What does your PLN look like, and what does it do for your teaching?
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.
What do you think is the most challenging issue in education today?
Let's be clear about one thing, there are many challenging issues in education that I could choose to talk about on any given day. I'm not sure that any one thing qualifies as the most challenging since everything in education overlaps and works (or doesn't work) together. Instead of picking this as the biggest problem, I'm focusing on one issue that frustrates me.
Standardized testing. I hate it. And the more years I teach, the more it disturbs me. I'm not completely anti-standards (although I find the Core lacking in many ways). I think it's a good thing to generally have a consensus on what we want students to be able to accomplish during their educational years, but I have a big problem with more testing as being the answer on how to measure that.
I attended the IAMLE (Iowa Association of Middle Level Educators) conference with my school during my first year of teaching. The keynote speaker was enthusiastic and motivating, wowing the masses with stories of how his simple strategies for helping with test-taking were able to turn failing schools into successful ones. He stressed the need for kids to practice testing in order to prepare them for the standardized tests they'd be encountering later in the year. It all made so much sense under the spell of his smooth voice: how can kids test well if they aren't used to testing on a regular basis? More testing equals better test takers! And that's when I started to feel sick. I was only a first year teacher, not confident enough to speak up or go against what so many other people seemed to agree with, but it seemed fundamentally wrong. I mean, I got into this gig to share my passion for reading and writing with others, and to help them develop those skills for themselves. Nowhere in that vision did I set out to create successful test-takers.
The problems with increased testing are endless. Doesn't more testing mean less time for new learning? In the past few years, my school has also noticed a dramatic spike in the amount of kids who have severe anxiety. While a lot of factors contribute to that, and I've never conducted formal research to connect the two, you can't tell me that at least some of that anxiety isn't connected to frequent timed, high-stakes tests. Who decided that tests are even the best way to evaluate student ability? Hmmmm...testing companies, maybe? What happened to enjoying books and reading for pleasure, without having to take endless AR quizzes over them for comprehension? What about reading books you're interested in, instead of being forced to read something just because you tested in a certain lexile?
And what about the real world, the people who hire the students we are sending out into the world? Do they tell us, "What we're really looking for are future workers who score well on multiple choice tests!" No. They tell us they need workers who can think outside the box and create new products and ideas. Personally, I was an exceptional test-taker in school and always scored well (and actually kind of enjoyed them). And you know what? Beyond high school, nobody knows or gives a rip that I scored in the 99% percentile. Those scores had no bearing on my life or my future success.
Here's something that matters more than tests:
A seventh grade girl brought this "book worm" hand-knitted bookmark to my room this morning. She's selling them to raise money because she can't afford a costume for the performance she wants to do at the end of the year lip-sync show (more on that some other time). So she came up with the idea to make and sell these book worms for $2.50 to raise money for the costume she wants. I had to buy one. I won't use it as a bookmark (I prefer to dog-ear pages and leave my books in sporadic "tent" formations), but I had to support a student who would take the initiative and start working toward a goal that is eight months away (especially when eight months = eternity in kid time). Don't you think this is the kind of thinking we need more of? Someone who confronts a problem with a clever solution and puts it into action? I have no idea what her test scores look like, but I know from this that she'll be a productive, thoughtful member of society someday. Maybe if we spent less time on testing she'd be exposed to more thoughts and ideas to ignite more creative inspiration.
My 7th graders were in peer response groups for the first time this year today. It's always rough the first few times, trying to get them to be productive and on-task and helpful to each other. It's worth it eventually because language is transactional. Readers need writers to provide material, authors need an audience, speakers need listeners; language is not something that can be done in isolation. Standardized testing forgets that, which is why it doesn't work for language. Filling out bubbles about language doesn't equate to the ability to actually apply that knowledge. The only thing that will correctly represent students' true abilities, is the act of engaging in learning and authentic evidence of that learning, not a test that's specifically designed to confuse them about things they haven't even had a chance to learn yet.
Name three strengths you have as an educator.
What is feedback for learning, and how well do you give it to students?
How do you envision your teaching changing over the next five years?
I can't begin to answer this question without looking back at the past five years to see how much I've changed in that relatively short period of time. So for today, a brief timeline of the last five years.
2009: My fourth year as teacher. No longer making the horrendous, embarrassing, borderline negligent mistakes of the first year, but not necessarily a better teacher yet, either. I knew I was more comfortable with basics, like classroom management (an absolute necessity at the middle school level), but not enough knowledge or experience to get too far outside of my comfort zone. At the time, I was probably content with what I was doing, but I wasn't creating better writers yet. I especially regret my feedback to student writers from that time: full of nit-picking comments, most not necessarily helpful. One of my teaching ghosts is that I probably (unintentionally) created a hatred for writing in quite a few students back then.
2010: A rough year. It's funny to consider that I can't even remember now what had me so upset, but I remember my fifth year being tumultuous for our entire faculty for some reason. I was unhappy and I remember coming to the realization that something needed to change: either leaving my district or leaving the profession (I did neither).
2011: That drastic change was finding the MA:TESS program through UNI. From the time when I was a kid and originally realized people could become a "master" of my favorite subject, I'd always dreamed of earning my MA in English someday (without ever considering what it would entail besides more reading and writing and talking with other people who do those things). When I randomly saw the brochure for an English program specifically tailored to working English teachers, I was sold. The summer of 2011 was when I took IWP Level 1 in Charles City with Kirstey Ewald and Brad Weidenaar as facilitators, and as I've mentioned before, it was revolutionary and integral to the teacher I am today. The changes were immediate and this was the turning point. Instead of doing what other teachers in my building and district did just because that's what we do, I started delving into professional literature, seeking out English organizations, and reaching a wider network of other teachers since my location allowed me to isolate myself too much. IWP humbled me, and if more teachers confronted their weaknesses in this kind of thoughtful, gentle environment, we would have a stronger teaching force across the board. But I get it. It's difficult to admit (or even recognize) that you're a sub-par teacher if you don't know any different. I knew I wasn't satisfied in many ways those first few years, but I didn't realize how much I needed to learn until IWP. I'm grateful I took the class so early in my teaching career so I could start on the path I'm on now.
2012: Much like 2011, a year of learning and applying and reflecting. Between the TESS program and IWP, my classroom began it's evolution into an experimental zone. I got comfortable with being uncomfortable during my teaching in order to see what works best for me and my students. Continuing the realization that no lessons or assignments or units are ever "perfect" and set in stone.
2013: Between exams, research, and writing to finish up the program, I was already stressed. But then other factors added to it: an anonymous parent "reporting" to my school that I should be fired due to a beautiful (and yes, "artistic") photo a friend took of me with my husband and my bare shoulders, and another anonymous complaint that someone had seen a photo of me drinking a (gasp!) beer (not wildly partying; just a 31 year old woman drinking a beer). I was sickened and fed up: it didn't matter how much I did for the kids each day, how hard I worked and how much they learned. If I didn't fit the plastic, saintly, irreproachable version of a "perfect" teacher at all times, then no one in the community would ever care, so why should I? In the midst of all of my hard work and some really kick @$$ improvements in my classroom, I was ready to quit this profession forever because it wasn't worth it to feel personally attacked. I stewed about it for months, looking for different jobs, thinking about what it would be like to join the corporate world. And then I didn't. School has a way of sucking you back in, and regardless of those two complaints, I was doing amazing things in my classroom. I was putting my new research on response to student writing into practice every single day, analyzing what worked and what didn't and celebrating the growth that I could see over such short periods of time. How could any other job compare to the kind of magic I get to work on a regular basis? I'm still saddened that people felt the need to report me as some kind of dangerous influence what with all the husband adoring and age appropriate beer drinking, but I can't control what other people think. Maybe it was one person who had a vendetta. Maybe there's a super awesome secret society devoted to hating me because I'm tough on their kids. I don't know, but I can't let it affect me to the point where it makes me hate my job and question what I do best.
And here were are now, in 2014. Wild ride those past five years, huh? So when this blog challenge asks me to envision how my teaching will change in the next five years, I can't. My teaching is always changing; it's what I do. Yes, I have certain units and stories and themes that I always gravitate back to, but I've never taught them the same way twice. I tweak, I add, I subtract, and I love to experiment. Sometimes it's fireworks and sometimes it's duds, but it's always different and always evolving. In the next five years, I think (hope) I'll change by developing thicker skin, and not allowing minor distractions to upset me so much. I hope I keep my love for change and learning constant. In five years, I still want to be on the incredible journey that started in 2011 with IWP, ICTE/NCTE, and TESS.
Edit: I realized after writing this that maybe some would be curious about the picture I got reported for, so I thought I'd include it. Maybe some would agree that it's inappropriate for a teacher and you'll stop reading this blog, but it's one of my favorite photos ever taken. My best friend took this photo of my husband and me in a ditch across the road from our farm house. The love on both sides of the camera that day was palpable. Please also know that I never placed this photo in my classroom or where kids would see it attached to me; the offended person actively searched for it on my friend's professional photography website (which you can find at facebook.com/iwritelight).
What is your favorite part of the school day and why?
Without sounding too selfish, my favorite part of the school day is whenever I see the tangible results of what I've been trying to teach. When I can actually observe individual students growing based on something I've done to help them, that's my favorite part of any day. Sometimes it's such a tiny change it barely feels like a victory, and sometimes on bad days I don't take the time to appreciate the learning that is taking place. One thing I do know is that these moments of true learning are rarely something that can be measured through any kind of standard or test.
To illustrate the point, here are a few small moments I can appreciate from this week:
I'm sure I could fill a list twice this long of things that went poorly this week or my least favorite moments of each day. I'm grateful that this blogging challenge is guiding me to remember the little positives that happen all the time.
One of my biggest accomplishments in teaching has been the transition to allowing my students to see me as a writer, and sometimes it's exhausting.
Before I took IWP Level 1 (side note: I firmly believe EVERY English teacher should be required to take this class) I spent a lot of time handcrafting perfect essay or research paper examples to display for my students, to show them how it should be done. A lot of teachers do this because examples are helpful. The problem of course, was that I wasn't showing them how to do anything. I was showing them a perfectly polished piece that an adult with English training had crafted behind closed doors until it was perfect, without showing the struggle or thought I put into it. Kelly Gallagher calls this a "Grecian Urn": giving them an untouchable example to live up to without showing how it got to be that good (Teaching Adolescent Writers). So four years ago, I started writing with my students.
Whatever we're working on in class, I do it too, in real time. I project my writing over AirPlay and tell students that if they get lost or stuck, they can take a few moments to watch what I do. This gives me the opportunity to point out the little things that are easy for me to forget as a writer: how I every time I write I end up deleting more than I type, how I constantly stop to read and reread what I've already written before I know where I'm going, and how sometimes I pick a bad topic and get writer's block. It shows my students that I'm not a perfect writer all the time, but that I work at it so my writing is constantly getting better. It shows them that the first thing you put on paper isn't necessarily the best. It also shows them that I know what I'm talking about and how to help them because I don't sit in a palace and dictate; I do the same work I'm asking them to do.
It isn't always easy. Yesterday I wrote three different thesis statements on three different research topics for my 7th grade classes who are doing formal research for the first time. In my three 8th grade sections, I wrote different personal narrative rough drafts on wildly different topics. By 7th period, I was dying. I was out of inspiration, I had picked a lackluster topic, and that was when I realized what a great moment for my teaching it was: kids feel the same way. It's easy to have empathy in emotional situations, but it's much harder when hearing yet another student complain about school or a particular assignment. Writing with my kids gives me empathy for the little things. It's not easy what I'm asking them to do each day, and I need to remember that by experiencing it from their point of view.
It's uncomfortable at first, to put yourself in a vulnerable position when you're supposed to be the expert. But it's worth it, every time. I'm not sure if anyone else in my building knows about this or would care, but it's made all the difference in my effectiveness as a writing teacher.
Before I show my current desk drawers, neatly organized due to a desk-drawer-organizer shopping spree this summer, I'll give you a peek at what most drawers in my life tend to look like (this is a drawer that runs under the counter on the side of my room):
I think I've mentioned before that I'm a messy person, and drawers are one of the worst crutches for this bad habit. See, when surfaces pile up too high I feel guilty; my shame is on display for the world to see. But drawers...drawers are magic because I can just throw things in them and ignore them when they get to a certain level of ridiculousness. It doesn't help that I have a hoarder-like tendency so keep anything and everything in the hopes that random junk is always useful for acting props. I know this is a bad habit, so part of my plan for starting this school year off right was to tackle my desk drawers first. Other drawers, like the above photo, will have to wait.
This drawer is where I stash bulk pens for grading and Sharpies for...well, because I like Sharpies. It also holds random stuff that I can't seem to get rid of. The Harry Potter and Series of Unfortunate Events pins that used to decorate my apron at B. Dalton, even though the store no longer exists. The mouse cat toy a student gave me eight years ago during a "Flowers for Algernon" unit. A Lego Jedi another student gave me when I gifted him with a life-size cardboard Luke Skywalker. These are small things, but they're all memories that I like to keep as happy reminders.
More pens, school ID's from multiple years, chap stick, a nail file. This is the middle drawer of my desk that puts things within easy reach. Even with an organizer in place, I'm not sure anyone would accuse me of being tidy.
This drawer is my pride, since I think it's come the longest way on my organization journey. Binder clips divided by size! Tapes in the same row! Stuff still in original packaging! You can tell by this drawer that I spend a lot of money on various small tools to help me keep papers ordered together. I'm also single-handedly keeping Post-its in business and this is where I store some of the extras.
The bottom drawer is where I keep bandaids, rubber gloves, and thank you cards. What can you infer from this drawer? I like to be prepared for certain emergencies. Middle school kids are still prone to scrapes (our kids still get recess after lunch). The rubber gloves come in handy more often than you would think: passing out treats in homeroom for special occasions, cleaning, and they're good for a variety of dramatic purposes. The thank you notes are a personal reminder to practice what I preach. A lot of learning at the middle school level involves social skills in addition to content learning. I can't teach kids to be polite and gracious if I can't do the same.
So there you have it: my drawers. As I was writing this, I realized that I don't use my drawers nearly as much as I use surfaces to keep necessary materials right at hand. My drawers tend to be a place to store bulk items or hoard random emotional artifacts. I'm also surprised at how little my drawer contents reflect the majority of work that I do in a given day- no sign of papers, lesson materials, books or grading (other than extra pens).
Today's prompt: What does a good mentor "do"?
This might be the hardest question I've had to face in this blogging challenge (so far). I respect the idea of mentors and I think we all need them in various aspects of our lives, but I'm wary of what I see as forced mentorship, which I think happens all too frequently. Mentors are a powerful influence, but they are relationship that needs to form organically rather than as a mandate.
In my first two years of teaching (as with all Iowa teachers) I was assigned a mentor. I had no opportunity to meet this person beforehand, and the pairing was made solely because she was the person who had previously held my position. I don't want this to sound like I had a disastrous experience; she was a lovely person and kind to me in many ways during those first two years. The problem was, we had nothing in common. Her teaching background was at the Elementary level, moved up to middle school English to cover an empty position. We had a 30+ year difference in age, and virtually no chemistry or common ground. We were always polite and friendly, but I never felt comfortable confiding in her, and spent most of those years as alone and lost as I would have been had I not had a mentor. Looking back, it was more my fault than hers, but it was obvious the relationship was not real since as soon as the required state paperwork was filed at the end of the two year period, we never had a meaningful conversation again. It wasn't until a few years later, when I took my first Iowa Writing Project class that I found true mentorship.
So before I can say what a good mentor does, I think the first step is that a mentor-mentee relationship needs to be a natural thing, formed only after two people have found someone they can connect to (this is starting to sound like dating). Young teachers naturally gravitate toward experienced people they respect and relate to, and those mentors-in-waiting are good at spotting the diamonds in the rough they'd like to work with. For a successful partnership, they need to be allowed to find each other instead of forced together by a mandated checklist.
After that relationship is formed, a good mentor shows rather than tells. Guidance comes through seeing someone put theory into practice and make it real, shows the mentee how to do by example. The mentor also reminds the mentee of the why behind the work we do. The mentee's responsibility is just as great in this scenario: she has to observe, reflect, ask questions, and grow as a teacher.
A mentor stresses the importance of reflection on practice, the (sometimes difficult) admission that teaching is never perfected, only refined through trial and error and dedication. Mentors and mentees need to have enough trust and comfort to be honest about these faults and how to best improve them. Ego is not part of the growth collaboration.
A successful mentor shares his thoughts, beliefs, and ideas with his mentee while still allowing her to forge her own path. A good mentor encourages opportunities for growth and extension beyond just the partnership of two. The mentor also realizes when she can learn something from her mentee, because the relationship should be beneficial to both involved.
Most importantly, a mentor reminds the mentee why we need others in this business: we can't do it better alone. We learn from each other- young, old, new, experienced; we all have something to bring to the table. These partnerships remind us that the sharing of ideas make for better practice across a wider spectrum, and when the benefits of that pass from teachers to students, that's the impact of a true, successful mentor.
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.