The first email came last week. The gentle reminder that Iowa Assessments will be coming up in February, and that regardless of how we personally feel about standardized tests, this is how we are judged by the state, and we need to prepare our students. I ignored it. Then today another email with links to practice tests to go over with our students when we come back in January. Harder to ignore.
I will say that up until yesterday, I was heading into the holiday break at full steam. I was not dragging much or sick of school or letting myself get overwhelmed with how much I need to accomplish before we let out on Tuesday the 23rd. And then, boom! Stress hit. I scrapped a lot of things I had planned in order to give proper time and attention to priorities, but it still feels like a mad rush.
We are still working with poetry in 8th grade. I know I've spent a lot of time on poetry in this blog, first with 7th grade, now with 8th graders. I swear that I teach other things, too! Today's post will focus more on the technology aspect of interacting with poetry.
I'm big on class participation because I'm an English teacher. We are a breed of people who love to talk, but I know that angsty middle school students aren't nearly as enamored with participation in class discussions as I am. So this week I've worked with a few ways for my kids to have discussions about poems without necessarily speaking out loud.
First, we held traditional class discussion with a Today's Meet backchannel displayed over the projector. While reading random poems from our literature anthology (I give them the page numbers and set them loose to find something they like), I encouraged students to participate at least once in the backchannel and verbally. It was nice to see some of my shy students active on Today's Meet, and how it progressed our traditional discussion, too.
I've used Today's Meet in a lot of professional development situations, but I hadn't used it with the kids, and now I'm kind of kicking myself for that. It's just too easy; why wouldn't you use it if you have a 1-to-1 situation? I need to remind myself that this should be a regular part of class discussions.
We are also using KidBlog to post about a poem we love this week. I set students free on the Poetry Foundation and Poetry 180 websites, and their goal was to find a poem that they loved. Their blog about it needed to include reflection on the content of the poem (this could cover any word choice or poetic elements), their interpretation of meaning, and a personal connection to the poem.
After posting, students need to comment on 3-5 other posts from peers. Commenters need to read the poem and then engage in thoughtful discussion with the poster and the poem via the comments section. This is always tricky and it's a sharp divide between students who really sink their teeth into the commenter role and have something to say, and those who are simply showing up. It's frustrating, but when I take a step back and think about it from a non-teacher perspective, how many times have I seen garbage posts on the internet from perfectly capable adults? It's the nature of the beast, I guess. If you want to check out the KidBlog, you can find it here: Hauptsteen LA KidBlog.
I'm content with the ways my students have been using technology to engage with poetry (and each other) this week. I'm looking forward to using my winter break time as more at-home personal professional development, especially after reading the latest Voices from the Middle with its focus on Blended Learning. I'm sure I'll be using that free time to post about my experiments here!
I make it pretty clear to anyone who's ever spoken to me that I love reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Of course I do; I'm an English teacher. But there's one aspect of my content that I don't talk about because I mostly definitely don't love it: grammar.
There are certainly aspects of grammar and usage that I'm a stickler for and consider unforgivable mistakes. Your versus you're? You betcha. You are either saying "you are" or you aren't. How hard is that? But for the most part, I find a lot of grammar asinine and grammar instruction even more so. This is probably because I grew up in the "Whole Language" school of thought, and I learned to write by loving to write. My writing might not be mechanically perfect, but it gets the job done, it brings me pleasure, and other people have enjoyed it on occasion, too.
My struggle as a language arts teacher is always trying to find ways to incorporate grammar. I know kids learn best be practical application of grammar skills in their own writing, but before that happens, they need to at least learn the skills and rules in order to know what they're even looking for. Since my students have iPads, I've been on the hunt for an app to practice grammar in an interactive way.
The first site I found via Pinterest last summer is NoRedInk. I love this site and the interaction it provides, along with the ease of use for students and teachers. The only problem is that my school district cannot afford the Premium version that allows access to everything, and the bits and pieces from each category that are free can be pretty random. I've used it so far this school year, but the free version is about exhausted from my point of view. I'm annoyed that we can't afford the full version, but it means that I'll have to find something new.
After reading the first article from December 2014's Voices from the Middle (NCTE shout out: if you aren't a member, you need to be!) I decided to look into Grammar Crush. The format and ease of use is similar to No Red Ink, and I like that it also has a free iPad app for my students. The only real way to know if it will work is to try it out and see if it works, which I'll do a little of this week before break, and then see if I can troubleshoot during time off.
In the meantime, I'll keep searching for sites and apps that support me in one of my areas of struggle. Maybe eventually I'll find the perfect tool that helps me (and my students) fall in love with grammar. Suggestions for FREE websites and apps are welcome!
Ten days since I've posted something here...that in itself shows how hectic things are right now. I don't think I've let this side of the blog go silent for that long since I started. And it's not that I don't have anything to say, it's just that everything has been moving so fast I haven't had time to sit down and write. My students have Free Write Fridays, so I'm extending that kindness to myself this morning as well.
The holidays are stressful for everyone, and it's the beginning of the December-February stretch of the school year that always seems to be the peak of frustration/depression/burnout for most teachers. You can tell we are in need of a time out from the little frustrations in order to refocus on what we do best. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else, even when I'm trying to remind myself to stay positive. Yesterday was a perfect exercise in reminding myself of why I do what I do.
I require one-on-one writing conferences with all of my students every six weeks (which means twice per trimester). They choose the agenda or issue and we talk about it. These range from editing help to brainstorming sessions to help with writing assignments for other classes. And while I genuinely believe that they do help my students to become better, more thoughtful and reflective writers, that's probably not the most important thing happening during these conferences. What I'm really doing when I sit down with kids is building relationships with every one of them. It gives me a few minutes to focus only on that kid, and to relax and have a casual conversation away from the sometimes-intimidating traditional classroom setting. It's also a time and scheduling nightmare for me, because I do all of these conferences outside of class time.
Mornings, my planning period, lunch, after school: writing conferences squeezed into every spare moment of my day. The stress from that can sometimes make me rethink why I'm doing this, why I'm sacrificing so much of my time during the day, which in turn leads to all of my grading and planning taking place at home, which means I have no life and a lot more stress.
And then I have a day like yesterday. One of my 8th grade boys who is highly at-risk missed his originally scheduled conference because of frequent absences. I didn't harass him about rescheduling because he is very much not someone who responds to typical teacher hounding behaviors. I didn't say a word. Yesterday he came to me and asked if he could stay after school to make it up. He asked to stay after school!
He did. We had his conference. He was my last of the day, so I walked down the hall with him to check my mailbox in the office as he was heading out the door to leave. And then he planted himself at the door and stayed to talk to me for ten more minutes about his favorite tv shows and our common interest in comic books.
I admit at first that my body language was very much trying to signal him that I was ready to end our conversation. We'd already had a conference and some chit chat, it was late, it's been a long week, I had friends coming over for dinner and the house was a mess. I even told him to have a good night after I thought we had wrapped things up, and as I started to turn, he said, "One more thing Mrs. Hauptsteen." And then we stood and talked some more because he was trying to convince me to start watching Arrow since I was a big fan of the Green Arrow comic books as a teenager and college kid. He was not keeping me there to talk about school; he was keeping me there to connect with an adult about something he enjoys in life.
I felt terrible that I'd tried to turn away from him and I forced myself to be present for the rest of the conversation, until he was done. It ended up being half an hour total. My principal and the secretary and a colleague saw this and could not believe their eyes and ears. This might have been more than anyone had ever heard him speak at once, and was certainly more pleasant than most of his interactions at school. Giving him that time might make school a little better for him, might make his life a little better in some tiny way, and it was a small sacrifice in time for me. I'm going to keep reminding myself in the week and a half leading up to break that those small inconveniences on my part can mean a huge difference to an impressionable kid, and I'll try to focus on them instead of the negative.
No more blog challenge means time to fill you in on what's going on in my classroom. In 8th grade, we've just started reading poetry. I like starting 8th graders with longer narrative poetry, to remind them that poems can tell a story, too, especially since we've just finished a NaNoWriMo unit in which they all got in touch with their inner novelists.
Today we read "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe, following yesterday's reading of "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. Both tragic love stories, giving us the perfect opportunity to talk about that emotion that drives us crazy. I try to get kids riled up when reading this passage from "Annabel Lee":
Those first three lines. Wow. Talk about relevant for teenagers no matter what era you grow up in. How many people don't feel the strength of young love, only to have it mocked or derided or ignored by older generations? I love talking about emotions with middle school kids, precisely because a lot of people don't want to go there. Teenagers are too irrational/hormonal/insert-derogatory-term-here.
I want my kids to stand up for themselves. I want them to stand up for their emotions. What right do adults have to tell them that their feelings aren't real? We don't tell people they aren't sad when they're crying. We don't tell people they don't know what pain is when they are suffering. So why, as adults, do we feel the need to mock teenagers in love and tell them that it's not love? How do we know? Yes, experience has taken many of us through various stages of love and relationships, but does that mean those early experiences don't count? That they weren't real? Then what the heck were they? What right do we have to label something as a "crush" instead of "love"? Shouldn't that be up to the person who's actually experiencing the feeling? Isn't he or she the only one with the true right to label his or her own emotions?
Often, I'm arguing with the kids at the beginning of these discussions. They've been fed the lines about teenagers being stupid and irrational so much, that they describe themselves that way: "We're too young," and, "We're too stupid." That's terrible, and it's entirely because of us adults. They learn that their feelings somehow don't matter because they don't have the experience we do. If their feelings don't matter, then what does matter? What are we teaching them about themselves? That the only people in a society who have a right to feel are adults? Bull. Teenagers have such powerful emotions, and we need to talk about them with them instead of discounting them at every opportunity.
I know a lot of my students haven't experienced love yet, but some have cut their teeth on it, and most will within the next few years. I want them to know that it matters, even if they're young and even if it doesn't last. I left my 8th grade classes today with the simple sentence, "Don't let other people tell you that your feelings don't matter just because you're young." I know this isn't the standard "analyze the poem" lesson that I probably should be teaching, but that's the beauty of teaching English. Close reading shouldn't be about making us better test-takers or students; it should be about making us better humans. Knowing that your thoughts and feelings matter will make you a better human faster than acing a test will.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.