Leading · Reflection · Teaching

Dear Rookie,

Before I get into why I’m carrying around this self-deprecating coffee mug, let me start with the story of how I earned the nickname “Sparkles.” 

One late afternoon 8 years ago, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror as I prepared to go into school that same evening to greet and meet families at parent night. I had actually just returned home from school and needed to freshen up from hosting freshman orientation and from putting the finishing touches on my classroom. I thought I was ready for the first day of my first year of teaching and was feeling pretty confident, but life has a funny way of telling the truth. 

That’s when I noticed it. The glitter. It was everywhere. In my hair, on my forehead, dusting my nose… Everywhere the light touched, I sparkled. Somehow, when I reached for my hairspray, I had accidentally grabbed competitive-dance-grade glitter. You know what I’m talking about. The type of glitter that’s made to be seen by great grandparents sitting 200 feet from the stage of their darling’s dance recital. 

Like me, you’re probably wondering why I had such glitter in my cabinet. And that’s the thing… I have absolutely no clue. 

Thanks again, universe. 

So there I was, looking at my glittery self in the mirror with not enough time to take a shower or do anything about it. I was fresh out of college and looked the part, and the glitter took at least another ten years off my age. I could have panicked. I could have cried. After all, I had taken the time to shop for the perfect professional outfit for this night. I had spent countless hours decorating my classroom. I had printed my syllabus on Shamrock green paper, and strung up a beautiful  banner with my name. I had flawless plans for the first day of school; I had even thought to account for transition time. 

Now that I looked like a 14-year-old, wanna-be pageant princess, how was I supposed to trick these parents into believing I was qualified to teach their kids? And that’s when it dawned on me… I had intended to trick them all along. Let’s be honest. All of that planning and perfecting worked to trick myself, too, because glitter or no glitter, I really had no clue what I was doing. I was embarking upon unchartered territory — my first year of teaching — and much of my course was out of my control. It sounds crazy, but I swear that this one silly, glittery event changed the trajectory of my year and career. It was a moment of clarity, an epiphany of sorts. I realized in this moment that no matter how hard I tried, not everything would go as planned, and I had better make peace with that fact. 

You’re probably wondering how the rest of the story goes. I’ll get to the point. 

I went to parent night looking like a disco ball, and I told the truth. I explained that I was nervous for this first year of teaching, that I desperately wanted to impress them, and that while I was rehearsing what I would say to them that night, I had inadvertently sprayed glitter all over myself. I told them that I was mortified because I wanted to assure them that, while I may look young enough to be their kid, I was actually old enough to teach. I emphasized that I cared deeply about their children and considered the teaching profession to be the most important job in the entire world. And here’s the thing… By being myself and by being honest, I earned their trust and they believed in my qualifications. No tricking required. 

So that’s the story of how I earned the nickname “Sparkles.” The irony (we English teachers love irony)…  a word that’s typically associated with being shiny, and pretty, and perfect reminds me of my flaws and all that I learned during my rookie year. 

And why the mug? Because I’ve started a new job this year and feel like a rookie all over again. Because it reminds me of the story I just shared. Because it reminds me of these essential lessons

  • It’s okay to not be the expert in the room. 

  • Relationships matter most, and honesty and vulnerability go a long way in building trust. 

  • Lead by learning. 

  • When in doubt, crack a joke (preferably one where you’re the punchline).

  • It’s going to be okay.

ASSESSMENT · blogging · Community · Leading · Literacy · Students · Teacher Leadership · Uncategorized

Raising Voices in Secondary Classrooms

I had five minutes to inspire ELA teachers at Dublin’s Literacy Conference. This is what I said:

I co-teach 9th-grade inclusion English I at Dublin Coffman High School, and I’ve been to NCTE twice now.

There’s a LOT to love about NCTE. 

NCTE’s theme this year in Houston was “Raising Student Voice,” but what I’ve come to learn about the conference in the two years I’ve attended is that the learning transcends so much more than the year’s theme.

I got to attend the First Timer’s Breakfast this year as a table host, which was super exciting. I got to see Donalyn Miller and Ernest Morrell speak.

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The way Donalyn opened her speech will stick with me forever. She said, “Look around you. This is where you need to be. This is your family. This is your home.”

And she went on to talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with others who are proactive in seeking out their own learning. Her wisdom can undoubtedly apply to today. I always consider Dublin’s Lit Conference to be a mini-NCTE. Look around. We may not know each other, but we are all related because we share common hopes and dreams for our students. So, to me, days like today are as much about professional development as they are about networking.

Donalyn also said this: “Kids need champions, but teachers do, too.”  Ain’t that the truth. We’ve all heard the statistics of teacher retention rates. And I’ll be honest here. Every year, as NCTE and as Dublin’s Literacy Conference approach, I start to hesitate. NCTE is RIGHT before Thanksgiving. I find myself asking do I have time for this? Shouldn’t I be home with my family preparing for the holidays? I’m tired, and I’m busy, and I’m wearing 100 hats, and I don’t feel good… Why do I keep signing myself up to go to these things? And then I go (because I already signed myself up for it), and get this: I NEVER regret it.

I never regret attending NCTE or DLC because of (1) the networking and (2) all the reminders as to why we became English teachers in the first place (like how to raise students’ voice). I don’t know about you, but when I don’t attend or participate in PD, I start to lose focus on what’s really at the heart of my job.

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So, I keep attending these conferences and surrounding myself with the people who also do because these people push me and praise me and help me find and reach my “true north.” This is a term that Kate Roberts used at NCTE. I figured out a few years ago that my “true north” when it comes to reading instruction is choice, and that has been the focus of much of my professional development over the last few years. I decided that in order to be a truly skilled teacher of reading, I better be a reader. I started reading YA books with my students, I worked on perfecting the art of the book talking, and I do all this because I strive to provide choice to insure success for all of my students.

This year, though, I’ve decided to put more focus on my writing instruction, and call me crazy, but I’ve decided that in order to be a truly talented teacher of writing, I need to be a writer.

Falling back in love with reading and identifying as a reader was easy for me. This new journey? Not so much. I’ve never in my life called myself a writer, and I don’t know how long it will take me to identify as one, but I’m trying.

A big part of this journey is a switch that I’ve made in my mind frame.

I used to teach writing with this in mind: “Be an encourager. The world has enough critics already.” I always try to praise a few specific parts of students’ work before providing one or two pointed bits of criticism to show room for improvement.

Then I saw this:

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It stopped me in my tracks. I’m always the critic. I’m always either reading and analyzing student work or reading and analyzing literature, and let’s be honest, it’s a LOT easier to be the giver of criticism than the receiver.

So, if I haven’t made it clear by now: I’m currently mustering the courage to build a writing identity.

A group of educators for Dublin City Schools has taken on this journey together. We’ve started an educational blog, we meet in person monthly, and we try to post weekly.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 5.57.49 AMFor many of us, this is truly scary work for countless reasons. First and foremost, as someone at NCTE said, “Teachers, on a daily basis, are reminded of their failures.”  It isn’t often that we are reminded of our successes. So, it’s scary to write about the happenings of our classrooms in a public forum that is open to criticism.

Someone else at NCTE said, “Every student has a story. The most dangerous presumption is that they don’t want their voices heard.”

Now that I’ve started to write beside my students, I’m coming to learn that every teacher has a story, too, and the world needs teachers’ voices. I read this on teachthought a few days ago:

“In the next version of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal legislation that guides education policy in this country, the words accountability and assessment are mentioned in some capacity at least 250 times each.

The words teaching and learning? 22 times.

Combined.”

This is scary stuff because we all know words have power. I want you to ask yourself this today:

Who is currently writing the story of what happens inside your classroom? Whose voice is loudest?

In these ways, I’m learning how to raise student voice while simultaneously learning how to raise mine:

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And these are just to name a few. As I continue this journey to becoming a writer, I will share more on how my teaching of writing improves.

If you had five minutes in front of a room of ELA educators, what would you say?

ASSESSMENT · Goal Setting · Reflection · Students

Alternate Exams: Turning Assessments Into Opportunities

Last year, our English I team made the revelatory decision to get rid of our traditional multiple-choice exam, and I will never look back.

With the help of my teammates (English I teachers at Dublin Coffman High School), Dr. Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Mrs. Shayne Bauer, I crafted this post.

The decision to change our exam was a long time coming. For years, many of us questioned and debated the validity of our district-wide multiple-choice exam, so when our district, which includes three high schools, no longer required a completely common exam and gave each high school the option to assess as they deemed appropriate or best for students, our team at Coffman High School jumped at the opportunity to do something different.

We made this decision for many reasons. Very few  English I teachers in the district could agree upon common reading passages that were appropriate for all (~1,200) of our students. Similarly, we found “difficulty in writing robust but reasonable multiple choice questions” (Dr. Kucinski). This was especially apparent when analyzing the data collected from these multiple choice exams. We continually debated the validity of the multiple questions and, therefore, our exam as a whole. Moreover, students’ grades in class after eighteen weeks of learning rarely matched their exam scores. For all of these reasons and more, our team didn’t feel that the current multiple-choice exam reflected the true abilities of our students.

While re-writing our exam, we shared many hopes:

  • We hoped that the new exam would provide the opportunity for all students to be successful.
  • We hoped that the new exam would more accurately reflect and celebrate the strengths of our students. Likewise, we hoped that it would help highlight areas in which students had room to improve.
  • We hoped that students would feel more in control of their exam score.
  • We hoped that the data gathered from the new exam would be more meaningful and easier to formulate future lessons and units from.
  • “We know that for many students, standardized tests are just a point of ‘doing school.’ As such, they merely want to survive them. We sought to change that.” – Dr. Kucinski
  • We hoped to “discourage cramming and mere memorization” – Mrs. Bauer  

Our team worked together to create what I would describe as an extended-response(written), evidence-based, reflection-heavy exam. We included in it all of the 9th grade English standards assessed throughout the first semester of the school year in addition to other questions about academic behaviors. To be frank, I do not think that our current exam is without faults. We’ve administered it three years in a row now, and we have tweaked a few questions each time based on the last year’s results. I’m sure we’ll make edits and improvements between now and giving it again next year, too. With anything new, there is uncertainty.

For students, our new exam provides these exciting and unique opportunities:

  • To reflect and practice metacognition
  • To revisit old work
  • To set future learning goals
  • To be honest about learning patterns and learning preferences as well as good and bad habits
  • To identify areas of growth and mastery as well as areas that need more practice
  • To review why we do what we do in English class  
  • “Increased awareness of standards” – Mrs. Shayne Bauer
  • “Ownership” – Dr. Steve Kucinski

Students, for the most part, appreciate the non-traditional approach and especially appreciate the week’s worth of time given to complete the exam. Though, there are a few students who ask, “Can’t we just take a test?” Students also appreciate the efficacy of knowing I can do well on this. Likewise, there is no guesswork (I don’t know what they’re going to ask me) on the exam or any double jeopardy (Well, I didn’t do well all quarter, so I’m surely not going to do well on this exam either). (Dr. Kucinski)

One of my students even took the time to email me this feedback in her free time: “I thought this year’s midterm was well made and smartly scheduled. It was not as stressful as other exams. I liked that it made you reflect on what happened in the first half of the year. I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading and writing… I would like more exams like this.”

At this point, you probably just want to see the exam. Here it is:

COPY OF BLANK EXAM

And here are some student responses:

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Surprising Findings:

  • What students identify as their weaknesses (versus what we teachers identify)
  • What students are most proud of
  • Students fessing up to being lazy
  • Students not knowing where to find feedback and rubric scores on Schoology (LMS)
  • Students not understanding weighted grades and the distinction between the different grading categories we use
  • Students struggling to articulate what and how they’ve learned and where their deficits are (Dr. Kucinski)
  • Students not being okay with saying ‘I didn’t learn everything’ or ‘I don’t know how I know this’ (Dr. Kucinski)

Obviously, we know this exam is non-traditional. We’re curious to know what other educators think about it. Maybe you think this is a downright awful idea. This exam works for us, but could this ever be an assessment in your classroom?

Classroom Libraries · co-teaching · Culture · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching · Uncategorized

Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students

img_3133Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students 

Introduction

This year, I read both Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani and A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice by Kate Roberts, and these books inspired me to make huge changes. Most notably, Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I used these two texts to collaboratively make changes to our end-of-the-year unit surrounding The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

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A Novel Approach

Over the last few years, we have made some gradual changes away from whole-class required reads for many reasons, but The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has always remained a staple of our English I curriculum.

The Debate:

Whole-class texts: Independent reading:
“Believing in teaching whole-class texts–long or short–suggests the belief that struggle is productive for young readers, that kids that kids need to read great books, that focusing on a common text builds strong and literate reading communities, and that students benefit from controlled questions and activities led by a proficient reader (the teacher).” “Choosing to focus on independent reading shows the beliefs that reading ability matters, that kids are going to benefit most from having experiences with great books that they can read on their own with strength, and that knowing the skills it takes to read any book will help them to build greater independence. This also suggests a belief that choice in reading is essential in building a strong reading life and that often our very identities are in part shaped by the books we have read.”
Both excerpts are from Kate Roberts’ A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice

I personally tend to value independent reading over whole-class novels, but Roberts’ book provided great reminders of the importance of mentor texts, shared experiences, and modeling. Plus, it merges the best of both worlds, so it gave me fresh ideas and new energy going into 4th quarter, the only quarter that I still teach a whole-class novel. For the last few years, I’ve tended to focus on all the negatives of whole-class novels and all the positives of independent reading, but Roberts’ merging of the two provides a unique balance that allows time for both types of instruction and celebrates both types of learning.

Empower

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Deb Maynard and I both took a course led by Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Kristy Venne (@KristyVenne) surrounding the book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. I took photos of the pages that resonated with me the most.

 

With this in mind, PLUS the ideas presented in A Novel Approach, we ultimately decided NOT to get rid of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet altogether, but instead, keep Romeo and Juliet as a mentor text, teach the reading skills required to tackle such a challenging read, and help students apply those skills to their independent reading books.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 2.33.38 PMIn addition to allowing students to purposely pair choice novels to The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, we gave students choice in writing prompts, and students proposed summative celebrations of learning rather than us assigning and requiring the standard compare/contrast essay that we always have.

You can read more about how we introduced the new unit and unique expectations to students and families here.

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Throughout the unit, Deb and I read contemporary YA novels, too, and modeled all of the thinking and writing that we asked students to do.

We modeled thinking that we actually do when reading any book for any purpose since most of our students were reading different books than us and each other.

Taking the journey with students helped us to better know what skills were truly necessary, what work was especially hard, and what challenges most students would face.  

Critical Questions

1. What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?
2. What changes should be made to inspire students to build independence and take ownership over their reading lives?
3. How can we make this shift:

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WHO – Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I co-teach English I all day (five 48-minute periods).  We worked together to make all of these changes to our teaching routines and strategies and to make changes to our unit expectations and assessments in order to empower students to take ownership over their reading lives. Hear more about WHAT and WHY here: 

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WATCH VIDEO HERE!

WHERE – Dublin Coffman High School, 9th grade, English I, inclusion

WHEN – 4th Quarter, 2018; The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet Unit

HOW – surveys, flipgrid reflections, online discussions, observations

LIMITATIONS – It is difficult to quantify and calculate things such as empowerment, engagement, interest, and rigor, so we’ve had to rely on our observations, and have done our best to encourage students to be 100% honest in their survey responses and flipgrid reflections.

 

Because our unit in its entirety and our Action Research Project involve so many parts, I am going to break all of that info into multiple blog posts. Plus, we haven’t even finished reading Romeo and Juliet, and students are just now starting to work on their summative celebrations of learning, so stay tuned! More will be coming in a week or two, and I can’t wait to share!

blogging · co-teaching · Culture · Environment · Leading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

It’s Not About the Donuts: When the Learner is the Teacher

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My students teach me so much. I mean that. I feel like I’m always apologizing to my 1st period class.

I’ll use today as an example, but first, let me back up a step.

We have been working on persuasion. We studied the rhetorical devices (repetition, parallelism, analogy) used in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” Students practiced using those devices in their own writing. Students performed persuasive skits using ethos, pathos, and logos. We then analyzed Super Bowl commercials for persuasive techniques. Now, students are embarking upon a journey to practice persuasive writing and argumentative writing which we spent Monday distinguishing.

Here is a list of differences that  students generated:

Persuasive Writing Argumentative Writing
  • Aims to get readers to believe you opinion
  • Supported with persuasive techniques
  • Informal
  • Supported with facts and statistics
  • Involves two sides
    • counterclaim/rebuttal
  • Involves research
    • Investigative
  • More formal

Tuesday, we officially started our persuasive writing unit. We told each class that they’d work together to write and publish a blog, so each class period voted on a topic. Our desks are in groups of four, and we asked groups to discuss the topic and then craft claims. This caused quite a bit of fun, healthy debate, but in each class period, we were able to come to a decision.

  • Period 1: The driving age should be lowered to 15.5, and teens should be able to get their temps by 14.5.
  • Period 2: Dublin Coffman High School should start at 9:00AM (instead of 7:55).
  • Period 3:Schools should never completely block social media use nor search engines, but these technologies should be heavily monitored.
  • Period 5:Dublin Coffman High School should adopt an open campus schedule like colleges.
  • Period 6:The legal drinking age should be raised to twenty-five.

We showed students a model from last year as well as the requirements of the assignment.

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We have 7 groups of desks in our classroom, so we decided to have groups volunteer to complete different parts of our persuasive blog post, so three groups chose three different persuasive techniques, three other groups claimed the rhetorical devices, and one group found media to include. This all happened on Monday, and it was AWESOME. It went so well, in fact, that I emailed our literacy coach to brag. I just knew that she’d be so proud of all the modeling, scaffolding, and most importantly, learning happening in our room.

Fast-forward to today. I enter 1st period with 1 goal in mind. I want the whole class to collaboratively work on piecing together the parts of the blog that groups crafted separately yesterday. I tell them this. I stand at the board and ask students to help me outline our blog. One student helps me do this. One student. One. So, we are not off to a great start when it comes to collaboratively writing a blog post, but I have high hopes for the next part. I ask a student from each group to get on a shared Google Doc. I ask them to copy and paste their group’s work from yesterday into the document. This takes longer than expected, and as I look around the room, only the 7 students logged onto the document are engaged in organizing the blog. The other 20 are not interested in what we are doing no matter how hard I try to redirect their attention to what is happening on the projector. It doesn’t take me long to realize that THIS IS NOT WORKING. It’ll be torture to continue this for another 30 minutes, and I definitely can’t continue this all day long, so after 10 minutes of this unbearable struggle, I abandon ship and QUICKLY come up with an alternative.

I tell 1st period, “I’m sorry guys, and I’m sorry again for having to apologize to your class period so often, but this is not working like I imagined it would. I really wanted us all to craft a blog together, but this is just not going well, so here’s what we’re going to do. Students currently on the Google Doc, make a copy of the document and then share your copy with the rest of your group that you’re sitting with now and that you worked with yesterday. You’re now going to work in teams of just four rather than as a whole class. I want you to act like you’re a real editing team for a real blog. Turn what you and your classmates came up with yesterday into a cohesive blog. The best blog of the class wins donuts tomorrow, and I’ll also publish your blog to my real blog. You only have until the rest of the period. Ready? Go!”

And just like that, all students are involved again, and many are more invested in their writing than I have ever seen before!

… and then we run out of time.

Darn.

I’ll have to give them more time tomorrow….  

BUT, at least I know what to do 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th period because I have learned so much about what not to do during 1st period.

2nd period enters, and so does my co-teacher, Deb (she was in a meeting during 1st period). I get the students all set up to use the entire period productively in groups of four, and I use the same incentives of donuts and the most authentic audience I can conceivably provide on the spot(this blog). I fill Deb in on the debacle of 1st period.

We watch second period closely. We celebrate. We celebrate because we’ve been reading Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, and therefore, we no longer want to make decisions for our students that they can make for themselves. Our conversation goes something like this:

“This is going so much better than last period”

“This is good. I like this.”

“They’re struggling, and struggling is good.”

“They’re having to use each other and their resources instead of us. ”

“You’re right! Remember last year?

“We gave them a blog template to fill in. That was dumb.”

“We designed their blogs for them and removed all of the creative fun on accident”

“Look at them arguing over titles and fonts this year.”

“They’re really getting into it!”

We continue to watch closely. We circle the room. We listen to conversations. We mostly try to remain hands-off so that students figure it out on their own. Toward the end, we start to peek over shoulders. Many of the blogs don’t look like blogs at all. They look like a bunch of copied and pasted elements lacking any cohesive whole. Even the blogs that look like blogs don’t really read like blogs. We troubleshoot, and we try to explain this quickly before they head out the door.

3rd period enters.  We know what to do now. We explain everything just as we did last period including the donut incentive and semi-authentic audience deal, but this time, we get them set up for even more success than our 1st and 2nd periods by showing the model again and emphasizing what the end product should look like. We watch closely. It’s going well but not perfectly. I notice that some groups are totally engaged. I pick up on the fact that some students really want to win the donuts. Some students really want to show up on my blog. Some students just want to win. Some students are not engaged. Some students are letting their group members carry all the weight, so Deb and I chat.

“This is going pretty well, but it could be better. Why aren’t all our kids empowered?”

I think about the Empower book again.

What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?

“Next period, let’s let students pick their own groups. I don’t think we’d see the lack of engagement if we let them pick their own groups.”

“Let’s try it!”

5th period enters. We really know what to do now. As students walk in, we tell them to choose their own seats and to choose wisely because they’re expected to communicate well and work collaboratively. We show the model and explain expectations. We incentivize with donuts and a chance to appear on this blog. Groups are working fanatically! Everyone is engaged. This is what teachers dream of.

I watch closely. I keep thinking. I start to worry. I’m a worrier. This is going well… right? I’m not just imagining it, am I? It took a lot to get here. I bribed kids with donuts. I’m pretty sure that’s a huge pedagogical NO-NO, but I was desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. They look engaged. They even look empowered. I wonder what would have happened if I had never mentioned donuts, but I can’t renege on that now.

6th period enters. Despite my worries, we do everything the same as 5th period because it worked and because I can’t offer donuts to 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th period without offering them to 6th period. Deb and I stand in the middle and watch closely. There’s no doubt;  they’re engaged; they’re empowered. They’re working so hard, and they’re learning so much. They bell is about to ring, and one group is arguing. I listen.

“We should NOT have all of our names in the header.”

“Yeah, then all our names show up on EVERY page!”

“Yes, we should! It looks good!”

“No, we shouldn’t. It looks dumb!”

[warning bell rings]

“Mrs. Belden will just remove our names anyways.”

“Yeah, because we’re going to win and make it on her blog.”

“Well, we’re NOT going to win with our names on EVERY page!”

“Yeah, remove the names so that we can win the donuts!”

“We’re not going to win guys. We’re NOT going to get the donuts!”

“YES, we ARE going to win the donuts!”

“Guys, we did really good today, AND IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DONUTS!!!”

“Yeah, IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY!” [boys exit in fits of laughter]

The room is empty, and I’m sitting at my desk smiling like a fool because they have NO IDEA what a journey the day has been.

WINNING BLOGS:

Books · Classroom Libraries · Community · Culture · Leading · Literacy · Reading · Students

TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY All High School Teachers Should Read Young Adult Books

blog41. For all of the same reasons that you read adult books!

In all seriousness, young adult books can be just as fun, entertaining, moving, informational, important, and challenging as books that are written for adults.

2. To realize that YA books have a place in the classroom.

By exposing yourself to a wide range of YA texts, you’ll be able to purposefully expose your students to those texts, too. More importantly, you’ll want to do so. Much of this post may sounds like it is for English teachers, but that is absolutely not the case. In recent years, we have had both history and science teachers add libraries to their classrooms because our staff is recognizing the importance of promoting literacy across the contents. The more I read YA, the more I recognize that these books(plural!) NEED to be in the hands of my students.

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3. To teach students how to read.

After recognizing the value of YA Literature, I came to realize the necessity of teaching students how to read whatever they’re reading rather than teaching what I’m looking for students to gain from a whole-class novel. In a sense, by valuing YA books, I like to think that I’m now focusing on teaching the reader, not the reading. This includes teaching basic and specific reading skills as well as universal themes and archetypes.

4. To be able to actually converse with students about books (and not interview, quiz, interrogate, or grade them).

There’s nothing shocking here. When you’re reading books that students are reading, you’re able to authentically dialogue with students. I will be the first to admit that when I wasn’t reading YA books, “conversations” with students about books were somewhat phony. Students need to see adults who read for pleasure, and students need reassurance and reinforcement that reading is both a delightful and a worthwhile pastime. If we as educators always associate required assignments and grades with students’ reading, we are killing these notions. Make your passion for reading visible to students and show students that you care about their passions by reading YA books.

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5. To build rapport with your students – truly!

THIS IS MY FAVORITE REASON! I’m not sure that there is any better, quicker, easier way to get to know students than by showing interest in their reading lives. You can learn a LOT about students’ interests, hobbies, after school life, home life, etc. by asking some simple questions such as these: What are you currently reading? What did you read this summer? What’s the best book that you’ve ever read? Why do you think you enjoy that genre so much? How many books do you have in your home?

Rapport is built by continuing to show interest in students’ reading lives beyond the first week of school (after beginning of the year reading surveys). It is built by finding ways to celebrate students’ individual reading successes and by finding that book to make a difference for a non-reader.  Imagine recommending a book to a student that becomes their favorite or changes their life. By starting the conversation now, this is the type of work that lays the foundation for a life-long relationship, one where you can genuinely ask students “What are you reading?” when you run into them ten years from now. This is the type of work that feeds the soul. This is why we became teachers.

6. To be reminded of what teen life is like.

From attending prom senior year, to combating bullying on a daily basis, to experiencing lovesickness and hormones for the first time, to living in less-than-ideal homes, to navigating the cafeteria, to finding a place where you fit in, to feeling anxious about college admissions, to playing on a team and learning how to be coached, to learning about your sexuality or questioning it, etc. etc. etc. Let me just put it this way: when you’re reading YA books, it’s a little easier to empathize with students and understand why your class’s assignment may not be at the forefront of their priorities. More importantly, it may be a little easier to understand why your class’s assignment shouldn’t be at the forefront of their priorities.

7. To stay focused on what is most important.

If you start to prioritize time to read young adult books when you haven’t in the past, you may find yourself re-prioritizing many aspects of your personal and professional worlds. Since it is obvious that students need me to make time for them to read, when making decisions for my students and my classroom, I now ask myself questions such as these: What do students really need to learn? What do students truly need to do? Is that lesson actually important to students’ growth, or do we just do it because we’ve always done it? And, if I don’t prioritize time to read, how can I expect students to?

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8. To become a better book matchmaker.

Students desperately need help finding books that they enjoy! It’s no surprise that the more YA I read, the better I become at this. Nothing excites me more than (after engaging in conversation with a student) being able to exclaim, “OHH! I have the PERFECTbook for you!” Also, now that I’ve read a fairly large percentage of the books in my classroom library, I am able to notice patterns between books and students. For example, I can make recommendations such as, “You liked All the Bright Places? Then try A Million Junes. I think you’ll like it, too!”

Admittedly, I used to recommend books pretty superficially, based on the little that I knew about them from reviews, colleagues, word of mouth, and the descriptions on the books’ covers. Let me be clear – I still do this and probably always will (with a disclaimer that I haven’t actually read the book); I just don’t do this as often as I used to for two reasons. (1) I’ve read more books and continue to read YA books. (2) I sometimes cringe now when I’m currently reading a book that I have recommended in the past while thinking to myself, “Yikes… I recommended this book to that student?”

9. To be able to book talk – an art in itself.

Magic happens when students trust your judgment. Because students quickly learn that I read YA books regularly, students are willing to try books that I recommend. I am able to reach multiple students at once through book talks. When I book talk, I choose one, two, or three titles to present to students. I love exposing students to different genres, topics, and authors, and I try to let the books speak for themselves by reading short passages aloud. Book talking is just one way to celebrate reading publicly and routinely. Sometimes, I have to create waiting lists for titles or scrounge up extra copies of books because the demand for the titles is so high after book talking them.

10. To build a classroom library for your students.

Notice the emphasis on your. Nobody knows what books your students need better than you and your students. Every year, I ask students what books should be added to our classroom library. It is important to me that students know our classroom is truly a community where their voices matter. Also, students want to read books that I wouldn’t have chosen for our classroom myself. Personally, I don’t enjoy sci-fi/fantasy much, but my students do, so I need their help in selecting titles to add to this genre. This year, I plan on asking my students to help me identify gaps that need to be filled in library. By using Goodreads.com and a few other sites and blogs, I am able to keep up with the newest, hottest YA releases and popular authors, which excites me and my students.

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11. To get to know your students’ academic abilities better.

Now that I’m reading what students are reading, I have a better grasp on students’ current reading abilities, what reading skills I need to teach, who just needs a confidence boost, who doesn’t read at all, who reads avidly, who has access to books at home, who is good at faking it (playing the “game” of school), who has reading stamina and who needs to build it, and I don’t have to test or survey students for this information. I can gather it simply by observing what students are choosing to read.

12. To be a role model for colleagues and to build a reading culture/community in your school.

If you’re genuinely enthusiastic about reading YA for your students’ sake and for your personal pleasure, your excitement will spread! Just a few years ago, I was inspired to make independent reading a priority in my classroom, and now I’m reading 50-75 books a year when I used to read just a handful. In the last 3 years, a student book club has formed (lead by a history teacher!), two different staff book clubs have formed, non-ELA classrooms have added libraries to their rooms, and relationships between students and colleagues have been strengthened. We (Dublin Coffman High School) legitimately have a reading community to be proud of now.

I feel a calling to model and spread enthusiasm for reading YA books to my colleagues because every single year there are students that I fail to reach in English class, that I fail to recommend the perfect books to in order to turn non-readers into readers and occasional readers into avid readers. I truly believe that the right book(s) can have this impact, which drives me to read as many books as I do. It also makes me acutely aware of the fact that I won’t ever be able to reach all of my students, BUT I have high hopes that my students’ sophomore, junior, and senior year teachers will be able to reach them with their book recommendations! As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village,’ and an entire school community of readers will obviously have a much bigger impact than a few teachers, so I am begging you; if you work with adolescents, please read young adult books.

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13. To #bewhatyouteach

“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

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?