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?

Leading · Literacy

2019 Dublin Literacy Conference: “30 Years of Celebrating Our Stories”

We count ourselves lucky to teach in a school district that values literacy as highly as Dublin City Schools does. The last Saturday in February every year is a chance for us to recharge and reconnect as literacy teachers and leaders.

The Passionately Educating bloggers have a variety of roles in this year’s conference and we thought we would share!

2019 Dublin Literacy Conference Chairman: Jennifer Wolf

2019 Dublin Literacy Conference Committee Members:  Rita Shaffer and Rachel Polacek

2019 Presenters:

  • Lindsey Brauzer: Creating Connections during Reading Conferences
  • Rachel Polacek: Exploring Identity: Informing Instruction with Sara K Ahmed’s Being the Change
  • Melissa Voss: Reading and Writing Workshop (Revised)
  • Kara Belden: IGNITE Student Voice in You Secondary Classroom
  • Rita Shaffer: IGNITE Student Voice in You Secondary Classroom
  • Beth Honeycutt: IGNITE Student Voice in You Secondary Classroom

We are excited about this day learning and especially looking forward to the keynotes from Pam Allyn and Jason Reynolds.

If you are visiting the Lit Conference this year, we’d love to meet you and say “hello”! And each of us will be sharing our learning on February 23rd using the hashtag #dublit19.

More information about the conference can be found here and registration is still open.

Leading · Reflection

Learning To Ski

I went skiing last weekend with my 72-year-old father.  He taught himself to ski when he was in his 40’s, and he still takes on the black diamond runs in northern Michigan.  I am at the other end of the spectrum. I had attempted the beginner hills at several flat runs but definitely wouldn’t call what I did skiing. So when dad invited me to hit the slopes, my first reaction was a mix of fear and excitement.  I had just finished watching the world-class athletes in the winter Olympics and although I am very afraid of falling, I knew I had an opportunity to learn a new form of exercise. So I accepted his invitation!

We arrived at the slopes early and gathered our gear before heading up the lift for my first try down the beginner hill. Dad patiently demonstrated while explaining how to get on the lift; he even alerted the lift operator that I was a beginner so that he could slow down the chair as I hopped on. I forced myself to trust dad’s directions, imitate him, and up the hill we went.

My first time getting off the lift and “skiing” down the hill was a disaster.  I fell hard twice and was grateful I had listened to my husband when renting my equipment, including a sturdy helmet.  At that moment, I really wanted to return my rentals, get into the car, and head back to the hotel. But, with dad’s encouragement, I got on the lift again and managed to get off the chair and down the hill without more than a stumble or two.  Dad continued to patiently give me immediate feedback about what I did correctly and tips to improve my technique. Each time up and down felt more comfortable until I was ready to leave the beginner hill.

From that moment, the process was repeated over and over during the weekend. Dad encouraged me to ski on hills that I was barely able to manage, demonstrated how to successfully navigate the new turns and slopes, and patiently coached me as I learned to get up by myself. By the end of the second day of skiing, I could comfortably ride the lift, get off the chair without falling, and use my edges to “snake” down what felt like a steep hill. I was a skier and I couldn’t wait until my next skiing opportunity!

On one of my final rides up the hill, I was relaxed enough to reflect on the fun.  It became clear that the weekend skiing experience was much like an effective school. Students and teachers come to new learning with anticipation but also with some angst. Unsure and anxious when they are tasked with learning a new skill, even if they are motivated. But with a support system in place and an opportunity to practice together, it isn’t long before fear can be replaced with confidence and confidence triggers success.  The success that looks like two learners sharing ideas to solve a complex task. When two colleagues reflect on formative assessment data to regroup their students. When a teacher reflects with her instructional coach and decides on a new plan. When an academic team creates a successful behavior plan for a struggling student. Model. Practice. Learn. Perform. Model. Practice. Learn. Perform.

Fast forward 10 months….It’s been a long time since I went skiing.  In fact, I haven’t gotten back to the slopes since the fun trip with my dad.  The good news is that I am scheduled to go skiing with our school’s ski club next week!  I am confident I will be rusty. I will undoubtedly have to relearn some things. I will fall and need persistence. I surely will not be able to immediately pick up with the fun I experienced last March.  It’s like that when we don’t practice….

Skiing isn’t the only skill that takes practice and a “stick to it” attitude.  Learning anything new is like that, including professional learning for teachers.  We’ve all attended a great teaching and learning conference. One that we leave super excited about! Even though we can’t wait to get back to school and try some of the ideas we heard, we get focused on our students’ needs and our daily responsibilities. And, before we know it, the end of the year is upon us and we haven’t implemented one idea from that conference.   Don’t get me wrong, out of district conferences can be career changing, but without embedding the ideas day-to-day, new learning can be squandered.

Our district’s most important weekend conference is just a few weeks away.  I am super excited to attend. I am confident I will learn many strategies that will support me as a reader and writer and as a leader of readers and writers.  Experts will be patient with me as I learn and ask questions. They will model their skills. They will encourage me. My challenge- and yours too- will be to take what we learned and use it in our daily work.   Play with the ideas. Fail. Try again. Have fun! But most importantly, practice. Talk to your colleagues about an intriguing idea. Share your biggest “AH-HA” with your administrator. Do a book talk about one of the keynote speakers’ works. Mark your calendar to discuss one idea a week with your PLC.  Write a blog post. Whatever you do, commit to it.

Get on your learning edges and ski down a mountain! Don’t let learning become a weekend trip!

Goal Setting · Leading · Teacher Leadership

Expert … or Specialist?

This fall Beth and I spent a Saturday learning with Kristin Ziemke. Our district is in the process of becoming one-to-one in grades six through twelve and I have been thinking a lot about what blended learning looks in the HS ELA reading and writing workshop. When we noticed that the Literacy Connection was bringing Kristin to the area we decided to join, even though the workshop was marketed for K-6 teachers (another post coming soon related to this).

While I learned so much about purposeful leveraging of technology from Kristin (hopefully yet another post will be coming), what I have been thinking most about is this idea of expert or specialist and her description of these two terms. Kristin described an expert as “someone who knows it all” and a specialist as “someone who believes the learning is never done but wants to know all they can.” What a difference in mindset!

I want others to think of me as a specialist, but do I present as an expert? And if I do present as expert how does that impact others’ abilities to learn? I am writing as a literary coach, so I am thinking about adult learners, but I also think this applies to the learning that happens in our classrooms. If a teacher sees herself as a specialist and not as an expert how does this impact student learning?

Some things I will commit to to ensure that I remain a specialist:

  • Read a wide variety of research about literacy, especially HS literacy
  • Question this reading and align it to my core beliefs about learning
  • Listen to others with a truly open-mind
  • Consistently share my new learning
  • Talk about failure
  • Be flexible
  • Look for the happiness and joy in literacy learning
  • Value the questions of others
Leading · Teacher Leadership

Finding a New Place

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 10.04.46 AM.png“Is it my turn?!?”

“I haven’t been the ‘lucky duck’ yet…can it be me?”

“Who is the ‘lucky duck’ today? Who gets to sit in the chair?” That’s what I heard as I entered a sixth-grade language arts classroom this week.

I wondered what all the excitement was about when I glanced over and saw this pea green rocking chair sitting next to the #classroombookaday reading area. I smiled. It was my green, creaky, repaired-many-times rocking chair that had been a fixture in my classroom for the past 19 years.

Apparently the ‘lucky duck’ each day got the privilege to sit in the rocking chair during the picture book read aloud. The students were so excited to have the special seat, and I was so excited to see my rocking chair in use and being loved by students as it had been for almost two decades. The chair had found a new space in a different classroom – just like me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I chose to leave the classroom this year to take on the role of a literacy coach for the four middle schools in my school district. It has been almost three months and I am still finding my groove and my place. But, I have been embraced – just like the rocking chair – by teachers in all four schools.

Taking on a new role was something that I challenged myself to do. I’m not a person who typically embraces change so there have been good days and not-so-good days. I’ve been reflecting on a daily basis about “finding my new place” so that’s a little of what I’m sharing.

There are definite things that I hadn’t thought of before moving to a new place(s):

  • Parking – some people are particular about their parking spot
  • Lunch – do most teachers eat in the teachers’ lounge? Am I taking someone’s spot OR limiting the conversations because of the ‘new’ person in the room?
  • A tribe – I sort of lost my tribe because I’m not at my former school every day. I’m only there every six weeks.
  • Keys/office space – so many keys and such different spaces
  • My back – lugging bags of professional books from building to building is fun:)
  • Momentum – two weeks is just enough time to start building momentum with teachers and students but then my coaching cycle is over and the momentum is lost/deferred

I am certainly not complaining. I really enjoy working with teachers. It is different than working with teenagers – it’s a good different. The amazing work that the teachers in the middle schools are doing every day make me proud and make me push my own thinking. What and how can I support teachers who are knowledgeable about the learners sitting in their classrooms and are thinking about how to best keep those learners reading and writing every day?

I’m thinking in a different way this year and I’m finding my way in this new role.  I feel like I’m the ‘lucky duck’ who is getting to know colleagues that I didn’t know and spending time with students in all three grade levels that I normally wouldn’t get to. I’m excited to wake up and go to work each day, and I’m challenged by the thinking and reflecting that I do with teachers. My new place is working out really well – just like the new place for that 50-year-old, much-loved rocking chair.

 

Leading · Teacher Leadership

To change or not to change…

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. – Barack Obama

The past few months have brought about a lot of change in my life. I’ve gotten through almost 48 years with not a lot of that. I think I could safely say (before April) that I was not a person who embraced change. Oh, every once in a while I change my hair color or I try a new radio station…but I couldn’t be characterized as a mover or a shaker. I’ve branched out to become a yoga teacher, but other than that, I taught at the same school for 19 years, been married to the same wonderful guy for 22 years, typically vacationed in the same three places, and have the layout of my Kroger burned into my memory.

Personally, my life is about to change as my older daughter heads off to college this fall. This spring brought a lot of “lasts” – last spring break as a whole family, last prom, last time walking through the doors of her school, and last hug as a high school student. I feel like I’ve handled these changes well – probably because my daughter is ready.  But still I’ve wondered what it will be like when she leaves. Will she miss us? Will college be everything that she wants and dreams of? Will this change be a positive one for her? I’ve tried to remain relatively calm as these “lasts” happened and as our lives as a family of four change.

Professionally, I am making a big change as well. I’ve packed all of my belongings from the school where I taught for 19 years. I’m embarking on a new path that will take me out of my classroom and into the classrooms of other language arts teachers across the district as a literacy coach.

If you would have told me that I would be on this path four months ago, I would have told you that you were crazy. I had a great gig teaching 8th grade language arts with three people that I enjoyed working with and had a fantastic professional learning partnership with. My classroom was a place that I was proud of and had worked hard to make into a positive learning environment. My principal is an enviable instructional leader that I was so happy to work for and with. One colleague said I was crazy to leave and that he didn’t understand what was going through my mind – my school is an idyllic teaching situation.

So why did I decide to make the change? I don’t think it was peer pressure. I don’t think it was flattery, I don’t think it was “I’m going to prove to people that I can change” (ok, maybe a little bit of this if we’re talking about my husband).

At some point, after making lists of positives and negatives and after sitting in silent reflection for long periods of time, I decided that it was time for me to try something new. I love working with teenagers, but I also love working with adults. I would visit other classrooms once a week if I were allowed. There are so many smart, reflective teachers around the district that I will get to learn from every day. Hopefully, I will be able to impact more than the 120 students I saw on a daily basis last year. My professional learning and personal reading will be different which is exciting and challenging. Finally, my daughters both were cheerleaders for this position and told me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing and to go for it.

Making the decision to change my career path for a few years felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders once I accepted the job. Up until I said “yes”, I felt unsure but all the second-guessing was gone when I made the call. Honestly, it wasn’t what I thought I was going to do, and I rebelled against the idea for some time. However, I am ready to move forward and see what the next school year brings for me and for my family.

 

**I wrote this piece during the #SWI18 in June while surrounded by other Dublin teachers. I’ve started my journey as a coach now and I’m sure will share more about that soon.

 

Leading · Literacy · Reflection · Teacher Leadership

Staying Calm: The Dublin Literacy Conference

Friday, February 23

The day was almost here! This year, I was the Chairperson for the Dublin Literacy Conference. We had been working toward this day for months, and today was the day that I would really dig in with my co-chair, Marisa, and get all of the final details worked out. We met for breakfast and discussed what we needed to do for the day – we would get the participant packets organized and she would pick up two of our authors – Kate Roberts and Chris Barton – that afternoon when their flights got in.

Or so we thought.

Later that afternoon, as we were chipping away at the participant packets, we received notice that Kate Roberts’ flight was delayed. Okay, we thought, maybe she’ll still make her connecting flight. No big deal.

Then Chris Barton’s flight was delayed. We weren’t panicking just yet, but we were a little more on edge. He got on another flight set to land around 7 p.m. in Columbus, so we breathed a little more easily. He would miss our author dinner, but would make it for Saturday’s conference.

Soon after that, we learned that even with the delay, Kate made her connecting flight, and was on time for her arrival in Columbus. Marisa left to pick her up, and I kept working.

After another hour or so, I was finished with the preparations for the conference the next day, and I went home. On my drive, I debated whether or not I should go for a run, since I had about and hour and a half before I needed to leave for dinner.

As soon as I got home, however, everything changed. It turned out Kate was getting over the flu, so she wasn’t going to join us for dinner so she could rest up. Then I needed to head to the hotel where the authors were staying to give them some missing paperwork. With no authors planning to attend the dinner, we decided to cancel. I called our accommodations committee member, Aleia,  and set that plan in motion.

But wait! Chris Barton was going to make it by 6 p.m., so he could attend the dinner. I had to quickly call and reverse my previous request – the dinner was back on.

After that chaotic hour (needless to say, I didn’t get that run in), I headed out to dinner a little early to make sure everything was set with the restaurant. Our committee members started arriving, one of our presenters, Olivia Van Ledtje (@theLivBits), and her mother also joined us for this dinner. Marisa had picked up Chris from the airport, and they made it to the restaurant. Everything was running smoothly now.

…until we learned that George Couros’s first flight from Vancouver had been sitting on the runway for over an hour, waiting to be de-iced. We knew the weather wasn’t the best in parts of the United States, but we hadn’t accounted for snow storms in western Canada. George wasn’t going to make his connecting flight in Minneapolis, and couldn’t get out of there until the morning. This didn’t work for us, seeing as he was supposed to start his keynote the next morning around 8:45. We needed a new plan.

Could we Skype him in? Could he fly to another city a couple of hours away and someone could go pick him up? Could we switch our morning and afternoon keynotes? Linda Sue Park’s flight had been delayed, but she was still scheduled to arrive that evening. This seemed like our best option.

One of our committee members called Linda Sue at dinner that night, and she graciously accepted this change of schedule. Granting now that all flights arrived on time from here on out, we would be in good shape.

 

Saturday, February 24

As people arrived the next morning, we simply told them that the morning and afternoon keynotes had been switched, and no one even seemed to mind. Everyone was still going to get what they were promised, just in a different order. The committee kept joking that this whole process felt like a wedding – we would deal with mayhem behind the scenes, and our guests would be none the wiser.

And after all of that chaos, with all of our flexibility, the day went off without any other issues. Linda Sue gave a beautiful keynote in the morning, which inspired educators as they went off for a day of learning. George made it in time for his keynote and spent some time autographing through his scheduled lunch. Everyone was thrilled that they were able to experience so much, and learn from our authors and other presenters there. As a committee, we felt so grateful that our featured authors were incredibly flexible and enthusiastic throughout the day.

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Since the Dublin Literacy Conference a month ago, all I have heard was positive feedback. Everybody loved the day – the keynotes, the featured authors, the teacher presentations – everything learned was valuable and participants felt like they could use the skills and knowledge they learned in their classrooms the next day.

As for me, I learned a lot about staying calm under pressure and relying on a team to help out in any given situation. Though I was the Chairperson for the day, I could not have done anything without my amazing conference committee. They took care of details I didn’t even notice, and they helped keep me grounded when things seemed to be spiraling out of control. I am so proud of the work we did for that day because it seems have had such a positive impact on everyone who was there.

I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

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

Leading

Maintaining a Laser Focus

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

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

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

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