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.

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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.

To Grade or Not to Grade…Is that the Question?

I recently read a fabulous article by a middle school principal who is asking very important questions about what grading should look like.  Make sure you read the entire article!  I had originally planned to write my own two cents, but then the title of this post popped into my head.  I started to think, could I actually take Hamlet’s soliloquy and create a monologue of my own about grading?  So without further ado….

“To Grade Or Not To Grade”: Based on Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

To grade, or not to grade: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous assignments,
Or to take arms against a sea of percentages,
And by opposing end them? To grade: to rank;
No more; and by a rank to say we favor
The brown-nosing and the thousand plagiarized words
That students are heir to, ’tis not a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To grade, to quantify;
To measure: perchance to learn: ay, there’s the rub;
For in the quantification of grades what learning can be measured
When we have marked the book with but a single letter,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long an education;
For who would bear the scorns of measuring mastery,
The staggering standards, the proud parents’ aspirations,
The pangs of planning differentiated instruction, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and standardized testing
That overturns our plot for individualized pacing,
When teacher might find it easier to mark
With a simple letter grade? who would bear the risk,
To grunt and sweat under weary planning,
But that the dread of no quantifiable data,
The undiscover’d country from which it is believed that
No student passes, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear what makes us comfortable
Than to risk a change of which we have no guarantee?
Thus holding fast to gradebooks makes cowards of us all;
And thus our natural desire to do what’s best for children
becomes weak with over thinking
Mastery should be considered but gets misdirected

and stops being the purpose of a grade at all.

From Celebration to Participation

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I receive the ASCD Smart Brief newsletter every so often.  Today this article  jumped out at me.  I was drawn to the title:

Are We Creating a Generation of Observers?

This is a good question and although I struggled to understand most of his smaller points, I want to see if I can summarize his message:

We celebrate things like “Black History Month” or “Deaf History Month” in an effort to educate students about our (their) history and hopefully tie it to the present; however, these celebrations often result in a rehashing of the same information each year.  When students hear the same stories every year about Martin Luther King Jr or Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, they do not draw from it a sense of purpose; they don’t see the relevance.  Why do we celebrate Black History Month? It can’t simply be “lest we forget.”   Is there a way for us to take a celebration and create an experience that allows students to celebrate themselves rather than simply observe the celebration of others?  Can we push students to take history and make history?  Can we convince students to use celebration to bring about true social change?

My students are about to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but first I’m having them research the time period to get a better sense of the setting and themes  in the novel.  Many of my students had not seen or heard of Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education or they had on a very superficial level (oh that was featured in our textbook or on a poster somewhere).  I was completely shocked by this.  When we began discussing the separation of blacks and whites during that time period, I was struck by how apathetic my students were.  They get that it was hard, they get that life sucked for black people back then, but it wasn’t relevant. They might as well have asked, “What does that have to do with me?”  And they are right, we don’t spend any amount of time answering that question.  We simply expect that they will show respect for a history that has made certain freedoms possible.

That doesn’t mean that the history that students are currently living in isn’t without it’s own obstacles to overcome.  My students are deaf and hard of hearing.  They are constantly being encouraged (and in some cases drilled) to have a sense of “Deaf Pride” and “Deaf Empowerment” but the image they are encouraged to portray is based on a historical definition of what it means to be Deaf.   Our students live in a world where cochlear implants are becoming the norm, more and more hard of hearing students are joining schools for the deaf, students have mixed language abilities that include Sign Language, spoken English, and in some cases a blend of home languages or sign systems (Spanish, SEE, creoles, etc.).  My students also come from a variety of cultures and ethnicities.  Students are unsure of who they are or what labels they want to attach to themselves. Shouldn’t they be the ones to define their own self pride?

I am reminded of when I was in high school.  I grew up around white people with very little exposure to the black community.  I often got picked on about this and was often told that I wasn’t “black” enough.  I was expected to label myself as black, but being bi-racial, I was also white.  I wasn’t allowed to recognize this part of myself, doing so meant I was somehow disrespecting my black side.  However, during black history month, I felt the power of the message more than my friends on both sides of the coin because it hit me that without the struggles fought during the civil rights movement, I would not have been born.  This relevance has made the celebration more valuable, I felt valuable in my light skin and I wanted to make a contribution to society.

Perhaps we should spend more time celebrating our students as they are. I’m not saying give up Black History month or Deaf History month, but instead find ways to make it relevant and purposeful.   While it’s nice that students look back in history and can identify who invented the cotton gin, perhaps it’s more important that we tell students that right here and now YOU matter-right here and now you can make a difference. How else will we build the Martin Luther Kings of the future?

Should We Define the 21st Century Learner?

This buzz word has been grating on my nerves recently. I’m sure I’ve used it in twitter chat euphoria; however, after thinking about it, I don’t understand the logic behind the moniker.  When I look at a list of supposed “21st century learning” competencies or skills, I often see things like: critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, communication, global citizenship, and technology/media literacy.  I’m forced to ask, why are these skills relegated to the 21st century learner? Are these competencies really that new?  They certainly aren’t innovative.  It seems to me that good teaching has held these skills as valuable competencies for at least since I entered kindergarten over 30 years ago (including preparing students for future technological advancements–though “technology” may have had a different label back then).  I’m not sure why the advent of the iPad and other mobile technology suddenly makes for overhauling pedagogy.

I think there needs to be a discussion about best practices and not on defining and labeling learners in the predictive sense.  Developing best practices requires us to look at the learner on an individual basis and adapt instruction accordingly.  We don’t need blanketed cookie-cutter curricula claiming to be the academic elixir for the so-called 21st century kid.  We definitely shouldn’t be shoving technology down students’ throats simply because “they should know this stuff by now!”  Skilled teachers know that every year we usher in a new blend of students that will ultimately change how we approach instruction.   Master teachers also know that technology should be approached as a tool to support curriculum and not the foundation by which we build curriculum.  I’m not alone in my thinking either.  I was happy to find this post.  The author summarizes my thoughts exactly:

I’m not particularly bothered by a murky vision of the future ahead, or the prospect of making it all up as we go along–curriculum, instruction, technology use, learning goals and prioritized skills. You can (and probably will) interpret that as typically muddle-headed eduspeak, but truly proficient teachers adjust the parameters of their practice constantly, to fit the unique students in their class, the resources available and, sometimes, the day’s headlines. Planning blind is sometimes part of an effective change process. And sniping over an exact delineation of what 21st century learners need is more about the snipers than the students.

Are today’s students different from yesterday’s students? Yes. Do we need to adjust instructional methods to reflect that change? Yes.  Is this an innovative concept? I should hope not!  I’m not against finding innovative ways to meet the needs of current and future students.  I am against labels that serve to pigeonhole an entire century’s worth of students present and future under one brand. I think our students deserve better.

Forgetting Everything is All Right

I’ve been sitting staring at this blank post for over four hours thinking about how I would approach my next blog topic.  This week’s various Twitter topics (as well as a post by fellow blogger @mssackstein) have all lead me to contemplate one recurring theme:  FEAR.  I have a masochistic relationship with Fear.  When risk is involved, I happily let fear hold the reigns of self-doubt.  I’m not much of a risk taker, never have been.  My brain has a habit of checking off all the reasons why something is not possible or why failure is imminent (Failure Expected And Received).   The actual act of delving into an unknown is physically stressful for me.  I spend every waking moment in Finding Excuses And Reasons.  My brain literally throbs from deconstructing all available routes, attempting to calculate the most successful path to a destination as if it could ever be a personal GPS.   However, I do not avoid risk at all costs, especially when it comes to my students.  I have constantly put myself out there and changed my teaching practices in efforts to better serve my students.  I feel this is a good thing, but I often run the gamut of perpetual stages of worry.  Am I doing the right thing?  Are my students truly learning?  Should I even be a teacher?  This panic (False Emotions Appearing Real) that I am desperately clinging to on a daily basis is what keeps me from becoming a truly effective teacher and advancing in my career.  There is a serious need for me to get out of my relationship with fear.

A side effect of my constant Frantic Effort to Avoid Reality is a negative reflection of the self.  So instead of spending this post harping on the multitude of flaws that seem to continuously re-purpose themselves in my mind, I believe I need to share some of the positive things that I do in my classroom.  It is time for me to be OK with occasional bragging. So, without further ado, here are some projects that I’ve had success with in my classes.

Nickel and Dimed Webquest: after reading a few excerpts from the book Nickel and Dimed, students were thrown into the world of the minimum wage worker.  They had to complete tasks such as: finding a job they were currently qualified to do (assuming the role of recent HS grads), finding an apartment, keeping a budget, figuring out transportation, paying bills, buying groceries, etc.  They also had to keep a daily journal of each activity including: describing what a day at work looks like, describing their living arrangements, sharing quick/frugal recipes, etc.  They also had to write a resume and cover letter, and fill out mock job applications.  I plan to do this webquest again this year after spring break and will have students BLOG rather than keep handwritten journals.  I would also like to add “SMH” cards that throw a wrench in daily living (such as getting sick, getting wallet stolen, car breaks down, etc.) and having them write about how they would overcome these issues.

Multi-Genre Writing Project: (idea taken from Tom Romano’s Multi-Genre Research Project) Student choose a novel from a list of traditional literature although students could do the project with any self-selected text.  They are to read the novel independently and create a folio of multi-genre writing that illustrates the themes in the novel as well as provides readers with an opportunity to experience the novel without actually reading it.  The goal was that their final product would be something that could be left in the library as a way to encourage readers to check out the book.  Their final product should contain: a letter to the reader (giving a short book talk or a 1 page introduction to the contents of the project), an author bio, additional entries that demonstrates at least 7 different genres (poem, interview, game directions, menu, news article, etc.), a bibliography and notes page.  I even create a multi-genre project along with my students.  You can view the Alice in Wonderland project I did several years ago (yes it’s all my own writing and I enjoyed writing along side my students for this project!).

Class Magazine Project:  I mentioned this in a previous post.  I do this project absolutely every year for senior spring final project.  They love it, I love it, and the whole school looks forward to the annual editions.  Students run the whole show, writing all of the content, designing the layout and even creating their own advertisements.  The project begins with applying for editor positions.  Editors become the leaders and run pitch meetings where the rest of the class pitches their ideas for content.  Students are sent out around campus wearing press badges and collecting stories.  They write content and submit drafts to copy-editors who make any edits.  Final drafts are sent to layout editors who fit them into the magazine.  After content is written, students work in groups to create advertisements that compliment the articles they wrote.  My husband, a professional photographer, is “hired” to do the shoot.  He treats students exactly like he would a real client and students must have story board idea of the advertisement before showing up to the shoot.  Students also must supply all props and the product for the shoot.  Husband does shoot with some post-production, then images are sent back to groups for the final advertisement layout.  Students must create every aspect of the magazine from the cover,  masthead and index right down to the little details such as folio and cutlines.

NANOWRIMO: for those of you who haven’t tried this with your students, give it a try.  It’s one month (November) and it will really get the writing juices flowing for both you and your students.  This was a BIG deal for my students who constantly complain about having to write 500 words or more.  My students were not able to do the full 50,000 words but getting them to do 2,500 word stories was worth all the pre-planning.  Students worked so hard and were very creative with their stories.  Even if I didn’t join the program, I’d do something like this again with my students.

Retelling Shakespeare: My students know me as the Shakespeare Queen.  I LOVE Shakespeare and work very hard to pass the love onto my students.  We get all up into Shakespeare from learning about his background to doing reader’s theater with his plays.  I often have students read adaptions of the play and watch movie adaptions as well.  After seeing many different ways that Shakespeare has been interpreted, I ask students to create their own interpretation of a single scene from the play.  They create their own movie adaptions and it is so much fun to see what they have come up with.  One year I had students adapt Macbeth using characters from Harry Potter (talk about text to text connections!)

These are the projects that help me remember that I AM a good teacher and can be when I let go of FEAR.  So when you’re faced with a difficult year and feel undeserving of any accolades, take a look back at some of you favorite activities with your students.  Take time to reflect on the things you do well.  Everyone has flaws but indeed we all also have strengths.  Building on your strengths and don’t Forget, Everything is All Right.

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.

 

Nurturing the Mindful Digital Citizen

johntspencer-twitter-quote-DC John Spencer posed a wonderful topic for #rechat saturday morning (feb 23rd).  The discussion lead to whether or not we should distinguish between digital citizenship and everyday run-of-the-mill citizenship.  Most agreed that there really wasn’t much of a difference between the two other than WHERE citizenship happens.  What became more difficult was defining citizenship. John Spencer tried to get participants to go beyond the simple “be nice to each other” definition that frequents citizenship lessons.  He believes that good citizenship is not about “playing nice” but instead encompasses ethics, critical thinking skills, and autonomy.

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I would like to go a step further with his definition and say that being a good citizen requires a state of constant mindfulness.  Teenagers have a hard time stepping out of their own first-person point of view (to make a video game analogy).  They aren’t equipped with a natural ability to step outside of themselves to view how their actions affect other people.  This takes time to develop and requires a nurturing environment.  Good citizens acknowledge diversity, engage in honest inquiry, act on ethical decisions, and make mindful contributions to society.   We don’t want to create students who parrot the actions/reactions of others (whether it be kindness or malevolence).  We want students to be able to make their own decisions and be conscious of how their decisions affect them as well as others.  We do want them to act out of kindness, but not because social norms tell them to do so, but because they understand the positive effects of benevolence.

So, how does this translate to digital citizenship?  We want students to be able to question content placed on the internet.  We don’t want them to accept information at face value.  We want them to understand that information on the internet has permanence and multiplicity.  We want them to learn to dissect, sift and sort through information to help them expand their vocabulary, broaden their viewpoints, and develop their own values.  We want students to understand the value in using information to explore and support their own ideas, but we also want them to respect the effort that went into making that content readily available to them.  Most importantly, we want them to be able to add meaningful content to the world-wide web.

As an English teacher, it becomes increasingly difficult to get my students to understand plagiarism and why I believe that it is wrong.  Plagiarism is so rampant on the internet that it is difficult for my students to do the right thing when it comes to respecting copyright.  Intentional copyright infringement is not only profuse on the internet, but teachers frequently break copyright law in the name of “fair use”.  Teachers seem to misunderstand or are not educated on true fair use guidelines as it applies to educators.  Even if we are creating content for educational use, we should model appropriate citations on worksheets, PowerPoint/Keynote Presentations, and handouts.  I don’t think teachers realize the true legal repercussions of plagiarizing and are putting students in jeopardy for ignoring the opportunity to teach students about TRUE fair use and creative commons licenses.  For those of you unsure of what fair use for educators truly means, check out the copyright guidelines from the United States Copyright office.  This PDF File presents the law specifically as it relates to teachers and librarians.  If you want something a bit easier to read, try this chart from the Know Your Rights brochure disseminated by the Association of Research Libraries.  Most importantly, teachers should continually look for content within the creative commons (you may also get creative commons licensed materials from Global Grid For Learning).  Websites like Wikipedia, Google, Flickr all curate creative commons content that is searchable.  Teachers who create their own content should consider sharing this content with creativecommons.org.

Our students are frail sponges absorbing the world around them.  If we want our students to become conscious, mindful digital citizens, teachers must also be mindful digital citizens aware of the digital footprints they leave for students to follow.  To take a quote from Shakespeare:

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

[Emilia’s monologue, Othello, act IV scene iii]

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.