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.

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.

It’s no secret: Maintaining motivation

Source: Chen, Angus (March 4, 2016). “How to Turn on the Part of Your Brain that Controls Motivation”. 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.

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

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.