How have you changed as an educator since you first started?
How haven't I changed would probably take less time to answer, but I suppose I'll stick to the prompt. Anyone who has been reading this blog over the past 29 days could probably answer this question for me since I've included the theme of change in virtually every post I've written. I'll try to attack some different topics for this one.
It wouldn't be fair to think back on my first year of teaching without pausing in horror to remember how dreadful I was at any kind of classroom management. Let kids do what they want until it drives you nuts and then freak out by screaming at them once you've passed the breaking point? Seems legit. Balancing total lack of control with complete authoritarianism every few days isn't confusing at all, is it? There's a reason classroom management is a necessity, even if I wanted to ignore it and not be the teacher with all the rules; you can't accomplish the work of learning if there's no structure in place. My management mantra (stolen from a random Internet search) became "What you allow is what will continue." If I didn't want certain behaviors or actions to continue, then I shouldn't allow them to happen in the first place. Setting down a few basic ground rules at the beginning of the year didn't turn me into a dictator, it just made my boundaries clear. Kids respect that they know where they stand with me and most don't push it past the first few weeks. (And the mantra is applicable to pretty much any life situation.)
I'm more genuine, more real with my students than I was in those first few years. I'm 99% sure this was due to lack of confidence. I wanted them to like me, to validate me somehow as a person. That's not a fair burden to put on middle school kids. They have their own crap to deal with, and they're not here to make me feel better about myself (even though they often do). As confidence in my teaching grew (and let's face it: maturity as an adult) I worried less about being perfect and more about being real. My students generally tend to appreciate that I admit that I'm not always right or that I'm weird or insecure in many ways. I get to know kids better than I did in those first few years because I'm not trying so hard to be an idealized version of a teacher; I'm just the me version of a teacher.
I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating because it's so fundamental to my class now: I can't believe I never used to write with my students. I spent so much time telling them how or what to write, and I gave carefully crafted examples that I perfected behind closed doors, but I never wrote with them. I lost touch of the difficulties of the writing process, the intricacies involved. I forgot the pleasure involved with writing, too. The satisfaction of revision, the frustration with editing: all of it. I'm a happier teacher when I write with my kids, and it reinforces for them that I know what I'm talking about.
The most important change might simply be that I've grown up since my first years of teaching. I was 23 when I started this career. Twenty-three! It's a frightening thing to go from being a college kid with an irregular schedule and lack of responsibility to being a "role model" for future generations. I said dumb stuff. I did dumb stuff. I didn't appreciate or realize the power and influence I had. There was no way to change that other than for me to live and mature, and I'm maybe after nine more years of teaching I'll look back on this time and think some of the same things about the way I am now (although hopefully the instances of stupidity will be fewer). We'll see. I'll have to grow up more to reflect on how maturity eventually impacts my career. Maybe it won't even be an issue in later years. Maybe I'll never grow more sophisticated than I am now. I'm okay with that for now.
Should technology drive curriculum, or vice versa?
Technology is an educational tool. A super-awesome-amazing tool, but a tool nonetheless. Unless you're teaching a technology class, then it should be used to support and expand the curriculum rather than being the curriculum. I don't like the idea of using technology in the classroom just to use it; it needs to have a purpose and it has to add to the learning environment or make learning more accessible for students in some way. I am particularly in awe of one of my colleagues in our Special Ed department and the phenomenal opportunities and supports she has been able to provide by using technology to its full potential.
I was wary when my school first got iPads. There was a lot of excitement, with some of us thinking it would somehow make certain problems disappear. I was caught up in this, too. Everyone has a device, so no one will have any reason not to have a typed final copy! Except they're middle school kids. Someone always has a reason not to do something, even if the reason is just that he didn't feel like it. Yes, I can post video lessons and link tutorials for my students to access whenever they need extra help. Does that mean they watch and follow the videos when they need to? Not all of them. Like any other tool, the operator has to want to use it in order to benefit.
I try to find apps and websites that make what I do easier. Easier for me to stay organized, to make my classes more efficient, for the kids to get excited about what we're doing. I don't look for apps just to say that I used tech in my class today.
*Can you tell my heart is just not in this post today? I'm not sure if it's fatigue; I mean, it is Day 28 of the challenge, and burnout from sticking to the prompts is rearing its head again. I also have stacks of papers to get to, which I've put off all weekend. A grueling ten mile training run in abnormal late-September heat has zapped my energy today and thinking of something reflective to say about technology just isn't enough to get me excited. I want a nap, some snacks, a book, and to ignore my teaching responsibilities for just a little bit longer (until last-minute Sunday night panic sets in).
What are your three favorite go-to sites for helps/tips/resources in your teaching?
(It's our Homecoming tonight and instead of playing an easy team, we're going up against #1 in our conference, so I'm going to keep this brief. Yes, me, brief.)
This site is a joint venture by NCTE and the IRA (the reading IRA). I like the search feature where I can put in keywords and see lesson plan ideas that pop up or just search by grade level. I usually check readwritethink.org for supplements to see if anyone has posted anything interesting related to units I'm currently planning.
I think webenglishteacher.com was the first site I really "discovered" in my first year of teaching. I stumbled upon via random Google search (and I'm still a big fan of those, by the way) and I check in every once in a while to see what's new. I love that it compiles links to various sites and resources by topic.
Is it cliche that I use Pinterest for school ideas? Do I care if it is? There's a reason this site is so popular and that's because it's a great database for a little bit of everything. I've stumbled on a lot of eclectic writing ideas by connecting with blogs through Pinterest that would have been impossible for me to find otherwise.
Three sites I need to use more often:
Sorry to say, it wasn't until finding out about this blogging challenge that I realized some of the awesome content teachthought.com provides for educators. An entire section on their page for iPads in the classroom? Why am I not broadcasting this to every teacher in my building? I need more time with this one for sure.
Kevin was our beginning of the school year PD speaker this year, and he's awesome. His site is chaotic, but there's a lot of great tools there if you take the time to navigate through (which I've only just begun to do). I'm especially attracted to the "Free Tools You Can Use Tomorrow" link from his main page because a) teachers love free stuff, and b) I'm impatient and like to put new ideas to use right away.
Yes, I am embarrassingly late and reluctant to use the Twitter thing, but I know that's where voices in education are sharing and linking ideas in real time. I'm just not sure how to incorporate it as a useful tool without being another time suck in my daily life.
So there they are. Any others I should add to my never-ending list? Now, if only I had some extra time to take full advantage of the potential of each of these sites...
The ideal collaboration between students--what would it look like?
Which learning trend captures your attention most and why?
Project-based learning is the trend that seems most tailor-made for language arts since it requires an authentic purpose and audience. As teachers, most of us also have the ultimate goal of preparing our students for the wider world in some way, and PBL brings the real world to the forefront. The key issue for me in this area is dealing with that idea of authenticity.
As I discussed yesterday, I've struggled with involving the community in my classroom. If I'm not actively including the outside population in my classroom, then how authentic are the opportunities I'm giving my students? I'm thinking about Allison's advice to me from yesterday, about having students find an "expert" reader from the community for their research papers. This dovetails nicely with PBL since an authentic project would require an authentic audience.
I'm often guilty of automatically shutting down ideas since I teach in a small town and there aren't as many resources immediately available as people might find in larger cities. I'm going to have to call bullsh*t on myself for that one. I'm sure there are plenty of connections I could be making for my students in my community, and I've just been too focused on my classroom to seek out other avenues. In fact, I bet if I really put my energy toward it, I could allow my students to create some rockin' PBL ideas that could benefit our towns (my district pulls from a land area that include many small communities). And since they are so small, the chances that my students' PBL presentations (or whatever final product they produce) would have an impact might be far greater than in a large community.
So here we have it again. Two days in a row when this blogging challenge has forced me to look at major areas of inadequacy. It's a lot less satisfying to write about these topics when I feel weak, which means it's something I need to spend more time confronting. I can't ask my students to step out of their comfort zones every day if I'm not willing to do the same.
Write about one way you "meaningfully" involve the community in the learning in your classroom. If you don't yet do so, discuss one way you could get started.
I used to do a poetry reading for 8th grade classes at the local coffee shop. They had a basement stage that was perfect, and parents and community members packed in to see their kids perform original poetry. It was amazing and nerve-wracking and an authentic and entertaining opportunity for my poets and their loved ones. A few kids even boldly used the opportunity to express feelings they'd never admitted to their parents before. But the coffee shop closed down their basement operation, so I haven't tried to do it there anymore. Reading today's prompt made me feel those guilt pangs again...that feeling in my stomach when I encounter areas where I'm failing as a teacher. I don't involve the community enough in my classroom. Aside from the poetry, I've never really reached out for something that's only my class (we do school-wide community outreach all the time). My students create content for our online school "newspaper" but I don't consider that involving the community as much as it is simply placing work out there for those who wish to read it.
I talked before on this blog about how I want to experiment this year with using Lulu.com (or some other self-publishing website) to create an anthology of student writing each year. I'm wondering if that might also be a way for me to connect to the community. Maybe I could release copies of the book for sale, or hold a public reading for those who might be interested?
Maybe I could contact the local newspaper about including creative writing content from my classes in issues once in a while. A kind of "writer of the month" type of thing? I guess I could always ask. It's not like rejection is going to harm anything.
I know I've read articles in the past where English teachers have brought in community members as responders or readers for student writing. I wonder how this would or could work in my classroom? Maybe I could set up some kind of response group of adults from the community that could anonymously respond to student work to give them more of an audience without creating panic over who's looking at their work?
I would love to hear what other English teachers do to meaningfully involve the community in their classrooms as opposed to just sharing out what we have done recently in newsletter format. It's definitely a weak area for me as a teacher and I want to know what others do to strengthen this connection. If nothing else, now I have some ideas floating around, and that's always the beginning of something new.
What does your PLN look like, and what does it do for your teaching?
Do you have any other hobbies/interests that you bring into your classroom teaching? Explain.
I bring pretty much all of my hobbies and interests into my classroom. Since I write while my students are writing, that means they have to see the things I write about. I'm showing them how to pick topics based on what they care about, so I model for them with the hobbies, interests, and issues that I care about. While there are definitely topics that wouldn't be appropriate for me to bring up, I try to show as much of myself as possible to the kids. Most of them appreciate that I'm a real person, with real passions outside of the classroom. Bringing your interests into the classroom can help forge bonds with kids you might not otherwise reach.
My students know I frequently travel, and I share some of the writings from my travel journals with them. I do this for many reasons, but it mainly comes back to location. I teach and live in rural Iowa, and a large number of my students are living in poverty. Some of them have never been outside our state, and are rarely even able to leave the town they live in. I don't talk about world travel to make them jealous; I talk about it to open their minds. I want them to see the world from the perspective of someone they know, to encourage them to go out and seek adventure when they're older.
I stress to them that I didn't come from a family with money, and that I've worked hard to earn where I am in life. I make sacrifices to be able to achieve my travel dreams, and I share these stories so they know that hard work isn't just about getting good grades in school, or finding a job: it's about your future happiness, your entire life. Good things and achieving goals don't just magically happen; it takes effort and dedication.
I also share with my students my fears. I'm terrified of heights, but I climbed through the Andes Mountains anyway, because regularly confronting our fears makes us better human beings. My students often think I'm crazy (isn't the English teacher always crazy?), and I'm okay with that. I want them to see someone who isn't perfect or fearless or untouchable.
Sometimes sharing my passion with students helps them find passions of their own. My kids see me running through the countryside all the time, and they know when I'm in training. They've started signing up for more local races because they know I'll be there, and it's something special we can experience together. The fast ones like to make sure they can beat me, and the slower ones just want my high five at the end and to know that I'm proud they ran. I've encouraged a lot of of girls to run their first 5k, and that's something that could stick with them their entire life. Many of them have dreams for 10k's and Half Marathons because I talk about how thrilling they are to participate in. Creating a lifelong passion for running could have way more impact on their lives than anything I taught them regarding my content area. If I can use my position as a teacher to make a healthy lifestyle seem cool, then I'm going to take advantage of that opportunity.
So yes, I always share my hobbies and interests with my students. I even received hate mail from a parent for it once, telling me to stop talking about real life and focus on reading and writing. But reading, writing, speaking, and listening are how we express and reflect on what happens in life, the shared experiences of human existence that let us know we're not alone. What kind of English teacher would I be if I tried to separate life from language?
How do you curate student work--or help them do it themselves?
This is something I've done differently for every year I've been a teacher. I've tried various ways to do portfolios throughout the years, but I just never found a way that really worked for me without being too much of dictator: Your portfolio MUST include these 5,000 items! I slip into dictator mode real easy. So I stopped doing that.
For the past two years, I've put the choice entirely into my students' hands. Here's the thing: as writing teachers, we don't assign enough writing. Most of us (myself included) focus on the BIG paper/essay/whatever and attach a BIG grade when we hand it back. The frustrations with this are endless: a ton of papers all due (and therefore all need to be graded at once), same assignment = piles of the same paper rewritten at various levels of success, not to mention that writers are rarely motivated by writing that doesn't give them enough freedom. This was leading to major burnout, so last year I went away from it. Yes, in class my students learn how to do the same genres of writing and the basics of their content, but I don't collect these papers. Most of them I never even read, except quick glances over their shoulders while walking through the aisles. I'm exposing them to all kinds of writing, but I'm not forcing a panic-inducing grade on all of it.
My students have one "Weekly Writing" due every Friday. Any genre, any topic, as long as they show variety for both on a week-to-week basis. Weekly writings are not graded for errors, and my response to them is minimal (usually non-verbal) so they can get back in the authors' hands immediately and add to their folders of collected work. Students can turn in the papers we've worked on in class if they are completed, but they don't have to (most don't- they choose to write something new). The balance between in-class writing and weekly writings mean that my kids are constantly creating a ton of rough draft writing. Every two weeks they take one through personal revision, every three to four weeks they bring something to the table for peer response. This gives them a huge bank of already-started pieces to refine.
Each trimester, I require one final-level paper of the student's choice. There are some restrictions: for example, if a student wants to do poetry, it needs to be a collection rather than a single poem. But the only major caveat is that it has to be what the author considers her best work, and she has to be able to explain why. Students write a "Dear Reader" letter to me stating their purpose for the piece, their particular strengths/why they chose it, areas of struggle, and questions for me regarding the particular work. These finals are the high-stakes writing in my class. Students get a letter back where I focus on what I perceived as their strengths, areas to work on, and answer their questions. These letters have quickly turned into a student favorite, something many of them put in their folders for parent conferences.
I've found that students are more careful when they have this freedom of choice. When they know I'm going to dig deep into something they've chosen as best, most of them invest more energy into the process. And since it's a topic and genre they choose, it allows me to see a) huge variety (minimal grading boredom!), and b) stuff they're actually proud of instead of something from a checklist. In order to see variety, each trimester final has to be in a different genre on a different topic. This goes a long way toward creating writers who are their own best evaluators. This goes hand-in-hand with reflection on learning; you have to reflect on the work you've done and the progress you've made in order to decide what you think is the best writing you have. Some decide they don't have anything amazing enough and create something entirely new. Some schedule a writing conference with me to ask advice between a few different pieces (I'm a fan of pro/con lists for tough decisions, so we do that together). Many of them start thinking about their next finals on the first day of the new trimester.
I'm happier with this process than anything I've tried in the past, and I know I've seen growth in my students because they're writing more, but not constantly being "punished" with a harsh grade. Freedom of choice goes a long way with earning trust from teenagers, and most of them take advantage by stepping up their game.
Name three powerful ways students can reflect on their learning, then discuss closely the one you use most often.
Teaching language arts lends itself to constant reflection, so this prompt is a little difficult for me. Sometimes I feel like all we do in class is reflect. The three main ways students reflect on their learning in my class are writing about it (obviously), talking about it (either through discussion or real life application), and creating a visual (or performance) to represent their learning.
This 8th grade girl reflected on her learning verbally this morning:
She flew into my room first thing shouting, "Hauptsteen, I did it!" My first response was something sarcastic along the lines of wondering if she'd actually completed her homework on time. She proceeded to explain that she had used "well" instead of "good" when another adult inquired about her health this morning, and that she knew it was the first time she had ever used it correctly because we had just gone over it in class yesterday. She brought me a flower she picked on her way to school (to match the one she picked for herself) and we decided that a selfie was appropriate to celebrate the momentous occasion. (She actually completed her homework on time, too, which was a major bonus.) I was puffed up with pride that not only had she been able to apply what we'd learned so soon, but also that she was so darn excited about it she had to tell me immediately.
This is one of the reasons I love talking with kids about their learning. It's fun to see them work it through and be able to apply it. It's one of the reasons I enjoy writing conferences so much. To be able to sit and have a conversation over a new skill or strategy is one of my favorite parts of teaching. It's something kids are proud to do; they want to talk about it when they learn something new, when they finally get it. Sometimes I get so bogged down with all of the other parts of my job that I forget how awesome it is that I get to talk to young teens every day. They are some of the most fascinating people in the world. Yes, middle schoolers can be immature, and mean, and drive me nuts. But they're full of emotions and opinions, and sometimes their perspective (and company) is more refreshing than being around adults because the conversation is so raw and visceral. (Remember, I'm awkward with social situations. Adolescent social interaction is perfect for those of us who suffer from this problem. No one is more awkward than 7th and 8th graders.)
But talking doesn't work for everyone. Some kids need other ways to reflect on a poem we've read or a new piece of writing they had to create, so many of them choose to do written reflections. These reflections are often where I learn the most about myself as a teacher and my students as learners. They inform the changes I need to make before I teach a lesson again next year (or if I decide to never teach it again). They allow me to pry into my students' heads and see what specifically was difficult that I need to address, or if I'm not challenging them enough. Written reflections are invaluable teacher-student interaction. While I find more joy in verbal reflection, I use written more often so I can reach every student, not just the exuberant ones.
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.