I remember the feeling of the first day of school. And I’ve had over 30 of them. Many were where I was attending school, and I’m reaching a point in my career where almost as many of them have been in front of a classroom. What I remember about first days as a student, each and every one? How I felt.
I felt like I could do this. I could do this year even if the one before wasn’t great.
I felt like I could reinvent myself, new hairstyle, new lunchbox, new outfit, new outlook on life, new classes, new friend groups in classes, new study techniques (or lackthereof–see “wasn’t a great year”), new interests in music, art, pop culture, anti-pop culture. The first day of school picture, you know, the one in front of the house that so many families take.
I felt like I had at least one teacher who just “got me.” Every single year. That one teacher. Mrs. Johnson with the bows she’d wear on her blouse and walked around the classroom; Mrs. Jennings, my second grade teacher with the short brown hair, who let me write a play and have friends of mine and I perform it for the class–oh, she had the patience of a Saint, because there was a lot of running and chasing in my play; Mrs. Campbell, who wore the red lipstick and seemed to sashay when she walked; she was like magic when she taught; Mr. Bonavita, who insisted on calling me by my last name, but it was never right–who cried while we all listened to live footage of the Challenger disaster, and we were fifth graders and seeing an adult cry was not something we were used to; Mr. Hayden–oh poor Mr. Hayden, who did his best to teach me the French language–he didn’t have a chance (Think Joey from Friends…yep, it was that bad). But boy did he try; Mrs. Klefas–who looked like Mary Poppins and on the very first day introduced herself and said, “I either wanted to be a princess or a teacher, and the princess thing didn’t quite pan out.” There are so many more.
I felt like there were so many possibilities. And those possibilities were there for me, to grab, to work with.
It hasn’t changed for me.
I still get the excitement of that first day just like I did in first grade. When I walk into the building and see former students, I see them going through their own metamorphoses–their reinventions into the people they want to become. And then I meet my new students, and they, too, embody all of that possibility–each and every one. They have so much they are capable of. There may be so much that they could do that they haven’t even figured out yet, but I can see it. It’s like they glow. And I think–man, they have no idea the power they have as individuals–to change the world, to change all of the possibilities for future generations.
And I am lucky enough to be a rung on their ladder toward their future. I am able to pass some of my knowledge to them, and what they do with it has So. Much. Possibility. Beyond anything I could probably think of.
I seem to be following a theme focused on I-71 lately. My last post was about speeding on the long stretch of highway, while this one is about potholes. We’re not talking run-of-the-mill potholes but tire-flattening, car-bouncing, bone-rattling potholes. It is a dangerous stretch of road – one which makes me question trips to Cincinnati.
As I was gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands (and cursing the Ohio Department of Transportation), I was thinking about the potholes I’ve encountered recently and how I’ve dealt with those. Some potholes have been ones that felt like I was going to be swallowed whole with no chance of recovery and others were little blips on my radar. I negotiated each with different strategies and with differing success.
As a literacy coach, one of the “potholes” that I encounter has to do with school schedules and testing. When traveling between four buildings on a two-week schedule, I found myself working with teachers the week before winter break or spring break or the end of the year – not ideal coaching times. Unfortunately, the month of April in Ohio is testing frenzy so bell schedules are off and teacher anxiety is high. I am lucky to work with amazing people who were still kind and desirous to reflect or have conversations or invite me in to confer with students. My strategy for negotiating these issues was persistence and patience which paid off and kept me busy during those “interesting” times of the school year.
Another of my struggles came just yesterday as I was facilitating a minilesson during a summer PD. This was an “out-of-nowhere” pothole that I hit because I wasn’t paying attention – except I actually wasn’t prepared so it was totally on me. I had thought about my minilesson a lot and I knew my stuff and believed in what I was talking about; however, I didn’t think enough about how I was going to say what I wanted to say. I didn’t have notes or anything jotted down. I didn’t have a clear plan about where I was going and I hit a bump. Luckily, my colleagues who were sitting in the room didn’t need anything fancy or “new” and they smiled and nodded and were gracious. I got through that one because of them. I also spent time writing about my feelings and shortcomings and reflecting on what to change for next time.
Just like teachers who sometimes have students who are hard to reach (or who seem to be), as a coach, I have teachers who feel the same. This is a struggle for me because I want to be a support and a resource for everyone – it’s in my nature. It’s about building relationships and being there when and if someone needs me. The same goes for teachers in a classroom – every student needs something different and it’s our job to find out what it is. It may take seven months or seven years, but talking, listening, and simply being there may get us past the rough spots and into relationships.
A large jolt to my system came recently which caused me to reflect a lot, to take on some anxiety, and then to ultimately own what was mine and to let go of what wasn’t. I’m still learning how to have conversations with adults because they are different than students. I have found a few times this year that my “talk” with adults doesn’t quite come out the way I want it to or the way that it should. It’s an evolving skill as a coach to have conversations that ask people to be reflective or to question current practices or to think deeply about purpose. It’s one I am still working on and will continue to practice because it is all about our work with students and how to better help them flourish as readers and writers. I will continue to think about how I ask questions and share good practices in order to grow as a coach.
I probably could go on and on about big and small potholes – both on the highway and in my life. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve come to realize that my purpose isn’t to share all the struggles from this past year but to share how I’ve dealt with some issues and how important it is to reflect on them. Taking the time to process and realize what part of the problem is yours or something you can control will hopefully lead to smoother roads.
**I composed this piece at our Summer Writing Institute the last week of May. I’m unsure why I waited a few weeks to post this reflection – I hope you enjoy! Happy summer!
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. 😉
It isn’t often that you hear a middle school teacher say she wants to hear her students talk more. In fact, a small part of me was a little afraid that the title of this post alone might result in an instant delete from your inbox. But please, hang with me. This year, I have been working to redefine what student voice really looks like in my classroom, and I think you might be interested in my takeaways. Concentrating on this goal has involved learning how to manage the amount, and the quality, of the conversation that occurs in my classes.
I set the goal to focus on student voice this school year because I want my students to feel heard. Feeling heard is important for all of us, but I feel like it is especially important for middle schoolers. They are in a stage of life where they are trying to figure out who they are within the confines of who others think they should be. They feel ready for independence, yet so much of their daily experience is controlled. If you have ever talked one-on-one with a middle schooler in a personal setting, it isn’t very long before they mutter the words, “[insert name] just doesn’t understand me.”
As a teacher, I want to be one of the adults that my students feel are responding to them, not talking at them. I think that is the key to them feeling safe enough to learn. Note: responding to them does not mean they will always like how I will respond, but I have promised myself to provide opportunities for their voices to be heard–regularly.
I also want my students to work hard. They are bright. They have valuable insight. Prior to this year (and maybe because I am a writing teacher??) I had fallen into the trap of thinking that “working hard” meant having students produce a physical product. Not any more. I have come to recognize vocalization as a different form of assessment–an incredibly valuable one–and I’ve worked it into my assessment routine.
What I Tried
At the onset of planning any given unit, I commit to providing my students with a variety of experiences. During each unit, I strive to plan whole-group and small-group activities, opportunities to read, reflect, play, write and speak, and students will be expected to produce evidence of thinking and growth through active demonstration, writing in their notebooks, and by participating in online activities. This year, I added concentrated efforts to get them talking.
If you do your research, there are plenty of strategies to help teachers regulate classroom conversations. These strategies are effective classroom management strategies, so even if you do not want to use student dialogue as a form of assessment, they are great for conversation control. Here are my favorite “go tos”:
What I Am Listening For
If you get really good at it, strategic classroom conversation can become an extremely effective mode of assessment. While the development of questions can take some planning, the execution is quick, easy, and the kids love it. Most of the time, they don’t even recognize it as an assessment! And, assessing their understanding is as easy as eavesdropping on conversations. You get to be the fly on the wall, circulating or standing back to hear their thinking. After you hear what they have to say, you’ll know what to do next and they will feel heard.
So, this year I’ve made it a point to get my middle school students to talk more, and I have spent more time leaning in to listen. If you have stuck with me and are still reading, thank you. As I promised, here are my takeaways:
If I want to teach the whole child, I have to offer a variety of opportunities for my learners to show me their learning. Some students have underdeveloped skills with writing, others are unable to effectively communicate orally. We have to practice both.
Make sure you have a quick way to end the dialogue. Set a timer or use a chant to regain their attention when the conversation is over.
If you initiate a strategic dialogue and there is a sudden hush…you have more work to do. They don’t yet have the understanding and you need to back up.
If you initiate a strategic dialogue and students can’t articulate answers clearly, it probably means they’re still processing. Let the conversations go on a bit longer and interject, and/or make time to bring the group back together and discuss as a whole.
If you initiate a strategic dialogue and students are quick to respond, listen hard. It will give you direction on where to go next. I have been amazed at how much more I get from hearing conversations as opposed to I have with written reflections, polls or exit tickets.
Always, always, always, know your purpose. This is one strategy. Don’t go overboard and use it too frequently. Use it when it makes sense.
I realize that, most of the time, middle school teachers are trying to do anything to get their students to STOP talking. I, for one, am not above bribing them with suckers when necessary (FYI, handing everyone a Dum Dums will buy you just enough time to make it through a mini-lesson on really important days!). But, middle schoolers love to talk. Use it!
I knew when I was 10 years old I wanted to teach children. It was my calling and fortunately, my luck was good. When I graduated university in the early 80’s there was a teacher shortage and I immediately got a job teaching high school students Biology. I fully attribute this first job to great timing and networking. I am certain I didn’t secure the position based on my expertise. In fact, I would like to return and apologize to those students because as I look back on my first decade of teaching I was operating on passion and muscle, not knowledge and intentionality. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I hit my stride. The timing isn’t a coincidence. This was about the same time I developed some very important professional relationships that still thrive today. These critical friends ignited my desire to hone my craft and the fire still burns in me today.
As a building leader, I have often wondered how I can stoke the desire in teachers to commit to their own professional reflection and learning. Although the desire develops for different people at different times and for different reasons, there seem to be some common influences that teacher learners share. The work of an instructional leader is to construct experiences that lead each professional to those influences and as instructional leaders, consider the factors that prime a professional to make a commitment to his/her own learning, despite grueling classroom day-to-day demands.
Connection. In every devoted learner’s life, there is a connection with a child or loved one who doesn’t learn easily or whose learning needs are not being met. Sometimes it is a professional’s own child, sometimes a friend’s child, sometimes a student in the professional’s classroom. Regardless of how the child comes into the teacher’s life, It is empathy for this learner’s lack of success which forces educators to examine their own thinking and to be relentless in seeking out answers to support the learner. The challenge as an instructional leader is to recognize when a colleague has made a connection. And, to follow up the recognition with the ability to ask the right question. Questions like, “What does your student do well?” “Who does this student remind you of?” “What is a time in your life where you struggled to learn something new?” “How can I support you or share responsibilities so that you might have time to get to know this student better?”
Collegiality. Nearly every teacher I know has empathy. Identifying the student who requires support is just the first step. One of the experienced teachers at our building recently said that the most valuable professional development happens collaboratively and with colleagues who are willing to question her thinking and her decision making about instruction. This kind of conversation doesn’t happen without a strong level of trust. Thoughtful consideration on the makeup of teaching teams as well as being intentional about providing time for teachers to collaborate during their workday nurtures a culture of professional learning and collegiality. I’ve also noticed that the most productive collaboration happens when teachers own the conversation. There is so much expertise in a teaching faculty and tapping into that talent and asking the right question to collaborative groups supports them as they build trust within their team and as they consider sharing their expertise with those outside their team. Questions like, “What did you notice about your students’ thinking that helped you decide to use ________ strategy?” “Would you be willing to share how you implemented…..?” “What do you need so that you can be available to model these teaching strategies with your grade level colleagues?”
Curiosity. Real learning results from personal curiosity and a desire to solve a problem. Real learning can be expedited with access to the right resources, including time, money, access to expertise, and materials. Instructional leaders listen to what teachers need to quench their learning desires and they do what is necessary to provide. They ask questions like, “What do you need to make this happen?” “What data did you use to make that instructional decision?” “What did you learn in today’s practice that will drive the focus of your subsequent lessons?”
My work as an instructional leader is to expect the best out of each member of my staff and to model being a good listener. My work as an instructional leader is to provide opportunity for teachers to nurture relationships during their school day so they develop a sense of interdependence which will lead to deep collegiality. This is the work of all instructional leaders, not just principals. As we wind down this school year, I encourage each of us- principal, academic coach, teacher, learner- to seek out connections with your students and colleagues and be curious about the challenges that remain. For many teaching professionals, it is in our nature, ourDNA, to teach. Instructional leaders nurture passion to get better at their practice every day. I pledge to stoke my own desire to learn and to provide the necessary fuel that will result in connection, collegiality, and curiosity for each professional I lead. I hope you do too.
A few weeks ago, Lori, Kris, and I shared about our blog, our writing group, and ourselves as writers. As we stood in front of these Juniors and Seniors who were about to begin blogging as part of their Physics class, I felt very proud. We were asked to talk to young writers about writing because we are writers. Throughout my life I have worn this label proudly, it has faded into the background and almost disappeared entirely, and recently has surfaced with new enthusiasm.
My journey as a writer has been a bumpy one:
As a child, I was a journaler. It makes me laugh when I think of those notes full of friendship woes and puppy love crushes.
Through high school and college, I was a procrastinator who spent many a late night/early morning cranking out a paper to be turned in a mere two to three hours later.
As a young teacher, my writing life was non-existent.
As a soon-to-be Mom, I wrote letters to Brody sharing my excitement, hopes, and dreams for him. (I have added to letter to this journal on each of Brody’s birthdays.)
After discovering the work of Lucy Calkins and The Reading Writing Project, I began writing what I asked my students to write. (This was very eye-opening and a wonderful reminder that writing is difficult.)
In pursuit of my EdD, I slipped back into old habits from high school and college and quickly learned that these habits do not produce writing I am proud of. And today, I try to write at least three times per week. Some of this writing holds the seeds of blog posts, some of this writing helps me celebrate the wonderful business of our lives, and some of this writing will never be seen by anyone but helps me think.
As I think about this writing journey, there are three things that I know are most important to my writing process:
A clear audience. Is the writing only for me or will I share with a larger audience? When the writing is only for me, I freely share all of my opinions and include the brutal honesty that will help me truly reflect. When the writing is something that I think could be shared, I am more careful with my words, I write in a more concise manner and I think about details I can share that will engage the reader.
A topic I care about. It is almost impossible for me to write about something that I do not care about. Writing is hard – I have to be 100% invested to put forth the effort!
Feedback from others. The encouraging words from others about my writing are fueling me and I am so grateful. I LOVE when someone mentions our blog and wants to talk about one of the posts. I LOVE when someone shares that something I wrote and posted on the blog has caused them to think. I LOVE when my writing group praises me for the writing habit I am working to develop.
As I reflected on my personal writing process I started thinking about all classrooms where young writers are asked to think.
I wonder what our young writers would recognize as the essential elements to their writing process. Do our classrooms allow for these essential elements?
I wonder if our young writers feel ownership of their writing process. How can we help them develop this?
I wonder if our young writers would describe themselves as writers. How can we help them build this identity?
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.
The life of a soccer mom has its ups and downs. (I am not complaining because that stage of my life is coming to a close and I will be sorry to see it end.) One perk is the times I get to spend with my daughter driving to Cincy or Indy or Huntington or Memphis or Louisville. Bailey and I love music and the tunes we prefer on road trips are from Broadway shows – specifically Hamilton, Rent, Wicked, Les Mis, and Dear Evan Hansen. We sing and bee-bop along for hours on end. This past weekend we traveled to Cincinnati for a night game and then drove home Sunday after an afternoon game in Northern Kentucky. I love our time together when I can look over and she’s belting out lyrics like “No day but today!” as loudly as she can.
But like I said earlier, there are some “downs” to being a soccer mom and to trips like this. It is stressful to spend hours and hours in a car driving around your most precious cargo especially when you look down and notice you are driving 85 miles per hour and simply following a stream of cars who are hurtling down a highway. Don’t get me wrong – I am not a slow driver and I am usually 7-8 mph over the posted speed limit when I travel. 15-20 mph over is pushing it for me!
On Sunday, though, I found myself barreling down I-71 at an excessive speed. When I noticed what was happening, I slowed down, moved into the right lane, took a deep breath, and looked at Bailey. Why did I let myself get caught up in moving as fast as the line of cars in the left lane? Why hadn’t I paid attention to my speed and noticed that I was passing quite a few vehicles like they were standing still? Why was I hurrying instead of being thoughtful?
And then my mind wandered to thoughts about how situations like this remind me of teaching and of life in general.
As teachers, we are all trying to get everything “in” – before the test, before the end of the quarter, before semester exams, before the end of the year, before being evaluated. Here are some things I think we can learn from my experience on the highway:
Slow down and take a look at the students sitting in your classroom. Will adding another worksheet or fun word activity or project help them become better readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists or musicians? Does every second have to be filled with stuff? Could five minutes to process or practice or reflect benefit them instead of five minutes of rushing through another thing?
Don’t feel like you have to follow the crowd. Again, think about the students. You know them. You’ve talked to each one of them and have learned their strengths and struggles. Just because a colleague is moving onto the next book or the next writing does that mean that your students are ready to do that?
Enjoy the time you have as you are having it. As I looked over and saw my daughter singing at the top of her lungs with a big smile on her face, I realized that this was a precious moment. We get to spend a limited amount of time with students, so treasure it. (Even those moments when it is difficult and I know that it sometimes is.)
Someone may say “Well, I have to stay with my team” or “Won’t my kids (or myself) fall behind and not get everything done?” We are all professionals and we know what good practice looks like. We know how to talk to our students and how to see where they are and then determine where they need to go and how to get them there. Following the crowd or the “this is the way we’ve always done it” may not fit with what you know is good for the students sitting in your room at this time. Don’t be afraid to ease up on the gas pedal and move into the right lane.
As I look at these suggestions, I believe it applies to everyday life also. “Slow down”, “be yourself”, and “enjoy life” are mantras that I try to live by. There are many times that I have to remind myself though; it is so easy to get caught up in everything. But as I diligently and reverently tried to remember all the words to “Wait for It” while singing with Bailey and Leslie Odom, Jr., I realized that speeding home with the rest of traffic wasn’t the best thing for me and that I needed to put my beliefs into practice in order to arrive safely and with a peaceful piece of mind. Do I think I will never look down and see my speedometer nearing 85 mph again? Probably not. However, I am aware and feel I have some strategies for dealing with that both as a human and as a teacher.
Some Back Story: Last month my precious baby boy turned sixteen which means he got his license which means that Mama got herself a new/used Jeep Wrangler and handed down the 140,000+ miles car to her boy.
The thing is, I have no idea how to drive the Wrangler.
It’s a manual.
How I picture driving a manual Wrangler: There are a bunch of rrrrrrrrr, rr, rrrrrrrr sounds as I push in the clutch, press the gas, switch each gear. Maybe I go off roading (of course I go off roading–it’s my daydream), maybe I get stuck in the mud and I have to shift, shift, shift, to get this baby out… maybe I don’t, either way I am driving around in my automobile like freaking badass Barbie.
The reality of me driving my manual Wrangler: I stall. A. Lot. When I’m going 35, I feel like I’m going 90. And I can’t remember if I’m supposed to put it back into 4th or 3rd when turning a corner. There are so many numbers. And how am I supposed to look at the dials and drive at the same time? And what in the world happened to 10 and 2? How can I keep them at 10 and 2 when I have to shift? And I have to Jeep wave? What? Oh, I threw it into third trying to start from a stop and that won’t work? Why not? How do I know which gear I’m in, there’s this sleeve over it. It’s like the mystery sleeve, guess which gear you are in Zakrzewski? And maybe there are a few choice words…give or take.
It’s a process. I’m working on it.
I’ve been driving for over 27 years (Oh sweet mother of victory, I did not think the math would give me that number). So, with 27 years of experience, this should be easy. I mean I’ve been driving a car for a long time. Gas means go. Break means stop. Turn the wheel. Easy freaking peasy.
The thing is, even if you’ve been driving for years, learning to drive a manual is just a little bit different than driving automatic. And it takes practice–in all kinds of situations–practice.
And here comes the parallel (kind of like parking–see what I did there with a sweet continued analogy; you’re welcome).
This Is What Writing Is Like for Kiddos.
They’ve done it for years. They’ve felt like they’ve been doing this since kindergarten. And they have. So when some kiddos come into the classroom and we ask them to write, some become frustrated because they feel they should know how to do this. This shouldn’t be hard for them. They have been throwing their essays into gear for years. But they aren’t in automatic anymore. Now they are in a manual. And that can be very intimidating.
As they move up through the grades, there are subtle changes, subtle shifts. New expectations.
You can’t use I.
Try to avoid passive voice.
You can use one word for emphasis if you want.
But don’t use a fragment here. It’s a fragment.
Oh, but this fragment works because you are emphasizing.
Use a comma here.
You need paragraph breaks.
This line can stand alone…no it’s not a paragraph, but it works.
You can use personal experience.
No you can’t.
You need quotes.
No you don’t.
Can you add more of your voice?
Be more formal.
So many nuances. So, for writers who were used to writing one way, (maybe the five paragraph way; maybe the flip the prompt way; maybe the “get in and get out” testing essay way) what was comfortable before is now hard.
So what do we do? How can we help teach our young drivers how to shift into different gears and just take off.
Write all the time.
You write. Show them what you do. Show them your mistakes. Show them your corrections. Talk them through your ideas. Laugh at your own phraseologies and savor your own voice. Show your “go to moves.” And write in different situations, casual and formal; academic and non-academic. Experiment.
They write. Ask them to tell you how they are coming up with their ideas. Have them show you their mistakes and give suggestions in how to fix them. Talk through both of your ideas. Enjoy their phraseologies and savor their voices. Identify their “go to moves” that you are starting to see. And have them write in different situations, casual and formal; academic and non-academic. Experiment.
There are so many paths to writing. So many routes to take. So many ways to do it.
And it can be really fun. As teachers, we can take them off roading, off of the five paragraph essay, off the flip the prompt. We can show it as a structure, absolutely, but we can show them how to break the rules and use those broken rules to make something spectacular.
Be patient. These kiddos are just trying to learn how to push in the clutch, shift, and press the gas. Let them keep practicing because that is what it will take to enjoy the ride.
Some people head to the beach for Spring Break. They bask in the sun, sink their toes into the sand and spend time outside absorbing Vitamin D for the soul. Me? I head to the basement. I know how thrilling this sounds, and my teenage daughters absolutely love me for it. But I enjoy using the break to quietly recharge and get spring cleaning checked off the to-do list. In my house, I clean from the ground floor up. So last week on the first day of my spring break, while seemingly everyone else was packing their suitcases and catching early morning flights, I was packing up boxes of old toys and cleaning out the basement.
My favorite part of spring cleaning is getting to make a mess first. Admittedly, I was pretty energetic as I dragged out all the old toys and lined them up along the basement walls. It didn’t take long before I had a complete mess. I began asking myself: Did we really buy all this stuff? Why are we hanging on to all of this? There is a moderate fortune spent in big hunks of plastic and bins of stuffed animals sitting in our basement. Maybe we can pay our first college tuition payment based on garage sale profit!
Of course, the girls were completely taken when they discovered what I was doing. They weren’t shy about reminiscing and showing love to these old toys one more time as we sorted and boxed; some they had to keep. As memories flooded back, I realized the real reason I had put it off so long. I didn’t want to let go of the memories attached to all these fun moments with my kids.
Isn’t the same true of lessons we do with our students? Teachers go to great lengths to design meaningful lessons. This daily task takes time, effort, collaboration, and often money to do right. It only seems natural for us to develop connections with the lessons we teach, making lessons and activities we have developed hard to let go.
For me, the most exciting part of teaching is coming up with new ways to approach the lessons I want to teach. I love all parts of my job, but I thrive on lesson planning and instructional design. I am a professional development geek, always in search of fresh perspectives and alternatives for reaching every kind of student. As a result, I have many different versions of lessons. All of those versions have accumulated over the years.
On one hand, I love having this accumulation of choice because it allows for smoother, more responsive differentiation. I can easily tap into the experiences I have had and lessons I have created throughout the years when I set out to meet the unique needs of my current students. I never really thought of this as a problem. After all, don’t all good teachers constantly evolve? [insert a resounding YES here].
Still, there can be a downside to an abundance of resources. Teaching toolkits–like bins of toys in the basement–can get overstuffed. We talk all the time about acquiring skills for our teaching toolkits, but no one ever talks about managing these tool kits when they become too crowded. Just like my basement full of toys, a teacher’s toolkit requires the occasional spring cleaning. Otherwise, teaching methods can become dusty and no longer be as effective as they once were.
Last week I realized that veteran teacher lesson planning is a lot like cleaning out the family toy stash. Lessons, just like toys, can and should be re-evaluated. And, teachers who have accumulated too many lessons to count should be especially intentional when deciding what to keep, what to tweak, and what to toss.
Professional Spring Cleaning: Tips for Veteran Teachers
#1– Sort What You Have
It is just common sense to keep what works and toss what doesn’t, but before you do that for this year, sort your stash. Lay it all out and see what you have. You know that what worked this year, with this group of students might not work next year with a new group of students. And the opposite is true. Just because an approach wasn’t successful this year, doesn’t mean it might not have value next year. Having choices matters, especially when it comes to making decisions on demand. So, start by sorting your strategies from your tools and activities. Get reacquainted with what you have. Here are some focus questions to help you sort effectively:
1. What strategies did I find myself coming back to frequently?
2. What strategies did I try but could refine?
3. What tools did I use? Where did they fit on the SAM-R model?
4. Was it the tool I used or the thinking strategy that worked for the kids?
5. What did I like about the tools and activities I used? What were the limitations?
#2– Selectively Purge
It will become overwhelming to keep everything, and who doesn’t love a good “Google Drive Purge?” It is important to embark on each new year with a fresh perspective, so don’t give yourself the crutch of planning next year with a simple cut & paste of lesson plans. Instead, save the seeds of your best lessons while saving room to experiment with new ideas and to grow from collaboration with colleagues and professional development.
To easily decide what lessons to keep, what to tweak and what to toss, think about two things: purpose and variety. Most every teacher wishes she had more time. While technology has helped us gain more efficiency, there still is no time to waste. That means every lesson should have a purpose. If you cannot identify your purpose, then tweak it or toss it. Additionally, students deserve variety in their day (and so do you!). What does it feel like to be a student in your class? Are you providing a variety of experiences each day? Each week? Lessons can vary in purpose and style, or you can provide variety by reconsidering resources, strategies, groupings, seating, or tools. Think about what lessons will only work one way. Then think about how more flexible lessons could be tweaked to provide more variety for your students’ experiences.
We all love it when it is finished (my basement looks AWESOME, by the way), but not everyone loves the act of organizing. However, with so much of our lesson planning and development being digital, it is critical that you organize and protect your “keepers”. Here’s how:
1. Have an organizational pattern. Take some time to reflect on how you might think to retrieve lessons next year. Do you tend to search for things by name? By unit/topic? By time of year? By standard? Decide your preference, then design a digital filing system that will work for you.
2. Create naming conventions for yourself. Naming conventions are codes for your files. For example, I project a mini-lesson for my students each day. In Google Drive, each of those mini-lessons is saved as “Mini-Lesson: XYZ”. My students also work from writing progressions each week, so all of those files are saved as “Writing Progression: XYZ”. These simple naming conventions can save you loads of time.
3. Protect your most beloved resources by having multiple copies. Don’t underestimate the value in printing off your best resources so if something happens digitally, at least you have a hard copy you can recreate. Also, it feels different to search for things digitally than it does to flip through a notebook. Sometimes the old fashioned way just works better.
This is a perfect time of year to do some professional spring cleaning. It’s perfect timing because you are still in the thick of your instructional time and your mindset is still focused on what is working and what is not. Make an appointment with yourself and take it on now. Not only will you get a trip down memory lane, realizing all the great things you have done to promote your students’ growth, you will also smile every time you go to look for something…and find it!