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.
This is the fifth year that I’ve chosen a word to be my focus for the year. I struggled and went back and forth between several words this year (even as I write this I feel myself wavering). But, “connect” is a word that exemplifies several of my goals for 2019.
In my professional life, connecting is one of my main priorities as I work with teachers across the school district – some of whom I’ve not known well. My hope is that by building connections that trust and rapport follow so that we can have conversations about student learning. I am enjoying this new role that allows me to get to know colleagues who value reading and writing and who love working with middle school students.
I feel as if I’ve lost some of my connection to my fitness self. I’d like to get back to my yoga practice and to meditation. In 2018, I let other things get in my way and keep me from being fit and flexible. I miss the calm, powerful feeling of walking out of a studio or off my yoga mat.
Finally, with a daughter in college and one who is starting to think about that step, I want to continue to connect with them so that our relationships stay strong. I can always work on keeping strong connections to friends and family – both far and near as well.
Lori’s word: intentional
This past year was sprinkled with personal chaos and professional priorities that at times pulled me away from what is important in life. For 2019, I am committing to be more intentional with my time, energy and love as I refocus on the work and life balance ahead.
In my office, this will mean using each moment of my day to be intentional about serving the people that matter most in my work, our students. I want to be increasingly intentional about choices and decisions so that we can continually be better at educating and supporting students. I will also be intentional with my time, making sure that I am keeping focused on forward motion and change that will be positive for my work and the work of my close colleagues. Through this work, I will intentionally be joyful.
In my home, I will be intentional to be present, focused, and flexible at home with my children. I will model a more healthy approach (I may have eaten away my stress in 2018.) to dealing with our lovely, chaotic, and busy life. I will be intentional in fostering the relationships with my husband, my children and my parents. I will live with intentional focus on family.
In my free time, I will be intentional in spending quality time with my closest, dearest friends. 2018 reminded me of how important friendships are and that they need a little nourishment from time to time. I will serve my friends in the way that they serve and support me.
Here’s to a more intentional 2019!
Rita’s word: forward
Determining a word for this year was a bit of a challenge. A few words bounced around in my head, but none felt completely right. Eventually, I noticed that the words were connected; each would lead me forward.
This year I want to make choices that move me forward to my most fit self. I have drifted from the commitment to my health. As I look forward I know that I can find my way back to healthy eating, mindfulness and consistent yoga practice. I am excited to rediscover the confidence, calm, peace and strength that I believe truly define fitness.
This year I want to make choices that move me forward to my happiest self. I am committing to prioritize things that bring joy. I often allow myself to get bogged down in the “business” of life and overlook the joy. I will be fully present and enjoy time with family and friends. I will reflect, pray and slow down to ensure that everything forward is filled with happiness.
This year I want to make choices that move me forward to my bravest self. I will take advantage of all opportunities for learning and growth. I will embrace situations that push me outside of my comfort zone. I will listen to learn and not avoid difficult conversations. I will allow my true north to guide me forward and lean into the courage this provides me.
I first heard the term “emotional labor” when I read an NPR article about how women in heterosexual couples end up completing not only the majority of chores in a household, but they are the ones who often notice and delegate what needs to be done (Harper’s Bazaar also has a great explanation of this). I was reminded of this article last month when talking to my mom, and realized that this idea of emotional labor is what tends to tax teachers so heavily.
As I neared the end of the school year, I kept thinking about this idea. How even though I was not doing an exorbitant amount of work — I was in the last unit of the year, so I didn’t have much planning, and grading was light since students were mostly working in book clubs — but I felt so incredibly tired all the time. What was going on?
Thinking back to the idea of emotional labor, I realized that had to be it. The buildup of nine months of constantly thinking, worrying, and caring about the 125+ kids in my care was taking its toll, along with a few other end of the year worries. I was still trying hard to reach those students who had been pushing me away or meeting me with indifference all year. I was trying to make sure all students were really making some modern day connections to the Civil Rights Movement through their book clubs choices. I was stressing about not being there on the last day of school (and not getting to say a final goodbye) because I would be judging a writing tournament out of town. I was anxious about getting my room packed up since I would be moving to a new one in the fall. I wanted all of my students to know that regardless of how the year went, I truly wished them well in high school and hoped that they could take some of what they learned from my class with them. That I wanted them to succeed. That they still have people who cared about them.
All of these emotions would repeat on a constant cycle over the last few weeks of school. I tried to maximize my time before school and during my planning period. What could I pack up? What could I get rid of? Which students did I need to check in with during study center? Whose parents did I need to contact because they hadn’t turned anything in lately and currently had below a 73%? Had I tried my best this year? I definitely didn’t do my best teaching this year. This thought cycle was exhausting. It reminded me of that line in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Hermione describes Cho’s mixed emotions about Harry, and Ron says, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.”
By the time I got home every day, I would feel too tired to make dinner or work out, even though I would usually push through and get it done. I thought part of my lack of energy was because I ran a really hard, really hilly half marathon at the beginning of May that just wiped me out. Even though that was probably part of it, I knew the main culprit was really the emotional labor of closing out the school year. Even as I write this more than a week after school let out, I am exhausted still thinking about it.
When most people think of teachers, they think of how great it is that we get summers off. (Side note: we all know that most teachers spend time in the summer taking classes or participating in professional development; some even working another job.) After reflecting on this connection between emotional labor and teaching, I feel like I am finally starting to articulate why this summer break is so crucial to teachers, and why we keep coming back for it year after year.
Summer gives us a chance to rest our minds. We still think about those kids who sat in our classroom over the last year, but since we don’t see them each day, we have a chance to worry a little less about them. To entrust that the other adults in their lives are taking care of them, and as they get older, they are taking care of themselves.
Once we have a chance to rest our minds and (hopefully) let go of the worries from the past school year, we have a chance to read and plan for the next year like we never have time for during the actual school year. I try so hard each school year to read professional books while I am actively teaching my class — and I usually fail. Unless I will be using that book immediately in my teaching, it is really hard for me to compartmentalize new ideas in the “save for later” section of my brain while I have all of the normal parts of teaching running at full speed. Summer is the time when I can finally dive into professional learning and make the most of it.
I am not saying that other jobs are not challenging and those professionals may need extended breaks as well. From my experience as a teacher though, there is so much of that emotional labor that we are constantly holding in our minds that it is often hard for us to shut it off. I find myself thinking about students as I’m out for a run, or how I can tweak that new lesson as I’m falling asleep at night. I know I often feel like I am not doing enough for the kids that I teach. There is this notion that I can always do better, but in the chase for perfection, I know it is impossible to teach every kid in the way that I want. To give them the true attention they deserve. When there are more than a hundred of them on my mind each day, it feels like the work is never-ending.
And that takes a toll on teachers. This constant thought process that what we do could always be better is great for reflective growth, but if you’re like me, then you just look at all the things that went wrong. I am working on changing that mindset, but it is a process. All of these pressures coming from so many different angles really can be exhausting — and a big reason why it seems that emotional labor affects teachers more than most other professions.
As I begin this new school year with only a month under my belt, I am already feeling the force of this emotional labor. I have nearly 20 more students in my care this year, many with differing needs, and I am still figuring out how to make time for each of them. I am currently working on finding ways to make this easier — asking for help, surrounding myself with positive, supportive colleagues, and taking breaks for my own self-care. It’s no wonder why so many teachers burn out early in their careers; it’s a lot to handle. But when I am my best self, I know I can do it by relying on those around me, and continuing to take time for myself.
Over the last few years, we have made some gradual changes away from whole-class required reads for many reasons, but The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has always remained a staple of our English I curriculum.
“Believing in teaching whole-class texts–long or short–suggests the belief that struggle is productive for young readers, that kids that kids need to read great books, that focusing on a common text builds strong and literate reading communities, and that students benefit from controlled questions and activities led by a proficient reader (the teacher).”
“Choosing to focus on independent reading shows the beliefs that reading ability matters, that kids are going to benefit most from having experiences with great books that they can read on their own with strength, and that knowing the skills it takes to read any book will help them to build greater independence. This also suggests a belief that choice in reading is essential in building a strong reading life and that often our very identities are in part shaped by the books we have read.”
Both excerpts are from Kate Roberts’ A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice
I personally tend to value independent reading over whole-class novels, but Roberts’ book provided great reminders of the importance of mentor texts, shared experiences, and modeling. Plus, it merges the best of both worlds, so it gave me fresh ideas and new energy going into 4th quarter, the only quarter that I still teach a whole-class novel. For the last few years, I’ve tended to focus on all the negatives of whole-class novels and all the positives of independent reading, but Roberts’ merging of the two provides a unique balance that allows time for both types of instruction and celebrates both types of learning.
Deb Maynard and I both took a course led by Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Kristy Venne (@KristyVenne) surrounding the book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. I took photos of the pages that resonated with me the most.
With this in mind, PLUS the ideas presented in A Novel Approach, we ultimately decided NOT to get rid of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet altogether, but instead, keep Romeo and Juliet as a mentor text, teach the reading skills required to tackle such a challenging read, and help students apply those skills to their independent reading books.
In addition to allowing students to purposely pair choice novels to The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, we gave students choice in writing prompts, and students proposed summative celebrations of learning rather than us assigning and requiring the standard compare/contrast essay that we always have.
You can read more about how we introduced the new unit and unique expectations to students and families here.
Throughout the unit, Deb and I read contemporary YA novels, too, and modeled all of the thinking and writing that we asked students to do.
We modeled thinking that we actually do when reading any book for any purpose since most of our students were reading different books than us and each other.
Taking the journey with students helped us to better know what skills were truly necessary, what work was especially hard, and what challenges most students would face.
1. What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?
2. What changes should be made to inspire students to build independence and take ownership over their reading lives?
3. How can we make this shift:
WHO – Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I co-teach English I all day (five 48-minute periods). We worked together to make all of these changes to our teaching routines and strategies and to make changes to our unit expectations and assessments in order to empower students to take ownership over their reading lives. Hear more about WHAT and WHY here:
WHERE – Dublin Coffman High School, 9th grade, English I, inclusion
WHEN – 4th Quarter, 2018; The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet Unit
HOW – surveys, flipgrid reflections, online discussions, observations
LIMITATIONS – It is difficult to quantify and calculate things such as empowerment, engagement, interest, and rigor, so we’ve had to rely on our observations, and have done our best to encourage students to be 100% honest in their survey responses and flipgrid reflections.
Because our unit in its entirety and our Action Research Project involve so many parts, I am going to break all of that info into multiple blog posts. Plus, we haven’t even finished reading Romeo and Juliet, and students are just now starting to work on their summative celebrations of learning, so stay tuned! More will be coming in a week or two, and I can’t wait to share!
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.
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.
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:
Aims to get readers to believe you opinion
Supported with persuasive techniques
Supported with facts and statistics
Involves two sides
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.
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 thatTHIS ISNOT 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.
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.
By the time second semester hits, I’m usually feeling two conflicting things simultaneously: a new spark of hope for the future and a stinging realization that I have gotten stuck in certain habits.
Last week when we returned to school after winter break, I was ready. Kids were going to find books they love for our independent reading days! My new strange and mysterious short story unit would engage and excite students!
Then I realized I still had more than 100 narratives to grade. Then we had a snow day. And then I came down with the stomach flu and missed two more days. Then we had an early dismissal due to an incoming winter storm. Things started to feel out. Of. Control.
Needless to say, my new semester wasn’t starting off with the bang I was hoping for.
After the chaos of the first two weeks back to school, I need to get myself and my teaching in order. So this weekend, I am dedicating myself to getting unstuck. There are four things I am going to focus on to help me in this process.
#1: Catch Up
With all of the craziness of this past week, I realized that I still had about 20 narratives left to grade, along with new assignments that students turned in this week. My first order of business will be to get these graded. I know that I cannot always be on top of my grading pile, but it’s manageable enough right now that I can tackle it over this holiday weekend and get it finished. This will help me to feel a sense of calm when I walk into school on Tuesday morning, ready to focus on the week ahead, instead of looking behind to what I didn’t do.
#2: Refresh New Procedures
Much of this will have to happen once I get back into the classroom next week, but I am going to start this weekend by creating a new seating chart. I want to try randomized seating so students have a chance to sit by other kids they may not know so well, while also helping with classroom management. I tend to be a little lax in seating and let kids sit where they want, but it’s turned into a bit of chaos in certain classes and lending to this feeling that I am “stuck” constantly redirecting. When students come back this week, I’ll refresh procedures such as how to put the laptops away correctly. How to pick up after yourself. I feel like I shouldn’t have to do this with 8th graders, but if I don’t show that it’s an important expectation (like I haven’t been doing), then the students won’t see it that way either.
#3: Setting the Intention to Be Reflective
I am really good at being reflective for short periods of time. Last year I dedicated a whole journal to reflecting every day…and then wrote in it five times. This year, I am going to try again. Maybe not with a specific journal, but perhaps in spurts. As I was reading NCTE’s Voices from the Middle December 2017 issue, I came across the article “How to Think, Talk, and Write Your Way into Better Teaching*” by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. The first thing they list in this article is to “choose a notebook” as a catchall for all teaching-related notes and reflection. When I have done something like this in the past, I have been successful. Somehow, it’s gotten away from me this year and I want to go back. This may not only be about reflection, but it will play a part in my intention to be reflective. Also, writing this blog post, and continuing to write is another way I vow to be reflective this year.
#4: Planning Goals (or at least thinking about it)
I want to try new things. I want to be inspired. I want to make time to learn from others, either in person or from educators who write about their experiences. In the first half of the year, I dove into professional development a little too deep, and started to drown. In December, I took a step back, let myself breathe, and trusted myself to do my best. Now that I have taken that step back, I’m ready to dip my toe in again. I returned to browsing Twitter last week to see what people are thinking – about education and otherwise. It’s not such a bad place after all. I picked up a quick professional book to start reading this weekend – Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst – because I know their thinking will help spark ideas in me. I also know that anything I read in this book is something I will be able to start working into my classroom immediately. This is a starting point for me to think about planning new units, or trying something new within an existing unit.
My main goal after all of this is just to feel a little better about who I am as a teacher. What is my purpose, and how I am I being intentional about my teaching practices? I may not always have everything under control, but when I have the time, I want to pause and be productive moving forward. Hopefully after this weekend I will feel a little less stuck and ready to move again.