Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Does Environment Matter?

             From one-room school houses, to kitchen tables, to sophisticated, technology-rich environs, schools today are as varied as ever. Most people don’t think twice about what a school looks like. However, if you’ve ever taught in a school which was teetering on antiquity, you may feel differently. So, just how important is environment in education? Do the surroundings really matter?
            From my perspective, I think most teachers can teach just about anywhere. And for those who are truly passionate, they deal with what they have to work with and make the best of it. They may have to be creative, but creativity is one of the 4Cs of 21st century skills, right?
            Does this mean I don’t think it matters what a school looks like or the shape it’s in internally (mechanics, electrical, etc)? Absolutely not. Ideally we would all teach in the sophisticated, technology-rich school. Ideally. But reality sets in and we realize that’s not going to happen. Do teachers sit and whine about not having great spaces to work in? Most don’t. Yet, if people saw and knew of the conditions in some schools, they would be appalled.
            The topic is near to my heart since my outdated-but-workhorse of a school underwent renovation this spring/summer. Yesterday teachers and staff moved in and unpacked. It was glorious! What was so great about it? Hot water. Yes, there will be hot water in the staff bathroom. A sink. Yes, there is a sink in the staff lounge. Outlets. Yes, there will be more than two outlets per classroom. Technology. Yes, some rooms will have projectors. Heat and AC. Yes, not just half of the hallway will be warm/cold.
New classroom in the midst of getting set up
            Now having written all that, mostly tongue-in-cheek, I will say that there were days in the past thirteen years of teaching at my school, where it was tough to teach. The heat would barely reach the mid-60s in the classroom, forcing most to keep coats on. It was tough to expect much when my own fingers lagged behind a bit from the cold.
            But those days are past. I am so grateful for the new environment, physically, that we can offer our students on the first day of school. With two other high schools in the city recently receiving some major renovations of their own, it was good to have our state legislature allocate money for our school to be remodeled.
            Now my students, nontraditional kids who usually don’t fit into the “standard school,” can come to a place where it appears we do care. Everything is new and reconfigured to offer more space, more efficiency, and more consideration to students and their needs.
            I’m proud of the work my principal and the rest of the staff did in making this dream of so many years a reality. It’s been a renovation long overdue but one, thanks to our state legislature, that is amazing. You know it’s a good remodel when you get lost going to your own classroom!
            Thanks to the funding of our state, my school will be the coolest alternative school in the state. Physically. But adornments aren’t everything. What’s the environment like in our classrooms? We can have the latest and greatest in the room, but how do we make engaged learning happen? Environment does matter, in all senses of the word. More to come on this topic….

Monday, August 25, 2014

Are You Ready for the School Day?

"A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open."                                                                                                         ~ Frank Zappa

  Let the countdown begin! I’ve looked over my class rosters and noted the full sections. I breezed through the names, overjoyed at the ones returning and anticipating the new students. The first day of school is a week away. Let me ask you: Are you ready?

            Room-wise, I’m not. We’re actually moving back into our recently remodeled school tomorrow and the following two days. During that time I need to get my room set up, my books together for the students, figure out a new filing system and set up my cool, homemade magnetic Scrabble board. Plus get all the administrative duties done that seem intertwined with my profession.
            Anyway, school looms only a week away. My thoughts recently have traveled the pirate way. How do I want to start my class? What atmosphere  do I want to create? Do I want to take time to get to know my kids or do I just jump into school. Questions, questions, questions…
            One way I want to start the day is with loud music playing a Cage the Elephants song (yes, this is a real band). I’m still debating which one. Once we listen to it we’ll analyze it orally. Discussing each verse, wrangling over meaning, and coming to a conclusion. When we’re finished I reward my students with something, congratulating them on their first successful poetry analysis in my classroom.
            I may also borrow a Dave Burgess idea and bring in play dough. From this students may mold the clay into something representative of them or their summer….school appropriate, of course. That way I can get to know them and how their summers went. However, I may use my computer and type in words they shout out about their summer and we’ll create word art which I will  print and display.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


            I just had my yearly checkup. I’m sure you’ve had one of these exams. It’s not one that takes place in a doctor’s office, but rather, one that occurs in my heart and mind. I check myself mentally to see if I’m still passionate about what I do. When I find I’m symptomatic of an indifferent attitude, I’ll know it’s time to quit. So how did my exam go? Let’s see.
            First I assessed my motivation. How motivated was I to get back into the classroom? Well, this may not have been a fair question for me since I’m actually getting my OWN classroom after twelve years of being a nomad. That’s a HUGE motivator for me. My own space. No more carting files and books and laptops and books and personal items and glasses and …well…everything between two classes. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to a classroom. Motivation for job? Check!
            Next I probed my enthusiasm for what I teach. Am I still excited about and do I continue to enjoy teaching writing and American Literature? Am I looking for new ideas to try out on students this year? Am I jazzed to see light bulbs of understanding click on in my student’s eyes? I believe so. Meetings with newer, younger colleagues confirm this in me. When we start talking about our classes, ideas snap, crackle, and pop. I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to try. Based on my reaction to “shop” talk, I think I can say, Enthusiastic about content? Check!
            Another part of my exam dealt with my attitude toward others. Am I looking forward to working with my coworkers, collaborating when possible, on new ideas to implement not only in my classroom but also in the school? My exam took me into a meeting with my principal where we discussed the upcoming year and the plans for our mentoring program. Telling him my ideas and listening to his got me fired up about the changes that will take place this year at my school and to the enhancements to the program. I’m eager to work with new teachers and veterans to make the learning environment at my school more engaging. Attitude positive? Check!
            I don’t limit these checkups to a yearly basis. I actually perform them regularly. I don’t want to just be a teacher; I want to be the best teacher I possibly can. I expected that out of those who taught my children. Why wouldn’t I ask the same of myself? This is part of my yearly maintenance as an educator, things I need to monitor regularly in my life. I’ll know it’s time to lay down my keyboard and pen when I can’t respond positively to those questions.
            Life is full of changes. I probably won’t teach for the rest of my life. Who knows, maybe I won’t pass my yearly checkup next year. One thing I do know for sure about this upcoming year. I passed my exam in spades and can’t wait to start!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Connecting with Colleagues

We should not only use the brains we have but all that we can borrow.                                                                                             -Woodrow Wilson


Is connecting with colleagues important to teachers?  That question flew into my mind during a Twitter education chat with teachers from around the state. It didn’t take long for me to formulate an answer. A resounding “YES,” I think it is vital for teachers to connect with their colleagues.
Today I spent a good portion of the afternoon being energized by a teacher new to the high school scene. He’s been a terrific teacher at the middle school level but is moving up to a new challenge. Talking with him, positing questions, and discussing scenarios filled me with a vigor I hadn’t had prior to our meeting. I came away enriched because of the two hours I spent with him and my students will benefit in spades because of it.
I am all in favor of professional development when it benefits teachers and offers us the same real-world application of the material we are to give our students. Let’s give freedom to district teachers who are masters in certain domains, allowing them to instruct and challenge others with innovative concepts.
What about giving teachers time to collaborate, talking shop and sharing ideas of what works and what doesn’t? This year my district is setting aside time for teachers to do just that, connect with others in their content areas, by starting late periodically. I predict these times will resonate with teachers and have them clamoring for more such opportunities.
Photo courtesy of Ellis Christopher, CC
Just as students are ever-learning, teachers should be as well. I’d like to see the day of packets and pencils be a distant past as teachers collaborate and bring engaged learning scenarios that are more hands-on or movement involved to students. The tech director of my district recently tweeted that students are waiting for more project-based learning opportunities. I couldn’t agree with him more.
So how valuable is interacting with colleagues? I think it should be given highest priority in our lives as teachers. I say this with a caveat: make sure the time is spent in discussions which are constructive and student-centered rather than teacher-centered.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with seeking help for issues we encounter, however, it is easy to stray off the student-centered path into the realm of “me-isms.”
My colleague and I brainstormed ideas and came up with ways to approach the same class differently, in ways that would work in our classroom settings. Though he lacks experience in the high school classroom, he doesn’t lack awareness of kids. He’s opening up a new realm in instruction, being an innovator and risk-taker, and I applaud him for that. We need more risk takers in education.
Ask yourself the same question my creative colleague will ask his students. What’s a problem you think needs fixing, In the classroom, in departments, and maybe in relation to professional development? What can you do to help fix it?
 Indeed, what can we do? We can be a voice asking for more opportunities to connect with educators rather than speakers, people who are on the front lines and know the issues other teachers encounter. A voice asking for people from our own districts, people who are considered knowledgeable, to share their expertise with others. A voice asking for time to discuss with and learn from other educators in our curricular area.  
But we don’t wait for district-led professional development. We can take advantage of the words of wisdom tweeted weekly by other educators by tuning into Twitter educational chats. One on Wednesday nights at 9 that has broadened my knowledge is @#ndedchat. Last spring our tech team offered their own ed chat and will hopefully do so again this fall, @#gfedchat. Learning opportunities abound. If Twitter isn’t your thing, look for other ways to learn from others.
There are lots of voices in education coming in many forms. Let’s focus our energies on the ones that are student-centered and be open to new ways of instruction. Just as we want students to think outside the box, we, as educators, need to as well.
Connecting with colleagues is vital to us as teachers. We can dream up fresh approaches to take in our classrooms as we bandy around ideas. We can gain a new excitement and vitality for teaching. And we can carry that excitement for learning and our innovative approaches with us into the classroom, thanking our colleagues who inspire us, challenge us, and teach us every step of the journey.

Friday, August 1, 2014

On Teaching Writing

We need to be writing in front of our students.  It’s important for kids to see teachers struggle with writing…because writing is a struggle.                             ~~Kelly Gallagher

            I am inspired. Excited. Energized. Enthused. I am all of these and more. Why? Because I recently attended the NDCTE (North Dakota Council of Teachers of English) conference and heard the challenging words of Kelly Gallagher. For those of you who don’t know, Kelly Gallagher is like an English writing teacher guru. I wish I could convey all of the ideas he posited and the ideas his words generated in me, but I’m not that skilled of a wordsmith. Suffice it to say I will be using Kelly Gallagher material in my classroom this year.
            So what was so great about Gallagher? Well, to start with he’s a teacher in the classroom facing the same problems and issues I am. He’s honest about his struggles to stay motivated and be on his game. I can relate to that and appreciate his authenticity.
            Gallagher also does terrific things in his classroom when teaching writing. He emphasized mentoring students in writing and modeling the writing rather than assigning it. This validated my teaching style somewhat as I try to model writing a lot for my students.
            Another technique Gallagher uses that I’m going to incorporate this year is the use of mentor texts. Students don’t know how to write an argumentative paper? Then show them one and have them emulate that text—legally plagiarize the steps and style of that piece so they gain an understanding of the process needed to write a solid paper.
Photo courtesy of Writing Foundations
            Gallagher also put forth a convincing argument for thinking aloud as I model writing. Let kids hear the steps I go through as I compose so they get a better idea of how the process works. Use a mentor text to show the students how you would emulate the ideas and write your own piece. Why do this? So kids get an idea of the “how” behind writing. It’s easy to assign something to write but much harder to teach a student how to write.
            Modeling and conferring, according to Gallagher, make students better writers. Not grading. Spending an entire Saturday writing “frag” in the margins makes you a better copy editor, but it doesn’t make your kids better writers.
            Alert students that one draft isn’t a stopping point. It’s merely a starting point. The first draft is a “crapola” draft. It can only be improved upon and help kids strengthen their writing. If students ask how long a paper has to be, it’s a red flag that they haven’t seen enough models.
            Go through the model with students asking them what the writer did in specific parts. Ask how that helps the paper. Show students how to analyze the writing by talking through the process out loud.
            Beyond the helpful advice offered by Gallagher, he also gave some great ways to incorporate writing in the curriculum. Have students do a “Who Made That” paper, picking an object and researching in order to answer the question. Write about something you’ve witnessed or what happened on your birthday in history.
            The ideas and suggestions go on and on. I wish I could encapsulate the feeling and encouragement Gallagher left with me, but I can’t. Maybe I need a mentor text myself. Or maybe I just need a mentor…like Kelly Gallagher.