Friday, April 20, 2018

Finish Strong

     In my world of education, we start our last block on Monday. That means I only have six weeks left to make a difference. The countdown is on in our classroom but it's not to see how we can endure until the end, but it's to see how much my students can learn in that time.
      This has been a terrific school year. It hasn't been the kids that have changed. It's been me. My attitude. In January I blogged about defeating Negative Nellie. I purposed to do that for the remainder of the year. Why? Because my students deserved to have someone who saw them in a positive light. To have a teacher who wasn't weighed down by negativity but one who had an optimistic view.
     Since becoming more cognizant of this propensity toward pessimism, I've been watching myself. I've been more intentional than ever in being positive. Guess what? The more I've practiced  this, the easier it's become.
      My  year hasn't been perfect. I still slip into negativity, but it's few and far between.I'm happier in the classroom and my students are happier too. So ]go out strong in May. Don't count down the days, be positive and look at how many days you have to impact their lives. How much time do they have left to learn? Finish strong. It could make all the difference.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Transparent Failure

     I was with colleagues the other day planning for a PD day coming up. The questions swirled as we tried to hone in on what we thought our curricular area English teachers needed or wanted to learn about. One idea that popped up was bringing in an assignment or unit that didn't work the way it was conceived to have worked so others could give you feedback on it. I nodded my assent but internally was wondering how transparent we would be with each other? Could we admit failure and ask for help? Could I?
     Everyone has heard about failure--it's the latest buzzword. When things don't work out, they are viewed as a learning opportunity rather than a failure. Everyone fails at some point in life. Why not teach kids to embrace it as a chance to learn and grow rather than as failure? As I thought about my colleague's suggestion, I thought of my own failures in the classroom. Then I reminded myself that failures are only failures if I don't revise and learn something from them. Transparent failures--when I'm not afraid for all to see what I'm doing, how I'm doing it and where the failure is.
     The more I thought about this, the more self-conscious I became. Was I brave enough to show my shortcomings to colleagues I barely new, had no relationship with, and who may judge it harshly? Would they criticize what I was doing or look at it in disdain, commenting on how much rigor the lesson lacked or how light the work-load was in the class? All these thoughts took me by surprise. And it wasn't a good surprise.
     Transparency is good. Failure is good. If we learn from it. So how will I handle the PD day? Very carefully, knowing that exposing myself to critiques is a good thing. If we want to become better teachers, we need to accept and learn from failure as well be transparent in our teaching with both students and teachers alike.This transparency could make a world of difference to us as teachers and it could model lessons for our students to learn from. Transparent failure, it does a body good.

Friday, April 6, 2018

What Happened?

     A foster girl changed my life. Really, she did. I'll call her Sandy. She came to live with us when she was 14, a girl other families had shied away from because of what she'd done. Sandy had been charged with five counts of attempted murder. When my husband and I read her file, we asked, "Why?" Why would a kid do something like that? What had happened to drive her to this? It was the most important question we could have asked.
     Sandy changed a lot during her time with us and so did I. I saw her life experiences as the major reason behind her choices. I came to understand that the question to ask isn't "What's wrong with the kid?" but rather "What happened to her?" This understanding has served me well as a teacher.
      There's a reason kids act the way they do. Most of the time it's a defense mechanism to keep them feeling safe or in control when they feel neither in their home environment. Our district has done Trauma Sensitive Schools (TSS) training and learned about Acute Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  This training brings to the forefront the question of "What happened?"
      Recently my principal had us watch a 60 minutes segment reported on by Oprah about kids and trauma. Honestly, it was a segment I think every educator needs to view. It can help teachers see their kids in a different light and ask the "What happened?" question rather than the "What's wrong with him/her?" question. The first looks for the reason behind the behavior. If we can figure that out, we can deal with the root of the issue rather than just be punitive in our reaction.
     When we see kids acting out, let's look for the why they are acting that way--the what happened to them. Kids want to feel safe, secure and loved. When those are threatened, they act out.
      Sandy was the best foster child we ever had. We still keep in touch with her. Today she's married with three kids of her own. As a young teen, there was a reason why she did what she did. We just had to learn to ask the right questions. It truly did make all the difference.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

WAR Wrap Up

     This weekend was our Waging WAR for Literacy conference for teens. It went off without a hitch thanks to the efforts of volunteers and presenters alike . Here are 10 things I learned from the conference.

1. There's no such thing as writer's block. Keynote speaker, author Andrew Smith, made this comment in his opening address and I agree with him. This was one of the quotes that stuck with kids the most,too.
2. Cell phones are art machines. Andrew's point was that cell phones shouldn't be machines that isolate but machines that allow us to create. He went on to show how he could compose music, write, draw, record and so many other things on this crazy machine. It was perfect.
3. Kids will come, but we must feed them. In an  effort to shave time off our schedule, we opted to forego serving lunch and dismiss at 1:00. However, in reading the post surveys food was mentioned....a lot. Ok, we get the message...
4. Sessions should be shorter/longer. I think this depends on the student who said it. Granted, some kids came because they could get extra credit. However, others came because they were genuinely interested. Maybe not  offering bonus points is the ticket.
5. Don't always trust booksellers to show up on time. We sold books at the conference. Well, not us but a vendor. The author was scheduled to sign books before his keynote, which he did, but the line was small because kids were waiting to buy books.
6. Be flexible. Because #5 happened we switched things around and everything worked out.
7. Have a great co-leader and team.  The crew who works to put this on is amazing. Especially my co-leader  Jodi. She is a rock star. I'm a better person because of what I learn from her.
8. Invite Andrew Smith back ! He was an incredible author who connected with the students and did a terrific job in leading his breakout sessions. And nice? I think the word was coined about him.
9. Don't look further than your colleagues for quality presenters. The teachers in my district are consummate professionals. And funny. And good teachers. Book dating, social media, finding your voice, and so many more. When Andrew Smith complemented us on a terrific conference, I thought of the quality of teachers who were there. Outstanding.
10. Good things come out of the Twin Cities. Two of our popular session teachers drove in from the Cities in dire weather (well, for one, at least).  Poet Joe Davis did a brilliant job of engaging and empowering kids while NFL social media content guy Alex Dorner wowed kids with his information and ability to write in 40 seconds.

This was a great conference. One of the best. Someone asked me why we do it--the conference is a lot of work. My reply? We do it because it can make all the difference.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Innovation Means...

     A student wondered out loud what all the fuss was about being "innovative." In fact, what did that even mean? Great question. One we discussed for a while before coming to a consensus. This is the latest buzz word in education. Look at just about any education-focused blog and chances are there's been at least one post on this concept. Let me join the crowd. Instead of focusing on the word "innovation," let's focus on the implementation of that word.
     Change can be scary. Especially when administrators are speaking the latest education-ese in an effort to see teachers foray into these unknown waters. Even our teacher evaluation form has "innovating" as one of the achievement levels upon which teachers are rated. But words aside, what does this mean in a classroom? What does it look like in practice?
     Both are great questions, questions I think can be answered in one word: risk-taking (2 words if not used as an adjective). Being innovative isn't some great and glorious teaching method that you have to build yourself up to achieve. It's looking at what you teach, wondering how you can teach it differently, stepping outside of your "normality,"  and trying a new approach to your teaching.
     Just like some people are more risk takers by nature, some teachers are also more willing to think out of step with convention and try something new. That's all innovation really is. This is something possible for everyone, not just a select few really "innovative" people.
     I consider myself a risk-taker and creative person, but I don't even hold a match to some of my friends/colleagues who amaze me with what they do in their classes. Nothing is too wild or out of bounds for them. Who benefits from this type of thinking and teaching? Everybody. Not just the students but the teachers as well. Teaching becomes fresh and new, not stale from teaching the same content the same old way. When teachers are excited about what they're doing, kids glam onto it and become more interested as well. Being a risk-taking teacher brings an upside to teaching--everyone wins.
     Admittedly, risk-taking lessons bring some angst. Uncertainty about the viability of the lesson. A lack of confidence about implementation. Concern about execution. But the biggest fear may be "what if it fails?"  No one likes to fail...or do they? Things I try fail a lot, but then I learn by evaluation what didn't work and modify to try again. In my current set up with the way my school's calendar runs, this is easier for me to work on than other teachers since I usually have multiple chances to readjust what I'm doing.
     Innovation. A scary word? Maybe, but it doesn't have to be. Instead of focusing on the definition of the word, hone in on implementation, putting aside feelings of insecurity over whether you will be successful or not. Even in failure, you're a success.
     Go ahead. Be innovative. Be a risk taker. It could make all the difference.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Semantics: Watered Down or Differentiate?

     In talking to a colleague recently, I learned how much most teachers, and administrators for that matter, don't get my school. I'm used to the powers that be referring to the "two" high schools in town (ignoring the alternative high school). I'm used to references of the alternative school being for the "bad" kids or the "druggies." Yet I wasn't prepared for the comment shared of how we "water down" the curriculum.That was irritating.
     Alternative education is different, right? In theory, maybe, but in practice we do what the administrators and education gurus say is positive--we differentiate for students. Sometimes we bring materials down but other times we increase our expectations and differentiate up. What does it depend upon? The student. Right now, the start of a new block, I have full classrooms where I'm teaching five classes at once, all individualized for each student. As teachers it's our responsibility to see students learn, challenge them to reach new heights, and help them on their journey. I tell my students it's my job to help them be successful in school, not to give them misleading test questions or confusing assignments. It's my job to teach them how to think and analyze and communicate. What isn't my job is to  water down my curriculum.
      Is it "watering down" a curriculum when a student is at a fourth grade reading level and you give him a book for seventh or eighth graders that is high interest and engages him in the novel or is that differentiating? When he actually reads the book and asks for another rather than Spark Notes the book to get through the writing task and regurgitate what he read rather than what he knows? Is it "watered down" to get students to think about and analyze character motivation in a book or the significance of the motifs in leading to the theme in a book they're excited to talk about rather than one they faked reading? Or is that differentiating? If "watered down" means meeting a student where he's at and then bringing him to a higher level, than I guess I'm guilty as charged.
     Teachers deal with all types and levels of students. We also deal with all types and levels of colleagues--some understand the education process better than others. However, using the term "watered down" is inflammatory and ignorant. Especially in relation to alternative education. We meet the kids where they're at and challenge them to go higher--no matter what level they're at. It's called differentiation. So don't be concerned if you're tagged with "watering down" a curriculum if you know in your mind you're exacting more than what the student thought he was capable of doing. Meet the student where he's at and take him further than he thought he could go.
      Go ahead. "Water down" your curriculum. Or in education-ese differentiate--it could make all the difference to the success of that student. Isn't that why we stay in education? To make a difference?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reading...Just Reading

    Book club started early in my room this block. Why? Because kids asked for it to start. "Why wait until next block starts?" they asked. "Can we start early?" Um, let me check...I think we can manage that. When my partner in book club madness went around pitching the book, a good thing happened. We ran out of copies. Even after ordering five more books, we're still short. Kids are reading just to read.
     This school year I have really been encouraging independent reading as has the other English teacher at my school. The result? Kids falling in love with reading. Here's what one non-reader, ELL student wrote in his course evaluation:
                "More reading time is what the teacher should improve. The book I read in class has 
encouraged me to read more books in life more than just looking at a computer screen."

When I probed a bit after reading this, I found out The Life We Bury was the first book this
guy had ever read in his life. He has been in the U.S. for eight years. Not once during the 
reading process did I have to encourage him to read. He's hooked. How can I tell? 
Because he asked for suggestions for other books to read. He even thinks I should
have kids read more books.
The thing is, what Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller and many others propose is good advice. 
Let students read books of choice rather than forcing them to read something they aren't 
interested in. Chances are Spark Notes will get a lot of action if we force them to read 
uninteresting books. I'd rather the choice be theirs. Sometimes I assign, but it's rare that 
I make a student suffer through something they really dislike. I remember plowing through
Silas Marner myself in high school. I was a reader and I struggled to finish that tome.
It doesn't take much to offer choice. It can hook teens to read more. Book club is a 
result of choice and exposing kids to things they may not pick up on their own. 
Go ahead, let students decide what they want to read. It could make all the difference.