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.