Today, like many Fridays in my classroom, was Free Write Friday.
Many of my 7th graders were in a fiction mood, but some were more focused on the disturbing chapter from The Giver that was today's read-aloud. (They finally found out what "release" really means.)
The eighth graders are still going through a few phases, in life and writing. It's spring, after all.
And I wrote a little bit of everything: a recap of my birthday root beer float extravaganza, a letter to Congressman King's education chair to protect SEED funding for the Iowa Writing Project, a rant list for the week, my own reaction to the idea of "release" and whether it's humane or inhumane that we don't euthanize humans who are pain the way we do with animals, and more.
The only difference was that today we had a few visitors from another school district. At first it was just one teacher. Then it was her and her principal. Then it was her, her principal, and my principal. They watched. They asked me questions. And through it all, my kids didn't bat an eye. They know that nothing gets in the way of Free Write Friday.
The teacher hadn't seen anything like it. She wants to come back, to observe more writer's workshop in my room with some of her other colleagues. She wants to know what I do to help them love writing so much.
The truth is, she already saw it today.
I give them time to write. I give them permission to write about what they care about. And I give them response as a person instead of a judge.
Most teenagers love to write if you just let them be writers.
My students know how to spoil me, and my birthday is no exception.
For the past two years, I've been showered with love and gifts on my birthday from my current group of 8th graders. It will be strange next year when they're at the high school and my birthday goes back to being just another normal day.
For today's #SOL, a picture show featuring some of the random emails, notes, homemade gifts, and Hauptsteen birthday memes I received today.
Tomorrow is my 34th birthday.
Tonight, I complete my night-before-birthday ritual: making birthday cake truffles for the staff at school.
It's a CGDMS tradition to bring in treats to the staff workroom for your birthday. And while I sometimes take the easy way out and buy something store bought, if I have the time, I make truffles.
I love making truffles.
Now, this is rural Iowa, so I'm not talking about some expensive, rare-sourced chocolate-filled truffles. I'm talking about truffles made from pulverizing cookies and adding cream cheese and other good stuff. Down-home truffles.
Basic steps to my birthday truffles:
Pulverize one package of Golden Oreos, minus the sleeve you consume before they make it to the blender. :)
Add in on package softened cream cheese, 1/2 cup dry funfetti cake mix, and 1/4 cup sprinkles.
Roll into deformed little lumps that look kind of disgusting.
Refrigerate for 10-20 minutes.
Melt almond bark. Coat gross lumps in melted almond bark. Shake on extra sprinkles before almond bark dries.
Take to work and spread the love.
As always when I make truffles, by the time they are complete, I have a stomachache from sampling too many during the process.
The ritual is complete. Tomorrow I will be another day older. My students will spoil me and my coworkers will sing to me as I walk down the hall. It will be a good day.
Today was the day where I felt my room was most like an old-school, teacher-centered classroom. It's not that I never use direct instruction; there are many times when I teach the entire class because there's something everyone needs to know. I also read to them every day, always at the start of class, and again later if there's a text we all need to use. But it's not often that I'm at the front of the room, teaching the entire class the same thing at the same time for longer than a 10-15 minute mini-lesson.
Today, I had to introduce the multi-genre research project to my 7th graders. They've never done anything like it before. We've learned how to avoid plagiarism by summarizing, paraphrasing, and using direct quotes; we've done research by checking for finding quality scholarly sources; we've created our Works Cited pages. We've done all the background work before I ever introduced the project, mainly because I wanted the foundation in place first. Now that we're full of notes and facts and sources, today was the day.
First, they had to know what the heck "multi-genre" means. Then my specific requirements. Then the options. Oh, the options. It took almost the entire period for all three groups of 7th grade.
My throat is sore. My head is buzzing. My teaching is usually more succinct when in front of the whole group. My voice doesn't have to be as loud during writing conferences or the one-on-one instruction that I'm more accustomed to. I'm not used to being at the front of the room for the entire class period. There are more days when I'm not at the front of the room at all than there are days like today.
It's nice to know that I can still do it. I can still be a "traditional" teacher when I need to be. (And there are definitely times when traditional, front-of-the-room teaching makes more sense for the task at hand.) But I'm so grateful this isn't the way I teach every day. I'm glad I've learned over the years to give up that need to control the learning from the front so I can focus on the actual work of supporting my students doing rather than being dependent on me.
Going forward with our projects, we'll be back in workshop mode. All 7th graders will have writing conferences with me within the next few days so we can discuss what multi-genre artifacts will best show their skills as writers, artists, and creators. They'll be writing, and I'll be helping, and when they don't need my help, I'll be creating my multi-genre right alongside them.
Today's work schedule went something like this:
8am-12pm: Teach four classes, get ready for afternoon sub, respond and update grades for three students turning in late work, provide feedback for high school junior who wanted feedback on a draft.
12:10-12:45: Eat lunch at meeting for TLC (Teacher Leadership Compensation) committee. Just kidding! Ate lunch in my usual eight minutes flat and then just sat there waiting for the meeting to start.
12:45-3:15: TLC meeting with four administrators, two instructional coaches, two AEA reps, two high school teachers, two elementary teachers, and one middle school teacher (that's me!).
3:15-3:30: Duck out of meeting early to zoom back over to school, change in the bathroom, and check in with the sub about how the afternoon went.
3:30-5:00: Track practice. Lead 20 minutes of yoga for non-hurdlers while others determine whether or not they have ability or desire to hurdle. Take non-hurdlers out to jog laps. Encourage girls to pace themselves since this should be a "long" run. Run with girls who are smart enough pace themselves to the 33-year-old. Watch other girls take off like lightning and drop dead within 400m. Participate in relay games since 8th graders need an extra member. Listen to trash talk from high school boys at the track saying they bet they can beat me in an 800. Respond that due to testosterone and age, there would be something severely wrong with them if they couldn't beat me in an 800. Cool down.
5:15-5:30: Start to think that the screeching/whining noise my car keeps making is lasting longer each time I drive. Overactive imagination creates various montages of car blowing up and killing me for the entire ride home.
Now: Today was one of those days where because I did so many things, it now feels like I did nothing. Being spread so thin makes everything suffer. I wasn't the best teacher this morning because I didn't want to shortchange my afternoon students, so I kept my lesson plans simple and easily replicable. During the TLC meeting, I added my ideas when I felt they might help, but half of my brain was still back in my classroom. Were the plans clear enough? What will I have to do to bridge the gaps between the morning and afternoon classes? Did the 7th grade kid who has taught himself to fart on command fart for the entire period since I wasn't there to threaten him? And then the strange feeling of going back for track practice when I wasn't even at school for the entire day.
Tomorrow I'll play catch up and enjoy the craziness of a "normal" day of teaching.
How could I possibly say no to a former student who took the time to craft this email asking for feedback? Such pandering to his audience!
My former students know I'm a sucker for wanting to read their writings long after they leave my classroom. They know I can't resist the opportunity to read their work and see how they have progressed as writers throughout the years.
And yes, there's a certain amount of pride involved when I can feel like my feedback still matters to them.
I never "fix" their work for them or tell them what kind of a grade I'd give it. I just give them my reader-response feedback and suggestions for growth/areas of concern.
It's nice to still feel needed by students I no longer get to see every day. It means I did something right at some point that made them still trust me with their work.
The first one is short and endlessly hairy and mirrors a hobbit in appearance and general outlook on life.
He was my first real teacher friend at my school. A person I not only worked with, but also spent weekends and vacations with outside of our morning talks in the hallway. He has hugged me when I cried and never judged me for anything, even when the mistakes were entirely my fault. I have climbed mountains with him, and we have camped in the woods under the stars together. My husband and I walked down the aisle at his wedding, and I don't foresee a time when he will ever not be one of the greatest friends of my life.
But he moved away two years ago, to a new school district and a new life. At first, I wasn't sure that I would make it without him, socially or professionally.
The other one is tall and bald and balances a respectful professional seriousness with just the right amount of absurd humor.
He impressed me from the moment I sat in on his job interview. Within the first few minutes, I was convinced that I had to work with him, that there was something about him that motivated me to be a better a teacher and person. I was right. He has challenged my ways of thinking and provided a constant sounding board for some of my toughest career moments. He was one of the first people at my door when my dad died last year, and has been my biggest cheerleader at work. I respect his opinion more than most people I've met because I know he cares about education and learning and kids in the same ways that I do.
I could see myself writing books with him someday and taking the teaching world by storm as a professional duo. I do not foresee a time in my life where I do not want to work with him and have him as a thinking partner for all things education.
Today, for the first time in eight months, I will see my first social studies friend. I am so excited. I love him so much and it has been far too long.
But in the back of my mind, part of me feels a strange guilt: you have replaced him. Why does it feel like a betrayal to be just as happy with my new social studies friend as I was with the old one? Shouldn't I be thrilled that I ended up with someone across the hall who I can adore and respect as much as the person he replaced?
I know this guilt is silly. The simple thing I have to accept is that I have been incredibly lucky to work side by side with two entirely different educators who I value so much as professionals and humans. Instead of feeling like I'm replacing one with the other, I need to accept that there is ample room in my heart for both.
I will cherish my time with my old friend this weekend. I will look forward to Monday and whatever lively discussion awaits me with my newer friend. I will appreciate that I've been lucky enough in my career and life to know both of these fine people.
After three days of P/T conferences, today was our comp day for working late all week. As I usually try to do, I used my time between scheduled conferences to work like a maniac to get everything caught up and all grading taken care of so I could enjoy my three day weekend.
Sure, this means I didn't hang out with any of the other teachers in the workroom when the night started to drag on yesterday, but it also means I earned the one thing that every hardworking English teacher covets but rarely achieves: a guilt-free weekend off.
Now, it's not like I don't have weekends off now and then. I schedule graded writings strategically to make sure that I'm not constantly drowning in work and bitter about it. And I never allow myself to fall into the trap of putting paper grading off (like I used to in earlier years); I know delaying the work only makes it worse. But on most weekends, I have at least eight hours of work to do, whether it's informal response to student work, formal grading of final papers, or lesson planning.
This weekend, I didn't want any of that.
Except that today is Friday. And Free Write Friday is a big deal in my classroom. When I let my students go for the summer or other breaks, I tell them they are always welcome to send me something to read on Fridays, whether they are my current or former students.
And even though many laugh or roll their eyes at me, it never fails. Summer, Christmas Break, and even today, I always get at least a few free writes from kids who need to get something off their minds, or who just need to know that someone cares.
Sometimes these free writes are my favorites, because they are the truest display of what I want for my students and their relationship with writing. They don't have to write them for a grade. They don't have any reason to write or to share it with me other than the fact that they truly want to.
And this is how even a guilt-free day off turns into a day where I wait to receive student writing so I can read for fun.
I can't help myself.
I love it too much.
I have dreaded every single round of parent-teacher conferences every year of my teaching career.
In the early years, it made sense. We used to do conferences in the gym, a cattle call of lines leading up to teachers at individual tables, echoing throughout the gym. No conversation was truly private. Some lines moved at snail's pace; others like lightning. (I am always lightning. A teacher who conducts as many writing conferences as I do on a regular basis knows how to maximize efficiency, even during important conversations.)
Now we do scheduled student-led conferences in our homerooms. I have 21 conferences with my homebase kids and their parents. My role is to read the specific narrative comments submitted by each of the teachers so everyone can get a full picture of the student's progress, strengths, and weaknesses.
My homebase this year is so easy. Every conference is a smooth conference. Every kid is a great kid. The parents are awesome and involved, but not overbearing. They all show up. They all care. I had one mother tear up as she thanked me tonight for the comments I put on her daughter's free writes each week. She said I gave both of her kids more confidence in life, and she was sad that this would be the last conference we ever had together.
So why do I still have this dread every time? Is it the old fear left over from my years as a young female teacher? There were times when I would have rather faced a firing squad than the parents who seemed to hate me as a person more than any issue related to my class.
Maybe it's the uncomfortable joining of worlds? My relationship with all of these kids at school is so separate from their relationships at home with their parents. The kids squirm in their seats, nervous for the interaction between some of the most powerful adults in their lives. Maybe that makes me nervous, too?
Conferences have been easy this year. They have been, for the most part, for at least the past five years. I hope the nervous dread will someday go away, and I'll be able to look forward to conference time more than I do now. Looking back, I always appreciate the moments I share with my students and their parents, even the tough ones. It's just one more way I can see into a part of their lives that they might not otherwise show me.
I think I've already established the fact that my students love to make Hauptsteen Memes, or place my face on random posters. One of my favorite gifts from last year is taped proudly to my classroom door:
A few girls pooled their money to buy the poster at the Scholastic Book Fair and place me in the pilot's seat. They said it serves as an important warning to those who would be tempted to mess with me. It might be the most effective classroom management tool in the history of teaching.
This morning, the same group of girls (now 8th graders) asked to take my picture. They told me they wanted me to look like I just won the World Series. Without question, I did this:
Ten minutes later (after they ran to the library to make another book fair purchase, they came back with a new addition for my door:
I had no idea of the new poster in advance, but it's perfect.
I am endlessly spoiled by the young people I have the honor to teach every day.
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.