Before I get into why I’m carrying around this self-deprecating coffee mug, let me start with the story of how I earned the nickname “Sparkles.”
One late afternoon 8 years ago, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror as I prepared to go into school that same evening to greet and meet families at parent night. I had actually just returned home from school and needed to freshen up from hosting freshman orientation and from putting the finishing touches on my classroom. I thought I was ready for the first day of my first year of teaching and was feeling pretty confident, but life has a funny way of telling the truth.
That’s when I noticed it. The glitter. It was everywhere. In my hair, on my forehead, dusting my nose… Everywhere the light touched, I sparkled. Somehow, when I reached for my hairspray, I had accidentally grabbed competitive-dance-grade glitter. You know what I’m talking about. The type of glitter that’s made to be seen by great grandparents sitting 200 feet from the stage of their darling’s dance recital.
Like me, you’re probably wondering why I had such glitter in my cabinet. And that’s the thing… I have absolutely no clue.
Thanks again, universe.
So there I was, looking at my glittery self in the mirror with not enough time to take a shower or do anything about it. I was fresh out of college and looked the part, and the glitter took at least another ten years off my age. I could have panicked. I could have cried. After all, I had taken the time to shop for the perfect professional outfit for this night. I had spent countless hours decorating my classroom. I had printed my syllabus on Shamrock green paper, and strung up a beautiful banner with my name. I had flawless plans for the first day of school; I had even thought to account for transition time.
Now that I looked like a 14-year-old, wanna-be pageant princess, how was I supposed to trick these parents into believing I was qualified to teach their kids? And that’s when it dawned on me… I had intended to trick them all along. Let’s be honest. All of that planning and perfecting worked to trick myself, too, because glitter or no glitter, I really had no clue what I was doing. I was embarking upon unchartered territory — my first year of teaching — and much of my course was out of my control. It sounds crazy, but I swear that this one silly, glittery event changed the trajectory of my year and career. It was a moment of clarity, an epiphany of sorts. I realized in this moment that no matter how hard I tried, not everything would go as planned, and I had better make peace with that fact.
You’re probably wondering how the rest of the story goes. I’ll get to the point.
I went to parent night looking like a disco ball, and I told the truth. I explained that I was nervous for this first year of teaching, that I desperately wanted to impress them, and that while I was rehearsing what I would say to them that night, I had inadvertently sprayed glitter all over myself. I told them that I was mortified because I wanted to assure them that, while I may look young enough to be their kid, I was actually old enough to teach. I emphasized that I cared deeply about their children and considered the teaching profession to be the most important job in the entire world. And here’s the thing… By being myself and by being honest, I earned their trust and they believed in my qualifications. No tricking required.
So that’s the story of how I earned the nickname “Sparkles.” The irony (we English teachers love irony)… a word that’s typically associated with being shiny, and pretty, and perfect reminds me of my flaws and all that I learned during my rookie year.
And why the mug? Because I’ve started a new job this year and feel like a rookie all over again. Because it reminds me of the story I just shared. Because it reminds me of these essential lessons:
It’s okay to not be the expert in the room.
Relationships matter most, and honesty and vulnerability go a long way in building trust.
Lead by learning.
When in doubt, crack a joke (preferably one where you’re the punchline).
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.
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. 😉
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.
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 Martinby 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.
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.
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.
As others on this blog have posted, the Dublin Literacy Conference is always a day in which I feel renewed and reinvigorated in my teaching. I learn so much from the presenters, the featured authors, and my colleagues with whom I debrief throughout the day. I also have the added bonus of being part of the conference committee, so I feel a sense of pride when I hear people sharing their happy stories about the day. It takes a lot of love, effort, and teamwork to get the conference organized through months of planning, and I feel so honored to be a part of it.
This year, three things really stuck out to me as I think back to my time at the Dublin Literacy Conference on Saturday.
We always receive feedback on how much people love seeing our students’ presence within the conference. They perform our opening ceremony, introduce the authors, show off their tech skills at our Tech Tables, and guide attendees throughout the day. Students of all grade levels are visible, and it is so rewarding to see how excited they are when asked to be a part of the day. This year, our opening ceremony included Six-Word Memoirs from students of each grade level, and it could not have better exemplified our theme: “30 Years: Celebrating Our Stories.” Even our little kindergartener used her “big voice” (as encouraged by my colleague, Lauren) to share her story. There were laughs and awws, and I could tell that the audience loved hearing each of these kids speak to their truth.
I also love seeing the students introduce the authors — and the authors love it too! One of my students introduced Jason Reynolds, and through some of my own miscalculation, I told her to get there over an hour early. She was a trooper though, and sat through Jason’s first presentation with me even when she didn’t have to. When she introduced him, she talked about how he got his start as a poet and he was so appreciative that he referenced back to her words later in his talk. It’s wonderful to see students interacting with authors they admire!
I spent the majority of my day with Jason Reynolds as his author host, which was an incredible experience. Before picking him up with my hosting partner, Rita, I wasn’t sure what we would talk about it. He turned out to be one of the most gracious, laid-back, and thoughtful authors I’ve met in my time working on this conference. I could see how much he cared for his readers, for students, and for teachers who shared his books with eager (and not so eager!) readers. His message during his keynote and later session focused so much on seeing the whole child, while also helping students to know that we see and accept them for who they are.
Another benefit of being on the committee is getting to go to an “author dinner” after the conference. On Saturday, I was lucky enough to be seated next to Hena Khan as we all settled in for dinner. We had such an engaging discussion about books and students, and she was so lovely in all of her responses — I was sad when it was finally time to go!
Getting to make these connections helps me feel even more passionate about getting books into my students’ hands. I see how thoughtful these authors are, and how their books can help students in more ways than I can. But I can help them get there, if I share my love for these books as well.
The Quality Conversations!
I signed up to present at the conference this year as well, and I was so inspired by the conversations that sprung from my session. My presentation focused on how to have students reflect on their own identities, and how I’ve used Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change as my guide. I only had about 10 people in my session, but the small group ended up being the perfect environment for a rich discussion. Other teachers shared their experiences and plans they had already thought about for incorporating this work into their classrooms. It really gave me a boost to have this dialogue and to continue to rethink the students I teach in my classes.
Even with just this small snapshot of the day, I know how powerful these moments are and will stick with me as I head back into my classroom. Overall, I came away from the Dublin Literacy Conference feeling renewed and validated in so many ways. I felt like I was buzzing with excited energy for the entire day — this conference is something I care so much about. I can’t wait to do it all again next year!
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.
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?
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!
This past fall, my teaching partner, Jen, and I decided to do a round of historical fiction book clubs before we had our students dive in and write historical fiction narratives. I spent the better part of a week looking at titles and curating what I thought was an excellent list. My personal experience with historical fiction appropriate for 8th graders was fairly limited — a LOT of it was focused on WWII and Holocaust stories, a product of teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night for years. I wanted to find a wider range of options.
When a teacher assigns book choices to students, she wants to make sure she is giving them the best options — high interest, variety of subjects and ability levels, and her own excitement for the books. Students can be convinced to read something they feel a little “meh” about if their teacher gives it a good recommendation. Sometimes, this feels like a lot of pressure! I pulled books from ones I had read, but also took to GoodReads and other teachers’ recommendations before finalizing my list of 11 books they could choose from. However, I did what I probably shouldn’t have done — I put some books on the list that neither Jen nor I had read. I checked the website Common Sense Media for those books, and all seemed fine.
Until I started reading one of them.
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina is an exciting, terrifying, and heartbreaking novel. It’s an excellent version of historical fiction that really grabs the reader, and focuses on a time period that isn’t usually the subject of young adult novels: the summer of 1977 in New York City, when the Son of Sam murders were taking place.
Our 8th graders were drawn to the description of this book and quite a few book club groups chose it as their selection. As I started to have my doubts on whether this book was “appropriate” as a recommended choice, I justified that some of the more mature content was okay for 8th graders. I even told myself that most of the kids who had chosen this book were already reading more mature books in their independent reading lives.
But then I kept reading. And more red flags kept popping up. I could envision parent emails and calls questioning my school-sanctioned book club choice. Then I realized I had forgotten to check if this title was approved by our district for 8th graders. It wasn’t.
I jumped into action, emailing Jen and letting her know that we had to pull this book. I posted on our class page that groups would have to choose a new title. I came up with a plan to offer a couple of other books instead, and give them two more days to get their books. The next day in class, I talked to my groups and explained the situation, apologized if they had already gotten the book. I told them they were welcome to read it on their own — but the school couldn’t sponsor it as a class read. Some kids were initially annoyed, but they didn’t mention it again after the day I talked to them. They had moved on, and it didn’t become an issue. Crisis averted.
If you have the chance to read Burn Baby Burn, do it. It’s a fantastic story. I’m hoping some of my students will still read it (and maybe be even more intrigued now!). But I’m definitely going to read any new books before I offer them as class reads for kids.
Last year, our English I team made the revelatory decision to get rid of our traditional multiple-choice exam, and I will never look back.
With the help of my teammates (English I teachers at Dublin Coffman High School), Dr. Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Mrs. Shayne Bauer, I crafted this post.
The decision to change our exam was a long time coming. For years, many of us questioned and debated the validity of our district-wide multiple-choice exam, so when our district, which includes three high schools, no longer required a completely common exam and gave each high school the option to assess as they deemed appropriate or best for students, our team at Coffman High School jumped at the opportunity to do something different.
We made this decision for many reasons. Very few English I teachers in the district could agree upon common reading passages that were appropriate for all (~1,200) of our students. Similarly, we found “difficulty in writing robust but reasonable multiple choice questions” (Dr. Kucinski). This was especially apparent when analyzing the data collected from these multiple choice exams. We continually debated the validity of the multiple questions and, therefore, our exam as a whole. Moreover, students’ grades in class after eighteen weeks of learning rarely matched their exam scores. For all of these reasons and more, our team didn’t feel that the current multiple-choice exam reflected the true abilities of our students.
While re-writing our exam, we shared many hopes:
We hoped that the new exam would provide the opportunity for all students to be successful.
We hoped that the new exam would more accurately reflect and celebrate the strengths of our students. Likewise, we hoped that it would help highlight areas in which students had room to improve.
We hoped that students would feel more in control of their exam score.
We hoped that the data gathered from the new exam would be more meaningful and easier to formulate future lessons and units from.
“We know that for many students, standardized tests are just a point of ‘doing school.’ As such, they merely want to survive them. We sought to change that.” – Dr. Kucinski
We hoped to “discourage cramming and mere memorization” – Mrs. Bauer
Our team worked together to create what I would describe as an extended-response(written), evidence-based, reflection-heavy exam. We included in it all of the 9th grade English standards assessed throughout the first semester of the school year in addition to other questions about academic behaviors. To be frank, I do not think that our current exam is without faults. We’ve administered it three years in a row now, and we have tweaked a few questions each time based on the last year’s results. I’m sure we’ll make edits and improvements between now and giving it again next year, too. With anything new, there is uncertainty.
For students, our new exam provides these exciting and unique opportunities:
To reflect and practice metacognition
To revisit old work
To set future learning goals
To be honest about learning patterns and learning preferences as well as good and bad habits
To identify areas of growth and mastery as well as areas that need more practice
To review why we do what we do in English class
“Increased awareness of standards” – Mrs. Shayne Bauer
“Ownership” – Dr. Steve Kucinski
Students, for the most part, appreciate the non-traditional approach and especially appreciate the week’s worth of time given to complete the exam. Though, there are a few students who ask, “Can’t we just take a test?” Students also appreciate the efficacy of knowing I can do well on this. Likewise, there is no guesswork (I don’t know what they’re going to ask me) on the exam or any double jeopardy (Well, I didn’t do well all quarter, so I’m surely not going to do well on this exam either). (Dr. Kucinski)
One of my students even took the time to email me this feedback in her free time: “I thought this year’s midterm was well made and smartly scheduled. It was not as stressful as other exams. I liked that it made you reflect on what happened in the first half of the year. I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading and writing… I would like more exams like this.”
At this point, you probably just want to see the exam. Here it is:
What students identify as their weaknesses (versus what we teachers identify)
What students are most proud of
Students fessing up to being lazy
Students not knowing where to find feedback and rubric scores on Schoology (LMS)
Students not understanding weighted grades and the distinction between the different grading categories we use
Students struggling to articulate what and how they’ve learned and where their deficits are (Dr. Kucinski)
Students not being okay with saying ‘I didn’t learn everything’ or ‘I don’t know how I know this’ (Dr. Kucinski)
Obviously, we know this exam is non-traditional. We’re curious to know what other educators think about it. Maybe you think this is a downright awful idea. This exam works for us, but could this ever be an assessment in your classroom?
On January 1st, when I started to see others’ words of intent, I acted like I hadn’t yet decided on mine. I scoured the internet for ideas and made a list 24 words long – words like “brave,” “ritual,” “simplify,” “less,” “love,” “vulnerable,” “confidence,” and “imagine.” I pretended like they were all under serious consideration.
I could sit here and explain how tough it was to decide on this year’s #onelittleword, but I would be lying to you because I’ve been lying to myself. I scrolled through instagram viewing other people’s words of intent, convinced that I should find something different. I don’t mean unique. I was looking for a word other than the one that has been slowly but surely, year after year, growing in my soul but consistently silenced by my mind.
I am a mother, a wife, a teacher, and a reader, and I want to be a writer. Only a few people know this last bit about me. Heck, it’s taken me awhile to know this about myself.
This presents many problems: I don’t know exactly what that looks like in my life. I don’t know what kind of writing to do or what to write about. I don’t know where or how writing will fit into my already busy life, and I definitely don’t know what it’ll take for me to confidently add “writer” to my identity.
What I do know is this – writers write.
Therefore, I have to start somewhere. This is it. This is the year. I am going to stop talking myself out of writing.
I don’t have time.
I have more important things on my plate.
And the worst of all:
I don’t have anything to say.
So, this is my word. It’s scary, and I have doubts, and I’m going to face setbacks, and some people just won’t get it, but I’m going to push on. Sometimes my writing will be made public, and sometimes it’ll remain personal. I want to explore, to feel, to reflect, to connect. It’s going to be a huge challenge to build a habit of writing, but I’m serious about finding its purpose in my life and nurturing this little passion of mine. This year, I write.
Emily’s word: Single-task
At the top of the list of strengths on my old resume, you’ll find it. I bragged about it for years. Wore it as a badge of honor. And, felt the sting of guilt when I didn’t engage with it enough. What is it, you ask? It’s my ability to multitask. “Oh, you won’t BELIEVE how many things I can do at the same time, while also entertaining 25 little humans! I am the QUEEN of multitasking.” (insert crown emoji)
I’m here to tell you that in 2019, I am breaking up with multitasking. We had an interesting run. Like most relationships, there were butterflies in the beginning. Multitasking was charming. It made promises of a future I could have only dreamed of: wild productivity! I was able to keep up with the Jones’s and put PInteresters to shame. But, after a couple decades, I just wasn’t happy anymore. Multitasking and I were growing apart. We wanted different things.
I am thrilled to introduce my new flame, single-task living. As easy as it sounds (after all, balancing on one leg is significantly easier than balancing on one leg while hula hooping and reciting the alphabet backwards, right?!), focusing solely on one task is nearly impossible for me. I’ve been refining the skill of doing more than one thing for the majority of my adult life. Whether it be household chores, doing work for school, eating, or managing my social life – I was addicted to finding ways to be more “productive” in a shorter amount of time. The multitasker’s high is no joke!
What I have learned though, through our tumultuous relationship, is that multitasking is not only impossible, but damaging to my productivity and my attention. In the past, I’ve dedicated my yearly intentions to being more present. The struggle was real. I could not for the life of me master being present in the moment. Ever the problem solver, I decided to dig closer to the root of the issue – turns out my propensity to do as many things as possible at one time was keeping me from grounding myself in the present moment. Major facepalm!
I will not lie to you. I do not have a purposeful plan of how I am going to approach this one little word in 2019. I’ve picked up a few strategies and skills from the books and podcasts that have inspired me to let multitasking go – none of which have worked yet. However, like many of my co-collaborators, I feel empowered just saying this word! It feels, oddly, like starting a new relationship – with that awkward, yet hopeful, beginning. I know that I will undoubtedly slip and go back to multitasking here and there; my breakups have never been clean. But, the proof is in the pudding and all my research supports that it’s time to move on. In 2019, I will seek to be a happy and productive single-tasker!
Lindsey’s word(s): Be present
I’ve always been a rule follower, but if the rules don’t match what I need them to, I like to bend them a bit to make them fit. Hence my One Little Word(s) for 2019: be present. I was going to go with the word “aware,” but it just didn’t fit for me. Being aware is different from being present. Being aware doesn’t mean I’m engaged in what’s happening. The word “present” seems more active to me, if you will.
My goal for 2019 is to be present in my classroom, in my relationships with people, and with my family. At school, my brain feels like it has 50 billion browsers open at all times, so it’s hard to focus and be present for my learners at all times. I plan to be better at shutting the browsers and focusing on the here and now. I want to be able to fully focus on the small group I’m working with, rather than barely listening because I am thinking about the next small group I need to meet with.
My relationships with my friends and my colleagues are extremely important to me, and fostering those relationships feeds my soul. I want to be present and listen more, and not be quick to have a response. I want to be able to ask more questions. I want my favorite people to know I care about them and that my mind is on them when we are together.
Lastly, I want to be present for my family. Often times I find myself getting home from school and having a lot to do around the house–vacuuming, folding laundry, prepping dinner, or even thinking about things I need to do the next day at school. When that happens, my husband and I will divide and conquer, handing our son the iPad and working to get it all done. This is definitely not being present. My focus needs to be on my husband and son, not everything else. While I absolutely can’t just stop doing laundry, I can absolutely better balance my time and find a different time to do the laundry so I can be spending week nights with David and Holden.
There will be times of failure, but I’m hoping to at least focus more on the people and things that mean the most to me. So, here’s to being present in 2019!
Corinne’s word: Balance
New Year’s resolutions are an enigma for me. I understand their purpose and since I am a goal setter, I never have had any difficulty coming up with a meaningful list of resolutions. The mysterious part of the process is committing to my new habits over the long haul. In fact, I can’t remember a year when I have had the resolve to stick to my goals through January.
2019 is going to be different. Not because I will be more motivated or I am stronger, but because I have changed by perspective. Don’t get me wrong. Personal and professional goal setting is in my DNA, but what I’ve found I really need is balance. Giving myself the grace to make mistakes, take a night off from work as a principal, or eat a piece of pie may refresh me enough to follow through on what really matters, a healthy mind and body…Balance.
Over the coming days and weeks, I will strive to be my best, but I will also not be so hard on myself when I don’t meet my goals. I may not be as fit or well-read as I had hoped, but I will be happier. And- that is all I really need…Balance.
Melissa’s word: Perspective
It’s funny how the simple declaration of one little word can be so powerful. Over the past three years, I have had surprising success making positive changes in my life by declaring one little word as my focus for the year. While many struggle to keep a New Year’s resolution longer than a couple of months, I find the commitment to one little word to be a good fit for me.
This year, however, I found myself more aware of the weight this word would carry throughout the year; I knew from experience, I would undoubtedly be challenged by this one word as its layers of meaning were gradually peeled back, affecting more of my life than I originally thought. So, this year it took me several days to make up my mind.
Like many, I wear a variety of hats in the course of a day: wife, mother, daughter, friend, teacher, colleague. I fashion each of these hats I wear a little differently, and I try my best to wear them all with style. But some days I fall short. Some days, I have so much to do and rush from one thing to the next, that I find myself literally out of breath. Most nights, I’m snoring on the couch by 8pm. It’s exhausting.
It’s ridiculous to live life this way, so I am promising myself to put things in better perspectivethis year.
Somehow I have allowed all the little, unimportant things multiply and take over my time. If I am honest, I think I have justified this takeover by believing that all these things I do are for the people I care about. The reality is, my family would much rather have me spend more uninterrupted time with them instead of doing things for them.
Professionally, I have fallen into the trap of concentrating on the one thing that went wrong instead of the many things that went right on any given day. I have justified this by calling it “reflection” when the reality is, it is flawed thinking. Why am I robbing myself of joy of teaching? In 2019, I will celebrate the small things and keep the challenges in perspective. I will quiet my brain at the end of the day, enjoy the stillness of my empty classroom, and appreciate the growth that has taken place.
Changing my perspective isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to be a mind shift, and I’m going to have to accept some checkboxes are going to be left unchecked. Still, I think a change in perspective is a positive adjustment I can make in 2019.
Kris’ word: Plot twist
Okay, so I cheated. If we really want to get technical, this is two words. However, hear me out. Life is so full of twists and turns, and sometimes those twists and turns are so twisty and so turn-y that it can be overwhelming. So as not to get caught up in being overwhelmed or within the chaos that can, really, let’s be honest, make us crazy, I choose to call out in my head “plot twist.”
Yes, life is full of chaos. Early morning wake-ups, early morning meetings, early morning jousting with the copier that always seems to break when it’s my turn. Plot Twist. Time to go use the projector, a computer screen and half sheets of paper.
Afternoon lunches that are 10 minutes long because it takes me ten minutes to get down to the teacher’s lounge, three minutes to heat my leftovers, 10 minutes of catching up with friends, eating and then sprinting back to your classroom only to find that your projector is flashing on and off on and off for no apparent reason. Plot twist. Time to use half sheets of paper and a white board.
After school meetings for clubs, getting home to get my children to their respective activities, and my dinner that I had planned and sounded so delicious and made me salivate all the way home was actually a Pinterest classic that took eight hours in the crock pot and not 10 minutes in the InstaPot like I thought. Plot twist. Time for Cane’s Chicken.
In the middle of the chaos, the horrible no good bad day, actually stopping and saying “plot twist” can redirect my day. No kidding, it really can. Because it is my belief that after plot twists, an awesome and memorable day can occur. Because as we know from the books and movies plot twists can be the. best. part. They can produce the greatest teachable moments. They can produce the most creative outcomes. They can produce memorable pieces of life that you may not have otherwise had. They can be the good stuff that takes you from good to great.
It is easy to get caught up in the chaos. To get caught up in the “seriously?”. To get caught up in that day or week or month or year or years (for that matter) that just seem to keep coming at me. It’s easy to feel scooped up into that tornado of a million things life throws at me. But I won’t, no, I refuse to let it get me down. I’m going to plot twist the heck out of this year.
Friends, I hope you will join me in the joy of the plot twist, the magic that turns that Terrible Tuesday into something you didn’t see coming when you first hit that alarm.
Rachel’s word: Focus
I struggled to come up with a word because I wanted to sound sophisticated and reflective, but I ended up setting on something a little more basic. My one word for 2019 is focus. I chose this word because I tend to have a hard time focusing on the task at hand, and I often have a million other things that I’m thinking about as I’m doing something. I believe that if I can just give myself the grace to focus on whatever I’m doing, I can get much more accomplished, and do so with better results.
I need to let things go if they are not important, and use my time to focus on meaningful activities and interactions. This doesn’t mean that everything I’m doing may count as “productive,” but should feel right for me. Maybe my focus is relaxation when I’m at home on the weekend and want to watch Netflix. But when I do that, I want to focus on what I’m doing — watching a show — and not checking Facebook or my email.
“Focus” for me also means putting down my phone more. I am too quick to jump on social media, and I have moved those icons to a separate screen on my phone to make it less of a habit. Because I often feel scatterbrained, it also takes me a long time to get started on a given task, so I believe trying to focus on one thing at a time will help me work on that as well.