Thursday, December 31, 2015

2016: A Throw-Back Year?

   
      I am a list maker. Who doesn't love making lists and then feeling a swell of satisfaction as you swipe a pen mark through it, crossing it off the "to do" paper which haunts your dreams. Well, it spooks my dreams, at least.
     So in an effort to organize myself and my life, professional, private, and spiritual, I asked for and received for Christmas a throw-back gift. Something many may scoff at but an item I've come to realize I need in order to remain organized and in charge of my life.
      Over Christmas, my husband and I watched "27 Dresses." The main character, Jane, is always "doing" for others that she neglects her self. To keep track of everyone and all her events (usually wedding related since she's been in 27 weddings), Jane utilizes a planner, a fat three-ring 5 x7" binder with calendars, a notes section and more.
     Many scoffed at her outdated mode of staying connected. But not me. Although I didn't ask for a day planner like that, I did receive my own appointment book and life-managing planner. Perfect size. Perfect gift. My husband was completely befuddled.
      Why? Because I am a techie. I love technology and Google calendar. I love getting the little reminders about upcoming events (like the one I just received about my date for coffee with a friend). What I don't love about this particular use of technology is that it's so small and limits me in easily seeing multiple months at a time. By using the planner, my dates are there, my calendar's there, and all it takes is a moment to insert new events.
       I'm not one to miss appointments, but I know having this calendar in hand will make it more likely I'll not over commit to multiple events on a day.
      Since my goal this year is to improve my organization skills, and get and stay organized, I thought this little book, small enough to slip into my purse, will help me do just that.
      What's on your to-do list? What's coming up in your life? How organized are you? This little planner helps me plan my life, be a more efficient teacher and more available mom and wife. Seems simple and old school, but for me? I think it will make all the difference.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Conference Concerns

     I know it's Christmas but my mind is mired in April. April 9th to be exact. The date of our inaugrual Waging WAR for Literacy Conference for Teens (@WAR_for_Lit). Although filled with great anticipation, I must admit a mild growing sense of anxiety. Maybe that's too strong a word...unease, perhaps. A niggling of my inner organizer wondering if we're on track and what we need to do next to help this process smooth through the day.
     Mental lists are made. Gentle reminders to colleagues of their jobs, like secure books for pre-sale, talk to business about sponsoring lunch and my own list to check back with potential donors as well as remember to apply for new grants.
     This whole process has been a joy...until now. Now that the day is drifting closer, my mind works overtime trying to pinpoint areas we need to cover and wonder what we've missed or how badly we've missed it.
     However, during this holiday season, I need to remember to give myself and my colleagues some slack. Let everyone relax and enjoy family time. Jan. 4 will come soon enough and then it's back to listening to that niggling voice.  To my coworkers on this project, enjoy the reprieve...Jan 4 is just around the corner and so am I; more work to do!
     Seriously, though, we are a team. Everyone brings a different skill set to the table and for that, I am eternally grateful. Truly I am. You guys are the best. Even you, Lumberjack Man.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

No More NCLB

       The news is out that No Child Left Behind has been axed by Congress and replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). On one front this is welcome news. I'm not sure anyone involved in teaching kids ever thought we could achieve 100% proficiency in math and reading. Talk about pipe dreams...
       However, I'm leery of the new legislation. Why? Because we've had "new" legislation for the last two decades and it always results in the same thing: changes to the curriculum/standards and benchmarks. What I'm reading is no exception. In my world the State Superintendent of Public Instruction remarked that we would "take a look at" the Common Core standards and probably make changes. These are the standards I've been laboring over for the last six-seven years. And not just me--my colleagues as well. We've worked during the summer to write common assessments based on these standards, written essential questions for our curriculum and spent tedious hours debating the nuances of the Common Core. And now there's twitterings of change?
       With all this change after so much work, no wonder people avoid the education field like the plague. What other industry changes the standards or its work as often as education? What other field "doesn't require" its workers to put in extra hours after work to implement new standards but requires the new standards implemented. The only way that can happen is for teachers to put in the extra non-paid hours.
       This may sound as though I'm anti-education, but I'm not. I am anti-bandwagon. Let's do what's best for kids. That may read strange to many, but seriously, let's put kids first. Is changing the standards, once again, best for kids? Is all the work we've done in the past several decades worthless? Frameworks? Standards? Benchmarks? Learning goals? I'm not against change, I'm against change for the sake of change. In my classes when I'm reworking what I teach I ask myself, "What's best for my students?" and try to go with that. Sometimes I wonder if that's a question ever considered by our public officials.
      I don't know enough about ESSA to comment on it. What I am an expert on is kids. I've taught them for 25 years. Maybe the governing bodies should get input from veteran teachers on the  "new policies" being considered. Novel idea, I know. I guess I'm like Robert Frost in his poem, "Mending Wall:"
      
                                               Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
                                               What I was walling in or walling out,
                                                And to whom I was like to give offense.
                                               Something there is that doesn't love a wall
                                               That wants it down. (36-40)


       Before I built a wall I want to know what it is I'm guarding and what it is I'm repelling. Before I make sweeping educational changes, I want to know who's benefiting. Is this new legislation student-friendly? If so, sign me up.
       But if the legislation is mired in legislation-ese, difficult to deconstruct and understand, and not student centered...well, it's the same merry-go-round just a different horse we're riding.
       However, it's early and I really don't know much about ESSA. I'm willing to play wait and see. I just hope others put their masonry tools away until we give ESSA a chance. One thing I can say with certainty is that I'm glad to see No Child is left behind...for good.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Lessons Learned at NCTE

     How can you add 43 books to your classroom library without draining your liquid assets? Go to the National Council of Teachers of English conference. Okay, so there are other reasons to go, but the free and reduced books are pretty tempting. Actually, there were three reasons I wanted to attend this conference. Not in any order, the reasons were Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Chris Crutcher. I'm still processing everything I experienced, going over my notes and my colleague's notes but one thing I don't need to review--the conference was amazing.
      The sessions, which were packed, featured speakers such as Kittle and Gallagher as well as Donalynn Miller of The Book Whisperer fame and Chris Crutcher, YA author. Kittle and Gallagher were the headliners, filling every session to capacity and beyond.
      One major takeaway from the conference? Choice matters. Offering reading choices helps move kids from reluctant to willing readers.
      Teachers need to get kids reading, a lot. Is content king when it comes to reading? A student new to me started my class recently. He's a bright guy who hates English. I spent some time talking to him about the class and what he could expect when he mentioned one thing he knew he could expect--to hate whatever it was I was going to "force" him to read. That's what he said he hated most, being "forced" to read stuff.
       "Force" him to read? Yeah, that's exactly what I've done in the past, but I'm resolved to give choice in the future. We discussed this a bit and I invited him to browse my bookshelves as I asked him book titles he enjoyed. After offering him six or seven different titles, he settled on one and began to read. I didn't tell him to do that, he just immersed himself in the book. An hour later, school was over. A student who'd normally be antsy to exit had to be reminded to pack up.
       More than anything this reinforced what Kittle, Miller, Gallagher and so many at the conference repeated--give students choice. Lesson learned.
       Another lesson learned was about engaging students in critical thinking activities. Kylene Beers encouraged attendees to ask students to think about what surprised them as they read and what did the author assume they knew as they read the story. I'm looking forward to reading her new book on nonfiction reading.
       It will take some time to fully assess what my takeaways from the conference were; however, one thing is for sure. I saw the value in taking advantage of opportunities like these, even at the state level. I'm more committed than ever to attending our state NDCTE conference whose officers work hard to bring high quality speakers to the event. The last three speakers? Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher  and Penny Kittle.
       Who would want to miss out on speakers like those? Not me. Lesson learned.
      

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Anticipating Professional Development ? Yes!

       A few years ago a colleague wrangled me into going to our state English teacher's conference. I had been "Ho hum" about these  opportunities in the past and wasn't that interested. Until I found out the speaker was Jim Burke of the English Companion Ning fame. I had recently joined this online community and found it inspiring and helpful. Since then, I've not missed a state conference.
       So when the National Council of Teachers of English conference was coming to Minneapolis, I knew I had to be there. I would not have a national conference come any closer to me than this. Now some may not think a five-hour drive to anything is "close," but when you live in the remote parts of the US as I do, your paradigm and definition of the word "close" changes. Drastically. For someone who grew up 30 minutes from Milwaukee and an hour from Chicago, "close" took on a new meaning when I moved to North Dakota. However, I truly believe the trek is nothing compared to the payoff which this conference promises.
www.ncte.org
        A few colleagues will travel with me as we go to be challenged in our pedagogy. As part of a professional book study reading Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This,  I can say I am looking forward to hearing him for a second time (the first at our state NDCTE conference a few years ago). I don't think I can hear Gallagher enough as I absorb something fresh from every encounter.
        Another anticipated speaker is Penny Kittle. She spoke at a recent NDCTE conference and challenged me to rethink my teaching in ways I had never considered. Her book Book Love is not a tome on teachers purchasing their own library; rather it's a challenge to teachers to get their students reading books the students like and choose rather than those mandated by the teacher. Implementing her ideas in my classroom has overhauled my lesson plans.
        Finally, I'm looking forward to hearing author Chris Crutcher. He will be the keynote speaker at a conference for teens being offered in my city in April. I am anticipating his talk as much as the other two.
        These are just  a few reasons I'm looking forward to this conference. I won't deny the getaway for professional development is a bit more rewarding knowing my district is investing in this opportunity. There's nothing like feeling appreciated and valued to make professional development feel more worthwhile. I am grateful for the monetary output of my district and want to make the most of it.
      However, even without the district support, I was intent on going to this event. When I saw the line up of Gallagher, Kittle and Crutcher it almost felt like destiny. I intended to do whatever it took, make whatever monetary sacrifices needed, to attend this conference. Having tried some of Kittle's and Gallagher's strategies made me want to see them even more to glean more insights into what I'm doing. The fact that Crutcher is also speaking felt like an added bonus since he'll be in my city soon, teaching at the teen conference.
      Even though my district is picking up some of the expenses of this trip, I'm still investing some of my own dollars. But to me, it's totally worth it. My students are worth it. I'm worth it as a professional.
       So when you have the chance to hear professionals such as those offered at this conference who are within driving distance, take advantage of the opportunity. Sacrifice your time
as a professional and invest in yourself. It'll make all the difference in your teaching. Just try it and see.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Know Thyself

 "To him who in the love of Nature holds   
   Communion with her visible forms, she speaks   

A various language; for his gayer hours   
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides   
Into his darker musings, with a mild   
And healing sympathy, that steals away   
Their sharpness, ere he is aware."
--"Thanatopsis" William Cullen Bryant

     
    William Cullen Bryant had it right. Nature does speak to us, and sometimes it's a message I don't want to hear. With the onset of the time change, the change in attitude has been noticeable. Not so much in students as in staff. Myself included. How much do bright, sun shiny days influence our moods, outlook and attitude?
       According to a 2009 NBC report, it's a known fact in the science community that moods are altered by the shortened winter days. In fact, there seems to be growing evidence that the weather does, indeed, impact how we think and respond.
      Dawn Staudt-Vanek interviewed in this report believes sunshine essential to her productivity.“I’m not depressed, exactly,” says the 51-year-old nurse from San Jose, Calif. “But I have no energy and I can’t focus. It’s hard to get up in the morning and my brain seems to have slowed down. It’s hard to even get myself to the gym.”
       I was thinking about all of  this recently as I drove home from school in twilight. The streaked sky, at the beginning of my drive, turned dark by the time I reached home. One thing I realized about myself on that drive is that I love sunlight. Lots of it. Maybe I'm living in the wrong state, but dark skies and gloomy weather definitely impact my outlook. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.
https://en.wikipedia.org
       Why is it so important to note things like daylight and weather? Because as a teacher, how I feel can impact more than just me. If I'm having a bad day, chances are my students know it. They may be less likely to approach me and ask for help if they sense a mood change. These are teens who may be hyper-sensitive to mood swings depending upon the environment they grew up in. I don't need to add to their apprehension and anxiety.
        "Know thyself," states an Ancient Greek aphorism. And it's true. Know your limits and need for sunlight. If you are a person who can function well in an enclosed classroom, more power to you.
 I have a friend who teaches in the basement of a school with no access to sunlight at all. It's incredible to me he can endure the darkness and lack of sunshine. Given those teaching conditions, I'm confident my students would find me unbearable to be around. "Give me sunlight, or give me death!" That may not be Patrick Henry's exact quote, but it's one I would say given my friend's teaching environment.
         Is this topic even relevant to teaching? I think it is. As teachers we need to care not just for the students but for ourselves. By being self-aware, you can do more to attend to your needs. Not only for your sake but for the sake of your students. No one likes to be around grumps. Take care of yourself to avoid this state.
        Maybe you need to expose yourself to a sunlight lamp. Or lighten your load during the dark days of winter. Few like to return home night after night in darkness after a long day in the classroom. Take advantage of sunny days. At my school, we have two fifteen minute breaks. On sunny days, despite the cold weather, I need to be outside.
         The onset of winter brings more than just cold weather. Watch yourself and gauge your moods. If you notice more irritability on days with less sunshine, take note and take care. Expose yourself to sunshine. And take heart. December 23, one of my favorite days of the year, is almost here and daylight starts increasing. Just like my attitude.
       "Know thyself." It could make all the difference, to you and to your students!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Be the Light at the End of the Tunnel

     My heart loses a beat or two every time I see certain students arrive.  I see them walk down the hallway, generally with a smile pasted on, usually wearing clothes that may have been worn a time or two or three and are in-between washings. Why does my heart lose a beat or two? Because of the pain I feel for these teens whom I know are struggling to survive and find a place to sleep at night. This is a growing problem in some areas today, growing, at least, in my school. What is it? Teenage homelessness.
       In talking with my principal recently about this, we both noted a movement toward higher instances of this happening. How does a teen become homeless? In most instances it's a break with the nuclear family, either the young person getting kicked out of the house or the parent going to jail or choosing to move with a significant other leaving the teen behind to finish school AND figure out where he/she is going to live. My principal and I lamented the increases we were seeing, wondering what more we could do to help stem the swelling tide.
      These are kids who are miracles. It's a miracle they come to school at all when the weight of where they'll be sleeping that night or where they'll go when school lets out hovers over them. This would stress out the normal adult. How much more so does it add to the angst of adolescence?
      Homelessness is one of the intangibles of test taking. Seriously, if you had no place to live, limited funds, were 17 and not served by social services who view you as someone who would age out of the system before you'd even gotten properly enrolled, didn't know where you would sleep that night, didn't know where you'd get the money to pay for more gas and insurance and maintenance issues on your car, would you be able to concentrate on a standardized test?
      Homelessness is the hidden horror in our schools. Students may still live with families and the whole family may be homeless. I once had a student with ten siblings. The parents rented one hotel room for them all to live in. Twelve people in a small room. No privacy, no meal prep facilities. No where to turn without stepping on someone's clothes or the person himself. Paying for that ramshackle room was cheaper than paying rent. This family lived like that the entire school year.
       I'd like to say I encounter fewer kids dealing with this issue. But I'd be lying. Since school began in August, I've seen three to four students referred to special services, people in our district who work with kids who are homeless to try to find them a place to live.
      So if my high schoolers who are homeless score a few points lower on their mandated testing, so be it. If it reflects poorly on me as a teacher, too bad. Kids are dealing with so much more today than most of us did 10-20 years back.
      What can we as educators do to help these kids? Be supportive of the student, letting them know quietly you're aware of their situation and will help them however you're able. Be flexible with them, knowing life isn't coasting down the "normal" highway. Let them know you'll work with them on assignments and new concepts they may be having a tough time mastering due to the stress in their lives. Be available to help or just offer a listening ear. Oftentimes kids aren't looking for answers, their looking for comfort and reassurance that everything will work out okay. Remember, they are just kids. They may act like they know everything or have their act together, but the truth is they are scared and insecure and stressed. Help be part of their solution, not their problem.
     Homelessness is not going away. The question we as educators need to ask ourselves is this: If I were in this situation, how would I want to be treated? If you'd want respect shown you, then show the teens respect. If you'd want reassurance, give your students reassurance. Is reading The Scarlet Letter imperative to this student's success in school? Or is it okay to give an easier work to relieve some of the stress from school to perform?
      My heart truly does ache when I hear my students' stories and see how they are just trying to survive. Vow, as a teacher, to be part of those homeless teens' solutions rather than part of their problem. Be their light at the end of the tunnel and let them know things will get better if they can just weather this storm. Remember, you can make a difference. One teen at a time.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Positive Parent Relationships Using Remind.com

      Every year I vow  to do a better job communicating with parents and every year I fail. Abysmally. Epically. Totally.
     This year I made the same resolution. I will contact parents in good times. I will contact parents periodically. I will contact parents to keep them informed. The same goals I had made in previous years and didn't achieve, I resolved to try again.
     And I did try. I actually put forth effort by calling parents of students who were doing well in my class and letting them know how proud I was of their son/daughter and how well that teen was doing in my class. Parents reaction? Most, when they answered and heard me identify myself, were guarded at best, waiting for the bad news to follow. As I delivered the good news, their voices lightened and the hesitancy was replaced by enthusiasm and gratitude. Wow, I thought, if one phone call does this much for them, how would they feel about being informed weekly?

      So I tried using www.remind.com for the first time. I can't say I'm a seasoned user, and my attempt first block was less than successful. However, I persevered and tried again this block. Surprise, surprise, it worked. There are still limitations with this service, like being able to send the message to only certain parents (which may be able to be done, I just haven't figured out how yet), but overall this has worked well for me to communicate in short 140 character messages about life in English class.

      How do I know if it's working? Because my students report back to me.
                "What are you telling my mom about English?"
                "Did you send my dad a text about my independent reading book?"
                "My mom said you sent her a text. What was that about?"
     These are just a few of the comments. So far I've been texting parents about two to three times a week. What has been the response? I've had parents text back thanking me for keeping them informed. I've met parents who've asked their child to introduce me to them. I believe I'm forging stronger relationships with parents through these texts so it's not a "me against them" mentality but rather a partnership.
        The experiment ends soon when  we have PTCs. My gut says this is only the beginning using remind.com. In terms of parent-teacher relationships,remind.com and see how it can make your life just a bit easier. You won't regret the time invested nor will the parents. The only feedback you'll get from them will be positive. Trust me.


Friday, October 16, 2015

Bad Choices, Not Bad Kids

     Do you think there are bad kids in the world? Kids who terrorize, bully, and harm others with their words or actions? Are these kids inherently "bad" or are they impacted by their surroundings and taught this behavior? There may be kids who make bad choices, but I don't believe in bad kids.
      How teachers view students and treat them is the foundation to being successful in the classroom. Relationships are key. Take one student and two teachers. One teacher has nothing but problems with the student while the other has no issues at all. The difference? It all boils down to relationship. The student feels more valued by the one teacher than the other.
      My students know my credo as I tell them often. They aren't bad kids, some have just made bad choices. Getting students to realize teachers believe in them and "have their back" is pivotal in student success. As a learner, I worked harder and cared more about how I did in classes which had teachers who believed in me. Classes in which the teacher cared and showed they cared.
      Students are no different from adults. We work harder and do better when those above us recognize our efforts, appreciate our efforts, and help us achieve more in our efforts. Relationships allow for the latter to take place. Recently a student promised to do better in her other class after a conversation we had in which I expressed my concern over her attitude and grade. It really wasn't anything I did that had an impact, it's that I did something. I showed I cared. I was concerned.
     As teachers it may seem daunting to connect with every student, and maybe it is. But we can intentionally work at creating stronger relationships with our students. How do we do that? One student at a time.
      Talk to students as they come in for class. Ask about them, their life outside high school. If you know a parent has been sick, ask the student about that parent and ask how the student is doing in dealing with it. Showing interest in students, remembering small things about them, and thanking them for the effort they are putting forth in class are easy ways to develop relationships.
      Another key ingredient in the relationship  recipe is respect. Always show respect to students. Ask them to do something over, don't tell. Thank them for doing nice work on an assignment. Show them the same type of respect you want as a teacher. The respect road is a two-way street, not a one way. Whatever we expect students to display to us, should be a general practice in our own lives.
      Want harder working, higher achieving students? It begins with you, the teacher. Develop relationships with students and let them know you believe in them, are their advocate, and are on their side. Remember, there aren't bad kids, just kids who make bad choices. Help be the change in their lives by establishing a relationship with them. It could just make all the difference.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Power of One

     Recently my school hosted a guest who spoke about the Power of One: how one person can make a difference. A week or so later #gfedchat focused on the same topic during one of its Monday night chats. Both of these events stirred me to think and evaluate my teaching. Do I do enough to empower students, to make them see the power they have to effect change?
     With the onus of teaching to the test or meeting all the standards of the Common Core or being mindful of all the elements and design questions of a teacher evaluation, teachers have enough on their plates without dabbing a small portion of something else. But what if that "something else" could help students believe in themselves and motivate them in the learning department? I decided to experiment in my classroom.
      After being reminded by Joel Schleicher of the power of one person, I had conversations with my students about this idea. Most didn't believe they could be a change agent. Most laughed at the idea. Most thought too lowly of themselves. So how can we, as teachers, bring up their level of confidence and help students  believe in themselves? I think one area is in allowing students to engage in projects.
      Projects give students a voice and a choice in what they learn and how they learn it. It empowers them to do something that may seem small but could potentially change how things are done. It gives them a first-hand perspective of the power of them--the power they hold to make a difference.
       Recently my students completed a project about the local library. They are scheduled to present their findings about things teens would like to see in the new library my city is planning on constructing to make the facility teen-friendly and more enticing for teens to utilize.
       This week we began practicing for the presentation portion of the project. What began with students begging not to be the chosen person from their group to present their slides, ended with them clamoring for that privilege. The difference? Perspective.
      Getting students to shift their focus off themselves and onto the impact they can have in what they are doing can make all the difference. By connecting this project to the power of one, students saw that even though they were a small voice from the local alternative school, they could make a big impact on how our new library is designed. They could bring about change. Have a positive impact. Battle the negative perception our students wrestle with almost daily because of the school they choose to attend.
      Thanks to Joel Schleicher for reminding me of the strength in the message of the power of one. One class, one teacher, one student, one school can make a difference. It only takes one. Let your voice be heard. Be the teacher who helps students see their power of one. It really can make an impact--one student at a time.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Twitter-fied

       One of the best parts of the school year launched a few weeks back. It's something I look forward to every Monday night. I've participated even during meetings at church because I didn't want to miss out on anything. This type of professional development is addicting. Seriously. I admit it. The bug's caught me. I'm Twitter-fied.
      On Monday evenings at 8:30 a group of professional teachers launch into Twitter conversations on a variety of topics. #gfedchat is filled with people eager to learn and share about teaching techniques and ideas.
       Check out #gfedchat Monday nights. This past week we were joined by Don Wettrick, author of Pure Genius, who was a speaker at the North Dakota Technology Conference. Need an endorcement for joining an edchat? Here's what Don Wettrick has to say about them: "Twitter is the best professional learning environment for teachers!"
       Why is it the best learning environment? Because of the variety of input received on the topic of the night. It doesn't fail that I come away with some new something to try in my classroom. Either an area of weakness I can improve upon, new curricular ideas, classroom management tips or a myriad of other sparks I can implement the next day in my classroom.
     It's a learning environment because it's immediate. I experiment with the ideas shared, bounce off concepts I'm considering, ways of presenting material I'm contemplating, and share insights I may have. The cool thing is not everyone is a mainstream teacher. There are alternative educators who are in a world of their own, technology partners who give great tips, special educators who offer unique perspectives I've never considered, and administrators whose thought process is different from teachers in some ways. Collectively, we are a group of people dedicated to improving our craft and being lifelong learners.
      Check out an edchat in your district or state. Or join ours on Monday night. #gfedchat is one of the reasons I try new things in my classroom. I get great ideas from them or from things stated. Mondays no longer hold the stigma of being the first day of the week for me. Instead it's a time for me to gather with other professionals and share ideas. It's a time for me to be challenged professionally. It's a time when I'm definitely Twitter-fied. See you Monday night. I hope you become Twitter-fied, too.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Waging WAR

How many teachers experience this on a daily, maybe an hourly, basis? Kids sneaking their phones out to text during class? I am a huge proponent of 1:1 computing, but I have to say I do get irritated with the incessant texting. Instead of a phone, can we replace it with a book to read or a pen to write? Wouldn't it be great if students would set down their phones, pick up books, and enter new worlds and meet new people? Well, not people really, but characters who feel real. Nothing would thrill me more than to see students spend as much time with their nose in a book as it is in their phone. So what's the solution? Teachers in my district might be onto something.

Logo designed by Eller Bonafacio
A group of us, four to be exact, are working on creating the inaugural Waging WAR for Literacy Conference for Teens to be held in April. This student-driven, student-directed conference is surveying students to see what they'd like to have in a conference on writing and reading (WAR) that focuses on them. We are pretty pumped about this.

Beyond the breakout sessions, we've been able to secure (through his generous reduction in speaking fee) Chris Crutcher, a notable YA author and recipient of numerous awards. Yet even with as good a writer as Chris Crutcher is, we still want this conference to be about the kids. We want them to choose what they want to learn about and how they want to learn.

The support for this endeavor has blown me away. As my co-leader Jodi says,"Amazeballs!" That pretty much sums it up. We've approached local organizations who have freely and generously supported our cause, not least of which is the Altru Alliance  group and our local Kiwanis. Both groups did more than we could have hoped financially. We appreciate their gifts and the level of trust they are placing in us.

So keep on the lookout for more postings about this conference. I try not to talk about it too much, but honestly, I'm freaking excited for it. And the best thing? We're already planning for 2017! Wait 'til you see who we have booked for that conference! I can only say one thing: Amazeballs!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Planning Priorities

     Who isn't busy at the beginning of the school year? Or the middle? Or the end? Seriously, as a teacher, I feel as though there's always something challenging me for my time. If you're like me, the word, "No" is not an oft used word in your vocabulary. But this year, I decided to try to prioritize school. Could I adequately teach all the standards? What was imperative for me to teach students? What could be taught if time allowed and what had no chance of being taught? Sound harsh? Maybe, but my goal this year is to teach some depth rather than breadth in my classes.
       I'm still working toward these goals and have made changes on the fly to force students to dig a bit deeper and really think about things. However, it's not just my classroom planning I had to prioritize. I had to realign my professional life as well. How many committees can one be on before reaching committee comatose? How many pots can my hands touch without really delving into them? How much extra work did I want to take on?
     Most teachers are lifelong learners and willing to take on anything that is beneficial to their students. That's why in August, when a fellow teacher turned to me at an edcamp-like event and wondered aloud why we couldn't' do something edcampesque-like for students,  I replied we could. And we are (more about the conference in later posts).
     That simple little conversation has launched me into prioritizing my life in spades. And for me, that's a good thing. Because of this endeavor, I have limited time for other things. What's important to me professionally? We can't do everything, despite our best efforts. So maybe it's time to prioritize.
      What does that look like for you? Can you bow out of some organizations or committees or meetings? What energizes and motivates you? Those are the things to keep. Going to "have-to" meetings benefit no one--not the other members of the committee and not you.
       I've said the magic word this year, more than once. "Can you do this?" "No." "Are you interested in that?" "No." It's not because the committee or activity lacks merit, it's just that it doesn't fit my priorities.
      The result? I'm not less busy. If you ask my husband, he'd probably say I'm busier than ever. But I'm not drained by what I'm doing. It's not laborious to go to my ELA book study meeting. I enjoy the activities I'm involved in and the challenge they hold for me professionally.  I'm not run down or tapped out because of the passion I have for everything I'm doing.
     So take a step forward, be bold, and graciously decline involvement in something that doesn't fit with your professional priorities. The first "no" may be tough to say, but it gets easier after the first few times. Go ahead, practice saying it. Then use that word in real life. You'll be glad you did. In spades.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Group Gripes

     I enjoy having my students do projects. Really. I do. My students are currently immersed in a project right now. Well, some of them are. A number of students are totally engaged and then there are other members of the group doing A LOT of talking but little action. So how can we counter this and make engagement something that happens with all students? Is it even possible to get all group members fully active in the project?
     Some teachers, many teachers, shy away from projects because of management challenges. How large are the groups? What's the number of the groups? Are they too big? Too small? Do the personalities mix? Will they produce results? Do all students have to be doing something at all times?
      All of these are valid questions, deserving answers which I don't have. What I do have are observations I've made these past 20+ years of teaching. Observations that I wish I always remembered!

     One thing I've learned, at least with my students, is smaller is better when it comes to group size. If I could get by with a two-person group, I would as I think they are more conducive to higher engagement. Since there are only two people there to work on the project, they'll have more than enough to keep their hands busy and the learning active.
     Sometimes, however, a two-person group isn't feasible. Sometimes you need more people. With a larger group comes the chance that some students will have inactive moments. But just because they aren't doing a task, doesn't mean they can't contribute ideas or suggestions.
      Do I let me students choose their own groups? This usually depends upon the class dynamics. Most of the time I try to give students that option. It's rare I have to reapportion students or re-design the group.
     In the end, most students who aren't initially engaged become so during the course of this journey. They unearth facts, create artifacts, write copy and learn. Often they learn more, or at least, seem to be more vocal about their learning than their fellow classmates.
     Right now in the project my students are doing, I have a rather verbose individual. Left to his own devices, he would control not just his group, but every group with his loud exchanges and interest in everyone else's progress. To combat this, I pulled the individual aside and enlisted his help. I asked him to help draw another student into the project and make a point of listening to her suggestions, noting how everyone looked to him as the leader. When given that moniker of leader, he responded in kind. He mellowed out, focused on his group mates and worked toward inclusion. In a nutshell, it worked.
     We can only hope everything will be that easy...but it's often not. Reigning in and engaging students are two challenges of having group work. At least for me. Yet we shouldn't shy away from utilizing projects because management can be problematic. Most of the time, when immersed in projects my students claim to have learned more from that type of work than they did from studying literature or reading books by dead white guys.
      There's a place for both type of learning in school today. As teachers we can't be swayed by our gripes with groups and allow that to dissuade us from project-based learning. What about you? What have you found most challenging about utilizing groups to engage learners? Any tips?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Know Yourself

      Great ideas energize us. Or they do some of us. Some people get jazzed dreaming "What if..." while others like to work to make the "What ifs" become a reality. Others like to wait for the fruition of the plan and then join the team to help implement it. Whatever the case, knowing where you fit on that spectrum and then operating in it can lead to less stress and more fulfillment in our lives.
      Some people are big picture people. They love to come up with ideas, start projects, and then watch as others take those visions and make them realities. These people are essential to teaching and the classroom because they are innovators and creators. I have colleagues who have great ideas. When I'm around them, I feel energized by their thoughts and get inspired with ideas of my own. We build off each other and they charge me up.
       Other colleagues take those ideas and implement them. They are the "doers." Action people who like to take a project and see it to completion. I often end up in this role, not necessarily because that's who I am, but because I get so geared up about something and become passionate about an idea that I want to see it come to pass. However, I know me. I can do the "doer" thing, but I'm more of a big picture person.
        Still others with whom we collaborate are background people who come out during the implementation process. They are on the ground, "doing" the dreams in real time. A vital part of the process, that's for sure.
       So why is this topic worthy of a blog post? Am I that desperate for topics? Well...no comment.
       Actually, I'm working with some colleagues on a project that I am passionate about. Yet I have to watch myself, making sure I don't burn out, lose interest in this event, or want to quit. I can see it happening. Especially when I look at my calendar!
       As you enter into projects and events with coworkers, know yourself and the place you fit best. You'll feel more fulfilled and energized operating in the area; your project will operate more smoothly and everyone will avoid that stressed out feeling.
       So my words for this week? Know yourself, and you'll be happier for it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Be a Donor

      As a teacher, how many amazing ideas whiz through your brain weekly or even daily only to be dismissed because you know funding is as rare as a 20 degree day in January in North Dakota? I wallowed with this problem for years until I took advantage of a site called DonorsChoose.org.
      I actually came upon this site a few years ago and contributed to a few projects. But this year, my second year in my new classroom, I was ready to build my classroom library and start a book club for my students. The problem? No funds. Or limited funds. Ask my husband? No funds.
      Once again I happened upon DonorsChoose.org and decided to sign up to get my projects funded. And they did. Three of them. My classroom bookshelves are no longer meagerly stocked and I've started a book club at lunch time with some students in my school. Sure there's some work involved in writing the request form and in sending thank yous and pictures, but the payoff is so much bigger.  They also offer matching funds within the first week of your project (up to $100) and companies can match employees giving (this alone funded one of my projects, thanks to my brother's company).
       Maybe you don't have a project that needs funding, but other teachers do. I've invested hard-earned dollars in other educators because I believe in them and what they are trying to do to better their classroom.
         Check out DonorsChoose.org and impact someone's classroom. What goes around, comes around.

From DonorsChoose.org website

Friday, September 4, 2015

Mini-Melties

     I made it four days before my first student had a panicked melt down. Four days. That may seem kind of quick but not in my world. Through the years, these mini-melties erupt occasionally but don't need to become a full-blown Vesuvius.  There are practical steps to help a student avoid the melties and feel a release of the anxiety that often accompanies this emotional situation.
     Students are stressed. In my world, I see this stress more often than not. These kids have multiple pressures tugging at them. One boy in my class was accused by his mom (off her meds) of trying to kill her so she kicked him out of the house. He's currently working full time, and doing a terrific job there, while sofa surfing at night. School? He came the first day...
     Other students work full time, pay their own bills, are trying to graduate, help support their families and have little to no down time. This was the case of my first meltdown student. She stayed after to talk to me and slowly her poise evaporated and the situation escalated as she talked about not understanding the reading material, not being able to do the paper, not following all the characters, not happy at all at where she was at.
flickr.com
     So how do you handle a kid in crisis? The first thing is try to de-escalate the situation. In a calm, soothing voice I told her I understood how she was feeling and how frustrating that must be. Then I asked her some questions/offered some options. This girl was feeling trapped by an assignment she felt overwhelmed by--it's important to offer options so kids feel there are escape routes.
     We went through a myriad of choices, each one being defeated or deflected by this student. Her anxiety level was rising again so I told her we could talk about it tomorrow. I told her I'd work on something that would lead to her success, some options she'd be able to understand and experience success with. In the meantime, I suggested she talk to the counselor to solidify her credit count and ease her fears that she may not graduate this year.
      De-escalating a situation and calming the student down are imperative in keeping a relationship with the student. There's no room for territorial behavior (hey, I like that assignment--it's not too hard--you just need to work harder). This type of attitude merely exacerbates the situation. The focus should be the student, not a kingdom of work.
      So today I'll be talking with this student and making a plan that fits her abilities while still challenging her academically. Do I expect dramatic growth in her? Not dramatic, but growth, yes.
 It's my job to see how she can achieve that growth in the least threatening setting.
     I'm no psychologist, nor are most educators. However, without some common sense approaches to stressed out kids, we can alienate them forever and they will shut you down and out as a teacher. I'll make concessions. I'll encourage her and give her assignments on a scale where she can feel success.
     We all have mini-melties at times. But how those emotional outbursts are handled can determine the atmosphere in your class for the coming year. If other students see you take a teacher-centric approach, this will damage your relationship with students. "Oh, typical teacher." will be their attitudes. But if you actively work with a student to find alternative material while assuaging that student's fears about the class, well, other students will see that and feel safe in your room. They'll know that people matter more than material.
       Melties happen. Just make sure you have the right extinguisher to put out the fire. How you handle it will impact not just you and the student but your whole class. So check your Super Teacher tool belt and look for the gadget labeled "Soft Voice" and "Soothing Talk." Use these on the melties and it will make all the difference.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

And They're Off

      Successful first days like the one I had yesterday don't come around too often. Although a bit disjointed in my first period, I was much smoother in the first day spiel my second period. The big surprise for me was the willingness in which my students engaged in the activities I planned.
      Not too many at-risk teens mess with Play Dough. But they did in my room yesterday. We watched a bit of Jim Gaffigan as the students molded the clay into something that revealed who they were or what they did this summer. And then they talked about their creations with me and others in the class. Usually my room is a tomb on the first day as most kids are new and few know each other. Yesterday's work with Play Dough smashed down the silence.
      We also participated in a speed dating activity...with books. Another surprise. Students couldn't decide what they wanted to read in a good way. One told me I had given them too many sick choices. I knew I had them.
      Once we had the books, we went back to class and they actually asked if they could read. "Sure, knock yourself out," I told them. So we all read for twenty minutes. Later, when it was time to start getting into coursework, some kids surreptitiously opened their books and kept reading, hoping I wouldn't see them.
       Because kids are in class for three hours daily, I don't ask them to take work home. Yet, I had students begging me to please let them do school work at home. Okay, seriously, when does that happen? I'm saying, it was a surreal sight I should have recorded for later doses of needed encouragement.
       All this to say teaching never gets old. Students never stop surprising me. And preparation helps. But mostly kids respond to teachers. How do I approach the first day? How do I approach them? What kind of vibe do I give off to my kids? All of these are great influences in forming students' reactions to the teacher. To me.  IF I have my stuff together, chances are my kids will respond positively. They can tell I put time and effort into them, into preparing for them.
      Well, today is Day 2. Will the honeymoon continue? I'd like to think so. Talking to students and showing you're interested in them goes a long way toward extending the honeymoon. I can't wait to get to school today and watch my students engage themselves in my classes. I' fairly confident it will happen.
      There will be set backs during the block, but I know one thing for sure today. My students got out of the gate well and are off and running. That's all I can ask...for now.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

First Day

      In my world of teaching, I have at least six first days per year. Because of the six segments my school year is divided into, I start new classes every 28-31 days. No doubt, though, I put more effort into the "real" first day of school than I do into the other ones. Having a plan for the first day and assembling needed tools can contribute to a smooth start to the school year. Trust me, I've learned the hard way.
Photo by EpicFireworks
      I admit it. I've done it before. Taken a cavalier attitude towards the initial beginning and just kind of winged it. The result? The only bomb with more explosion power was possibly the a-bomb. Possibly.
      After stammering and stuttering through the first half hour of nonsense, I stopped. Not because I thought it best but because of the raised hand and following question of a student. "Uh, can you stop now and just let us read?" Much to my students' relief, I left them alone and allowed them to begin. I had pity looks that first day, looks I hadn't had since the high school dances!
      Only, the glances of my students hurt worse. I had let them down. In my over-confidence, and dare I say laziness? (I dare), I failed to prepare properly for the first day. While languishing  in humiliated silence, I reviewed the bombshell, noting all the things I failed to do.
      Lesson learned. I've never repeated that scenario nor have I longed for those pity looks from my kids. Instead I prepared. I knew what I wanted to cover, how I wanted to cover it, and made a plan to do so.
      This small practice has reaped huge rewards. I'm more comfortable and confident on the first day (and ensuing first days), knowing I have only to glance at the board or my notes to know what's next. I've tried desperately to be like other teachers I know, who use the cavalier method which works for them. Obviously, I needed more structure. Obviously, I needed to admire not emulate my colleagues. Obviously, I needed confidence in my own style.
      That bomb detonated years ago. Since then I've still failed at some of the things I've tried my first day, but I failed in confidence, knowing I had planned but my ideas didn't line up with my kids' ideas of a first day. No big deal. I may have failed, but I did so comfortably, knowing it was something I had prepared for that just didn't work. That happens. Just less often when you have your stuff together.
      So happy first day of school. Review your material, know what you want to do, and be prepared. If you do this, one thing you won't have to review is the emergency exit map. Keep the bomb shelter for another day.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Getting Geared Up

      Today was a professional development (PD)day for my district. Students begin Monday, the 31st. This was the most productive PD day I've spent with my English colleagues. I feel as though we not only accomplished something but I'm also being challenged to learn new ideas and concepts.
      The best part of the day? Establishing book studies with our colleagues. We wrote down titles of books that we'd like to learn more about and then signed up for the book we wanted to study. We'll meet as a group, read and discuss the book, and then create a presentation for our next PD day in April. This is relevant professional development that allows teacher's to have a choice and a voice in what we do. Finally. This was a successful day.
      Days like this gear me up and excite me to get in the classroom. And I think that's what PD should be about --energizing and exciting teachers to go implement what they learned.
      Props to those who made this day happen. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stay Calm

     Do you sense it? That snap in the air? The crackle of electricity shooting around your classroom? There's only one reason for this--school's about to start a new year.
     Most teachers never feel quite "ready" for the fall to commence. Too much tweaking (or too little) leads to a lack of satisfaction for me. Every year I field the same queries from friends and acquaintances. "So, are you ready for school?" is the familiar question. Usually I respond with a few mumbled words. This year, however, there's more of an anxiety surrounding this new beginning. Why? Because I'm taking risks, trying new things, and chancing failure. I know, I know, failure isn't bad, yada, yada, yada. Except to overachievers like me.
     I want everything to be perfect even though I know in my head it's an impossible feat. Yet after all the years I've taught, if I've learned anything, it's that I need to roll with the punches. Relax. Chill. Everything's going to work out okay.
     I have a colleague who never gets riled about anything. He tells us all the time to "Stay calm" because he's a trained social studies teacher. I'm not sure that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but I do appreciate his chill attitude toward school. If it doesn't work out, no big deal, he'll try something else.
     This staff member also says, "All you can do is all you can do." And he's right. It's all any of us can do. So start this school year off  following his advice--stay calm. Everything really will be all right...I hope.
    

Friday, August 21, 2015

One. More. Page

   I've been saying in multiple social media posts that I only want to focus on one or two things this year and do them well. After a lot of thought and an incredible conference with Penny Kittle, my focus this year is reading. That's a pretty broad goal and isn't really a goal at all. So the question is, what do I want to achieve in the realm of reading?
     My ultimate goal is to create readers out of my students. Give them choice and freedom to read books they want to read--their choice. A recent article in Canada Education reports on the power of engaged readers. This story supports its claims with evidence that surprised me.
     But it's no surprise that words can capture a person and hold him/her prisoner within the bound pages. It happens to me almost daily. I'm currently reading Deadline by Chris Crutcher and I'm absorbed in it. I know I need to get some other task completed but it's usually only after an internal struggle that I can put it down.
     How can I make that happen in my students? By giving them the freedom to choose their own book and the trust that they know what they're doing. By treating them like adults and allowing them choice in what they read, students become active learners and participants.
     So that's my goal this year. To get my students so engaged in reading and so immersed in their books that when it's time to stop for the day they beg: One. More. Page.
    

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Spread Some Sunshine

     Everyone has cloudy days. Maybe even months or season in our lives when life's circumstances can overwhelm us. But how we react to those cloudy days reflects a lot on who we are as people. The same is true with our students. What do we do as educators to help them out of their funks? Sure, we're not counselors, but a small act can go a long way.
     The video below shows a boy in the face of the worst kind of adversity who could wallow in cloudy days. Instead, he makes a decision to take a different path in life and spread a little sunshine. After watching this video, I had to ask myself if I was on the same journey as this little guy. A journey I think is worth taking. See what you think.


     This little guy may only be six, but he's already endured incredible loss. People may think he doesn't really understand what happened because he's so young. Having lost a parent when I was seven, I can honestly say I disagree. Yet so filled with loss, Jaden finds solace in others and making them happy. When I was seven, I was too immersed in me.
     So lesson learned. Despite the day that may be filled with disappointments or challenges, ask yourself this: Did I make someone smile today? Because really, we all need a little sunshine in our lives to help remove the clouds.Instead of ignoring the sullen student, give him or her a little gift of your time or extra care or a smile. The outside may remain as somber as ever, but perhaps you brightened up the inside. Who knows? After repeated attention, may you'll be a cloud chaser yourself and allow sunlight to penetrate the gloom.
      When clouds threaten my day or my students, I'm going to remember Jaden and spread a little sunshine. I think it's a lesson we can all learn. Thank you, Jaden. You're going to reach your goal in spades. Just you watch. Our world is a brighter place because of you.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Invest In Yourself

     Professional development is important in any line of work. However, I believe it is vital for teachers. Let me clarify--good professional development that is meaningful, relevant to the teacher, and teacher-driven is vital for teachers. This type of experience can recharge and revitalize teachers. So when I saw that the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Convention was to be in Minneapolis this year, I decided to invest in me.
Penny Kittle with colleagues from Grand Forks at NDCTE conf.
      When opportunities to hear speakers of the quality of Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher and authors such as Chris Crutcher come along, well, all I can say is, sign me up. I was fortunate to hear the first two at my state conference the last two years (NDCTE). They gave me more ideas to use in my classroom than I've had from speakers in quite some time.
      With Gallagher and Kittle presenting, I know I'll come away with more ideas on ways to improve my teaching. And that's just two speakers. That doesn't include the breakout sessions.
      I know, it's not right that teachers have to pay for conferences on their own. It's not right that districts don't invest in teachers and help them attend national conferences. But don't let that be a barrier to your not attending. Granted, it takes some planning and financial investment to make a conference a reality when there is no school budget. However, in all my years of teaching (25), I've never attended a national conference in my subject area before. I've gone to two conferences, one as a presenter and one as an attendee. I figured I was overdue and with the speakers, I knew I couldn't let a chance like this pass me up.
      Yes, it's going to cost me some money. But when hasn't my profession cost something? The investment may hurt a bit, yet I believe my students are worth it. My teaching is worth it. It's time to invest in something that matters. It's time to invest in myself. And I couldn't be more excited to do so. 
       If you're an English teacher, check out the NCTE Convention November 19-22 in Minneapolis. It may take some planning and creative financing, but do it. Take the time and invest in you. You won't be sorry. I'm sure of it. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Not "Just" Reading

     I am excited and a bit apprehensive about this upcoming school year. I feel this way every year, which, I think, is a good thing. It's good to be anticipating the year, looking forward to implementing new ideas. It's also good to be cautious about what I'm trying out, knowing the new ideas may fail.        
     This year I'm starting a lunch time book club. I utilized DonorsChoose.org to fund this venture and have been gratefully surprised by the support this project has received. After only a short time, the project is nearly funded. This money will purchase the books I need to have the book club.
     As stated in previous blog postings, I've had reinforced this summer the need for kids to not "just" read but to have choice in their reading material. That's something I've worked at over these few months is beginning to build a classroom library. But that's a whole 'nother topic. Kids need to read. Period. I'm hoping this lunch time book club will ignite an interest in reading and sharpen analytical skills. In essence, bring about a joy for reading students may not have experienced before.
     Something I do know, is this isn't "just" a book club. It's a place where I can introduce students to characters and places they've never met or been, sparking an interest in visiting more places and meeting even more characters on their own.
     Reading is fundamental. It's not "just" reading anymore than I'm "just" a teacher. Reading is an invitation to imagine and enter worlds beyond ours, experiencing new things and being exposed to new ideas.
      Reading isn't "just" for school or students. It's for everyone. Summer's almost over but it's not too late to visit new places or meet interesting people. Pick up a book today and immerse yourself in it. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

One Book at a Time

     I'm sitting in my hotel room watching the sun rise, the words of Penny Kittle resonating in my mind. What did she say that has been so impactful? What has she said that changed me? Nothing and everything. Even now, after pondering and processing my experiences, I can't detail one thing that really stood out to me--it was a collection of thoughts, beliefs, and ideals that rose up to challenge me.
     Usually after attending conferences I feel woefully inadequate as a teacher, seeing how far I miss it in most areas. This time, I wasn't being talked at or instructed. Being in Kittle's session was like listening to a colleague share experiences and success stories. I was inspired not deflated. She gave practical points to improve what I already do, some of which I realized was pretty good.
Penny Kittle at NDCTE15
     Yeah, there's areas to improve, but in the realm of teaching writing, I'm doing less harm and more good. I even use some of the same methods/tactics Kittle does.   However, in the area of getting my students to read and focusing on reading in the classroom there's room for improvement. A LOT of improvement.
      One thing I've begun doing because of the example set by my colleagues is develop a classroom library. Last year was my first year of really trying to build my book collection since it was the first time I had my own classroom. I appreciated all the title tips Kittle gave us and have already visited two bookstores to begin the acquisition of some of the titles shared by Kittle.
      Since my library is in the fledgling stages, I will try to organize it like others I heard from at the conference. Kittle recommended an app from Booksource, Classroom Organizer, that will help in the inventory and checking out process. Others told me what they do and how they manage their libraries.
     But the number one take away from this conference? It's nothing profound, really. In fact it's quite simple. So simple that many of us at the conference overlooked its importance. So what's the secret to improving my students reading ability and engagement? Two things really. Read and Choice. My kids need to read to become better readers. Kittle gave practical insights as how to get this done. The second is give them choice in what they read. Kittle gives them choice in 80% and requires 20% of their reading in the form of short stories and maybe one shared novel.
     What's the result of students having a choice in what they read? Even the most reluctant reader in her class read double digit books in a year. Granted, that wouldn't be possible in the way my school operates, but I can improve on zero. Always. Don't get me wrong. My kids do read books, but not always of their choosing. That, my friend, is going to change.
     So how will my classroom look different in the fall? I plan on having book talks and letting students keep lists of books they want to read. Students will share their book experiences with others. I will give them time to read in class--books they want to read.
     Choice is such an obvious motivator that it's a wonder more teachers don't incorporate it in their teaching regime. But obvious isn't always easier. This new commitment toward reading in the classroom and altering how I teach won't be easy. It's a paradigm shift in thinking and practice.
     But I figure if my kids can embrace change, so can I. In the end, they're what matter most. So I will continue to build my library one book at a time, spending precious personal funds like many other colleagues do.
      If there's anything I've learned this past year about teaching and teachers it's this: Teaching isn't a nine-month job with summers off to kick back. Teachers are professionals who work year round at something for which they receive nine months worth of pay.
     Next time you see a teacher, partner with them by offering to buy a book or two for their classroom. You'll be helping to impact young people one book at a time. And that will make all the difference. Just you wait and see.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Life-Changing Word

      I have a friend of twenty plus years whom I've only spent hours with in person. Yet those snatches of time have been etched on my life. She's a literary agent for Christian authors, but I knew her when she was a fledgling writer. Going on tour with one of her authors brought Wendy to this area so we all met up for lunch one day. This time it was her author who said something I'll never forget.
      The author queried me about my job. Wendy laughed and said, "Lauraine, it's not her job, it's her passion."
      I went on to say I was just an English teacher when Lauraine stopped me. Her blue marble eyes held mine as she said, "I'm going to tell you something that will stay with you and hopefully change you forever. Eliminate the word 'just' from your vocabulary. You aren't 'just' a teacher. You're a teacher, someone who changes people's lives in ways most never realize. You aren't 'just' a teacher. 'Just' means you don't value what you do, when clearly you do."
     She said more but that was the gist of it. Lauraine was right. I've not been able to stop thinking about her words. I wondered when I morphed from teacher to 'just' a teacher. When did I start to belittle my profession by using that qualifier?
     How often do we hear that word from students? 'It's just a writing assignment' or 'It's just a day late'? How often do we utter that limiter our selves?
     I've come to think of the word 'just' as a minimizer. It diminishes us, our work, our students. I finally figured out that not everyone can be a teacher. Talking to a teacher friend, I've heard words I've never really listened to before. "People think they could teach but really, could they? Most who say that don't even like teens much less be around them for six or seven hours a day."
     She's right. Not everyone can be a teacher or at least a good one. I could never be a scientist or a firefighter or a chef. I could do these, maybe, but not well.
     Yes, teaching can become tiring some days. But overall, my kids energize me and challenge me to become a better teacher. Not 'just' a teacher.
     So I'm working on taking that word out of my vocabulary. I'm not 'just' a teacher. I'm a professional who imparts knowledge to teens and instructs them not only in how to write, but in how to think and analyze the world and the words around them.
     I never want to be 'just' a teacher. When that mentality pervades my thinking, it'll be time to quit. But for now, 'just' is a word I'll be avoiding.
     Lauraine was right. Eliminating that word is changing me. Think about it for your own life. There's power in words. Even in the small ones.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Summer Vacation

       Many folks dream of the perfect job schedule. One where they work nine or ten months of the year, get multiple days off during the year and get their summers off. Looking around for such a utopian way of work, they spy the teaching profession and pounce. This is it! This will let  me work, but be lazy some of the time as well. You, my friend, have a strange view of what a teacher does during the summer. Let me show you my summer plans.
        This was the first official week of vacation. I spent the first three days taking a project-based learning class (PBL) to use what I learn in the classroom next year. During this "vacation"time, I worked with colleagues/fellow teachers on their first week of vacation who were doing the same thing--working. I'm not complaining. It was an excellent class, one that challenged my thinking and gave me better insight on the project process. I'm a better teacher for having participated.
        After finishing the class, my first "real" day of vacation was Thursday. How did I spend my time? Meeting with my principal to discuss next year, reading a teen book I may want to use in my classroom, and working on developing programming for the upcoming year per my principal's request.
       To be fair, I am being paid for some of these activities. Not pay that's a true representation of the work I complete in a summer. If a CEO or doctor or lawyer created projects or worked during supposedly "down" times, would they reduce their rates of pay? I know, rabbit trail. I'll stop going down this path. Can you tell it's a bargaining year and we haven't settled?
       Next week, before an actual vacation to NYC to see my son, I will continue to work on school projects and hold meetings. Some for pay and some for no pay. Pay isn't my motivation when deciding to do something--value to my students comes first. Kids First, as it should be.I don't mind taking second fiddle to my kids. School should be about them, right?
      The rest of my summer follows a similar pattern. Mostly working, with some fun thrown into the mix. And I'm glad for the opportunities to work with others, brainstorm, work on new ideas--it's what makes me keep my focus on education and Kids First.
       Next time you're in a coffee shop in Grand Forks, look around and see if you can identify the teachers there who are working during their summer vacation. You'll be surprised!
     

Friday, June 5, 2015

The End is the Beginning

       Last night I said farewell to the class of 2015. Our group of graduates challenged us teachers, for sure, but it was with pure joy for them that I celebrated their success and achievement. So today, my last official school day of the year, brings thoughts of the former year? My outgoing students? Actually, I my mind began generating sparks for the next year. What will my next year look like? What will I try next year?
       It seems a bit strange that the ink is barely dry on the diplomas for this graduating class and I'm already thinking about next year. What I can do better. What can I do more efficiently? How can I engage the unengaged?
      One thing I'd like to try is to have a lunchtime book club. A colleague told me how he conducted this during lunch hour at his old school so I "stole" the idea. I can't wait to see how it goes next year.
      A goal I have before the beginning of next year is to read--a lot. I am picking the brains of my fellow English teachers, amassing a list of "must" read books. I've completed a couple and glad I did. Great books to offer students next year.
      I know I'm no different from most teachers. Few of us look at the end of school as the end. For most of us it's the end of the beginning. The end of one year and the beginning of planning and looking to the next. I can almost smell those fresh school supplies already. Can you?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Less is More



            Less is more. At least according to a blog post about the Finnish educational philosophy. Written by a teacher who spent time in Finland, this post reveals truths about education in general that every educator should consider, starting with the idea that less is more.
            This idea resonates with me because I see it played out daily at my school. A school which targets at-risk teens, we focus on individual attention and developing relationships with students via a block schedule. I have students during a three-hour period for 28-31 days. Often I’ll have the same students for multiple blocks in a row, allowing me to get to know the learning style of the students as well as understand how they process information and their strengths and weaknesses in learning.
            With the individualized attention and fewer teachers, students end up learning more despite the school having a small staff.  In fact, many have commented on how this is the first time they feel they’ve learned something in school.       
            Finnish students spend less time in school and start later. A school day for them begins at 9 or 9:30 and ends at 2:30. What? Can that be? It can be. Research supports a later start to the school day yet school districts continue to have early morning starts.
            Another less the Finnish students encounter is less homework. The belief is that work should be able to be done during the school day. Here, again, is another similarity between my school and the Scandinavian ones. My school is designed for students not to have homework. It should all be done in school.
            There are more similarities between the alternative school at which I teach and those in Finland, which I find encouraging. Alternative education has got it right. At least at my school. Maybe we should reconsider some of the things we do in the States where more is not always better. Maybe we should look into refining our expectations. Maybe we should reevaluate how schools run. Because sometimes, less really is more.