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.

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.

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]

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.

Give Twitter a Chance

fear of twitterI have to admit, when I first heard of Twitter I thought it was just a place for people to gossip. When I first logged in, I felt like I got a dose of TMI facebook status messages on steroids. There was too much information that I DIDN’T want to read and hard to sift through all the mess to find things I DID want to read. Then I switched my Twitter account to “private” hoping that meant it would be easier to filter out what I didn’t want to read. Eventually, I stopped using Twitter, and stuck with my Facebook account where I could block nonsense and friend people who really mattered to me. What I didn’t understand was that Twitter and Facebook are two very different entities.

I love Facebook. It has brought me closer to friends and family members that I never had much of a chance to get to know growing up. Being deaf, I always felt as if I was missing out on much of the world–my whole life was a big “nevermind” when people couldn’t find the patience to communicate with me. Facebook has allowed me to share my world with those closest to me and for me to catch a glimpse of worlds I missed out on.

I have been begging a fellow tech-savvy colleague of mine to join me on Twitter. She doesn’t “get” the hullabaloo. What’s the big deal about Twitter? In looking for a good way to explain it to her, I developed this analogy: Facebook is like attending a reunion, Twitter is like attending a conference. Facebook is you, inside, letting as much or as little of the world into your neck of the woods. Twitter is you getting out of the house and joining the party. You don’t go to a party just to shut yourself in a room with a few select people trading Pinterest recipes and talking about the crappy instagram pictures you all took of your kids. Hence, making a private Twitter account is worthless. If you want privacy or intimacy, stick with Facebook.

Now that I’ve been on Twitter a bit more, I understand that I can choose which parties to attend (hashtags), zoom in on people who are making waves (@mentions) and strike up conversations “near” those people in a way that grabs their attention (RTs or multi-@mentions). You just have to find the right people to follow and the right hashtags to use. I’m developing a digital footprint that puts me on the map. I’m starting to make a contribution to my profession. Most importantly, I’m developing a network of professionals that continually feed my growth as an educator. This past fall I was ready to turn in my letter of resignation and don the blue Walmart apron. I was sinking fast and becoming burnt out. I also felt very frustrated and alone. Through Twitter, I have found myself and a new love for teaching.

On Twitter I found @ajoycetb and @naomishema who have invited me and my students to become global friends.  I found @guster4lovers and @thomasson_engl who make the world of teaching English through #coflip model seem highly attainable. I found @johntspencer and his blog always willing to openly and candidly discuss the more difficult aspects of the teaching profession. I found @techsavvyed who has simplified my use of technology by demonstrating true integration.   Cheryl, Andrew, Ben, and John have also ignited my inner writer (hence this blog) by being so open in their reflection of their teaching practices; they have reminded me why personal and professional reflection is important. There are so many wonderful teachers sharing on Twitter. There are also plenty of administrators giving us their side of the coin. I’m coming out of my shell and I no longer feel alone.

I recommend to all Twitter newbies that you start off by attending a “chat”. Some of my favorite chats are #engchat, #rechat, #flipclass and #txed. You can go to a site like tweetchat.com, type in your hash tag and simply follow along with the conversation. If you feel up to it, join in. Hash tag chats are a great way to find people to follow. If you want more people to follow you, then you’ve got to offer them something. Share links, swap quotes, retweet content.

I think teachers who are not yet connected are really missing out. I’ve gotten a lot of great ideas from my Twitter PLN (professional learning network). People post so much valuable information and share plenty of innovative ideas. Finding my way around Twitter has lead to the best professional development I have ever experienced. It has allowed me to embrace the failures and share my experiences with the world. So, give Twitter a chance; you might just find that coming to the party is a lot more fun than swapping Pinterest recipes!

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.