Ingredients for a Delicious Passion Blog Post

screenshot-2016-11-30-at-10-19-03-am
Abby working on her Passion Blog about travel

In an effort to create a positive digital footprint–while doing real-world writing for an authentic audience beyond Teacher-Lady, my students have started their Passion Blog Projects. This real-world task, inspired by the fabulous teacher-author  Catlin Tucker (@catlin_tucker), allows students to shape their own learning while honing their research, communication, writing, and digital citizenship skills. They select the topic about which they are passionate (e.g., baking, science, henna, the Patriots, dance, nail art) and regularly blog about it. (This year, “regularly” is monthly.)  A hidden benefit? Students are creating an online portfolio, of sorts, that they will be able to share with prospective colleges, future employers, scholarship organizations, etc.

The permission slips have been submitted, the  platforms, selected, and the ABOUT ME sections, published. However, before we put pen cursor to paper screen, the last step requires my students to look at five blogs that already exist on their topics and create a list of common ingredients that make them effective. (In their analysis, the students are creating a rubric, of sorts, without even realizing it!)

I had to share, with permission, the list of ingredients sophomore Jocelyn M. published in her journal for homework last night.  Jocelyn would be the first to admit that she doesn’t monopolize class discussions; however,  giving her a voice online through the Passion Blog Project is one of the many reasons I can’t not do it. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop TalkingSusan Cain (@susancain) reinforces this: “The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice.”  This project allows Jocelyn to do just that. She will be blogging and sharing her creativity with two thousand, or two million, people who will recognize, as I already have, that she has a vibrant voice worth hearing amid the noise. And of course, her final sentence made my day.

Enjoy!

Good Passion Blog Recipe

by Jocelyn M.

Makes: One well thought-out and stunning blog!

Serves: As many as the internet will allow

Base ingredients:

  • At least 3 cups of creative and different ideas.
  • A handful of interesting and well thought-out topics.

* A pinch of dark humor never did anyone harm either (not too much, it’s like cilantro).

  • 9 ½ tablespoons of dry humor is crucial.
  • A dash of vivid and varying use of vocabulary.

* Alliteration and Irony never hurt anyone.

  • Around 3 points of view, the more the merrier~

* do not skimp on this ingredient

Method:

  1. Slowly fold creative ideas and dry humor into the well thought-out topics. These will be used as posts. Be careful to not overwhelm mixture with dry humor, can cause a very bitter taste. Put to the side and let set for ~20 minutes.
  2. While you are waiting, gather materials that will be added into the base mixture. Some questions to ponder will definitely wow the judges and cause them to think, and possibly distracting them from your atrocious grammar! Choose carefully because these questions could overwhelm the total flavor of the blog, distracting from the main focus. You wouldn’t put cupcakes in a pie, would you?
  3. When the post has set, mix in the questions. In different recipes, don’t be afraid to add some variation! Think outside the box and come up with different mixtures for the post. The posts can be tiny or huge, both will satisfy your audience… just make sure that they are mostly proportional.
  4. Once that has finished, garnish it with pictures, media, and some spicy vocab (don’t you dare put swears in it, that’s like putting pineapple on pizza, you heathen!) Disclaimer: Only suitable for some audiences ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) ). By the end it should be looking

  \\ _
   \( •_•) F
    < ⌒ヽ A
   /   へ\ B
   /  / \\ U
   レ ノ   ヽ_つ L
  / / O
  / /| U
 ( (ヽ S
 | |、\

  1. Serve to audience, try to engage with them as much as possible so maybe they’ll not notice you made the post at 10:00 at night (please do not look at revision history *wink wink nudge nudge*).

Do not be discouraged if no one even observes the hard work you put into the blog… Not all posts will be wins. The most important thing is to have fun with what you are doing. Do not make it a chore, make it a hobby!

By the way, I had a lot of fun writing this and cannot wait to finally start posting!

Stretching: It Does a Classroom Good

mind

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., asserted that “Man’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.” Since I’m assuming that applies to a woman’s mind, too, I’m fixing to celebrate: My mind has done quite a bit of stretching since September.

I should mention that my department is now using a newly purchased, common curriculum–the kind where all Grade 11 teachers are teaching the same thing on relatively the same day.

It’s a curriculum that I: a) appreciate greatly, because the investment validates the important work we are doing; and b) embrace fully, because, well, see letter a.  And like any paradigm shift, a new curriculum brings with it excitement, trepidation, and a smidgen of stress.

THE EXCITEMENT. New things are exciting. Think about your first new (or certified pre-owned) car. Who doesn’t love that new car smell or the contrast stitching on the seats or the way the cockpit lights up in the dark? The danger, of course, comes when we focus too long on the smells, the needlework, and the lighting; it means our eyes aren’t on the road. And the results can be catastrophic.

The same is true in the classroom. When we focus so heavily on any curriculum–old or new–that we forget to look up and read the room, we’re doing a major disservice to our learners. How are our students responding to the newness? What about the pacing? Or the glitches in any new system? If we, in our excitement, forget for whom the investment was truly made–our students, then we have lost our efficacy. The curriculum is still shiny, and it’s still brimming with bells and whistles. But we can’t allow our myopia, the curriculum, or even the standards to interfere with those students who are sitting before us.

THE TREPIDATION. New things are also daunting. As I write this, I’m waiting for my middle schooler to take the block at her first swim meet after missing six months with a broken foot. In Anna’s mind, she’s Missy Franklin–or Missy Franklin two Olympics ago. (Anna dropped Franklin like a hot potato the second she didn’t qualify for Finals in Rio.) When Anna first started racing, she was late to the party. While she was canonballing onto her brother in the backyard, her teammates had been competitively swimming for years. For Anna, swimming was new. And swimming was scary. But she pushed through and has been loving it ever since.

A new curriculum isn’t much different. (And I wonder if it’s a bit scarier for the veterans among us who are used to all of that delicious autonomy.)  We fear that somewhere in the transition, we’ll disappear. Don’t misunderstand: A common curriculum is liberating; ideally, teachers are freed up from the starting-from-scratch lesson-planning in order to provide more reflective feedback to our students. (That, of course, isn’t until Year Two; Year One is pretty harried. More on that below.) However, what is liberating is also positively frightening. What if teachers transition into auto-pilot and lose who they are? I like to believe that I was hired, in part, because I have a few good ideas and a master’s in curriculum design and an ability to relate to students. (Ish.)  If I’m not careful, a common curriculum–no matter what anyone says, can absolutely take away some of the “Me” in the classroom. And on many days this year, I miss Me.

THE STRESS. Even second-year teachers return to school with a cache of lessons that work. Those high-quality, standards-based lessons help bridge the gap between new units of study. If we’re being honest, a common curriculum largely means leaving many (but not all) of those lessons at the classroom door to make room for the new program–and the stress that comes along with it. A new program means that even the planners among us are living only a few steps ahead of our students, and that is one of the worst feelings a teacher can experience.  (I can’t imagine teaching elementary students, juggling several new curricula at once!)  We pride ourselves–and are evaluated–on being organized and well-provisioned. We take solace in an organized desk or an organized Google Drive. We relish in a plan that makes sense from beginning to end–and was planned end to beginning. But no matter how fabulous we are, it is impossible to focus as much on the students in front of us in Year One when we are so intently focused on what we’re presenting in front of them. Next year? We’ll be pros, naturally. But for this growing-pains year, we’re pretty stressed.

I have faith that this year’s students will eventually forgive me for the mistakes I will make this year. New curriculum or not, one thing that remains unchanged is my relationship with these learners. To quote the wisdom-filled High School Musical, “We’re all in this together.”  The excitement, the fear, the stress–all of it stretches both our students and us in ways we couldn’t imagine. And I know that this time next year–if not this time next week–all of our minds will be reaping the benefits!

The Beauty of a Blank Canvas

Background with blank canvas on wooden tableAugust ignites a range of emotions in teachers. We’re sad that our delicious, correcting-free days of summer are over. We’re disappointed that those ambitious To-Do Lists didn’t get completed. We’re dismayed at how quickly the school supplies, school clothes, and school lunches add up. And we’re eager to step down from our role as referee between our littles at home we’re eager to start a new school year.

After all, in what other profession would we inherit a fresh start every September? We have a chance to implement new ideas and to take a mulligan for any of last year’s that didn’t work. It’s an absolute blank canvas. And it is beautiful. Author Piper Payne agrees:

There is something beautiful about a blank canvas, the nothingness of the beginning that is so simple and breathtakingly pure. It’s the paint that changes its meaning and the hand that creates the story. Every piece begins the same, but in the end they are all uniquely different.

Refreshed or not, we’ll return for a new year of encountering, connecting with, and shaping fresh minds. For reasons we sometimes question, we’ve been entrusted with a classroom (media center, building, district). And if we’re honest, sometimes we fear the jig will be up, that others will realize we’re just learning as we go. (Truth be told, aren’t we all learning as we go?) This year’s students will be different from last year’s, and hopefully, the educators that stand before them will be, too.

For all of us, September is a fresh, blank canvas.

And most years, that’s all it takes to get us excited about the new year.

Other years, summer comes and goes, selfishly withholding its rejuvenation. Exhausted, we trudge back to face a daunting new curriculum or another year of master’s coursework or a year without a beloved colleague or another new leader or the aftermath of layoffs or the stress of juggling parenthood and career. Whatever the scenario, there are years when we just plain stumble back to school–and a lot more battered than shiny.

This is one of those years.

That doesn’t mean I’m not excited to connect with my students or that I no longer love my job. It just means that I don’t feel as rejuvenated as I normally do. Regardless, my blank canvas awaits, and there is indeed something beautiful about it. So, this year, I commit to doing what I’ve always done after summers like this:

1. Be Inspired by Others. While my summer may not have been energizing, it was for many of my colleagues.  And I commit to living vicariously through–and being inspired by–them. I know that their enthusiasm, their ideas, their sparks will help rekindle my own fire. And once it starts, I know that “it [will be] a pleasure to burn” (Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1).

2. Reserve Judgment. As a new teacher, I remember offering to prep a veteran teacher about her incoming students. (In hindsight, I think I was desperate to contribute something–anything–to someone who didn’t need me and communicated that daily.) Her reaction caught me off guard: She hid her list, saying she’d rather head into the year without any preconceived notions about her students. She’d formulate her own judgments. The Year-Two Me licked her wounds all the way back to her classroom; however, the Year-Twenty Me gets it: Blank canvas.

3. Avoid the Toxic. The teacher’s lounge can be a wonderful, safe place to vent our frustrations, share our successes (albeit gingerly–No one likes that guy!), and solicit encouragement. However, it can quickly become toxic. So, if you feel worse after spending time in yours, RUN! If you’re already vulnerable, spending time in a place where the negative outweighs the positive will only chip away at what little armor you have left.

And please–please!–protect those new and prospective teachers, too. A newbie won’t last if she spends Year 1 focusing on the negative. In April of my first year, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher. It was the hardest job I’d ever had–for which no amount of classes could have prepared me; it wreaked havoc on my young marriage; and I felt incredibly alone. So, protect your newbies: Teaching is hard enough. Don’t let the negativity of others be a factor in their decision to stay.

4. Model the Notion of Lifelong Learning. Since we’re trying to instill the idea of lifelong learning in our students, we need to model that for them. We, too, are blank canvases in September, and there is beauty in what our students will contribute to it. Each year, the changing variables (e.g., our students, us, the content, their ages, our ages)  affect the dynamic of the classroom. And every year, these variables splendidly shape our teaching narrative.

Whether we’re exhausted or renewed, what awaits us this year will be simple, breathtakingly pure, and filled with meaning that contributes to our story. Like a canvas, “Every [year] begins the same, but in the end they are all uniquely different.”

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy Back-to-School!

‘Tis the Season–of Abdominal Pain?

If April showers bring May flowers, and 19574Mayflowers bring pilgrims, what does June bring? Apparently, abdominal pain.

I’ve had some internal discomfort for a while, and since I practically have a medical degree because I can Google my symptoms, I self-diagnosed it as being gall bladder-related. My doctor-sister, Wendy, thinks I’m Hysterical–but not in that ha-ha-you’re-so-funny kind of way; she means my flair for the dramatic. When I told her that I could need surgery, might drop 10-15 pounds, and could pick up lots of attention (Can you guess my birth order?), Wendy suggested that it might also be stress. She started me on ranitidine and has me meeting with a gastroenterologist next week.

That’s because with two sisters in education, Wendy gets June.

It’s a rough month that is only compounded by the internal conflict we teachers face. There’s the Inner Voice that screams that we deserve to do some Teaching Lite for the last few weeks of the year after practically winning Teacher of the Year for the first nine months. But there is that much smaller voice that asks why our work ethic in June should look any different than our work ethic in, say, October.

Which explains the myriad of work that is pouring in this month for all of us.

Education World gets June, too, as they recently featured a timely piece entitled “From Chaos to Coherence: Managing Stress While Teaching.” Among the suggestions was to create a list of favorite activities and then commit to doing one a day to manage our stress. Mine is reading in the sunshine. As an English teacher, though, I can’t justify diving into a good book at home when I have over 500 pages of research papers (from just two classes) that I should be reading instead. (That is after the 500+ pages of research paper rough drafts  that I already graded. At 20-25 minutes a piece.)

But we adults are accustomed to stress. But are our students? Our learners–who are the very reason we do what we do–are absolutely overwhelmed.  Not all of them, of course; some have absolutely rolled over and are playing dead. However, many of them are completely damaged.

In homeroom last Friday, a formerly doe-eyed freshman asked, “Ms. Hughes, do teachers get together and say, ‘Let’s completely ruin our students’ lives during these last few weeks of school’?”

I explained that there is not, in fact, a secret, underground meeting where we teachers rub our hands together, cackle a sinister “Mwah ha haaaa!,” and then plot our students’ demise. (I’m pretty sure in her mind there were also flames–lots and lots of flames.)  She explained that all of her teachers have assigned at least one project since June began–some, two. I reasoned that projects were a great thing, as education is moving away from those scantron-type final exams (which re-assess the same standards the students have already met earlier in the year) and are moving toward project-based learning that allows students to apply what they’ve learned throughout the year. Her response? “Yeah, that’s not what my teachers are doing. These are projects that are due now, and we still have to take a scantron final.”

I had nothing.

All I know is that there has to be an easier way–an easier way to assess our students, an easier way to grade 1000+ pages of writing per month, an easier way to witness and celebrate our students’ growth. If June is for wrapping up learning, why aren’t we asking our students to reflect on September through May? If finals are meant  for students’ application of learning, why are we still asking our students to regurgitate? (And if the only answer is “to prepare our students for college,” I addressed this in  an earlier post.)

I don’t have the answers: I’m the one with abdominal pain in June. And sadly, it will most likely result in weight gain from eating my feelings than any surgery-induced weight loss. However, if we are stressed and, more importantly, if our students are stressed, then the system is broken, and no 3-letter educational acronym is going to serve as the panacea.

In the meantime, I can only control what happens in my own classroom, and so, once again, I commit to doing things differently next June.

In the meantime, could you please pass the Tums?

5 Benefits of Going Paperless

13242201 Paperless key on keyboard

I love the planet; however, I didn’t go paperless in my classroom to save the Earth. It’s a fabulous, additional benefit, as we ELA teachers can photocopy like nobody’s business! But saving trees wasn’t the motivating force two years ago; engaging my students–while trying to work smarter and not harder–was.

First, some background. I teach in a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) high school, so, on any given day, our students are working on iPads, Chromebooks, Kindles, cell phones, MacBooks, Surface Tablets, and/or Windows laptops. Because our district is a GAFE (Google Apps For Education) community, our students have school-issued Gmail accounts, and many teachers use Google Classroom as our content-delivery platform. Students use their device of preference and the school’s WiFi to access the teacher’s content. However, regardless of one’s environment, using the internet to deliver at last part of the content has countless benefits. Here are five reasons to consider going paperless tomorrow.

1. YOU CAN SLEEP IN (-ish). Since I now push out class handouts, create activities, and share websites digitally, I no longer have to beat my colleagues to the photocopier. Which may or may not be working. Before going paperless, Murphy’s Hughes’ Law dictated that a class set of 25 handouts would mirror a hostage negotiation. (“You seem frustrated; on the count of three, slowly back away from the master copy, and I promise to stop chewing and spitting out uour copies.”) While the LBD (Little Black Dress) is always en vogue, LBTE (Lots o’ Black Toner–Everywhere) is never in style–whether on one’s hands, face, or even backside. (The latter of which one might not discover until the end of the day–hypothetically speaking.)

I said “-ish” because the paperless teacher can’t really sleep in. The time at the copier is traded for time on the computer, getting documents ready for delivery, culling good sources to share with the students, and organizing it all in a post with clear directions. (Aside: The teacher is still extremely vital in the paperless classroom; however, the sage on the stage has been replaced with the facilitator, as the teacher moves from group to group to check for understanding.)

2. ABSENTEES DON’T LOSE MOMENTUM. When students are absent, they can check the designated space online* and complete the missed classwork without skipping a beat. Momentum is maintained, and upon their return, absentees no longer need to ask, “What did I miss yesterday?” In a recent survey, one of my students reflected on it this way:

When I am absent from school or cannot come to class, I can get all my work, do it at home, and not fall behind! Having everything online means I can receive all assignments, even if I am not in class.

* NOTE: Everyone’s system is different; however, I create live calendars in a Google doc every two weeks, which are posted in the ABOUT section in Google Classroom for easy access. My calendars include hyperlinks to documents I have shared in Classroom and/or Drive, sites we will be exploring together, video clips the students will watch, etc.) We start each class with ten delicious minutes of silent reading and then “meet up” in the biweekly calendar to review the current day’s plan, that night’s homework, and see how both fit into the big picture. 

3. TEACHERS CREATE AN EVEN PLAYING FIELD. Every clFull Backpackass includes students ranging from mildly disorganized to those living with Executive Functioning Disorder (EFD). In a paperless classroom, gone are the days when Struggling Susie reaches into her backpack and pulls out 29 (crumpled) handouts when the teacher has asked for Handout #30.  (This is usually followed by the organizational aficionado jabbing, “Dude, you totally need to clean out that backpack!” Really?) One of my sophomores framed it perfectly:

As a student with ADD, it is infinitely easier to keep organized in a digital classroom. This is because I am in the digital native generation- organizing a computer comes much more easily and naturally to me than organizing a backpack. It’s not a coincidence that the paper-based classes I’m in are the grades that fluctuate the most. The grades I get in a more digital classroom tend to stay much more consistent.

4.  STUDENTS & TEACHERS CAN WORK ASYNCHRONOUSLY. With the curriculum posted online, students can access it at a time that is convenient for them. This is great news for the first-block-of-the-day students who could benefit from a second review later in the day, when it is better for their brains. While the mother in me cringes, it is not uncommon for students to post work at 1 AM. However, as long as my students meet the deadline, I can’t impose my own schedule on them. After all, I do my best work between the hours of 4 and 6 AM when my students wouldn’t dream of doing homework. One of my students captured the asynchronous feature of the paperless classroom beautifully:

Being paperless in the classroom means anything we do in class will be with me when I go home. This adds to the convenience of being able to go back and look at everything I need all in one place as opposed to on multiple different sheets of paper per night. It also helps to keep organization up and to ensure that I will have what I need for class every day.

5. STUDENTS & TEACHERS LEARN THE ART OF FLEXIBILITY. Technology is a fabulous tool. When it works. On more than one occasion, I’ve invested countless hours in a lesson–only for technology to take its ball and go home. Veteran teacher or not, having our plans thwarted can be rattling. (“The best-laid schemes of mice and men…“) However, when things don’t work, when lessons flop, when technology seems out to get us, that’s when it really counts. One of my favorite quotes is from Pastor Dwight L. Moody: “Character is what you are in the dark.” And whether we teachers are literally in the dark (power outage, anyone?) or figuratively, our students benefit from seeing that character of flexibility in us. It might not be part of the Common Core State Standards, but flexibility is one of the most important, real-world skills our students will need long after they leave our classroom.

There are a myriad of other benefits of teaching in a paperless classroom; however, a class set of digitally submitted essays await!  If you need more convincing, I leave you with a response from one of my juniors:

Compared to normal classes, a paperless class has benefited me in many ways. For one thing, I am very much into saving paper and conserving in general! Go green or go home! Also, being online allows me to not carry around as many things that would weigh down my backpack. Usually for each class, I have to have a notebook and or folder, and I lose papers much of the time. This way, everything is stored on my laptop. Also, it is easier for me when I go to do my homework because I do not have to remember to bring items home. Most of all, being paperless helps my back problems!! LOL

The Power of Words

 

Books Together

I’m a work in progress–both in and out of the classroom.

Outside the classroom, I’m still trying to survive navigate each stage of child-rearing, which I’ve decided is only mastered after my own two children have moved on to the next phase of development.  But that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Like breathing, I have always turned to books. These authors, after all, are experts in the field for a reason. However, despite having read virtually every book on the subject, on most days, I’m one hot mess.

And in the classroom, I’m not much different–I just disguise it more stealthily. A few years ago, with the shift in curriculum, initiatives, and state standards, I found myself at a crossroads in my career, bordering on becoming one of Those Teachers who complained about, more than took pleasure in, the day-to-days of teaching.  In my defense, even at my lowest point, I never grew tired of my students, and being with them reminded me why I entered teaching in the first place. However, the additional demands that teaching now requires were giving way to resentment. (Don’t forget: These demands were stockpiled atop of the already-existing 4 AM wake-up calls, the absence of weekends, and the myriad of missed family activities.) And while I am more “seasoned” than many of my colleagues, I was still too young to become The Curmudgeon. (My biggest fear has always been devolving into the teacher for whom my colleagues have to apologize: “Oh, [insert Student Teacher Name here], steer clear of that one; she just needs to retire!”) 

So, again, I turned to books. Like Newton, I, too, stood on the shoulders of giants, teacher-authors like Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Donalyn Miller. In sharing what worked for them in the classroom, these titans injected the very shot in the arm that this teacher needed. I was reborn. Refocused.

I had gotten so myopically lost in my To-Do lists that I had forgotten the very reason I entered teaching: to foster a love of reading in my students. Who didn’t read. And openly admitted to fake reading. That’s when my class library project was born.

class library
I’m (affectionately?) known as the Crazy Book Lady.
Of the 2,200+ titles in my library, 100 of them were generously gifted to me from the Book Love Foundation‘s grant, which Penny Kittle and her husband, Pat, began in 2012. As a grant recipient, an amazing Skype session with Penny turned into the brand new Book Love Foundation Podcast series, produced by Kevin Carlson over at The Teaching Learning Sessions.

In Episode 6 of the series (which just aired and of which I am a part, along with Episode 2), Penny Kittle reminds listeners of the following:

We can’t wait for someone else to develop us. We are in charge of how we grow. Teaching is always a draft–always an approximation–but just like with the young writers we teach, we want each draft to show evidence of revision and improvement … After 31 years of teaching, I’m always hoping next year I will be a better teacher–next week, even.

I. Love. This.

And not just because I have an unhealthy affinity toward all things Penny Kittle an amazing collegial respect for Penny Kittle. But because a fellow educator who has literally written the book on reading and writing still sees room for growth in her own practice.

She articulated my recent mid-career crisis beautifully:

Happiness and contentment in teaching comes from the work itself:  We commit to something big and significant. Sometimes that’s leading your colleagues to study reading or a personal mission to bring rich reading experiences to every student in the school…It is the sense of moving forward that makes you a leader.

As I race to finish my twentieth year in teaching (even though I’m only 25), I am Happy and Content in the Work Itself. Am I still daunted by the weight of preparing my students for the High School Hereafter? Absolutely! Am I incessantly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of additional grading that each new initiative brings down the pike? You bet! But am I still Happy and Content in the day-to-day that surrounds the Work Itself?  You better believe it!

In his book Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1945), Spock (of pediatrics, not the Enterprise) assuages parents: “Trust yourself; you know more than you think you do.” I think this wisdom applies to teaching, too–on most days.

But when you’re having one of those other days (years?), grab a book.

You’ll be glad you did.

The “Real-World” Midyear (& Final)

standardized testing

It sounds like an oxymoron. After all, what is “real-world” about taking a midyear exam? Outside of taking the LSAT or sitting for Boards, when in life do we adults ever have to take an exam covering the events of the last 5 months? Or worse, a cumulative test on all of the events in the last 10 months?

As a working mother of two, I’ll be the first to admit: I. Would. Fail.

And yet, this is exactly what we are asking our students to tackle twice a year. Every year. To prepare them for the real world–which is largely void of these kinds of assessments.

Some will argue (as I did for years) that traditional midyears and finals prepare our students for college. And isn’t education about college and career readiness? However, the next time you talk to a college student, ask what his midyears and finals look like.

My colleague Chris and I did.

And the data we gathered was staggering. (We teach in a Level 1 high school, where approximately 90% of our graduates pursue college, ranging from community college to the Ivies.) Our recent grads said their midyears and finals look nothing like what we had asked them to do in high school. We figured that certainly their more largely populated, freshman-level courses consisted of those pesky multiple-choice tests. Those courses didn’t either. Instead, our former students are creating end-products that demonstrate the application of their learning (Can I get an “Amen”?), rather than completing lengthy, multiple-choice tests that rely heavily on recall–the kinds of midyears and finals I administered, for years, to “prepare my students for college.”

In his Chronicle of Higher Education piece entitled “Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams,” David Jaffee asserts, “Authentic assessments involve giving students opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context. “

Last year, Chris and I set out to create an authentic assessment that that would assess a myriad of standards while giving our students opportunities to demonstrate the speaking and listening skills our learners will need for the rest of their lives. And the Midyear/Final Exam Book Clubs were born. Here is what they look like.

BEFORE THE EXAM

  1. GROUP.  Chris and I create thoughtful groupings of four students–two from his class and two from mine. Ideally, each group consists of two high-achieving students and two students that require more growth. Our schedules don’t perfectly align, so Chris and I have given exams in which sophomores partner up with juniors and/or inclusion students with honors students. And it is beautiful. The entire exam is outside of everyone’s comfort zone; however, we invite students who are extremely anxious to see us privately, so that we can pair them with students of their choosing. Of the 200+ students we assessed last week, only two students took us up on this.
  2. MODEL. Depending on the class, Chris and I sometimes model each of the Speaking and Listening standards one at a time. With my students last year, we closely read a poem (which was already on the docket) and then processed it via fishbowl discussions. (Small groups took turns discussing the poem, each one modeling a different speaking and listening standard). This year, Chris and I have reconfigured our classrooms so that our students have been practicing these standards–in small groups–all year long.  And last week’s midyears felt much more organic as the students were doing what they always do–but with two new group members.
  3. PREPARE. Chris and I share a Book Club Discussion Guide ahead of time, which is divided into three parts. Part One includes break-the-ice questions about the students’ reading journeys (Remember: Our goal is to foster a love of reading), their reflections on Goodreads (which Chris and I both use in our classes), and their experiences with the ten minutes of choice reading with which Chris and I begin every class.  Part Two requires our students to “integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2). (This year, the topic was education, and students synthesized the aforementioned article by David Jaffee, the video “Why I Hate School but Love Education“ by spoken word artist Suli Breaks, and the testing cartoon read ’round the world.)  Prior to the exam, students annotate the pieces, extracting textual evidence to which they will refer in their Book Clubs.  Part Three asks students to discuss the various components of a recent favorite read, demonstrating that they can analyze literature while enjoying it, too!

ON MIDYEAR EXAM BOOK CLUB DAY
On testing day, Chris and I meet in our respective classrooms to ensure that everyone is familiar with the three texts. We then head to the media center, get into our groups, and watch the magic happen.

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I wish I could tell you that Chris and I lose ourselves in these rich conversations; and while we are definitely enjoying seeing our students demonstrating HOTS (Higher-Order Thinking Skills), alas, grades still need to be reported out. So, armed with clipboards and rubrics, Chris and I pop in and out of these groups, joining the conversations while jotting down notes.

AFTER THE EXAM

Once the exams are over, Chris and I meet to share our findings about each of our students. With numbers as large as ours, it has proven to be impossible for both of us to join each group.  We made a conscious decision that we would work from different sections of the room and that we would trust each other’s feedback regarding the students. Quite often, a student who has under-performed in one of our classes has proven to be a vibrant contributor when set into this context. Talk about growth!

If you’ve made it this far in this post, know that Chris and I do not have all of the answers. We administered our third round of Book Club Midyears last week and are constantly refining the process to make it better. However, we do know each time we assess our students this way, we get to witness rich, vibrant learning.

And that is exactly why we do what we do.

 

“Make a Legal U-Turn, If Possible.”

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2015 was rough. While I still functioned reasonably well on the outside, it entailed a lot of smoke and quite a few mirrors. Even if we’re grieving over a loved one, Standard RL.2.1 still needs to be taught. And regardless of our backlog of essays, Common Assessment #2 still needs to be administered, collected, and assessed. As a result, I spent much of the past year stapling “lost” signs onto poles while canvasing the neighborhood for my sanity.

And then I stumbled onto the Taoist adage, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Gulp.  After a year with one unpredictable GPS, I kind of wanted to go home. 

Please don’t misunderstand: My heart still quickens when the classroom door latches behind me, and few things excite me more than watching my students escape into their choice reading before the bell even rings. However, the you’ll-never-catch-up-even-using-all-three-personal-days-for-grading pit in my stomach has grown exponentially over the last few years.  And it is taking its toll.

Accordingly, so that I don’t end up where I’m headed, I’ve resolved to shift my focus for the rest of the year. I can’t change most of my stressors, so I’ll concentrate on what I can change. Below are five U-turns to which I am committing in the coming year.

  1. SLOWING DOWN. Trying to effectively teach in a classroom that incorporates PARCC, CCSS, DDMs, PLCs, PLNs, PBL, and any other education-related acronym is distressing for even the seasoned educator. (I wonder if I’d make it to November if entering the profession now.) However, rather than stressing over all I’m asked to do, I commit to slowing down and providing in-depth coverage of whatever it is my students and I are exploring together. 180 days is a long learning cycle, and a lot of in-depth, real-world learning can happen in that window. There’s no need to rush–especially if authentic learning is the casualty.
  2. DOING MORE WITH LESS. Our math teachers were on to something when they switched from assigning all sixty problems to assigning just the evens.  They knew we could demonstrate our ability to solve for X regardless of how many problems we were assigned. Likewise, I commit to assigning fewer but richer tasks–tasks that allow for more analysis, creativity, critical thinking, real-world learning, etc.  Why assign, for example, a reading check quiz three days in a row (which only assesses plot) when a Socratic seminar on Friday can assess all of the week’s readings on a much deeper level, while honing speaking and listening skills, analytic prowess, and textual evidence gathering?
  3. STAYING CURRENT. In two decades, I have developed the most as a professional from other greats in the field. Tweets, blogs, Facebook groups, and industry sites and texts have shaken up my teaching more than any hour-long session on a half day. This is not to say that my local offerings are not high-caliber. Instead, when the one-size-fits-all training whets but doesn’t satiate my appetite, I begin looking in other places to grow even more. On my own time. (Isn’t this the very lifelong learning we aim to ignite in our students?)  The temptation is to begrudge having to do this on my own time. So, if (when) that thief-of-joy resentment creeps in, I commit to shifting my perspective back to my students. Regardless of how many heapings are on my teaching plate, it would be reckless of me not to stay current. In the same way I wouldn’t want an obsolete doctor operating on my children, I don’t want to be that kind of educator for someone else’s.
  4. COLLABORATING. Part of what sustained me last year was being surrounded by enthusiastic colleagues who take risks in the classroom. As a result of others’ enthusiasm, this old dog has learned more new tricks than she ever thought possible. Sometimes the tricks–in my paws–are disasters, mind you; other times, they edge near educational magic; but all of the time, they force me out of my comfort zone and into the role of a lifelong learner. And if, say, two (or three or ten) educators dream up something together–and split the workload, twice as many students benefit and for just 50% of the individual teacher’s energy. It’s a win-win. I commit to continuing to collaborate with the fabulous lifelong learners in my midst.
  5. CONSIDERING THE SOURCE. While I love healthy collaboration, I can sometimes fall prey to the few naysayers in the mix. I blogged about that in June when, after perusing my end-of-the-year student surveys, I wrongly fixated on the few outliers.  Now, whether it’s a critical student, a pessimistic colleague, or an insensitive friend, I commit to not exactly ignoring the negative feedback–as I can grow from that. But I will consider the source of the negativity, rather than dwell on it. 

I still love my job; I just don’t like the effect it has had on me as of late. So, in an effort to not end up where I am heading, I resolve to make a legal U-turn. I want to stay fresh for, remain committed to, and be focused on the 125 students who just might become lifelong learners (and readers!) because of what I accomplish in the classroom. They also might not.

But I have 180 days to try.

‘Twas the Night Before Progress Reports

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Teaching is a lot like childbirth. If we told teachers-to-be the truth about their futures, education majors everywhere would take their college loans and head for the hills.

Instead, we use educator Newspeak, gingerly telling these trainees that “no textbook can fully prepare them,” that their first year will be “baptism by fire,” and even that “it’s a lot of work but so incredibly worth it.”

I heard these same euphemisms as my cape-clad self sauntered into my first classroom. In those early years, the only time I took off my pinkish-hued spectacles was to polish them.  Pollyanna or not, I entered teaching to inspire young minds.

Twenty years later, I’m feeling anything but inspiring. Don’t get me wrong: I still honestly love what I do and adore the time I spend with my students. However, tonight is Progress Report Eve, and as I choke and gasp and flail in this sea of grading, I know that most of it will have little to no effect on my students’ term grades. And none of this paints the whole picture of my students’ growth.

If I were completing a progress report on myself, I would use William Arthur Ward’s aphorism as my barometer:

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

I used to tell like nobody’s business. With sage-like wisdom, I would tell my students what the symbols were in To Kill a Mockingbird and would even count to five behind my back while they recorded said wisdom. A lot of my telling was housed in beautifully photocopied, created-from-scratch, novel packets. The way a new mother takes pride in making her own organic baby food, I prided myself on the fact that I didn’t photocopy already-created units or scavenge online sources. Instead, I was thinking for myself–the way I wanted my students to approach the texts. (Ironically, now the phrase “smarter not harder” comes to mind.) However, I was still telling my students what to think and how to think it.

In those early years, despite the fact that I only saw daylight through my classroom windows–only to do even more work at home (which I don’t recommend for a young marriage) and despite the fact that I carried, like a badge of honor, the largest school tote L.L. Bean had to offer (the more essay leg room, the better) and despite the fact that I purchased every classroom poster available (er, I may or may not still do this) and despite the fact that I wasn’t sure in April whether or not I wanted to return to a second year of teaching (it hardly felt worth it), Ward was right: I was positively mediocre. Even though I worked so hard.

A few years later, I had blossomed into Ward’s “good” teacher that explained. I don’t know how effectively I explained, mind you; however, I do know that I did less “X is symbolic  of Y” and more “Authors use symbolism for many reasons.” I was still telling but was at least supporting my generalizations with textual evidence–the same skill I was asking my students to employ.

Then came the age of “superior” demonstrating, during which I began modeling and using exemplars in my teaching.”This is how you look for symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird. Your turn.” This I-Do-You-Do approach, according to Ward, is the mark of a superior teacher. Now we were getting somewhere. These teachers, Ward asserts, are superior–or at least better than those teachers who simply tell and/or explain. However, they are still not great.

And neither am I.

I  don’t play the coquettish teacher very well–the one who feigns humility but knows full well the impact she has on her students. Because I don’t honestly know if I’m leaving an impression on them or not. I  desperately hope that I inspire them–or at least that I present literature and life through a fresh, new lens.  However, I am definitely not there yet. While I have come a long way baby, I cautiously navigate each new, detour-laden day with a crumpled-up map in one hand and a correcting pen in the other.

With 125 progress reports still left to complete tonight, I take comfort in knowing that each year in the classroom has brought with it growth–both for me and my students.  And that’s what I call progress.

 

Charming Gardeners

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With Thanksgiving comes reflection, and this year my thinking was informed by French novelist Marcel Proust: “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” And while my family most of the time naturally brings me a world of happiness, as do my friends, there are quite a few “charming gardeners” in and around my classroom.  

First, the disclaimers. I am not a doe-eyed, fresh-out-of-grad-school teacher out to change the world. My eyes were never doe-like, and my Myers-Briggs type told me that changing the world was simply impractical. On the contrary, I am an old a seasoned teacher who still finds joy in what happens after the bell sounds. That alone (well, that and my kids’ future college tuition bills) tells me that I’m not ready to move on just yet.

Instead, I find myself reflecting on those who have made my soul blossom. Here are just a few* of the charming gardeners who have contributed to my field. 

TILL.  Jenn was in my class last year. The day after her state test scores arrived this fall, she swung by to thank me. If you aren’t in education, you might not fully grasp the magnitude of this.  But in almost twenty years, I can count on one hand how many students have done this. While I know there are a myriad of factors that played into her increased scores, the fact that she took time out of her day to say “thank you” absolutely made my soul blossom. 

DIGAfter hearing about how much choice-reading Kayla would be allowed to do this year, she asked, “But what if next year’s teacher doesn’t let me? What if it goes right back to nightly chapter reading and reading check quizzes and multiple choice tests and [insert gasp] even busywork?” (Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild addresses this very question.) I told Kayla that next year most likely will look a lot different–and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I love the autonomy in teaching: We are all tasked with teaching the same skills but approach the teaching of them differently. I am thankful that Kayla is excited about this year but also that her instruction looked different last year and will look different again next year.

PLANT.  When I started Project Classroom Library last year, David asked, “Why are you buying all of this stuff?” When I seemed confused, he clarified, “I mean, no offense, but why are you buying all of this stuff with your own moneyfor us?”  I explained that the classroom library was my personal goal and not the district’s goal. Building this classroom library was something I wanted to do–but it came at a cost. And I am thankful David recognized that.  

WATER. John is a colleague with whom I work, off of whom I bounce ideas, and from whom I openly accept feedback. He leads as an educator first and remains immersed in the classroom. Refreshingly, he knows the struggles and triumphs that I face on a daily basis because he is in the trenches right alongside me. He also has read–and taken to heart–the same literacy texts that I have and knows the importance of creating authentic, lifelong readers. None of this would have been possible without John’s tolerance support of my educational risk-taking. He keeps me grounded, for which I am incredibly thankful.

HARVEST. Ella Wheeler Wilcox reminds us that “with every deed you are sowing a seed, though the harvest you may not see.” And because we teachers only have a 180-day sowing season, we won’t be privy to all of the greatness our students will actualize.  However, I am thankful for them today.

And I can only hope they’ll have books on their nightstands tomorrow.

*All names have been changed to protect the fabulous.

 

 

 

 

The Classroom Library (Yes, Even in HS!)

 

Classroom Library
I’m officially the Crazy Cat Lady–but with books.

My husband says I work for free–although, if we’re counting this past year, I may have actually paid to come to work. The reason? You’re looking at it: the classroom library.

After being inspired by the likes of Kelly Gallagher (Readicide), Penny Kittle (Book Love), and Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild), a colleague and I set out to reintroduce our students to the love of reading. The three biggest paradigm shifts included allowing our students to read anything during the opening ten minutes of class (every day), letting the students choose at least 50% of their texts throughout the year, and, in my case, surrounding my students with books. Lots and lots of books.

We have a fully functioning school library nearby, and our media specialist enthusiastically supports the literacy work we are doing in our classes. Both libraries function in tandem, but in the same way that the ELA teacher could never recreate the magic of a full media center, the full media center could never do some of the things that a classroom library can. Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s  Edutopia piece affirms this notion.

I believe that a classroom library is the heartbeat of a teacher’s environment. It is the window into an educator’s own personality, and it reflects the importance of literacy in the classroom. I believe that every teacher — no matter what subject he or she teaches — should have one.

And I couldn’t agree more. So, last year, as I awkwardly clamored my way onto the shoulders of giants, I began building my library. After all, I want to convey to my students that reading is the absolute most important thing we will do together all year. Plus, countless studies have shown that reading will more effectively improve my students’ reading, writing, vocabulary, communication, and usage skills–and more so than any kill-and-drill worksheet or warm-up exercise ever will.  (The ten minutes of reading alone exposes these readers to approximately 1,000,000 words in a year, and they are more apt to return to their books later in the day–exposing them to even more words, because “Ms. Hughes always stops us right at the good part!” Keep in mind, these are the same students who have fake-read their way through much of middle and high school.) What better way to sound this message than to surround my students with books?

It started with a handful of books from home that I placed on a lonely bookcase, and it has exploded into twelve bookcases (which I found at second-hand stores and on Craig’s List) that house over 2,400 books! While some of these texts were generously donated (including 100 titles from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation grant), 95% of them came from library sales, Amazon, eBay, and second-hand shops. (And if you’re trying to do the math, I’ll tell you what I tell my husband: “Let’s not ruin a good night.”) The texts are arranged alphabetically by genre, and are organized and signed out to the students via Booksource.  Seeing what my students are reading–whether it is via Booksource or Goodreads–allows me to perform what Teri Lesesne considers the educator’s most important job:  “leading our students from where they are [as readers] to where we’d like them to be.”

The result? Every student last year read more books during the school year than they ever had!

Every. Single. Student.

While it wasn’t entirely due to the classroom library, many students shared in their exit interviews that the classroom library indeed played a role. It was impossible, they said, not to find something engaging to read. (They realized they didn’t dislike reading; they just disliked how we teachers have been assigning it over the years.) And for those reluctant readers–who would never grace the doors of a library, having a collection of differentiated texts within arm’s reach made all of the difference.

Every student learned to become a reader last year–even if it was just during English class with the Crazy Book Lady.

That’s a pretty great start.