03 September 2017

5 Things I'm Doing in My Classroom This Year

When I was out of the classroom and working in other education settings, I met all kinds of people who have grand ideas for how to improve public education and how to make it more innovative. I read about teachers (and met many of them) doing cutting edge things. Imagine the pressure I could have placed on myself to try and do everything I learned upon returning to teaching.

Even with all the cool tech ideas and innovative teaching strategies I learned, probably the most important idea I learned while away from teaching was the idea that we learn from our failures. As a former leader in the "I expect perfection from myself at all times" club, learning from failure has been a major undertaking. My hope is that by learning from my mistakes, I can teach students how to learn from theirs. I hope I can teach them not only how to learn from failure but that mistakes are okay.

Here are 5 things I'm doing this year...

Building relationships. Our principal challenged us this year to see each student, and building relationships is one way to be sure I see my students. My strategy for building relationships is ongoing, but one concrete thing I do is have each student create a name tent on card stock. Inside the name tent they write things about themselves they want me to know, and during my planning block I read the inside of the cards. At first I had students pick up their card each time they came to class, but after I started learning their names, I started passing out the cards so I could pause and chat with students about what they wrote on the inside of their cards. I do this quietly while they write in their journals.

Developing habits of mind. I've been teaching my students how to be effective readers and writers by teaching them habits of disciplined writers and readers and practicing these habits daily. Every day when they enter class, we set a timer and write in our journals for 15 minutes (classes are 90 minutes long). Sometimes I write with them. Sometimes, I use that time to learn names, take attendance, etc. Though I provide a writing prompt for their consideration, students are free to write whatever they choose as long as they just keep writing. One student is working on a short story and another is writing poems. Others are using the writing time to decompress and de-stress from the busyness of their day. Periodically, they choose a journal entry to revise and submit. They use words from their individualized vocabulary lists in their revisions when appropriate.

Photo by my colleague Sophie Schwab. Used with permission.
Making thinking visible. I've been teaching students how to make their thinking visible by teaching text annotation strategies and other visible thinking routines. We've analyzed artwork and photographs and advertisements. In my arts and humanities class, we've learned how to critique artwork using elements and principles of art. We've studied color theory and painted. In my English classes, we've analyzed images and read a variety of complex texts. We've focused on individualized vocabulary learning.

Establishing routines for class discussion.  I've taught all levels of students how to have active text-focused discussions using the Paideia Seminar approach. We've set class goals and individual goals for discussion, and we've learned how to converse on controversial topics. A student last week even went home and told his parents about our Paideia discussion over one of the texts because he was so energized and excited about it (and yes, it was a text in our district mandated curriculum). The student's parents told me how excited he was about the discussion when I saw them at open house Thursday night. The big take-away comment from a student-- "we need to see issues from multiple perspectives and respect the viewpoints of others."

Practicing gratitude. Every morning before I go to school, I write in my journal and I include my gratitude list.  At school we practice daily gratitude, too. At first we used post-it notes and I had students write what they're grateful for on a post-it and place the post-it on the board anonymously, but then I realized I'd never be able to afford the continued purchase of that many post-it notes, so now we're using slips of paper that I collect and shuffle to keep the anonymity as desired by many. Since I am a "floating" teacher and don't have my own room, we all need time to pack up at the end of each block, so after we pack up, I read the gratitude slips aloud for the last two minutes and we end the block with a smile.

I know that I influence the students I teach with my attitude and perspective on life and learning. I am human. I am self-loving and self-forgiving. I am okay with not doing everything perfectly. I hope they realize the same.

19 August 2017

Running and Teaching: Lessons Learned

With the first week of my return to teaching complete, I slept soundly last night and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to settle into the weekend with my family. Friends and family have been texting, calling, instant messaging, and otherwise wondering how it was for me this week. Well, I'll tell you--it was incredible. Incredible like it is when you return from a run feeling tired, yes, AND on top of the world because you're exerting yourself to the fullest.

My 19th year in education & my 12th year as a teacher.
I believe what I've learned from running over the past year and a half applies to teaching too.

1. I can set and achieve audacious personal and physical goals.
2. Career and working all the time are not the most important things in life.
3. The ugly days (and runs) got me to where I am today.
4. I need to take care of myself before I can tend to others.
5. Being consistent and having a routine makes a difference.
6. Incremental changes matter.
7. I can't (and don't need to) fix, manage, and control anyone or anything.
8. It's okay to ask for help (there's a whole community cheering for you).

"Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life..."  Haruki Murakami

Photo from April 30, 2016
Coincidentally, the very first race I ran
 was a 5K fundraiser for the marching band
at the school where I now teach

26 July 2017

Why I am Returning to Teaching

School starts August 16th and for the first time in nearly 8 years, I will return to school with rosters full of students in classes I'll teach. I am scared a little and excited a lot.

After holding four different education positions, facilitating dozens of PD sessions, taking 96 trips for work, reading hundreds of books, and meeting thousands of people, I am finally ready to return.

I always said I would return to teaching when the timing was right, and I never expected that timing to be in the midst of me leading a big statewide initiative. But it is the right time because everything is going well, and I'm not running away from a miserable job in search of greener pastures. I  have a great job and work with dedicated professionals at a local education cooperative and we are doing amazing work with teachers as we expand the Common Assignment System statewide. So, I'm leaving all this behind because the timing is right.  

I'm returning to teaching because I want to work with students. I want to put into practice what I learned while I was away.  When I left the classroom, I certainly never intended it to be a permanent thing. Rather, it was a chance to learn, grow, and challenge myself in new ways while taking a breather from the day to day stresses of teaching. I've learned some things along the way, and it's my hope that what I've learned helps me be a better teacher the second time around.

The story of my decision to return...

In 2015-2016 I started the National Board (NBCT) renewal process by borrowing a classroom and getting to know students in the same school where I'll be teaching this fall. Life events that academic year led me to defer my NBCT renewal while I regained my bearings and figured out what was next for me in life. After soul searching and transforming all areas of my life, I picked up the renewal process with unfettered enthusiasm again in 2016-2017. During this process I was at the same school and working with a dear teacher friend who graciously loaned me her class (again) so I could get to know the students before teaching them for my renewal video lesson. It was there in that classroom that I began to see myself teaching full time though I wasn't sure when, where, or how.

The thing about the NBCT process is that it promotes continual reflection and learning. One of my favorite parts about teaching has always been building relationships with students and mentoring them, and I’ve found that teaching students to set goals aids in this process because students can then take ownership of their learning. In the short time I had with students for my NBCT renewal, they established individual goals for our lesson. Since students were working toward the development of an opinion-editorial (op-ed) for a larger unit, they explored claims and counterclaims in the print and non-print texts we read for our Paideia Seminar discussion. When I watched my video of that lesson, I recognized things that went right and analyzed the things I could have done differently. The students I taught were curious, inquisitive, honest, and invested. They became the impetus for my deeper look at returning to teaching.

More soul searching and prayers for guidance.

I contemplated my list of things that were challenging in teaching and realized if I waited for those things to change, I'd never return. Instead, I looked inside myself and saw how I had changed. My attitude, perspective, and outlook are all different now. No longer do I believe people are doing things to me; no longer am I carrying a heavy weight of everything that's wrong about public education system. Instead, I am focused on what's right and what I can do to change my world and influence the people with whom I interact.

Unexpected opening.

One day in late June, I checked our district's website and noticed an opening at the same school where I completed my NBCT renewal, an unexpected opening due to a teacher relocating. Having prayed for a sign about timing, I took this as one possible sign that it was time to pursue the return to teaching now rather than later. I applied online, submitted information for my background check, wrote a letter of introduction, updated my resume, and sent both off to the principal and department chair. Two interviews and several weeks later, I was offered a position teaching ninth and tenth grade students English and Arts/Humanities.

Three weeks from now, I'll return to school at the place where I feel I am meant to be with new students and new colleagues and my new outlook on life. My principal reminded me recently  when he first met me four years ago as I led the Common Assignment Study and teachers from his school participated that I told him I am someone who takes leaps of faith...here we go...I'm doing it again...and I look forward to what awaits.

17 May 2016

The Sun is Shining & Other Lessons I’m Learning from Journaling

“The diary taught me that it is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately…” Anais Nin, Volume 1

Standing in a hotel room in the Sunshine State, I accepted a call from the nurse at my doctor’s office. “Your recent results from your yearly physical indicate you are completely healthy on all accounts except one — you have a severe vitamin D deficiency.” Thoughts of a sailor’s teeth falling out from Rickets and other maritime diseases crept into my mind as she continued…”a vitamin D deficiency can cause moodiness and depression…” I began losing her as I retreated further into my mind. Sure, I had been especially moody lately, but I naturally dismissed it to recent work and family stress.
Two days later I was home again and faced with life altering news that sent me into a dark cave for a time, and slowly as I began to emerge from underground, I noticed the sun shining and recognized an opportunity for personal growth by allowing myself to be nourished by light and knowledge. Many of the lessons I’m learning began surfacing as I focused on the beauty of the sun shining and began to explore the inner depths of my mind through journaling.
Most of my writing in the past four years has been public writing via blogging for my personal blog and contributing to several other professional blogs. However, I found in the midst of a personal crisis, I couldn’t write for the public. Instead, I journaled to make sense of my life.
And then, as often happens, a brilliant post from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings reached my inbox. In this post, Popova talks about how several famous authors, including Virginia Woolf and John Steinbeck used private writing to become better public writers. Woolf supposedly said she used informal writing to “loosen the ligaments” for formal writing, and Steinbeck wrote 276 private letters about the nature of creativity to a friend while he was writing East of Eden and didn’t mail the letters until his novel was complete.
Inspired by these great authors and one terrific blogging coach from National Blogging Collaborative, I decided to think about what I’m learning from all my private writing. Not to share my personal thoughts from my journal but to share what I’m learning from the process.
I’m learning…
to be reflective
In Plato’s Republic, we see images of humans chained to benches facing a wall. It’s as a man, or shall we say woman instead, leaves the cave and sees the light of reality. This analogy works perfectly with how I’ve been learning to leave my dark cave and to see reality. I’ve always thought of myself as a reflective person. All those psychology classes in college kinda forced me to be reflective, but when you’re faced with challenging life circumstances, you dig deeper into who you are and what you need from life. All that introspection makes for even stronger self-reflection. I’m learning I have the capacity and willingness to know more about who I am, my life’s purpose & the essence of my life.
to pay attention to details
In her poem, The Summer Day, Mary Oliver reminds us to think about what we will do with our “one wild and precious life.” For me, this means paying attention to the details, and I’ll tell you (as would many of colleagues and family members) I’ve never been someone to pay attention to details in life. Journaling, however, is teaching me the importance of paying attention to details. As I embrace this one big life I’m living, I’m learning to pay attention and to live in the present instead of dwelling on the past or fretting about the future. For example, I might record that I enjoyed Tazo Earl Grey hot tea and Eggs Benedict for breakfast while on a business trip to Colorado. This matters only because it’s forcing me to stay in the present, and who knows — when I write a memoir one day, the specific details might matter more.
to be grateful
In Heaping Spoonful of Gratitude, Kindra Hall writes about her experience with keeping a gratitude journal, and she shares how when it’s turned into another to-do item to check off the daily list, gratitude journals can lose their impact. I’ve found keeping a gratitude journal along with my daily journal is a specific task helping me focus my attitude on the positives in life from the sun shining and the birds singing, to moments when I get to hear my older son play guitar or see my younger son score a goal on the soccer field. I’m grateful for life, even the challenges, and for what I’m learning.
to acknowledge my creative potential
My journals are filled with ideas, snapshots of life, expressions of emotions, quotes, songs, and dialogue. I’m living life more deeply and fully these days, and the curiosity that comes with living deeply and fully enhances my creative energies. I’m trying out writing from different points of view. I’m reliving childhood memories. I’m using words to sketch portraits of people in my life. I’m solving problems by writing about them.

29 April 2016

Use Writing to Learn Tools for Greater Student Thinking

As the Spring semester comes to a close, I am impressed by the impact a focus on writing to learn (WTL) tools has had on the pre-service teachers in the Writing in the Content Areas course I teach at our local university. We know from research (summary available in the Writing Next report) the impact writing to learn tools can have on student thinking and learning. The idea for our course was for university students to use WTL tools as learners so they would know how to use the tools when they work with K-12 students in the future. To help the university students understand effective use of WTL tools for greater student thinking, they read articles and used different tools each week to demonstrate their own thinking and learning with thoughtfulness and reflection.

Samuel Totten writes on the National Writing Project blog about the importance of pre-service teachers utilizing writing to learn tools in their education programs if we are ever going to change the approach to disciplinary writing in K-12 classrooms. From an informal survey he conducted over a decade ago, Totten writes that not many universities adequately prepare pre-service teachers to teach writing. Fortunately, the university where I teach part-time does emphasize the importance of teaching pre-service teachers writing in the content areas, and the entire state of Kentucky emphasizes writing (not just writing to learn) in all disciplines as evidenced by the required literacy courses for all future teachers.

I appreciate Totten's references to The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolutionand I am optimistic about the changes that have occurred in pre-service programs across the nation since 2003 when this report was published. However, we know there's still room for improvement when we talk with K-12 students about their school writing experiences, and I contend that if pre-service teachers like those I taught this semester continue utilizing the tools they learn in their education programs, they will be prepared to help change what happens in our public schools.

We know that writing to learn tools impact student learning and that when teachers utilize writing to promote thinking, it's more effective than cramming information and facts into their heads via rote memorization or low level worksheets. For additional information on why this is important, the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse from Colorado State University offers resources and suggestions for teaching not only writing to learn but other disciplinary writing as well.

Since I'm a firm believer in student choice and ownership in learning, my students and I co-developed a holistic rubric on the first day of class to help them think about the task of using the WTL tool intentionally. By the end of the semester students shared with one another more than 25 WTL tools and discussed how different tools fit better with specific writing lessons and goals. They also began building their "teacher toolbox."

I'm sharing below the task and rubric we used this semester, and I hope you, too, will share links to your favorite tasks and rubrics for helping pre-service teachers understand how and/or why to use writing to learn tools.
TASK: For each week we have class, select and read an article or a blog relevant to your content area. Utilize a writing to learn tool to demonstrate your understanding of the article or blog. 

Holistic Rubric (co-developed with students during our first class session this semester)

--Find a relevant and unique article
--Explain what the tool is and how it connects to your article
--Utilize the tool very effectively to promote student thinking
--Utilize a new tool for each WTL assignment
--Submit the link to the article
--Submit the WTL assignment on time
 --Be thoughtful and reflective in what you are submitting

--Finding a relevant article
--Identify the tool you are using
-- Utilize the tool effectively to promote student thinking
--Utilize a new tool for each WTL assignment
-- Submit the link to the article
--Submit WTL assignment on time
 --Be reflective in what you are submitting

--Finding an article relevant to a specific content area
--Utilize the tool without effectively identifying the tool to promote student thinking
--Repeats a tool for the WTL assignment from a previous assignment
--Submit the link to the article
--Submit WTL assignment on time
--Lacks reflection

--Article is irrelevant to a specific content area
--Tool and the article don’t fit together
--Submit the link to the article
--Tool does not adequately promote student thinking

What about you--what are your favorite writing to learn tools and how do you use them? Were you taught how to teach writing in your pre-service programs? Do the student teachers with whom you work know how to use WTL tools and other writing strategies? What suggestions do you have for improving student thinking in our public schools?