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Showing posts from 2015

Goals for 2016

Cindy challenged us to write about our goals for the coming year. This is tough for me because I tend to be the type of person that lists. And then I make lists for my lists. And then I'm so overwhelmed by some of my lists of things that I want to do that little to none of it gets done because I've lost the inspiration to achieve that goal that I had at that particular moment in time. I even made a list before I started writing this post.

Right now, I'm thinking a lot about this NPR piece entitled, "How Writing Down Specific Goals Can Empower You." Some research has shown that when students write down their goals, they are significantly more likely to achieve them. After reading this (last year and again this year), I became even more exciting to put pen to paper (or, well, words to keys) and make some of my goals visible.

When I started a note on my iPhone the other day about things that I want to accomplish for this coming year, I struggled. As a teacher, I fee…

Teaching and 'More Happy Than Not'

At ALAN, Cindy recommended More Happy Than Not, and I promised that it would be my next read. And so it was. This post may contain minor spoilers, so if you haven't read it, I'd recommend not reading further.

When reading it, I kept thinking about one student in particular that would need to read it. I think we all encounter those books, the ones that we just know a certain student would need to read because she or he would identify with it in ways that no other student would. On a side note, the student that I actually had in mind didn't check it out; another student did. I'm starting to notice a pattern to the books that student reads, but that's a reading conference conversation and not necessarily something I'll divulge here.

Aaron's journey of life after his father's suicide really touched me. It might be because my mother died during my freshman year of high school, and that's something that I'll never quite understand and fully grasp. I t…

Buying a House

I've been in the process of purchasing a home for what feels like a year. It's actually been about a month and a half, but it feels like it's taking a lot longer than it should. With the holidays approaching and a few necessary repairs taking place on the property, we're slowly acquiring the home that we've been dreaming of.

I mention the process of home buying because, for the first time in my teaching life, I have personal obligations that are really and truly consuming my time. I was telling my colleague the other day that this is the first time I've felt like this as a teacher. I've had the luxury of not having many out-of-school obligations and, in turn, I've been able to allow teaching, reading, writing, and much work-related thinking to consume my life. (I'm not complaining; I truly love so many of the responsibilities of my job!)

The custodian in my school jokingly called me a "part-timer" last week. I've gotten to know him ove…

What ALL My Students Have Taught Me

I quit my first teaching job after three months to begin working where I currently work. Let me dispel initial reactions: It wasn’t the kids. It wasn’t my colleagues. It wasn’t because I was completely unhappy. It wasn’t a horror story about a dysfunctional school district that was hemorrhaging staff left and right. I was fresh out of college and saddled with more student loan debt than my part-time salary, and I wanted needed a full-time teaching position. Regardless of the amount of time I spent there, those students taught me some invaluable lessons that have shaped my teaching life since then.
My first position was at a nearby international baccalaureate school where nearly half of my students were Muslim. At a time when too many conversations are dominated by declarations about what Muslims are and are not and the same conversations allow little room for inquiry in order to develop an understanding, I emailed Cindy about writing about this topic in order to share what these stude…

Ten Quotes Worth Considering

I saw Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGToGo) tweet out his top ten quotes from the National Council of Teachers of English's Fall Convention, so I thought I would do something similar. Here are ten golden lines that I know I will be thinking about in the months ahead:

"Our voices are more powerful when we're together." - Beth Shaum (@BethShaum) "We engage in the fantasy that there will be an audience someday."  -Brian Sweeney "Evaluation stops the learning. It sorts kids." -Penny Kittle (@PennyKittle) "School is a place where young people go to watch old people work." -Jeff Wilhelm (@ReadDRjwilhelm) "We need to change the language that we use to identify our readers." -Kwame Alexander (@kwamealexander) "They're out babies and we love them." -Ernest Morrell (@ernestmorrell) "Teach like our lives depend on it because too often their lives will." -David E. Kirkland (@davidekirkland) "Just because we invite and …

Sometimes You Just have to Stop What You're Doing

Last week, things broke down with one of my classes. Students are required to bring a writing prompt to class three times during the semester, and a prompt quickly segued into a discussion that stressed our classroom's sense of community. (I think I blogged earlier about this class and the Thanksgiving feast-like arrangement of desks on the first day of school and the insistence that everyone must sit together because "we're family.") It was a prompt that I thought was "safe" but could lead to uncomfortable conversations, which is when we learn the most.

It was then that I remembered a line a professor shared during office hours in college: "When a conversation devolves into that of good versus evil, all room for negotiation has gone out the window." And that's what happened.

When students talk in front of their peers, they take incredible risks. Students analyze the discourse of the other students in the room, even when they think they don…

Conferences as Data

I presented yesterday at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English's Fall Conference on a question that I'm still working to answer: What counts as data and assessment? It's a question that I still don't have the answer to, a question that isn't answered as easily as the educational de-formers want it to be. No student will ever be reduced to just a number; they are stories. They are works in progress. 
As teachers, we hear a lot about the "triangulation of data." We're told that our assessments should "speak" to each other. And we're often given incredibly large amounts of data that is packaged with an invisible label that reads something like this: This data is reliable, and it's meant to make your job easier. It's instantaneous or nearly so, so you can make nearly immediate change in your instruction. But sometimes what we think we know to be true about students isn't necessarily true about students. Take, for example, p…

When a Student Sings

I absolutely adore my creative writing class. I'm fortunate enough to have a small group of students that are willing to take so many risks in their writing. It might be because I've had half of them before as students. It might be because half of them know each other so well that they hang out outside of school. It might be because we spent a lot of time getting to know each other during the first few weeks of school. There are a lot of mights there, but these students, while diverse, just really seem to understand how important it is to make other writers feel safe and secure.

Each day, we start class with a student-generated writing prompt. I modeled this for the first few days of class, and then I asked students to take them over. They can look at craft, they can develop a "big idea" from a text, or they can even just play a song and let our pens wander. (I'm a little reluctant to admit this, but their prompts are often much better than mine.)

And two days ag…

Social Media and Making Kids Want to Read

A student showed me something very similar to this the other day:

For the past two years, I have watched this phenomenon play out in the halls of my high school when we begin reading John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in my tenth-grade English classes. Without fail, a student comes into school the day after I've distributed books and says something along the lines of this: "Mr. English, I know what happens. George kills Lennie." They go on to say that the book is now "ruined" and insist that the next few weeks will be absolutely boring for them.

And as a result of this, my challenge for the next few weeks has no longer become about plot, especially for these students. It's an opportunity for me to revisit our essential question again and again and again.

These students know the outcome of the text, even if it wasn't on their own accord. I, however, have an opportunity to push them to think about this question in a deeper way than many of their peers:


Summer Schooled

Summer school officially ended on Thursday, August 6, and I wanted to take a few weeks to gather my thoughts before posting. It was an intense six weeks, and I think I learned just as much, if not more than, as my students.

Here are the top ten things that I'm thinking about heading into the new school year:
Every student, even those that are labeled as "at-risk," can love to read. I have continued appreciation for receiving the Book Love Foundation's grant last year. I took many of those books to my summer school classroom, and I had so many students tell me that this was the first time in years that they had read something they chose and liked. As I head into my classroom, I know that I can't have preconceived notions about which kids like books and which kids don't. I have to give them opportunities, time, and space to explore good books. After many years of not having choice in writing, it takes effort to move writers into finding inspiration. Because I tr…

Reconnecting Readers

Our school's open house was just last week. As usual, I met many more of my ninth-grade students than tenth-grade ones. As student after student walked into my classroom, most of them commented on the books that span my walls. And in my usual fashion, I asked each student about his or her reading lives.

Too many of them expressed their dislike of reading. When I talked about how I try to balance time for students to read what they want and what I want, parents seemed excited. But far too many students asked me about "points," "quizzes," and "word counts."

Is this what reading has become? Do real readers read because of extrinsic motivation and/or punishment? Do they read because they have to, or do they read because they want to?

I'm looking forward to helping these student-readers see that readers read because they have an intrinsic motivation. They're yearning to find out what happens next to a character; they have a question that's pert…

Lynda Mullaly Hunt's Mr. Daniels

A friend recently gave me a copy of Lynda Mullaly Hunt's Fish in a Tree. I devoured the middle-grade book in just two days, and I ended it wanting to be more like the main character's teacher, Mr. Daniels.

This book reminded me of why I wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, school was a safe place for me. I felt accepted, and I knew I knew that I had adults who cared about me and that showed an unwavering commitment to making sure I learned and, most importantly, felt safe. That is exactly who Mr. Daniels is.

Ally Nickerson, the main character, suffers from dyslexia. She knows she's different from everyone else, and a few of her peers make her painfully aware that they notice it too. But things change when Mr. Daniels becomes their teacher. He treats all students with respect, and he works to show every student that all types of learning are valued.

With less than a month before school starts, this is who I want to be. Remaining steadfastly positive is so difficult when we s…

My Take-Aways from 'Watchman'

Please note that the entry below may include some information that spoils the Go Set a Watchman for you if you haven’t read it.
After reading Go Set a Watchman, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to talk to students about Harper Lee’s book. I’ve had a few students email me this summer to ask if I had seen the hoopla or read the book, so I know that many will already have heard something about it. I also know that others who hated Mockingbird won’t have gone near it. (Now I’m thinking that I could write an entirely separate post about how Mockingbird, while one of my all-time favorite novels, just isn’t the right book at the right time for so many of my students.)
There are a couple of things that I want students to know and understand about Watchman. For starters, it was written beforeTo Kill a Mockingbird, and I want students to see how a part of a book can become inspiration for another, whether it’s by choice or an editor’s suggestion. This is part of the process that I try t…

Summer School: A Risky First Week

I'm teaching summer school for the first time of my teaching career, and it's been quite an experience during the first week. With a mixture of students from the three high schools within my district, classroom dynamics are interesting. It's also an opportunity to hear from students about how a variety of teaching experiences for them or haven't quite.

We're starting class every day with a writing prompt. I began the first day with a deep one, knowing that I might make students feel uncomfortable but recognizing that it was important to establish and develop a common understanding. I asked kids to write about why they are here. (On a side note, I love that a student was quick to ask why I was there! I shared with them the research questions I needed help answering this summer [I plan to post about these later], and I received really positive responses.)

I am so impressed with the risks that students have taken during the first week. 

After the very first writing pro…

Because Efficiency, Not Security

I attended a recent professional development session about the new SAT to be administered this coming spring to every junior in Michigan. I won't comment on the statewide change from ACT to SAT because I think enough people already have; just know that there are those that are quietly raising eyebrows at what appears to be an amassing monopoly by College Board and David Coleman.

While I found this session helpful at demystifying some of the things my students will eventually be asked to do on a test, I found it a little unsettling that, when asked about the need to time the test by a member of the audience, the company's representative responded that it was a "security measure."

In my three years as a teacher, I've overheard students countless times warning others about what was on the quiz or test in a class that other students are fortunate enough to take later in the day. I get that. Although that raises larger concerns about the way students are being assesse…

Keeping Track of a Classroom Library

This past year, I used Booksource's Classroom Organizer to keep track of the 1,200+ titles in my classroom library. (There's also a mobile app that comes in really hand when scanning new books.) I wanted to share a few things that I learned along the way, including the tweaks I might make for next year.

Double Check to Ensure Check-In:
Unless the window pops up to ensure that a book has been checked in, it hasn't been. While I think this may be because of the somewhat unreliable wireless I have in my classroom, I'm finding that many titles that are "checked out" are really back on the shelves. Don't move on to the next book to return until this message pops up! 

On a similar note, I began placing books alphabetically on shelves by titles instead of authors. This helped a lot with the report that I could pull of "Current Books Checked Out" because it is organized by title and doesn't include the authors' names. I realized that students might…

186 Unique Lessons

I've been working on this post for a while now. I wanted to write an end-of-the-year reflection on my third year of teaching, and I had initially planned to write a lesson that each of my 186 students had taught me this year. Along the way, I felt like it worked more to include some general reflective lessons I've learned, too. So here's a list, although it certainly isn't 186 items long!
Don't assume a student's work was done by someone else. They just might be able to write in cursive. Students can be incredibly mature and think globally. Give them this prompt, and you might just be surprised: "The world needs to have a conversation about..." For this student, it was "unity." Quiet doesn't mean they can't contribute. They just might need an extra push. Helping a friend memorize her recitation might just mean the first friend memorizes it too. Students have writing interests outside our class. In fact, they might write so much that …

How Opening a Pool Opened My Mind

This past weekend, I spent a few hours helping my future father- and brother-in-law opening their family's pool. This was a completely new experience for me. I'm not the first person that people think of when they need help with physical labor or mechanical reasoning, but I volunteered because I like to learn new things.

Growing up, my family didn't have a pool. My mom occasionally lived in an apartment with a pool, so we could reap the benefits of having one. I just had never done any of the required maintenance to open one. And this work reminded me of what my students must feel when they encounter a new task for the first time.

I offer a few comparisons between the opening of the pool and the learning that takes place in classrooms:

Watch out for the spiders! Maybe there aren't gigantic arachnids in our classrooms, but there were in the pool. Asking kids to step outside their comfort zones can be scary. You won't want to do it, but the more you do it, the less sc…