Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Rolling on the River: Huck Finn & Sphero

I wrote early in the semester about my first experience with using Spheros in a lesson in my English classes. While it was incredibly engaging and fun for the kids, what I loved most about the lesson was the critical thinking that it generated about complex texts. Giving students the opportunity to have an active, hands-on experience related to the text seemed to trigger a different kind of thinking in my students. It created a sort of relatability to these older texts that my kids couldn't gain by just having a class discussion about it.

My students have been asking about "those little robots" all semester, so I decided that early December was the perfect time to pull them back out for another lesson. This time, Dr. Michael Mills came to co-teach the lesson with me. We decided to have students use the SPRK app to do some block-based coding rather than having them use the basic Sphero app to manually control each Sphero during the activity. This added another layer of engagement but also another level of challenge to the activity. Many of my students had never been exposed to a program like this before.

The first time I used the Spheros, we had just read John Smith's A General History of Virginia and William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. This time, Dr. Mills and I decided that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the perfect novel with which to integrate the use of the Spheros. After reading the novel, students completed a plot map and a character chart to ensure that they all had the necessary background knowledge to participate in the Sphero activity. 

Next, we moved all the desks into one corner of my room, so we had lots of space. Guys, I think my co-workers thought I was crazy, but the kids were so excited to walk into this altered classroom environment! After we cleared the room, we created the Mississippi River on my classroom floor. 
We placed markers along the river to represent various settings in the novel. When students came in to class, we asked them to form small groups. We had six Spheros for this activity, so we formed groups of 4-5 students. Each group was asked to pick a character for their Sphero to represent. We asked the kids to first create a storyboard for a small piece of the plot in Huck Finn in which their chosen character played an integral role. Then we asked them to create a second storyboard explaining how the Sphero could illustrate the character's emotions and actions in this part of the story. In addition, students could take notes about their code.
Once students had brainstormed as a group and completed the storyboard handout, they began programming the Spheros on the iPad. As they created, they began engaging in the process of inquiry by testing their code and making adjustments in order to make the Sphero do exactly what they wanted it to do. It was incredible to watch them cooperate with each other to problem solve and test their work until they got it just right. 

At the end of the class period, students got to present their Sphero's program to the class. They had to explain which character their Sphero represented, which part of the plot the Sphero was reenacting, and why they had chosen certain colors and actions for their Sphero's program. This forced them to go back to the text and establish a strong link between this activity and the novel. 

I have never seen my students so engaged! They were working together, discussing the characters' emotions, motivations, and actions, and they were learning some basic coding. Typically, when you throw all that at a reluctant learner, they throw up their hands and say "I can't!" Not a single kid said "I can't do this" during this lesson. What was great about the open-endedness of the challenge was that kids could differentiate for themselves. If they didn't feel very comfortable with the programming of the Sphero, they could choose a fairly simply section of the plot to reenact. If they felt really comfortable, they could choose more elaborate pieces of the story and create longer programs for the Sphero. It eliminated the struggle of having some students racing ahead while others needed more time.

As we head into Christmas break, I am already brainstorming new ways to incorporate the Spheros in my spring classes. Story identification races for The Canterbury Tales? Sphero battles for Beowulf? I just can't wait to see what we can make happen with these little robots next!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Thanks for the Struggle

With Finals week around the corner, I find myself reflecting on the chaos and the awesomeness of this semester of my life. One thing that I've always loved about being a teacher is the defined beginning and ending of each season within which I work. This year, since my students will be moving on to new classes in the spring rather than coming back to English class, I find myself feeling oddly nostalgic already. Teaching kids for only a semester is so bittersweet. I'm saying goodbye to such a fun, interesting group of students; I'm so excited for a restful Christmas break, but I am definitely sad to think that I won't see this group of kids everyday when we return in January. I feel like I'm really just getting to know some of them.

In reflecting on this semester, I realized that one thing I've really tried to stress through the literature we've read is the importance of thinking for oneself. I want my students to be free thinkers. I want them to be confident in their own ability to justify their opinions. I want them to pull away from the group think of the herd and figure things out for themselves. That is so hard in high school. Let's be real, it's difficult in adulthood, too. There is so much pressure to keep your head down and fit in; there is so much pressure to do what you're "supposed" to do. Society constantly tries to dictate our choices if we let it.

As I scroll through the news and social media lately, I can't help but start to worry about this herd mentality, this lack of critical thinking in our society.  Our kids have to learn to look critically and objectively at a problem and decide for themselves what they believe about that problem and its solution. There's a lot of danger in the alternative.

I've also found that removing the "right" answers has been liberating for many of my students this semester. Students that have been told for most of their secondary education that they aren't "good at school" have opened up and flourished in an environment of inquiry, a place where it's safe to ask questions and struggle and fail forward.

I'm so thankful everyday for the opportunity to be a part of this journey with my students. I love that I get to build a community of learning where we walk through open doors of thought instead of standing in front of closed doors of conformity and wrong answers and doing what's always been done.

This semester, I feel like I've stretched myself as a teacher more than I ever have before. Having a clean slate to plan a course gave me the freedom to take things I've always wanted to do and do them. It gave me the courage to change it up because what did I really have to lose? It's been frustrating and intense and stressful at times, but it's definitely been worth it. If I'm going to ask kids to struggle, then it's only fair that I join them in that struggle to be better every day. I'll just tell you this. It's been a great struggle so far.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Remembering Why I Teach

It's very easy to lose perspective in the classroom. So many things have to be done right this second that, at times, the bigger picture gets blurry; I'm so hyper-focused on the to-do list items that have the most immediate implications for my stress level that I lose the why. Recently I was reminded exactly why I teach when I received a letter from a former student that brought me back to the big picture, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

Dear Ms. Herring, 

I am in 8th grade Careers class. Our assignment is to pick our favorite teacher and write why you're so special. I picked you! I want to start off by saying you were the best teacher ever. You made things fun. Every day in your class, I felt so safe. I felt like it was okay to fail, and if I did, you would help me. I never liked English until 7th grade. I was a slow learner, but you kept trying and didn't give up on me. Most teachers didn't care. Without you, I most likely wouldn't be where I am now. I just want to say thank you so much for not giving up on me throughout the school year. 

Every afternoon when I would leave your class, we would say goodbye, but you would say "Have a great day, Raven!" It might not seem like a big thing to you, but it was to me, knowing that after class you would be there smiling at me. You always made my day when I left. It really meant a lot to me when you would not let me fail. You always said "You can do it" or "You can be better. I know you can." 

I know you might not remember me, but that's okay. I just want you to know I am thankful I got to meet you. 

Ya'll. I literally got closer to tears with every. single. word. this child wrote to me. Teaching is a struggle sometimes. Between the paperwork, planning, grading, and classroom managing, there are days when it's hard to remember the "why," but this sweet student reminded me exactly why I chose this profession. I chose it because kids are important, and the idea that there are kids in our educational system that feel forgotten and lost breaks my heart into a million pieces. I love my content, but I can live in a world where I don't talk about beautiful literature everyday. I simply can't live in a world where there are kids who need to be loved and nurtured and reminded that they have the potential for awesomeness.

As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I find myself reflecting on things for which I'm thankful. My job is definitely one of those things. It may be frustrating and overwhelming at times, but it also provides me with the opportunity to interact with kids everyday who need to be reminded that they are capable of more than they think. It gives me the opportunity to encourage kids to fail forward. We grow the most when we mess up and figure out how to pick ourselves up and try again. These moments of painful growth are probably our most valuable, but in an age where quick fixes make failure seem like the stuff of losers, our students need us to help them dust themselves off, so they can try again. They need to be reminded that they can do better and that our classrooms are the safest places for them to figure out how to be successful.

So as we finish out this final week before Thanksgiving break, and as we inch toward the close of the semester, I find myself recommitted to the why. I teach for kids like Raven. I teach because every kid matters. I teach because every kid deserves to know he matters.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Six Word Story Short Films

One of the classes that I'm teaching this year is a nine-week course for sophomores called Beyond Writing. The course is a required elective that every sophomore takes in the fall as an introduction to high school writing. We teach four weeks of narrative writing, followed by four weeks of research and synthesis writing, and we weave in academic vocabulary and ACT grammar skills throughout the course. I really enjoy teaching this course because I love to teach writing. My students, however, sometimes come into the course feeling like it's redundant. Some of them don't understand how this class is any different from their English 10 courses.

Because of this, I decided that I wanted to choose writing topics and mentor texts that would be highly engaging and relevant to students. I also wanted to incorporate forms of writing that used less words to share big ideas. This summer, I met fellow Apple Distinguished Educator, Don Goble, and learned about the six word story films that his students create. I knew immediately that this was the first narrative I wanted my students to write for me.

Now, I'm not a film teacher. I can use iMovie on the iPad and Mac fairly well, but I really had no prior knowledge about camera angles for shots. I just knew that I wanted my students to tell me a story about themselves in six words. I wanted my reluctant writers to see that brevity is just as challenging and verbosity. I wanted them to find powerful images in just one phrase or sentence. I started by sharing this handout with my students in Google Classroom. I like giving them access to information through hyperlinks rather than making hundreds of copies and wasting paper.
Students complete this project in three 90-minutes class periods. The lessons look like this: 
  • Day 1 - Introduce project; read and discuss New York Times article about the importance of brevity; brainstorm and workshop six word stories in small groups. 
  • Day 2 - Choose one six word story with which to continue working; review camera shots and angles; complete a storyboard graphic organizer, so you know what you need to film at home.
    • Day 2 Homework - Students must film their six shots for their six word stories and upload them to Google Drive. Since my iPads stay in my classroom, this is the simplest way for students to access their videos on our school devices. 
  • Day 3 - Provide a short tutorial on iMovie; students create their films and upload them to Google Classroom for grading and sharing with the class. 
My first set of students completed this project in August, and it went fairly well. It was the first week of school, and it was my first week teaching a new grade level. While I was happy with what my students were able to create, I felt that I could have done a better job of facilitating the process for them. My second quarter class just completed their projects, and I could not be more proud of their hard work and excitement for this project. What I love about these projects is that each one really shows that student's personality, so it's a great way to get to know your students at the start of the course. I also love that it challenges students to choose their words carefully. Not only do they have to be brief by narrowing their ideas to six words, but they also have to be sure that there are strong images in the words that they choose. This is just good writing, plain and simple. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Welcome to Shakescenter: My First Green Screen Lesson

I survived my first quarter as a high school English teacher! I've been meaning to write a post for weeks, but it seems like weeks are flying by at an alarming rate these days. I realized this week that I only have six and a half more weeks with these students. That's crazy! 

The past few weeks have been full of learning experiences as I continue to navigate my way through this new position, the new planning, and the new age group. One of my biggest goals in this new position was to find ways to make complex, challenging literature more accessible to my students, who often find themselves asking, "Why are you making me read this?" 

Shakespeare is no exception. I was excited to teach Hamlet this quarter, but I was also nervous. The language is beautiful, but it can also be daunting for students who are already struggling readers. I wanted to find a way to help my students gain confidence with this difficult text, and I wanted them to walk away with a true understanding of the play's plot and the interactions among the characters. When I was in high school, I loved English class, but I hated writing commentaries. I find that many of my students have a similar aversion to analytical writing. They can talk about the text and always have insightful comments in class discussion, but when I ask them to write, that somehow goes out the window. 

Therefore, I decided that we were going to create video commentaries of Shakespeare. I also decided that we were going to model them after Sportscenter. I give you, Shakescenter!
You can view the student handout here. After reviewing some basics about Shakespeare's life and work, I showed the Folger Shakespeare Library's Insider's guide video on Hamlet. We also discussed the connections between the main characters since there are a lot of important characters that are interconnected in this play. Then, I asked students to select a partner with which to complete a scene analysis and commentary video. I assigned each group a different, critical scene from the play. Students followed this process: 
  • Read the scene with a partner. 
  • Compare the original language to a modern adaptation to ensure comprehension and understanding. 
  • Identify the 2-3 most critical moments in the scene.
Once students had completed this work, I asked them to write a script for their episode of Shakescenter. The script had to include an introduction, analysis and commentary of the 2-3 critical moments on which they chose to focus, and a sign-off.  I used an episode of Sportscenter from YouTube to model what I was wanting students to do. On Sportscenter, you don't watch a whole game or a whole press conference; you only get the highlights. I wanted students to identify the "highlights" of Hamlet and explain their significance to the class.

After students composed and practiced their scripts, they were asked to create a storyboard of the scenes they would include in their Shakescenter episode. At this time, with the help of Dr. Michael Mills at UCA, I also gave students access to movie clips of the play that coincided with their assigned scenes. In order to ensure that students were still having to analyze and create, we gave students big chunks of the film, so they had to identify the 15-20 second "highlights" they had chosen and edit down their pieces of film to only include the most critical moments. This challenged them to analyze the film version in addition to the text version

Finally, after my students had done all this writing, planning, and practicing, we were ready to film. Dr. Mills came and joined us for class, and it was awesome to be able to co-teach this lesson, especially since it was my first time using a green screen. 
We used Green Screen by Do Ink for the green screen portions of the video, and it worked perfectly. Once they had filmed the scripted pieces of their work, they used iMovie to cut and edit their clips from Hamlet and to piece their work together into a finished product. Once each group was finished editing, they turned the finished product in to me through Google Classroom. We watched each episode of Shakescenter: Hamlet Edition in order, and we discussed whether the class thought each group had truly chosen the most critical pieces of the scene. Students also noted the growing tension in each scene as the play progresses toward the demise of all the main characters in the final fight scene. 

This project held a lot of firsts for me. It was my first time to teach Shakespeare, and it was my first time to green screen in the classroom (or anywhere for that matter). It was also the first time I've ever "flipped" the study of a major literary work in my classroom and given students this much creative license. I loved all of these firsts so much. My kids were truly engaged in this work. They knew their scenes well and understood how the scenes of the play were connected and moved the action forward. They decoded language with their peers and drew connections to song lyrics and modern-day situations. Were there some snags and some things that I'll do better next time? Absolutely. But overall, I feel like it was a success because my kids were so excited about Shakespeare. They couldn't wait to share their videos with the class. 

You can view some of their work here. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Robots in English Class?

For the past two weeks, we've been studying early American literature in my English 11 classes. We've read Of Plymouth Plantation, General History of Virginia, Anne Bradstreet poems, slave narratives, "Young Goodman Brown," and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. We've been busy and working hard, and by Thursday my students were over it. It was the perfect day to bring out my new Spheros.

This past summer at ADE Institute, I met fellow Apple Distinguished Educator Richard Perry from New York, and he told me about how he used Sphero robots to teach The Grapes of Wrath to his high school students. It was literally one of the most fascinating lessons I have ever listened to someone describe, and I knew by the end of that conversation that I had to try to integrate Spheros into my high school English classes this year. I mean, what better way to engage kids in literature than to find some way to connect it to playing with robots? 

So the first step was to purchase the Spheros. I did not have the classroom budget to make this purchase, so I decided I would try Donors Choose for the first time. It was a great experience. The site is so user-friendly, and my Sphero project was fully funded in under 24 hours! I was so excited! The Spheros arrived last week on the second day of school, and I could not wait to get them out of their boxes and into the hands of my students. However, this is when I really had to stop and think: How am I going to make these cool little robots relevant to our study of literature? 

Here's what we did. I decided to teach Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford and General History of Virginia by John Smith as paired texts. We read each text with a strong focus on author's purpose and author's perspective. I really wanted students to identify each man's objective for traveling to the New World. Next, I created two identical mazes on my classroom floor with blue masking tape. At each end of the maze was a sign that said "Europe;" at the place where the two mazes met in the middle of the room, I placed a sign that said "The New World."

Students stood on each end of the maze, in "Europe," and had to guide the Sphero through the "Atlantic Ocean" maze in order to reach "The New World." They raced to see which Sphero could get there the fastest and the most accurately. I told them that if the Sphero went outside the lines, the "ship" was damaged, and they had to start over on the journey. Students LOVED this activity. I had reluctant readers who had been complaining about this literature all week jumping out of their desks to be involved. We even had our principal participating in the activity during 2nd block.
It was so awesome to watch students interacting with each other and helping each other learn how best to guide the Sphero through the maze. For this first activity, I decided to use the basic Sphero app since I was just introducing Sphero to my students. In future activities, I hope to implement some basic coding skills as well by using other third party apps. 

So this was a lot of fun, but the best part of this activity was listening to the connections that students made to the texts we had been reading prior to this activity. Once every student had an opportunity to try to guide the Sphero to the New World, I asked students to go back to their seats for a discussion. I simply said, "Now that you've completed this activity, tell me what connections you can make to the lives of early American settlers." Here are some of the answers I received: 
  • It was really difficult to control the Sphero; just like the settlers struggled to control their own lives. The Pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers both struggled to grow food and take care of themselves in their new homes. 
  • When you had to recalibrate the Sphero, it's like when the Mayflower ran into all those storms on the Atlantic in "Of Plymouth Plantation." They had to decide whether to go back to England or continue their journey, and they had to fix their ship, just like you had to fix the Sphero. 
  • The more slowly you went, the more control you had over the Sphero. The settlers had a long, slow journey across the ocean. 
  • Everyone had to work together. Even if only one person was guiding the Sphero, the rest of us were helping to explain the controls or providing encouragement. Everyone in the settlements had to work together, too. 
I loved this conversation. It was so awesome to see my students make these connections and be so completely engaged. Even students who really struggled with some of these difficult texts earlier in the week were able to make literary connections after the activity and expressed a stronger understanding of the time period in general. It was a great way to spend a Friday with my kids, and I can't wait to experiment with new ways to use the Sphero as we move through the rest of the semester!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Swimming in a New Pool

Happy Back to School! I am thrilled to report that I've made it through my first two days as a high school teacher. It's been exhausting. I came home this afternoon and promptly took an nap, and now I feel like I can finally write a little bit about my new gig as a teacher of high school sophomores and juniors.

One thing on which I really wanted to focus this school year was optimism. I've blogged before about reading Deliberate Optimism last spring with my middle school team. I just loved that book. I can't tell you that starting a new job hasn't been stressful. I know how to teach, but I have spent the past two days feeling like a brand new teacher. So needless to say, I've been doing everything I can to stay positive. Everything I do can't be perfect, no matter how badly I'd like for that to be the case. I'm definitely feeling like I'm back in a "fake it 'til you make it" phase of my work life. 

However, there were some things I implemented in my first day of school routines that I feel were a real success. My favorite thing that happened yesterday was the Positive Thoughts board in my classroom. My new classroom feels pretty spacious compared to my old space. I have three whiteboards! (Yes, I was super excited about this since my old classroom had one whiteboard that badly needed replacing.) I also had a blank wall in one corner of my classroom. I covered it with whiteboard and chalkboard contact paper, so it looks like this. 

We'll use the chalkboard to track great contributions to classroom discussion and to write down great lines from literature that we love. I've already had a few students add their favorite quotes from their favorite books to our Literature Graffiti board. The Google It whiteboard will be a place for questions that need answering during class discussion and for new vocabulary we need to investigate. My favorite part of this wall is the space for positive thoughts. Yesterday, I asked my students to raise their hands if they had ever had a bad day at school before. Every hand in my room went up in every class period. Bad days happen. I asked students to keep their hands up if someone had ever had a bad day get better because someone said something nice to them. Lots of hands stayed in the air. I explained that the Positive Thoughts board would operate on a "give what you can, take what you need" basis. Students who are having a great day can write a compliment or an inspirational quote on a sticky note and stick it to the board. That way, when someone has a bad day, he can take a positive thought with him when he leaves. Hopefully it will make that person's day a little better. Here's a sample of what the board looked like at the end of the day. 

This was my favorite part of my day. I got to spend my day with awesome kids who were willing to put some goodness out into the world, and I loved it. At the same time, I was also letting my inner perfectionist get the best of me by the end of the day. I really felt like I struggled with pacing on this longer block class period and there are so many things to remember in the first days of school. I felt like it took me all day to finally hit my stride and get it together. Then, the school day ended, and I thought, "Yikes, I have to figure this all out again for tomorrow!" Just when I was about to let myself get overwhelmed, one of my new colleagues came in my room to check in, and she gave me the most encouraging pep talk. She said, "Jessica, just remember that you know how to swim. You've been swimming really well for a few years now. Just because you're in a new pool doesn't mean you forgot how to swim." Our short conversation was exactly what I needed to keep going. I'm not sure if she knew how much I needed to hear what she had to say or not, but her positive words made me feel like everything will be just fine. I do know how to swim, but I'm definitely having to adjust to the new current in which I'm swimming. I'm excited for the challenge and ready to see where this year takes me!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Pre-writing with Pinterest and Other Projects

Two posts ago, I mentioned that I used Pinterest with my seventh graders for the first time this past spring and loved every minute of it! Now that it's almost a new school year, I wanted to post a little more about the nuts and bolts of how this worked in my classroom. Hopefully, you'll consider using Pinterest for student assignments, too! It's an awesome curation tool that kids are already familiar with because most of their moms use it to craft or decide what they want to cook for dinner.

Before I talk about the wonderful parts of working with Pinterest, I feel like it's only fair to share the struggles. First, if students do not have email addresses that they check and can use to verify their accounts, you're going to be stuck dealing with the dreaded "safe mode" after about three days of working, which locks students out of their Pinterest accounts. However, if you're working with younger students, or you are in a district where students don't have email access, you can set up dummy accounts using a personal Gmail account. Here's a link to an easy tutorial on how to do this. This allows you as the teacher to go in and validate all of their accounts. If I had known I would run into this problem, I would have taken this route with my kids from the beginning. You live and you learn.

The only other "struggle" I would say I initially had was shifting students' ideas about the purpose of Pinterest. When we started the project, boys saw Pinterest as a "girl website," and girls saw Pinterest as a place to collect cute outfits and inspirational quotes. I had to teach my students that Pinterest was basically a digital scrapbook or storyboard. It was a place to curate research and story ideas. Some students grasped this fairly quickly, while it took others a day of pinning to start to understand the purpose of their work.

Instead of using a traditional character development worksheet for pre-writing in our narrative unit, I asked students to create two Pinterest boards, a Main Characters board and a Setting board. I then asked them to add pins to these boards that would help them add detail and description to their writing. At first, I asked them to add "brainstorm pins" that would help them visualize the basic beginnings of the stories in their minds. After our first class period working with Pinterest, I asked students to go beyond searching pins within Pinterest to doing story research with Google and pinning from other sources. After our second day of work, students started to ask if they could create additional boards for Conflicts and Secondary Characters. I was thrilled! Students really took ownership of this process, and the engagement I saw during research was awesome! I could easily see using this same process for research on nonfiction topics as well.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, not only did students enjoy this pre-writing process, but they also showed significant gains in their writing. On average, students' narratives were twice as long as narratives written from a traditional pre-writing worksheet, and they included rich detail that students could not have included without first researching their topics. For example, one of my students wanted to set her story at Sea World. Her main character was a dolphin trainer working with a dolphin that had a prosthetic fin. The technical detail she incorporated into her story would not have been included had she not deeply researched the topic. Students also scored higher on our narrative writing rubric than they had when using traditional brainstorming methods.

I was telling a teacher friend how excited I was about this project last spring, and she decided to add Pinterest as a project option in her mythology unit. Students had to role play as their chosen Greek god or goddess and create a Pinterest board to represent the characteristics of that person. What a great way to get students to analyze characters and myths! Her kids really got into this project. You can see screenshots from her students' Pinterest boards here. I love this idea, and I feel like you could do something similar with character analysis in a novel study.

In all honesty, I went in to this project a little skeptical about whether or not it would have an impact on kids' academically. At first glance, it definitely seems like kids would find this fun, which I am all about, but I was pleasantly surprised by the ways in which it made research feel more accessible to my students. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Reflections on #ADE2015

Now that I've had a couple days to recover from the overwhelmingly awesome experience that was Apple Distinguished Educator Institute 2015, I feel like I can begin to properly express all the excitement I feel about beginning a new school year and all the gratitude I feel for the opportunity to be surrounded by such seriously amazing educators.

I took a lot of things away from my time in Miami, but I think the most important thing I brought home with me was a renewed mentality about teaching. I ended last school year thrilled about my new job but also incredibly tired. I've been struggling all summer to wrap my mind around this new curriculum and how I want to teach it. The four days of ADE 2015 were the first days of this summer when I felt really and truly thrilled about this opportunity for change next year. Part of that was because of the amazing English teachers I met. I gained so many fresh ideas and had so many meaningful conversations about teaching English that I went home literally giddy about how I want to structure my class this year.

The other, bigger part of this renewed mindset has to do with the culture of the Apple Distinguished Educator program. When I arrived at the airport to go home, I happened to be at the same gate as three other ADEs who were traveling home as well. Two of these people were new members like myself, and one of them had attended Institute as an alum of the program. As we sat talking about our week, he said that one of the most important pieces of ADE culture is "Yes, and..." Instead of saying "Yes, but" when someone brings an idea to the table, you say "Yes, and..." Add to the idea instead of taking it away. Continue to grow and nurture that idea into something even more awesome.

As I traveled home on Tuesday and started to unpack and return to "normal life" yesterday, I kept coming back to this idea of responding "Yes, and..." I realized that earlier this summer I had been responding "Yes, but" to a lot of things. If you think about it, it's the knee jerk reaction we often have to any new idea or way of thinking. It's the response we hear a lot of the time in education.

Yes, but it's too expensive, and we can't fund it.

Yes, but that's not the way we've always done it. 

Yes, but those students will never be able to do that. 

"Yes, but" is an exhausting answer. It stifles creativity and innovation and discounts what we could accomplish if we just went for it and trusted that with hard work and focus we could create something amazing. What if we started responding like this?

Yes, and I feel sure we can find the funding to make that happen. Let's look for grants. 

Yes, and we can take this idea and take it to an even higher level of innovation. Let's work together. 

Yes, and all students can achieve if we guide them toward greatness. Let's help these students feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in doing something they thought they never could. 

I am officially a huge fan of "Yes, and..." This year, let's start answering, not with doubt, but with faith in the abilities of teachers and students and administrators.  Let's be team players who are excited about innovation and creativity and generally making the education world a much cooler place to work. I'm so excited I have a whole new ADE family to keep me responding with a strong "Yes, and..."

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Change and Excitement and Busyness

I'm back! May and June were such a crazy whirlwind of change and excitement and busyness! There have been so many things I've wanted to write about in the past two months, but when it came down to it, I typically ended up having to choose between blogging and sleeping, and it's clear which of those things won out for me. It's been a long time since I let things lag for so long on here, so I'll give you a little update on my life in the classroom.

Toward the end of April, I found out that I was accepted into the Apple Distinguished Educator Class of 2015. I have never been so excited about anything related to my work! I literally jumped on my couch like a 12-year-old girl, and I am not even exaggerating. My roommate, bless her, got excited with me and for me and joined in this excessive celebration, which is why I love her. There's nothing better than a friend who celebrates successes, even if she's not 100% clear on why you're so excited. Anyway, I leave for ADE Institute tomorrow, and I am thrilled to be learning from and working with some of the most innovative educators in North America. I just know that this experience is going to rekindle a sense of excitement and newness in my work, and I am so ready for that! I can't wait to meet the rest of the Class of 2015 and get to work.

In the month of May, I completed a newer version of the Science Fiction iBook project that I've completed in past years. This year, in cooperation with some colleagues at the University of Central Arkansas and a fellow teacher at my school, I introduced my students to Pinterest as a research and character-building tool as part of an action research study. It made for a very busy month of May, but I am thrilled with the results! Students who used Pinterest to develop their short stories wrote almost twice as much as students who used a traditional character development sheet, and they included so many intense, vivid details about their characters and settings. It was so exciting to watch their writing, and their excitement about their writing, develop throughout the project. This project is a whole separate blog post in itself, so I promise I'll share more. Just know this: Pinterest is a powerful curation tool for students. I'm so glad this project provided the opportunity to teach kids that it's more than a place for recipes and crafts.

In June, I taught two sections of a Models of Teaching course at UCA, and I gained a whole new respect for every professor I ever had in a summer session. I know it was an intense experience for my students, many of whom were taking multiple five-week courses at once, but it was an intense experience for me, too. Adjusting to teaching the course in that shorter time span, rather than in a traditional semester, was definitely interesting, and, having done it once, I look forward to the opportunity to being better at teaching it in this abbreviated form the next time around.

The biggest and most bittersweet change I experienced in the past two months was moving out of "the middle." About halfway through this past school year, I started to feel like I needed a change of pace. I love middle school, particularly my middle school, so much. It's been such a warm and wonderful environment, and it was the perfect place to spend the first four years of my career. But when a position became available at our high school, I decided it was worth a shot. Next year, I'll be teaching 11th grade American Literature, Honors 12 British Literature, and some nine-week writing courses. While I'm very excited about this change, I'm also not ashamed to admit that I'm a little overwhelmed. There is so much to do and plan and figure out. I'll be working with a great team of teachers, but I need to wrap my brain around this new content and this new age group. So I've moved to a new "middle place" that's also old and familiar. It's the middle place where you have to "fake it 'til you make it," at least a little bit.

With all this newness, I'm sure I'll have plenty of blogging material moving forward, and I won't go another two months before I post anything again. I'm ready for a whole new set of challenges and a whole new sense of being "in the middle." It's going to be just great!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Stirring Up Fresh Life, Endlessly

We completed PARCC testing today. Before we started the test yesterday, a student asked me, "Ms. Herring, does the PARCC test help me get into anything?" I asked him what he meant, and he said, "like, will this help me get into 8th grade? or high school? or college?" I said that his performance on this test would not, in fact, get him into or out of anything. However, his performance would potentially be a reflection on my teaching ability, so I would appreciate it if he would just try his very hardest to do his best. He smiled and said he would do that for me.

After the test, I was flipping through a copy of Madeleine L'engle's A Wrinkle in Time that was sitting on my desk. We just finished reading the novel earlier this week before testing began. As I flipped through the back of the novel, I noticed that her 1963 Newberry Award acceptance speech was printed after the last chapter.  I had never read it before, so I stopped to read those few pages. You can read the full text here. As I was reading, this particular passage really stuck out to me:

Because of the very nature of the world as it is today, our children receive in school a heavy load of scientific and analytic subjects, so it is in their reading for fun, for pleasure, that they must be guided into creativity. These are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe that we can help our children avoid by providing them with "explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly."

Guys, she wrote this in 1963. I read that, and I couldn't help but think about the fact that I had just administered a test which is both standardized and regimented. So much of education does give the appearance, as L'engle suggests, of making "muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin." But that's not why I became a teacher. I became a teacher because I wanted to engage students in a true, in-depth look at who they want to be as unique and awesome human beings. I became a teacher because I want to provide students with that explosive material that will stir up real life and stir up imagined worlds that they can create in their own minds and stir up all the infinite possibilities that lie ahead of them if they only manage to hold on to their creativity in a world of education that sometimes seems to just value filling in the blank.

I want my students to be so excited to walk into my classroom. I want them to know that it's cool to make mistakes because that's what leads to innovation. I don't want to contribute to "the drying, dissipating universe." I mean, yikes! That's some strong language. I wonder what Madeleine L'engle would think about today's educational landscape. There are so many amazing teachers encouraging their students to be change-makers and inventors and writers. However, for every teacher who is doing everything they can to ignite creativity and a passion for learning, it feels like there is also a politician who is trying to steal autonomy and creativity away from teachers. I don't have any of the answers. All I know if that I'm on Team L'engle. I want to create little sparks of excitement for learning every. single. day.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Differences Make Us Stronger

In this year's study of A Wrinkle in Time, I've decided to really focus on characterization. I love all the characters in this fantastic book, but my favorite character is definitely Meg Murry. I love how awkward and unsure of herself she is because I feel like so many of my seventh graders can relate to her. Meg sees herself as a "biological mistake," but without her perceived weaknesses, she would never be able to find her strength and save the day at the end of the book.

Before having students analyze the characters in the book this week, I asked them to analyze themselves. I told them not to give me the first answer that came to mind or the answer that they thought I wanted to hear. I reminded them that we don't just read books for the sake of reading; we read books to get to know ourselves better and to make us better, more informed human beings. I was amazed at how many of my students really listened and took what I said to heart. Most of my students throughout the day sat and really, truly thought about their personal traits. It was so interesting to me how many of my students stared blankly at their papers, struggling to decide on a personal trait, maybe even a personal "weakness" that could make them stronger.

Here are some of my favorite answers...

Everyone knows that I'm a shy, isolated person. But sometimes I can use it to my advantage. No, the shyness doesn't give me strength, but choosing to isolate myself does. It allows me to think about the good and bad things that have happened each day and what I could have done or said. That helps me with tomorrow because I will push myself into being a better person tomorrow. 
I think one special trait that has helped me in life is that I'm weird. A good weird. I'm like a mix of every personality balled up into one human. I'm sporty; I'm outgoing, but I'm also shy. I like to look nice, but not too fancy. I have many friends, but not enough to make me "popular." It has given me strength because it allows me to be friends with all kinds of people, and it's easy to work with many people. I use this quality every day. 
To me, the ability to be imaginative is a very important part of my personality because my imagination has a very big effect on how I go about life. My imagination allows me to be open-minded to new ideas in life, but does not affect my stubbornness in other things like my loyalty to my friends. Imagination is also what fuels my love for writing, art, reading, and music, among other things. But above all these things, imagination is what fuels my ability to believe and to add life to my stories. 
One special trait that has helped me through life is that I don't care what people say I can't do. It has given me strength because even though people say I can't do something, it just makes me want to do that thing even more. I use this trait everyday and always. Our differences make us stronger because we are unique in our own way. 
The one thing about me that makes me unique is my creativeness. The inside of my head is an entire city of things and characters. Everyday my creativeness and imagination will forge a new thought from the fires of my spinal cord, and the forge masters of my brain. Some days, I brings them to life, whether on paper, or by Legos and video games. My creativity is my best friend and my only escape. 

What I loved the most about this assignment was that I feel like I rediscovered some of my students. As we muddle through "testing season" at school, it's easy to feel overloaded with clerical tasks and test prep and altered daily schedules. This assignment was like a breath of fresh air. It was so delightful to see my students open this door into their personalities for me. Their differences definitely make them stronger, and knowing what they value in themselves encourages me to be a stronger teacher, the kind of teacher that values their individuality and fosters their strengths everyday.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Serenity Prayer for Teachers

One year for Christmas, when I was in college, my mom got me a little silver plaque with the Serenity Prayer engraved on it. She's always known that I like to be in control, and apparently she knew much better than I did that I needed a constant reminder that I don't always get to make the decisions. When I first started teaching, that little Serenity Prayer plaque was the first thing I set up on my very first teacher desk. It's been on my desk at work, in basically the same place, ever since then. Honestly, there are many days when I forget that it's there at all. But lately, I've found myself repeating that little prayer in my head throughout the day.

If you've every read any post I have ever written before, you may have a sense that I am a girl who likes to be in control of things. I like order and focus and a clear plan of action. However, I have been reminded in so many ways over the past month or so that I simply can't have all those things all the time. Our English team at the middle school has been doing a book study on Deliberate Optimism by Debbie Silver, Jack Berckemeyer, and Judith Baenen since January and today in our discussion I was reminded all over again that I may not always get to make the choices, but I definitely get to choose how I live with them. In honor of my fellow teachers, I would like to recommit myself today to being more deliberately optimistic. We may not get to make all the choices, and we may sometimes feel like we're under attack with all the choices that are being made for us. I'm not saying we need to just lay down and take that. I'm simply saying that there are adult-centered mindsets and then there are student-centered mindsets, and we have to remember why we choose to get up and walk into our classrooms each and every day. 

So here's the Serenity Prayer I've been saying recently:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...
  • I can't change the fact that I have to give a state mandated standardized test that takes away from instructional time.
  • I can't change the fact that this legislative session has felt like an attack on my professionalism.
  • I can't change the fact that there are more administrative tasks to be done in my classroom than hours in a day.
Courage to change the things I can...
  • I can change my attitude toward tasks I'd rather not complete.
  • I can change my emotional reaction to things beyond my control.
  • I can change my approach to each day by choosing to focus on the positive.
And wisdom to know the difference...

This is the real struggle. I find that it's in my nature to want to fix things that aren't working. However, there are moments when we just have to realize that, while parts of the system are struggling, there are some really awesome bright spots in education. There are fantastic educators making amazing, student-centered choices everyday in public education, and I want to be one of those people. I want to keep making lemonade out of my lemons. I had a very awesome, very student-centered principal who used to start every morning by reminding the students and teachers to "Make it a great day or not; the choice is yours." I've been so conscious of that choice lately. I hope I can find the serenity to always make the right ones. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Busy Doesn't Equal "Not Bored"

I have really been struggling to find my voice over the past couple of weeks. The month of March has been ridiculously busy so far. I spent the first week of March trying to recuperate from snow days and triage my lesson plans and pacing guide after missing seven school days in three weeks. Then I spent the second week of March at SXSWedu in Austin experiencing so many fantastic panels and sessions and meeting so many wonderful people in the ed tech landscape. Now, I'm spending the third week of March PARCC testing my students and scrambling to get grades posted for report cards, so that I can enjoy spring break during the fourth week of March. And just like that, the month of March is gone.

Each time I've had a moment to breathe in the past two or three weeks, I've opened my laptop to blog, and nothing productive has come out of my brain. I've deleted several drafts after reading them and feeling like there was nothing there that I really wanted to say. It's been so frustrating to have so many thoughts in my brain and feel like I can't really articulate them in any kind of cohesive way.

However, for the past week I have had the same quote ringing through my brain, and it won't go away. One of the keynote speakers at SXSWedu this year was Emily Pilloton, the founder and director of Project H. During her presentation about empowering kids through design, she said, "No one has any reason, in the entire world, to be bored. There are so many things that need to be done." Dang.

Now, I know this statement to be true. I preach it to my students every day. I have this Louis CK poster in my room to remind my students every day that they literally have zero reasons to be bored every day.
But here's the thing. I think sometimes we confuse being busy with being "not bored." And I think that is something that I do constantly. I love teaching kids, and I work in a vibrant, exciting school culture. I am constantly saying yes to any opportunity that comes my way because I don't want to miss out on anything that could make me a better, stronger, wiser version of my teaching self. I'm more busy than I probably need to be. Over this past year, I feel like I've written several posts about feeling overwhelmed, yet I just keep adding things to my life plate. Maybe it's not about being busy. Maybe it's about finding the thing that really, really needs to be done and working hard to make it happen. 

As a teacher, I sometimes feel like I'm spinning my wheels and struggling to fit in all the required things that need to be accomplished in a class period and in an instructional day. I think sometimes just the monotony of that kind of rote busyness can be exhausting. Last week in Austin, I presented on a panel with three other educators about the importance of hacking professional development and allowing time for teachers to explore more passion-based professional learning. I know after coming back from Austin, I feel so incredibly excited to innovate in new ways in my classroom instruction, and I don't want to let that excitement wane as I "actively monitor" during PARCC testing this week.  I want to model for my students that it's not ok to say "I'm bored." There are so many things that need to be done. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Searching for the Answer

In the past two weeks, the state of Arkansas has been experiencing its annual snow-pocalypse, which basically means we don't go to school if there is a threat of snow or ice. While this has given me plenty of much needed work time, I am now out of projects that I want to complete and very ready to get back to work in my classroom. Last week, we were out for winter weather Monday through Wednesday, and Thursday when we returned I taught a research lesson to my students. My students have been researching small things all year, but I felt like we needed a quick refresher before we started a more involved research unit that will end in an argumentative writing project.

I began the lesson by giving students a search scenario. I told them I wanted to find a video online. In particular, because I have had a tough day, I would like to find a video of a kitten playing with a baby turtle. Then, I asked them this question: If I type the word "kitten" into the search bar on Google, how many response do you think I will get?

I got an impressively broad range of guesses. Some guessed as low and six or twelve results. Others guessed as high as 2 million or 5 billion. The actual answer is 52.8 million results. We googled it together in class. Obviously, none of the top results in our search for kittens fulfilled my initial desire to find a video of a cute kitten playing with a baby turtle. Students predicted that this would be the case, and this led to a discussion on narrowing and focusing search terms to reduce the number of results. As students helped me brainstorm better search terms, I typed them in on Google each time, and the students were amazed at how different search terms made the number of results jump around. Essentially my goal was to guide my students to the conclusion that ineffective search terms waste time. We have this vast resource at our fingertips, but we have to know how to use it effectively and responsibly.

After this little introduction, students worked through a research review presentation on their iPads to review the parts of the search results page and how to choose the best result to find the information they want. Making this student-led instead of teacher-led really gave students the time they needed to think about the information and answer their own questions about internet searching. It was a very effective and enjoyable way to spend our very short two-day week at school.

Hopefully, my students took away stronger searching skills from this lesson. My takeaway from this lesson was that people are incredibly incorrect when they say that our students are "digital natives." Sure, the kids I teach now have never known life without mobile devices, but they weren't born knowing how to choose the best emoji. When I asked students how many search results we would get for the "kittens" search, I was amazed that any student would guess below the hundreds of thousands. However, I shouldn't have been. Our students have such a varied range of experiences with online content. Some spend their lives online while others could care less about their digital presence. Even within that section of kids who are glued to their phones, knowing how to post a picture on Instagram doesn't equal knowing how to use the Internet for academic purposes or even knowing how to determine whether that Instagram post is appropriate or not. My job as a teacher has changed dramatically, even in the four years I've been doing this. Not only do I need to be teaching my students how to make sense of what they find online, but I also need to be teaching them awareness of what they create.

It was good to go back and do this little refresher. It reminded me that I've got a big job to do. Now that our three snow days for this week have come to a close, hopefully I can get back to work tomorrow with it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Taking an English Walk

Yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to go on an "English walk" around our district's secondary campuses.  Our secondary literacy specialist, Mrs. Pinkerton, worked with the secondary principals to set up various days throughout the second semester for all English teachers to have the chance to visit each other's classrooms and get a glimpse into how we all do our jobs. One of the things I miss most about being a new teacher is the required observations of other teachers in our building and district. We can learn so much from each other, and yet watching others in practice is one of the things we make the least time to do.

I started my day at our junior high. I visited six teachers, and I was so amazed by the ubiquity of technology in their classrooms. Each classroom was 1:1 and the routines these teachers set in their classrooms made the use of devices seem as common as the use of paper and pencils. All the classes I visited were at some point in the writing process, which is what our students were doing in seventh grade last week. It was so refreshing to gain new perspective on how others are teaching writing. It's one thing to browse social media and the internet for bright, new ideas; it's another thing completely to be able to see it in action in a classroom.

One of my favorite things to do when I walk into a new classroom is to find the teacher's expectations. At the junior high, there was one set of expectations that I especially loved, first for its succinct nature and second for the alliteration. I can't help myself. I'm an English teacher. Her expectations were

Always Be...
  • Prompt
  • Prepared
  • Productive
  • Polite
  • Patient
How perfect are those?! If students live up to these expectations each day, it's going to be a great school year. What was even more awesome was seeing her students follow through on these expectations and participate productively and patiently in the lesson, even when the server was moving slowly and their devices weren't cooperating as they may have wanted.  In another classroom, I noticed that each class had signed its own "responsible use" poster, using resources from These class contracts were proudly displayed on a bulletin board. What an awesome way to gain buy-in and ownership from students.

At the high school, I visited two teachers, and I loved the obvious respect and rapport that had been developed in these classrooms. The interactions among students and between students and teachers that I witnessed in both these classrooms made it clear that these teachers modeled their expectations for students every day. In one classroom there were only two expectations: Be courteous, Be accountable. If only we could all be these two things every day, the world would be a kinder, more organized place! 

Visiting with each of these teachers on my English walk and watching the way their classrooms work inspired me to grow in my own practice and try some new things in my instruction. I'm particularly excited about an argumentative writing handout that one teacher shared with me, and I was able to share some of our analytical writing resources with another teacher. Sharing our practice is a pivotal part of being the best teachers we can be each day. It's rejuvenating to take a step back from the stress and constant hustle of our day-to-day reality in the classroom. It's refreshing to share the struggles of what's tough and the triumphs of what's working with others who get it. I can't even tell you what a great way it was to spend my Monday. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

We've Got a Ways to Go

Our third nine weeks unit is easily my favorite unit that we teach. We spend three months, from January to March, teaching our students texts from and about the American Civil Rights Movement. This year, this unit of study has taken on a new significance for me. In past years, the unrest of our society has been more subdued and has lived further in the background of everyday life. However, that anger and anxiety and unrest has risen again to the front pages of our newspapers and the forefront of our thoughts as events like those in Ferguson, Missouri have reminded Americans that we've still got work to do.

As an educator, I want to move beyond "teaching tolerance." I don't want to teach children to tolerate each other, to see their difference as something to simply be allowed. I want to teach acceptance. I want to teach justice. I want to teach equity. Life won't always be fair, but we should strive to ensure that it is just. In an effort to bring these ideas to an applicable level in my middle schoolers' lives, I ask students to write their own "I Have a Dream" speeches, to denounce bullying and honor the work and writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I've shared excerpts of these speeches in previous blog posts, but as I sat at Starbucks this morning grading this group of speeches, I came across one that I could not help but share in its entirety. This student's speech spoke straight to my heart, and it I hope it will speak to yours, too. 

The Bottom Line
Bullying stands as a great obstacle in the face of today's society. On a daily basis, there are about 2.1 million bullies bullying over 2.7 million victims in American schools alone. Bullying has never been such an urgent matter as it is in this generation. But I believe that the great fires of hatred and discrimination may be put out by the sweetest waters of kindness. But I believe that the great shadow of bullying that looms over its victims can and will go away by the brightest lights of friendship. But I believe that if we stand together as one against this great tyrant we face today, we will overcome it. 

Students who are victims of this great terror, stand together! We will not tolerate the pain that these bully terrorists have put on the children of our schools, our playgrounds, and our very homes. I want a world free of the fear of going to school to learn and receive a free education because of the bullies that await them. I want a world free of turning on the TV and seeing another suicide story about a kid who was a victim of bullying. I want a world free of the heavy chains of dealing with a bully weighing down upon kids' shoulders. I want a world free from bullying.  

Dr. King had a dream years ago not much different from the one I present before you today. Just as African Americans were bearing the weight of racism, students bear the weight of bullying. Just as King once said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," I have a dream that no matter what color, size, shape, form, or fashion you are, you will not be judged. This pertains to all people, to those who are red, yellow, black, and white; no matter your race, you will not be judged. 

Those of us who are not victims, we must not forget those who are. We must not forget the pain, the guilt, the suffering they must be going through! Victims, you must not forget that as long as this great menace called bullying torments and rips at your soul, we will stand with you and try to put out this great fire that scorches you today. Bullies! You must not forget that others have feelings, too. And although you may have been a victim yourself, that gives you no right, NO RIGHT to put others in the line of fire. "15% of all school absenteeism is directly related to fears of being bullied as school. It is estimated that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students." That is 160,000 children that could be learning and taking advantage of their right to a free education but aren't because of bullying. 

The bottom line is that bullying is wrong. It can cause so much pain that kids die every day by their own hand. Hey, and newsflash! Bullying is illegal! And yet, "90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of bullying." I'll say it once and I'll say it again, stopping bullying has never been such an urgent matter. We must put an end to it. 

I hope that in your interactions with others this week, you will think about the way your actions and words reflect your feelings and thoughts. Dr. King said "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." We can only continue to make our world better if we constantly and deliberately strive to put light and love into the world around us. We've got a ways to go, but we know where we're headed. Let's be sure we walk in the light.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Stop and Listen

As promised in my last post, I have been working hard to maintain my classroom resolutions. First, I've been trying to make more time for myself to read and write and cook and generally take a break from work. I just finished binge reading Kiera Cass's Selection Series, and if you're looking for an addictive YA read, I completely recommend it! I finished all three books in two weeks and put myself well on my way to meeting my GoodReads reading goal for 2015. So I'm going to count that as a personal win for the new year.

I'm also keeping my resolution to slow down at work and be more reflective. Tomorrow, I get to begin working with my first student teacher. Guys. I am SO excited! And I've been excited about her time in my classroom since I found out that she would be teaching with me last November. However, this week I also got really nervous. I remember my student teaching semester so vividly. It was a stressful, exhausting time, but it was also incredibly rewarding, and I huge part of that awesomeness was my amazing mentor teacher. My mentor teacher really helped me become the teacher I wanted to be. She gave me the space to grow creatively, but she also challenged me to think critically and to fully engage in my work with students every day. As I've been at school each day this week, I have thought to myself, can I do that, too? I don't want to just share my classroom; I want to share my love for this profession and share the reward of what we get to do everyday. 

In an effort to prepare for tomorrow, I took some time this evening to go back and read all my blog posts from 2010 when I was an intern teacher. It was so interesting to walk back through that semester and see the way I grew as a professional and as a person. I could read in those words not only the joy I found in learning from that experience, but I could also recall the personal changes and challenges in my life at that time. I didn't write them out, but I could see them hiding behind my words and hanging in the lessons I learned from my students each day. I began that semester searching. I could see it in this very first post: 

 I think the key to being a successful student teacher is having an open mind and, more importantly, open ears.  You have to listen to what's going on around you. So, for the rest of the semester, I'll being listening for pieces of wisdom from the middle.  Of course, this wisdom will be gained from my mentor teacher and the other teachers and administrators at the middle school where I'm assigned to student teach.  But even more importantly, I can gain so much from listening to students.  

So much of what I do in my classroom is talking, but the listening is really where the learning takes place, not just for my students, but for me as well. I've always had a restless spirit; I'm constantly wanting to grow and change and learn more than I already know. I've never been one to be able to settle in because I'm always thinking about where I need to go next. I hope that this semester is a time of growth, not just for my student teacher, but for me as well. I can't wait to see what we learn when we slow down and listen. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Let's Not Make Wishes

Happy 2015! As a new year begins, I can't help but think of ways I want to improve and grow. I'm a sucker for resolutions (even if I don't always stick with them the way that I should). One thing that I love about teaching is that I feel like I get two chances every year to make resolutions since my life is still split into semesters. While the holidays can be stressful, they can also be a time to recharge and refocus my energy. As I was looking back on blog posts from this last semester, I found that I took less time to reflect than I would have liked. It may sound trite, but I truly believe that a teacher is only as good as his or her ability to reflect on what happens in the classroom, and sometimes that requires one to step away from the work. Hence, Christmas break is the perfect time to take a look at what's working and what's not and to think about how I can make 2015 my best teaching year yet.

During the fall semester, I feel like I wrote a lot about my struggle to stay positive.  I found myself overwhelmed by the number of things that had to be done in a day. However, as the semester came to a close, I found that all those things I thought just had to be completed didn't actually have to get checked off my to-do list immediately. A girl can only accomplish so much in twenty-four hours. This semester, I resolve to look at the big picture instead of focusing on the tiny details of my day-to-day. 

While I believe that servant leadership is the most effective way to create a positive school environment, I realized this semester that you can't help others if you don't first help yourself. I'm a better teacher if I take time to read books for fun, exercise, and just generally give my brain a break from work. I resolve to make time for myself to step away and leave school at school. 

I also feel like I often found myself racing through the day in such a way that it all turned into a blur.  I started this blog as a way to record the small tidbits of talk I caught from students each day.  It was a way for me to remind myself that students will blow you away with their insight and their wit if you only slow down long enough to catch them at it. This semester, I want to get back to that. I resolve to look for those small, perfect pieces of wisdom from the middle every day in my classroom. 

On New Year's Day I read a reflection that said there's a big difference between resolutions and wishes.  Wishes are big, broad statements with no action to back them up. Resolutions are measurable ways that one wants to create change. I don't want to make wishes. I want to take a step back and take the time to be better and more present in my classroom each day this semester. What's your plan? Are you going to make wishes or resolutions this year?