co-teaching · Community · Culture · Environment · Leading · Reading · Reflection

Sink or Swim

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It was an early morning this past June, and I was scrambling around my kitchen trying to get a breakfast casserole out of the oven, coffee started in my brand new coffee pot, and the apple fritters out of my eye line so that I still had some when everyone got there. It had been a couple of weeks since we all had seen each other–Amber had just gotten back from a Disney cruise, Michael was returning from a wedding in the Dominican Republic, and Sarah had been climbing in West Virginia, so we had lots to get caught up on together. 

When everyone arrived, there were lots of smiles, hugs, and “I’ve missed you!”s. After about twenty minutes of lively discussion (which involved stuffing our faces and guzzling coffee like pros), we settled into what we came to do–discuss standards based grading.

But before we talk about standards based grading (in another blog post!!), I want to talk about something that can sometimes be overlooked or forgotten about unless nurtured properly–teacher friendships. We’ve all seen the quotes on Pinterest or other teaching blogs about how there’s no way we can survive the days or years without teacher friends. But in all seriousness, this couldn’t be more true.  

As a child and teenager, I was a competitive swimmer. While swimming is an individual sport, we always practiced, traveled, and bonded together as a team. We were friends both in the pool and out of the pool. While I swam in the water by myself (unless I was in a relay), and finished the race by myself, without the extra push from my teammates during practice, I wouldn’t have been as successful as a swimmer. My team was with me all the time, requesting and expecting 100% from me every single day.  

It is the same with teaching. 

Working with a Professional Learning Community (PLC) is key for success for both teachers, and students as learners. I learn something new every day from my colleagues that helps me in my classroom whether it’s small, like an organizational tweak to my classroom library, or big, like discussing how to overhaul our entire grading system.

My PLC is definitely my support system at school. I don’t just get teaching advice from them; I also get life advice. We are all different ages and offer each other very different perspectives, which is what we want our kids to be doing when they meet in small groups. If I come to work in a sour mood because of a meltdown my 4yo son had that morning, they know that I need a few minutes of space before they come to hear the crazy story (It’s never simple, is it?!), offer their support, and give me some motivation for the day. My workload, both at work and at home, seems much more manageable when I can talk to others about it and get some valuable feedback to move forward, much like what our learners expect from us. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m a procrastinator. I also don’t like letting people down. Knowing that my PLC is relying on me to get my work done on time, and my wanting to contribute to the group, motivates me to get my part of our workload done. These friendships have also pushed me to challenge myself to tackle some work that I would otherwise avoid doing, or try to find something someone already uses that may not be great for my learners, but already completed, thus easier. They are my thinking partners and really push me to be the best version of myself that I can be for my learners.

Let’s face it–sometimes we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our own families. When we are happy with the people we interact with every day, it makes going to work and being happy at work easier, which then makes for a happy workplace for everyone. I want to be happy where I work. I want to feel comfortable and welcomed there. I also want to be able to prevent teacher burnout. In order to do that, I need to have people I can talk and connect to. 

I certainly don’t think all of your work friends need to be in your PLC. I’m lucky enough to have friends at my building in every department. I’m even luckier that I have gained some really solid friendships over the years from the three buildings I was in before moving to Ohio–friendships that have remained even after I moved out of state. I’m grateful for the multiple views and perspectives offered to my teaching and also to my life. 

At the end of the day, we want to be successful at our work for our learners. At its most basic level, teaching, like swimming, is an individual activity. But to be a successful teacher, you need that extra push in practice, a cheer in the meet(ing), and for someone to say that your craft inspired them. Teaching is a team sport. So go find your team! 

Community · Culture · Environment · Goal Setting · Reflection

What’s Your Why?

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I don’t know about y’all, but I was ready for the end of the school year. And I feel terribly guilty saying that. I love my job. I love my students. But I need a nap. Desperately. I haven’t felt like this, especially with my work, in a long time. Because of this unsettling feeling, I keep asking myself the age old question, “What’s your why?” every couple of days. What exactly is my why? I feel like it’s definitely changed over the years. Or maybe it’s been added to? Regardless, because the school year is now officially over, what better time to reflect than right now?

I’m very aware that Simon Sinek, author of Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team, as well as a well-known TED Talk called How Great Leaders Inspire Action, which I frequently show to my gifted students, believes that your why cannot be associated with your work, your job. I disagree. As a teacher, so much of who I am is connected to my “job,” so it’s not even a job to me. Teaching is a passion. It’s a way of life. It wakes me up–in more ways than one. It helps me be a better parent, and even wife. And really, a better human.

I knew I’d be a teacher at a young age. I used to send my mom to work with coloring book pages and ask her to photo copy them to give them to my “students,” who were stuffed animals sitting on the couch in our basement. As I grew older, my love of reading made me fall in love with all of my English/Language Arts classes, including Mrs. Loper’s class in 8th grade, even though I got detention for talking. (I swear, it WASN’T ME!!)

While in high school, my boyfriend’s mom was an English professor at the local college in my hometown, and she knew I loved to read. She would often ask me what I was reading for pleasure outside of class, and in high school, I just didn’t do that. It was hard for me to read more than one book at once (I have since changed!!), and keeping track of The Merchant of Venice and 1984 were difficult enough, so I simply didn’t read for pleasure. But, I remember reading The Great Gatsby for the first time. The long, descriptive sentences that flowed endlessly across the page. The jaunty cadence and rhythm, as well as the rich and poignant diction, made me fall in love with reading, and, discussing the text with others who felt the same way, only intensified that love. I knew in that moment that I wanted to do for people what my English teacher had done for me–instill a love of texts and have in depth conversations with students about books and reading. To me, Gatsby was a love story, albeit a terrible one, but a love story nonetheless. I like that Nick had a front seat to this love story and narrated it as best he could. It also has elements of drama and suspense, which have always been a favorite of mine in literature–not to mention the Real Housewives-esque vibe. For me, this classic text had everything I was looking for in a novel, and thus really inspired me to jump back into a reading life.

That school year gave me so much confidence as a reader. I thought that because I could read and discuss these classic texts that I was well on my way to being an English scholar extraordinaire. So I signed up for AP Literature and Composition. I wanted the challenge and I wanted to talk about these texts with peers who loved literature as much as I did–or so I thought. At the end of my junior year, the AP Lit & Comp teacher called me down to his room for a chat. I was under the impression that he was going to give me some reading material for the summer months, but when I got down there, I quickly realized that he was encouraging me to not take the course, citing my average to low testing scores. Looking back on this instance in my life, I’d have been so much more receptive to what he was saying to me if he’d given me another chance. Some kids aren’t great test takers. There has to be another way to measure the skills of that child. I clearly wanted to read and grow more in English–I had the motivation, but not the skill. He could have certainly helped me with that. I regret not asking for a second data point from him–a chance to prove that I was worthy to take the class. Instead, he dismissed me back to class, and asked me to stop by the guidance office to get my schedule changed for the next year.

Being the stubborn girl I was and still am, I ignored his request and remained in the class, but moved forward with a sour taste in my mouth. AP Lit & Comp ended up being one of the hardest classes of my life because I couldn’t connect with that teacher after that conversation. I didn’t WANT to connect with him. I won’t lie, I struggled through the class and never once did I ask for help. But he didn’t help me either. He saw me struggle and the urge to say “I told you so” was greater than his desire to provide help and feedback. I ended up with a C overall in the class and an embarrassing score on the AP exam. I knew after that experience that I needed to make it better for students who were struggling through English classes. I loved to read. He didn’t take that away from me, thank God, but some students hate English classes. I wanted to be the one to show them there was nothing to hate. Today, I credit one of the main reasons I teach English/Language Arts to that one teacher, despite his best efforts to derail me.

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While my why is centered quite a bit around that horrible experience in class, I am grateful that it taught me the value of teacher/student relationships. I had so many wonderful models of amazing teachers growing up, and I remember how each of them made me feel when I walked into their classrooms. I tried to emulate those feelings when creating my own classroom environment during my first year of teaching. During my 5th year of teaching, I had an extraordinary group of students in my first period class, who I saw every day. They were quirky and funny, yet some of the most intelligent students I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I taught this class during the time when Daily Oral Language (DOL) warm ups were considered one of the best ways to teach grammar, but I was starting to feel otherwise. I decided to scrap the DOL’s about halfway through the school year and go rogue with my own warm ups, which ended up being some really quirky and funny writing prompts. The kids got a HUGE kick out of them and would try to outdo each other on how silly or funny they could write in response to the prompt. What first started as a warm up activity turned into half a class period! We laughed together every single day until the end of the school year.

Looking back on that, I reflect on the class time that we spent doing these writing warm ups. Was the time spent appropriately? Was there something better we could have been working on instead? Probably. But about four years ago, a former student had a local newspaper feature an article about him as an area athlete turned coach. He had graduated high school, become a teacher, and also a wrestling coach who had gone on to be pretty successful. When he was asked what his favorite class was in high school now that he was a high school teacher and coach, he responded that 10th grade English was his favorite class and it was because he and his peers were allowed to write about whatever they wanted at the beginning of class, and that time and silliness together created lifelong friendships with everyone in the class, as well as with his teacher.

These three stories contribute to the foundation of my why. There’s not a day in my life where I don’t come back to them, either consciously or subconsciously, and use them to frame how I work with my students each day. I want to instill a love a reading, provide students as much feedback as possible, and ensure that each student walks away with a sense of belonging and, perhaps, a few friends. Now that the school year is over, I’m revisiting these stories and reminding myself of what I need to do for next school year to make sure these whys, among many newer ones, are still on my mind. As I look to next year, after reminding myself of my whys, I plan to incorporate more choice writing into my weekly plans, and really encourage relationships among my students, both centered around reading and writing, but also, around togetherness.

And just like that, I’m looking forward to next year. After a little break, of course. 😉

Books · Community · Culture · Reading · Reflection · Students

Book Clubs: Civil Rights Connections

Note: This post was written for a previous unit I led with my 8th graders during historical fiction book clubs that centered on the Civil Rights Movement. Many things that we discussed in that unit continue to feel resonant to me, and listening to these student voices is important.

For the past couple of weeks, my students have been studying the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They have varying degrees of background knowledge on the topic – many know Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but few of them know many details beyond the biggest names and moments. In order to learn more, students are in book clubs reading different books related to this time period, including New Boy, Warriors Don’t Cry, The Lions of Little Rock and Revolution. Our classes are following the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Historical Fiction Book Clubs. We are also watching a few documentaries from Teaching Tolerance to help them visualize what that movement felt like.

Last week, my students watched a documentary called A Time for Justice, which gives a basic overview of the Civil Rights Movement in about 40 minutes. I had students reflect on the video after watching, including a question that asked, “What personal connections do you make to this video?”

I was impressed and also saddened by some of their responses. I’ve included a few here.

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What struck me most about these responses is that there are still so many instances of injustice that happen today to which students connect. Even my 8th graders recognize how the struggles that African Americans faced during what we call the Civil Rights Movement are similar to those that many marginalized groups face today. Some of their connections are incredibly deep, painful even. Others note moments of injustice they see in their daily lives, even it is what we see as commonplace. Some made connections with amazing books they had read, like Dear Martin by Nic Stone and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

As 8th graders, my students are still figuring out the world around them. But at this moment in time, it feels like we all are. I want to give my students a space to reflect on their own connections to the world, to express what troubles them about what they see in the past and the present. As I read through these, I also think of how much these students have grown over the past nine months. Maybe I can’t teach them everything, but I can help them feel like they are heard. After reading these responses, I will continue to give my students opportunities like this to reflect and make connections, and to share some of these responses with others who may not have similar experiences. Getting books that cover these topics is also important. I will keeping searching for titles that I can recommend for students to not only see themselves, but also to view others’ experiences and learn from them. Building empathy is one of the most important things I can do as a teacher in today’s world.

Community · Culture · Environment · Students

Words Are Power

No surprise The Magic of Words book was my favorite.

I have always loved language and words! I know that sounds kind of weird, but it is true – crosswords, word searches, Boggle, UpWords, Scrabble, the Childcraft books that came with the World Book Encyclopedias, and Babysitters’ Club books filled many days when I was young. Then my favorite class in college – LINGUISTICS. I thought I was in heaven!

Words make us feel!

  • Excitement … my infant says momma (or something that sounds like momma) and tears immediately fill my eyes.
  • Fear … “I think we need to talk.”
  • Happiness … my 14-year-old says “Mom, I love you” (or anything at all to me).  Grief … “Pap has passed.”
  • Inspiration … Mom saying “I am proud of you” (yes – even at 43 this still matters).
  • Disappointment … “I am sorry, but we chose another candidate.”
  • Love – “I appreciate you.”

Language. This stringing together of words that we often take for granted is so important. It allows us to think together. It creates culture … language creates a community.

What we say and how we say it shows others what we think and how we feel – and it matters. A group of students is off task … a teacher says “Get back to work or you will be eating lunch with me.” Or “When you are off task it interferes with the learning of others and makes me feel frustrated.” Or “What is going on? What is getting in the way of your learning? How can I help you get back on track?”

Using we to describe our classroom communities, referring to our young learners as readers and writers, describing our English learners as developing bilinguals – all of these nuances are meaningful and convey different messages.

Recently a teacher shared a quote with me that reminded me of the power teachers as the adults in the room hold.

“The messages that students receive externally become the messages they give themselves.”

What messages are our students hearing? Are these messages what we want them to hear? We must be more careful with our words and never forget the power they hold!

Culture · Environment · Reflection

Finding the Truth

When I visited my parents’ house a few weeks ago, I decided to do a little “Marie Kondo-ing” in my childhood bedroom. A lot of my work from college was still there, and one thing I found was a big accordion file of letters that the seniors from my student teaching classes wrote to me at the end of the school year. Some were sweet, some were pretty neutral, but one stuck out to me.

The first time I read it, I was so angry with the student. The words How dare he? crossed my mind. What does he know? Even as I started looking through the letters, I was searching for this one because I still thought that it was obnoxious. I was feeling a little bit of that glee you get when you know you’re right about something and someone else was wrong.

Once I found the letter again, I realized that I was the one who was so, so wrong.

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The letter wasn’t signed, but I had my suspicions which specific 12th-grade boy wrote it. I initially thought he was so self-righteous in trying to be philosophical by saying things like “instead show them not the key to the door, but the door so they may open it themselves.” Now as I read it, I completely understand this student’s sentiment. I wasn’t listening to my students as a naive 23-year-old. I was doing what I thought teaching was: giving information and having students repeat it back. Assigning work and expecting them to just do it, no questions asked. This letter is pretty spot on in terms of how much my beliefs in teaching philosophy have changed over the past eight years.

If I am being honest, this 2018-2019 school year has been incredibly challenging for me professionally and personally. I have more students to care for than I ever have before, and many of them seem to have more needs than in years past, or maybe I am just more in tune with them. I have experienced a lot of anxiety myself in the past year, which I think leads me to be more inclined to ask a student questions about their life, listen to their concerns, or just approach the work we’re doing with more of a sense of care.

As a middle school teacher, of course, my job is to teach content, but this year, I have been learning that teaching the whole child is truly more important than whether they can tell me what dramatic irony is. While I’m not always perfect at this, I’m trying to find ways to lean into the true needs of my students while still encouraging them to take steps toward academic progress. If one of my classes loves to talk, I try to spend some of my workshop time to build relationships and share stories about my life, while also listening to theirs. In my mind, building that rapport and trust while sacrificing some content means that I will probably get more effort from these students the next day. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t — this isn’t a perfect system, but it’s something I’m continuously working on.

Our district has been focusing a lot on social-emotional learning this year, and I have come to the realization that middle schoolers need that more. When I take time to listen to them, to give them choice, and to let them explore subjects that interest them, I know they are growing more. Teaching is a constantly-shifting practice, and I am trying to find the balance that works best for me and my students.

So to the student “not all that much younger” who wrote me this letter: thank you. Your words have helped me realize just how far I’ve come since I started teaching just eight years ago.

Community · Culture · Goal Setting · Literacy · Reading · Teaching

Never Stop Learning. Ever.

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Professional Development is my jam. It’s HARD to be a teacher who doesn’t want to learn, so I embrace the fact that I love teaching and I love learning, and thus I try to attend as many PD sessions as I possibly can–or until my principal says “ENOUGH!” (Luckily, she NEVER does that!!)

That being said, the Dublin Literacy Conference is one of the BEST, local PD sessions I have been to. At my previous school district, good PD was few and far between–even when it was required. School districts are not getting the funding they used to and if they are, funds are being used elsewhere instead of on educating their staff. I’m incredibly grateful that Dublin City Schools sees the value of quality professional development and brings in people worth listening to. Breakout sessions and big name authors are vetted by the Dublin Literacy Conference Committee to make sure topics are current, relevant, and what people want to hear from during their time away from home.

So, without further ado, there is my Top Ten List of AMAZING Takeaways from the 2019 Dublin Literacy Conference:

  1. Presenting at a conference is HARD and INTIMIDATING, but SOOOOOO worth it.

I did a breakout session with my PLC (Professional Learning Community) at the conference on reading conferences in my 8th grade language arts classroom. I’m not going to lie–presenting freaks me out. Being in front of adults is ridiculously different than being in front of students. What if I really don’t know what I’m talking about? What if someone calls me out on that? Regardless of all of the “What ifs?” my PLC and I took a risk and had a really amazing session. And our sessions opened up some opportunities for dialogue with other language arts teachers and how they are using reading conference strategies in their own classrooms!  

  1. Networking with other literacy teachers (of any subject or grade) is so rewarding and feeds my soul.

I love talking to people about the craft and art of teaching. Especially people who are willing to give up a Saturday of doing something non-school related. Those people are my people. I overheard laughter, strategizing, lesson planning, and many a discussion on texts to read next while I walked around the high school. I chatted with a woman from a bordering school district walking out of the building at the end of the day about what we both learned that day and it made me look up another presenter’s notes that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. It’s refreshing to know that there are others out there who value education, learning, teaching, and facilitating as much as I do.

  1. Humility, Intimacy, and Gratitude need to be at the forefront of our minds when working with student readers (and I’ll argue writers as well).

Jason Reynolds’ “These Three Words” keynote gave me some pause. How often would we say we have humility in our classrooms. We’re supposed to be the experts, right? Reynolds says that in order to really get to know a student and what he/she likes to read, we need to get on their level and stop pushing books we know they will not successfully read. In connection with this, he also implored teachers to know our students’ reading lives intimately, which can help us find better texts for specific students in our classes. Finally, he asked us how many of us thanked our students for coming to class each day. So many times, our students have a choice to come and learn from us, not come to class, or even worse case scenario, drop out of school. We should be thanking them for coming through our door to learn.

  1. “Education is a favor, it is a gift, but students don’t see it like that.”

So, my response to Reynolds’ statement is, how do we make them see that education is a gift and a favor? In my years of experience, the closest answer I can get to is by giving students our time and attention. By being present and available while they are in the classroom.

  1. What’s your WHY for teaching?

Ahhh, the age old question. WHY are you a teacher? What’s your purpose in your job? I found myself coming back to this during Reynolds’ two talks that I attended because he was telling so many stories about teachers who were either making decisions for him or not opening doors of opportunity for him, but rather closing them. It made me sit back and think about why I wanted to become a teacher and if I still had that in mind 15 years later. And I do. I want students to be better when they leave my room than when they first stepped in it. I want them to read a variety of books and write a variety of different writings. This might have to be a future blog post! What’s YOUR why? 

  1. We need a schoolwide commitment to literacy.

Literacy is not just 5 days a week 7-8 hours a day while a student is in school. It’s EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR. ALL DAY. Literacy happens in the math classroom. Literacy happens in Physical Education. Literacy happens on breaks. Literacy happens over the summer. It’s not just happening in school. How can we make sure everyone is a part of literacy in our buildings?  

  1. Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate!

Literacy celebrations should be happening all the time in our classrooms. Now, I think the common misconception is that celebrations HAVE to have food and drinks and thus a fantastic mess for the teacher to clean up at the end of the day. Not necessarily. While the students LOVE those and they are worth it sometimes, celebrations can consist of just a shout out in class to Little Johnny who made his reading goal for the week! Or to Suzy Q. for finishing her 20th book of the school year. They can be a little post-it note that reads “I’m proud of you!” for someone who you know has been struggling with something in your class. Celebrations need to happen frequently.

  1. Student voices in our classrooms should be louder than ours.

Jason Reynolds, Pam Allyn, and many of the presenters that I listened to at the conference talked about student voice and allowing students to share their stories with their classmates. But Kara Belden said it best when she said that the student voices in the classroom should be louder than ours. This made me stop and think about how much time I’m giving my students to write their stories–to flesh them out and get them on the page. To give them wings and let them fly to find someone else in our class who can say, “Me too” and know they’re not alone. I need to be better about this. About giving more time, regardless of the time restraints we have. This is what really counts in the world of education.  

  1. “It’s not that young people don’t like to read. It’s that young people don’t like to be bored.”

How many times have you heard another teacher say, “He/She just doesn’t like to read. There’s nothing I can do about it if they already have their minds made up.” Jason Reynolds (and I!) beg to differ. I’m a firm believer in that if a student doesn’t like to read, it’s because he/she hasn’t found the right book yet. It’s all about finding the right books and getting them into the right hands. We are so lucky to be teaching in an age where there are so many diverse authors and topics to give our students excitement when reading. We just need to make sure we can find them the right book. Or being able to connect them with someone who can find them the right book.

  1. Share the love.

I just left a quick meeting this morning where everyone in my building who went to the lit conference got together to discuss what we learned, how and if we are applying our learning to our classrooms, and what information we would like to share with the rest of the staff. This quick little meeting forced me to revisit some of the things I heard, saw, and talked about during the conference and allowed me a space to talk with my colleagues about my learning. This. Is. Invaluable. in my humble opinion. For me, conversations about learning are where it’s at. It’s how I find most success in my classroom. It’s where I revisit my why. It’s where I find ways to celebrate student voice. It’s where humility, intimacy, and gratitude for my profession starts. And it’s why I stick with this crazy awesome, extremely hard, and unbelievably rewarding career.

I really hope we all see YOU at the next Dublin Literacy Conference on February 22, 2020!

 

Culture · Goal Setting · Reflection

Identity Revision

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I’m having an identity crisis…I think…? I mean, not really, but maybe. Yeah, I guess I am. I feel like I’m being pulled in two different directions on multiple levels–is that an identity crisis? Regardless, I’m having trouble figuring out where I’m supposed to be, what my path is, what I should be doing. In my home, in my job, in motherhood–EVERYWHERE.

This feeling first occurred to me when I moved to Ohio in July 2016. My husband and I had lived in northern Virginia for twelve years and wanted a quieter life for our one-year-old son. The hustle and bustle of the DC area started to be too much for my husband, who had to commute one and a half hours to work (one way!) every day. I got lucky and my teaching job was only 10-15 minutes away, depending on traffic, so traffic never got on my nerves unless we tried to get somewhere during rush hour. I loved Virginia, or at least I thought I did, and when we moved, Ohio was hard to get used to–new home, new job, new lifestyle, new grocery store…new everything.

I’m “older and wiser” now, and in a position where I can be reflective with my life and take a deep look into what I really want and need, as well as figure out what’s best for my family. That being said, looking back, one of the hardest transitions for me after this move was my new job.

I had been an English teacher for twelve years in Virginia. It doesn’t seem like a long time when you say it out loud, but it felt like a really long time by the time we got to Ohio. I think one of the biggest issues I had with coming to Ohio in the beginning was the fact that the English teacher part of my identity, my personality, a part that I had been forming for over twelve years and was known for, was not coming with me. There were no English teaching positions open when I applied, so I had no choice but to do something different. Luckily, I earned my gifted endorsement in 2010 (which was supposed to be my end of career, fade out plan!), so when the possibility of teaching middle school gifted came open, I decided to jump on it and get my foot in the door that way.

At first, I was excited about the possibility of teaching a new subject, if that’s what you’d even call it. Gifted is a beast unto itself and has gray areas everywhere, which is both inspiring and detrimental, depending on how you look at it. The opportunity to teach something different, to get some new and different perspectives, came hard and fast, and quite frankly, knocked the wind out of my sails. I was thrilled and ready for the challenge, but scared at the exact same time. I THRIVE on interactions with my colleagues during the day, and I’d be the only gifted teacher in the building and on the metaphorical island! What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if the kids are smarter than I am? What if all they want to work on is MATH?? I’m not a math teacher! I’m an English teacher, faking it as a gifted teacher! Bless. What am I going to do here with these kids? My supervisor kept telling me to play to my strengths, but how can I be the best gifted teacher when my strengths consist of writing literary analysis papers and making sure the periods and commas are in the right places in an MLA formatted works cited page?

That first year was rough. I called my gifted colleague Emily literally every day. She was my lifesaver. The biggest issue I had was with the lack of lesson planning structure. I was coming from the world of Advanced Placement classes where every moment in the class was accounted for because if you lost time, students were missing out on opportunities to be successful in their reading and writing strategies that would be assessed on the exam in May. In Cog. Ed., there were no exams. No requirements, except teach students how to create, innovate, communicate, collaborate, problem solve, think critically, research, and be aware of themselves in a positive manner. Right. Ok, that should be easy…<Insert eye roll>. For someone who is used to and craves structure, this situation was a complete and utter nightmare. Thank God Emily had a handle on what she wanted things to look like and because she and I hit it off right away and share a similar teaching philosophy and background, we were able to work together to get some semblance of a structure to work with our classes, and still be able to provide the necessary freedoms the gifted students need.

While I struggled with this issue, I noticed that maybe this was what the gifted job was supposed to be teaching me–how to be flexible, how to let go of structure and really cater to what students need in the classroom. Sure, having a plan for daily learning is necessary, but being able to say, “No. We’re not going to do that today because these kiddos need something different.” is key. How many times had I wished to have extra time in my AP classes to stop the lesson, and really focus on the needs of my students, both academically and personally, as they navigate through high school? Being able to let go of that structure for my Cog. Ed. classes allowed me to really see the possibilities available for these students. We have focused on design learning, researching without restrictions, and learning about ourselves and how we work with others. Being able to do this kind of learning allowed for me to be able to take a step back and facilitate the learning instead of being in charge of it–letting the students choose how they wanted to learn instead of me telling them how they were going to learn.

After two years of teaching gifted students in a gifted setting, I have come to realize that I do love the freedom, and that there are colleagues who want to collaborate with me. I’m really very lucky–I get to push students to create, collaborate, communicate, and innovate in ways that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to try during their time in middle school. I don’t have to grade excessively. I rarely speak with parents–really only to send out our agenda for the week and answer the occasional question about the math class hierarchy or summer gifted camps. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have failed numerous times. So many I stopped counting. I would start a project with students and not finish it, I got in over my head on quite a few assignments and couldn’t follow through meaningfully so I just stopped with the project, and there were many days where students did more creativity challenges that necessary. These were lessons I needed to learn in my teaching life and struggle with in order to be better for my students. And for that, I am so grateful.  

But I keep coming back to the same few questions: Am I happy doing this job? Am I making an impact? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my teaching life?

Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t think I’ll ever really know the answers to these questions for sure. And I don’t think anyone ever knows, especially in education. I’m just over halfway through year three of teaching gifted students and I have a tremendous amount of learning left to do (which I’m REALLY excited about!), and that means that this particular boat ride can’t be over yet. I love the challenges that my gifted students present to me daily. I love their questions and organic curiosity. I love the freedom to do what my students want to do without restriction. I love that my principal, supervisor, and colleagues trust that I’m doing my job and come to me with questions and/or help. And I love that I’m still able to use my English teaching expertise to help my students be successful in my class and their other classes, as well as expand my own learning by listening to my students and their thoughts and wonders. And who’s to say that I can’t take these learning experiences back with me to the AP English classroom one day…?

So, maybe I’m not having an identity crisis. Maybe it’s more of an identity shift or identity revision.

 

UPDATE:

Since starting this piece, I have done more soul searching and have had many conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, and have decided that my heart is still in the English/Language Arts world. A position opened up at my school to teach both 7th and 8th grade language arts, so I jumped on it and will be entering this role this coming fall. I don’t think a day will go by where I don’t use my learning experiences I gained in the gifted classroom with my language arts learners–if anything, it will help guide my instruction to better serve gifted students in reading and writing.

I’m really looking forward to this new opportunity in my career and who knows, maybe one day I’ll return to gifted, because who’s to say that gifted isn’t where my heart and soul are ALSO?

Culture

All Work and No Play…?

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How on earth is the holiday break over already? HOW?!? We got two weeks off from school this year (and for that I am insanely grateful because not being an Ohio native is a STRUGGLE, let me tell you), but I literally did NOTHING. How is that even possible when I feel absolutely EXHAUSTED?! Please tell me there are others out there riding the same struggle bus as me this week!

I guess I should rephrase: I, in fact, DID do things over the break. My husband and I loaded our 4 year-old son into our Hyundai Santa Fe and took off for Wilmington, NC to visit his family for 5 days. From there, we drove to my home town of Meadville, PA to be with my family for 5 days, with a quick stop in Virginia in between because we just couldn’t do the trip in one day. Over those 11 days, we drove, we ate, we laughed, we wrapped, we hugged, we unwrapped, we played, and we slept–my, did we ever sleep.

But, you know what I didn’t do?

Anything for school.

Nothing.

Nada. Zip. Zilch.

I’m clearly off to a rough start to 2019. Is it too late for a do-over?!

And I feel TERRIBLY guilty.

WHY? Why do I feel that guilt? Is it because we get “all of this time off,” so we should be doing something to “earn our pay?” Or is it because we have extra time on our hands, and we are so conditioned to be thinking about our classrooms that our brains are constantly whirring to try to make our practices better? It’s not that I wasn’t thinking about school–I definitely said jokingly, multiple times, “I should be doing some school work,” or “I should be reading this book for school right now.” And then I would laugh and move on, continuing to do things with my family. But in the back of my mind, the guilt would still linger. I would say to myself, I should be taking some time out of every day to read, or work on grading, or look at lesson plans, or focus on planning future units, etc. etc. etc. Why can’t I get it together and focus on my life’s work!?

Regardless of the answer, my brain shut down. It took an actual break. It couldn’t handle thinking about best practices, narratives that needed grading, or short story previewing that I had on my plate to work on over the holidays. And you know what? That’s ok. The work will get done. It will be there tomorrow. It’s not a matter of life or death. Learners will not suffer immensely if they do not get their work back on the day we return. Why do we educators put so much pressure on ourselves to create a to do list for our time away from work? And why do we feel the need to put this pressure on our learners, as well? They need a respite as well. I watched my gifted students stress and obsess over midterm exams during the last week of classes in December, and talk about how they stayed up until all hours of the morning studying, reviewing problems, and reviewing notes, and just being anxious balls of energy. My learners are twelve and thirteen years old. They clearly need a rest. So, we teachers need to start giving ourselves some grace and allow ourselves to take a break from the classroom, too.

What would YOU do if you allowed yourself to actually rest over break?

Community · Culture · Teacher Leadership

Better Because of My Champions

 

People who will nourish you and help you love this crazy complicated, exhilarating pursuit.
Happy to be at school every day!

These two statements have appeared in my recent reading and they have prompted me to stop and think … I LOVE this very important work that we as educators do every day. I love the relationships I develop with the amazing young people who enter our schools every day. But I am reminded that we must NEVER discount the relationships we build with the adults who are on this journey with us.

I am better (a better educator and more importantly a better person) because of these amazing, kind, curious people. These people have taught me to:

  1. Listen without judgement. This is hard! I have very strong opinions about what good instruction is, about how we should talk to and about learners, about our ultimate mission as educators… Those in “my balcony” help me recognize that these beliefs define my core, but can sometimes cause a bias that I have to work very hard to put aside in order for me to truly hear.
  2. Be honest and humble. I am extremely lucky and my tribe is full of absolute rock stars! My thinking is pushed through conversation with these colleagues and I learn from them all of the time. But each of these rock stars is reflective and a true learner who wants to get better every day. They have shown me the true meaning of humility.
  3. Lead by example. Whether leading a building, a school district, a classroom or a learning activity my people lead with grace and kindness. From them I have learned that people always come first!
  4. Embrace new opportunity. Wow! I think this is the most important thing I have learned and the thing I am most grateful for. The educators around me have encouraged me to try new things (ie. paddleboard yoga) and share my learning with a wider audience than I would have ever thought possible (ie. this blog). These opportunities have revealed parts of myself I didn’t know were there.
  5. Ask for help. No one has all of the answers and the sooner we realize this the better off we are and the more we can learn; being an educator (and life in general) is hard … knowing there are people willing to help is a true blessing.
  6. Question. It is not good to be surrounded by people who always agree with you. They either are not being honest, or you are missing out on important ideas and new learning. My chamopins are always willing to ask the hard questions and to push back on my crazy ideas. Who knows what I would have stepped in without their “have you thought about this” conversations.
  7. Honor and celebrate. We celebrate the successes of others and honor the slip-ups that happen as opportunities for growth. This has forever changed my mindset and made be a better person!
  8. Breathe and enjoy the ride. In my younger years I was a bit, let’s say, high strung. I hate to admit, but I often engaged in complaining and wallowing in frustrations. This absolutely was not helpful or productive. My champions help me to take a breathe, remember it isn’t always going to be perfect, and remind me to enjoy the messiness of learning and growing.
  9. Be patient. Anything worth having takes time (and may not follow the timeline you developed in your head). The “when” is very important!
  10. Never lose sight of the goal. This past spring was very hard for me – I have never heard “no” so many times in my professional life. But each of these nos was followed by words of encouragement and reminders to never give up, to always do my best and to never stop advocating for the best possible educational system. Exactly what I needed to hear!

Who are your champions? As we start this new school year I challenge you to let them know how much they matter and how grateful you are for them.

 

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!