Perpetual Pick Up Sticks

I’m technically doing the work of two jobs. I teach a 10th grade English class and am also the high school literacy coach. I’m currently (ok perpetually) struggling between finding enough prep time and helping teachers locate literacy resources, coaching teachers, and developing our new sustained silent reading program.

As for the teaching aspect, I constantly struggle with creation. I know the more tools I create for students, the more independent my students become. This means creating anywhere near 2-4 different “tools” for one single task. For example, students have access to paper worksheets as well as digital copies (and digital copies in at least 2 different formats–pdf/google doc/pages). Students can find daily agenda/assignments in 3 different places (PowerSchool, canvas, as well as google slides). I do all of this to prevent the constant iPad issues (I swear this is the closest I’ve come to going back to paper and pencil assignments) and to provide differentiation to students with varying needs.

You see, teaching isn’t a mud-race. It’s playing pick up sticks with a toddler that never wants to end the game, ever. Just when I start to get a handle on all of these tools, my other job throws the “sticks” back all over the floor, under the table, and behind that shelf that is too heavy to move and requires a rigged hanger to fetch lost items from the clutches of dust bunnies. I find that on days where I haven’t prepared the extra tools due to lack of creation time, class feels like whack-a-mole trying to get students on track. If I have a wider variety of tools prepped, I find class runs smoothly and I only need to respond with simple direction.

Every year I say it will get easier, as I have already created content, but to be honest each year is different, and I find I need to tweak or recreate content to meet the various needs of my new students. In other words, another canister of sticks.

I got so swamped at work today, I nearly forgot a heart-tickling positive from a student who showed up in my class this fall with a self-deprecating lament that he will never EVER pass the English EOC. He quietly announced today that he passed!

So when the sticks get tossed on the floor for the millionth time, I just have to remember not to take myself too seriously. After all, it’s supposed to be fun.

Originally written for #flipclass flash blog on 1/12/15 and then revised an hour later. On a side note, I’ve actually written on this topic before nearly 2 years ago and much better I might add.

Engaging the Writer

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I made a promise to myself to blog more this summer and haven’t made good on that promise primarily because I didn’t have anything to write about. This fits exactly into what I want to discuss in this post. I am about to embark on a new journey in a new position at my school. I was chosen to become the new literacy coach for the high school and I’m both nervous and excited about the job.

One of the needs expressed by teachers this past spring was a desire to focus more on writing instruction. We have noticed that our students struggle quite a bit with writing. Even students who appear to have very little delay in reading. Students show an ability to understand what they are reading but struggle to pose their own thoughts in writing. What is missing in writing instruction that will help students make gains?

I recently read a fabulous article on Linking Genre to Standards. The premise of the article being that students need exigency in order to exact good form. It is a habit of writing programs to teach formulaic writing–especially when working with students who are performing several levels below Enrolled Grade Level. The problem with formulaic writing is that it may give students a “purpose” for writing, but it doesn’t make that purpose authentic and it doesn’t help students understand why the form is used. It also does not put the choice of form in the hands of the student.

Why do people write? It’s more than just PIE (persuade, inform, entertain). I like the following quote from the article:

As teachers, before we direct our students toward ways to engage the interest of the reader and state a clear purpose, we have to engage the interest of the writer in a real purpose.

When working on instructional planning, we have to do more than just make sure we check off the standard’s list of genres (making sure that students write at least one engaging short story, literary analysis essay, persuasive essay, research paper, etc.). We need to impress upon students that writing is an organic meaningful action. Students shouldn’t just write to receive a passing grade. Writing isn’t about playing “school”. It is about sharing a message. It is about expressing one’s thoughts and feelings. It is about engaging and interacting with an audience.  But, as the quote above stated, we cannot get our students to engage an audience without first making sure students are engaged in the topic. Their writing should have authentic purpose; it should be a meaningful, purposeful act.

The article stresses that we need to teach them “WHY” we write, not just “HOW” to write. So when looking at the standards we need to carefully consider our instructional approach. Suppose we look at the following TEKS standard:

(14) Writing/Literary Texts. Students write literary texts to express their ideas and feelings about real or imagined people, events, and ideas….Students are expected to:

(A) write an engaging story with a well-developed conflict and resolution, interesting and believable characters, a range of literary strategies (e.g., dialogue, suspense) and devices to enhance the plot, and sensory details that define the mood or tone;

We need to ask ourselves, what situation would students need to be in that would engage them as authentic writers? Why would/should they write this story?

One could argue that standardized testing does not engage readers or writers and I would agree, which is why I would encourage administrators not to put so much stock in standardized test scores. Should writing instruction be designed around testing parameters? or should we work to develop meaningful writing skills and hope for transfer? Teaching form as formula may have short-term benefits that help prepare students for immediate writing tasks. However, it also creates limited writing competencies and disconnected learners. Skills don’t “stick” and writing loses voice.  In developing an effective writing program, we cannot continue to go the route of formulaic instruction in order to meet the demands of a singular assessment. We must help students find meaning in writing and write with their own purpose in mind. We must consider the “why” along with the “how” when designing lessons. We must create meaningful learning situations that prompt specific genres or forms of writing. We don’t just want students to do well in school or on tests, we want them to do well in their respective communities. We want them to be able to see writing as a meaningful tool for participating in social action.

I write this blog because I have something to say. Having something to say motivates me to write well. Having something to say and a desire to share it with an audience encourages me to carefully select my words and consider how my writing might be received by others. This is what we want our students to do. They must be reflective readers and writers, but first, they must find something to say. Rather than give them something to say, give them a reason to say it. Incite them, move them to action–show them that writing is more than just structure, grammar and words on a page. Writing is power.

Moments that Made Me Smile

This week has been a good week.  I always say that post spring break is my favorite time of the year.  By that time, students have had plenty of time to get used to my expectations and they actually start to enjoy class.  This week I’ve hit an unusual number of moments that made me smile but I want to share two that put a boost in my step.

#1  I’m doing my annual magazine project with the Seniors again this year (yea, I know I talk about this project a lot but I love it).  Normally it takes two weeks to get them all set up and ready to work independently.  This year, because of my efforts to flip instruction, my current seniors were ready to go within minutes.  On Monday, they had already applied for positions and had made press badges.  On Wednesday I announced the editor positions and we started our first team meeting for the first section of the Magazine.  The two chosen editors ran the team meeting and even assigned me a role.  My job was secretary: to take notes on the meeting.  It was awesome! The first section of the magazine will focus on local, national and world news.  The class made their recommendations for article ideas and the two editors listened to ideas, asked for clarification, vetoed ideas (by explaining why they were against topic) and ended the day by giving their writers an assignment.  Students were 100% directing their learning and they were excited about writing!  I can’t wait to see the results of their writing next week.

#2 I joined #flipclass chat with a wonderful topic about what a personal PLN means to teachers.  It is quite the emotional topic for me because my personal PLN has completely changed my outlook on teaching.  I shared my struggles from the fall and even mentioned that back then I was ready to hand in my letter of resignation.   Jonathan Bergmann, one of the authors of Flip Your Classroom, asked if I would write a guest post sharing my experience on how attempting to flip my classroom has kept me from leaving the profession.  I was so honored to write that post.  Feel free to read it and please do share your comments! I’d love to hear what you think.

I am starting to feel valued as an educator and I am remembering why I became a teacher in the first place.  I enjoy watching my students grow and learn together.  I will always have struggles to reflect on but I need to remember to relish the sweet spots too.

Principals Need Love Too

ImageI’m in a unique position as an educator.  During my 7 years teaching at my current school, I’ve had 5 principals.  It isn’t that the position is cursed, but that our principals go on to do even greater things.  However, going through these frequent changes has turned me into a skeptic and a pessimist.  That is something that needs to change.  I realized that though this year has been UBER tough for me, it must be just as hard (maybe even harder) for my newest principal.  I came across this post on a blog archive for principals and administrators.  It talks about three things that need to be reciprocated in order for the working environment to remain positive.  I was quick to blame administration when reading the first one but by the time I got to the last word, I had to point the finger at me.

The word that hit me the most was: Praise.  I don’t think I’ve ever doled out the gold stars for anything my principal has done.  BUT here’s the thing, I don’t think any other previous principal cared about students as much as my current principal does.  He honestly wants the school to be a GREAT place to learn, grow and belong.  He has so much passion for improving Deaf education.  He puts so much time and effort into establishing practices that will have long-term impact.  He’s excellent at getting other administrators to see his viewpoint and he spends a ridiculous amount of time having important conversations with the heads above to ensure that our department is not forgotten.  He’s often at school before I am and sometimes still there when I leave.  I have even gotten an email or two way into the midnight hours; I’m sure he spends those hours, after his kids go to bed, trying to catch up on e-mails.  He knows what it’s like to be a student in those halls and he knows that he has teachers who are able to rise to the occasion.   But I wonder if he’s ever heard a word of praise from us (and not just on administrator’s day).

Being a principal or administrator is not an easy job.  In fact, I don’t ever want the position.  There are a wide variety of personalities to manage.  There’s the push and pull between what the district administrators want and what teachers are able to do.  There are parents who want what’s best for their individual student, while my principal has to keep the entire student body at heart.  There is an ever changing list of legal mandates that interfere with expanding our vision. There is a community that constantly needs to be taught what it is we do at our school.  The list is endless.  I tip my hat off to our principal who manages to do the unimaginable with grace and humility.

It’s time my principal knew that though we may have developed a quiet tension between us, I honestly do believe we have a mutual respect for each other.   There may be times we don’t agree but standing with my hands on my hips will not sway the mountain.  I think if we can succeed at praise, then trust is not far behind.

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.