End of Year Reflections

During #txed chat Wednesday night (June 4th), participants were asked to blog their end of the year reflections and share them with the group. The following quote came to mind when I began this reflection:

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” –Thomas Paine

This has definitely been one of the most trying years I’ve had in all my 7 years of teaching. I felt like a failure in about 75% of what I did this past year. I also watched myself commit several teaching misdemeanors and knew deep in my heart for a majority of my actions that I should be doing something different, but I continued to convince myself that what I was doing was somehow necessary. To go back to my parent analogy, what I did was equivalent to spanking.

I told myself before I had children that I would never spank because I had experienced it as a child and it scarred my relationship with my parents. However, there have been moments where I spanked my daughter and knew it was the wrong thing to do but I always invented a reason why it had to be done–most of the time my actions were reactive stemming from extreme frustration, maybe even a place of anger and most definitely feeling pressed for time.

The same goes for my reactions to my students. I was extremely frustrated and more than once angry. Also, I was overwhelmed trying to complete a mountain of tasks. So I resorted to lecturing (on video or in person), or assigning books I knew my students couldn’t read simply because I had lots of resources on the book and then assigned chapter quizzes hoping to cattle prod my students into reading by dangling carrot grades or I continued with a certain unit even though it was clear my students were not understanding. I graded based on behavior and spent very little time giving constructive feedback. I assigned busy work and worksheets just to catch my breath. I went home at the end of the day rather than stay to contact parents and update them on student progress and I became lax in my documentation (a worksheet is evidence isn’t it?). I ended the school year extremely exhausted, stressed and positive that had lost my will to teach. None of this was the fault of my students and yet, they were punished. I was not angry with them but with a system that has such unrealistic expectations for teachers. No, I did not spank my students, but they also did not get the best teacher I know that I can be. They did not receive the exemplary education they deserve and they did not receive the attention they needed.

Now, I am not the worst teacher in the world, but I also know better and am capable of BEING better. My students will go on and hopefully have a better teacher next year. I’m also sure other teachers have similar stories and that many have gone on to do wonderful things. We live, we learn.

It’s time for a Year of Magical Thinking, time to repurpose myself and recollect my dreams. It’s time to put my own mastery to the forefront and approach the year with an abundance of positivity. I’m taking my summer to relax and enjoy my family. I’ve purchased some professional books that have reinvigorated my thinking and I’m ready for a fall of new possibilities. I will not make lofty goals for the new year as I do not know what to expect but I will continue to hope for the best.

Is it the English Teacher’s Fault?

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I want to start by saying I love reading. I have always loved reading. My mother has told stories of me as a 2.5 year old sitting in piles of books attempting to read to myself. During the summers, I looked forward to trips to the book mobile rather than summer craft camp or swimming at the local Y. As an elementary kid in 4th and 5th grade I read as many of the Baby Sitter’s Club series books that I could get my hands on. It was one of the very few books that had an African-American character. One summer I checked out Little Women to prove I could read a book longer than 400 pages. By middle school I was reading Stephen King when everyone else was reading Christopher Pike. I still remember in high school when I was introduced to Lord of the Flies and I stayed after class to talk with my teacher about biblical allusions. She must have thought I was an enigma. In college I excitedly signed up for a class where we read nothing but Shakespeare. My roommate thought I was weird. As an adult on the cusp of turning 30, I stood in the same line with miniature Harry Potter and Hermione look-alikes as we all clamored for the very final “book seven” of the series. I then proceeded to lock myself in my friend’s guest bedroom for 2 days to finish reading it. What can I say; I love books.

So, I have to admit that I don’t understand my students’ extreme dislike of reading. The very act of putting a book in their hands is equivalent of giving superman Kryptonite. I get that reading is hard, especially if you didn’t grow up with a book taped to the end of your baby bottle. It’s even harder when you’re still trying to learn English. So how can I make reading enjoyable for my students?

In Deaf education, we are constantly hounded by statistical data that says that many deaf students graduating from high school still cannot read above 4th-5th grade level. Despite the plethora of  methodology within deaf education, this statistic is still a reality. So, why aren’t these kids learning to read? Or better question, what can we do to improve?

Every so often something touches a nerve in the well of my gut and rattles my insides until I can’t stomach it anymore. I hate feeling troubled. It’s like a burn that seers even after the wound has blistered over. I’m troubled by the lack of gains in deaf education. More so, I’m troubled that my students seem to only pick up a book and read during the 90 minutes I see them every other day. I don’t think that 90 minutes will ever be enough to make the kind of gains that will demonstrate to the powers that be that what I do at our school means something. Most of all, I’m troubled by the archaic methods used to boost student’s reading scores. To me, there is something wrong about teaching students to read through vocabulary lists, basal or leveled readers, and strict assigned reading. I’m guilty of doing all three at some point in my misguided career and even this past year out of pure exhaustion. I must do better because I know better.

When we look at how good readers naturally develop reading skills, we find that the best readers in the world are people who read widely and frequently. No amount of flashcards will help you learn new words if you don’t read them frequently in a variety of contexts.

I recently read a fabulous article about how high school graduates (in the hearing community, but could also apply to deaf community) lack sufficient vocabulary skills to succeed in college. The typical knee-jerk reaction would be to immediately teach vocabulary through frequent word study. However, the article states that the best way to learn new vocabulary is to learn it in a familiar context. The article supports the concept of “content-based instruction.”

“…even more important advantage is that immersion in a topic provides the student with a referential and verbal context that is gradually made familiar, which encourages correct guesses of word meanings at a much more rapid pace than would be possible in an unfamiliar context.” (E. D. Hirsch, JR.)

While the article points to creating context in English Language Arts classrooms, I believe that true content-based instruction means reading and vocabulary instruction is the responsibility of ALL teachers. I can teach students to read and analyze literature. I can teach them the language of analytic and narrative writing, but a large majority of the vocabulary that they will need to become successful in college and even in the working world will need to come from other content areas. This is also true for teaching skills related to text analysis. I hope that social studies teachers are discussing with their students about warrants, claims, and evidence. I hope art teachers are showing students how to analyze visual media images and use a variety of mediums to approach a common theme. I hope science teachers are showing students how to compare and contrast current research articles, make connections, and judge validity. I hope math teachers are teaching students how to summarize data clearly and concisely. Students need all teachers to support and build students’ inferential skills. Perhaps more time could be given to independent reading of content specific texts (bring magazines into your classrooms). I think it would be awesome to experience cross curricular collaboration. It has to be more than just the English teacher’s fault if students are failing at reading and writing.

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I know the knot chaffing the lining of my stomach will not go away unless I can work up the gumption to do what’s right for my students. Reading needs to be a natural part of every day in the classroom as well as at home. Perhaps if we made reading more relevant and frequent, students would see books, not as Kryptonite, but as gateways to a world of possibilities.

At the end of the day, my goal is to get students to see the value of reading. If the student enjoys reading, I’m not so concerned about what a single assessment says about their reading level. Real reading gains are only going to come from intrinsic motivation from students.  However, a school-wide reading-rich environment will coax reluctant readers to take a second look at the benefits of daily reading.

 

Reflecting on Failure and Change

When I was little, I often donned the role of “Teacher” which really meant bossing my sister around and making her color workbooks.  In my eye, teachers were authorities you did not question.  They had power to change your life for better or worse.  This power was wielded over me many times in college as professors determined whether or not I was worthy of their profession.  When I became a teacher, I have to admit, this power was intoxicating.  At first, I struggled with wanting to be liked and at the same time staying in control, which lead to frequent power struggles and inconsistency.  They didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who I wanted to be.

Now seven years later, I began this year feeling like I knew who I wanted to be as a teacher.  I wanted to prove once and for all that this was the profession of my calling.  I wanted to flip my classroom and become an expert at integrating technology.  At the same time, I wanted to prove that I could finally do it all.  I wanted to be the super teacher of the year. However, looking back at this year, I’ve found that one thing still remains the same.   It turns out, I still want very much to be liked and I have a hard time giving up control.  Haven’t I learned anything these past 7 years?!

I will say this, I may not have written much on this blog, but at least it has been honest reflection that will hopefully help me grow as an educator.  It is this reflection that has allowed me to fix at least one thing:  I now know who I want to be as a teacher and I won’t get any better with the mentality that I have to be “the best”.  The tough part is making the change.

CHANGE #1: END THE PAPER TRAIL–  I don’t like passing out worksheets, but I find myself doing it often with one class.   I ask myself why I do this, and the truth is, I don’t know how to teach this particular group.  When I observed other teachers, they had students who dutifully filled out worksheets as well (as a fellow Twitter posted “A digital worksheet, is still a worksheet”).  These classrooms were so organized with students who behaved so wonderfully.  So I followed, and it worked.  My students behaved, they dutifully filled out worksheets, and I believed that they were actually learning.  But recently their work stopped making any sense.  They have become automatons who are able to go from activity to activity, completing tasks, but they aren’t making connections.  They know how to fill in a 4-square graphic organizer but they fill it with information that is still superficial and shows lack of understanding the topic.  Or an activity that they do in ASL becomes a complete failure when trying to transfer the same skills to English. I do notice a big change when assignments are more authentic or when I’m able to give them explicit 1:1 time.  I need to find work that is more meaningful at the same time something students can do independently while I work 1:1 with others.  So, Change #1: less paper and more 1:1 feedback (writing/reading conferences).

CHANGE #2: ADJUST MY DEFINITION OF ASSESSMENT– I enjoy having students work on projects.  I believe that students retain information better when they are able to apply what they learned to something they’ve made.  However, with high-stakes testing becoming more and more obtrusive, I worry that these project-based assessments do not translate well to paper/pencil tests.  So, I have continued to give test-simulated multiple choice assessments that include prompted written responses.  However, doing so is only confirming my fears.  Students are not doing well on these paper/pencil tests.  I’ve always assumed I was good at getting students to think critically about a topic; however, when it comes time to take a test, students are still failing.  What am I doing wrong? I believe that my tests and projects don’t assess the same things.  A project is a demonstration of what a student is capable of doing with the information they’ve learned.  A test is a demonstration of what the student is able to remember.  I need to take a more comprehensive look at my assessments.  I need to do a better job of identifying the skills my students need to retain once the project has ended and reassess those skills ongoing.  I need to make it clear to my students as well, what standards they are meeting and on what scale.  So, change #2: stop grading multiple-choice tests and instead make sure my students are able to CONTINUOUSLY apply skills in an authentic and meaningful way.

CHANGE #3: GIVE STANDARDS BASED GRADING A TRY. This is going to be the toughest change of all for me.  However, I believe in it wholeheartedly.  The concept is that a teacher should be able to identify a set of priority standards that students MUST meet by the end of the year (I don’t mean the TEKS or even IEP goals, but instead a teacher recognizing skills that students MUST have before they can move ahead in the general curriculum).  These standards would then be assessed throughout the year and students would be graded on how they are progressing with the standards.  It sounds wonderful to be able to say exactly what the student is or is not able to do.  It would provide more specific information to add to an IEP and help towards writing better goals/objectives.  What makes this a tough change for me is deciding the standards as well as figuring out the grades.  Ideally, a letter grade would not be assigned, but instead a meter of progress would be given.  A student should not be penalized for needing additional time to meet projected goals.  So, in a world that still wants to see letter grades, how do I introduced standards-based grading? What will it look like?  I need to research this a bit more and talk with others who have made the change.  Improving my teaching will require change #3: starting the year off with a clear set of manageable standards.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to make all three changes this year and I definitely want to at least attempt to make these changes in the fall.  The most important thing I must remember is that attempting to be “perfect” is going to send me to an early grave.  I need to let go of “winning” and embrace my own failures.  I don’t have to be a teacher of the year; I do need to be okay with being me.

Hi, my name is Jo…

Here I am with more struggles and admissions of guilt :).  I read a really interesting post here.  The author gives a very candid look at teacher development/improvement and reflects on why many of us don’t really improve our teaching, but instead do what I would call “Extreme Makeover The Hell Out of” our practices.  We try new things, add new technology, beef up our professional development attendance, get a Twitter account, blog, join a Facebook or Twitter group for the good-humored abuse of hashtags all in the name of collaboration.  BUT while we are busy dressing the bulldog in haute couture, how often do we stop to recognize that it is still a bulldog in haute couture?!  That’s my year so far–a big fat ugly bulldog dressed in dazzling silver sequins and patent-leather cherry red Jimmy Choos (there is just something about red patent-leather that grabs my attention).

The author encourages teachers to take a good, hard look at their practices and do more honest reflection about the what, why and how of teaching.  He says that improvement requires HARD work.  Not the #omgthisfrickin’makesmewannawriteanincrediblylonghashtag kind of hard, but the kind of HARD that makes you feel like that awkward first year teacher who combs through every crossed t and dotted i in a lesson plan, wets her pants at the sight of an administrator or master teacher entering her classroom, goes home and cries into her pillow with a bucket of fried chicken and declares that she is absolutely the worst teacher in the world, and yet goes in 2 hours before school starts to set up her classroom, create handcrafted materials, and double check those crossed t’s and dotted i’s and braces herself for another day of struggles.

Lately, I’ve been remembering my first 3-5 years of teaching and I agree with Mr. Pershan.  I can honestly say that I was a better teacher during those first 5 years than I am currently (working on year 7).

I recently sat with a colleague and expressed to her my dismay at being unable to pinpoint WHY I’m struggling to the point of drowning this year.  I was given an extra prep this year to help with planning for a heavy load (I’m teaching English at every grade level 9-12th with a wide variety of ability levels 2nd grade-post secondary), I passed off my position as ELA chair to someone more experienced, and I’m at school for nearly 10-12 hours a day most days and yet I still can’t “Get things done.”  I’m not creating phenomenal lesson plans, I’ve hardly touched my iPads this year, I’m barely getting my gradebook up to date, and I frequently have days where I just sit in my car and cry.

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I’d like to introduce myself.  Hi, my name is Jo, I got a husband and kid and I work in a “Button factory” one day, my Boss comes to me and says, “Jo, are ya busy?”  “I say no!” “Then push the button with your right hand”…hi, my name is Jo….

Remember that song?  It goes on for as many body parts as Joe-Schmo can manage to use to push all these endless and sometimes pointless buttons.  That’s my year.  Pushing buttons is not hard.  Pushing hundreds of buttons with body parts that rarely see the light of day is #omgthisfrickin’makesmewannawritealonghashtag hard BUT it is not going to make me a better teacher.  It will not make Joe a better employee.  In fact, it makes him a schmuck.

We as teachers need to learn to take the “simple things” and learn to do them WELL.  Learn to do them so well that people start to realize that these “simple things” really aren’t that simple; that they take quite a bit of skill and expertise.  It’s not about how MUCH you do, but how WELL you do it.  Think about the teachers that you looked up to when you were an intern.  My observing teacher was fantastic at connecting with students.  I don’t remember ever lauding over her lesson plans, or her use of technology in the classroom.  I do remember being awestruck to see her strip off her shoes and race her students barefoot to the cafeteria, hellbent on beating them. It’s a skill that I still have not managed to master (BOTH connecting with students and stripping off my shoes to run barefoot to the cafeteria)  but may be the one simple thing that I need to perfect in order to improve my teaching.  By establishing a personal connection with each student, she was able to get these kids to idolize her and cooperate even on their toughest days.  You could see that she personally cared about each and every one of her students and that each student KNEW that she cared.  They trusted her and loved her.

Now, that does not mean I need to attend a plethora of professional development workshops on the “back to basic” skills of teaching, nor do I need to find a twitter group to vent all my frustrations to in a fury of hashtag bombs.  What I need, want, and miss most of all is a mentor to share resources, provide feedback, and help me evaluate what works and what doesn’t.  I need a mentor I trust and look up to within my profession–not an administrator giving feedback for evaluation purposes.  But first, I need to take the damn Jimmy Choos off the dog and admit that it’s SO not working!

So, I may be Jo Schmuck this year, but I’m going to at least admit it and attempt to work harder on perfecting simplicity.

Why I’m Struggling this Year

This blog was started, not to brag or “Showcase” my classroom, but to reflect on my teaching and hopefully improve.  Based on this year’s outcomes, I’d say I have a lot to improve upon.  I started the year wanting to become skilled with technology integration in the form of a flipped classroom.  I can’t say it has been successful.  At the same time, I can’t say that any other method would have been any better.  What is my struggle this year? Why do I feel like such a failure in everything that I am trying to do?  I’d say the biggest hindrance is not being able to connect with others in the same situation as me and not having a collaborative PLN.

In the past, I’ve been able to bounce ideas off of others, find wonderful resources on the internet; I  have been content with being a voiceless bystander who soaks in information by watching.  First, many people in my school are resistant to trying the flipped model and I’m starting to understand why.  With the advent of video and flipped learning comes a whole class of resources that I cannot use simply because they are not accessible.  Flipped was supposed to be this revolutionary concept that makes learning accessible, but as a teacher who is deaf, I’m not able to access a large majority of dialogue or even shared lessons that are exchanged in flipping PLNs.   This means I have to create a lot of content on my own which becomes very time-consuming.    I joined discussion groups and even twitter chats.  So what about bouncing ideas off of other flippers through Ning or Twitter?  Just as before, I gleaned some wonderful information but nobody was interested in my questions or my struggles in the deaf ed classroom.  Nobody seems to want to understand the challenges of accessibility for those who are disabled.  It brings us right back to why IDEA was necessary.   Children with disabilities, especially hearing or vision loss, always get pushed aside as “somebody else’s problem.”   As long as the hearing community continues to put accessibility on the back burner, people with disabilities will continue to fall behind.  Isn’t the entire point of the flipped model to provide accessibility to students?  To give students access to resources they may not have at home?  Something as simple as captions can open up an entire world to a student who is deaf or hard of hearing.

So, I’m becoming burnt out in trying to recreate all the wonderful resources that are already out there in a form that is accessible for my students.   It takes me twice the time to workout a video that includes ASL.  I know I’m doing something that will not only benefit my students, but maybe even other deaf students and deaf teachers but at present it is a huge source of frustration for me.  I’m hoping to one day meet another deaf teacher who wants to give collaboration  shot.  Maybe then flipped model won’t feel so hard.  For now, let me share some resources with hearing people who DO wish to broaden their definition of accessibility and open their videos beyond their classrooms:

Caption It Yourself— this web resource provides some wonderful guidelines for captioning your own videos and gives a wide variety of links to web-based captioning tools.

Many flippers already use Camtasia Studio which comes with a captioning tool.