Friday, December 29, 2017

Inspired

     It's the end of the calendar year and in catching up with colleagues and friends over the past week or so, I've noticed something. I've had some down time over break to consider and process my thoughts and have come to the same conclusion. My colleagues and friends inspire me, all differently, but they all do in different ways.
     One friend and colleague is working on her doctorate. The hours she has logged on this is mind-boggling but you'd never know it talking to her. The subject of her dissertation is incredible. She inspires me to be passionate about teaching because for her, it's all about the kids and giving them choices. This colleague is as selfless as they come, always willing to share ideas and materials with whomever needs help. I want to be like her when I grow up.
     Another friend and colleague is passionate about allowing kids to be creative, to fail, to find their own solutions, and to make a difference. His approach to teaching inspires me. He's the one I go to when I'm wrestling with an idea for a project or need insights and critiques as to whether something works or not. I seek him out when I need affirmation that project-based learning is good for kids and that I'm not just "doing projects" but I'm teaching students what they need in life.
    Then there's my friend and colleague who inspires me with the positive outlook on life she has. She always knows how to make people feel like they matter and they are important to her. How does she do that? By being herself and transparent and honest. She's my cheerleader, who's optimistic outlook buoys me up when I lack a positive attitude.
     These are just three of the many who inspire me. But as I was thinking about this, I wondered about me. Do I inspire anyone? Do I show my passion for teaching? For kids? Do I have a positive outlook that impacts those around me? Am I passionate about my students, wanting them to succeed?  With the new year a few days away, I'm considering my past as I contemplate my future. Where do I want to be in a year? Am I so sold out to something that I'm vocal in my support of it? Do I impact and inspire those around me?
     The jury's still out on the answers to these questions, but they are, indeed, something to strive for. How 'bout you? Have you inspired anyone lately? Answering that could make all the difference.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Live in the Moment

     Don't wish your days away. A wise friend of mine told me that once and it has stuck with me ever since. I used to do this--wish it was Christmas break, spring break, summer break, any kind of break. But after my friend told me that, I reconsidered my wish list. Why was I wishing all this time to pass? If I disliked my job enough to anticipate every break...well, maybe I should look for a different profession. But I liked my job. What I didn't like was the count down mentality I acquired.
     I know I've written about ending count down talk in the past, but as we near the holiday season, I have to remind myself to live in the moment. Every minute I spend in the classroom, for me, is a blessing. I may, in time, be forced from the place I love. I think about it often as kids file into the classroom, share corny jokes with me, wonder about my comments on a paper, or shoot the breeze with my students. I want to live in the moment and give every particle of myself to my students. I want to enjoy their humor, be a part of their lives, and encourage them in their learning. I want to be a positive voice in their lives.
     This time of year it's easy to get caught up in the wave of looking forward. But I like the view from where I'm sitting--in the present, living in the moment.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Complaint-Free Zone

     This has been a great school year. One of my best in years. Did I change jobs? No, I still teach at-risk students. Is my class size smaller? No, I'm running at capacity. So what made the change? A little purple band a friend of mine gave me that read "Complaint-Free World." He said every time I caught myself complaining I had to switch the band to the other wrist. This made me more aware of my words and my attitude, which impact my outlook which influences how I treat students. Ergo, by cleaning up my act, I set the stage for a more positive vibe in my classroom.
     Complaining is almost a way of life with some people. Nothing's ever good enough, they don't make enough, their students are problematic, they aren't happy with their lives--the complaints go on and on. If I had a negative Nellie like that for a teacher, why would I want to be in her class? We're surrounded with negativity in the world. The last thing we need is more of it in our own classrooms.
     So the little purple band reminded me of my words and their power, but it also shook me out of my comfort zone. Every year I'd get a flyer about having a Poet in the Classroom and every year I'd circular file it. Instantly. Negative thoughts spewing into my mind. "What a dumb program," I'd think. Who has time for this on top of everything else I have to do," I'd wonder. Negativity swirled in my thoughts. Except this year. I looked at the program, read through the pamphlet, and talked to the other English teacher. Did we want to take on the Poetry Out Loud project and write a grant to bring a poet into the classroom? We did. For me, I needed to challenge myself to explore a program I had only dismissed in the past. Well, we got the grant and the poet has been here. It was probably one of the best moves I've made in a long while. The poet was a HUGE hit. Had I been in my normal attitude zone, I would have circular filed it again.
     I'm having a good year because I have a good attitude. I LIKE my students. I LIKE my job. I LIKE my coworkers. The problem during turbulent school years may have been as simple as needing to adjust my attitude.  When kids know you like them and enjoy being around them, they respond positively.
      No one likes to hang out with grumpy stumps. For me the little purple band will continue to remind me how important attitude is. It impacts not just me but everyone around me. I don't want to be another negative force in the lives of my students. Get yourself a purple band (acomplaintfreeworld.org) and make some adjustments of your own. It could make all the difference.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Readying for WAR

     WAR is coming and I'm getting ready for it. Not the nuclear bomb-dropping kind of war but the WAR for Literacy conference on March 24, 2018. The planning team just held its first meeting and it got me jazzed for this event.
     One person I'm especially excited to see present is Joe Davis, a poet whom we were able to bring to my school this year to work with our students. Joe was terrific. He engaged the kids, got them thinking, writing, and sharing (no easy feat) and performed his own poetry for them. Joe stamped "Cool" over the word poetry and allowed my students to see that poetry is for everyone. After watching him in action and seeing how the students responded to him, it was a no-brainer that I needed to invite him to present at WAR. If you go to WAR for no other reason, Joe Davis is worth attending the conference to see his presentation.
     Another new presenteer this year at WAR will be Patrick Henry a professor at UND. With a masters in fiction, Patrick teaches creative writing at the university. He'll be teaching a session at the WAR conference on characters and character development. What's amazing about this addition is he reached out to us, asking if he could get involved some way in the conference. Yes, please.
     We have others who will be facilitating sessions and leading discussions. I can't wait. WAR is coming to Grand Forks. I'll be ready for it--will you? It could make all the difference.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Innovating Passionate Students

     I talked to a friend and colleague yesterday about what some students are doing in one of his classes. These kids, a group of them anyway, organized and are hosting a cultural fair for their school. It may not sound like much or that real "learning" is taking place, but it is . We discussed everything these kids were being exposed to and having to utilize from their English "backpack" so to speak.
     The high school where he teaches is the magnet school in our district for ELL students--English Language Learners. So a cultural fair here makes all kinds of sense. Want to teach tolerance and acceptance? Educate others on the different cultures involved and around them. It's a terrific idea and one with great benefits.
     So what kind of "great" benefits? Well, the students did all the organizing and relied on the teacher as a coach or mentor. They learned to approach businesses for donations (speaking and listening skills not to mention the soft skills needed for this interaction), they learned how to budget and purchase needed items for an event like this, and they learned to communicate with media outlets. The students also designed and sold t-shirts to raise money--creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving all factor into this. Aren't these the skills teachers are told by the world we need to instill in young people so they can be successful contributors to the work force?
     These are just a few of the skills taught/reinforced/gained by students involved in this project. They are the initiators, they are the learners, they are directing the learning. The result? Passion in kids. My friend told me the kids were so enthused about this project they worked feverishly on it, devoting more time writing, thinking, reading, planning, speaking, and interacting on this than they ever would have in a textbook-focused class. Isn't that what we want to see as teachers? Kids engaged in active learning? Kids so passionate about school they don't want to miss a day? Exposing them to life so they can solve problems? Maybe not everyone, but it's what I hope to achieve with my students.
    So props to you, my friend. The work you're doing with students is something they'll never forget. You're giving them learning opportunities and exposing them to skills they will use for a lifetime. And that can make all the difference!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What's Your Passion?

     Are you in a job or do you have a career? Are you passionate about your position or do you go to work with a sense of dread every day? A 2013 Gallup study found a mere 13% of the workforce felt engaged by their jobs--meaning they felt hugely connected and engaged in what they were doing and spent their days innovating ways to make their company perform better. Conversely, the same study said that 63% of workers are "not engaged," meaning they're workers who during the day visit their "happy place" mentally. Finally Gallup found that 24% of workers are "actively disengaged" meaning they pretty much despise their job. Add the last two categories together and you find only 13% of workers who are emotionally  engaged in their workplace and find fulfillment there.
    Even though the study is four years old, the numbers disturb me. Can really that many people be so dissatisfied with their occupations? That's a hugely unhappy workforce. All these statistics made me look to my own profession. Teaching. I'd say we're statistical anomalies. Most teachers are engaged and passionate about what they do. Their problem isn't the kids, it's the lack of administrative support and recognition. Yes, there are bad teachers out there who merely "warm a seat," but I think that is the exception rather than the rule.
     I ask myself every August if I'm still passionate about teaching. Whenever the answer is "no," I'll know it's time to hang it up. If I'm miserable in the classroom, my kids will be miserable in the classroom. How fair is that? I want school to be an exciting experience that offers real-life application of academic skills to the real world. Some may question whether I teach English or not, but I'm pretty sure I do. Some classics, some choice, some moderns, some short stories, some poetry, some writing--last I checked those are all components of English.
     So evaluate yourself. If you're one of the 87%, maybe it's time to find a different workplace. For me, I've found my niche.However,  my passion isn't just to teach content, it's to teach kids. That is my passion and if you're a teacher, it should be yours too. It's easy to get caught up in content, but it's more important to get caught up in kids. When you do that, it can make all the difference.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Seeing Beyond

     Ever have a really bad day? Or week? Maybe everything in your life is in turmoil. Illness, strife, transitions--all of these can be contributing factors that distract you or keep you from doing your best. When times are tough, we want people to cut us some slack. So do students. Life happens and oftentimes it isn't happening the way we thought. Instead of complaining about a student's lack of focus, maybe we should show we care and take time to find out why.
     I teach at-risk kids. It seems their lives are in tumult constantly, usually through no fault of their own. Some don't know where they are going to sleep, what mood dad will be in when he gets home, how they're going to get to work because their car died, what bills they should pay...well, you get the idea. There is so much "stuff" going on in their lives that school often takes a second or third slot in their priorities. Maybe we need to look beyond the curriculum, see the student dealing with struggles, and realize that school isn't all there is in their lives.
     Growing up  wasn't easy for me. I can relate to a lot of the difficulties my students face. Maybe that's why I'm quick to give second and third chances. When I see a student struggling, I know there's more to the story. By taking time to converse with my student beforehand and establish a relationship with him or her when they start my class, it will be much easier for them to confide in me later when they are facing difficulties. I don't want to be their counselor, but I do want to be someone they can turn to for support and empathy.Sometimes that's all they need.
     We can have tunnel vision as teachers, focusing solely on the class and not the student. We're under pressure to teach content, meet standards, achieve proficiency and so much more. Some days the last thing we want is to hear the troubles of our students.But by taking a moment out of our day and showing genuine concern, we can make a difference.
      A student I had eight years ago stopped in the other day to visit. I remembered her clearly and was glad to hear how she was doing. What surprised me was a comment she made. "Remember when I was going through things and you talked to me? That was the first time I had a teacher care more about me than school. And what you said stuck with me. I think of it a lot when times get stressful. Thanks for what you did."
     Eight years. Honestly, I didn't remember the incident. But she did. Maybe what we say won't resonate with us, but it may with our students. We need to look beyond school and see the teen standing there, feeling helpless, adrift, troubled, and confused. School can wait, but their problems can't always.
     Seeing beyond school to the life our young people live isn't always fun. It can be complicated and messy. And that's just for us. Imagine what it must be like to live in the situation.Seeing beyond school to the student standing there is imperative--it can make all the difference.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Swimming Upstream

     Ever wonder how a salmon feels swimming against the current, trying with all its might to return to home base? Sometimes I think teaching is like that--when you try new things in your classroom, that is. I mean, really, how much effort does it take to do the same old, same old? Be like a salmon, and swim upstream.
     I'm in salmon mode right now. My students are working on a project that I don't feel like I have a handle on. Every day something new comes up and problem-solving occurs. I know it's okay to feel a lack of control, but everything inside me cries out to step in and take charge.
    How is this new idea working out? I'm not really sure. Is it what I envisioned this summer when the idea was born as I sat at Starbucks with a colleague imagining the possibilities? Not in the least. Yet I think it's working. Just because I feel out of whack, doesn't mean things aren't progressing. It's a lesson I have to learn and sometimes relearn--how to give up control and let the students be in charge. It's so much easier and efficient for me to step in, but would that allow students to learn as effectively?
     I don't want to be the only one swimming upstream in the classroom. I want students to feel a bit uncomfortable, maybe a bit off kilter, because they aren't being told what to do. They decide. They take charge. They figure things out.
     It's easy to see why teachers don't embrace projects and project-based learning in the classroom. We're control freaks. And giving up that control is not easy. But challenge yourself. Be a salmon and swim against the current. It could make all the difference.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Notice the Unnoticed

     School is on--at least in my district it is. Yesterday was our first day with students and it was a terrific start to the school year. As I watched my students pile into the classroom, greeting each one as he/she entered, I couldn't help but think of my pastor's message a few Sundays ago. Notice the unnoticed.
     I watched as familiar friends banded together and sat in groups, reliving the summer experiences and catching up in general. Then there were the new students--isolated, sitting alone, unengaged, and probably apprehensive about coming to a new school. How could I help them out?
     We all have new students, apprehensive students, or students reticent and subdued. It's easy to engage with the active students, the ones who laugh at your jokes and respond with one of their own. But the student on the periphery? The one who keeps to himself? That's the one we need to reach and engage however possible.
     What are some strategies we could use as teachers to include everyone? How can we train ourselves to "notice the unnoticed?" And once we notice them, how can we make them feel included and ease their apprehension?
     I've said it many times on this blog--relationships are the key to being a successful teacher. Begin building those relationships Day 1, letting the student know you are interested and care about them. Talk to them. Engage them in conversation away from their class. Notice them in the hallway. Smile, use their name, and say hello. It may be the only smile they get today. Make it count.
     My goal this year is not just to notice the unnoticed but to make them feel valued--that they matter. I'll give up some of my time to make their time at school less anxiety ridden and more enjoyable. By easing the anxiety, we can help them feel more comfortable and ready to learn. Once they relax and experience success, their anxiety may abate.
     Go ahead. I challenge you. Notice the unnoticed. It could make all the difference!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Lifelong Learning

     Learning is a part of life. Every part of life. Yearly, almost daily, I seem to learn some new nugget about my husband of 33 years. Friends? It's the same. I'm discovering new facets to them I was ignorant of in the past. Myself? Especially myself. I'm realizing why I do some of the things I do and understanding motivations like never before. Beyond self-discovery, I'm also learning about the craft and art of teaching from others who have innovative ideas and approaches. Summers are times to rejuvenate as a teacher but not stop learning.
     Get involved in a book study. This summer I'm involved in two professional book studies. Although one book is difficult to read (and comprehend), I've stuck with it and pushed my way through. I'm hoping hearing from this author and seeing what he had in mind when he speaks at a conference later this summer will help my comprehension of his work. The other book I'm reading, Shift This, by Joy Kirr, has been a joy to read. Filled with ideas and challenges, I found myself mentally adapting her concepts to fit in my classes. The book study has lead to terrific discussion, often leading me to uncover even more ideas to implement in the classroom. When I meet with this group, I never leave without feeling challenged to improve.
     Another way to be a learner is just to meet with colleagues and brainstorm. I have a few go-to people who never fail to spark ideas in me. This summer I was stuck on improving one of my classes. So instead of muddling through it alone, I pestered a friend until we finally met for coffee and discussed our approach to the same class. The result? I came away with a great idea to try this year that could truly transform my approach to Junior English. I rarely come back empty from my interactions with this colleague and I appreciate the time given to me.
     Twitter is a favorite way of mine to find new ways to deliver old material. It's quick, succinct and often leads to me to web articles that challenge my thinking or encourage new actions in the classroom. My district implemented a twitter chat (#gfedchat) during the school year a few years ago and that has been invaluable in my quest to learn.
     Finally, there's your state curriculum conference. My state conference NDCTE, is amazing. I confess I never gave it much thought until about five or six years ago when a colleague encouraged me to go. I haven't looked back. Penny Kittle, Louise Erdrich, Kelly Gallagher, Jeff Wilhelm, Jim Burke--these have been some of the quality speakers I've heard and learned from during this conference. My whole way of teaching and approaching the classroom has changed because of these speakers who are teachers.
     Being a lifelong learner isn't just good for you, it's good for your kids. You'll gain knowledge, but they'll gain a better teacher who is willing to implement new ideas. And that can make all the difference.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Out Finlanding Finland

     I attended a one-day conference recently about innovation in education--what that looks like in my state and what it could look like. It's taken me a while to process all I saw and heard--some inspiring, some not so much. But what stands out most to me is that teachers across my state are ready to rethink education and make some radical changes.
      One of the sessions/panels at this conference was titled "Out Finlanding Finland." It was a catchy title that stuck with me. As I listened to the panelists, a few stood out to me. One was a student who said she wasn't prepared for college because she didn't have enough of a background in project-based learning. Not that she wasn't skilled enough to write a five-paragraph essay or decode Shakespeare, but that she felt inadequate when asked to collaborate and create with others in her class. In college she was given real-world assignments that truly could impact whole cities. She encouraged educators to incorporate more projects, teaching the art of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication.  
  The most courageous proposal out there was from a superintendent of a smaller school district who is totally changing up how things are done at his school next year. I don't pretend to understand how it would all work, but I'm intrigued by it. His plan? He wants to eliminate grade levels all together. Instead of advancing a grade level, students would be advanced when mastery was achieved. Those who need extra help on a concept or two would stay and work on that concept. For a student who comprehends the needed material, he/she would move on.
     In addition, he'd like students to finish up required courses by sophomore year, so they can use their final two years to explore their passions, experience an internship, and go on job shadows. Why? So these students will actually be college ready, knowing with more certainty what they want to do and why.
     I think this concept works on numerous levels, although I don't know how the logistics of this set up will play out. This could be an ideal world for students at all levels. The bright students, who are usually bored in class, will find more challenges. Students who struggle in only certain areas will have extra attention in that area. And those who need more focused help, will receive it. Differentiation at its best.
     How will he accomplish this? I have no idea. It's going to be messy and confusing and probably even frustrating to some (many? all?)--educators, students, parents, support staff, administration. Messy, yes, but this guy is radically rethinking the way education is done in his district.
    There were a number of people from my district at this event and we're in the process of discussing the implications for our district from what we gleaned at this conference. But right now, my biggest take away is that my state could Out-Finland Finland.
     Not every school in the state needs to follow the lead of the school district that is ditching grade levels, but every school in the state should begin to radically rethink what we do and how we do it. I'm in the process of changing my syllabus...again. Hopefully, it will make all the difference.
    

Friday, May 26, 2017

Award-Winning Teacher

     There are certain things in life we have to accept about ourselves, whether we like it or not. For instance, I will never not be the youngest in my family, I'll never know why some kids are resilient and siblings in their family aren't, and I'll never be an award-winning teacher. And that's okay, I'm good with that.
       So what started this musing? An article on eschool news sparked this line of thinking. The article talked about what each teacher did in his/her classroom that was special. At the end of the article were tips from that person to increase your chances of winning an award. At first I thought, "Dang, I'll never be an award-winning teacher." And then I thought, "Who cares?" Instead of chasing after the recognition or prize, I'd rather chase after kids --their minds, their hearts, their abilities--and have a concrete impact on them in the classroom.
      We have a week left of school and as I ready my grade book to turn in, I look at all the names of students I've had in class this year--127. Was I an award-winning teacher to them? Did I engage them and challenge them and help them to feel succesful and learn? If not, no designation is warranted. If I did, their smiles and happiness at doing well in school and getting "it" are reward enough,
     I have friends who have been state Teacher of the Year and believe me, they well deserved that recognition. What they achieve in the classroom is beyond my comprehension. They amaze me.
     We don't need "tips" from award winners to be a Teacher of the Year. We need tips from our colleagues on how to be good teachers. Effective teachers. Impactful teachers.
     So if you've never gotten a Teacher of the Year award, remember, you're in good company. When that thought maybe bums you out, pull out some old grade books and go through the names of kids whose lives you touched. You were probably Teacher of the Year to many of them. And that? That can make all the difference in their lives.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Rats in the Classroom

     I don't have them yet, but I want rats in my classroom. No, not the gray furry kind that scamper among the subway rails of New York City, but the "Rats,--I'm-done-with-this-class" kind of rats. I have the summer to achieve it. So what brought about my fascination, some say obsession, with rats?
      I read an article recently about Finland implementing a new program where they will be eliminating subject areas. Instead, they'll integrate subjects across the curriculum. It's inquiry-based and project-based combined.You can read about it here. It is fascinating and something I've thought about for the past decade or so. What would my world look like, my school look like, if we implemented something like this? Would absentee rates diminish? Would engagement increase? Would students switch their countdown to being done with a class (sheesh, FINALLY I'm done!) to being done with a class (rats, I loved this class!) I never thought I'd say this, but I want rats in my classroom this year!
     Would it be radical for a whole school to want rats in the classroom? Maybe, but could that tenuous move be beneficial to kids? I think it might. In fact, I think this is something to pursue because it could challenge us professionally and challenge students as well.
     It's definitely something to consider.Work for teachers? Sure. Engagement for kids? Almost guaranteed. And that could make all the difference.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Looking in the Mirror

     It's May. Some teachers say it with delight, giddy with the thought of summer days, sleeping in, and no papers to correct. Others say it with defeat. It's May--I only have a few weeks left to teach them something. It's May. For me that means looking back over the year, looking at the changes I made in the classroom, and seeing what I've accomplished in the lives of my students.
     I'm a big believer in self-reflection, knowing I'm my worst critic. But I'm honest and I don't embellish what did or didn't work. It's important for teachers to squeeze out some time, maybe at the end of the day or the beginning of one, to look back over the year and ask themselves some questions.
1. What did I teach my students? I'm not talking content or the standards but what did I teach them about being a decent human being? What type of behavior did I model? How well did I teach them to think and analyze?
2. What have I learned? Again, this doesn't have to be about content, but what did I learn about my students? What did I learn about me? What did I learn about the teaching profession and how to be better?
3.What impact have I had beyond my classroom, in the community? This may seem like an odd question to ask, but again, I think it's modeling community involvement to my students. School can't be my entire life, so what have I done this year that has helped others, impacted others, or made a difference in my community? I am involved beyond my classroom walls. Talking to my students about what I do models the volunteerism I'd like to foster in my students' lives.
4. What did I crush this year? Sometimes that's the hardest question for me to answer. And most times it isn't the content or curriculum that comes first. How well did I connect with my students this year? Was I peevish? Patient? Did I smile a lot? Did I make students feel safe, successful and self-confident?
5. How can I improve? There are teachers in my district whose work with students blow me out the water. I recently met with a colleague and I could only listen in amazement at her dazzling display of success she'd been experiencing with an exceptionally difficult group of freshman. I enjoy meeting with this friend as I'm always challenged to step up my game after my talks with her. She, without knowing it, shows me areas I need to grow in as an educator and as a person. She makes me want to better myself. I'm grateful for friends like that. Meetings with her always lead me to ask myself what I need to work on to become a stronger teacher.
     So take some time this month to ask yourself these questions. Slow down, take a break and really reflect on yourself as a teacher. Who knows? It could make all the difference.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The S is not for Silence

     We have a problem in our community. Actually in our area. Really, in our region. Heck, it's a problem statewide and it was accentuated in my mind as I listened to a senior recital. The showcased girl has amazing talents. She's confident, strong, winsome, nice, respectful---she could very well be the perfect daughter. And I contrasted that with the kids I've known who have decided as Wordsworth said, "The world is too much with us (them)." It was too much for them so they checked out--early. Painfully leaving behind a bevy of "Whys" and "What ifs" and "If onlys." This is a problem where I live and it's time we address this issue before another teen feels overwhelmed by life and believes he/she is better off without living out the rest of theirs.
     My Tuesday/Thursday book club is reading the book 13 Reasons Why and had begun the book prior to the latest heart-breaker. Add to that the controversy stirred from the movie and you have a tenuous hold on  a book club. I was thinking about how to address this in light of the recent tragedy, but really, I didn't have to do anything at all. The kids talked about it. They wanted to talk about it. We had a terrific discussion. I was mulling it over later, noticing the silence that the incident had garnered. No one wanted to talk about it. Suicide--there, I said it. And I think we as educators need to be saying it more and more. Let's take a proactive approach to this heinous action. Let's talk to kids, early and often. We took proactive stances on tobacco and alcohol usage and saw usage reduce. Why can't the same happen with the "S" word? The word no one wants to even whisper out loud in fear another student will get the idea.
      I'm here to tell you talking about suicide in a proactive manner probably won't incite anyone to act on their thoughts. Rather, wouldn't it seem more logical that those who are dealing with depression and other mental health issues would feel acknowledged and perhaps reach out for help? We don't need to be silent anymore. We've been silent long enough and where has that gotten us? With three teens in school who felt like the world was too much with them. In a year. That's not counting my student who graduated last year who ended his life this past fall. Four young lives ended prematurely leaving gaps in our world and our lives.
     Silence has gotten us no where. No where. It's time we change tactics and become proactive rather than reactive. Another young person doesn't need to lose the battle because caring adults were few and far between in his or her life.
     I know there will be more suicides in the future. But let's stem the tide. Let's start talking about this issue. Let's let our students know how much we care about them. Perhaps I'm being pollyanna-ish, but it's time to open our mouths and talk to kids. Even the young lady who sang amazingly at her senior recital last night could have entertained those thoughts. You don't know if you don't talk about.
     Remember, S is not for silence. It's for suicide. Care enough to talk to teens about it. It could make all the difference.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Flexibility and Fun with Technology

     Our school just got a green screen and an iPad to do some filming and editing. It's actually really cool. Thanks to our technology partner for writing the grant and for our Foundation for Education for financing this project.
     Some may think a green screen and its applications are a waste of time. What real learning takes place with something like this? Well, I'll tell you--lots. I've not used it much since we just received it, but I've had kids use it. A couple took passages from Macbeth, rewrote them in their own words, and then were filmed acting these soliloquies out. Nervous at first, they reveled in the end product. And what real learning took place? Speaking, use of technology, interpreting literature, summarizing, author's choice of  word usage...well, you get the idea. This seemingly simple assignment covered many standards and promoted real learning. Ask those students in a month about the dagger or hand washing scene in Macbeth and they'll nail the answer...engagement does that.
     I'm slowly thinking of more ways to use this godsend of technology. I'm asking students for their input as well. Why not get them involved? They are the ones who will have to complete the project, why shouldn't they have input on it?
     Even though I'm an English teacher, I need to find more ways to assess learning. The green screen is one tool I can use so my kids aren't writing paper after paper and becoming disengaged and totally bored.
     If I've learned anything in my years as a teacher, it's that flexibility is key. I can't be married to any of my lessons, and shouldn't be, because there's always room for improvement. What fits one student may not be the best for another. What type of assessment works for one teen may not be the best measure of knowledge for another. That's why flexibility is key.
     By having this attitude, I know I become a better teacher. Life isn't a hard and fast rule, and neither is learning, engaged learning that is. The more willing I am to be flexible and to work with kids and give them options and choices, the better the students will do.
      And isn't that the object of teaching? Making a difference by helping teens experience success while learning? I didn't have the same mentality when I first started teaching, but I've grown in a few areas since then.
      I've learned to embrace technology like green screens. I've learned to welcome the help offered by the tech partner; and I've learned that students are individuals and learn differently. So bring on the green screen and all it entails. I can't wait to see what my kids create next with it. Technology--it really can make all the difference.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Wait--What? School's Almost Done?

     Someone announced in the teacher's lounge the other day we had four more Monday's left of school. My reaction? What? No way was school that close to being over. Aargh! I didn't want to face the truth as I knew then it would be time to assess me--what goals had I accomplished, what had been successful and what an utter failure? What would I scrap and what would I use next year? All valid questions that needed solid answers.
     So for the past few days I've been thinking, wondering, postulating, exploring, and evaluating what I've done this year. I've reviewed the course and teacher evaluations my students complete at the end of a class. What suggestions did they give that I can incorporate into my teaching?
     I know of a few things that will change and some things that will stay the same. My corny joke of the day garnered the most accolades from students followed by Funny Fridays where we watch a clip of some comedian (usually Jim Gaffigan, my favorite). Why do I waste precious class time with such inane things? Because I don't think they're inane. My kids need to learn to laugh and they need to see an adult laughing. Laughter is good for the soul and often these comedic moments lead to great class discussions later. Funny Fridays won't be abandoned by me any time soon.
     Being a reflective teacher leads to being an effective teacher. Unless I can honestly look at my teaching and evaluate what I do in the classroom, I can't change. Unless I change, I'll be mired in the same morass of repetitive teaching; teaching that didn't knock anyone's socks off the first time around.
     I don't want to be a static teacher. I want to be dynamic, ever-changing and reflecting on how I can improve both myself and my classroom. Did you know we only have four Monday's left in our school year? How are you going to spend your time? Me? I'm going to keep looking backward so I can move forward. It can make all the difference. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Being Positive in Negative Times

         Turn on the news and education negativity floods the airwaves. Teachers fail here, fail there, aren't doing enough, are doing too much--it seems as though educators can never win. Instead of focusing on outside opinions, I try to pay attention to what I can control--my classroom, my attitude, and my teaching. These are variables in my domain and they can set the stage for the mood in my classroom and for how my students learn.
     Negative teachers, and there are plenty, spend energy on complaining, energy they could be using for improving. We will never have ideal students. We will never have ideal administrators. We will always be lacking somehow in the eyes of the public. Accept that and move on.
     It takes effort to be either positive or negative. I figure if I have to exert the energy any way, why not have it take a constructive twist? Only benefits come from being optimistic. Can all students learn? Yes, they can. When you believe it, so will they. Can all students achieve success in the classroom? Yes, they can. When you recognize their success, students will aim even higher. I'm not sure I know of any student who wants to and intentionally does poorly in school. Remember, they want to experience success.
     My attitude definitely impacts my students. I set the tone in my class every day. I determine the mood. Negative situations arise in everyone's life, but how we deal with those encounters says a lot about who we are and the priorities in life. I don't want a "can't-do" attitude to be prevalent in any of my students, so I need to be careful not to foster that in my classroom through what I say or do.
    Don't let the news of the day, the drama of the hour, or the students who may be having a tough day dictate your attitude. Rise above it, be encouraging, and avoid letting negativity spread into your teaching. We face enough less than positive people and events and so do kids. Let's focus on seeing the good in kids and our day, rather than the bad. It amazes me how little adjustments in my outlook can turn around what may have begun as a sub-par day and help it end on a positive note. 
     Negative times are inescapable. However, how we deal with these episodic events can turn a sour day into a bright one. What is your outlook in the classroom? How do you set the stage for success not failure by your attitude? What we say and how we act in creating a positive learning environment--it can make all the difference.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Risky Business

     I'm grateful I teach at the school I do. It suits me, my style and my attention span--which some compare to a gnat's. Seriously, though, I change up what I teach almost every block. I think if I'm not too excited about what I'm teaching, how much worse is it for the kids? I'm actually supposed to LIKE this stuff!
     Recently I talked to our state superintendent of public instruction. During the conversation, as she queried me about my teaching practices in an alternative school, I made my confessions. No, I don't teach Huck Finn. No, I don't teach what is considered "normal" English stuff. I try to teach what I think my kids need to learn. This year? Soft skills and resilience. Both of these ideas are more prevalent in literature than people think. And that's what I'm ultimately trying to teach my kids--how to think. How to analyze and deconstruct an argument (or construct one), how to logically express themselves, how to problem solve...basically how to be a critical thinker.
     The state official laughed off my confession and said we need to think about what we're teaching (the standards) rather than how we teach it (the material). Our conversation and the follow up email she sent me confirmed to me that what I'm doing may be out of the mainstream and many English teachers probably wouldn't like it, but I'm okay with what I'm doing. I see the benefit everyday in my class when I get into a positive discussion about soft skills and teenage jobs.
      Even the students like what we're doing. They see a real-world application to the learning. And that? That can make all the difference.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Somebody's Somebody

      I spent the weekend with a bunch of somebodies. Not just somebodies, but somebody's somebody. Recently I heard a TEDx talk about being somebody's somebody. Being a person of impact and influence on the life of another. It was quite an energizing and motivating talk, the words of which haven't left me. I want to be somebody's somebody.
      This past weekend was the WAR (writing and reading) for Literacy conference for teens. And what did I see? I saw a ton of teens being impacted by somebodies. Somebody who spoke on finding your voice, other somebodies who shared on screenwriting and writing fiction and speed reading and journalism and writing contests and so much more. Then there were the somebodies who registered the kids, fed them, helped out in the rooms, and the somebodies who organized the food and the volunteers and gathered the prizes, the somebody who emceed the event...well, you get my point. There were a lot of somebodies who were somebody's somebody.
      How do I know this? Because I read the survey responses from the kids. And when teens tell you something was too short and they wished the sessions were longer so they could learn more or when they tell you they want to start writing and reading more...well, you know there were somebodies who were somebody to somebody.
     I thought, seriously, that this would be my last year of involvement in this conference. But I realized after this weekend that I want to continue to surround myself with somebodies. Because these somebodies make an impact on kids. These somebodies have positive attitudes and are passionate about young people. These somebodies make a difference, not just at the conference, but Every. Single. Day. That's who I want to be around. Somebodies.
      Be somebody's somebody. It can make all the difference.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Passionate People

     I've noticed recently, as I watch those around me, that people surround themselves with those who are similar to them. Not a great revelation for most, but it was for me. I've been thinking about passion a lot lately and wondering if I surround myself with people who burn with ideas or are desperately sold out to something. I've come to realize these are my kind of people. Not the apathetic or self-centered person who wants not to give back but to take more from society. Not the driftless and aimless who climb on one bandwagon after another. It's taken me a long time, but I've realized, thanks in part of a dear friend of mine, that I am passionate about kids, how they're treated, and their need to succeed. Those are the people I surround myself with--like-minded souls who are champions for kids.
     So where did all this preponderance on passion begin? From my friend Jodi. The same one who hooked me with the idea of the WAR for Literacy conference. The same one whose grant I've been rereading for the past few weeks, helping her fashion words to express her unending passion for "kiddos" and her deep desire to see them get connected with caring adults and avoid the pitfalls of substance abuse.
     I'm a doer by nature and love to surround myself with other doers. They inspire me. I get great ideas that build off theirs. I am totally energized and stoked when I am with others who share my passion (kids), talk about ways to impact that passion (kids), and come up with ideas to do just that.
     My friend has a stand up idea that is so cool. And it is feasible. Realistic not idealistic. It can change people's lives, both kids and adults, if they buy into the idea. Just talking to my friend fires me up with ideas. In a recent email exchange after I finished reviewing her final draft, I told her this is a slam dunk and begged to be part of her team when she implements this program.Yes, you read that right...begged. She is doing something I've only dreamed of doing for the past fifteen years. She acted on my "some day thoughts." Are the ideas exactly the same? No, but they're close enough that it rejuvenates that dream in me. That's what this friend does. All. The. Time. All the time. She inspires me with her passion.
      This is who I want in my life. People who are passionate. My pastor is like this and I love that in him. He's passionate about our church impacting the Greater Grand Forks community in positive ways. He encourages us to volunteer outside the church, we give to groups and organizations in the community, both faith-based and not, who are making an impact in the cities. I love this about Pastor Paul. I love his passion.
     So how about you? Have you discovered your passion? Do you hang out with passionate people? If you don't feel you're enthused by much, find people who are and start hanging around them. Maybe some if it will rub off. And that could make all the difference.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What's Your Passion?

     One of the buzzwords in today's society is "passion." Every where I turn, lately, that question screams at me. Usually I'm in some kind of project zone and totally disregard the question. But lately I've been thinking about it and asking myself the same question. Our fourth block is coming to a close and the next starts in a few days. Am I still passionate about what I do and for whom I do it? These are serious questions I've had to ask myself.
     As I stated in an earlier blog I have an older sister who began her first year of teaching this year--she's in her sixth decade yet didn't view that as an obstacle in fulfill a lifelong dream. Even though she never formally taught in a school, teaching has been her passion. And she's good at it. I look at her and wonder if I share that same enthusiasm and express it as readily as she does.
     So as I pondered the passion question, I began to list things I am passionate about. I burn inside when I see kids mistreated, neglected, or abused. B.U.R.N. It angers me beyond words when I see parents treat their kids like problems rather than people. I guess it'd be safe to say I'm passionate about kids and their receiving proper treatment.
     The other day I ran into an old friend whom I got hooked into foster care. That was 15 years ago and she's still going strong. legitimate part of her family. She's passionate about taking care of kids.
     Kids are my passion too. Teaching them to learn how to think is a passion and I use English as the catalyst to do this. But teaching is not my passion. In fact, I never really wanted to be a teacher. I started out as a pre-vet/animal science major in college and switched after I realized I wasn't cut out for that career. Because I had to declare a major, I took something that came easily to me (reading and writing) and decided to major in English. I went with a double major in Education so I could support myself. It was teaching by default.
     The first twelve years as a teacher were something I'd never want to repeat. However, once I got back into education at my present school, I seemed to have found my sweet spot. This is what I'm passionate about--I'm passionate about Community High School and the kids it serves.
     So, yeah, in a way I guess I'm consumed with teens and their well being. In them feeling a sense of success in school. In them believing in themselves and knowing others believe  in them as well.
     I want my kids to be treated fairly. I want them to believe in themselves. I want them to know someone has their back.
     I can answer the question I posed at the beginning of this blog post. I'm passionate about teens, their flaws and failings, and want to help them find their passion, too. What about you? Have you found your passion yet and are you pursuing it? It could make all the difference. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Getting Ready for WAR






     The title of this entry may seem rather combative or aggressive. And maybe it is. The WAR I'm helping to wage is toward apathy. Apathy about writing and reading. The majority of today's youth find themselves far too busy to enjoy either activity. These two skills compete against football, swimming, basketball, hockey, dance, gymnastics, vocal lessons, music lessons to name a few. Then there are the after-school jobs and whew! Today's youth are busy indeed. Any downtime they may have is gobbled up by social media. So how can we engage today's youth in the archaic forms of entertainment, writing and reading? By waging WAR.
     Last year was our inaugural conference which saw about 120-130 teens in attendance. This year, with author Ellen Hopkins as our keynote speaker and intensified marketing efforts as well as opening the conference to the region, we hope to almost triple those initial numbers.
     In addition to Hopkins, kids will be able to choose from 11 breakout sessions that range from screenwriting (by someone in the business) to speed reading tips to fiction writing to journalism. These professionals are giving up valuable time to invest in the lives of teens.
     Does this conference make a difference? I recently sat down with the organizer of UND's Writers Conference, Crystal Alberts, who has been an invaluable help in planning our own conference which is always a day after hers. I mentioned to her our budget restraints which may make our 2nd annual our last annual. She told me we had to continue. The conference made a difference. Then she related a story about a freshman college student who saw a WAR for Lit flyer in Alberts' office. The freshman spied the poster and told Alberts she was going into English because of the WAR conference. Not a big deal? It is for someone who wasn't interested in college and had no direction.
     So I'm getting ready for WAR along with a team of other organizers who are working hard to make sure this year isn't our last year. WAR does matter. Ask that college freshman. For her, i
t made all the difference.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Challenge Yourself Pt 2

      Well, challenge accepted and challenge complete.
       Last night I forced myself to step  out of the Zyg Zone, my comfort area, and do something not comfortable at all--speak in front of a group of strangers. For some, like my husband, they thrive on such experiences. Me? Not so much.
      So how did it go? Meh, it went. I wasn't great, but I did it. I elicited a chuckle at least, even though it was through a gaffe on my part. But if you can't laugh at yourself...right?
      The only good thing I feel came out of it, besides me ticking off a major yuck on my list, is that I was able to convey a short and simple message about at-risk teens. I guess you'd say they're my passion. That's another thing I discovered about myself during this adventure. I do have a passion and it's at-risk kids. That's what I spoke about--not judging but rather trying to understand at-risk kids. However, I digress (If my students did this in their writing, I 'd tell them they were on a rabbit trail).
      The main thing is I did it. It wasn't what I wanted to do, but I faced the dread head on and suffered through it (as did the audience, I'm sure). My goal this year is to challenge myself to do something outside the Zyg Zone monthly. I'm glad I've gotten this one tucked away. Now on to the next.
     So how about you? What are you going to challenge yourself to do? Jump in, the water's fine. It could make all the difference.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Challenge Yourself

      It's a new year, a time for resolutions, re-commitments to prior goals or resignation of goals not made. I rarely make resolutions because I know I'm likely to fail. However, this year I'm challenging myself, not making e a resolution. I'm challenging myself to step out of the comfort zone or Zyg  Zone and foray into virgin or scary territory.
     Like most people, I lack confidence and really am not comfortable with public speaking. I stutter and stammer and look foolish trying to piece a coherent thought together. But this is an area of my life I really want to improve. Ergo, the challenge.
     My challenge is coming in a day. Someone recommended me to give a Tedtalk here in my city. It's only a two-minute pitch, but it's in front of people. I composed a quick, positive response and then looked at the email forever. Did I really want to put myself out there? Absolutely not. But it wasn't about me, it was about the challenge. When I came up with the idea to challenge myself, I didn't expect an opportunity to present itself so quickly. So I pressed "send" and off it sailed into cyberspace. I had two dates to choose from, this month or next. I chose this month, knowing I'd probably not go through with it if I waited.
      So tomorrow night I'll be at a TED X talk open mic, giving my two minute pitch. It doesn't sound like much, I know, but for me, it's a definite stretch. I'm grateful for the chance to wiggle out of the Zyg Zone, even if it is nerve-wracking.
     What about you? How can you challenge yourself this year? Give it a try. It can make all the difference.