Tomorrow is the last day of school for students. It's always a hard day for me, as much as I hate to admit it. Like any teacher at this point in the year, I am ready for summer and the endless possibilities that float into my mind when I realize I will spend 2 1/2 months not grading papers. I'm ready to take a break from middle school kids and teacher griping and a stuffy room with no air conditioning and not enough air freshener in the world to cover 14-year-old body odor. I'm ready, but I'm also not, and that's what always makes the last day so hard.
It's my last day with my 8th graders. Every year when they come in as 7th graders I think that I can't possibly stand the immaturity and they'll never grow up and be less annoying. And every single year they prove me wrong. I get to know them and tolerate them and like them in that first year, but in the second year I really get to love them. I am so unbelievably lucky to be able to have the same students two years in a row, and it hurts to let them go. Knowing that tomorrow will be the last day I ever see some of them again creates an ache in my heart. I thought it would get easier the more years I taught. It hasn't. I still hate the feeling of knowing that even when I do see some of them again, it's never the same. We are never as close as we are in these last days of being teacher and students at the end of two years. Kids have poured their hearts out and shared their deepest secrets with me through their writing, and in a few short months we will be strangers. Does that ever stop hurting?
Added to tomorrow's difficulties is another goodbye: my colleague, co-teacher, and best friend will have his last day in our district. I've known he's moving since last fall, but it's the same as saying goodbye to 8th graders: Knowing something will hurt doesn't make it hurt any less. How do I say goodbye to one of the most important people in my life? How do I pretend our friendship will be the same when we won't see each other every day? I can't. It won't. We've climbed mountains and traveled the world together. We have shared students and classes, but we have also shared the past eight years of our lives.
(It takes a true best friend to do this in front of the entire school: he's the damsel in distress, I'm Wonder Woman.)
Great things will happen tomorrow, too. I will share my last words of advice with my 8th graders. I will send 7th graders off with the ability to start fresh next year regardless of what happened this year. I will give hugs and take pictures and laugh. And I will keep doing it every year on the last day of school. Because the year when it gets easy to say goodbye, when I don't care about my students or colleagues leaving, is the year when I don't want to be a teacher anymore.
What is your favorite reading strategy?
My favorite strategy for reading, whether it's a short story, poem, or play is to act something out. I took a class a few years back on incorporating more performance into class, and it's something that stuck with me. As English teachers, most of us have some touch of the dramatic anyway, and acting is one of the best ways to interact with the written word.
"Acting" has a loose definition in my class. It can be dramatically reciting dialogue, or reenacting the narrator's creepy entrance into the old man's room in "The Tell-Tale Heart." It could be students posing themselves as living pictures (tableaux vivant) during Shakespeare units (my favorite sources come from the Folger Shakespeare library: website, or I highly recommend their Shakespeare Set Free book and kits). Sometimes performance is silent and sometimes it's loud; sometimes rehearsed over many days, sometimes impromptu. We kill each other with fake plastic swords. We take suspense stories and put their characters in a courtroom for mock trial. We make reading come to life.
Acting is not for everyone. My students are never graded on the quality of their acting skills, just that they participated in some way. I create an environment where terrible acting is totally fine and we can laugh about it, and where good acting is respected and supported. I keep closets full of every possible costume and prop (store bought and homemade) that have made their way into my room over the years, so we can enjoy the fun of dress up.
None of this acting is professional. It doesn't take hours of dedicated rehearsal time. I'm not a drama coach, and I don't have any theater background (aside from nine years of teaching middle school, which I consider the ultimate stage experience). We act to make reading more fun, and it's my favorite strategy to keep kids engaged with a text.
What is your favorite way to provide feedback to students?
I'll share my two favorite ways to provide feedback, since it's hard to pick the best one.
1. Comments on Google Docs through Google Classroom
I admit that I was not fully on the Google Docs bandwagon until Google introduced Classroom. It was just too much of a pain to keep all of my students' work organized in digital format, as silly as I know that might sound. So I was still lugging home papers and commenting on them in pen for the first part of the school year. To say I've simplified my life since then is an understatement. I can type faster than I can handwrite, and the comments feature also highlights exactly the area I'm talking about. Students can reply back to my comments and keep on ongoing feedback conversation at any time. I use the comments to respond as a reader, give suggestions, or highlight major areas of concern.
I think comments are a great way for me to give immediate feedback to writers, and a non-threatening way for them to ask for help if they are shy. Also, let's face it: in today's world, teenagers are used to communicating via text and chat. They like the comments because it makes feedback and teacher interactions less intimidating.
2. Writing Conferences
As much as students like to avoid face-to-face communication with adults, I still require my students to have writing conferences with me. There is simply no better way to get to know someone and their struggles as a writer than by having a one-on-one conversation about writing. It doesn't matter if it's three minutes or 15 minutes long; conferences are one of the most important communication and feedback tools I have for building relationships and helping writers grow.
Writing Conference Video:
I promised I was in for the latest #reflectiveteacher blog challenge, so here's my (kind of) late start. Thankfully, this doesn't require a post every day, because things have been crazy this week. All the prompts for this week lump into one category for me, so that makes it easy.
My favorite writing activity and formative assessment approach is simply free writing. Does that sound boring? Because it's not. It's the most opposite of boring that could possibly exist, and we don't give kids enough of it once they get older. For some reason, we decide that as students get into middle school, high school, and college, they must stop writing for pleasure and always have dictated writing assignments. Why? I don't know. I thought it too, for a while. I thought I wasn't teaching writing unless I was slogging seventh graders through research papers and marking eighth grade papers bloody because it was the right thing to do to prepare them for future writing assignments. It wasn't. It was just perpetuating a cycle, and contributing to why a lot of kids learn to hate writing after their elementary school days. So my favorite activity is to not do those things that make kids hate writing. My favorite activity is to just let them write. Let them love writing.
Regular free writing is good for kids, I promise. I know some English teachers might balk or think allowing kids time and freedom to write is laziness or lack of teaching on my part, but it's not. Forcing students to write within a narrow scope of assigned territories doesn't really make them think, other than thinking how they can jump through hoops to please the teacher. Giving them freedom? That's hard. They have to think for themselves. They have to create. They have to show ownership because they have the control; they can't blame it on a bad assignment. It builds their creative muscles, and their writing experience. It creates a habit of writing, which might be the one truly essential aspect of actually being a writer.
Free writing is one of my favorite things, period. It shows students that writing is important, and it helps to build their individual voices.
I consider myself pretty lucky when it comes to the men in my professional life. In our 7th and 8th grade team, we have mostly male teachers, and I think they all make excellent role models for both our boys and girls. Maybe I've become spoiled to have such stand-up dudes around because last night I saw the opposite at a track meet, and it was one of the few occasions in my life where I've been speechless.
I love track season, and last night was about as perfect as it gets. Beautiful weather, our girls are gaining confidence, and the meet was running smoothly. I'd spent the first hour down watching our shot put and discus girls do their throws, and was coming up to the stands to join my co-coach and our team to cheer on our girls in the 100m dash. I was blindsided by what was happening when I got there.
I could see the looks on our girls' faces and knew that something wasn't right. Their eyes were big and the tension was heavy. A man from across the aisle was shouting something at my co-coach. She wasn't shouting back, but she wasn't giving in. I was staring, dumbfounded, trying to absorb what was happening so I could do something or prevent something terrible from happening.
The issue: my co-coach is short. Barely five foot, to be exact. To get an accurate start on the 100m, she has to stand on the bleachers to see the smoke from the starter's gun. We make our camp pretty high up in the stands so that most of the spectators are down below. This man was across the aisle to the right of us. She was in his way. He told her she needed to move or sit down so he could see. She said she was sorry but she's a coach and she needed to get a start for her girls. He got angry. He came across the aisle and got in her face. He told her she was rude (she's still just watching the starter and cheering for our girls, trying not to lose it in front of the other 30 girls all around us in the stands, watching this instead of their teammates race). He told her she was a real "word that starts with a B!" She gave him her name and our Athletic Director's name and said he could call if he really wanted to complain. He got so close to her that I was afraid he was going to grab her and said, "It's pretty hard for you to write down those times when you're shaking, isn't it?"
As a woman, I'm not sure I can express how terrifying this was. It was a blatant display of a man trying to use both his words and body to intimidate a much smaller woman into doing what he wanted. Here's the thing: the stadium was half empty. The guy and his three friends could have moved anywhere to get a better view. But he wanted to assert his dominance, and I think what really pushed him over the edge was simply that this woman didn't do what he wanted her to. So his reaction was to speak to her and use his body to try to make her submit to his will, and he did it in front of our entire group of young women. Girls who are starting to date and form intimate relationships with boys. Girls who are looking at men and boys in a new light. Girls who were terrified about what they saw.
He finally backed off with a few more choice words, and we went back to having a great track meet. We didn't let it affect anything, and I filled in my principal/A.D. about the situation so he knew exactly what went down. My co-coach and I were at the point where we could laugh about what a jerk the dude was on the bus.
But tonight we're going to have a serious conversation with our girls at practice. We're going to acknowledge what happened and let them know that it is never okay for a man to speak like that to them. That they can stand up for themselves without being rude or mean. I'm so thankful my girls got to see their coach be a strong woman who stood her ground. She didn't lower herself to his level, but she didn't cower down in fear. It was a scary situation, and we're going to turn it in to a teachable moment.
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.