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.