Teaching

Independent Reading and a Mala Bracelet

For the past four months, I’ve worn the same bracelet every day to school. It is fairly chunky so it is jewelry that is hard to miss. After a few days of wearing the bracelet, my students noticed the repetition and asked about why I was wearing a new, wooden bracelet. Eighth graders are naturally curious and since they had taken an interest in my “fashion accessory”, I decided to explain to my classes what my new bracelet meant and why I was choosing to wear it every day.

In February, I started a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training at my yoga studio. On our first day together, every trainee received a goodie bag and one of the items in the tote were Mala beads. (Mala beads contain 108 beads and are used for prayer and meditation and as a reminder of a person’s intentions.) I’d worn Mala beads before but always as a necklace. When I left Yoga Teacher Training that weekend, I made the conscious decision to wear my Mala every day until my teacher training was over and I was a certified yoga teacher.

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On my first day back to school after my intense training weekend, the red of my Mala beads clashed with my outfit. As a confident person, I suppose that shouldn’t have mattered, but for those who know me – it did. I realized that I couldn’t go back on my intention, so I wrapped the Mala around my left wrist.  As I went through the day, I loved the feel and sound of the beads. My students got used to the rustling and clanging of my bracelets as I presented mini-lessons or sat with them for reading conferences. After a few weeks, the Mala became part of my identity and routine just like the routines of my classroom, like starting each day with choice independent reading.

One day in early April, I forgot to put my Mala on when I dressed for work. I noticed it as soon as I got to school, and I almost called my husband to request that he bring them to me. I felt a little exposed and out of sorts as the day started. Guess what? My students in every class noticed right away that I didn’t have my bracelet. I heard “Mrs. Honeycutt, where’s your Mala?” and “Hey, did you forget your bracelet today?” and “What is going on with you today, Mrs. Honeycutt?”

My forgetfulness disrupted our day. The slip in one small routine caused a stir among each class. I’m not sure why I was surprised. My classroom environment is built solidly on routine. The most important one to my students is that we start every day with ten minutes of choice reading. Everyone (teachers, administrators, parents, and even students) know the importance of reading. It is well-researched that the more students read, the more their vocabulary grows and the more they are able to understand and process text. Independent reading has been a sacred routine in my language arts classroom for more than 20 years.

On days that our schedule doesn’t allow for independent reading, which is very RARE and only on special odd days, the students walk into class, look at the SmartBoard, and protest. “We don’t have independent reading today?” or “You’ve got to be kidding me! I want to read today!” It isn’t even a question that independent reading time is precious in my classroom.

In a 50 minute class period, some may say that ten minutes is a lot to give up each day for reading. I never feel like I am missing anything by spending those ten minutes suggesting books to students or having individual or small group conferences.

Obviously, my students don’t either because they are upset and flustered when the reading time is missed. Unfortunately, sometimes the ten minutes in class are the only reading minutes a student has in a day. Even my most reluctant readers would tell you if they have a good book, they like to read.

I’ve learned that like forgetting my Mala bracelet – independent reading time and that routine – are important and precious things. My job as a teacher is to protect the independent reading time each day for my students. It is important to them like my wearing a Mala bracelet is important to me.

Teaching

The Introverted Teacher

A couple of years ago, I was at a Thanksgiving gathering with my family at my aunt and uncle’s condo in Cincinnati. My family was doing our normal deal – talking, eating desserts, watching football, and looking through Black Friday ads in the newspaper (my favorite part). At one point, I got up to get a cup of coffee and stopped to chat with my Uncle Jerry. He’s a quiet, always smiling man, who loves to golf and loves his grandkids. He is soft-spoken, but loves any opportunity to crack a joke or laugh.

“How’s school going?” he asked, and I knew he genuinely meant it. He wanted to really know, not just the general “It’s fine” that I say to a lot of people.

“Well,” I said. “It’s mostly going well, but it is exhausting getting up in front of 125 kids everyday and talking to them about the same thing five times a day. My group is a little wild this year, too.”

He nodded thoughtfully, then said, “I could never do that. It’s like you’re giving a performance every class. That’s hard.” And then he smiled and laughed, but it really dawned on me in that conversation: Teaching is a performance.

And for someone who strongly identifies as an introvert, that does make it hard. Performing is not something that introverts typically choose to do. We tend to be more reserved, more deliberate with our words than someone who identifies as outgoing or as an extrovert. We tend to hang out in the wings, quietly supporting the people in the spotlight.

I think about this idea of performance – usually around 8:10 a.m. when my students are about to walk in the door to my classroom and change the dynamic of this little space. Time to drop everything else and put on a face for the kids. I’m not always successful, but I feel like I often have to brace myself for their arrival. I go from the quiet and focused environment of my before-school routine in which I get to work on my to-do list and listen to NPR while I drink my coffee in peace, to hallways full of teenagers excited to see their friends. I like the early morning moments because they do help me prepare for the day ahead and give me the chance to “recharge” before the students arrive. I brace myself for the noise they bring – the laughter, the drama, and even the polite “good mornings” because I thrive in spaces of quiet.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t love and care for these same students who bring a cacophony to my mellow life each morning. You can’t teach middle school without loving these weird and wonderful kids, but sometimes their idea of an acceptable noise level far exceeds mine. I have to let myself be okay with a little “organized chaos,” a term my high school soccer coach used to use. I am not a loud person either, so sometimes wrangling in the excited shouts of 8th graders is challenging. It’s a skill that I’m still developing.

To help with that development of my teaching performance, I decided to take an online class about staying present and using mindfulness in the classroom. This class focused on how to teach mindfulness techniques to students, but also how to be a mindful teacher. As an introvert, mindfulness speaks to me because it promotes the idea of taking time to pause, breathe, and reflect before reacting to a situation. I am going to take some of these techniques to heart as a way to prepare myself for each day.

Most days, being an introvert is a challenging part of my decision to become a teacher. But I like to think that my need to recharge and have moments of quiet helps me to see some of those introverted students who may sometimes be passed over. Introverts tend to be more reflective by nature, and I think that will only help me to be a better teacher. When a student is quiet, I feel like I can connect with him or her. That’s one reason why as an introverted teacher, I love one on one conferences with students. It gives me a chance to lower the stakes for students who may not want to talk in front of the whole class, and who may be more comfortable talking with just me about their thoughts on a book or their writing. When I think about this type of introverted student, two girls from last year come to mind – a pair of ladies in my chatty 7th period class, right after lunch. They were often quiet in class, and hardly ever spoke out when we had whole-class discussions. But they listened. I knew they paid attention, and I also knew that they were thoughtful and brought up great ideas, especially in their writing. I would have such rich discussions with one or both of them when I could speak to them either on their own or in a small group. They knew that I cared about their thoughts and their work, even though I didn’t force them to talk to the whole class.

I see this type of student every day – reserved, bothered at times by the noise of their classmates – so I am more open to students opting to listen to music when it’s time to work. I have grown accustomed to the steady hum of the workshop model in my classroom, with noise from conferences, student collaboration, and the quick movement of pencils across notebooks. Quite a few students, especially introverted ones, often need a way to “check out” from these productivity noises, and they choose to use their headphones while working. I always give the caveat that when I come over to confer, they need to take them out, but most kids are thankful that I give them a chance to use music as a way to isolate themselves. I am continuously looking for ways to accommodate all of my students and create the best learning environment for each one of them.

Not every student is comfortable speaking up in front of their peers, and I can respect that. Just like we make accommodations for other student needs, I think it can really fluster those introverted students to be put on the spot in class. I was that kid once. As a Language Arts teacher, I value public speaking, but I also provide structured opportunities for students to build those skills. They will find their way to speak up for what they need, and for what is important to them.

I did, but it wasn’t always an easy journey. I am slowly finding my voice in wild world of middle school.

Goal Setting · Leading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

New Year’s Resolutions: Goal Setting to Ensure Work-Life Balance

Balance

It’s that time of year!

(and I’m not talking about the winter holidays)

If you work in the education sector like me, August is when the “new” year begins, and it’s the month that holds the most promise for change. Hopefully due to taking the time to temporarily power down and recharge over the summer, it’s probably also the month that you feel the most energy to make changes happen. And if you’re anything like me, as you’re rebooting for the upcoming school year, your mind is constantly racing with thoughts such as, “This year is going to be my best year yet! I’m going to do this differently… and this differently… and this… and this…”

I’ll admit that I’ve earned a reputation at Coffman for being a “yes-woman.” I’m the type of person that is inspired by new ideas and driven by change. I’m the type of person who will try anything if I think it will benefit my students’ learning. I have a hard time saying “no” when asked to lead or advise a student group/club. When approached by like-minded colleagues who love to “take a risk,”  my standard answer is “Let’s do it!” I once stayed up until 3AM creating a new grammar lesson for the next day simply because I was introduced to Pear Deck the day before.

Some of this I’m proud of. I want to be a teacher who isn’t afraid to make a change if it is what’s best for students. I’m actually really proud of many of the changes that we’ve made in the five years that I’ve been teaching English I and Honors English I. Looking back, though, I know that staying up until 3AM to use some new technology that I’ve stumbled upon is pretty silly.

I’m entering my 6th year of teaching, and though I’m inspired to make important changes and am as confident as ever that I’m about to have my best year yet, I’ve come to realize that I’m not the energizer bunny (at least not any more). I’ve also learned a LOT about work-life balance because a lot has changed in five years; I’m now married and have a house, a dog, and two daughters. Because “life” happens, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that I can’t be super-teacher, AND super-mom, AND super-wife, which has been difficult because I want to be it all and do it all well. Every single day, I continue to learn how to navigate these three roles with balance and grace.

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer reflecting on my first five years of teaching. Most of all, I just keep thinking about how many of us know (but may be too stubborn to admit it) that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all. So, my “New Year’s Resolution” is to be intentional with my time, and I’ve come up with 3 goals to ensure that I am.

Here they are:

GOAL #1:

I promise to provide time to my students for meaningful reflection on a weekly basis.

I’ve created this goal based on my current levels of confidence within the workshop model. This is one of those changes referenced above that I’m especially proud of  (our team has switched to and embraced the workshop model). This is important to note, as I’m sure that learning how to be especially intentional with my time each class period has simultaneously inspired me to be intentional with the time I spend throughout the day and outside of school, too. In order to limit my lessons to 15 minutes or less, I constantly reflect on these questions: what is truly important for students to learn? How can I make the most of every second of my instructional time? If students only have 25-30 minutes to practice, how should they use each minute?

Last year, I focused on keeping my mini-lessons mini to make time for meaningful practice, but I still struggle with the reflection piece. We often run right to the bell, and when I do remember to stop class with a few minutes left, the reflection that I’ve come up with often feels forced and inauthentic; therefore, if I’m being truthful, I haven’t found much value in this part the workshop model yet. I’m not giving up on it because I know that reflecting is such an invaluable step in the learning process. When expressing these challenges to a colleague this summer, she suggested that I just take baby steps and commit to making time to reflect with students once a week rather than every day. What a brilliant idea! So, my initial idea is to make 15-20 minutes on Fridays sacred to reflecting (but if the day of the week must change, I am flexible, which is why I wrote my goal above to state “on a weekly basis”). I’m looking forward to this flexibility, and I’m not overwhelmed because we will have plenty to reflect on during any given week.

 

GOAL #2:

I will sweat at least twice a week.

I know this one sounds weird, but hear me out. I HATE to sweat. I always have. I do not enjoy exercising. If you know me, you know this, and therefore, you also know that this is a BIG deal because you know that this is twice as often as I’ve ever worked out in the past. I wrote my goal to say “sweat” because I feel better after (I don’t feel good about it before or during) sweating, and I swear my food even tastes better! My aversion to sweating aside, this one will be difficult for me to achieve because every time I try to get out of the house so that I can actually exercise, I think about all of the other things I should probably do instead.

I obviously know that this goal has huge physical health benefits, but to me, this personal goal is more about mental health. I’m clearly self-aware and reflective and have learned that it is so very important for me to make time for myself. I’m moderately confident that I’ll be successful in mastering this goal because my sister recently inspired me to try System of Strength with her, and I am now addicted to their “ebb and flo”(hot yoga) classes. My addiction comes from sweating + meditation + sweating + challenge + sweating + time to myself. Did I mention that it’s HOT?

It has taken me years to believe it, but I deserve to give this time to myself. As one of my all-time favorite sayings goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

 

GOAL #3:

I will read to or with my daughter every evening.

This should be the easiest, but if I’m being totally honest, sticking to this goal worries me the most. First of all, let’s talk logistics. This is a daily goal, which I’m just not sure will actually be possible. Like, what if I’m traveling without her? Logistics aside, I have now officially committed to playing a part in the bedtime routine every. single. night. The thought of this alone is pretty overwhelming and exhausting.

Some of the reasons behind this goal are obvious. I’m an English teacher. Of course I want to instill a love of reading in my children. The gift of literacy is undoubtedly invaluable, but for me, this goal goes beyond all of that. Most of my fondest memories related to reading involve my dad, a backyard hammock, and hours of time spent together. My parents are divorced, and I didn’t get to see my dad often, so that time was precious to me. I equated this activity to a direct reflection of my dad’s love for me.

Because of this, it breaks my heart that when Delaney asks if we can read some books together, I sometimes struggle internally to say “yes.” I don’t like that I’ve busied my life so much that I feel like I don’t have the time to read to my daughter. One day I do want my daughter to recognize that I’ve found a job that I’m so passionate about, a job that I truly believe is one of the most important in the world, but that time isn’t now. She’s three years old. She doesn’t understand, and she shouldn’t have to, so this goal is as simple as saying, “YES” every single time she asks me to read to her.

Another one of my favorite quotes inspired this goal, and I think it is especially applicable to teachers and fellow workaholics: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” – Mother Teresa

Time. It’s life’s most precious commodity. Time given to students. Time given to family. Time given to yourself. How are you going to be intentional with the time you spend this year?