Students

The Power of Labels

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Last week my son began seventh grade! I have never been so anxious about the start of a school year.  Yes, I was nervous when he went to kindergarten, but there was much more excitement than anxiety.  This year there is worry … Can he handle the independence of middle school? Will he align with the “right” peer group? Does he have the study habits necessary for success? (I don’t think he does… AHH!) How can I support him without being overbearing? (He is entering my wheelhouse and I have to be Mom and not Mrs. Shaffer!)  But most importantly I worry that his teachers will see his label and not see him.

In first grade, my son was diagnosed with ADHD.  This was no surprise! When he was a toddler, I sometimes described his activity as a top that just kept spinning and spinning – words that I am pretty sure I stole from an ADHD rating scale.  Although he has made significant strides managing his inattentiveness it is a journey and last year his teachers and I decided that a 504 plan would be beneficial to ensure his success. As an educator, I know this is only a document that will guarantee he receives everything he needs to ensure he learns; but as a mom, I was making the decision to label my child, the person who matters more to me than anyone in this world. 

When a label is placed on a child assumptions about that child follow. All learning is easy for the gifted child, but they may need help making friends. A child with anxiety is going to struggle with attendance and can not handle redirection. The ADHD child must sit close to the instruction, will be distracting to those around him and will never turn in homework on time. While some of these generalizations may be correct some of the time for some kiddos and may provide very early guidance for classroom teachers, they are generalizations!

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 9.31.26 AMI beg that all educators look past these labels and truly get to know the learners in their classrooms. I also demand that all educators remember that these labels are A descriptor and not THE descriptor. Every child in our classrooms is an individual and needs different things from the adults who are supporting learning … please value each child’s uniqueness and help his or her learning thrive! 

Leading

Maintaining a Laser Focus

It’s week two of school. This is the time of year when the hustle and bustle continues, relationships are building, enthusiasm in the classroom is at an all time high as we embark on a new school year.  Education offers us an opportunity each year to come with fresh ideas and a clean slate after a rejuvenating summer.  For me, in this 16th year of educating, I feel different.  After 15 years in classrooms as a math teacher and instructional coach, I have transitioned into a new role as an administrator for my district.  My perspective is changing, my view is broader, but my goal remains the same:  I must stay laser focused on student learning.

Education is a politically charged field.  If you are a student, a teacher, an administrator or a parent you’ve felt it.  Sometimes in the classroom, as we adjust to new mandates and  procedures that are placed upon us and our students the frustration we feel can distract from the ultimate goal.  Regardless of any distractions and regardless of our role in education, I know now, more than ever, that this frustration can be eliminated through keeping that laser focus on our students.  It’s not always easy.  In fact, some days it’s tempting to take the easy route – ignore new technology, not make that parent phone call I am dreading, not probe into the reason why a learner is struggling, allow myself to pulled into the many distractors like email, paperwork and such.  Nonetheless, today I ask you to pledge with me to keep the student at the center of our work.  Here is how I do this:

  • Frequent personal reflection. Educators rarely have time to eat or go to the restroom, let alone think.  I have learned that I prioritize my TIME around the things that matter and reflection is one of those.  Reflection can happen anywhere: at home, in the car, over my morning cup of coffee, at lunch.  But I have to make time for it.  During my daily reflection time, I think about the work I am engaging in and I probe into the WHY that drives my work.  Why is this work, lesson, initiative, or innovative idea good for students? If my answer isn’t clear here, it may be time to consider alternatives.  We want every choice in our classrooms to have a positive impact on student learning.
  • Gently challenge the thinking of colleagues and be open to them challenging your own thinking. I call this my think partner.  You need one who is willing to think with you.  You need one who will question you when you decide to take the easier route instead of the one that is best for kids.  In teaching, this was always someone on my teaching team.  In coaching, this was a coaching colleague.  As an administrator, I desire to be think partners with teachers and other administrators.  Ask the hard questions.  Offer the “what if” ideas.  Keep pushing to make sure that classroom practices lead to maximizing student learning and engagement.
  • Listen to students and watch for evidence of learning. Watch your students….they tell a story.  When they are in our classrooms, are the happy?  Are they curious?  Are they articulate in their thinking? Are they challenging each other and maybe even you?  Are they calm? Is the work they are producing an example of your intended learning?  When you ask a question or share feedback, does it lead to further learning?  We have impact in our roles in education.  Every move we make can impact students positively or negatively.
  • Be okay being wrong. It is okay to adjust your plan.  This is how I learn.  Furthermore, student learning demands that we adjust based on what our students need daily.  Throw out those month long lesson plans.  Have a vision and clear learning goals, but be flexible within those so that we can respond to our student needs in a flexible and fluid way.  There were times when I was much too rigid in my math classroom.  Our students will learn more if we respond to where they are and adjust our plan when students don’t respond in the way we anticipated.  In fact, modeling how to be wrong and adjust the plan is so great for our students & colleagues to see.  Engage students in the process.

My biggest hope in my new role in administration is that I can remain laser-focused on what really matters – our students.  Our students bring so much to our classrooms each day.  How are you keeping focused this year?

 

Teaching

The Introverted Teacher

A couple of years ago, I was at a Thanksgiving gathering with my family at my aunt and uncle’s condo in Cincinnati. My family was doing our normal deal – talking, eating desserts, watching football, and looking through Black Friday ads in the newspaper (my favorite part). At one point, I got up to get a cup of coffee and stopped to chat with my Uncle Jerry. He’s a quiet, always smiling man, who loves to golf and loves his grandkids. He is soft-spoken, but loves any opportunity to crack a joke or laugh.

“How’s school going?” he asked, and I knew he genuinely meant it. He wanted to really know, not just the general “It’s fine” that I say to a lot of people.

“Well,” I said. “It’s mostly going well, but it is exhausting getting up in front of 125 kids everyday and talking to them about the same thing five times a day. My group is a little wild this year, too.”

He nodded thoughtfully, then said, “I could never do that. It’s like you’re giving a performance every class. That’s hard.” And then he smiled and laughed, but it really dawned on me in that conversation: Teaching is a performance.

And for someone who strongly identifies as an introvert, that does make it hard. Performing is not something that introverts typically choose to do. We tend to be more reserved, more deliberate with our words than someone who identifies as outgoing or as an extrovert. We tend to hang out in the wings, quietly supporting the people in the spotlight.

I think about this idea of performance – usually around 8:10 a.m. when my students are about to walk in the door to my classroom and change the dynamic of this little space. Time to drop everything else and put on a face for the kids. I’m not always successful, but I feel like I often have to brace myself for their arrival. I go from the quiet and focused environment of my before-school routine in which I get to work on my to-do list and listen to NPR while I drink my coffee in peace, to hallways full of teenagers excited to see their friends. I like the early morning moments because they do help me prepare for the day ahead and give me the chance to “recharge” before the students arrive. I brace myself for the noise they bring – the laughter, the drama, and even the polite “good mornings” because I thrive in spaces of quiet.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t love and care for these same students who bring a cacophony to my mellow life each morning. You can’t teach middle school without loving these weird and wonderful kids, but sometimes their idea of an acceptable noise level far exceeds mine. I have to let myself be okay with a little “organized chaos,” a term my high school soccer coach used to use. I am not a loud person either, so sometimes wrangling in the excited shouts of 8th graders is challenging. It’s a skill that I’m still developing.

To help with that development of my teaching performance, I decided to take an online class about staying present and using mindfulness in the classroom. This class focused on how to teach mindfulness techniques to students, but also how to be a mindful teacher. As an introvert, mindfulness speaks to me because it promotes the idea of taking time to pause, breathe, and reflect before reacting to a situation. I am going to take some of these techniques to heart as a way to prepare myself for each day.

Most days, being an introvert is a challenging part of my decision to become a teacher. But I like to think that my need to recharge and have moments of quiet helps me to see some of those introverted students who may sometimes be passed over. Introverts tend to be more reflective by nature, and I think that will only help me to be a better teacher. When a student is quiet, I feel like I can connect with him or her. That’s one reason why as an introverted teacher, I love one on one conferences with students. It gives me a chance to lower the stakes for students who may not want to talk in front of the whole class, and who may be more comfortable talking with just me about their thoughts on a book or their writing. When I think about this type of introverted student, two girls from last year come to mind – a pair of ladies in my chatty 7th period class, right after lunch. They were often quiet in class, and hardly ever spoke out when we had whole-class discussions. But they listened. I knew they paid attention, and I also knew that they were thoughtful and brought up great ideas, especially in their writing. I would have such rich discussions with one or both of them when I could speak to them either on their own or in a small group. They knew that I cared about their thoughts and their work, even though I didn’t force them to talk to the whole class.

I see this type of student every day – reserved, bothered at times by the noise of their classmates – so I am more open to students opting to listen to music when it’s time to work. I have grown accustomed to the steady hum of the workshop model in my classroom, with noise from conferences, student collaboration, and the quick movement of pencils across notebooks. Quite a few students, especially introverted ones, often need a way to “check out” from these productivity noises, and they choose to use their headphones while working. I always give the caveat that when I come over to confer, they need to take them out, but most kids are thankful that I give them a chance to use music as a way to isolate themselves. I am continuously looking for ways to accommodate all of my students and create the best learning environment for each one of them.

Not every student is comfortable speaking up in front of their peers, and I can respect that. Just like we make accommodations for other student needs, I think it can really fluster those introverted students to be put on the spot in class. I was that kid once. As a Language Arts teacher, I value public speaking, but I also provide structured opportunities for students to build those skills. They will find their way to speak up for what they need, and for what is important to them.

I did, but it wasn’t always an easy journey. I am slowly finding my voice in wild world of middle school.

Goal Setting · Leading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

New Year’s Resolutions: Goal Setting to Ensure Work-Life Balance

Balance

It’s that time of year!

(and I’m not talking about the winter holidays)

If you work in the education sector like me, August is when the “new” year begins, and it’s the month that holds the most promise for change. Hopefully due to taking the time to temporarily power down and recharge over the summer, it’s probably also the month that you feel the most energy to make changes happen. And if you’re anything like me, as you’re rebooting for the upcoming school year, your mind is constantly racing with thoughts such as, “This year is going to be my best year yet! I’m going to do this differently… and this differently… and this… and this…”

I’ll admit that I’ve earned a reputation at Coffman for being a “yes-woman.” I’m the type of person that is inspired by new ideas and driven by change. I’m the type of person who will try anything if I think it will benefit my students’ learning. I have a hard time saying “no” when asked to lead or advise a student group/club. When approached by like-minded colleagues who love to “take a risk,”  my standard answer is “Let’s do it!” I once stayed up until 3AM creating a new grammar lesson for the next day simply because I was introduced to Pear Deck the day before.

Some of this I’m proud of. I want to be a teacher who isn’t afraid to make a change if it is what’s best for students. I’m actually really proud of many of the changes that we’ve made in the five years that I’ve been teaching English I and Honors English I. Looking back, though, I know that staying up until 3AM to use some new technology that I’ve stumbled upon is pretty silly.

I’m entering my 6th year of teaching, and though I’m inspired to make important changes and am as confident as ever that I’m about to have my best year yet, I’ve come to realize that I’m not the energizer bunny (at least not any more). I’ve also learned a LOT about work-life balance because a lot has changed in five years; I’m now married and have a house, a dog, and two daughters. Because “life” happens, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that I can’t be super-teacher, AND super-mom, AND super-wife, which has been difficult because I want to be it all and do it all well. Every single day, I continue to learn how to navigate these three roles with balance and grace.

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer reflecting on my first five years of teaching. Most of all, I just keep thinking about how many of us know (but may be too stubborn to admit it) that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all. So, my “New Year’s Resolution” is to be intentional with my time, and I’ve come up with 3 goals to ensure that I am.

Here they are:

GOAL #1:

I promise to provide time to my students for meaningful reflection on a weekly basis.

I’ve created this goal based on my current levels of confidence within the workshop model. This is one of those changes referenced above that I’m especially proud of  (our team has switched to and embraced the workshop model). This is important to note, as I’m sure that learning how to be especially intentional with my time each class period has simultaneously inspired me to be intentional with the time I spend throughout the day and outside of school, too. In order to limit my lessons to 15 minutes or less, I constantly reflect on these questions: what is truly important for students to learn? How can I make the most of every second of my instructional time? If students only have 25-30 minutes to practice, how should they use each minute?

Last year, I focused on keeping my mini-lessons mini to make time for meaningful practice, but I still struggle with the reflection piece. We often run right to the bell, and when I do remember to stop class with a few minutes left, the reflection that I’ve come up with often feels forced and inauthentic; therefore, if I’m being truthful, I haven’t found much value in this part the workshop model yet. I’m not giving up on it because I know that reflecting is such an invaluable step in the learning process. When expressing these challenges to a colleague this summer, she suggested that I just take baby steps and commit to making time to reflect with students once a week rather than every day. What a brilliant idea! So, my initial idea is to make 15-20 minutes on Fridays sacred to reflecting (but if the day of the week must change, I am flexible, which is why I wrote my goal above to state “on a weekly basis”). I’m looking forward to this flexibility, and I’m not overwhelmed because we will have plenty to reflect on during any given week.

 

GOAL #2:

I will sweat at least twice a week.

I know this one sounds weird, but hear me out. I HATE to sweat. I always have. I do not enjoy exercising. If you know me, you know this, and therefore, you also know that this is a BIG deal because you know that this is twice as often as I’ve ever worked out in the past. I wrote my goal to say “sweat” because I feel better after (I don’t feel good about it before or during) sweating, and I swear my food even tastes better! My aversion to sweating aside, this one will be difficult for me to achieve because every time I try to get out of the house so that I can actually exercise, I think about all of the other things I should probably do instead.

I obviously know that this goal has huge physical health benefits, but to me, this personal goal is more about mental health. I’m clearly self-aware and reflective and have learned that it is so very important for me to make time for myself. I’m moderately confident that I’ll be successful in mastering this goal because my sister recently inspired me to try System of Strength with her, and I am now addicted to their “ebb and flo”(hot yoga) classes. My addiction comes from sweating + meditation + sweating + challenge + sweating + time to myself. Did I mention that it’s HOT?

It has taken me years to believe it, but I deserve to give this time to myself. As one of my all-time favorite sayings goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

 

GOAL #3:

I will read to or with my daughter every evening.

This should be the easiest, but if I’m being totally honest, sticking to this goal worries me the most. First of all, let’s talk logistics. This is a daily goal, which I’m just not sure will actually be possible. Like, what if I’m traveling without her? Logistics aside, I have now officially committed to playing a part in the bedtime routine every. single. night. The thought of this alone is pretty overwhelming and exhausting.

Some of the reasons behind this goal are obvious. I’m an English teacher. Of course I want to instill a love of reading in my children. The gift of literacy is undoubtedly invaluable, but for me, this goal goes beyond all of that. Most of my fondest memories related to reading involve my dad, a backyard hammock, and hours of time spent together. My parents are divorced, and I didn’t get to see my dad often, so that time was precious to me. I equated this activity to a direct reflection of my dad’s love for me.

Because of this, it breaks my heart that when Delaney asks if we can read some books together, I sometimes struggle internally to say “yes.” I don’t like that I’ve busied my life so much that I feel like I don’t have the time to read to my daughter. One day I do want my daughter to recognize that I’ve found a job that I’m so passionate about, a job that I truly believe is one of the most important in the world, but that time isn’t now. She’s three years old. She doesn’t understand, and she shouldn’t have to, so this goal is as simple as saying, “YES” every single time she asks me to read to her.

Another one of my favorite quotes inspired this goal, and I think it is especially applicable to teachers and fellow workaholics: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” – Mother Teresa

Time. It’s life’s most precious commodity. Time given to students. Time given to family. Time given to yourself. How are you going to be intentional with the time you spend this year?

Environment

Getting a classroom ready for school to start

Last evening, I attended a local festival which is very popular in Dublin, Ohio – the Dublin Irish Festival. As I walked around and listened to wonderful music and talked with many friends,  I am sure that I had at least twenty people ask me, “Are you ready for school to start?” I could tell by some of their faces that they were surprised by my reaction – “Oh my gosh, yes! I am so ready for school to start!” I’m not sure why people assume that teachers are sad or disappointed when the school year is upon us. (Unfortunately,I would imagine that there are some teachers who are not excited for school to start – I’m not judging…people are in different places/stages of life.) This is one of my favorite times of the year because I get to organize books and add new purchases to my bookshelves, I also get to talk with colleagues and “plan” for what’s to come, and I get to create a bulletin board – wait, actually, that is my least favorite thing to do at this time of year.

 

So today, I spent four or so hours in my classroom in order to start preparing for the start Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.06 PMof school. (I did put paper on a bulletin board and a boarder…no idea what else is going on it yet.) I used to wallpaper my walls with cute posters, but I don’t do that anymore. I have a “Reading” sign and a “Writing” sign on my back wall. As the year progresses, chart paper and other posters will be displayed as they are created by my students and myself as we learn, think, and reflect. (I’m sure I saw this idea on Twitter, but I am unable to remember who shared it – sorry!)

 

My “Word Wall” is also easy to put together since it only says “Word Work” on my cabinets. Each year the words that will make it onto the wall are different because my Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.13 PMstudents are different. The words that we discussed and studied last year will probably not be the same ones as this year. I love the fact that our wall is unique to my current students and based on what vocabulary words they need and not the work I assume they will need.

 

I added two new bookcases to my classroom this year and spent some time rearranging books. My preference is to organize my books my genre. I never seem to Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.21 PMhave enough space for all the books! Since I am an “old” (maybe a better word is “veteran”) teacher, I have hundreds of books that I have purchased or that my district and principal have generously purchased for my classroom library. As I reacquainted myself with the books,I couldn’t help but think about former students and what books I shared with them or recommended to them. I also couldn’t help but envision the students who will join me in two weeks and wonder what types of books they will like or want to read. Such an adventure is awaiting me!

 

Finally, I moved a few bookcases around to create a “meeting space” for us. (For those of Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.29 PMyou who know me, this was a difficult task. I tend to be a creature of habit, and I moved two bookcases to partly cover my bulletin board – gasp!) The last few years, my students have crowded into a rather small area for read-aloud time. It is difficult to convince growing and gangly eighth graders to cram into a little corner of my library to listen to picture books or have discussions about short texts. My new “meeting space” isn’t big, but I hope that it encourages a little more willingness to gather and chat without sitting in traditional desks and tables.

 

My room may look a little “sparse” for the start of school, but I know that soon it will be filled with students and the thoughtful learning that we will do together. I hope that Room 241 will be a safe space for the 130 students I see each day to talk, read, write, process, struggle, learn, and reflect together. I’m ready!

 

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Two other pictures I had to share:

My only other “poster” – who would argue with a quote from Wonder adorning the wall in a classroom?Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.36 PM

 

First book to book talk is on my chalk tray and ready to go!Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.49 PM