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.