Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Carol Scavenger Hunt

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sharing Comfort

Since my mind is so scattered right now with the overload of grading a million things and finishing out the semester, I think it's best to share student writing instead of trying to wrangle my thoughts into submission.  I promise you'll thank me for this.

I have a student who asked me last week if she could share something she wrote with our class. This student is very quiet and rarely talks in class. However, we bonded early in the year over our shared love of Harry Potter and Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. I was surprised when she asked to share in front of the whole class but excited that she was willing to put herself out there.  For a writer to share her work can be a stressful thing.  Here's what she read to us...

A lone girl walked along the shoreline humming and old tune. She stopped in the middle of the shoreline, holding her head high. To anyone else the girl would seem quite alone, but the girl savored the feeling of being by herself for it gave the beach an air of calmness. She looked out at the water watching the waves come in, seeing the white foam of the ocean as it hit the rocks littered among the edge of the beach. The girl looked out, but she could only see ocean for as far as the eyes could see. Sighing, she closed her eyes, breathing in the salty breeze of the ocean. She wiggled her bare toes in the warm, soft sand, then moved closer to the shoreline so she could feel he water lap at her toes and the mushy , wet sand squish beneath her feet. The girl listened to the sound of the waves, but they sounded neither loud nor what most would call quiet. Yet it was soft and gentle like the soothing whisper of a mother to her child. The girl whispered to the wind and the ocean, telling them to wait; that she just wanted to stay a bit longer. 

She opened her mouth and breathed in, tasting the ocean on her tongue. The wind whipped at her hair, but it felt to her as if someone was brushing her hair. She breathed to the wind the words "This must be what it feels like to be alive," for at the time she had never felt more alive. The girl wiggled her toes in the sand and moved her hands in a dance through the air. "Yes," she said, "this is what it feels like." She opened her eyes ad said to the sky in a small yet strong voice, "I'm ready to go now." Then she closed her eyes and felt a peaceful feeling course through her, and she smiled. 

In a hospital room, somewhere in the world, sat three brothers who all were huddled around the bed of their mother. One brother, the eldest, held his mother's hand, feeling as it slowly turned cold. The youngest brother brushed his fingers through her mother's hair, colored silver with age. Last, the middle brother kissed the cold cheek of his mother, feeling the upturned corner of her mouth. 

The brothers did not cry for their mother nor did they frown. They looked quite the opposite actually. The brothers all held smiles on their faces as they looked at their mother, who had passed on with a smile on her face. The fact that their mother was happy in death made them smile, but what calmed them , though it was unexplained, was how the dull hospital room was filled with the smell of a calming ocean breeze. 

The holidays can be a difficult time for those who have experienced the loss of a family member.  As I heard this shared with my class, I couldn't help but think of the many people I know who will be missing someone dear this season.  I also got just real excited about the imagery she chose to express herself. What a beautiful way to look at the cycle of life. I hope you'll share this writing with someone you know who may find it comforting.  Take a minute this week to slow down and smell the ocean breeze.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Don't Let Acronyms Steal Your Joy

It's been almost a month since the last time I've had a chance to sit still and write.  As I know I've said in previous posts, this year of teaching has definitely been my most busy.  I'm not complaining; this level of busy-ness is of my own doing.  My seventh grade English class has essentially become a writing class.  This has created more work in the form of reading and editing and revising various pieces of writing almost constantly with students, but that's something about which I'm very excited and proud.  When I completed my first year of teaching, I felt like my biggest deficiency was in teaching my students how to write.  I love to write, and I always have, but I couldn't seem to articulate to students how to carry out the writing process in the most effective way.  After much professional reading and personal reflection, I came to the understanding that everyone's writing process is unique and personal. I can provide the general steps, but the best way for me to teach my students to write is to model my love for writing and my life as a writer.  I blog with them. I write analytical essays with them. And most importantly, I conference with them.  This has become much more convenient with the use of Google Drive and Kidblog, and it's been the biggest and most beneficial change in my writing workshop. Now, I can be right next to a student in his or her struggle to write.  It's awesome, and I've seen a huge difference in the depth of analysis and thought in my students' writing. 

It's also incredibly time consuming.  Hence, I am writing a lot of stuff on Kidblog and with my students, but I've not had the most time to write any Wisdom from the Middle. 

Now that I've provided that very lengthy introduction, I have a confession to make. A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the AMLE conference in Nashville, and while I was there I had the opportunity to reflect on my school year so far. In those moments of reflection away from the children, I realized that this year I have caved to the pressure of curriculum and testing in a big way.  As I sat listening to keynote speakers and presenters discuss the importance of relationships and rapport at the middle level, I couldn't help but think of all the times I've been too busy to talk with a student in between classes this year or the times that I really needed two days for a lesson, but the pacing guide only allowed me the one day. Sitting in an incredibly cold conference room at AMLE, I resolved to take a metaphorical chill pill when it comes to PARCC and CCSS and every other acronym that is attempting to steal my love for teaching and my positive attitude and my desire to genuinely make the world a better place for my students.

As sad as it is to admit, it's pretty easy to let the everyday requirements of teaching get you down.  You know what I realized? Test scores don't bring back my joy.  Smiling kids who are excited to come in my classroom and write in their blogs and share their stories with me are what bring me joy every. single. day. Kids who check Harry Potter out of my classroom library and exhibit the same excitement that I did as a kid bring me joy every day. And you know what? If kids feel safe and valued in the classroom, if they feel like it's a safe place to make mistakes and grow and become better readers and writers, they're going to do just fine on whatever test the state decides they have to take.  The most important thing I can do as a teacher is show kids that they matter, and in middle school, a time when you start to question who you are or doubt your worth, showing kids that their ideas and their work matter is probably the most important lesson I can impart.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Make the Work Worth It

The month of October has been super busy! I apologize to my small but loyal crew of readers for the lack of blog posts. I swear it's not for lack of material at the middle school. It just feels like the past three weeks have flown past us.  First quarter ended this week, and I couldn't believe it.  Where does the time go? I think there's a general consensus among teachers today that time flies all the time.  There are countless articles and blog posts written for teachers and by teachers that bemoan the lack of hours in a day or promote handy dandy ways to maximize the use of time in your classroom.  The graduate students I'm teaching this semester cite time as the biggest roadblock to using student-centered and student-led methods of instruction.  Today I was talking to one of my principals during homeroom, and he said, "It wasn't like this when I started teaching. There just weren't as many things to fit into a teacher's day."  Another teacher chimed in and said that even when she had to handwrite and calculate her whole gradebook, she still worked less hours than she works in 2014.  Crazy, right?

While I haven't been in the classroom long enough to see that many big pendulum swings in policy, I can say I've stayed later and worked more hours this year than I've ever worked, even as a first year teacher.  Part of that is related to changes in curriculum, some of it is related to policies and programs that are newly in place, and most of it has to do with the fact that I'd rather spend my day with students, teaching and learning, than doing administrative tasks like grading and filling out paperwork.  And both of those things have to be done, so there's that.

I looked back at some posts from September of this year and reflected back on frustrated conversations I had at the start of this school year, and I realized that I was not in a good mind space at all.  I was overwhelmed and struggling in a paralyzing, unproductive way.  However, October has felt different.  October has felt like a positive, exciting, optimistic month.  I've seen my students make some pretty awesome connections between pieces of literature, and I've guided them through research writing and analytical writing. I've read some absolutely fantastic narratives, and I even heard a students say, "You know, I really like that Gary Soto" to his mom. I'd say that's an English teacher win for sure!

So if you're a teacher and you're reading this, I just hope you know that you are awesome.  And that the number of responsibilities you are juggling every day is, indeed, ridiculous.  But you know what? You're making it work, and that's the only thing that matters.  Here's to a positive end to the week and to a renewed sense of spirit in the classroom.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I Love Edcamp

Sometimes, I find myself in a teaching slump.  I catch myself slogging through the tedium of giving a test or grading essays or narratives, and I forget how much I love being a teacher because I've zeroed in on just how much I dislike a particular task.  Most of these tasks involve paper-pushing that just has to be done.  If only every teacher had their own secretary to do things like enter grades and alphabetize papers and fill out paperwork, then we'd really get to focus all our energy on our interactions with students.  How great would that be?! 

Anyway, toward the end of last week, I was really starting to feel sorry for myself as I surveyed the ever-multiplying stacks of paper on my desk and the increasingly long to-do list staring me down from next to my computer keyboard.  I left on Friday feeling like I was headed toward a very long Sunday of grading papers. And, to be perfectly honest, that is what I had to do on Sunday.  But before that, Saturday arrived, and I attended my first Edcamp.

Edcamp is an "unconference," meaning that participants set the schedule when they arrive in the morning.  Instead of having presenters who prep beforehand, you get a schedule of events made up of authentic dialogue among teachers about topics that everyone wants to learn more about.  Here's what the schedule ended up looking like at Edcamp Arkansas last Saturday:

While I went to some awesome sessions and got some great new ideas for my classroom.  That wasn't even my favorite part of the day.  The best thing about Edcamp was meeting and talking to pre-service teachers.  Remember like three paragraphs ago, when I said I had let myself get into a slump? Thankfully, these pre-service teachers snapped me out of it.  I had an awesome conversation at lunch with some soon-to-be-teachers about how to move toward a paperless classroom.  We also talked about how to stay positive when there's so many things that teachers are asked to do in a day.  We talked about helping students become writers and not just kids who write because we force them to do so, and we talked about how young educators can create change in their school buildings and impact school culture.  

Ya'll, UCA is putting out some great teachers.  I seriously cannot wait to see what these ladies and gentlemen do when they start teaching in their own classrooms.  They are so excited to work with kids and to make their future schools even more awesome than they already are.  I left Edcamp on Saturday so inspired, and I walked into work on Monday determined to be a positive beacon of light in my classroom.  My mantra this week is "think like a pre-service teacher."  I needed to renew a little bit of my idealistic nature, and Edcamp did that for me.  It's Wednesday now, and I'm happy to say that I'm still smiling and working really hard to be the positive beacon of light that I know I can be.  I'm so thankful for an ever-growing community of educators who challenge me to be my best for kids everyday.  And today I'm especially thankful that I remembered how important it is to maintain the balance of idealism and reality in my classroom.  I can't kill myself trying to be everyone's "yes man," but if I'm going to set the bar high for my students, I need to set it even higher for myself.

Here's to setting the bar high, guys. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reasons I'm Thankful I'm a Teacher

This past week and a half has been a whirlwind.  I've been on the hunt for the ever-elusive sense of balance that I seem to struggle to find in my working life as a teacher.  I find that it's more difficult to enjoy what's happening during instruction in my classroom when I'm thinking about the ten other things that need to be done before the day ends.  However, amidst all the hustle and bustle of the school day, I did stop to reflect today on some moments for which I'm so very thankful.  A school is only as good as the people that work to create it's culture, and I'm very fortunate to work in a school full of fantastic people.

So here's what I'm thankful for this week...

  • I'm thankful for the opportunity to work with an absolutely fantastic co-teacher this year. I look forward to teaching with her every single day.  
  • I'm thankful for a seventh grade team of teachers that works together to make things happen.  I hit the biggest jackpot when it comes to the people I get to spend my workday with each day.
  • I'm thankful for caring, sweet, sympathetic students.  I've been under the weather for the past few days, and I can't even describe to you how perfectly well-behaved and wonderful all my classes have been! 
  • I'm also thankful for students who are full of grit and determination to complete tough tasks.  We're in the middle of a long writing assignment, and my students are knocking it out of the park! I'm beaming with pride right now, guys.
I made a goal this past Sunday to spend this week being more positive about my job.  I found myself feeling terribly negative last week.  It's just so easy to get bogged down in the busy work of teaching and forget for a moment that I'm incredibly fortunate to go to a job that I love every day. Hopefully, if you're taking a moment to read this, you'll find a moment to reflect on the things for which you can be thankful this week, too. I promise it'll give you a happier heart! :)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tweets from the Secret Annex

Today was a super fun lesson! I've talked before about using Padlet as a discussion forum in my classroom, but today I used it a little bit differently than I've used it in the past.  We're currently reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and we're to the point in our independent reading when students tend to really get bogged down in the monotony of Anne's life in the Secret Annex.  It's totally understandable.  Anne's life is rough for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that she has to be quiet and still most of the day and has to maintain a very rigid schedule.  No matter how many times we discuss this and work to build empathy, students still struggle with this part of the book. 

So today I decided to wake my kids back up and try to rekindle their interest in the text.  We're a little more than halfway through the book, which is when Anne starts to develop a crush on Peter Van Pels. This is normally a winning point for female students, who perk up at the hint of a love story, but it's an even bigger turn off for boys, who are already sick of listening to Anne's feelings and could care less about this love story.

Today, we used Padlet like Twitter for a role play activity.  Instead of having students tweet their own thoughts, I asked them to tweet as either Anne or Peter.  First, we had to choose Twitter handles for each person.  Classes voted to make these decisions. You'll see in the pictures below that one class chose @DiaryLover13 for Anne and @BigPete for Peter while the other class chose @flirtygirl2735 for Anne and @PeteyTweety for Peter.  It was fun to see how the students viewed these two characters and how their perspectives were reflected in the Twitter handles they chose. Then students started tweeting.  The first round of tweets dealt with Anne and Peter's feelings toward each other. The second round of tweets dealt with Anne's feelings toward her family members at this point in the diary.  I haven't seen my students this engaged in Anne's story in several days.  It was so fun to see how they reacted to each other's tweets and really put themselves in the characters' shoes.  Not only did it help them build empathy for the people in the story, it rebuilt their interest in the story as we move forward.  I'll let their "tweets" speak for themselves. If you click on the pictures, they'll get bigger, so you can read their tweets.  Some show higher level thinking than others, but to be perfectly honest, I was just thrilled to have every student totally engaged in class discussion, and I really believe that students walked away from this lesson with a better understanding of the relationships in this book.  Sometimes, it only takes 140 characters to say what needs to be said.  It's a great exercise in brevity.   

This is definitely a lesson I hope to bring back with future texts.  We read several older texts throughout the year, and this activity was the perfect way to bring book characters into the 21st century and make them more relatable to students. Hope you enjoy our "tweets from the Secret Annex"!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Teaching: It's Just Like Driving a Car

We've officially made it to September! It's starting to feel a little less like summer, and everyone is getting into their school year routines.  We've already started our first class novel in English, The Diary of Anne Frank.  Things are really just moving right along!

One fun, new thing that I'm doing this semester is working with a group of graduate students who are in a Models of Teaching course.  I really love this course because it's so practical for pre-service teachers. It helps them build an instructional toolkit that they can take into their future classrooms, so they don't rely on the old "stand and deliver" lecture methods that are traditionally used to convey information in secondary classrooms.  One of my favorite models of instruction is the Synectic Model of comparison.  I love this model because it really stretches learners to think beyond their initial ideas about a particular concept, so they end up coming to completely new, and often deeper, understandings.

I used the Synectic Model with these grad students last Monday, beginning with the idea of "teaching." We started by making a list of words or phrases that the group might use to describe the act of teaching.  In true pre-service teacher style, they said words like reflective, rewarding, and wonderful. I, having driven to our meeting straight from the middle school, threw in words like stressful and overwhelming. It's interesting how one's perspective changes with time...

Anyway, after brainstorming a solid list, I asked them to think of a plant that could be described with the same words and phrases.  They settled on a squash, saying that a squash is stressed during the growing process as it gets bigger and becomes overwhelmed as more and more plants grow on the vine.  It is also rewarding to grow a squash plant from a tiny seed, and it provides wonderful food.  So hopefully you're seeing that these students were really stretching to make every word fit our new analogy.  We continued through our series of analogies until we came back to our original idea of "teaching." In our final analogy, I asked the group to explain to me how teaching was like a car.

At first, they all looked at me like I was crazy.  But after a few seconds of think time, they started to come up with some awesome metaphors:

  • Teaching, like being in a car, requires a person in the driver's seat; someone to take control the minute class starts.  
  • Just like many cars have a GPS system to provide a road map, teachers must have a lesson plan to provide a road map for the class period and a bigger plan for the whole course.
  • Cars require regular maintenance, much like students require formative assessment, so everyone can stay on track.
  • There are all different kinds of cars, just like there are all different kinds of students.  
  • You have to make sure everyone is following the "traffic laws," or the rules, and going the right direction.
This activity made my heart so happy! It's so easy in the middle of a long day of teaching to forget all the wonderful, optimistic thoughts we had about teaching before we entered our classroom and got in the driver's seat.  This activity was such a heartwarming reminder about why I adore what I do each day.  It was also fantastically encouraging to hear these grad students talk about teaching this way.  To be fair, we've all got to be just a little idealistic to enter the classroom and want to stay there.  We teach because we want to make the world just a little bit better each day. So this week, I'm going to carry on with this analogy and work to drive my classroom in the right direction.  Here goes nothing...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Happy First Day of School!

Yesterday was the first day of my fourth year of teaching.  On my way to work this morning, I recalled a teacher who worked in my building when I got hired here.  She ran into me in the hall one day during the summer before I started teaching and, in an attempt at encouragement, said, "Oh, you won't know what you're doing until you get through the first three years."  At the time, I remember thinking that this wasn't the most encouraging or comforting thing for someone to say to me as I anxiously prepared for my first First Day of School.  However, looking back on past first days, I'd say every one has gotten a little better and a little more comfortable.

I loved meeting my new students yesterday.  It's always so exciting to see a new group come in, some looking impossibly tired and bewildered, but most looking happy and anxious and timidly excited.  My goal this year is to get to know each one of them well, to take the time to find out what each one is needing out of school, and to try and fill some gap that's there.

Last week at in-service, I found myself feeling so overwhelmed I could have cried.  Education is constantly changing, and I've yet to teach a year in my classroom when we weren't implementing a new curriculum or assessment system or teacher evaluation system.  When I think about all the administrative tasks that have to be completed in a day, I sometimes wonder how to get it all done and still have time to teach! But then I have a day like yesterday, and I remember why I chose this profession.  I chose this job because I thrive on seeing kids walk in the door, excited about a new challenge and a new school year, even if some of them are trying their hardest to look disinterested.

So to all you other teachers out there who may be feeling like me, a little scattered, a little overwhelmed, a little annoyed with all the acronyms you're required to remember in a day, I hope you also had a great first day of school.  I hope you had the kind of First Day that reminded you how much you enjoy the most important part of your job--the part where you get to teach children.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Teaching Isn't Tough, It's the Other Stuff

Recently, I was scrolling through Facebook in a moment of boredom, and I came across this blog post from a Virginia Teacher of the Year named Josh Waldron.  In his post, he outlines his tough decision to leave the classroom and describes how school systems can retain great teachers by doing five things:

  1. Tear Down the Hoops
  2. Have a Plan for the Future
  3. Scrap Obsession with Flawed Assessments
  4. Build a Community that Supports Assessment
  5. Fairly Compensate Educators
You should read it.  As I read through his post, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with his opinions.  I also found myself feeling angry.  Why should this guy have to leave a job he loves?  There's such a big conversation about the shortage of teachers, about what a large percentage of educators leave the field in the first five years.  In my own district, I mentored a first year teacher last school year, and I couldn't help but notice how administrators stressed throughout new teacher orientation that they didn't just want to hire great teachers, they wanted to keep them.  

Here's the thing, Mr. Waldron came up with five ways that districts can retain great teachers.  I can sum it all up into one, easy-to-complete task: 

Treat teachers like professionals.

Teachers who attend a College of Education program like I did spend a lot of time learning how to be a professional. Just like students in a writing program spend a lot of time learning how to be writers, so they can be professional writers when they graduate. Just like students who earn an accounting degree spend a lot of time learning how to become professional accountants. Just like people in every professional field spend a lot of time learning, and continuing to learn their trade, so they can be good at their job.  It's exhausting to be in a field in which people don't seem to trust you to do your job appropriately.  

Instead, they expect people who aren't in a classroom, and probably haven't been in one for a while, to create accountability measures for you.  So instead of focusing on creating great lessons and pouring yourself into teaching, you have to pull your attention away from what matters and focus on compiling artifacts of your teaching, so someone in an office somewhere can see that you are a great teacher, a teacher who is capable of uploading a .pdf file.  I would much rather that person in that office somewhere drive to my school and sit in my classroom and watch my students learn.  That would be a much better measure of my teaching ability because it would be authentic. Isn't that what we're going for in education these days, authentic learning and teaching?  

I hate to rant about this for two reasons. First, I kind of feel like the vast majority of people think teachers who stand up for themselves are being whiny.  They want us to continue to pile on the spinning plates and do our jobs and balance everything and quit complaining.  Second, I do my best every day to be positive about my work.  I love teaching kids. I love that spark of understanding and recognition when new knowledge clicks.  I love getting to know my students as individuals, and I love watching them grow as people and become better versions of themselves.  But like Josh Waldron, I think a lot of teachers eventually start to struggle with the cost-benefit analysis.  Sure you love teaching, but is it worth continuing to take on the increasing amounts of stress that come with the ever-growing set of hoops through which classroom teachers must jump? Right now, my love for teaching has created a pretty high tolerance for all the non-instructional tasks I must complete, but when teachers explain why they can't teach anymore, I get it.

So I say all this mostly because I need to get it off my chest.  It bothers me a lot when I read news articles about great teachers leaving the classroom.  It bothers me even more when I read news articles about politicians who say we need stronger teachers in our classrooms if we're ever going to close the "achievement gap."  I wonder how many of those politicians actually spend time in classrooms and see the magic moments that happen when students respond to great teaching.  I'd be willing to bet that they haven't been watching much teaching lately.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

PARCC Made Me Panic...Then I Got Over It

The children have been out of school for about two weeks now, but my summer is just getting started. This is the first summer since I began teaching that I haven't taught summer school.  I just got so antsy for something new during the spring semester that I decided I would spend the month of June working with grownups instead of children.  It's been interesting.  Since school let out so late this year due to a very snowy and icy winter, there really wasn't even a glimpse of summertime before we started completing professional development to get ready for next year.  Our middle school is going to a more interdisciplinary model next year, and I'm so excited about the literacy connections and cross-curricular teaming we'll be doing next year in seventh grade!  I work with some truly awesome, open-minded educators.  After a day of interdisciplinary productive struggle, our middle school English department met the next day to explore PARCC.

We decided the best way to begin the day was to take a PARCC practice test on the website.  Here's what's funny about my teaching so far. After my first year of teaching, I knew I would have to basically start from scratch in order to implement Common Core.  But after last year, I just knew that this summer would be a breeze!! We'd be able to keep most of the curriculum and materials we created in place! All of our hard work would be so worth it when our English department was lounging by the pool all summer this year! Then, we took a PARCC test.  I know that the purpose of CCSS and PARCC is to increase rigor and prepare students for college, and after taking the test, I definitely think that's what it does.  I also think we're going to see a pretty significant implementation dip in test scores. All I can say it, that test is hard, ya'll. Our students have never written literary analysis essays in seventh grade before because, honestly, who writes literary analysis essays in seventh grade? In many respects, middle school English will essentially become a writing class to prepare students for college and career readiness (and to prepare them not have a panic attack when they take their first PARCC assessment).

After my initial panic subsided regarding how I will shepherd my students toward a mind space where they can all not only identify tone in two poems but also write a coherent essay comparing the tone of the two poems and explaining how figurative language contributes to the tone, I took a deep breath and decided that, ultimately, it's all going to be alright.  I really do believe that my students need to know how to write an analytical essay.  They need to be critical thinkers and writers.  They need to be able to analyze literature and argument and research in order to succeed in a college classroom and in life.  Ok, maybe they won't need to analyze literature to succeed in life, but they'll definitely have to be able to do it to pass freshman lit class.  I'm always up for a new challenge, and this, apparently, is my new challenge.

The thing that inspired me most during this somewhat stressful two days of planning for PARCC was the fact that no one on my team really freaked out.  Sure, we all got a little stressed and questioned how this increased academic rigor would play out in our classrooms.  How will analytical writing look in SPED classes? inclusion classes? Pre-AP?  How can we scaffold this skill for students who are struggling to write a paragraph? what about students who struggle to write a complete sentence?  These are all valid questions and we're still trying to figure out the answers.  But what I love so much about the awesome ladies I work with is that no one threw up her hands and said, "This is impossible! My students could never do this! This test is too hard!"  Instead, everyone took a "how can we make this work attitude."  I think that says a lot about our school culture and the high expectations we hold for the kids we teach.

So I am telling you the story of how we panicked, got over it, and got to work for two reasons.  First, because if you are a teacher, I encourage you to take a PARCC test, no matter what content area you teach.  It's going to take a unified, whole-school approach for students to succeed.  Second, I hope you'll learn from our stress, skip that part, and go straight to the part where you figure out how to make this work for your students.  Even though it seems overwhelming, these are necessary skills, and I know that if students receive quality instruction in these skills beginning in middle school, they will be more prepared for college.

Finally, I hope your summer is off to a fantastic start!  Hopefully, I'll be basking in the glow of summer break soon, too.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Teaching "The Pedestrian" and the Art of Unplugging

Today marks our last week of school, and I got to spend last week teaching one of my favorite short stories, Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian." If you've never read the story, here's a link to it. It's the story about a guy named Leonard who still goes on walks, even though the rest of the world is addicted to television and can't leave home. I think this story holds great significance for the students that I'm teaching now.  When I teach this story, I allow students to read it on their own first and draw their own conclusions about what's going on in Leonard's world.  Then, I show them this animated version of the story on Vimeo. The story is a great way to teach foreshadowing and has a lot of suspense, but students who struggle with comprehension find the video really helpful in decoding the story.

Next, I ask students to raise their hands if they can think of a way that this story, written in 1951, can apply to life today.  Every hand in the room goes up.  Today's students are very aware that the world is addicted to technology. After reading this story, I had my accelerated classes read this CNN Tech article about embeddable technology. It's a great modern-day connection and makes Bradbury's story (and his fears about technology) seem applicable in today's world.  Many of them noted that, while Bradbury set "The Pedestrian" in 2053,  the technology addiction he was warning against is very much a problem in 2014.  Many of them wrote about the negative side effects of technology, including the changing landscape of socialization that we're all experiencing.  Seriously, who ever thought that families would have to develop a "cell phone policy" for the dinner table?

While my accelerated classes focused on debating the ever-present threat of being taken over by technology, I chose to focus on creating narrative with the rest of my students.  We debated and discussed the same themes and issues in "The Pedestrian," and I asked my students to write the story of the "21st Century Pedestrian." Here's what one student wrote on his class blog:

The year is 2115; the government doesn’t matter anymore. There are no crimes or wars for them to deal with. Nothing is the same. No street lights are on. The city below is dark, broken, and dirty. After the cars started hovering, no one was on the ground. They are all up there; I see them, forgetting about the worries of life, especially after the phones got smart enough to control everything. Humans have no control, no say in what they will do today; the machines do everything for us. They have tried to make me a slave to the technology, but I know better.
We have lived in a world where we rely on a phone to remind us to say hi to our grandma and not to forget milk when we're shopping. No one ever thought that we wouldn’t have control over a piece of plastic with wires, but this is life. If only we had taken the time to set our phones down, go for a walk, and talk to a stranger, maybe it would be different.
There are few like me. The ones that refused the technology, or maybe they just couldn’t afford it. After they took over, they basically built a whole new world, burying the old one in dust and scrap parts. Very little lives on the ground. Most are up there, with there heads in the clouds. They're like zombies, glued to the screens of light, no one exercising. They're all fat and unhealthy, like the being lifted out of bed by a mini crane fat…yeah.
Tokyo and China were the first to go, then the U.S. Africa is fine; no technology there to rule. We have no control over our world. We saw this coming, and we ignored it. Now there is no going back.  This is the end...or is it...

If you think about it, this student is probably not that far off track.  How many times in the past week have you had a face-to-face conversation with someone while staring at your phone at the same time?  I know I'm guilty. This week, as we wind down the last few days of school, I'm going to take some time for a little face-to-face, "old school" interaction.  I'll be sad to see this group of students leave our middle school, and I need to soak up these last few days for the wonderful time that they can be.  Happy almost-Summer, everyone!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Teaching My Student Bloggers

I've been really struggling to write recently.  The year is winding down.  I'm tired. My students are tired.  We're all ready for summer break to hurry up and get here already.  This slow march toward the last day of school is compounded this year by the addition of five snow days to the end of our school calendar, making everyone even more antsy than they might otherwise be at this time of year.

Even though I'm counting down to summer right along with the children, one thing I have really enjoyed about this last nine weeks is blogging.  After giving Google Drive a try with two of my six classes when we returned from Christmas break, I decided that after Spring Break I was going to try using Kidblog for my students' journaling in the other four classes I teach. Instead of grouping students into blogging groups by class period, I split up all one hundred-ish students into two blogging groups of fifty or so students each.  This gave them an opportunity to enjoy an expanded audience and to read writing from peers of all different ability levels.

From the first day I introduced Kidblog, I saw a huge difference in the engagement of my students, especially my reluctant writers.  I've learned that some of my students struggle with writing simply because they haven't developed all the necessary motor skills over time.  Writing with a pencil in literally a painful experience for them.  Typing, however, removes this burden and allows these writers to truly express themselves.  Others struggled because I was their only audience, and that gets old after awhile.  I raised the stakes when I told my students that they were becoming "published Internet bloggers."  This meant that their peers would be reading their work, and that meant it needed to be worth reading.  Finally, the simple novelty of knowing they were writing on an iPad or personal device rather than in a notebook seemed to intrigue my students.

Over the past quarter, I've seen a definite improvement in the depth and breadth of writing that my students are composing. I recently had my summative evaluation for the year, and I told my principal that one area of teaching that I've worked hard to improve since the start of my career is my writing instruction.  Everyone's writing process is different.  Yes, there's the general process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing, but not everyone follows the same process successfully. I feel like this year I've hit a much better stride in my writing instruction, and I've seen a noticeable change in the way my students came to me as writers and in the way they are leaving me as editors and authors of their own work and the work of their peers.  I truly believe that a major part of that improvement has been the implementation of technology in the writing process.  It's much easier to workshop with students and check in regularly when I can access their work anywhere, from my phone or iPad. It's been a really cool experience that I've enjoyed immensely.

So, yes, I'm ready for my sweet seventh graders to be eighth graders. I'm also so incredibly proud of the way I've seen them grow intellectually this year, and I'm confident in the fact that they're leaving me as better learners.  And that thought is just the positive, happy realization I need to get through the next two weeks!

Happy Monday!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How to Really Appreciate Teachers

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. Even though I am a teacher, I tend to spend this week reflecting on how much I appreciate my teachers, both past and present, rather than spending my time thinking about how I should be appreciated more often.  To be totally honest, if I spent my time thinking about how I needed to be more appreciated by my former and current students, I'd probably think myself into another profession. Above all else, teaching is a service profession. I didn't choose my job because I looked forward to lots of perks and incentives; I chose it because I wanted to make the world a better place, as cliche as that may sound.  Anyway, enough of that little rant...

I want to take a moment this week to thank my teachers and let them know that they are the many reasons that I love school enough to want to spend all my adult working days in a school building. In first grade my mother took this picture of me in Mrs. Buckley's classroom. I'm sure she had no idea at the time that I'd grow up to write on a chalkboard everyday. 

Mrs. Buckley loved all her students.  I'll never forget when she attended my birthday party that year.  I still have the sterling silver jewelry box she gave my as a birthday gift.  There are two significant things about this story. The first is that I adored my teacher enough to want to invite her to my birthday party.  The second is that she showed up.  Mrs. Buckley truly loved her students, whether they were in her classroom or not, and that can do more for a student than any amount of content or pedagogical knowledge.

In middle school, Mrs. Boone was my sixth grade teacher.  She taught social studies in a way that made world history come to life.  We created our own mummies and turned our classroom into an Egyptian tomb. Mrs. Halley was my seventh and eighth grade English teacher.  She taught me how to write my first research paper and introduced me to How to Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, and The Diary of Anne Frank. These two women taught me what it is to love your content area so much that you can't help but breathe life into it as you share it with students.  Their vibrant enthusiasm filled up their classrooms every single day. As a teacher now, I realize how exhausting that can be, that conscious decision to fill each day in your classroom with excitement. I appreciate them more now than I probably ever did in middle school. 

In high school, my teachers taught me that being an expert in your content area is important, but building relationships with your students is what really hooks them on learning.  Coach McCullough, thank you for introducing me to Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Janie will always be one of my favorite characters.  Thank you even more for having a Risky Business cardboard cutout of Tom Cruise in your classroom and for being so funny and approachable.  Sometimes, the most important quality a teacher can have is a smile that lights up a room. Thank you, Charlotte Miller, for teaching me how to write.  You made my life very difficult sophomore year of high school, but you also made my life in college much easier.  Thank you, Dr. Fontaine, for making me a better human being and teaching me history in the process.  You are the only teacher that I have shed a tear for as we parted ways.  You can never truly know the impact you had on my life. Thank you, Father Fred, for teaching me physics and giving me LOTS of extra credit opportunities to supplement my lacking scientific thinking skills, but more importantly, thank you for your booming laughter heard all through the halls of my high school.

Now, I work in a wonderful middle school, full of teachers who are dedicated to their students and their profession.  Thank you to my colleagues, who listen to me vent on frustrating days and listen to me celebrate when things go well.  Thank you all for sharing your practice with me and for pushing me, whether you realize it or not, to be better at my job each day.  I am so fortunate to work in a place with such a positive school culture, a place where everyone is constantly raising the bar.

This week, please take a moment to really thank a teacher.  Don't buy him or her a gift card to Starbucks or a box of donuts, although those things would surely be appreciated.  Instead, take the time to find a teacher who changed things for you or put you on a path in life or made you work harder than you thought you could, and tell that person thank you.  That will mean more than anything else possibly could. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

That Moment When You Know Your Lesson was a Win

This week, we started an interdisciplinary unit that our literacy team developed with the 7th grade science team.  Our students read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, one of my favorites! In English class, we get to focus on elements of writing, like tone, mood, style, and syntax.  Because science helps us out by doing a lot of in-class reading, we're really able to dig in to the text and do some close reading and analysis.  In science, students study the solar system and discuss the ways that science fiction bends the rules of true scientific fact.  Overall, I think the kids really enjoy this unit, and it's definitely one of the teaching highlights of my year.

Yesterday, my lesson focused on descriptive language.  We began the lesson by looking at a passage from a new book I'm reading, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender Here's the passage:

After analyzing this passage together and discussing the use of sensory imagery to create a full experience for the reader, students used a QR Code to access a Padlet wall, where they posted pictures of descriptive passages from chapter 3 of A Wrinkle in Time. We used the Padlet wall examples to discuss the various ways that authors use language to create imagery.  Finally, my students used theses model passages to write their own descriptive paragraphs.  They could write about anything they wanted, real or imagined.  The only direction I gave them was to be descriptive without using "fluffy" language or using too many words.  Below are some of the passages they wrote:

The corner of Maple Street was alive with fragrances.  Kids would congregate outside to see who would get the treats.  When the door opened, the heavy fragrances of fresh flour and strawberry icing and the vivid clinks of the cash register polluted the air. Kids were bribing their parents for one more scrumptious treat that made their mouths water.  The sound of the unfolding of brightly decorated candy wrappers was heard by all ages.  Through the glass, you could see the heat of the freshly made dessert all waiting for the kids.

The alley is a great place to get hurt.  Rats eating out of the trash; fire in barrels. Homeless people hug the wall for comfort. Gangs looking for trouble and store owners ready for anything. Trash litters the alley floor, leaving only an unhealthy habitat. 

Serene and beautiful, calm and quiet.  The woods call, as the wind talks to the slightly swaying trees. A babbling brook teaming with life, gently sounds as it flows over the rocks. You can smell the flowers from the not-so-far away meadow.  They smell sour and sweet. The colony of bees buzzes, for the honey is sweet, but the journey is treacherous. The shapes of fish blocked by the fading shadows of the weeping willows, a place tucked inside a land dotted by river bends.

The dusty baseball field is old. The bases are worn and battered from all the sliding.  The spotlights are cracked and losing their light. Three bats, all dented, lay against a rusty metal fence. The lights shut off as the sun sets after a long day at the ballpark. 

In the afternoons, I go to a place of peace and quiet.  It is a place with two softhearted people who love to help search for requests.  It's a place with the smell of wood and paper, and a hint of coconut pie.  When I look around, I see people sitting in bean bags, enjoying themselves.  I see people touching the smooth texture of words.  I sometimes hear people whispering to themselves, or the bubbling of the fish tank filled with goldfish swimming while their fins glitter in the light.  The place I go to is the amazing library. 

As she stood on the ledge, she could feel the cold steel of her foot blade pressing up against the bottom of her smooth baby soft skin.  She could smell the polluted air of the big city.  She could hear the planes soaring high in the jet streams, and the task force rushing up the stairs ready to fire the 300 degree metal shells into her cold, weak body.  Blood dripping slowly from her wounds.  Slowly she leans forward and dives, the wind rushing over her, and the dark shirt she got on a  warm Christmas morning flapping in the wind. Then, right before she hits the ground, she wakes up in her safe bed. 

What I love about each of these paragraphs is that they're so different.  You can see a little slice of each student's personality in the way that they craft their writing.  What I loved about this lesson was that each student was totally engaged in the process.  They worked hard to search for strong examples of description because they wanted to post the best pictures on the board.  They took their time and revised their writing because they wanted to make it on my blog.  In this case, technology wasn't the center of the lesson; beautifully crafted writing was.  Instead the technology served to create an authentic audience in each step of the lesson, and that's just the way it should be.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reflections on Benchmark Week

Well, we all survived ACTAAP testing last week.  The children worked hard and checked their work and did their best each day, and every afternoon we celebrated their hard work and success.  I even danced in a teacher talent show.  Despite all the efforts of our school to make the week as "fun," or at least as bearable, as possible, I struggle every year with my feelings about standardized testing.  In fact, I was in a terrible, negative mood during my last two weeks of work.  Standardized testing makes me feel like a sell-out.  I feel like I'm compromising my beliefs as an educator, my beliefs about what makes a good classroom learning environment, and my beliefs about how we can best assess students' progress and knowledge.

On one hand, I firmly believe that a standardized test cannot and will not yield the most accurate measure of my students' success.  It's also the furthest thing from authentic.  Yes, adults have to take standardized tests to enter some professions; teachers take the Praxis; doctors and therapists take board exams.  But once we all enter the work force, no one is going to ask us to fill in a bubble sheet during the work day.  I would rather my kids be measured by the way they can authentically apply their knowledge and skills, not by how they can regurgitate information.

At the same time, I want my kids to feel successful, and knowing that they could be labeled "Basic" isn't going to make them feel great.  While I want my classroom instruction to be authentic, inquiry-based, and student-led, I also feel the need to give in to the culture of testing that is so prevalent in our society.  It's difficult to reconcile these two lines of thought.  I fully supported my students this week in their work.  I did everything I could to pump them up and get them excited, and I want their performance to reflect well on my school and on my instruction.  Most of all, I want them to know that I'm proud of them.

But in spite of all that, there's a part of me that feels like sticking it to the man, like telling the children that this is just one big week of data collection, and I'm over it.  My students are unique, intelligent, wonderful individuals.  Each of them is more than a student ID number and a test score, and I hope that our education system can someday move to a system of accountability that celebrates their different learning styles and needs and honors the professionalism and craft of teachers.  For now, we made it through another year of standardized testing.  Time to focus on finishing out the year with our science fiction unit.  Looking forward to another week of teaching and learning!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sharing Some Spring Break Reading

I rarely post Book Talks on the blog, but I spent a lot of my spring break time reading.  One of my goals this year was not only to read more consistently but also to share what I read with others, particularly my students.  I'll be Book Talking these four books tomorrow, so I thought I would share them here as well.  All of these books would be considered "young adult," but some appeal to a younger age group than others. I really enjoyed each of these books for different reasons.  Each of the book titles is hyperlinked to its page on Amazon, so if you think it sounds like a good read, buy it!

The first book I read what When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  Originally released in 2010, this book is about a young girl named Miranda and her journey to solve a mystery.  It's set in the 1970s in New York City, and Miranda and her single mom are trying to find their place in the world.  In between going to school, dealing with bullies, and coming to terms with changing friendships in her life, Miranda is helping her mom prepare to be a contestant on $20,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark.  This is a short, quick read, and just as the age of the main character suggests, the book is aimed toward a younger adolescent audience, probably 4th-7th grade.  However, don't take that to mean that the book is juvenile. It has a well layered plot and rich, complex characters that deal with real life problems.  I found myself thinking about how relatable these characters would probably be to my students. Stead does a great job of building suspense as Miranda unravels her mystery.  Another thing I loved about this book is that Miranda's favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favorites and one of the books we read in my class. This was a great little read that would definitely draw in reluctant readers from the start.
The next book I read on my break was Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  OH MY GOSH I LOVED THIS BOOK! I don't typically get into historical fiction, but this book dragged me in from the very beginning.  It is the story of two best friends who meet in the British Royal Air Force during World War II.  I hesitate to say any more than that because the order in which information is given to the reader is part of what makes this book so awesome.  This book came out in 2013, and I noticed on GoodReads that it appears to be the kind of book that you either intensely love or don't like at all. I will say that while the book focuses a lot on planes and flying and used lots of technical language with which I wasn't familiar, I found myself focusing a lot more on the intimate friendship of the two main characters.  While the backdrop of this story is World War II, and it is obvious to me that the author did her research, I feel like this is less a story of war and more a story of the lengths to which we will go for the people we love and adore.  It's a story of loyalty and faith and goodness in the face of evil, and it made me cry a lot (in a good way).  I haven't read the companion novel Rose Under Fire yet, but I'm a little afraid to read it because I loved this book so much that I'm not sure the companion novel can live up to it. While I loved this book, I do feel like it was a little mature for some of my 7th graders.  I probably won't keep it in my classroom library, but I have a few students who are really interested in this time period, and I'll probably check it out to them.  
The third book I read was so much more than I thought it would be.  At first glance, Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi looks like a "boy book" through and through, especially with the brightly illustrated zombie head prominently displayed in the cover art.  This book is the story of three boys who discover a zombie apocalypse taking hold in their town and then take a stand for survival.  Because of the way the cover was illustrated, I thought this book was going to be written in the style of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series or James Patterson's Middle School: Worst Years of my Life. However, I found when I opened the cover that this book was all words and no pictures.  Despite the lack of pictures, this book reads fast and is full of action.  It would be a great transition book for students who are stuck on Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Big Nate books.  In addition to its place as a kind of transition book for reluctant readers, I also loved that this book was so much more than a silly zombie book.  This book tackles real issues, like immigration and food quality, and it does it in terms that a seventh grader can understand.  I also loved that this is a great example of true science fiction.  It's a story about human beings, solving a human problem that was created by taking science too far, and finding a human solution.  Overall, I was really impressed with this book and found myself having a hard time putting it down.  I think I'll probably have a hard time keeping it on my classroom library shelf, too. 
The last book I read over spring break was Hollow City by Ransom Riggs, the second book is the Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series.  I read the first book in this series when it first came out, and I felt like it was good, not great.  Then, a few months later my book club read it, and they overwhelmingly disliked it.  When the second book came out in January, I was hesitant to buy it because I worried that if I didn't love the first book, I probably wouldn't love the second one either.  However, I decided to give it a try over spring break, mostly because middle schoolers love these books.  The creepy old photographs that correspond with the story are brilliant, and they keep kids so interested in the story.  Despite my skepticism, I feel like Ransom Riggs ironed out some of the imperfections of Book One in Book Two.  Hollow City picks up exactly where the first book left off.  The children are running away from their home to London in order to save the world of peculiardom and their beloved protector, Miss Peregrine.  Obviously, their journey is far from easy, seeing as it takes a solid 400 pages to tell the story, but the troubles they meet along the way are dangerous and interesting and kept me turning pages for two days straight.  I felt like the pace of this book was much better than the first one, but part of that was probably due to the fact that so much had already been explained in Book One.  A third book is coming out, so there isn't a lot of resolution at the end.  Instead, it takes a wonderfully unexpected twist, which I really appreciated.  There's no better way to keep a middle schooler reading than to leave them totally hanging at the end, and that is exactly what Riggs does. 

So there's my spring break reading in a nutshell.  Hopefully, my students will come back with book recommendations, too, so I'll know what to read next. Wishing everyone a wonderful week!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

SXSWedu Reflections: Finding "Ed" in "EdTech"

In an effort to write a somewhat cohesive and organized reflection on my SXSWedu experience, I decided to give myself a couple of days to just let the whole experience sink in and marinate in my brain.  I also had to catch up on a ridiculous amount of grading on Friday, so there's that, too. Over the past few days, I've read several other critiques and reflections on the conference, mostly written by teachers and instructional technologists, and the general critique seems to be pretty consistent; if you're going to call it an education conference, it should be more about education and less about the edtech business. 

In some respects, I agree with this assessment.  I definitely felt like, as a classroom teacher, I was in the minority at this conference.  I think there are probably several different reasons for that.  For one thing, SXSWedu is not designed to be a "teacher conference."  The sessions and panels aren't meant to provide you with a lesson or set of information that you can take back to your classroom and immediately put into practice.  Instead, they focus on policy and development.  These sessions, panels, and forums are meant to make you think.  And to be totally fair, not every teacher feels like they have time for that.  I actually loved that the focus was more on the conversation about where education is and where it is going and less on what I'm doing in my classroom tomorrow.  I found it refreshing.

Everybody has an opinion about education because most people have kids in the education system, and we are all products of the education system.  What I liked about SXSWedu was that they brought into focus the large variety of opinions regarding education.  Having the opportunity to hear Diane Ravitch speak and compare her views to those of Wendy Kopp, the CEO of Teach for America, and then go listen to Vivienne and Norma Ming talk about how the edtech industry is steamrolling education instead of supporting it was such a unique experience.  Instead of filtering the conversation to push a particular agenda, the conference just put all the opinions out there.  Personally, it was really eye-opening for me to hear so many different perspectives.  You only grow if you get out of your comfort zone, and I was definitely pushed to do that last week.

Even though, as I said, this conference was more about thinking and less about applying specific strategies to my teaching, I did set some solid goals for myself and my practice after this week...

  1. I want to redefine my practice.  I am so fortunate to have technology at my disposal everyday in my classroom.  I want to look at my current assignments and redefine them, so that I'm doing things I couldn't do without the technology.  On Friday, I took my first baby steps toward this goal by having my students screencast their Book Talks using Educreations. I'll post the best Book Talks on YouTube, so we have an authentic audience.  Be on the lookout for that!
  2. I want to create my own textbook.  I went to an awesome session about iBooks Author led by two Apple Distinguished Educators.  I've had this program on my Mac for about a year, but I haven't played around with it very much.  This summer, I plan to get serious about creating my own grammar textbook.
  3. I want to make my classroom an "incubator of creativity, imagination, and joy." This was my favorite thing that Diane Ravitch said in her talk.  This is what all our schools should be.  I know Benchmark is coming up and lots of people are stressed about how all the snow days might affect our students' scores, but I'm sticking with Diane on this one.  She said, "The trump card of American society is not the ability to fill in the right bubble. It's the ability to think outside the box." Man, do I agree!
  4. I want to make time to "unplug." It's probably weird that this was one of my takeaways from a tech conference, but I went to an awesome session with Carl Hooker, and it inspired me to take a timeout from technology on a more regular basis.  Even though technology has made our lives easier in a million different ways, it's also made it harder for us to connect with others on a deep, personal level.  I want to make sure I don't become a digital zombie, and I want to make sure my students can find that balance, too. 
Overall, I would say my first SXSWedu experience was a very positive one. It forced me to think a lot, and it made me want to strive to be innovative in my practice every single day.  I heard such a variety of opinions and ideas; some of them were frustrating, some were eye-opening, and some were affirming, but all of them made we want to be a better teacher, both for my students and for my fellow teachers.  We have to take risks if we want to keep making our profession look good. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Thoughts for my First SXSWedu

I am excited to say that I'm currently sitting in Austin waiting to kick off my first SXSWedu experience by listening to Diane Ravitch speak. I feel like there's a certain irony in that statement--the juxtaposition of someone very anti-privatization and commercialization of education kicking off a conference all about the EdTech startup.

Yesterday, as I was traveling to Austin, I had a very different set of thoughts than I did back in November as I traveled to Boston for NCTE.  In Boston, I was surrounded by other teachers, learning from other teachers, and sharing with other teachers.  When my team presented at NCTE, I was so nervous  because other teachers were judging the merit of what I had to say. A jury of peers is always more daunting than any other.  They know what you're supposed to be doing, and they probably think they know how you're supposed to be teaching it, too.  Let's be real, we're talking about teachers.  We all like to be right.

Anyway, in November it turned out that all my worry and stress was for nothing.  People actually showed up to listen to us speak, and seemed to be excited to hear what we had to share! As I headed to Austin yesterday, I realized I didn't have that same nervous feeling.  I think part of that is that I'm not just speaking to teachers here.  I'm also sharing the story of my classroom with developers who want to understand the "human element" of implementing 1:1 technology in the classroom.  I can imagine that when you spend your days with computers and adults, it might be hard to predict where problems could occur.  

Yesterday, I was talking to Dr. Michael Mills, who very kindly invited me to be at SXSWedu and who has co-taught several BYOD lessons with me in my classroom, and we realized that we've never taught a 1:1 lesson that has followed the lesson plan.  I wrote about one of our edtech fails last fall.  While this may not sound like a positive to some teachers, I reflected that those "fails" or "monitor and adjust moments" have actually helped my students learn more than they would have learned had we only been teaching the stated lesson objectives. By learning with and grappling with technology, my students are learning flexibility, patience, and creativity.  They're also learning to see their device as more than just a toy or a distractor.

The thing about the generation we're currently teaching is that they've been taught since a very young age that a phone or a tablet is simply a tool for their parents to keep them occupied or a tool for them to drive away their own boredom.  By the time students get to me in seventh grade, they're just starting to realize the social potential of their devices.  I really believe that it's my job as their teacher to help them find the purpose of a personal device as a "life tool." In addition to teaching traditional literacy, I think it's important for me to teach digital literacy skills, like effective search terms and website reliability. 

Now don't get me wrong, I fall into the same routine as my students when it comes to using my device as a time waster.  Yesterday, I watched "30 for 30: The Tonya Harding Story" on my iPad during my layover at the airport (it's awesome, in case you were wondering).  I checked Twitter constantly and kept up with my dad's progress in the Little Rock Marathon via Facebook.  There are a lot of times when I'm worse than my students when it comes to technology addiction.  I feel like that's ok sometimes.  lt gives us a place to "connect," both in conversation in the classroom and to extend the classroom conversation beyond the confines of the 50 minutes I spend with my classes each day. 

I'm excited to be at SXSWedu to share my perspective and personal experience with edtech, but I'm also really excited to learn from lots of people who have lots of experience that will help me grow in my work as a teacher. I'm looking forward to sharing my learning and my teacher tech goals at the end of the week! 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pro/Con/Pro: A Look at My Week

Sorry I skipped a week! I've had a weird case of writer's block all week in regards to my classroom. There are lots of things taking up my mind space, but I feel like instead of focusing and reflecting on what's happening right now, I'm really occupied with what's upcoming in my life and allowing it to take over too much room in my brain.  So rather than a cohesive, solid reflection of one particular moment in this past week, I just want to share a few little reflections of things that struck me as important to my working life and the lives of my seventh graders.  My friends and I share about our weeks together over the weekend, and we like to use the pro/con/pro model, so that's what I'll use here.

PRO: Our current unit of study that I've been writing about, focusing on civil rights, is probably one of my favorites that we teach all year.  Most of all because we do a lot of interdisciplinary planning and teaching with our social studies teachers.  Our students have been immersed in learning about the Civil Rights Movement, nonviolent protest, Mahatma Ghandi's teachings, and the continuing struggle for civil rights for all.  This week I was grading some assignments in which students had to analyze and compare Langston Hughes's poems "Dream" and "What Happens to a Dream Deferred?" They then had to draw connections between the poems and their study of the civil rights movement so far.  High level thinking for seventh graders! As I was grading, my heart leaped for joy when I read so many responses in which students were combining their social studies work with the work we've been doing in English class, discussing Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the 14th and 15th Amendments, Brown vs. Board of Education, Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, sit-ins, and other demonstrations.  It was so refreshing and exciting to see such synthesis coming out of my students! Definitely a pro in my week. 

CON: This week, I've been super antsy.  Don't get me wrong, I love my job, and I love my students. I've just been really craving an opportunity to branch out and do something new with my work.  Don't read this as anything serious. I just have a case of work wanderlust, like I need to adopt a new plan of action with something in my classroom. Or like I need something new to dive into in some aspect of my work. Right now, I'm looking at using Curriculet to move my short text instruction online, and I'm really looking forward seeing how my students respond.  I've been loving the way that piloting Google Docs is working out, and I'm thinking about adding the rest of my classes to the pilot during 4th quarter instead of waiting until next year to fully implement.  Anyway, what I'm saying is that I need to branch out into new territories.  I think this CON was why I struggled to write this week.  I was just feeling kind of bored and disconnected, like I was in a rut. I needed to create more time for myself to create this week. 

PRO: Toward the end of the week, I overcame my antsy-ness and snapped out of my slump, so I could do some BYOT vocabulary work with my kids.  I felt bad that my slump had turned into a little bit of slump for them, too.  We all just got a little bored on Tuesday.  To make up for it, we did some cooperative vocabulary work with their devices, identifying key words in a nonfiction text and determining the best search terms to locate the most information about each word.  It was so fun to see them so engaged in their work and really owning these new words. Here's some pictures of them hard at work....

Overall, I had a great, productive week, and my kids showed a lot of new understandings.  Sometimes, that one "con" in the week can really affect my psyche, and I lose my perspective on how wonderful my work really is.  I'm looking forward to a new week and to challenging myself to really engage and focus on the "pros."  Maybe next week my list will be a pro/pro/pro.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Not Cool, Robert Frost!

The poet Robert Frost once wrote, "You can't get too much winter in the winter." After the winter we've been experiencing this year, I must beg differ.  In response to his quote, I would like to quote the young but wise Kid President who said,

This winter is definitely not cool with me.  It's been cold and gray and unpredictable, and it's taken over everyone's thoughts.  We can't get through a class period without debating whether or not we'll be at school all five days during any given week.  I'm all for staying positive, but this weather is really bringing me down. I'm ready for spring and sunshine, please and thank you!

I guess I've been spoiled.  Living in Arkansas has led me to expect mild winters, and compared to places like Minnesota, that have seen lots of negative temperatures, our weather has been downright pleasant.  I guess the biggest difference between our weather and their weather is our reaction to our weather.  Last week, several districts dismissed early just because of the threat of snow, and we all heard about what happened when it snowed in Atlanta and Birmingham (#chaos #snowpocaplyse).  Clearly, we are not equipped in the South to handle winter precipitation.

I've been reflecting a lot recently on all of this winter weather, so I asked my homeroom students if they had anything they would like to say to Mother Nature.  Here are a few of their responses:

"Bring on some hot air!"

"If you're going to make it snow, make it snow on Saturdays!"

"Mother Nature, you need 3-4 inches of snow to make a good snow man."

In reaction to both the weather and the TV special about The Beatles last night: "Let It Be....SUMMER!"

While we all love a good snow day, I think even the kids are tired of Mother Nature cutting into their summer break.  The weatherman says we're supposed to see 50 degrees later this week, and I sure hope he's telling the truth!  I think the kids do, too.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Choices and Opportunities

Yesterday, my students had an excellent debate in class.  I posed the following questions:

For things to be equal, do they have to be the same?
Are there situations where it is ok for people to be treated unequally? Name these situations and explain why it is ok.

At first, many students said that, of course, "equal" and "same" are synonyms, so things that are equal must be the same.  But several students offered rebuttals to this thinking...

"I mean, think about in math.  A balanced algebraic equation has be be equal on both sides but the expressions don't have to be the same."

"What if a mother took her two children to the grocery store?  If one wants a chocolate cupcake and the other one wants a vanilla cupcake, they're receiving equal treats, but those cupcakes aren't the same."

"What about in school? We all deserve an equal chance to do well on a test, but some of us need glasses and stuff to have an equal chance.  That's not the same, but it's equal."

We've worked on Socratic, student-led discussion all year, so I had the wonderful opportunity to pose the original questions and then sit  back and listen to all of this thinking and debate.  As the conversation continued, each class eventually got to a place where they were debating what should be equal.

"Well we're all humans, so we should all be treated equally."

"Yeah, like equal rights, but not necessarily like equal things.  Wouldn't that be like socialism or something?"

"Right! America is a democracy.  We all work and go to college and stuff a different amount. But we all have equal choices to do that."

"And opportunity! We all should have equal opportunities in America!"

Guys, this exact conversation happened in one of my classes. It was like music to my ears, hearing them think beyond their initial thought, reason with each other, and come to new understandings together.  I totally agree with their final concensus.   We should all have equal opportunities and equal choices, and I think that those are things we should be able to guarantee.  Some people have to work really hard to take advantage of those equal opportunities, while others seem to have an easy road from the beginning, but those opportunities are there, regardless, waiting to be taken.

I feel like this conversation offered me a lot of wisdom, or at least some things I needed to hear.  Yesterday morning, my principal asked me if I had heard about the anti-Common Core demonstration at our state's capitol over the weekend.  I told her I had not, but I wasn't surprised by it.  Like I've said before, people love to hate change, and there's a lot of misinformation out there about the CCSS.  As the day went on, I began to think about that conversation in connection to my students' discussion.  All of those protesters have an equal opportunity and equal choice to be involved in the education of their children.  They can choose to go on defense, to exert lots of time, energy, and anger in their fight, or they could come across the battle lines. A colleague said to me yesterday, "Man, what if those people put all that time and energy into being in our classrooms and supporting our instruction! Think about the amazing things we could do together to help and support our kids."  What a lovely thought. Yes, we definitely all have equal choices and equal opportunities.  It's what we do with those choices and opportunities that can make all the difference