Friday, October 31, 2014

Technology (and School) Update

     The school year is doing what it usually does--zooming by. At my school, we're almost halfway into our second block (out of six) and I still feel incredibly behind in what I want to accomplish. The learning targets I've set for myself this year have been high, but achievable. Despite the busyness, I have seen some progress towards those targets which include integration of new technologies into my classes.
      One way I'm accomplishing this is by continuing the digital magazine concept I started at the end of last year. It will be done by the end of this block. This has been an incredible learning experience for all the students and also for me. Would I do something like this again? In a heartbeat!
Digital magazine created by students

     Another area of progress is in class offerings. A few years ago I developed a project-based class, approved by the district, which would allow me to offer students a chance to answer a problem or address a problem they saw in the schools or community. I haven't taught the class lately; however, after a recent conversation with my principal, I think I may be teaching it next block. In anticipation of that, and with two colleagues from the other two high schools in town (one of whom will teach this class next year), I am meeting with someone from our local college about innovation and getting students engaged in problem-solving.
     I'm looking forward to this meeting for a few selfish reasons. One, I ome up with better ideas when I work with others. Not sure why, but my brain works better when it's not stuck by itself. The second reason is the meeting itself. I'm anticipating the conversation and gleaning information from the professor. Our college has a Center for Innovation and an Entrepreneurship Program which are pretty cool places if you like that sort of thing. I think the job the director has done in developing this program and expanding it and integrating it across campus is amazing. It's a model that other curricular areas could plagiarize. Our med school does so successfully, which is pretty cool, too.
     One thing I'm doing this year that I've not done before is teaching an enriched English class. I have a few students who expressed interest in taking an advanced English class. We've never offered such a thing at my alternative high school, but if I have students who want to learn at a deeper level...well, I can't say no to that. This class has required quite a bit of time to develop, but I know it will be worth it.
     Another bright spot has been the ACT review. Students look forward to that and we've had some good discussions about the test and what they can expect. We'll be starting the writing portion of the review soon, which will be a good exercise for my students.
     Finally, I've been able to integrate a bit more technology into classes. The tech partner at my school told me about a timeline generator that I've had some of my film students use. They developed a timeline on the history of technological advancements in film and LOVED using the online program. Once finished, we discussed what they learned which was so much MORE than I could have hoped they would have absorbed from a boring discussion led by me. It was the enthusiasm with which they participated that kind of blew me away. Once again, it only reinforced my belief that hands-on, student-led learning works.
      So, school life has kept me busy. And busy is good. It's a continual learning process as a teacher. Learning to step out of the norm and experiment with new ideas. Learning to accept the failures as well as the successes of those ideas.  Learning how much to take on in a school year and still be effective as a teacher. Learning to trust my kids and give them the latitude to try new things, even things that are a bust.
     So even though the school year is zooming by and I've been busy, that's not a bad thing. What's important is that my students and I go to school where we all learn together. And that is a good thing. A very good thing.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Testing TIme

(I'm taking a brief break from the challenge to delve into nebulous areas of thought.)
                Yesterday at a staff meeting I was reminded of ACT scores and future test dates. I must confess: this year I'm doing overt ACT preparation with my students. My state requires and pays for all juniors to take the ACT in the spring and the students at my school have tremendously underperformed. Honestly, initially,  I felt kind of like a sellout, like I’ve knuckled under the pressure and have begun teaching to the test. However, in my defense, I do have several reasons why I’m doing a daily ACT review.
                One thing I’ve discovered teaching at-risk and nontraditional students is that most lack self-confidence. I know, I know, what teen isn’t filled with angst and self-doubts during these turbulent years? I realize that. However, take that angst times 10 and that is how most of my students feel when faced with standardized testing. By exposing them to test questions, I think I can assuage some of those fears by exploring the unknown with them. I liken what I’m doing to showing a child there’s no need to be afraid of the dark. There are no monsters on the ACT exam. Just questions that they can answer.
photo courtesy of Fort Worth Squatch
                Another reason for the review is to teach them how to think logically through questions. How to reduce the viable answers, what key words to look for, how to analyze a passage—these are all things I go over and over. I think out loud so students can hear my reasoning process. Then I invite them to join me in answering a question. Finally, they step out and do one on their own. All the while, they know the environment is safe in my room. They can vocally fail without snickers or snide comments. They gain confidence in seeing themselves arrive at the correct answer.
                Finally I’m reviewing the ACT with my students because I want them to have strategies in how to take the test. How to manage their time, how to look for key words, and how to approach the writing portion of the test? We review questions, look at sample papers and analyze those papers, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of them. Then we write. Students, again, flail a bit here, saying they can’t do it, it’s too hard. Once I’ve calmed them down and reduced the number of scared deer-in-the-headlights looks, we can start writing. In this process they gain confidence and start to believe in themselves. That’s half the battle in taking standardized tests.
                My hope is that my students won’t grow as frustrated as quickly, just answering randomly,  when they’re taking the test.  My hope is that they will realize they are just as capable as their counterparts in the traditional high schools in town. My hope is that they will recognize their abilities and start to believe in themselves. So for all the reasons not to “teach to the test,” I’m doing so this year. My hope? That it makes all the difference to them, giving them a confidence not just in taking tests but in their whole self-image.
                Life is short. Tests aren’t the end of the world. As Aaron Rodgers would say to fans, “Relax…” Everything really will be okay.

Friday, October 10, 2014

15 Things to Know About Me

      This is a rather silly little post but one prompted for me to complete by the 30 blog challenge. I know I've rewritten the rules, so to speak, of the  @teachthought blog intent, but I continue to work down the list and the days. Today is day 9 of the prompts. Hope you enjoy little known facts about me. Some of these were hard to do!
Share five random facts about myself:
     1.       I’m the youngest of seven and am still referred to as “kid” by my oldest brother.
     2.       I was a freelance writer for a few years.
     3.       My dream as a child was to become a veterinarian. The reality of organic chemistry changed that.
     4.       The very first day of freshman orientation, I met my future husband when he asked me    
            directions to a testing site.The next four years we disliked each other intensely until spring semester of our senior year.
     5.       I never wanted to be a teacher. I got my education degree/teaching license so I would always be able to support myself. Now I couldn't see myself doing much else.

Four things from my bucket list:
     1.       Visit and hike through major western National Parks.
     2.       Go through the home-building process
     3.       Go to Ireland
     4.       Go on a Mediterranean cruise with friends

Three things I hope for this year, as a “person” or an educator.
     1.       To challenge the students to be more engaged by allowing more freedom   
     2.       To develop an “enriched” English class
     3.       To laugh more

Two things that made me laugh or cry as an educator:
          1. Watching a young girl who had just finished her coursework and was ready to graduate, don a cap and gown and walk down our hallway while "Pomp and Circumstance" played in the background so her dying mother in a wheelchair could see her "baby" graduate. Not a dry eye in the place.
        2.    My students and the variety of whines they invent make me laugh.

One thing I wish more people knew about you:
   1.    I’m really a softy. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

An Unexpected Gift--or Two

 " unexpected gift at an unexpected time."  ~Sean Connery, Finding Forrester

           A favorite movie of mine is Finding Forrester.  Sean Connery plays a curmudgeon–like reclusive author who still lives off the royalties of his book. He doesn’t live well, but he lives. This is advice he gives to young Jamaal, a neighborhood teen who looks to Connery as a mentor.  Still reclusive, Connery begins to entertain the idea of re-entering the world while he “teaches” Jamaal how to improve his writing. Enough said. The key is the quote above. It has become a favorite saying of mine at home…just ask my husband!
            But yesterday it happened to me for real. Returning to my room just after lunch I met up with our district’s technology director.  It’s always great to see Joel as he takes an active interest intechnology-based curriculum. At a recent Twitter chat (#gfedchat—Monday nights @ 8:30—check it out), I invited Joel to our building, telling him he had an open invitation. I thought he was taking me up on it.
            Instead he stopped me and gave me news that made me speechless. Me, speechless! He had brought over six used Macbooks for me to us in my classroom. For me to use in my classroom! For my students to use!!! Can you tell I was overjoyed? Ecstatic? Jubiliant? Effervescent? Really, really, really happy? Thrilled, just, thrilled.
            Later as I was processing this unexpected gift (on my birthday, even) I thought about the greater gift I had received that day. I had administrative support in my quest to infuse technology more into my curriculum.  Not veral support, action support.
            Last night as I thought of it, tears sprang up when I thought of what a kind, thoughtful gesture Joel extended to me. He didn’t have to give me those Macs.  Or if he did, he didn’t have to bring them over himself.  But that’s the kind of guy he is. The more I get to know Joel, the greater my respect builds for him. He is a class act. Not just because he gave me access to something I’ve been pining for for the last 10 years, but for a few reasons. One , he actually reads my blog—currently one of three, I think, who do. Two he didn’t get mad about my mini-rant about what was missing in my classroom.  Three he acted on it. He valued me as an employee enough to wrestle up some Macbooks.
            So I received more than Macbooks yesterday. I gained insight into the leadership qualities of a man I haven’t always treated the best. A few years back, I took out my frustration about a situation on him. What I said may have been correct, but how I handled it wasn’t. That is a regret I still carry. So, Joel, if you’re reading, forgive me.  This is a guy who has endured being an assistant principal in one middle school and one high school for more years than I remember.
            As a district administrator, it’s easy to dismiss the masses and focus on your own agenda. What I’ve seen with @joelschliecher is just the opposite. He says he’s supporting you and you see that support. He validates me as a teacher, not just through his gift but through the effort it took to give me that gift. This is probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced as a teacher. And for that, and for the example of class you set, I thank you, Mr. Schleicher.
           I had to share the good news with someone, so my blog is it. Yesterday turned out to be one of the best birthdays ever. Not because of the unexpected computers. No, much more for the unexpected insight I gained and realization I came to about teaching. We really are in this together. We really are...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Students Engaged, Writing is Real

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”—Mark Twain

          Today's challenge is talking about my greatest accomplishment as a teacher. Hands down it would be relationships with students and getting my students engaged and excited at seeing their words in print. 
           Several years ago, the local paper had a section called "Teen Page." Every Monday local teens could see their belabored words, ones they had sweated and probably cursed over, in print. Every Monday! When I began this position I currently hold, I was coming from six years of working as a freelance writer (being a teacher was a pay raise!). When I saw what the paper offered students, I jumped at the chance to sell this. What better way to connect students with the writing process than to offer them a chance to see their names in a byline and their words sent out to the masses.
           This win-win situation afforded students an authentic audience, not just me. It gave them the chance to be recognized for their efforts in writing and helped them become better writers through revision. For me, I benefited from easier student engagement. Students actually asked to write a story and would pitch me story ideas. There were fewer rumblings about revisions. Students learned how to speak to an adult and practiced their soft skills. Plus, they learned how to write a feature story or profile piece and how to use quotes effectively and how to ask good questions. Seriously, "Teen Page" made my job easier.
             On Monday morning when I'd present a copy of "Teen Page" to the student, peers would look on with envy, wanting desperately for it to be their name on the byline or posted outside my door with the others.Published teens' who received that paper and saw their name in a byline for the first time wore a look of elation and pride. It was, as a tv commercial statesPriceless!
Over the years, my students wrote and published over 80 articles for the local paper. I’ve saved all their clips and periodically pull them out to show them to my current students. We talk about writing and publishing and seeing their words go out to a large audience. Sadly, the paper discontinued this practice about four years ago. At a Newspapers in Education banquet I attended soon after the demise of this section of the paper, I lobbied loud and strong for the rebirth of that page to sad shakes of the head and chuckles of  "That's a good one." Financial cuts. Cuts to staff. Cuts to my outlet for students to be published. Unfortunately, it’s still a missing piece of our paper.       
So my greatest accomplishment? Engaging students in the writing process, offering them authentic writing opportunities, and watching them puff with pride at a job well done. Priceless!