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.

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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.