“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.

Choice reading in 7 courses

The College Board will release Advanced Placement exam scores later this week. I could sugar coat my anxiety about how my students may have performed or how their scores might reflect on me, but I won’t. Instead, I’d like to share one of my favorite projects from our #APLit class this year.

I had the privilege and advantage of a small, close knit class this year (7 students), and I always enjoy using something creative for the final exam. In the past, I’ve used caricature videos, documentaries, and movie translations, but this year we performed a “book tasting”. A quick search generates almost 150 million results for book tasting, and I’m certain that each teacher’s take is a little different. For our class, it meant combining our love of reading with the never-ending teenage love of food!

Leading up to the #APLit exam, our final independent reading project was a read-a-thon where students selected “AP worthy” texts. During the read-a-thon, students wrote blogs about their thinking on various aspects of different texts, similar to Brian Sztabnik’s flipped lesson. For the final exam, they chose one of these read-a-thon books to use for the tasting.

We focused on works published since 2000. While I appreciate and use several “classic” texts, I think it’s important to recognize the merits of good writing, no matter the publication date. The student choices covered a variety of genres, too:


For our project, students created original menus based around their novel. Each menu had to have a unique restaurant name and menu options. The minimum requirements were one appetizer, two entrees, one dessert, and one beverage. The items had to capture the author’s style and convey knowledge of the text without giving away spoilers.

In addition to the professionally designed menu, each student provided one of the dishes for our book tasting. They presented their menus and dishes to each other and other guests (e.g. admin and teachers).

As always, I’m amazed at my students’ creativity. Their menu designs and dishes were great. We had a variety of genres and food, and I surprised them with guest judges (their parents) to enjoy our final class day together. I’ll know I’ll fondly remember this day and our final project.


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!

It’s no secret: Maintaining motivation

Source: Chen, Angus (March 4, 2016). “How to Turn on the Part of Your Brain that Controls Motivation”. KQED.com. Published by NPR/Mindshift.

The Moving Writers #100DOSW18 challenge has provided me with daily prompts, but more importantly, it’s inspired me to dig through my numerous saved links on my Pocket app. Initially, I tagged today’s article with “advisory”, “learning”, “motivation”, and “RTI”. Without reading the article, I felt the title held the secret to helping students tap into their motivation to succeed, not just in my class but at learning and within school. Unfortunately, the article left me with more questions than answers.

The article focuses on fMRI research of the central part of the brain where motivation seems to light up or trigger the greatest activity within the brain. The article details how participants and researchers would view the screen and give themselves pep talks. What they realized is that motivation can be exhilarating. Imagining teammates giving high fives versus coaches yelling at them produced different results. The study also admits that the process of activating, or motivating, the brain activity is “exhausting”. “‘The experience of the task was difficult…. It was very fatiguing for people.”

“People really are changing their mood when they’re doing this, Adcock thinks. They’re becoming more focused and eager. And it seems the effect begins reaching out to parts of the brain involved with learning and memory.” Obviously, the research is based on positive feedback. What happens with negative stimuli? Or how does this part of the brain relate to emotion? The study admits that no long-term or follow p study was conducted to find out if people maintained the motivation.

As a teacher, I KNOW that motivating myself and my students is exhausting. I KNOW that positive feedback generates engagement and motivation, but not always for the long haul. I wanted this article to share some scientific insight, to help me encourage and guide my advisory members and my future English students. How can I assist kids in seeing and discovering their value? How can we make a shift (or at least a nudge) from external motivation to internal drive, as Daniel Pink outlines in his text Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us (2011)? Our school structure is set up to condition students to react, not generate their focus.

The bad news is that I am still in search of the Holy Grail that will help me guide my students. I’ll create my own long-term study with my next group of advisory students because we keep them all four years. Hopefully, I can design and amend different surveys for them and provide different resources to them to positively motivate them to succeed in high school and in life. The upside is this article and my reflection motivated me to write a blog post, a routine that I need.

Why I read & write

Today is NCTE’s National Day on Writing. This is a day where I can share my thoughts through writing, but lately, I have been pretty guarded. Lately, I haven’t wanted to share or write much at all. For the past 15 years, I’ve encouraged, goaded, and at times dragged my students into building their writing skills. My goal with writing instruction has always been to help them be effective communicators, to share their thoughts confidently, and hopefully, to help them achieve success through that communication.  At times, this instruction helped students find the “right” way to convey their thoughts for standardized tests, but more often this instruction focused on helping students make sense of what they read, write, view, and listen within the world around them. Thing is, I wasn’t practicing what I preached. I wasn’t writing alongside them, and I haven’t made a conscious effort to do so until this school year.

Unfortunately, my world recently turned upside down, and I haven’t turned to writing. I didn’t even read a page for almost a week. I shut down, became numb, tuned out. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who encourage, goad, and at times drag me out of this state — or at least do their best to keep me moving.  For today, I’m choosing to write. I’m choosing to share and to convey my gratitude for those around me who inspire, question, challenge, and uplift. I’m choosing to write to process the senselessness of life events. I’m choosing to write to demonstrate to my students how fortunate I feel to know them and to grow as a writer with them. I’m choosing to write because maybe, just maybe, this is a way to honor and to remember.

“Grief, I think, signs you up in a separate, invisible club, members selected at death’s awful randomness. ‘Gone forever’ is our password, lingering sorrow our secret handshake. If you haven’t lost someone important to you, you can’t begin to know the rules. Truth is, you don’t even know the club exists” (92).

I’ve always liked Susan Carol McCarthy‘s debut novel Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands (2002) published by Bantom Press. The young narrator Reesa has to navigate her loss amid the chaos and fear of Florida during the nine months of terror. I’ve used this text to engage students in discussions of tolerance, injustice, and grief. I just never imagined that McCarthy’s words would rise to my thoughts in my quiet house early this morning. I know that the ache I feel will soften but not disappear. I know that my memories and photographs will remind me of stories I can share. For now, though, I am just choosing to write, to reflect, and to keep a careful watch for others who are in my new club. Empathy is a skill that can be painful to learn, but it’s important for us to keep trying. So, today, I choose to write and hopefully pay forward the love, support, and kindness I’ve received in this past week.

My life in four books

Per my 2017-18 teaching manifesto, I pledged to write alongside my students and to offer more choice in reading and writing. One of my many virtual PLN heroes through #APlitchat and Voxer Adrian Nester gave me a great idea for my second blog. Her challenge is to find four books (or series) that helped readers shape their lives. So many titles and authors came to my mind as I started to draft this blog on paper last night. Before I knew it 2 hours had passed, and I was left with bullet notes, random titles and author names, question marks and a pseudo sense of ranking. This. Is. Tough.

I mean, I honestly feel guilty when I make these selections because I believe my obtuse measuring scale left out a “better” work. I also feel hesitant and anxious to publicly state that these works helped to shape my identity as a reader because, well, what will others think about my choices? What do my choices reveal about who I am? How do I define who I am when I am so many people: teacher, mom, wife, daughter, sister, Lutheran, etc. Do these works jive with all of these roles? And, then I got over it. I LOVE to read. I love to share what I read. I’m the kid who deliberately walked around with more books from the library because I wanted to be seen as a reader. Reading defines who I am, not just these works. Yet, the four I’ve chosen seem to have had a lasting impact on me.

The Secret GardenBook #1: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I grew up in a house with four siblings, and I shared a room with both of my sisters. I was also very physical and demanding when I was younger, believing that the louder and more forceful my personality, the easier life would be/people would see my point clearly. Is it any wonder then why I quickly identified with Annie Lennox? True, I could not empathize with her parent’s loss, but the idea of having a 100-room house to wander seemed wonderful and peaceful. Once Annie discovers the garden and befriends Colin and Dickon, the manor doesn’t seem so lonely. Perhaps the language is flowery, but I felt like a grown up reading “real” stories in early elementary school. This was my first big chapter book, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment and a place to escape.

Book #2: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Similar to Burnett’s Garden, Salem’s Lot made me feel like an adult. I “borrowed” my dad’s copy of the novel. He started a membership into a book-of-the-month club, and he quickly acquired several King titles. My dad’s interest in King peeked my curiosity, though maybe reading my first adult horror novel at age 11 wasn’t the best idea. The creepy novel about the sinister town of Jerusalem made the hairs on my neck stand up. The scandal, violence, and language shocked me, but I also understood the courage and frustration of Ben Mears when he refused to leave this mystery unsolved– even more so when he chose to do something about it. Salem’s Lot was the first book I read under the covers with a flash light, and it started a life-long appreciation of King’s style and candor when crafting his stories.

Book #3: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Oh, how I love Irving’s narrator, characterization, and story line. I was in my early 20s the first time I read this novel.  It was not assigned for my English literature classes; I just happened to notice it at a friend’s apartment. He simply said, “I think you’d like it.” That was an understatement. At first the chunked timeline frustrated me because I didn’t see how or why Irving was taking me along so far into one portion only to shift gears to another. In the last 60 pages when the finished puzzle started to form, I wept and wept and wept. This novel is so beautiful. I ached to know more, to be friends with or to take these characters out for coffee just to talk. Irving is a master story teller who creates complex characters. He demonstrates heroic qualities in ordinary lives. I’ve ready several of Irving’s works, but my first love will always be Owen Meany. Just writing this reflection inspires me to read it again!

Book #4: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I’ll admit. I never enjoyed history when I was young. It’s not that history isn’t interesting; it’s more so that my educational experience was simply skill-drill-and-kill. Rote memorization of places, people, and events without context does not breed interest. Thus, as a teacher, I became a history student in order to build context for my students, making the experience richer. Golding’s allegory about the fall of man and the dangers of war gave me an opportunity to extend our learning about World War II and the effects of the Cold War. The first few times I taught this text, I enjoyed learning alongside my students as they built more connections. After several years, I still love watching them hunched over the novel as I read aloud. I am even more excited when a student asks to read a cold passage aloud, trying on their best British accent. The excitement, the shock, the anguish, and the relief on their faces most often translates into their passage analyses, allowing me to engage them in how literature and history are symbiotic.  I’m also a sucker for Dystopia!

Honorable mentions

Yes, perhaps, having this honorable mentions portion is a bit like cheating because I get to list more books and authors, but seriously, there are so many that give me fond memories. At one time or another these rejuvenated my love of reading because of the great experiences attached to them. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak were the go-to picture books for my sons when they were little. I read them so frequently that even now I can recite them by heart. Both the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter series reminded me of how fun and fulfilling suspending my disbelief can be, and the beautiful characters and themes are timeless and universal. As an adult, I’ve also become more interested and deliberate about my nonfiction reading. In the last decade, I’ve read several titles that have had a definite impact on my classroom, my instruction, and my reflection about how we shape our identities: Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and Jonathan Bergmann’s Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Engagement.

In the end, reading is about discovering more about myself. Reading affords me the opportunity to research and connect, to live vicariously, and to entertain others. I LOVE it when I can share that experience with my students and my children. And, I’m always looking to make my to-be-read pile even higher, so let me know which titles you’d recommend. Happy reading! #MrsTReads