Why I do what I do

Viktor Frankl once claimed that “if you don’t recognize man’s search for meaning, you make him worse; you make him dull; you make him frustrated. While if you presuppose in this man there must be a spark of search for meaning … then you will elicit it from him, and you will make him become what he in principle is capable of becoming.” This philosophy reveals how deeply connected we are when it comes to learning and progress. Because of this, we have a collective responsibility to envision the best in one another no matter the circumstance.

My unconditional belief in my students’ potential to shape and better our world is the foundation of why I love teaching. Providing an environment where students wrestle with big ideas affords them the opportunity to wonder, reflect, and when necessary adapt. Yet, taking advantage of “teachable moments” can and should extend well beyond the classroom. Claiming that educators, legislators, business executives, community leaders, or parents fail to do enough keeps us fragmented and stagnant. Instead, we should strive to closely observe and listen to one another, embracing our desires and emphasizing our talents.

Learning and change are about possibility, and these do not occur in a vacuum. As John Dewey asserted, education requires active, individual participation in a social setting. My passion for being my best and drawing out the best from others does not mean that I avoid disappointment, frustration, or loss. In fact, when I encounter adversity, I rely on my relationships to rekindle my hope and to grow from our shared experiences. Understanding the necessity of faith in others is powerful. Teaching ourselves to continually seek, recognize, and ignite our potential means that we work together to improve and enhance our world.

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 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.

“But what if you won?”

This past week has been a blur, and it’s just the beginning of a new school year. Except for me, it’s the beginning of another awesome journey as a teacher. Yesterday in front of the entire Rock Hill School District faculty and staff, I was honored by winning 2018-19 district teacher of the year. (I know, right?!) I’m still trying to process it all this morning.

I am passionate about teaching and learning, for myself, my children, and my students. I am passionate about improving; I know that mastery comes with hard work, perseverance, and research. I am passionate about leading by example and putting service before self. That is why all of this attention is so overwhelming. I work with fabulous colleagues within my school, within my community, and across North America. My professional learning community has no border, and I strive to bring that concept to my students, to understand the ripple effect our lives make on ourselves and others and on our future.

Earning 2018-19 district teacher of the year came with generous gifts from the district and the department of education for South Carolina. I was also awarded with a grant from our Rock Hill Schools Education Foundation that I will immediately put to use to help fund my field trip to a poetry workshop with my AP lit seniors next March. I was also awarded a year’s lease to a 2018 Civic from Honda Cars of Rock Hill! The outpouring of support from our community is incredible, but I hope that I can spread that support and recognition to more classrooms. No matter how much we love to close our doors and just teach, we need to be willing to welcome others, especially when that takes us into the hallways, into the community, and when needed into the offices of our elected officials and business leaders.

This profession cannot be done in isolation. Collaboration and communication is essential, but this includes listening to our students. Whether or not they’ll admit it, our students look to us for guidance and support before the content is ever addressed, and they have pretty amazing ideas. On the morning of my interview for the district teacher of the year, my time hop reminded me of two Bible quotes I previously used to wish my colleagues a good year:

  • Titus 2:7-8 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech…
  • Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

These (and many others) keep me focused on my students, keep me excited to teach and learn alongside them, keep me driven to be my best. I have no idea what to expect with the next stage of this process; then again I have no idea what to expect when I greet my students on August 20. Either way, it will be a wonderful and awesome journey! #LetsDoThis

What matters most: My goals for the 2018-19 school year

Almost a year ago, I created a blog post with some goals for the 2017-18 school year. Was I able to meet all of them? No. Did life get in the way? Yes. Could I generate a laundry list of items or excuses that prevented me from meeting these challenges? Absolutely. However, I prefer not to beat myself up or to let myself off the hook. After being named the 2018-19 teacher of the year for my school this spring, I was asked to reflect on my teaching philosophies, my instruction, challenges, etc. Part of my response included, “My education and teaching experience made me realize that this profession requires ongoing learning and reflection in order to meet the needs of our students and to inspire them to grow. I frequently share my passion for learning with my students. It’s important to model that learning is messy and time consuming; it requires effort, error, and revision.” I earnestly believe that we lead by example, and I’m eager to dust off a few of these goals and to perhaps add a few new ones.

Although I’ve only made room for three professional development or teaching books this summer, all are sources of great inspiration. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents provides some insight and recommendations to using a workshop approach in the classroom. Combined with Caitlin Tucker’s Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide Toward Sustainable Change, I’m able to layout and develop more dynamic and responsive instruction practices, including updating some of my blended learning video instruction and incorporating more student-teacher conferences. I confess, I haven’t finished either of these yet. They are so rich with information, and I am taking my time to read through and plan. Although I’ll most likely finish both by the end of August, I plan to use these as resources going forward.

The third “teaching” book is Tom Rademacher’s It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching. While I didn’t agree with some of his points, his candor about race and empowering students is spot on. This is not a profession for those who seek isolation, control, or power. Teaching and learning occur best through relationships, and my best memories in the classroom often occurred when I had no idea what would happen next. Of course students need challenges, but those are not necessarily grades or standards. I also believe that I should be willing to challenge and reflect on my learning. I’ve committed to participating in the Talks with Teachers 30-day challenge where I’ll focus on everything from instruction and classroom management to reflection and growth. I even have an accountability buddy to push and motivate me. This post is one example of the August day 2 challenge because I’m committing to 4 tenets for my classroom for the 2018-19 school year:

  1. I will support student choice in reading, focusing on universally applicable skills and setting aside in-class reading time without worrying about loss of instruction. This involves planning for and continuously implementing more of a workshop model.
  2. I will perform student-teacher conferences after each benchmark assessment to provide more targeted and timely feedback.
  3. I will write daily based on my research, reading, teaching, learning, etc. Whatever is important or inspiring that day will guide my writing, and I’ll generate at least two blog posts a month.
  4. I will accept the leadership roles of mentoring another new teacher and co-sponsoring our school’s evolving student-led academic center to support a positive school culture for student and teacher learning.

New beginnings: My goals for the 2017-18 school year

All too often, I find myself focusing on what I’ve done wrong or how I could have done something better. Rather than objectively reflecting on my teaching and learning, I tend to fixate on what I’m NOT doing/saying/reading/writing. As a result, more things get left undone. I encourage my students to find balance, and ironically, I help them develop a plan to better manage their time. Yet, I place myself (e.g. my writing, my physical health, my hobbies, etc.) as the very last priority of an ever-growing list.

My inspiration to begin anew comes from several places. This was my 14th summer as an educator, but it was the first time in a LONG time where I didn’t have several long-term obligations (i.e. recertification, conferences, graduate classes, extensive travel, or family events). As a result, I feel more refreshed, creative, and excited to start year 15. In addition to more time – which in and of itself is HUGE – I read two books and a blog post that challenged me to grow.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The story of success (2008) reinforced my belief that teaching and learning is a communal experience. The anecdotes and examples he provides made me think about how I can arrange my classroom, group my students, and tailor my teaching. Simon Sinek’s Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action (2009) made me realize that I’m more of a WHY person who needs to seek more feedback and guidance when I start to plan HOW to get things done. I’ve taken on some new roles without dropping old ones, and I have to continue to reflect and seek guidance from my colleagues and administration to help me find balance for things to run smoothly. I also need to learn to let things go. Finally, Susan Barber’s blog post about her 2017-18 teaching manifesto convinced me to make some commitments to myself, my family, my students, and my profession this year. (I feel rather happy about the fact that I’ve just put my goals in that order to start!)

For myself

  • I will enjoy time to sew, making at least three new items per semester.
  • I will select my reading based on my whims, rather than my guilt that I’m not getting enough of the canon or “right” kind of reading.
  • I will seek out new recipes to cook and bake more at home.
  • I will make my physical health a priority to model healthy habits for me, not just for my sons and my students.

For my family

  • I will treat them to new recipes they’ll enjoy and surprise them with their favorites.
  • I will play games, unplug, and encourage them to spend more time outside.
  • I will smile more often and pray before I respond – especially when I’m hungry and/or tired.
  • I will laugh more, at myself and just to be silly.

For my students

  • I will intentionally find ways to develop our classroom community as a positive, respectful, and trustworthy learning environment.
  • I will encourage students to reflect and revise by delaying the grade and calling attention to the feedback.
  • I will support student choice in reading, focusing on universally applicable skills and setting aside in-class reading time without worrying about loss of instruction.
  • I will incorporate more journals for student choice in development and submission of writing.

For my profession

  • I will journal and reflect on my teaching practices, sharing thoughts with colleagues and administration to be more transparent and intentional about my teaching philosophies and practice.
  • I will embrace my new role as a mentor teacher, coaching and supporting my charge while learning with and from her.
  • I will welcome the messiness and chaos of co-sponsoring our school’s first student-led writing lab to better support all content areas with instruction and enhance a positive culture for quality student writing.
  • I will print and post this manifesto in my classroom to seek continued feedback from students, colleagues, and administration about my progress.