfolio, TESS is making me a better, more reflective teacher already.  I feel like I always make an attempt to use this writing space as a reflective tool for myself, even if it hasn't exactly been consistent.  This year, I've spent at least five minutes at the end of each day writing "reflection notes" on each day's lesson.  It's helped me focus on which kids are succeeding and struggling and which lessons are working or aren't.  Most of all, it's given me a better opportunity to connect one day to the next.  I feel like my process of teaching is becoming more cyclical and connected, and I'm liking the way that works for me and for my students.

There's a great quote that says, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” I'd say this is definitely true of my personal life and my classroom life.  I've learned so much about being a teacher (and a grownup) in the past three years.  Every day is a new lesson for me, just like it is for my students, and I'm looking forward to all the new wisdom from the middle that I'll gain this year.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Creating a Vision

The first two days of school are in the books, and they were great!  Before I started my first year of teaching, a then-coworker told me I wouldn't quite feel comfortable in the classroom until the third year. At the time, I thought that was a pretty negative statement, but after the first two days of Year Three, I'm thinking maybe there was some truth to what she said.  I was really nervous, like more nervous than I probably should have been, leading up to the start of this new year.  But once the first bell rang, I felt the most calm and collected I've ever felt on the first day.

On top of feeling more confident and relaxed, it helped that I have a great group of students this year!  I am so excited about learning with them and seeing where this year takes us.  Which leads me into my very favorite thing about this new year...writing classroom vision statements.

This year, one of the teachers on my team suggested that we have each class write a vision statement about where they want this year to go. I was nervous about this at first.  You can never tell whether 7th graders are going to be mature enough to handle something like this on Day One, or if they'll make it a game.  I was SO impressed today when it all came together.  Every class fully participated in a democratic way.  They encouraged each other and improved on each other's ideas respectfully.  By the end of the day, I had decided that this lesson is probably one of my favorite lessons that I have ever facilitated (that's right.  I facilitated.  The kids wrote these by themselves!)  Here they are... I think you'll see why I am so excited!

1st Period’s Class Vision Statement
School is important because it helps you become successful.  Therefore, our class should be hard-working and respectful every day, so we can learn vocabulary and writing skills in 7th grade English.  In order to learn and be successful, students in 1st period will listen, do their best, and be prepared.  As your teacher, Ms. Herring will be detailed and specific and make sure you understand to help you have an awesome year!

2nd Period’s Class Vision Statement
School is important because it teaches you the life skills you need to go to college or get a job.  Therefore, our class should be focused and prepared every day, so we can learn vocabulary and writing, reading, and grammar skills in 7th grade English.  In order to learn and be successful, students in 2nd period will listen, work hard, and be respectful.  As your teacher, Ms. Herring will make sure you understand when you struggle and be detailed and specific to help you have an awesome year!

3rd Period’s Class Vision Statement
School is important because it gives you life skills and helps you become successful.  Therefore, our class should be awesome by being focused and prepared, so we can learn reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary skills in 7th grade English.  In order to learn and be successful, students in 3rd period will listen, work hard, and be respectful.  As your teacher, Ms. Herring will be detailed and specific and help you when you struggle, while being nice, in order to help you have an awesome year!

6th Period’s Class Vision Statement
School is important because it gives you life skills and helps you go to college and get a job.  Therefore, our class should be respectful and hard-working every day, so we can learn reading, writing, and grammar skills in 7th grade English.  In order to learn and be successful, students in 6th period will pay attention, work hard, and be prepared.  As your teacher, Ms. Herring will be nice and help you understand when you struggle, so you have an awesome year!

7th Period’s Class Vision Statement
School is important because it teaches you life skills and helps you become successful.  Therefore, our class should be awesome by being focused and prepared every day, so we can learn reading, writing, and grammar skills in 7th grade English.  In order to learn and be successful, students in 7th period will listen, do their best, and be respectful. As your teacher, Ms. Herring will be detailed and specific, help you understand when you struggle, and be nice, so you have an awesome year!

8th Period’s Class Vision Statement
School is important because it helps you go to college so you will have a bright future.  Therefore, our class should be focused and hard-working every day, so we can learn reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary skills in 7th grade English.  In order to learn and be successful, students in 8th period will listen, work hard, be prepared, and be respectful.  As your teacher, Ms. Herring will be nice, detailed, and specific, will help you when you struggle, and will make sure you understand, so you have an awesome year!

These are all now printed, laminated, and posted proudly at the front of my classroom, so we can refer to them throughout the year and make sure we're on track with our vision.  What I love so much about these is that they're all similar in some ways, but they're also different.  You can see what each class values, what makes it unique as a group of students.  My favorite moment today was during third period when a student said, "I am going to love this class!  I've never felt like I had a say in class before.  It's like I have ownership."  Oh. my. gosh.  Seriously?!  Isn't that what all teachers are working toward?  Student ownership is key.  They've got to buy in and be engaged if anything great is going to happen.  I think today as a great first step in that direction.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Significant Learning

Well, I had decided when I came back to the blog that Sunday would be my regular blogging day, but this Sunday I was coming back from the lake and sleeping.  Therefore, Tuesday is blogging day.  We're two days into in-service week at my school.  The children and their parents came for Open House last night, and we start school next Monday.  Amidst all the yearly reminders and required sessions on things-we-need-to-know-for-a-great-year, two things stood out to me, and they've been mulling around in my brain for the past 48 hours.

The first thing is a quote that my principal asks everyone she interviews for teaching positions.  She always states her favorite quote and asks each candidate what it means to him or her.  The quote is, "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship."  I have no idea what my response was when she asked me that question.  I'm sure I was so adrenaline-driven that I just blurted out the first thing that came to my mind.  However, in the course of the day yesterday, she also told us the answer that one of my coworkers gave in his interview, and it's probably one of my favorite things I've heard lately.  He said that his job (our job as teachers) isn't just to create significant 7th graders.  Our job is to create significant adults.  Therefore, significant learning is lifelong learning.  It's learning that creates significant adults.

Now, "significant" is relative to the child, but the essence of this response rang in my ears all day yesterday, especially during Open House last night.  I'm not just preparing kids to be great seventh graders; I should be giving them the knowledge or thirst for knowledge that they need to grow into individuals who thrive on inquiry and critical thinking.  I should be striving to foster individuality and creativity.  In my opinion, those are the qualities that breed "significance," far more than superior standardized test taking skills breed significance.  I get it that standardized testing is part of my reality as a teacher, but I really want my focus this year to be on authentic learning experiences.

The second thing that stuck in my mind was a speaker we heard today during our district's convocation.  His call to action for us was to tell the positive stories of our classroom.  When he said that, I immediately thought, "Oh, I have got this! I do that in my blog!"  But then I went on to think about happy hour with my friends, when I complain about the tough things that happened during the week or the problem children I dealt with; I thought about calling my boyfriend to vent about that tough class period that was slowly wearing me down; I thought about whining to my parents about the papers I had to grade and the lack of effort a student may have made on an assignment.  I began to realize that I'm not always a great ambassador for my school.

Here's the thing, I adore my job.  The pros far outweigh the cons.  And while it's important to vent to protect one's general sanity, I need to make sure I'm advertising to everyone around me that middle school is wonderful, and my job is rewarding and fulfilling.  In a show of good faith toward my decision to be more positive, here's a small positive story to start me off...

At Open House last night, I saw hundreds of people.  Parents, students, and siblings came through my room all night.  Somewhere in the middle of the rush, two former students of mine came into my room. I taught them during my first year of teaching, and they were always causing chaos or forgetting homework.  Anyway, these two boys walked in my door with huge smiles on their faces, silently sat down in desks, and waited patiently for a group of new parents and students to leave and visit other classrooms.  When the group had moved on, these two boys stood up and gave me huge bear hugs that swallowed me (even in 9th grade they're already taller than me), and they said, "We sure miss you, Ms. Herring." They stayed and chatted, telling me about school, summer vacations, and football. Open House was the third or fourth time since being in seventh grade that these two boys have come back together to visit me.  I've said before that it's the little things that can really make any day better.  Their visit made my day better because their visit meant that I made a difference for them.  Maybe it was a small difference.  But regardless of the size of the impact, just knowing that they remembered seventh grade English enough to stop by and update me on their lives made me smile to myself.  Visits like theirs, letters that students send me to say "thank you" or "I miss your class;" those are the only signs I need that slowly but surely, I'm helping to create significant adults.

So I look forward to a  year of significant learning and sweet stories of my classroom.  I can't wait to get started and get to know this new group of kids.  I really, truly believe that this will be the best year yet.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Middle School Drama

Well, a new school year starts tomorrow for me.  It's officially time to get my classroom looking all shiny and new for the first day of school.  Last week, I was fortunate to get to spend most of the week at the lake doing absolutely nothing but laying in the sun and reading books.  It was much needed and much enjoyed.  I would always rather read young adult fiction than adult fiction, and I'm currently obsessed with author John Green and am in the process of reading all of his books. I started Paper Towns while I was there, and I'm loving it so far.  Anyway, I also read a nonfiction book related to teaching middle school to get me geared up for a new school year.  I started doing this last summer and decided to make it a personal tradition of sorts, a way to learn something new that I can apply to my work.  Last year, I read What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali.  This year, I read The Drama Years by Haley Kilpatrick.

Now, I was a middle school girl a lot more recently than the majority of my co-workers, and I remember having some pretty petty and ridiculous drama.  Despite feeling not all too removed from the upheaval of middle school, it was really good for me to read this book.  Kilpatrick dives into the pressures and frustrations that face todays sixth, seventh, and eighth grade girls and discusses problems, like frienemies, mean girls, boys, and self esteem, by providing interviews with middle school and high school girls who are willing to share their thoughts and feelings.  What I realized in reading the book is that a lot of these problems don't go away post-middle school.  Girls who become twenty-something and thirty-something women still deal with frienemies, mean girls, boys/men, and self esteem.  Middle school is merely our introduction to issues and pressures that are always going to be there in some form or fashion.

All of this got me thinking; am I really acting as a good role model for my girls at school?  Am I modeling how to resolve conflicts and providing a listening, empathetic ear? Am I Tina Fey's character in Mean Girls?....just kidding.  Anyway, my point here is that as I was reading I started to realize that somewhere along the way, my mindset shifted toward adulthood, and I started to see the "silly drama" my students are dealing with for all its pettiness and not as the monumental moment that a 13-year-old girls can feel that it is.  While it's important for me to bring these kids back down to Earth, it's also important for me to practice greater understanding when their dramas turn into traumas.  The middle school girl experience is different, even from when I was in middle school back in the day.  Social networks and cyberbullying make girls even more vulnerable than they once were to the Regina Georges of their own generation.  I feel like it's my responsibility to be available.

In the chaos of the day-to-day, being "available" can be tough.  The thirty minutes of relative silence that is my lunch time is like an oasis some days, making it hard to say yes when a student says, "Ms. Herring, do you have time to talk?"  But it's my job to have that time. Some girls can't or won't talk with their parents, and girls need wisdom beyond the capacity of a fellow 13-year-old sometimes.  So my resolution for this year is to be available, to be empathetic, to be a listener, to be what my students need as they navigate the drama.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

I'm Back!

I'M BACK!! I've probably lost my entire readership after this impressively long hiatus, but I'm excited to get back to writing regardless.  My last post was in early February, about six months ago, so you can imagine that a lot has happened in the time since I last shared the wisdom of my delightful middle school students.  My reasons for taking a break from the blog were both personal and professional.  In a nutshell, my life just got out of balance.  In late January, my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, which was a really tough experience for my whole family.  His strength and positive attitude throughout his treatment was incredibly inspiring, and last week we found out that he is 100% cancer free!  Needless to say, it was a very happy week for our whole family.

Since I left my small but mighty audience hanging when I stopped writing in February, here are some highlights on how my classroom rounded out the year...

  • We increased our use of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) by using our cell phones to build vocabulary acquisition and comprehension skills.
  • We created iBooks using our new and exciting knowledge of the elements of science fiction writing.
  • We did AWESOME on the ACTAAP! 97% of my students scored Proficient or Advanced on their state tests in literacy.  I totally did a happy dance when I found that out.
Then, it was summer time!  Well, sort of... Summer school started the day after school let out for the year.  For the second year in a row, I was fortunate to work with a diligent, determined, and delightful group of kids in summer school.  We read S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, which they loved, and we diagrammed sentences, which they loved a little less.  It was so rewarding to see such a great group of kids make the progress they need to be more successful in the next school year.  

Post-summer school, there was finally a little time for rest and relaxation to get excited for a new school year.  I am finishing up my Masters degree, and I'm pretty darn excited to start my third year of teaching as my first year not being a student, too.  Of course, I'm a student of my students.  I'm sure this new group will come in ready to teach me lots of new lessons, and I'm excited to learn from them. Today marks the beginning of the end for Ms.Herring's summer break.  This Thursday, August 1, is my first day back at work.  I can't lie, I'm thrilled to get back.  I'm antsy to get my classroom ready and meet my new students and try new things in my classroom.  It's going to be good to be back!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Small Smiles and the Word of the Week

The past two weeks of my life have easily been the most stressful consecutive weeks of my life.  Two members of my immediate family have dealt with major health concerns and had surgeries, and one of my boyfriend's oldest and dearest friends passed away in the line of duty as a police officer.  Experiencing all of the stress, fear, and worry that came along with these situations made it difficult to focus on anything else.  I felt like I was floating through my day, hazily responding to students and colleagues, losing my train of thought in the middle of tasks and conversations as my mind would wander back to the worries.  Even my students could tell I wasn't myself.  It was as if they were tiptoeing around me everyday.  I have never heard my classes so quiet and reserved.

While those worries don't go aways, they are eased in knowing that my family and friends are constantly praying for the situations with which I am currently struggling.  I've been doing a daily reflection that my principal gave me (on a particularly bad day when I was an emotional basket case), and it has provided me so much peace and centeredness as I start my day at my desk each morning.

Another thing that has brought brightness to my school day is my students. Something I've never blogged about but have used in my classroom since I began teaching last year is the Word of the Week.  Word of the Week, or WotW, is one of my favorite standing lessons that I do each week.  Every Monday, the bellringer is a short worksheet that asks students various questions in order to help them understand a new vocabulary word.  Then, beginning on Tuesday, students can use the word in a sentence during class in order to get a piece of candy after class.

This leads to some really great sentences, like this one:

"Ms. Herring, I really comprehended that lesson, thanks to your great teaching!"

And some sentences that make it sound like they've never learned English before:

"Ms. Herring, you sure comprehended that lesson to me this afternoon!"

When they really "get" the word, their sentences make me smile, especially when the word is so far out of their normal vocabularies.  When it's obvious that they totally don't get the word, and they butcher it terribly on the off-chance that I'll give them candy, it makes me smile even bigger.

Lately I've been reminded about the importance of small smiles.  Sometimes, even in the middle of the worst weeks, all you need is one of those small smiles to get you through the day.  Fortunately, the Word of the Week this week is "embody,"  so I'm sure I'll be getting plenty of small smiles out of hearing them try to use that!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Power of Respect

It's been well over a month since the last time I had a chance to write, but it's not for lack of material. I promise.

On the last day of school, I took my "Elf Club" members to Wal-mart to spend over $20,000 that they raised throughout the fall semester to support the Christmas giving of the local Kiwanis Club.  Their giving spirit and their excitement to know that they were helping others was infectious.  I honestly think it was the highlight of my holiday season.

And then there was Christmas with my family.  Closely followed by "Snowpocalypse 2012," which made me appreciate electricity and the freedom to go where I want to go when I want to go there maybe more than I have ever appreciated electricity and the freedom to go where I want to go when I want to go there.  It was truly a weeklong exercise in extreme patience.

After the snow melted, I got to ring in 2013 with my best friends in the whole world and my fantastic boyfriend.

And then before I knew it, we were back in school.  The children all came back looking a little taller than I remembered and acting a little more confident (and slightly more full of themselves, per any almost-8th-grader).  I was thrilled to see my students again!  As nice as it is to still live my adult work life on a middle school schedule, complete with a Christmas break, I always start to get antsy by the time we start back up for second semester.

Anyway, as excited as I was to see the children, I was a little shocked, after the first couple of days back, that a few of my students had magically discovered the art of sass and bad attitudes in their two weeks away from me.  I found myself having to reassert my expectations and drop a few detentions on some kids.  I even had to write my first pink slip, which was maybe my least favorite teaching experience to date.  I found myself wondering last week why a kid would make things so hard on themselves?  I mean, I get it.  They're testing the boundaries, figuring it out, asserting their independence and trying to gain adult respect, blah, blah, blah, child psychology, etc., etc.  But knowing why they seemed to have forgotten all the rules made it no less frustrating.  Suffice it to say that Ms. Herring ended up winning the battle because, let's face it, the teacher always wins.  This week has been so much less stressful.

Our 3rd quarter unit is all about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  It is my favorite unit because middle school students are so hyper-sensitive to the idea of justice.  They want justice and equality for themselves, and as they learn about the injustices that people suffered only 50 years ago in this country, you can see their indignation growing.  Last week, they wrote and delivered anti-bullying speeches in the style of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  It was so powerful.  One student, who talked about his own experience being bullied in front of his classmates, almost cried when they stood to applaud him after his speech.  Other students preached against bullying as if they were standing at a pulpit.

Probably the thing that I am the most excited about at work right now is our field trip. That's right.  We are taking 400 7th graders on a field trip!  This week, we are studying the Little Rock Central High Crisis and the Arkansas Democrat Gazette's role in reporting the situation at the time.  Next week, with that knowledge, every 7th grader at my middle school will go to Little Rock and have the opportunity to walk the same path up the front stairs of Central High that the Little Rock Nine took in 1957.  I am so excited for them to have that authentic learning experience.

Over the past few weeks, I have watched my students attitudes and perspectives change with each new day that we have talked about racism and segregation and bullying.  They are making connections between the past and the present, and they are learning the true importance of respect for all.  Seeing my students learn this valuable lesson at a time in their lives when they are so prone to be egocentric is such a rewarding experience.  It reminds me that I'm not just shaping readers or writers or good students.  I'm shaping children who will grow up to be adults; adults who will hopefully remember the power of respect and the power of equality.