Monday, January 27, 2014

Grading Papers Makes My Brain Hurt

Last week, I wrote about the anti-bullying speeches my students have been working on. I'm so proud of all their hard work and effort, and the products they have created show such a vast improvement from where we began the year together.  It is pretty crazy to watch how their writing process changes and grows throughout the year.  This paper has been far less painful than the first one we wrote in September.  They really are growing into true writers, complete with their own individual styles and voices.

However, as proud and excited as I am about their development as authors, the completion of their writing process signals the beginning of my grading process, which I must confess, is my least favorite process.  On Friday, several of my students finished typing and printing their final copies, and I went home with an armful of probably 100 essays, ready and waiting to be graded over the weekend.  Guess how many I graded....THREE.  Not my best effort.

Today, as the last few students were finishing up with typing and the the rest of my kids were free writing in their writer's notebooks, I was really feeling sorry for myself, so I googled "Grading Papers," just to see what I came across.  What I found was this gem of an article that really spoke to my teacher soul about why my aversion to grading really exists. It's called "Why Teachers Secretly Hate Grading."

As I came to the end of the article, I found a link titled "5 Ways to Make Grading Easier."

I did a silent happy dance! HOORAH! Some wonderful, seasoned veteran in the field has solved the dilemma of grading monotony! To my great dismay, the author didn't solve my problems but did provide me with a few laughs and the realization that my search for motivation was really turning into procrastination again.

Here's the thing, I don't dislike grading because I don't want to read my students' work.  I LOVE to read their writing! I find it so inspiring to see truly beautiful imagery and metaphor converge on a page with research they've done themselves.  Seeing the synthesis of their learning is a big teacher win for me.  I dislike grading papers because I've been there through the writing process.  I've seen the effort and the commitment that's gone into the writing (or lack of it).  Instead of having to tick off a rubric for the sake of the parent and the sake of Edline, I want to be able to just tell it like it is.  The other reason I really struggle with grading an assignment like this is that it's one thing to grade twenty-five research papers, but it is another thing entirely to grade almost 150.  I can break it down or leave papers at work or try any number of things to make it feel like less than that, but the truth of the matter remains.  I will grade 150 papers.   By the end, I feel like it's hard to be fully engaged in the reading process. Unfortunately, if I'm honest with myself, that last group of papers is going to get the short end of the stick when it comes to feedback.

So now that I've griped a little bit (and procrastinated for a little longer), I'm going to go grade some papers.  And when I've finished grading all of them, I'm going to take some advice from that article and reward myself with a personal champagne toast to the progress my students have made in their writing this year and to myself for sticking it out and getting the job done.  Here's to hoping I don't find anything else to distract me today!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Intelligence Plus Character: Honoring Dr. King in the Classroom

I'm currently teaching one of my favorite units in our seventh grade curriculum.  I shared with you last week that my students had analyzed historical speeches as examples of literary nonfiction, identifying rhetorical devices in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," and President Obama's "Yes We Can" speech and then deciding together how figurative langauge can enhance public speaking.  This week, we take our study a step further and students write their own persuasive speeches.  

While great strides have been made toward equality in our nation throughout the years, there will always be inequities that we will have to work to eliminate.  America is a competitive nation, a country that wants to nurture winners.  That competitive nature is taught from a young age, through athletics, and even in the classroom, thanks to testing.  I'm not saying competition is inherently bad, but it does have the potential to lead to the negative and the unkind. This type of competition perpetuates in the hallways and on social media as children choose their own winners and losers through the act of bullying and cyberbullying.  This is the focus of our speech writing.  My students focus their persuasive speech writing on encouraging their peers to eradicate bullying from their school.

When I started this week by explaining the assignment, I asked my students to be honest and raise their hands if they had seen bullying at school.  About half of each class would raise their hands.  I then asked them to raise their hands if they had seen bullying on Instagram or Facebook or, at which point every hand would be in the air.  The sad fact is that when bullying doesn't have a face, when you don't have to look another person in the eye, cruelty becomes easy.  It also becomes even more cowardly.  This is a real life issue.  It is one with which all my students can connect in some way.

Working through the writing process was exciting this week.  When students feel a personal connection to the topic, the tenacity with which they attack the task is so much greater, and that energy is why I became a teacher.  It's contagious!  Using the speeches we studied last week, as well as Internet research and knowledge of rhetorical devices and persuasive techniques, my students created some strong writing this week.  These are full length research papers, but I wanted to share examples of some of the concluding paragraphs that they wrote: 

I love the metaphors this student used!

Think about the imagery of anchors weighing down our society...

I love that they're finally starting to understand allusion! #teacherwin :)

What I love about each of these examples is that they show true understanding and personal connection to the topic.  Rather than assign our students mundane writing  tasks, I think we can create better writers if we, as teachers, create better writing assignments, ones that engage our writers in new ways and give them a voice for change.  Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, "The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education." l can only hope to honor Dr. King's legacy by working each day to provide my students with a "true education," one that enables them to leave my classroom with greater intelligence, but also with greater compassion and empathy.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

One More Thought on Common Core

This past week, I received an overwhelming, and mostly positive, response to my last post about Common Core State Standards.  It was so wonderful to hear from so many teachers who are providing for the needs of their students and facilitating change with a positive attitude.  I loved seeing that teacher leadership is alive and well in many school districts.  I don't typically address "hot button topics" like CCSS on the blog, but after noticing so many negative reactions, I really felt the need to reflect on how we teachers can work within our establishment to create better classroom environments and rigorous, engaging instruction that meets the needs of all of our students.

I do want to say that the views expressed in that entry, and in all of my blog entries, are my personal views, and not the views of my district, or any other organization with which I may be involved.  They are simply the musings of a middle school teacher, my attempt to reflect on my work and decompress each week.  I was thrilled to have so many new readers this week, and I hope that people continue to read and find pieces of "wisdom from the middle" that are applicable in their own lives. I would also love to hear from other teachers who are currently implementing CCSS.  Our work for students can only be made stronger by connecting and sharing with fellow educators.  Please email me or tweet me! I'm always looking to grow my PLN.

I also want to share a resource on Common Core that I think can provide a lot of clarity.  There's a lot of misinformation about the CCSS floating around the Internet and being discussed in the media.  One of the 21st century skills that my students and I focus on throughout the year is evaluating the truthfulness and usefulness of print, web, and media sources.  In an age when it seems like the loudest and most adversarial opinions get the most screen time,  I want my students to be able to evaluate the practicality of the arguments they hear.  I want them to be able to sift through misinformation to find strong resources.  In the case of Common Core, the best source of information about the standards is the standards themselves.  If you click on this link, it will direct you to the Key Design Considerations in the Introduction to the Standards.  This past week, my friend and colleague Dr. Dixie Keyes directed me to the last section of this part of the document.  It's subtitled "What is not covered by the standards."  If you're interested in what the CCSS are, I think it is equally important to understand what the standards are not.  Whether you are a teacher or a parent, whether you feel like you agree or disagree with CCSS, your particular argument can only be made stronger by going to the source.  I'd encourage you to read them.  It may change your opinion, and it will definitely provide you with more clarity.  It was good for me to revisit them this past week with my team, as we looked at ways that we could continue to strengthen our own ELA curriculum for the greater benefit of our students.

This past week, my students analyzed speeches delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.  We discussed the importance of rhetorical devices in persuasive speaking and identified common themes in both speeches.  Both speakers were striving for liberty, equality, and unity, values our nation was founded on. One of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes says, "the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."  I've worked in education for only a short time, but it seems to be an area that is sometimes surrounded with "challenge and controversy."  Let's rise to the challenge for the benefit of those we educate.  

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why I Don't Hate Common Core

Normally, at the end of winter break, I find myself excited and antsy to get back into my classroom.  Tomorrow is the big day, but I just don't seem to be nearly as geared up as normal.  I blame Twitter.  Over the break, I've had a lot more time to explore social media than I typically do, and most of the time, I find that Twitter is a place where I find awesome new resources for my classroom.  However, over the break, I feel like so many of the things I saw on my Twitter feed were less about helping a sister out with new classroom ideas and more about complaining about Common Core, lack of funds, lack of resources, lack of support, lack of you-name-it.  What I'm saying is, Twitter got whiny, and instead of feeling sympathetic, I just felt mad.

Here are two things I know for a fact:
1. People hate change.
2. People love to complain about their jobs.

I don't care who you are, whether you're a teacher or a sales rep or an investment banker.  Everyone loves to play the my-job-is-harder-than-yours game.  As a young teacher who has been in the field less than five years, I agree with all those other teachers out there in the Twittersphere.  Teaching is a hard job.  If you want to get things done your way, you have to play to whatever politics there may be in your district, cross your fingers that you have a supportive administrator, and then pretty much just make it happen with your own blood, sweat, and tears (and probably your own funding).  I get it.  I chose an underpaid and underappreciated profession.  But I also didn't choose it because I thought I was going to be overpaid or even appreciated a normal amount.  I chose it because I love kids, and I'm passionate about creating more curious, creative humans.

A lot of people in a lot of states are up in arms about Common Core because they believe it squeezes creativity and inquiry out of the classroom.  I would like to disagree about that and provide evidence to support my disagreement.  My school is in its second year of implementing Common Core State Standards.  As our team created our seventh grade curriculum, we really chose to focus on how to move to a more inquiry-focused, student-led model of learning.  Yes, we changed our core texts to increase the rigor of our students' reading.  Yes, we are still subject to quarterly standardized testing, like many other districts, and, yes, we were able to cover all the standards in depth by the end of the school year while still allowing students choice in both reading and writing projects.  My classroom is far more creative and collaborative now than it was during my first year of teaching and implementing Common Core has helped our English department move to a much more team-oriented, cross-curricular approach.  

I realize that the introduction of the CCSS has been a rough transition.  Not every educational leader understands that the standards are a framework from which to build a curriculum.  I'm fortunate to have very supportive adminstrators.  Not every teacher has that.  But I guess I'm frustrated because people are really playing the blame game here.  Instead of taking ownership of the fact that teaching is hard, and teachers don't have a voice, and all the rest, why don't we take ownership of the fact that, at a grassroots level, we can create change?  No, we can't change our states' decision to use or not use Common Core, but we can open our classroom doors and our hearts and our minds to impact the lives of our colleagues and our students in a positive way.  We can choose to smile and share victories in the teachers lounge and on Twitter instead of complaining and saying teaching's almost not "worth it" anymore.  

We all have frustrating days and weeks and months.  Life is hard sometimes, whether you're a teacher, a principal, a student, or a parent.  Rather than get caught up in the negative, let's all get caught up in the positive.  In fact, let's create the positive.  Let's create some positive, and then post it on Twitter and share some positive.  That's going to be my goal for 2014.  What about you?