I've just got to crack on!

I was really looking forward to this year’s winter break; for the first time in several years, I had no grading, planning, or general work to complete. Having said that, I did prepare some for my classes and professional development. The difference was I felt no pressure to do so. It was a real treat. I enjoyed a little reading, sewing, and cooking. And of course, I did catch up on some streaming shows.

One of the shows I began streaming was The Great British Bake Off (in the US The Great British Baking Show). I immediately became hooked. I enjoy cooking and baking, but this show is next level. In the most recent season, 13 participants competed to be named the greatest amateur baker. Each week, bakers complete 3 baking challenges: the signature, the technical, and the show stopper. I became invested in their techniques and flavor combinations, even rooting for a few specific people. What I didn’t expect was how the show would offer some revelations about teaching and learning.

Feedback

In the middle of season 5 (after watching seasons 6 & 7 on Netflix.com), I noticed how clever the creators and producers were in the selection of the hosts and judges. Although Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith are veteran culinary experts, I realized how much they intend to mentor rather than critique the bakers. Each of the bakers truly seems invested in what Paul and Prue say, hoping to receive a smile or the unexpected handshake for a job well done. At times, though, the feedback is blunt, pointing out how raw or dry or messy a dish turns out, resulting in tears and apologies.

What makes the feedback different, from similar shows I’ve watched, is the fact that it’s ongoing. The judges and the presenters check in with each baker during each phase of the competition. Whether it’s the odd question (that’s really a hidden nudge) or a raised eyebrow, bakers are quick to share their ideas, and the judges genuinely appreciate the bakers’ insight and creativity. Even when the judges seem to disagree with the choices, they are quick to say how much they look forward to the end result. There’s no “sandwich” or programmed approach to the feedback, no specific phrase they repeat or prescribed number of handshakes. It’s a shared experience of people who enjoy making food. I began to wonder how I might incorporate this into my writing instruction, offering more options and sharing techniques with students rather than a prescribed number of classes on different standards. How might all of our writing improve when we share in the experience and more informal feedback is provided along the way?

Endurance

At this point, it’s obvious I watched WAY too many of the shows. Because of this, I became curious in how they choose the bakers. It amazed me just how rigorous the process was to make it to the top 12/13 bakers they select for the show. Unlike the archetype personalities that seem to appear in other reality television shows (e.g. trouble maker, gossip, etc.), the contestants just seem like every day people. In fact, the show combines highlights of their backgrounds, occupations, and interests with the mini interviews between the 3 challenges. But this show isn’t for the faint of heart. The application has 75 questions, and that’s the very early beginning. There are at least 4 rounds of interviews, and applicants must also bring samples of their recipes as well as perform technical cooking at the interview. When interviewed, one winner mentioned that it took longer to be selected than it did to film the show.

The filming itself spans 10 weeks. Bakers attend each weekend, performing 2 challenges one day and the show stopper on the next. No one is guaranteed or safe despite the number of technical challenges they ace or the number of star baker titles they earn for the show stopper. The weeks vary from pastries and cakes to bread and dairy. Not only is it a test of the bakers’ knowledge and skills, but it also tests their ability to handle stress and emotion. As I mentioned, the feedback at times is just brutal– honest, but gut-wrenching. But the bakers often question themselves or absently forget ingredients, forcing them to start from scratch and getting them further behind. The thing is, they keep going. Despite the poor bake, runny moose, or lopsided sponge, they “crack on”. They acknowledge any short coming and begin anew. How often have I or my students gotten wrapped up in negative feedback? I’ve been embarrassed to actually write this post because I know I don’t prioritize personal writing enough. But what might happen if I tap into some of the bakers’ resilience? How can I share that with my students and colleagues?

Love of learning

Considering how rigor of the application and competition. One would think that the grand prize must be riches beyond belief, a contract to open their own business, or the like. No, the top three finalists receive bouquets of flowers, and the top baker wins a cake stand engraved with The Great British Bake Off. Yep, these people secretly leave each weekend to travel to the illustrious tent, not knowing if that week will be their last.

In fact, each baker knows what the focus will be for the following weekend. They have the week to research and try recipes that they can use for the signature and show stopper rounds. Many admit that they practice daily the different recipes; one contestant even shared that they turned up the heat in their flat to mirror the conditions of the humid summer tent to insure that the recipe would work. Day after day, week after week, these bakers work hard to showcase their best baking skills all while maintaining their lives as full time college students, bankers, teachers, etc. They relish the feedback from the judges because they know it is meant to lift their abilities. They endure the challenges because they are passionate about being the best. Simply put, they do it because they love it.

Our new semester begins this week, and I’ll admit I am tempted to redecorate my classroom into the tent in Welford Park in Newberry. I want to capture some of the same excitement for learning as well as some of the resilience for the challenges that teaching and learning can bring. Hopefully, my passion for learning will continue to inspire both me and my students.

My year in a day

When I look back on the 2018-19 school year, it seems like a blur. It reminds me of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963). “[A]n ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” Being named the 2018-19 Rock Hill School District teacher of the year came with many rewards and responsibilities. Although I am very grateful for the ongoing support and recognition, this year challenged me in ways I never imagined.

The first challenge was the limited time management. As a DTOY, I had several out-of-class professional development days, with our local district and state forums. These are great resources where teachers can stay informed and advocate for one another and our students. However, this meant that I had to adapt how I taught my students to balance my time away. As a result, I became more adept at blended learning, leveraging our learning management system and flipped videos. I also had to modify my switch to choice reading in my classes, limiting the data that I collected. Yet, I’m still hopeful that offering more choice is the right decision because many students embraced the opportunity to read self-selected texts, and I was able to better differentiate learning for my students.

The second challenge was advocacy. I’ve always tried to be an advocate for myself and my students, but this year forced me to research and learn much more about education reform efforts, legislation, and politics. It is frustrating to see so many decisions that are made “for our students” that don’t appear to consider peripheral or long-range impact to public education. I found myself speaking to our state representatives and attending several town hall meetings with legislators. If I truly believe in leading by example, that means that I can never return to the way things were in my classroom; I must continue to stay informed, be willing to write and call my senators and representatives, and act on the behalf of this noble profession. While this may seem like I’m simply adding more stress, I’m excited about the opportunity to work with legislators, business leaders, my teacher forum, district personnel, parents, my school administrators, my colleagues, and my students. We should all have seats at the table to find innovative and empowering solutions that will benefit public education in the long-term.

The final challenge was grace. Throughout this school year, my teacher and mom guilt was in overdrive. I wasn’t doing enough. Not enough football games or performances. Not enough time in the class to get through standards. Not enough writing opportunities. Not enough feedback. Not enough family game nights. And on and on. I was reminded on more than one occasion to stop and take in the moment, to enjoy this awesome achievement. I was so quick to focus on what I wasn’t doing or needed to do, that I forgot to give myself some grace. I love my profession. I love my students. I love my colleagues — both near and far. I love my children. This school year challenged me to love myself and all of my efforts in the classroom and at home. It also challenged me to accept compliments and offers of help (skills I’m not sure I’ll ever master!). There is grace all around us, and we are exactly where we need to be to do good work. We just need to be open to the wonderful opportunities provided.

As I wave good-bye, driving over night and day and in and out of weeks and over this school year, I’m so very proud of my students, my colleagues, and my sons who made this journey with me. I am very fortunate to have had this opportunity, and I hope to continue to grow as a teacher leader, inspiring, supporting, and challenging others.

Growing pains: Switching from whole class texts to choice reading

At the start of this school year, I committed to using choice reading as the core texts for my English 2 world literature course. Rather than use data (e.g. Lexile levels), an arbitrary page number, or a teacher supplied list, I asked students to choose their books. I explained that they would use these books, reading and writing, for approximately four weeks. During this time, they would be expected to read the entire text.

How I did it

To support this switch, I increased my YA lit reading, I researched, and I modeled reading expectations. When students were stuck on what to read or seemed disinterested in reading, I recommended high interests texts, like Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give, Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Neal Shusterman’s Scythe. In order to enhance and support cultural diversity in my classroom and my reading, I read different articles (e.g. Ben Johnson’s “College Readiness: Writing to Learn”, Brian Sztabnik’s “The Simple Trick to Get Everyone Reading”), and I participated in different Twitter chats (e.g. #DistruptTexts and #THEBOOKCHAT). Finally, I modeled the reading expectations with my classes, choosing a variety of texts and posting my reading goals. For every silent, sustained reading (SSR) time, I’ve had a book to read. I designated 1hr of class time per week, normally 3 20-min chunks, for students to read, and I read along with them. I’ve asked students to respect this time by limiting bathroom breaks, working on other assignments, etc. because I want them to focus on reading.  When I forget my book at home, I pull one from my to-be-read shelf and start reading. I don’t grade during these times. I don’t conference during these times. I don’t allow headphones/music during these times. We.Just.Read.

I use a large variety mentor texts as supplemental sources for direct instruction (e.g. works in translation, excerpts from novels or plays, poetry, TEDTalks, essays, etc.). This meets our world literature requirements and exposes students to more authors and genres.

What I’ve learned so far

Although it may seem idealistic, my hope is that students remember how reading can impact their lives. Too often in education we quantify reading expectations. Reading “gotchya” quizzes, programs like Accelerated Reader, homework reading records, and the like have made reading a chore. Inspiration is no longer about the experience, the journey, or the empathy because we’ve moved to carrots and sticks. I’ve simply asked my students to be more aware of their reading habits. We have a 2-week check up where students consider how often they switch books, giving them up for lack of interest or reading difficulty. I’ve incorporated reflection on reading into our 1-to-1 conference after each benchmark test, too (approximately every 4 weeks). My goal is to help them become more metacognitive about what they’re reading and why, hoping to inspire and challenge them.

Using these 2-week and conference forms along with their reading and writing journals, I’m better able to view my students’ performance on the essential learning standards for our course. I focus their writing around our essential questions, and I use the journals as completion grades. I quickly realized how I could group students for more small group, targeted direct instruction, which students I would invite for 1-to-1 tutoring with me or our academic center, and why choice reading is so important. I’ve even created a FlipGrid topic titled “What Should I Read Next?” where students can create 2-min book talks to promote their authors, genres and texts.

The argument for whole class texts

I’ll admit it is easier to organize my class using whole class texts. Knowing I’ll have Lord of the Flies or The Tragedy of Julius Caesar for 3-4 weeks does make my life easier. I’ve taught both more than 15 times each. I’ve got the quizzes, tests, writing prompts, reading guides, etc. It’s easier to create sub plans or to be out of the classroom. It’s easier to fill gaps in learning content because I know the texts. It’s easier to adjust when fire drills, pep rallies, or inclement weather interrupt the schedule.

BUT… With whole class texts, I was working harder than the kids. They were more passive, looking for the right answer or a Google analysis or translation for the sources. I was frustrated because even with PBL projects, I was getting similar versions of the same project, paper, research. I was losing more students who were not connecting with the whole class texts, no matter what I did.

NOW… I focus only on big ideas. Our semester-long essential question focuses on how a person creates an identity. The unit essential questions ask students to consider what we value and how value changes over time, how perceptions of others shape a person’s identity, and why our actions can be more important than our speech in order to convey to others who we are. Kids are wrestling with how to generate valid arguments, including  developing and supporting their claims. I have less duplicate assignments, and students are recommending books to one another and me.

YES… I still have students who are disengaged and refusing to read. I still have students who choose to avoid assignments. Choice reading is only the beginning of approaching the problem of apathy. It’s one small part of a bigger issue within our society, but it’s very, very important. What are your adventures in choice reading? What guidance could you give to me or my students? I’m interested in hearing your input.

 

 

My labor of love

The beginning of any school year comes with many requirements and distractions. The goal is to not lose focus. Sounds easy, right? It just takes discipline, right? Determining what is important or deserves attention the most is not easy for students AND teachers. I often return to school excited to meet my students, excited to implement things I’ve learned or reflected upon to improve. It doesn’t take long before my desk is cluttered, and I’m behind on grading, and I’m struggling to find ways to adapt to the diverse learning needs of my students. I’m continually reminded that several of my students have never had modeling to be autonomous and reflective about their learning. Therefore, I need to learn how to be more explicit about my own reflection and learning.

What’s working

There are a few things that definitely started my year off in positive ways. They do require time, but the routines they have established, especially early in this school year, help me save time in grading, tutoring, etc.

  • Talks with Teachers 30 day teacher challenge – Focusing on a different teaching/reflection/instruction area each month, these challenges help me find ways to stay organized, build culture, and refine my teaching to get to what matters most. I also have an accountability partner to help me stay on track. You can join the challenge anytime this year by clicking the link above.
  • Choice reading – It may sound chaotic, but I do not have a whole class text with my English 2 world lit courses this year. Students get to choose their reading, and I supplement with mentor texts. Students have enjoyed the freedom to choose without constraints on Lexile level, page minimum, genre, etc.
  • Essential questions & big ideas – Wiggins and McTighe developed and modeled how to develop instruction beginning with the end in mind in their text Backward by Design. This summer, I revisited the first edition (purple) that I used when I first began teaching through the South Carolina program for alternative certification in education (PACE). I wanted to find big pictures for each of my classes to move toward, and I’ve created essential questions for each unit within the course, lasting about every 4 weeks.
What’s not working – yet
  • Choice reading – My goal was to help students fall in love with reading if not again then for the first time. So many of my students are turned off by required reading, reading records, etc. that they no longer read poetry, novels, collections, etc. for pleasure. As a result, they don’t have the stamina to focus on longer tests with cold reading, and they do not close read. Once, skimming and scanning, is enough. Students keep asking what they’ll DO with the book. How do I move them from external motivations and random assignments that call for summary (what most have seen)? How can I refine the selection process to encourage students to choose something they enjoy (e.g. I regrouped my teacher library by genre)? Is it possible to erase past experiences with reading or to create long-lasting positive experiences with reading in only one semester?
  • Reflections – After the first two weeks, I asked my English 2 students several reflection questions. I broke them down into different categories, one focused on our 3 learning objectives. For each objective, I asked their confidence level, including an explanation of why they might feel this way. I asked them to provide questions about the learning objectives that I could answer. Many put “none” or left it blank. Another section focused on feedback. What do they notice about my feedback? What questions might they have? Again, many put “none”. At the end of the reflection, I asked if they’d like a conference before the first unit test (afterward they all conference with me). About half said yes. When asked what they’d like to conference about, many said “to understand what we’re supposed to do” or “to find out how I can improve”. (*sigh)
  • Timing/rotations – I’m getting better at transitioning my timing in class, using Caitlin Tucker’s Blended Learning and Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days as guides. However, I haven’t actually created stations or moved the kids through stations yet. I admit, this part has my nervous. However, I have some great colleagues who perform rotations fairly frequently, and I will observe them in the next few weeks to take notes and to experiment more in my class.

Teaching can sometimes feel like creating a map in the desert while the wind continues to blow, the sand continues to shift, and resources/answers may only be a mirage. Distractions and requirements won’t dissipate for us or for the students. Yet, we can find solace in the relationships and wins. My students ARE asking for conferences only 2 weeks into school. I am doing a better job of reinforcing learning objectives, including reading and writing daily. I have a great supports in place (e.g. admin, colleagues, #aplitchat, #aplangchat, Voxer, etc.) where I can find guidance and resources. This semester has just begun, and I’m interested in the landscape of our class as we venture on.

Acorn insights: My experience reading Q2

This summer I had the privilege of becoming a first-time reader for the Advanced Placement literature exam. This experience was the most influential professional development I’ve had to date. I spent the week reading (and reading and reading) student work, participating in collegial discussions, and soaking in the atmosphere at a poetry reading and Shakespeare in the Park with passionate educators I’m pleased to call friends.

All glamour aside, this process is grueling and stressful. We are reminded daily to remember the integrity of the test and the essays. As our chief reader David Miller reiterated, each essay represents someone’s student and someone’s child. Our Q2 question leader began the week reminding us to read the essay we’re given, not the one we hope we had received.

As I progressed through the essays, it was readily apparent to write down notes that began with “don’t”:

  • Don’t “paint a picture”; explain how this enhances the text.
  • Don’t define the literary devices; assert how they relate to the development of the text.
  • Don’t just stay at surface level; explore the complexity of the text.
  • Don’t, don’t, don’t.

Clearly, this experience can and should be transformative for my classroom, but focusing on what I “don’t” want my kids to do will not help them grow as writers. In addition, if I lead with what NOT to do, I can hinder their confidence and their willingness to experiment with finding their voice. The more I read and listened to the discussions, the more I began asking myself questions that I want to research and guide my future instruction.

  • How can I encourage depth within a timed setting?
  • How can we encourage or guide students to be concise without sacrificing content development?
  • How can we get students to clear their minds and focus to create a strong, academic essay in our class– not to mention 3 strong, academic essays in only 2 hours?

Although, I hope to enhance their learning experience, it’s important to remember that the majority of the students we teach will not pursue degrees in literature or aspire to become poets, fiction writers, or English teachers. I was amazed at how our students could push themselves to find insight in a timed setting for three separate essays after performing the section one multiple-choice exam. The foundations that teachers and students build for colleges/universities is strong, and no matter how the scores translate in early July, each examinee should be commended.

I’m excited to plan and begin working with my students this fall to continue to explore our writing together!