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.
        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.
       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!