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

      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 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 In terms of parent-teacher relationships, 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


       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!