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.