There are times when teacher me fights against Missy me. See folks, something you might now know about me is that I am stubborn. And I like to be in control. Not all the time, but definitely when it's something I care about. I care a lot about writing and my classroom, so that stubborn and bossy nature is something I'm constantly battling. My natural personality traits are not always conducive to a positive student learning environment, so I find myself at war against my nature.
It's not always bad. My personality traits make classroom management pretty simple. I don't have issues with kids acting out or off task after the first few weeks of a new year because they simple don't mess with me. They respect my authority and don't test my boundaries very often.
But today was a day where my stubbornness would not have worked. Trimester 2 rough drafts were due for all 7th and 8th graders today. They've had two weeks to work on them. How many do you think were burning the midnight oil last night? How many only had one sentence written? I don't even want to know. And I dreaded it. I thought about it as I did my yoga this morning. How many students will I have to give a late assignment to? (My school records late assignments as a data collection point.) How many kids will be upset or angry because of that? How angry will I get from spending all day focusing on those who didn't do their work?
And that's when I decided to let go. Two days ago I shared one of the mantras (fromYoga Journal) that starts many of my mornings: "Today I will do all things with love." What's the most loving thing I could do today? I could pretend that late assignments don't exist. I could go against my nature to stubbornly point out that they earned late assignments because they didn't use the past two weeks wisely. I could love my students by showing them mercy. I could love myself by refusing to allow my Friday to be consumed with negativity.
One thing I couldn't do was do this quietly. I'm just too much of a sucker for attention. So I stopped every class at the door (where they usually show me their papers as a ticket to enter on peer response days) and I announced that they should love me today. Because I love them today. And part of that love is that I wouldn't be giving any late assignments today.
The difference between what today could have been (had I counted the lates and made life miserable) and what it has been is astonishing. Instead of creating a negative environment, the kids have come in happy and relieved, which makes them better peer responders. I'm glad I made the conscious decision to create a positive environment. I need to remind myself in the future to evaluate when my stubbornness is making things toxic for me and my students, and to avoid those situations when I can. Part of being in control is knowing when it's okay to let things slide and move on.
Iowa Assessments are looming, so the past few weeks have been dedicated to test prep. (I wrote about my feelings and why we're hitting it so hard in this post from December.) Our bi-monthly PD afternoons have all focused on sharing strategies and practice tips we've used in our classrooms to prepare our students for the testing deluge.
So I've been teaching yoga every day.
Yes, yoga. I can rage against standardized testing all I want, but it still hasn't changed that my district forces me to give these assessments every year. So how can I best help my kids? I can try to give them calm in the storm. Yes, I'm also going over practice questions and pointing out some common tricks they'll encounter on the language tests. But every day, we start with yoga.
I picked Half Sun Salutations because I wanted something that was easily accessible to all students. I found out from doing Warrior II earlier in the year that many students cannot do a simple lunge. Even the ones who are active in sports do not have flexibility. Half Sun Salutations provide them with an opportunity to focus their breath and move a little. They have the added bonus of seeing progress as they reach closer to touching their feet. I taught them the basic movement on a Monday, then every day we've done three to five rounds before the daily practice questions. I'm hoping this movement and breathing provides the dual actions of calming them and bringing them out of the school day haze.
After the first week of yoga, I also added in positive mantras. I told students to think of simple, positive sentences to repeat to themselves during the Salutations. I shared some that I've used in the past (stolen from Yoga Journal or Pinterest inspirationals): "I am enough, I do enough, I have enough"; "Today I will do all things with love"; "I am smart and awesome." I told them that it might be cheesy, but too often the meanest person in our lives is the voice inside our own heads. We put ourselves down constantly and our insecurities become our mantras. For the two minutes of Sun Salutations, I'm encouraging my students to think positive, even if they're faking it. It might be the only nice thing they think about themselves all day.
They laugh and roll their eyes at me for being a weirdo, but it's slowly working. They're starting to clap and cheer for each other when someone touches her toes for the first time. The 7th grade girls' basketball team started doing a few rounds before their games and started winning for the first time all season. The 8th grade girls tried it, and now they're winning, too. It's fun and it's positive and I feel like I'm using my influence for good instead of just contributing to corporate testing evil. I hope they can look forward to yoga on testing days and use their positive affirmations during other difficult times.
I'm not creating the revolution against testing that I dream of, but I am chipping away at standardization in my own small way. I hope it helps. I don't care about the impact on their scores, but I do care about how it could positively impact their lives.
I mentioned yesterday that I haven't blogged in a while, yet here I am with two days in a row! I attribute the dry spell over the past few weeks and the recent streak to the same thing: I have my first student teacher. It's been a wonderful experience so far, but it's definitely changed my usual habits.
Wow. Can I even consider myself a blogger if it's been over ten days since my last entry? It's obviously either feast or famine here: I'm either writing my tail off in one blog challenge or another, or I'm neglecting the site while gathering articles and ideas that I could write about (without any follow-through). I couldn't ignore this post I saw over the weekend, though. JoAnn Gage (fellow ICTE teacher-extraordinaire) posted it on Facebook, and I think it deserves wide circulation. Link to what I'm talking about here: Focus on Excellence.
This post was written by David J. Wilkerson, the Superintendent of Waukee Community School District here in Iowa. I know nothing about him aside from this post, but man, this is the kind of administrator I'd love to work for. Taking a stand like this takes guts, and he's talking about things that actually matter. His plea for the new Iowa legislative session centers on two topics: school start date and school funding.
I admit that I don't have a horse in the first race. I know a lot of people are upset that our Governor has set the school start date as after Labor Day and has proposed to stop early-start waivers for districts (which all districts here do). This impacts high schools a lot because of semester dates, but at the middle school level the main inconvenience for me is that we'd be going pretty late into June each year after snow days are accounted for. That's a pain, but summer would extend later through August, so it doesn't really change much for me. That's a selfish perspective, and I do hope this changes back to allowing schools to continue to apply for early start waivers.
The part of this post I love is about school funding. We are bare-bones here in Iowa in case I haven't made that clear in the past. Especially in a rural community. When your funding depends on how many students are in the district and you have a small district, you end up with low funding. Many people mistakenly think that a small school means small class sizes. Wrong. Yes, we don't have many students per grade, but we also don't have many teachers. Since I attended school in one of the largest districts in Iowa, I'm often shocked at how little the majority of our state's districts have. The lack of resources and increasing class sizes are astonishing. The fact that stood out most from Wilkerson's piece was this: "We now rank 35th in per pupil spending, $1,612 below the national average."
Really, Iowa? That's really the best we can do? That's how little we value education and our future citizens? I've heard arguments before that Iowa is low on spending because we also have a low cost of living here in the Midwest, but it still seems that something is not right. Politicians in Iowa spent a lot of time campaigning about education and how our schools need to regain a status of excellence in national rankings (US News ranked our high schools 43rd last year). I'm not saying that's the definitive ranking of schools, but if it's something our legislators are looking at, maybe they should also look at our funding. It seems the connection between low spending and low ranking go hand in hand. How are our schools going to magically get better if we don't have any help?
If our state wants better schools, then lawmakers should invest in them. Investing in schools means many things, but it's foolish and dangerous to ignore the role that money plays in improvement.
If you ask me what the most important aspect of language arts is, I'll tell you writing every time. Don't get me wrong: I am madly in love with reading, but I firmly believe that writing saves lives. It saves us from ourselves and connects us to those we might not otherwise find. I share my past writings with my students and I write with them (projected on the screen) so they know we're in this together.
One of the most important parts of this is being vulnerable. I share writing with my students that puts me in a vulnerable position. I share with them an essay I wrote about my struggles with weight throughout my life, and how my 80+ pound weight gain and loss has impacted my body image. I share with them essays ruminating on my strained relationship with my parents and my childhood. I share narratives confessing the times throughout my life when I've been a terrible friend to those who needed me. I share my life with them through writing because I'm asking them to do the same. You can't demand real writing from teenagers without being willing to put yourself out there, too.
Some students need this. They love my class because I encourage them to write about the hard stuff, the topics they usually try their hardest to conceal. Some students hate it because they will not lower their guard no matter how much I lower mine. That's fine. I reach the ones who need me at the right time, and I still try my hardest to work on the others who need more time.
I hear from a few former students every year who tell me they miss being able to write about the things I allowed them to write about. That gives me mixed feelings. Pride, because I've created that lasting connection with writing and provided them with an encouraging environment for free expression. Sadness, because they're not still doing that kind of writing. I encourage them to write for themselves regardless of what kind of academic writing they're doing in school. I hope they rekindle that love with writing sometime in their personal lives as they get older.
Jordan is a former student who is now a sophomore in high school (I've written about her here before). She became a writing addict in 8th grade after a rocky start the year before. Jordan was typical of a lot of strong writers I see in school: she knew how to write well, but it was more of a math equation than playing with words. Her sentences and paragraphs were perfectly constructed and formal. They could have been written by a computer. They had no personal voice. This is what we do to our young writers in a standardized era: we teach them that correct grammar and usage equals "good" writing. That the best thing you can be is technically proficient. I don't know a single person who enjoys reading writing that is simply correct. We connect with voice, and that quality beats any other aspect of writing every time, if you ask me. Jordan found her voice in eighth grade because I shared my hopes and weaknesses with her class, and she let down her guard and shared hers with me. And man, this kid had a lot to say. It was a pleasure to watch her grow and develop as a writer.
Fast forward two years. Jordan sent me a narrative she wrote about the man who raised her. She had to get it off her chest, but she was scared to turn it in because it dealt with some taboo topics and she wasn't sure her teacher would be cool with it. I read it and gave her my immediate feedback: she had to turn this in. She did, and earned an "A" for it. I told her about Teen Ink and she decided to take a chance and submit it.
She was published this week. I've you've taken the time to read this blog, then please take the extra step and read her piece, "Rolling Cigarettes," at TeenInk.com. It was picked as an editor's choice. I know she'd love feedback from as many people as possible, so if you have any kind words for a brave young woman, please share them here or on the Teen Ink website. A voice like her needs as much encouragement as possible.
*I wrote this piece today to submit to the ICTE Teacher Writings page (check it out if you haven't!). In the event that it isn't chosen for publication, I'll put it here too. It's not the usual type of writing I do on this blog, but it's important to me. As someone who frequently writes personal narrative, this is topic I've never written (or talked about) before. That probably means I should share it.
The clay walrus that sits on my desk is the most stunningly perfect work of art my hands have ever created. From the sad, half-crescent eyes to the matte gray paint sanded with hints of silver finish, this artifact earned its place on my desk because of the satisfaction it gives me every time I glance at it. It’s one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever completed, from one of the worst times. It’s a testament to adolescent attitude and the nurturing power of the right teacher at the right time.
To say that eighth grade was a rough year for me is an understatement. I know now from nine years of teaching eighth grade that it’s a rough year for everyone, but the self-pitying magic of memory allows me the indulgence of still believing mine was extraordinary.
My social life was changing. My school was huge, and I never quite adjusted to feel as comfortable in middle school as I had at the smaller elementary in my neighborhood. I cycled through different groups of friends, never popular, but never quite anonymous enough to avoid embarrassment. Two years of feeling out of place led me to the classic outward expression of teen angst: I became one of the “bad” kids. Except I wasn’t really bad, I just hung out with them and became a sad replica of a young rebel. I wore baggy jeans and had questionable hygiene and reinvented myself as a neo-hippy. I listened to Pink Floyd on endless loops and bought my clothes at Goodwill and the Touch of India store in the mall. I spent sleepovers at friends’ houses drinking alcohol and succumbing to the pressure of early sexual activity, leaving me in a spiral of depression and self-loathing. I spent hours sleeping in my room to avoid interaction with my family, and had no true friends left that wanted anything to do with me. I contemplated suicide and even went so far as to pick out a date when I would end it: December 6th, 1996. I picked it because I thought that was Pearl Harbor Day, and that my own tragedy would go nicely with a historical one. I was too stupid to know that a) it was the wrong day, and b) the only thing causing my depression was my own actions.
All of these outside distractions contributed to my grades slipping from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. I was in the “gifted and talented” program at school thanks to years of outstanding test scores and a genuine love of learning, but none of that ability was on display in eighth grade. My parents drew the line at my failing Art grade. Arrangements were made: I would stay after school for an hour every day until I caught up on the clay project.
The project was to pick an animal from a National Geographic magazine and use the picture as inspiration for a lifelike work of clay. It couldn’t be that hard, right? Walruses are just fat lumps, not complex creatures that involve a lot of detail. Every day I would sit down with my lump of clay, using an X-acto-knife to attempt to draw the lines into the hide of the walrus’s body. Every day it would look like some maniac was hacking away at the poor beast. The art teacher watched my lack of progress with mounting frustration. We didn’t get along, and having me after school might have been more a punishment for him than me. I accomplished nothing, carving and smoothing over the same wrinkles for weeks, too stubborn to ask for help or receive advice.
One day, he had to leave after school. I was sent to the other art teacher’s room to put in my hours. I liked the other art teacher. He was a kind older man, and I’d had him in sixth and seventh grade. He remembered me from those years, not the person I’d allowed myself to become. He asked what I was working on and I explained the frustration with not being able to carve the wrinkly walrus skin right. He sat next to me at the table, glancing between the open magazine photo and the sad lump of clay.
“What if,” he said, “What if you make the wrinkles pop out instead of digging in?”
And he showed me that by rolling a small ball of clay into a coil I could cover the body in coils and blend them into the larger mass, making them look like raised skin folds. It was genius. I was so ecstatic over this breakthrough that I finished the entire walrus that night, adding the eyes, nose, tail, and flippers. The only things left before it was ready to fire were the tusks. I started to roll them, but they looked like tiny fangs. His eyes glinted and I could tell he had another idea.
“Maybe the tusks shouldn’t be clay,” he said. “What looks like ivory and is shaped like a tusk?” He held up a plastic fork, possibly left over from his lunch and winked.
I handed my former teacher the walrus that afternoon, ready for the kiln. Two days later, it was ready to paint. I used the dark gray and scratched on small spots of silver to add dimension to the body. As promised, he snapped of two plastic fork tines for me to super glue into the allotted spaces I’d made under the head. It was beautiful. My current art teacher wasn’t overly impressed, but he was happy that I’d no longer be ruining his afternoons. My former art teacher somehow had the grace to make me feel like an artist even though the great ideas came from him.
I don’t think I ever said thank you. I don’t think I ever spoke to him again, and I can’t even remember his name. It’s okay. I keep the walrus on my desk because it reminds me of so many things I need to keep in mind each day as a teacher. Eighth grade is a hard year, and I can add to my students’ misery or ease it in some small way. Hard work eventually pays off. Sometimes you need help, even when you are incapable of asking for it. I found success with the help of that teacher. I slowly made better friends and better decisions that didn’t make me hate my life. The Day Before Pearl Harbor Day passed and I no longer felt the hopelessness that led me to depression.
I survived eighth grade. Now I teach it.
With back to school looming, I needed a shot of positivity. Thankfully, I took part in Twitter #satchat this morning, and that made the difference. Positivity is something that's often the first to go in the stressful world of teaching and learning, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone. So today, I'm turning the negatives to positives.
Negative: I was a lazy slob over the entire break.
Positive: That's okay. I'm recharged. I can throw myself back into the ring whole-heartedly now that I've had an actual, complete break.
Negative: After ignoring student papers all through break, I started reading and responding yesterday. I was disheartened at how terrible my seventh graders' writing seemed after reading for pleasure all break. I was frustrated. Yes, this is their low-stakes weekly writing, but a lot of it was not good.
Positive: My eighth graders low-stakes weekly writings were generally excellent. Moving, thoughtful, detailed, expressive. Are the eighth graders just so much better than seventh graders? No. Yes, they're better writers. That's because they have more experience, more practice. That's because I've actually taught them something! My seventh graders will get there eventually. The problem with having both grades is that I'm too quick to compare them. It's not fair. Instead of focusing on where I wish the seventh graders were, I need to remind myself of how amazingly far they will go.
Negative: I did not accomplish any of the lofty goals I set for myself over break. (See first negative.)
Positive: I work better under pressure. The pressure of school makes me more productive and thoughtful in my choices. Two weeks of slacking off will not make me a terrible teacher, just as two weeks of hitting it hard would not have made me Mrs. Perfect Teacher 2015. I'm an evolving educator. Sometimes it comes in bursts, sometimes the pace is glacial. I'll make up for it and be better in the end.
Negative: My constant worry: I am not doing enough to reach all of my students. There are so many and there is too little of me. Some will hate me and my class no matter what.
Positive: I can keep trying. I can always keep trying. It might not work, but sometimes it does, spectacularly. The girls below are sophomores in high school. They painted this ceiling tile of my favorite book-loving cat, Pusheen, as a Christmas present to me. I reached them years ago, and they are still reaching for me even though I am no longer their teacher.
I have had one of my laziest breaks in the history of school breaks. I have watched Harry Potter movie marathons that devolved into Harry Potter book rereading marathons. I spent a day immobilized due to stomach flu and was kind of happy about it since it gave me guilt-free sloth status. And then I got better and sloth-ed some more. I know it's bad when a shower feels novel because it's been four days since I last had one. I have not driven my car in nine days and I have not left the inside of my house for stretches of two-four days at a time. So yeah, I've taken a break.
School doesn't start until Monday, but I'm headed in to my classroom tomorrow. The main motivator (aside from the digital "stacks" of papers I need to respond to) is that tomorrow my student teacher is coming to meet me and see the room for the first time. She'll start right away on Monday as we come back from back, and she'll be here for her entire placement. This is my first student teacher, and right now my head is swimming. I don't know how to describe it. Nerves? Pressure? Discomfort? Pride? All of those and more, most likely.
I've heard about nightmare student teachers from other cooperating teachers, and I've heard about nightmare cooperating teachers from those who decided not to become teachers. It's a delicate relationship, and it'll take me time to figure out the balance of guidance and support and constructive criticism. It seems silly to doubt my ability to provide the weekly, monthly, semester-long feedback forms sent from Iowa State; I'm a writing teacher. My job is about feedback. It has always been the main focus of my research. Why does it feel different in this context? Because so much of teaching and teaching style is personal? So is writing! Because I don't want to hurt her future hopes or damage her success? But I'm okay with giving sometimes-negative feedback to 13-14-year old kids? Ouch. The thought spiral continues to lead me in this kind of direction, and that's a good thing. If I'm more thoughtful about how scrutiny affects this almost-adult student, then it's another reminder of how harsh school, with its grades and tests, can be to our young students.
It's easy in the chaos of every day teaching to let the emotions of some individuals slip through the cracks. I have over 130 students this year, and yes, sometimes it's hard to take every single one of them into consideration on every single day- that's the problem with ridiculous teacher loads and class sizes! But if I can worry about this one girl who's probably a perfectly capable soon-to-be-teacher, then I need to spend some time worrying about every single one of my other students in the few days before Monday, too.
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.