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.

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.