Friday, December 9, 2016

First Year Findings

     My older sister is not your normal first year teacher. She began this journey eons ago but finally saw her dream job come true when she was offered the opportunity to teach 6-8 grade ELA this year. I'd mention my sister's age, but shell probably read this and hurt me. Suffice it to say she's not in her 20s, 30s or 40s. I encouraged this career path, knowing how good she'd be and how she's always longed to be a teacher. That being said, she's taught me quite a bit this year.
     The first lesson I learned from her was to simplify. She sent me her syllabus and course overview and I became discouraged just reading it. I felt like the student, overwhelmed before I even started. My advice to her was to lighten up. Make sure her students learned the essentials but weren't buried. I asked myself if I do that. Do I make sure my students are proficient before moving on to new material? Do I want my kids to know a little material/ideas/concepts well, or to know a lot of information poorly? My answers determine my actions.
      At the beginning of the school year, my sister, was fairly well stressed: new job as a teacher, new technology to learn, new curriculum to study and implement. She turned to me for help, and I did what I could. The technology part of the preparation concerned her. My advice was to take it slow and know that she'd eventually get it. Sometimes as teachers we try to do too many new things in our classroom, using technology or not, which leads to not becoming proficient in any of them. I have to remind myself of this often. Implement one or two new things well before moving on to embrace more new things.
     My sister spends her days creating lesson plans, writing rubrics, and preparing for her classes. Her students are enjoying her as a teacher and are engaged in learning. All successes I think. However, does she border on perfectionism? I see that in my own life, constantly refining things until I'm satisfied for the moment, yet I never give up. I'm constantly trying new things, which is fine, as long as that implementation isn't taking over your life. Moderation in all things.
     We recently had two snow days at school. Whereas I spent the time relaxing and baking, she admitted she would have used the time to work on school materials. Sometimes, I realized, I just need a break. A year ago I would never have thought that, but I know I'm more effective as a teacher if I have some down time.
     My sister and I are close. I enjoy having her as a colleague, sharing ideas with her, talking with her about her classes, and relating to her like few others in our family can. As I see her embark on this virgin journey into education, I am happy to learn right along with her. Her journey has helped me become a better, more focused teacher, reminding me of tenets I took for granted in the past. And that? That has made all the difference.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

R-E-L-A-X

      Sometimes I feel like my favorite football team: potential is there to have a winning season, but oftentimes they fail to live up to expectations. Sure, my team is beat up and filling spots with their practice squad guys they've had to sign to pick up the slack. But they still have potential. They proved what they could do recently on the football field. Sometimes I feel as though I have the potential, but I just doesn't click. When I get stressed over how things are going in my class, I think of the quarterback of my team. He urged fans to "R-e-l-a-x" and things would get better--everything would be okay. Even though we didn't go to the Superbowl, we had a good season and made the playoffs. In essence, he was right. When I get stressed over events in my classroom, I need a dose of that advice.
     What I have noticed after two plus decades of teaching is that nothing goes according to plan. Really, how could it? There's a variable in there that is not a constant--it's kids and they are never constant. Their worlds are rarely constant, so how can they be? Instead of getting stressed about their seeming lack of engagement, we need to relax as teachers and realize things will get better.
     It seems the holidays are the worst, at least for my demographic. For a myriad of reasons, life isn't always easy or kind to my kids, and it's worse during the holidays. I know they have a world full of complications in their lives outside of school that sometimes spills over into the school day. We can either approach kids with a firm, inflexible hand, or with empathy and flexibility. Does that mean we let them off the hook and not have high expectations of them? No, it means that some days we reduce our expectations, knowing they have a whole lot more important stuff on their mind than Walt Whitman.
     When I'm relaxed and in the teaching "zone," I know what I'm doing and things are clicking. Relaxing takes stress out of me, out of the students and out of the classroom providing a more appealing environment for learning.
     The key is that we, as teachers, help to establish the classroom atmosphere. Things may seem as though they are bogging down and kids are approaching school with a lack of energy, but we can change that through our own attitude. Maybe we do need a "recharge" of our attitude or approach to school. Maybe we do need to lighten up. Maybe we do need to relax. Our classrooms are a reflection of us--like it or not, good or bad. By relaxing and enjoying your students, you can create a less stressful environment for learning.
     The holidays can be stressful enough. For football teams and teachers. Teams are trying to wield their magic on the field in hopes of achieving that elusive play-off berth while teachers are working the same magic in the classroom, hoping to engage students and help them learn. Both can be difficult endeavors. And both can be doable. We just need to R-E-L-A-X. It can make all the difference.

Collaborating with Colleagues

     Everyone has their little kingdom. For some it's a cubicle. For others it's a home. For teachers, it's a classroom. It's their domain. Their dominion. I used to tell my students my classroom was a benevolent dictatorship. I was in charge. Me. Not them. Not ever. And consorting with colleagues? Unthinkable, right? Maybe in days past, but in today's educational climate, if you want to teach collaboration, model it yourself via your interactions with your coworkers.
     Colleagues are a teacher's lifeblood. They help sustain us via venting and brainstorming sessions. They encourage and support us. They are honest with us and tell us when we may need to shape up a bit. At least, this is how I think it works.
     I'm an honest person in that I honestly tell people what I think. Oftentimes I do this with little or no regard to being  tactful. Not because I mean to, but because that's how I'm wired. No excuses. I need to be more mindful of the behavior and change it. So why am I sharing this? Because it relates to my coworkers who have patiently dealt with this shortcoming of mine for years. Just as I deal with theirs. That's the key. As colleagues, we try to work through these things so we can be more effective as a team who supports our students.
     If I want my students to work together, is it right for me not to expect the same of myself? Shouldn't the teacher be willing to model the behavior he/she wants students to imitate? If only for this reason alone, I need to be willing to work with my fellow teachers.
      Sometimes there will be misunderstandings or a teacher will have a sucky day and let the suckiness invade the rest of the day.  In those moments, she will likely say something unintended or do something  she later regrets. Been there, yada, yada, t-shirt.
      I have patient colleagues who forgive my errant behavior. I want to be the same type of coworker to them--forgiving and willing to give out a dose of grace. "Treat others the way you want to be treated" is a favorite quote of mine from the Bible. And one I try to adhere to, the key word being "try." Instead of throwing up hands in defeat when I blow it, I  accept the misstep and welcome the chance to change my behavior. And I'm grateful to colleagues who extend the grace when I don't.
      So the bottom line is this: it's hard to collaborate with colleagues with whom you have issues. Deal with the problems head on, showing your students positive human interaction skills. Once you've attacked the problem, work together as a unified front to model how to communicate with others, work with others, and learn and grow with others.
      Don't be afraid to take on weird projects linked by only a tenuous thread of commonality between subject areas. Work with colleagues on projects, demonstrating the skills needed to do so. The result? Students will see a close staff who collaborate with each other in order to offer an engaging environment and maximize the learning experience.
      Some days will be great, others not so much; but in the end, it's all worth it. Look around your staff at the veritable gold mine of opportunities awaiting you--working with your coworkers. Just remember, it's all about the students. And if working with a fellow teacher can bring me closer to engaging students, bring it on. Collaborating with colleagues can make all the difference. Just try it and see.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Blast from the Past

     Tomorrow I will spend time visiting with and drinking coffee with a former student. She was in one of the first classes I taught at Community14 years ago. She's popped into school on and off since then, and it's always been a pleasure getting caught up with her.
     Tomorrow I suspect may be more of the same but with a twist. She's in the process of launching a new online business so I think talk may be centered around that. At least, I hope it is.
     Yesterday a former student from a few years back stopped in to say hi. Brett was there picking up needed paper work for his college application. As we talked, the name of a friend of his who was a former student of mine came up. When I asked how Nick was doing, Brett beamed, telling me how much Nick loved school and his chosen field of study. He continued by telling me how much homework Nick does and how he loves it all.
      Nick is a success story. He came to CHS clearly not that interested in school. Learning, yes, school, no.Seriously, he is one of the smartest kids I know. He let me challenge him with an AP style English class and wrote one of the best analysis papers I've ever read. Entering that paper into the Scholastic Art and Writing Award contests earned him honors at the state and national level.
      He has a soft spot in my heart. Quiet and bored most of the time, my challenge was to dig deep and create a syllabus that would help him grow as a student. I think I did that. I hope I did.
     Anyway, the point of this rambling post is this: what we do matters. It makes an impact on kids. They may not see the importance at the time, but eventually they'll see the power you bequeathed to them--the power of thinking critically, the power to question, and the power to be curious and grow.
    I love seeing former students and do so fairly regularly. It's not unusual to have 4-5 kids stop in and say hello during the week. For me it's affirmation that I'm doing something right. And that something has made all the difference.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Innovation? Nah

     The buzzword in education, at least in the realm I'm in, has been "innovation" everything--mindset, classroom, thinking, lifestyle. And I'm not complaining. I think education has been far too long on the uninspired and unimaginative road and needs to shift into a higher and different gear. But what about kids who don't embrace innovation thinking? Who want to muddle along in the old ways because they are comfortable and known? I don't have any answers...I'm asking the questions.
     My class set up is made for project-based learning. It's as perfect for it as I've ever gotten. I have a three-hour block of time itching to be used for hands-on learning. But what happens when a class of anti-hands-on learning students fill the seats of your classroom? What happens when every suggestion or idea of innovation gets met with frustrated, bored looks from students who "just want to get done"?
     I have no idea. Although it's only day 2 of our current block, the hostility I sense in the classroom every time I mention projects or innovation is palpable. It's a good thing I don't bend to how my class feels about me otherwise, they'd run me out of school. Okay, maybe it's not that bad, but truly these students are just not interested in "innovation."
     Will I continue to try to interest them? Sure. But in the meantime I'm reverting back to my back up syllabi. They could make all the difference.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Wanna Be in My Classroom?

     On an edchat tonight, the question was posed: Would you want to be a student in your classroom? Thought provoking for sure. When I'm on my game, definitely! When I'm not? Well, let's just say I understand bored looks. I get bored, and I'm the teacher. So what can I do to make sure my classroom has active learning taking place coupled with curious inquiry? That, my friend, is an excellent question.
     I try to be student centered, always, in my class. It's not always easy adjusting the curriculum for each student and trying to find ways to convey content but engage students. More often than not I fail to meet the mark. But sometimes I hit the mark. And that is what makes all the effort worth it.
     Today a student wrote a course evaluation. This was about a class I had reworked in the spring/summer and thought I had a home run on my hands. Far from it. It was a total swing and a miss. Instead of subjecting my kids to what wasn't working, I switched things up midstream and revamped my curriculum, offering them more project-based work. The result? Here's what a student said today in his reflection:
         "Mrs. Zygarlicke was very flexible and helpful in this class. She changed the whole thig pretty
          much from one boring thing to a more interesting thing which was researching an author and 
         writing our own stories. 
         5 words to describe this class: I learned some cool stuff."
     He learned. Those two words were all I needed to read. I took a risk, failed, and changed. It was that simple. I asked myself if I would want to be doing what my kids were doing. The answer? No chance. If I wouldn't want to do it, why would I ask my students to do it? 
     Lesson learned. Reflect on teaching often, daily. Put myself in my student's place. Is it a comfortable spot? Or does change need to happen. Take a risk. It could make all the difference.



Friday, September 23, 2016

13 Things to Say to At-Risk (All) Students

     I read an Edutopia Twitter post telling me 13 things not to say to students. That got me thinking of things I try to say to students. Here is my list of 13 things you should say to students.

1. "I'm proud of you." Four words that can inspire students in ways we could never imagine. My students don't seem to be told someone is proud of them For them to hear an adult say that to them, well, it can work wonders for their confidence and determination to live up to those words.

2. "I trust you." Again, these are confidence building words for my demographic. Trust isn't something inherent in their world. They don't trust many and even fewer trust them. These are the kids who get followed in convenience stores or looked at sideways by most adults. Trust is something knew to them. But the words can't be empty. I have to show I trust them by doing just that. And you know what? I've rarely been let down.

3. "You've really shown improvement." When I go through papers with students, it's easy to point out the myriad of errors I see. What's harder is looking for the improvement. Even the smallest area they've  boosted deserves recognition by me. I can tell them about the areas needing work on later. Giving them a sense of achievement is imperative to keeping students motivated.

4. "You've done a terrific job." Students not only like to hear good things about themselves (even those who seem not to care) but they need to hear positive comments. Who doesn't like to know when you're doing a good job? Who doesn't need that lift that comes from knowing people are paying attention to the work you're doing? This is something everyone needs, not just at-risk students.

5. " I can tell you're trying you're best." Acknowledging the effort helps stave off frustrations that may build in students who struggle in your content area. Students need to know you understand their struggles and are there to help.

6. "You are a hard worker." I have one student who thrives when I tell him this. He prides himself on working hard. He may not always get the theme of the work right, but he works diligently to find it. Letting him know I see his effort just fuels him to continue to work hard.

7. "I appreciate your honesty." Let's face it: kids don't always tell the truth. That is one of my biggest pet peeves. So no matter what they tell me, as long as it's truthful, I tell them I appreciate their honesty. And for the most part, they respect that and stay true to that policy.

8. "I'm glad you're in my class." I told this to a student who recently returned from a group home to my class. I'd never had her before but at the end of the day today, I told her how happy I wa to have her in my class. "Really?" was her response. How many people have told students they are a positive addition to the teacher's classroom? Get them to believe it and they begin to act it.

9."Thank you for your efforts." Actually, I could end this one at "Thank you." So few of them know the soft skills needed to be successful in this society. By modeling good manners and appreciation for the work and effort someone has put into something, we are teaching students positive soft skills.

10 "I understand..." Beginning a sentence with those two words can defuse tense situations. But don't just say the words, believe them when you say them. Understand that life isn't always about school. Understand they may not have money for lunch or school supplies or laundry or gas. Understand that they may be helping to support their family with the job they're working after school and they don't have time to read your book or work on your paper. Just letting them know you understand and will work with them can relieve teens of a lot of pressure.

11. "You've got this." Struggling student trying to grasp a writing concept can easily become frustrated. By talking them through a paper and helping them organize their thoughts, you inspire confidence in them. Those three little words lets them know you believe in them.

12. "Please..." Again, I try to model good manners. I don't demand students something I ask and show appreciation when they do. Students are quick to pick this up and act accordingly.

13. "Tell me what you think." Often teachers will ask kids what they think, and then the teacher doesn't listen. Let them tell you. These are fledgling adults trying to understand what they do think. Allowing them to articulate their ideas to you, without interrupting or without commenting  on those thoughts shows active listening. Who doesn't want to be heard?

     Treat your students like you'd want to be treated. Talk to them the way you want to be talked to. It really can make all the difference. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Relax and Take It Easy

     Anyone who knows me would laugh at the name of this entry. It's probably the last thing I do. In years past I've jammed my schedule, running from meeting to meeting, trying to do it all. I was crazy and lived a frenetic lifestyle that was doing more harm than good. Learning to relax and rest is vital to being on your game in the classroom.
     As teachers we often bring home more than just papers to correct. Our thoughts dwell long after the dismissal of students on a confidence shared with us by a student about a new development or twist in their already dysfunctional lives.Thoughts linger and hearts ache. With our mind trying to reassure us the students will be okay, a myriad of questions fill our souls.
     It's hard for teachers to let go and disengage. I'm speaking from past experience. Yet that's exactly what we need. Teachers give out so much during the week, they deplete their "giving" bank and sometimes even their reserves. Taking time during the weekend to recharge and refuel is vital to teacher survival.This past weekend I determined not to bring home school work. Instead my goal was to relax. And guess what? I did it. I relaxed. I read. I walked. I visited with friends and family. I hung out with my husband. It was awesome. My usual pattern for weekends? Work, work and more work.
      So what did I learn from this short respite from school? That we teachers need it. We need to relax and get out of classroom mode. It's healthy to take a break and not  think about the classroom for a night or two.
      Instead of looking for ways to occupy your time, read a book. Take a walk. Visit friends. Go for a bike ride. Disconnect for a bit. It can make all the difference.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Goal Setting: Is It for You?

     "Tis the season of writing professional goals. At least it is for me. This is the time of year that forces me to think about what I'd like to accomplish this year. Some people love to set goals, even if it's only a list of things "to do" that day. There's a thrill of ticking off items from the paper, a feeling of deep accomplishment knowing you accomplished something that day. But are goals for everyone?
      Not all are enamored with the idea of such structure that goals bring. Not wanting to be confined, these people resist the limitations they may feel targets bring. What if your life takes a twist and you are no longer interested in hitting these marks? Teachers are no different. Some thrive with having a measurable means of gauging "success" by achieving the goal while others don't want to be committed to going in a certain direction.
     What works best? It comes down to knowing yourself. Me? I'm definitely one who likes the structure that goals afford me. I may change the marks, but I need something to shoot for during the year. I have a colleague, though, who works through the year day-by-day, without really a set agenda just waiting to see where his classes go. This works for him.
     I don't always write down my goals, yet I'm fully aware of what they are. These are what drive me in my quest to be effective in the classroom. Something I'm aiming for this year is consistency--being faithful to teach a couple of things daily.
     Although I like setting goals, I don't always accomplish them. My biggest problem was shooting too high and expecting too much...from me. I've lessened the burden on myself and given myself some slack in this process. Just as expecting too much from my kids makes them frustrated, shut down, and lose confidence in their abilities, the same thing can happen to me. If we shoot too high, we almost make it impossible for ourselves to achieve the goals we set. I would nearly wear myself out attempting to achieve what in reality was unrealistic.
     Here are some things I've learned about goals:
     1) Be realistic. Nothing destroys a student like setting the bar too high and the same goes for ourselves. Ask yourself if you would expect a colleague to be able to meet this goal. Or ask for input from those around you. Colleagues should know you well as a professional and can offer good advice as to the reality of  that goal.
     2) Be flexible. Things change. Students have lives, too, and sometimes those lives impede learning. Maybe you won't be able to put another notch on your ruler or tick off the completed goal. Maybe instead of meeting the mark, you put the kids first and adjust your aim a bit lower. It's not the end of the world. Learning can and does still happen, just maybe not at the rate you were shooting for.
    3) Be positive. No one likes a grump. Not meeting goals really affects some people, causing them to be difficult to be around. Instead of moping about the lack of progress in meeting your mark or getting upset about it, relax. It's not that important. Continue to work toward your goal, seeing the big picture instead of focusing on a microcosm of it. Life will still go on.
    4) Be consistent. I think of the tortoise and the hare. Be tortoise-like in your approach, slow and methodical, yet steady.Working toward a goal needn't be sporadic. Diligently striving to achieve a larger goal shouldn't be all-consuming but neither should you have fits and starts in regards to it. Too often I "zoom" in my start only to lag shortly after. Taking small steps consistently helps me to relieve some of the pressure on myself. I'd rather see steady progress than the fitful starts and stops.
    Setting goals may be an effective way for you to operate in your classroom. It is for me. But not everyone is the same. Lighten up on your expectations of yourself and others. It could make all the difference.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Ready for Risks

    Are you ready for some innovation? That's a question I ask myself as I approach the new school year. Am I ready to take a risk or two to try something new in my classroom? Am I comfortable enough with myself as a teacher to put myself out there? Am I willing to think beyond my regular parameters to implement a hopefully engaging idea that will capture my at-times reluctant demographic? All good questions to start the school year.
     I spent the summer with my mind fairly far from teaching. Occupied with other aspects of life, my thoughts would occasionally percolate on teaching and what I was going to do differently in my approach to the school year. Ideas came and went until I finally settled on my tactics. Even those changed the weekend before the first day.
     But the point is, I'm trying new things. I want my class to be the class kids don't want to miss. I want my class to be the class where deep learning takes place. I want my class to be the class where kids feel safe to express themselves, even if contrary to my own ideas. I want my class to be THE place.
     I am experimenting this block with a couple of concepts. So far, I have no idea if these strategies are working. Yet I'm trying. Even when appearances seem to bespeak failure. Even when my gut wrenches in apprehension about the success of these ideas. Even in spite of my lack of confidence, I'm pushing through and trying. And who knows? These new approaches? They could make all the difference. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Invest in Yourself

     Summer. One of my favorite seasons, and not because I'm a teacher and have an unpaid leave from my job. I love summer because of all the opportunities it offers. One of the best I try to take advantage of is the North Dakota Council of Teachers of English conference held every July. I'm sitting in my hotel room typing this post, reflecting on all that has taken place and it makes me smile. Yeah, I've given up three days of my precious leave time, but I've gained so much more.
     First I've been able to network and get to know fellow educators outside the confines of my district. A shout out to the West Fargo teachers who always know how to have fun and seem to welcome GF teachers with gusto.
    Second, I've been able to connect with others and talk "shop." Nothing bores my husband more than when I get around other educators and we talk about school-related topics exclusively. Here I can have as many of those conversations as I like with no problem.
    Third, the conference is just plain fun. Security Ryberg made sure from the onset that the tone of this event was rooted in laughter. I appreciate that. English teachers are a fun bunch, really, we are!
    Finally, this conference never stops challenging me and teaching me new ideas or showing me new ways to approach the same material.
    This year, due to administrative support, GF brought more teachers than I can remember. That's a good thing. However, not enough English teachers take advantage of this event. And that's a bad thing.
    So if you're an English teacher, or any kind, actually, check out your state conference and attend. Invest in yourself. It can make all the difference.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Summer Time, Not Down Time

     I don't know about you, but my summer has been incredibly busy. A good busy, if there is such a creature. Not only has it been filled with travel, bike trips, and weddings (10), I've enjoyed professional challenges as well. My summer began with a professional book study on Innovator's Mindset by George Couros. Here I was challenged by colleagues to continue to try new things in the classroom and strive to make it as student-centered as possible. One take away from this book is that administrators should be more vocal in their support of innovation and encourage everyone on staff to try to utilize an innovative approach to their teaching. This discussion-oriented book led to my other book study--Thrive by Meenoo Rami which was a good refresher on the importance of networking.
     In addition to this I attended a college-ready writing class sponsored by NWP and hosted by Red River Valley Writing Project. After spending three days of twisting my brain around their take on argumentative writing and having my arm twisted to present at an upcoming conference, I felt the need to process what I learned.
     However, there was little time to do so. The next week, which is today, begins our state NCTE (National Council of Teacher's of English) conference. Here is where I present. Here is where I learn practical ideas for immediate use in the classroom, usually with modifications on my part. Here is where I network with other like-minded beings passionate about their craft and kids. Here is where I connect.
     I'm looking forward to the next few days, seeing old friends and meeting new people. Hearing speaker Meenoo Rami challenge us teachers to take our craft to a higher level. And one of the best offshoots of the conference is hanging out with my colleagues and getting to know those I don't know as well.
     This has been a busy summer with little down time (did I mention we're building a house?), but it's been a learning summer.Much to the surprise of the public, this is a typical teacher's summer (maybe not the 10 weddings and building a house). Most invest in themselves and their craft. It may have been a busy summer. A connecting summer. A traveling summer. And a fun summer. But that has made all the difference

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why?

     That was my favorite word as a kid: Why? I remember having an insatiable curiosity and deep desire to know. To know information. To know why people did what they did. To know why society was the way it was. I just wanted to know. Fast forward some years and my oldest picked up where I left off. Seriously, had he asked another "Why?" question I may have not had an oldest. Looking back on that time and seeing the person he has become, I see that innate curiosity still at work in him, still making him question.
      Sometimes we ask ourselves the Why? question. Tonight at a book study with fellow educators, that Why? query was raised. "Why would I blog?" asked one teacher, "I have nothing to say. Or nothing important." Hmmmm, my mind whirred, pushing out it's own question--Why do I blog and what do I have to say?
      I finally have an answer. I blog because I love to write. It's a freeing way for me to express myself. A way that comes more easily to me than being verbally articulate. Ask any of my colleagues and they'll nod in agreement. I stammer and stutter out my thoughts in a staccato style, failing most times to coherently string together the words needed for a cohesive thought. But give me a keyboard and the words don't fail me. Instead they overwhelm me. I write blogs because I selfishly want to write.
       Usually, I don't have much to say. I ramble or rant about what I'm most passionate about and that's teaching and kids--not necessarily in that order. Blogging is a way for me to find an audience for my thoughts, a platform to pronounce my ideas, a venue for hashing out ideas, a place to admit failures and celebrate victories. A blog, I guess, is more for me than anyone else. It's my release.
     During our discussion about blogging teachers, one person commented about putting words out there that stay out there. How scary that is. How blogging involves taking a risk. How blogging could represent rejection.
     Honestly? I've never thought about what others think of this reflective work. Given the small audience this blog hits, I don't think I've much to worry me about appearing weird to my readers. That said, I believe it to be imperative that we educators do blog, or communicate our ideas in some manner. I find this vehicle to be challenging. If I write it, do I live it? If I write it, do I believe it? If I write it, to I implement it?  Words are plentiful, but actions...not so much.
     So why do I write this blog? Perhaps I see it as a challenge. If I'm so passionate about something, do I put my actions where my keystrokes are? Am I willing to share failures as well as successes? Am I willing to try being innovative, and sharing the experience in an uncut version?
      Blogging is a learning tool, for me. It forces me to really think about what I believe and why I believe it. I may not be consistent as a blogger, or eloquent, or insightful, or profound when I write. I just chronicle my teaching journey, one post at a time, and think about what I do and why I do it.
      I still ask myself and others the Why? question. And for me, it has made all the difference.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Summer Opportunities


      Summer vacation. Two words sure to elicit a sigh from every teacher I know. Seriously, by the end of the school year everyone needs a break, not just the students. Summer vacation. Two words that fill me with anticipation, not only for the fun opportunities it offers but for the time to recharge myself professionally. Summer vacation. Two words that help recenter teachers, especially after a difficult year. For me, this break from the classroom is more a break from students. It's a time for me to consider new ideas and look for ways to improve as a teacher.
      My advice to my first-year teacher niece was to take the first weeks off and not really think about school until August. Decompress and refuel yourself. As a first grade teacher, one in a looping school, she has enough to handle during the school year and constantly gives out. She needs to spend time relaxing before entering the fray again. My advice to myself has always been about the same. When August comes, get into school mode.
     This year, as in other years, my summer is filled with opportunities. I'm in a book study reading George Couros's book The Innovator's Mindset. Last night, our first meeting, was filled with quality discussion about what it means to be innovative in the classroom and how to encourage colleagues to utilize this type of mindset more in their approach to students and learning. It was good. It made me think. And whenever I think in professional settings, I always get new ideas of things I can try in my classroom.
      Another opportunity for growth I'm taking advantage of is a three-day writing seminar offered by the local Writing Project group. I took a similar session a few years back and those days improved how I taught personal narratives. I'm looking forward to the same happening. Again, in these settings I never fail to be inspired with new ideas to experiment with in the classroom.
      Then in the end of July another summer growth challenge faces me with the English teachers' conference. This year Meenoo Rami, author of the book Thrive 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching, will be the keynote. I've interacted a bit with Rami setting up some promotional events and find her to be a thoughtful person whom I'm looking forward to learning from professionally. However, this conference also gives practical ideas for new approaches to use in the classroom. I've attended this event for the past three years and it never fails to inspire me. We've had James Burke, Penny Kittle, and Kelly Gallagher as speakers the years I've gone. How could a person not be inspired? These conferences and speakers have transformed my approach to the classroom.
       Summer vacation. Two words that promise a break from the classroom but so much more than that. It's a time I can renew myself professionally, learn some things, and take some time out to have a little fun. It doesn't take much to get you thinking. So this summer vacation my advice to myself is simple: enjoy the down time but use it to ruminate some, thinking about new approaches to the classroom. Summer vacation = summer opportunities. They can make all the difference.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What Week

     It's my What Week. You know, that time of year when things are winding down and we begin to think forward to the next school year? It's my time to question myself: What will I do differently? What worked? What do I need to be more consistent in doing? What do I need to abandon? What week for me is a time of introspection and reflection, of recognizing fly highs and flops, of readjusting and reconsidering what I do in the classroom. What Week (WW) forces me to rethink the past so I can shape the future.
     I may be an anomaly, with my WW. Colleagues are frenetically finishing finals and figuring out grades. I'm doing the same but I'm also considering the future. Looking ahead to next year as I reevaluate the past. And honestly, I'm not all that crazy about what I see in the rear view mirror.
      Some things I tried worked better than anticipated while others fizzled like a dud firecracker. Some things I did a good job of following through and forging through groans while others withered under those protests. Honestly evaluating, I'd say there seemed to be more withering than normal. But maybe it's just me.
     The act of reflection as a teacher, in my opinion, is just as vital as preparing lesson plans. If not more so. Unless I evaluate what I've done and why I've approached things as I have, neither my students nor I will learn anything. Reflection is like a balm for my soul. It allows me to consider my strategies and my motives behind my strategies--know what I did and why I did it.
      What Week usually morphs into What If? at the end of the week. Knowing what worked and what didn't usually leads to new ideas. Talking to coworkers and reading professional books all stimulate new ideas. Twitter chats are over, so I look to new sources for inspiration. I know some teachers are looking forward to being done and relaxing in the summer, as do I, but there's something about thinking about the past year and getting excited for the next one to come.
     Some may think I'm crazy, but I'll continue my practice of What Week and What If? reflections during the last week of school. It prepares me to launch into the summer months and let ideas simmer, readying me for August when I start back into the throes of classroom planning.
    What Week works for me. It makes all the difference.
    

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Community, Reflecting, and Teaching

     I read a question asking how I meaningfully involve the  community in the learning in my classroom. It made me pause. Think. Reflect. Wonder. Imagine. Answer. I have involved the community in learning that takes place in my classroom but in a limited way.
     A few years back I incorporated into my Sr. Comp class a section on career exploration. In this section, students would get paired with community members who worked in the job market the student was interested in exploring. Thankfully we have a university in our city which makes finding people a bit easier. Although now a stand alone program no longer run through my class, it had its beginnings there.
     This year we did projects which involved surveying the community and finding their thoughts on our school and the public library. In one case we presented to service organizations, trying to communicate the truth about their school. This was a successful project that the students bought into.
     Next year our school is going to try something different with our service outreach days called We Are Community Days. We looked at current practices, got input from the students and reflected on  what would make these days a better experience for all involved. I'm looking forward to seeing how this will improve those opportunities.
    Reflection is paramount in being a teacher. Unless I reflect on what I'm doing and question how I can improve, I stagnate. Stagnation usually leads to smells. Bad smells. I don't need that in my life.
    So look at your life as a teacher. Where are and where do you want to go? Do you involve the community? The students? How can we become more engaging as teachers?
     These are just  a few of the questions I ask myself regularly. Asking questions like these changes lives. And that can make all the difference. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Dare to Care

     We have a pandemic in our area. A crisis so large and looming that my heart hurts. No, it's not the Zika virus. It's something worse. Incredibly worse. It's suicide and it's infecting our teens.
     In the last two weeks, four kids in our region have decided life was too hard, too cold, too uncaring, too complicated, too much--and they opted out. I didn't know a single one of these kids but my gut grieves them. What moves a young person to give up?
     Survivors are left with a myriad of emotions: guilt, confusion, guilt, loss, guilt, sorrow, and more guilt. Did I mention guilt? Guilt riddles the world of those left behind, with the question "Why?" hovering, ever-present in the minds of those who live.
     Suicide swirls in the minds of teens, tempting them with an "easy" solution, that is infinitely hard on loved ones. It's a solution that leaves those behind with no solution at all. No answers. No understanding. Instead they slog through a slough of emotions, trying not to be angry at the person who took his/her own life. But it's hard not to resent that person. Why did you do it, we want to ask. But there's no one left to ask. So we're left with questions and guilt and remorse for not having cared more for the person.
     Why am I taking space to write about teen suicide? Because I NEED to. As a teacher, I've seen far too many kids, some of them MY kids, decide to take an exit slip from life. I've had to look into the pain-filled eyes of parents where I've jumbled weightless words that I'm sure offered no comfort at all. I've sat with wounded students who are just as confused as I, tears trailing our faces as we talked about the missing link to our lives.
     Yet in the midst of this negative situation, I see a ray of hope. A little life saver that may help to stem these desperate measures.  It's called relationships. As a teacher, building relationships with my kids is priority one in my classroom. I want them to know I care, I'm there, and I dare to help them. That they matter to someone in this life. That their existence has meaning.
     As difficult as it sometimes is to reach these desperate souls, it's a starting point. If I'm consistent and equitable in my treatment of students, a tenuous relationship begins to build. Slowly, determinedly, hopefully these young people will see that someone cares about them. Slowly, determinedly, and hopefully these young people will break out of the muck of  inferiority and helplessness and despondency they are mired in and realize these emotions are only temporary. Life can get better. It WILL get better. They just need to hang on to someone who cares--like a teacher.
     Show you care and be intentional in building relationships with your students--even the ones you don't gravitate to. Let that tenuous relationship grow. We can curtail the pandemic in our land by reaching out and caring. Really caring. Make an effort to show that care today.
It can make all the difference.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hobbies in the Classroom

     Today's reflective question deals with any hobbies or interests I have that I bring into the classroom. Well, the hobbies I love most, reading and writing, are already a part of the classroom so I have to dig a bit deeper. That being said, I do bring my love for reading into the classroom by sharing what I'm currently reading with my students and giving a running analysis of the book. The more I talk, the less they talk, so I try to limit what I say and use cliffhangers when appropriate. I've had more than one student read a book to find out what happened.
     As for any other kind of hobbies, I'm not what you would call a"crafty" person. I never knew what a glue gun was until a few years ago. I'm more of an outdoorsy person. Hiking, biking, reading on the patio--well, you get the idea.For the past few summers I've gone with a group of friends on a multi-day bike trip. We go easy, about 40-60 miles a day, enjoying the weather, the scenery and the friendships. We pedal through national forests, state parks, scenic byways and urban centers all in the name of fun. I do bring this activity into the classroom. I reference one of my favorite movies, Breaking Away, often in class. This movie, albeit dated, has great life lessons for kids to write about.
       I try to reference it whenever I can, just because I love biking. By the end of the block, students know one thing about me for sure: my bike is my bud.
      Bringing hobbies into the classroom humanizes us as teachers.When I reveal personal details about me,  I'm showing I trust them. Eventually, that trust is reciprocated. Teaching is more than a book and paper or being glib or adept at using a Smartboard. It's about relationships. The more I know about my kids, the more I'll care about them. And the more they know about me and the more real I make myself, the more they'll connect with me.
     Over the years I've come to realize you can never care too much. I've learned it can make all the difference.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Helping Students Help Themselves

     In my infancy days as a teacher, I taught in a multi-grade classroom, similar, I guess, to my arrangement now. As I said, I'm referencing my early years as a teacher, when I wasn't as seasoned, some may call it more "raw," I didn't have the patience I've acquired since then. The result? I'd often get miffed by students who clung to me for every direction. Being a more independent, self-starter personally, I was stymied by kids who clutched a teacher for fear of a misstep. I knew I needed to make them more self-reliant, but how? That is the topic of today's reflective teacher topic. The one I was supposed to complete in 30 days? Yeah, that's it. How do we as teachers get students to work on their own?
   I'm a huge proponent of the 4Cs philosophy, with one of them being collaboration. I think by not offering students opportunities to work, and problem solve, together, we are robbing them of vital real-life experience they will need in their futures. But, I also see value in learning to work, and think, on your own. If a student can't think independently, he/she will have problems bringing anything to group work. Instead of being a contributor, they will become a drain on the rest of the group, slurping up the collaborative juices just as they begin to flow. I've seen it happen time and again. To be a good groupie, students need to be able to think and reason on their own.
     In steps the teaching involved in learning that discipline. For the most part, that's all my students know. They work independently, asking for help when needed. That's the theory of how my school works. The reality is I have kids each block who have invested in cling wrap. They want to affix themselves to me in hopes they never make a mistake or misunderstand something. For every assignment, the have multiple questions.
      What does this show me? It reveals just how insecure the learner is. It peels back the layers of self-doubt to reveal a student who may have received negative reinforcement from teachers in the past. It gives me a glimmer of a student swimming in a lack of confidence.
     So how do you handle these types of students? I believe they need to feel a sense of achievement. Some success to build their confidence. Some reassurance they are able to accomplish the task at hand with minimal input from me. I start out with small things and build from there. Is writing the problem? No topic sentences in their paragraphs? Too many ideas? I'll break it down to work on having them identify topic sentences in paragraphs and telling me WHY it's a topic sentence. Once their confidence is up a bit, we move no to writing our own topic sentences--together. Eventually, the student will write a topic sentence on his/her own until finally we work towards writing a cohesive, unified paragraph.
     This definitely takes time, but the payoff can be great. You will end up with a student who not only can identify the topic sentence, but who can also formulate the rest of the sentences so that they support the topic sentence. It sounds easy. It's not.
    Not only are we to teach, we are to empower our students with the ability to help themselves. When we can instruct them in the art of becoming independent learners, we can lead them to be better collaborators. And that can make all the difference in their lives.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Empowering Students

     Onward in the reflective blogging challenge. Today's topic is how to "curate" student work. Confession here: I had to look up the meaning of curate. I knew it to mean a reference to the clergy but didn't know how it fit this definition. It means to organize, select, and look after items. Honestly, how do I empower kids to work on their own? To help them do it themselves?
     That is the nature of my school, so for me this isn't nearly as reflective as it would be for someone else. For most of the day students work independently with help from me in a one-on-one teaching scenario. I've reflected on this before so no more. Instead, I want to focus on empowering students.
     I had a terrific idea for a group actitivity that I was certain would captivate my students. I thought listening to the Serial Podcast and having them take notes on guilt or innocence would be a cool idea. There's more to this "winning" idea, but I won't bore you with the details. I spent most of yesterday boring my students so I don't need that trend to continue. I had my very own learning opportunity yesterday that, hopefully, will morph into a growth opportunity for us all today.
     Although not a total failure, the podcast held my students' attention for a while...like 10 minutes. After that I could tell I was losing them. We had animated discussion after nearly listening to all of the first podcast but it was more on social issues, racial profiling, etc. than the podcast itself. I knew when I walked out the door this idea was mired in the bog of terrible ideas. I decided to let this one sink to the bottom of that bog.
     Last night I joined our local edchat which was discussing genius hour (GH). And then I knew. I wasn't empowering kids enough and decided then to dump the podcast and give students the choice to generate their own idea for a project. This is dangerous for a few reasons. One, it's our last block and I know kids are going to be working hard to get done. Will I get buy in from them on this? How long will it take to generate ideas? With a finite time frame that is shorter than most teachers deal with, how will the project work in conjunction with them doing English for part of the class period?
     I talked to a friend of mine last night about a mutual project we developed with different implementation plans. As much as it pains me, my friend is taking the better approach. Which only reinforced my idea to dump the podcast and open this last block up. I may not be able to cover as many talking points or give as much time to work on it as Boy Wonder (my buddy), but I'm more confident with this new plan than I was about the podcast plan.
    So first thing this morning I plan on making my kids' days by admitting my failure and pitching the new idea. Empowering students to direct their own learning, even for part of the period can be powerful. It can make all the difference. I'm going to watch and learn.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Teacher Metaphor

     On this blustery day, I return to the reflective teacher challenge that was only supposed to take a month. I'll be lucky to finish these off before the end of school. At any rate, today's challenge is to come up with a metaphor (or a simile) for a teacher. I'm not sure I can arrive at just one, so here are my takes on what a teacher is metaphorically.
     A teacher is a coach. This overused statement is tired but true. Teachers give students strategies to learn, coach how to learn, and allow students to get into the game by helping them develop their skills. A good coach doesn't always see the limitations of players but rather creates a game plan that accentuates their skills to lead them to success. In the same way, a good teacher coaches kids to use the skills they have to win at learning. No one likes to always lose, yet some of our students do just that every day in school. They never experience the "thrill of victory" (mastering a skill) only the "agony of defeat." Good coaches know how to bring out the strengths of their players and know how to set their players up for victories. Teachers, who are strong in their craft, do the same for students.
     Another term that came to mind was a teacher is a juggler. Look in any classroom of good teachers and you'll see multiple things going on one after the other. Yes, there are planned lessons that teachers follow, but what about the days when real learning is taking place that's not in the lesson plan? A discussion develops that leads to a plan of action by students which they implement. Teachers have to be able to keep one thing in the air while knowing how to toss the rest of their day in such a way that reflects authentic learning. Jugglers were the court jesters in days gone by so they needed a strong sense of humor to keep everyone happy. Not much has changed today. Good teachers have the ability to laugh at themselves and keep their sense of humor even in the most tense situations.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/
     The final thought that hit my mind is that a teacher is a tour guide. I was thinking guide but "tour" just slipped in front as I was formulating my thoughts. Why a tour guide? My thoughts drifted to my travels and interactions with tour guides. These knowledgeable people showed me the "map" through whatever I was seeing and filled me with information pertinent to the topic as well as ancillary thoughts, too. I always came away with more questions than when I began and couldn't wait to research on my own to learn more. In a way, that's a teacher. We should be knowledgeable about our content and so engaging in our delivery that students must research further to answer all the questions they ran out of time to ask. When thinking of the tour guide, they are always funny and do a great job of relaying information to the crowd in a non-academic way.
     So there are my three metaphors for the prompt "A teacher is..." Sports has always had a special place in my heart, so for me, I choose to be  a coach. A nice balance between instruction and encouragement while helping students to develop their game plan in life. Coaches probably had the biggest impact on my life, setting an example for how to be effective in this role. So find a metaphor for a teacher, think about it and write about it. Then be that metaphor for your students. You never know, it could make all the difference.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

It's All About WAR

     My life the last few months and especially the last few weeks has been all about WAR, a writing and reading conference for teens. The event has come and gone, but the reflection has just begun. This is the first conference of its kind in the region where I live. My fellow organizers and I had high hopes or reaching at least 100 participants. We did that and more.
      Do you know how gratifying it is to see young people engaged in learning more about writing and in displaying an eagerness to discuss their favorite books? Well, if you're an English nerd, it's quite appealing. Kids went to sessions about finding their voice, screenwriting, journalism, writing for video games and so much more and came out of those classes excited.
     One breakout focused on music and poetry. Lead by a Native American hip hop artist, these participants followed Mic Jordan's instruction and penned a rap about individuality and freedom from bullying. Powerful words that need to be taken to the next level.
     At the end of the day, teens gathered for a Slam, a debriefing of sorts where they shared conference highlights. We also saw Mic Jordan gather participants from his class and perform their rap. Amazing kids doing amazing work.
      The conference wouldn't have been possible without the generous support of organizations such as Altru Alliance, GF Foundation for Education, the Kiwanis and Optimist Clubs, Scheels, Thrivent Financial, Dakota Commercial, booster clubs and other donations. These were organizations who in blind faith gave us thousands of dollars because they believed in our vision. Incredible. We are deeply indebted to their support.
     On Sunday I thought about the previous day and the weeks leading up to it. Was all the work worth it? Would I do it again? It was and I would. Getting kids excited about words is important. In fact, I won't be surprised at the impact the experiences from this weekend will make on the kids. Investing my time for kids is worth the trouble. Indeed, it can make all the difference.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On Being a Gymnast

    Today's writing challenge is to create a metaphor/simile/analogy to describe my teaching philosophy. I'm not sure this is a philosophy but it didn't take me long to think of it. So here it is,, my own little metaphor about teaching. A teacher is a flexible gymnast.
     What the heck is that supposed to mean? Well, let me tell you the thought process that brought me to this conclusion. When first confronted with today's question, I immediately wondered what I believe a teacher is--a parental-like figure, a counselor, an educator--one who wears many hats. Ergo the gymnast--someone who is flexible and who can jump through hoops.

     The last comment may need the most explanation. Jump through hoops? Yeah, I said it. Fill out the PO just the right way. Request help for a student by contacting the right person and filling out the right form. Six credits in five years to keep your license. Document this, sign that, fill out this form, go through these channels, etc. I'm not complaining. There needs to be order. But sometimes you just need to be adept at jumping hoops. Every year or two there seems to be a new idea coming down the pike that educators embrace, changing all the previous work we had just completed after the last new idea had rolled through. That's the frustrating part. Those are the hoops.
      But it's not only jumping through hoops. It's vital that we as educators are flexible. I think that may be our most important characteristic. This is coming from someone whose early philosophy mirrored that of Marie Antoinette. If my kids couldn't keep up with my "sit and get" teaching style and couldn't comprehend MY style of teaching, well they had a problem. Forget my changing for them. No, "let them eat cake!" Too bad if they were starving academically, let them feast on the nonexistent "cake" in their lives--the stuff I assumed they had access to, which, in fact, they didn't.
     My arrogance rivaled Antoinette's if not exceeded it. Slowly, my attitude has changed. Credit two things for that. One, the school where I teach and two, my teaching mentor Max. He had a profound impact on the way I viewed education philosophy and more importantly, how I viewed kids. If I learned anything from Max it was the importance of being a gymnast in my approach to students.
     I must be flexible. I can't think of a single quality that embraces more. If you're flexible, you'll be willing to differentiate instruction for students, know not everyone learns the same way. If you're flexible, you'll realize kids are dealing with huge outside factors that make concentrating on school difficult some days. If you're flexible, you'll realize your content isn't the end all, be all in your kids' lives today or any day and realize that's okay. If you're flexible, you aren't married to your lesson plans. Sometimes learning windows appear that you need to open for the fresh air they bring into sometimes stale teaching. If you're flexible, you'll adapt and incorporate other teacher's successes into your own repertoire.
     In real life I'm probably the least flexible person I know. But one thing I've learned through out the years is flexibility is a must have for teachers. It really does matter to students and to yourself as a professional. Remember students first. Flexibility matters. It can make all the difference.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

It's All in the Way We Think


     I recently saw an Abbott and Costello gig about math. Hilarious as it was, it got me thinking about the way students look at things. Sometimes their approach isn't my approach. Actually, often times it's not. But does that mean their approach is wrong? Not really. I'd say my adamant insistence that they interpret literature the way I want them to is wrong. It's interpretation. Do I see a use of logic? Are they analyzing? If their interpretation is different than mine, are they wrong?
      Thinking back to my college days, I know I was usually the odd person out when it came to agreeing with the professor's take on a piece of literature. I'm going to take hits for this, but when we discussed the book The Great Gatsby, I told the prof it was a banal, trite work that was boring. The only voice of truth in my Am. Lit class, at least in my opinion (I still haven't come around on that novel). Students were aghast that I spoke what I'm sure many of them felt. The professor was astound I could be of that opinion. In hindsight I realize in most of my lit classes I often countered popular opinions with my own. But I always had a logical reason and a basis for my view.
      If my students disagree with me, is that wrong? Actually, I encourage that way of thinking. I don't want a bunch of milk cows following the leader into the barn every day at 4:00. I want free thinkers who analyze on their own.
      Now granted, literature is not finite like math. And in math there are absolutes. But most of life isn't that way. Most of life requires us to process information and come to a logical and reasonable conclusion. Not always my conclusion.
       If we want to encourage critical thinking, let's not squash thinking that doesn't mirror our own. Not everyone processes or looks at things the same way we do. Should students be discouraged from alternative thinking? Or is this something we as teachers need to encourage? Even help develop?
      It's all in the way we think. Some see 7 x 13 as 28 and others don't. Next time your students use logic and reason to come to their own conclusion and not yours, don't discourage it. Maybe you'll learn a thing or two. It could make all the difference.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Challenging Issues

    Whenever I tell people what I "do," they smile and reply, "That's great. Where do you teach?" If the person is from my home city, they do one of two things. Wrinkle their brow in confusion because they never knew my school existed or furrow their brow in concern because I teach "there" those "troubled" kids. Well, I'm here to tell you that my "troubled" kids probably present as many challenges as those in the traditional high schools. Kids are kids. Some like school and some don't. My job is to reach them all--somehow--and infuse in them a thrill of learning.
     Today's reflective post is to discuss the most challenging issues in education. For me, it's the previous scenario. How do we change the preconceived ideas people have of the students who attend my school? We do service projects once a block in the community. Nice, but not quite enough to erase the stigma. My classes engage in projects to promote the school, addressing the misconceptions people may have. Good, but no cigar. One of our students recently won a Silver Medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Contest. Top 1% of the 320,000 entries. Ho hum. I won't belabor my point, but you get the idea. It's  a challenge to change preconceived ideas.
     The same is true in traditional education. The public has preconceived ideas of what teachers can and should accomplish and, frankly, some of those ideas are spot on and some are off target. I think one of the biggest challenges facing education is changing people's ideas of what education should look like and how to approach the classroom.  For educators this means rethinking how we teach. Are we keeping up with the changing times? Are we being innovative in the classroom and continually trying new ways to teach material? New ways to challenge our students to think and analyze? New ways to engage them in learning?
     Perhaps we need to address what education should look like in the modern world. Should it continue to be "sit and get," with students listening to lectures and writing down notes? Or should we look for new methods of teaching the same material with more student involvement and engagement? The challenge, if you believe in making changes, is finding the time to make the whole scale adjustments to how you approach teaching.
     Maybe the challenge isn't so much in perceptions as in practice and attitude. Maybe teachers need to adjust how they view these changes in the landscape of teaching, embrace them more and be more positive in their outlook.Perhaps teachers need to take the first step in facing the gauntlet of attitude issues by readjusting their own. It's our job to believe in students. Every. Single. One.
     By changing our attitudes toward students, perhaps the environment in the classroom becomes more positive and more "can do." I've heard long enough what my kids "can't do" and so have they. Maybe we need to approach them like they can achieve.
    The list of challenges in teaching is as varied as those who are in the classroom. Everyone has an opinion. But this much is true. Unless teachers begin and end the day with confidence that their kids can learn and a willingness to be innovative in the classroom, mediocrity and self-doubts will linger. In everyone, student and teacher alike. By approaching students and the classroom with a more positive outlook, teachers can set the tone for the learning environment and the expectations of students. And that? That can make all the difference.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What are Your Strengths?

     How important is it to realize your weaknesses as a teacher? Ask most people and they would say it's invaluable. However, ask those same people about the power of realizing your strengths and they'd demurely dismiss your question. "Oh,I don't have any strengths" we coyly respond. But it's not true. All of us have strengths and once we recognize and begin to develop those strengths, students win.
    Ask yourself that simple question. What are my strengths as an educator? Where do I shine? What do I do well? There's no pride in admitting you do have skills and talents that enable you to do your job well. Not recognizing our positive qualities not only diminishes us but it minimizes our perception of ourselves.
     There are things I am good at and things I definitely need to work on. But the key is that I admit both the positives and negatives in my life. I admit weak areas freely, so why not claim the strengths?
    Teachers need to realize they do impact lives and they do make a difference and they do have strengths that aid in their teaching. Too often people criticize others for acknowledging something they do well in their lives. Instead, we need to embrace those things we excel at and develop them.
     I took time and looked at my own skills. What am I good at? What are my strengths? Do I utilize my strengths to improve my teaching? Unless I admit I'm good at somethings, I'll never be able to use those skills in the classroom. We do a disservice to our students when we're too prideful to admit our strengths. There's nothing to be gained when we operate in "humility" and refuse to admit we are skilled in certain areas.
     Once you evaluate your life and see how you operate, pick out the strong points in your teaching. Everyone has them. Everyone has something he or she is good at that can be beneficial in the classroom.
    I know my strengths and I use them daily to be a better, more approachable teacher. How about you? Acknowledge your strengths and use them intentionally daily. It will make all the difference.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Meaningful Feedback

     A few years ago I learned about the art of feedback. I  was getting my masters online and would submit a plethora of written work. It's at this time I came to understand the value of great feedback and realized how woefully inadequate I am in this area. How can teachers do a better job of giving feedback? How, indeed.
     Teens look forward to hearing how they did on a paper. They covet feedback and positive reinforcement. Who doesn't? During my time as a masters student, I looked for the same thing--meaningful feedback. I had one professor who was a genius in this area. Almost daily I think of her and how well she gave feedback. Then I look at my own feeble attempts at it and grimace.
     I can't speak for any other discipline, but in English, feedback is crucial. My students write--a lot--and if my expectation is for them to improve, their expectation is for me to give valuable feedback. I confess, sometimes I get pressed for time and instead of something meaningful, I go for the standard "nice job" or "good work" or "well written." Just as I'd never let those phrases get by without more explanation from my students, I know I need to expand on them as well.
     Here are a few things I've learned in my quest to improve my feedback to students:
     1. For feedback to be meaningful, it needs to be timely. Students have the topic on the brain and want to improve their work, but they need feedback from teachers. My credo is if it's important enough for me to assign, it's important enough for me to grade in a reasonable time frame. I'm not doing my students any favors if I procrastinate reviewing their papers. More often than not, any passion they may have had for the topic wanes if I take too long in getting it back to them.
    2. For feedback to be meaningful, it needs to be specific. I'm trying to eliminate the "nice work" and "good job" comments, replacing them with thoughtful insights about their writing. This may sound easy but it's one of the hardest things I've done as a teacher. The more specific the feedback, the more knowledgeable the student about what exactly needs to be addressed. It's easy to find the errors, but making comments about the good is just as important. Students need to see what they've done right and continue to strive toward achieving that in subsequent work.
    3. For feedback to be meaningful, it needs to be honest but encouraging. When it comes to this type of writing, some people are masters. They easily weave critique in with praise, finding good in everything as well as pointing out the weaknesses. Some may be honest but leave out the encouraging part. No one wants their work shredded without any positive comments. A colleague of mine is Mr. Positive. He finds good in every situation and every piece of writing. He's a great example to follow, and I find myself asking what type of feedback he'd give a particular work if he were reading it. This has helped me to look for more positives in my students' work which benefits everyone.
     4. For feedback to be meaningful, it needs to be genuine. Students can spot fluff and almost resent seeing it on their work. For as much time as it takes to type or write something, make your words be heartfelt and genuine. Teens are adept at knowing when teachers are blowing smoke and when they are sincere. Make your comments count.
    5. For feedback to be meaningful, it needs to be personal. I try to encourage my students by noting their improvements from past assignments. Specific improvements. This takes time as sometimes I need to refresh my memory and revisit their work, going back, sometimes, to the beginning of the class. When I can personalize the feedback and note growth by referencing a prior work, students take what I say more to heart. They realize they aren't getting a "canned" teacher response but one that has thought put into it. Students respond to teacher effort.
    I've not come close to mastering the art of feedback, but I strive toward that goal. Eliminating my own canned responses is a step. I've come to realize that the more effort I put into giving quality feedback, the more effort my students give me. And that can make all the difference.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Top Edtech Sites

     I love technology. Really, I do. But learning new applications intimidates me. I never feel as though I have enough time to actually learn them well. The nuances. The subtleties. The shortcuts. The result? I know many applications but know them poorly. So what are apps I use consistently and know the best? Not many, that's for sure. Here are my top five.
     1. Google Drive/Docs. Daily. Hour by hour, minute by minute. I'm constantly on Google Drive/Docs helping students with papers. This is by far my most comfortable application and the one I know the best. The functionality of it in the classroom is unsurpassed, in my estimation. Being able to communicate with students, answer their questions that they are shy asking in person, giving feedback, encouraging students to keep improving--all this is possible and more with Google Drive/Docs.
     2. Remind. I use this application weekly, sometimes more, sending out short missive to parents about things going on in school. Things with which they can talk to their teens. Fodder for conversations. I had a student ask me the other day why I sent his mom text messages. I asked him why not? He had no answer except to tell me that all his mom did with the information was want to talk to him about it. Heavens, that can't be good, right? I think if more parents and teens communicated, there would be far fewer problems in the classroom.
    3.  Screencast-o-matic. I may not use this weekly, but I am a frequent user of this application. Why do I like it so much? Because it's quick and easy to use, students quickly pick it up, and it allows me to expand on concepts that students can watch if I'm too busy with other students to help someone when needed. This way, my students know to check out my website to see if there are any video explanations for their current question. I can upload videos to youtube.com and link them directly to my website. Easy peasy, all the way around. This win-win situation is appreciated by the teens as they don't always want to ask for help.
    4. Google Sites.  This should probably be much higher on my list as it's a tool used daily in my classroom. Suffice it to say I may spend a few minutes each week tweaking content on my site, but it's one of the best investments of my time. It allows more independence on the student's part and gives them a feeling of autonomy that I believe is healthy for students to develop. Making them teacher dependent doesn't do anyone any favors. This dependence won't benefit them in college, at all.
    5. Easel.ly and Booksource Organizer. I probably access booksource organizer more often as it's the app I use to manage my classroom library, but my students probably use esael.ly more to generate infographics. This is one of those programs I wrote about above--I know it but I don't really know it. However, I have found students to be engaged, thinking and learning when doing an infographic.

     So there it is, the list of my top five used apps. I use other extensions and such from Google daily, but in this post I focused on larger apps that impacted the most. I do love technology. And learning new applications. If only I had more time. That could make all the difference
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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Teaching Changes

    As I continue to make my way through @teachthought's reflective questions, I find myself wondering the answer to this question myself. How do I envision my teaching changing in the next five years? How do I, indeed?
    My initial reaction to this question is that I improve, but that's not the answer. HOW will the change occur? I think it comes down to two words--risk taking. If I'm not willing to experiment, fail, and learn, I'm not sure I should be teaching. Sound like a harsh assessment? Maybe it is, but I do believe it. Does that mean everything I've done in the past that has been successful I need to scrap? I don't think that's the case. Maybe it's more of an attitude, a willingness to be flexible and try out new concepts not knowing how successful these implemented ideas will be.
     What do I hope my teaching is like in five years? Perhaps more deliberate than now, but still open to change. My desire is to be as innovative as possible, engaging as many students as possible, in the best learning environment possible. Is this possible? I think it is.
     Do teachers consciously think about where they'd like to be in five years? Do they set personal and professional goals? Should that be part of the evaluation process? How important is it for teacher's to look ahead and storyboard out their career?
     Time will tell what my teaching is like in five years. However, if I know anything about myself it's this: My teaching won't look the same as it does now. And that will make all the difference.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Favorite Part of the School Day

    I'm returning to something I never finished last year, and it's something I actually DO want to complete. @teachthought has a series of 30 questions for teachers to reflect upon in one month. Well, I got up to Day 10 and got sidetracked. I'm determined to get through these? To write more about myself? No, to become a better teacher.
    Day 11: What is your favorite part of the school day and why? This isn't as easy as it sounds. I have multiple "favorite" times of the day. When the students arrive, when I'm working with kids and they "get" it, but mostly  I'd have to say the last half hour to hour of class. This is usually when I schedule time for projects. Entering into group conversations, dreaming up ideas, laughing and learning are all present. It's FUN! Just like school is supposed to be.
     So what's the current project we're working on? Glad you asked. My school rents space from a Seeing Impaired School who periodically houses students for a week at a time. To connect more with the demographic we have decided to write short books for them. Once we create the text, the Blind School staff will make Braille books out of our words. We'll be working with the art class who will be illustrating the books.
     Enough of the rabbit trail. I enjoy the end part of the school day as my kids are ready for a break and ready to discuss--life, school, politics, books--whatever. They've worked hard and their ready to relax a bit before the end of the class. I view this time as imperative in building and maintaining relationships with my students. They see a more relaxed me and vice versa.
     So that's my favorite time of the school day--the time I'm able to interact with my students, chill, and just have fun and laugh. Laughter is always a big part of relationships. Is it in your room? Think about it. Laughter and down time--they make all the difference.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Read Alouds? Read Alouds

   I confess, I enjoy being read to. And so do my students, even though they're in their teens. How do I know this? Because our school recently launched an all-school read with the teachers reading out loud to the students. The result? An engaged student-body who look forward to the next session.
    My principal embraced the idea of a read aloud even though he was a little wary of the book Flight by Sherman Alexie I had proposed. I described it as having a good deal of "language" that may offend some, but the message of this book, I knew, would resonate with our student body. After reading the book himself, my principal agreed.
    The result of this orchestrated mass reading has been unbelievable. Spontaneous discussions break out in my room after the reading time dealing with connected issues in the world that really aren't even part of the book itself. There's been more engagement on the students' part and more excitement to read (or be read to) than I've seen for a while.
     While to be sure the book has a lot to do with this engagement, I think the read aloud matters too. It's something the students return to in their discussion--how much different it is to be read to and how they "see" the story differently when they hear it and see it (every student follows along in his/her copy of the book) rather than just reading on their own.
     When successes like this come along, there's nothing to do but celebrate them. And replicate that success in other ways. Engaging students with read alouds. Who knew? It makes all the difference.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Students' Struggles? Re-evaluate Yourself

     My students struggle at times, and like most teachers, I'm aware of the assignments that cause the most angst. Does that mean I should do away with the assignment? Rethink my teaching strategies for this lesson? Or maybe I should ask student input as to what would help make it a better lesson? I'm continually re-evaluating what I teach and how I teach it. An innocent conversation with my husband the other night alerted me to perhaps some unrealistic expectations on my part of my students and their work.
     With the beginning of a new block at school, I welcomed new students to my classroom--both new to me and some who were new to the school. One of those new-to-the-school teens came in the second day of the block and plopped down in his seat. After greeting him, I asked how his first day at CHS was. His response? "Overwhelming." Curious, I probed. Reticent to be disparaging, he said English had been tough. He wasn't "getting" the concepts.
     This surprised me as I had spent considerable time with him the previous day explaining, modeling, teaching, and reteaching the concepts until I thought he had understanding. In a conversation that night with my husband, I chronicled and, I admit, complained about this student's lack of comprehension. I detailed the story to my spouse and asked him the same questions I asked my student. The results? The same befuddled look, grasping answers, and total bewilderment. Obviously there was a problem and the problem was with me.
      I thought this assignment challenging but doable; yet looking at the number of students who struggled with it and the toil my husband endured, I realized I needed to do something. I needed to change...a lot.
     This path to self-discovery, I think, is an important one for all teachers to embark on. Do the students really "get" what you're trying to teach or just going through the motions? To be a student-centered teacher, I needed to re-think what I wanted to achieve with that assignment, and others. Does that mean I lack rigor? No, I think it means I'm trying to lack frustrating my students so much that they want to just give up. Once they shut down, it's hard to re-start and re-engage them.
     Lesson learned--finally. Evaluate your own lessons. If there's something that students repeatedly and historically have struggled with, maybe it's time to redesign the lesson. Take a hard look at yourself and what and how you teach. It could make all the difference.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Down Time = Read Time

     During the last few weeks, I've had some undesired and unexpected down time. With mobility limited, I've found myself faced with a lot of time on my hands. A lot. In preparation of this, prior to my time away from school, I stocked up on books I had on my TBR list.The result of this luschious lull? I've been able to read and reread a large number of books. Here are some of the tops ones I read.
     In the YA genre, Butter  by Erin Jade Lange, is at the top of the books I read and enjoyed. Dealing with touchy subjects of bullying and teen suicide, this was a book that kept me engaged and empathetic to the main character.
     Another book I wish wouldn't end, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler,was a coming of age story of a young girl who feels like a misfit in her family. Her older siblings, both overachievers and legendary in the high school, set a high bar for fifteen-year-old Virginia Sheeves. But as she comes to terms with who she is and her place in life, she also sees the cracks in her "perfect" brother. The author includes a nice twist in the plot that the reader doesn't see coming.
     One of my favorites, The Beginning of Everything by Robin Schneider, deals with a high school senior who was involved in a crippling car accident that ended his tennis career and leaves him wondering where he fits in the high school hierarchy. It deals with accepting his new limitations, reestablishing friendships and entering into a relationship. Just when his life has fallen into a smooth rhythm, main character Ezra Faulkner confronts the past in a way that transforms his futures and shakes his present.
      Although I read more books, I can't mention them all. However, one NF that deserves mention is True Notebook: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman. This book chronicles Salzman's visits into juvenile hall where he is convinced by an erstwhile nun to offer a writing class to young offenders. Unsure of how the class would go, Salzman agrees to give it a try. What unfolds is a mixture of the angst of the teen offenders as they wait for their future to be revealed and a release of some of the teen's stress as they use writing to express their anxieties and fears.
      As someone who teaches at-risk teens, this book showed me how powerful words are and how the writing process can be therapeutic to teens. I knew this, but I never KNEW this. Maybe it was that the class members read their writing out loud that led to the profundity of the writing class and this book. For me, at least, this book revealed the power of writing and the power of paper and pencil to help young adults explore and express their feelings outside of the classroom. If this book did anything, it helped to reinforce my commitment to having students write...a lot.
      My seclusion has one more week before I'm allowed to reenter the classroom for half days. Honestly, it can't come soon enough for me. But as I wait patiently for that time to arrive, I guarantee you'll I'll be reading. Guaranteed.