Posted in reflection, teaching practice

Best Laid Plans

In the beginning of the year I had so many hopes, but one of my biggest was writing workshop. I had laid out plans of pre-writing activities, drafting, peer edits, polishing, and publishing. Since our school has access to chromebooks, I had imagined this all taking place on Google Docs to ease commenting, editing, submitting, and finally grading. I mapped out our first writing assignment, scheduled time for students to work independently and in groups, and had even incorporated mini grammar lessons for each writing workshop day. What could go wrong, right? This plan was flawless!

As none of my fellow teachers had led writing workshop before, I was left to the throws of the internet to find helpful resources. My colleagues came to me for advice, which was both encouraging and frightening. It affirmed my belief that writing workshop can help reaffirm the concepts taught in the classroom along with useful life skills such as cooperation, trust, constructive feedback, use of google applications, organization, and time management. On the flip side, however, I had never taught writing workshop before – after all I had never taught ANYTHING before – and so I was just going off of what I knew to be successful in my own education. I did have some research to back up my methods, but I was mainly going off of what I had experienced myself.

When planning my students’ writing workshop, I remembered my own experiences – the collaborative “book” publications from my 5th grade years full of family anthologies, the hands on writing and editing from my 7th grade years full of colorful poetry, the essay writing from high school full of literal cutting and pasting, the thesis writing from college (Faulkner, you still hold a dear place in my heart…) full of more cutting and pasting and highlighting and editing and peer corrections. This education was full of everything that writing is meant to be – individual yet collaborative, hands on yet intellectual, draft upon draft upon draft, and finally sharing. I pored over these memories to determine what made them successful for me and my classmates and determined that there were many factors at play:

  1. Hands on – students, especially in middle school, need a hands on approach to learning. They need to be able to get up, move around, feel, hear, and manipulate their learning. Yes, writing involves pencil and paper, but why can’t it also involve scissors and glue? Why can’t we occasionally break out the crayons and markers for pre-writing and brainstorming? This allows all students to access their best ideas in a way that makes sense to them.
  2. Collaborative – middle school students crave peer interaction. Writing – all writing – needs to be personal expression; we as educators are grading personal expression. But students want to hear the validation from their peers. They want to make sure that their ideas are in sync with their neighbors. They want to hear what their neighbors have to say. They want to help their neighbors. It is our job to facilitate this interaction so that the collaboration stage is useful for all students and maintains the personal expression without straying into group expression.
  3. Published – publication can take many forms within the middle school classroom, but ultimately students crave a final, polished product. Middle school students want to see their work come together, just as we all do. A simple collection of individually written poems put together within a self-created book can be published. Conversely, local print shops publish student work in hard bound covers for a long-lasting memory.
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The basis of our writing workshop – I modified to include Prewrite, Draft, Peer Review 1, Individual Review, Peer Review 2, Proofreading, and Publishing 

So, with all of these ideas, what went wrong? I believe that a perfect storm crashed in upon my writing workshop. Focusing on my 6th graders, I notice that time management was a huge challenge. I began our first workshop by handing out a time line with weekly instructions. We reviewed this timeline together, and then students were to get writing. Each week we reviewed the day’s task and what that task looked like. My students, however, either rushed through each step or lagged severely behind. They did not see the importance of each step and could not wait to work on the computers (note – my students were unable to type their documents on the computer until after their 1st peer edit). They were convinced that their friends had seen every grammatical error possible and therefore did not have to complete the proofreading step. They spent more time chatting about after school activities during peer review than draft edits.

In theory, this process should work perfectly, so what went wrong? I believe that one problem is that I didn’t give my students another chance. After this first failed attempt, I let the writing workshop go by the wayside. We had too many other standards to teach and this had flopped, after all. But as I mentioned before, writing is where it all comes together, so shouldn’t this have been the one thing that stayed? My initial plan was to teach grammar through writing, and why didn’t I stick to that plan? I hate that I siloed my instruction, but as I began planning each day, week, month, unit, it was just easier to lose the writing workshop. Writing workshop, after all, was harder. Harder to plan, harder to prepare, harder to create procedures, harder to teach. But within this list of “harders” is the reality that writing workshop is important.

Looking forward, I plan to rekindle the writing workshop with a few minor tweaks. I had required every student last year to have a Writing Workshop Notebook. These notebooks were to stay in the room and be used only for writing workshop. We used them a grand total of once. I am still working on what we will do for next year – currently I am pondering the idea of an interactive notebook for all things English, and writing workshop projects will be housed in folders within the classroom. These folders will solve a couple of problems. One – students will not forget writing materials in their lockers or at home. Two – parents will not be required to buy materials that we may or may not use throughout the year. This will allow students to cut, paste, glue, color writings (see above) without the fear of ruining their precious Writing Workshop Notebook. Three – these folders will be seen as a brainstorming area, with all final products living on Google Docs or other various formats.

I have toyed with the timeline, and I am pondering shorter projects. I believe that writing workshop can and should be a collaborative time, but should also be a personal time for writing and expression. Many of my students pleaded for more free choice projects and fiction writing. I would love to offer these projects next year, and may do so within the interim between required writings. My hope is that these projects student led, while I will provide guidance, are mostly driven by student interest. This will allow students to write what they like and will keep us practicing our workshop procedures.

I would also like to incorporate an author’s chair next year so that students can share what they have written. This will be an addition to the publish step. Students will be able to give and receive feedback. They will also be able to hear other projects that their peers have accomplished.

 

Posted in reflection

Quilts, Cupcakes, and Kitties

With the free time that I have stumbled into this summer, I have found
myself searching for projects. I had forgotten what it was like to just sit. I had forgotten what I even used to fill my time with. And then the projects started rolling in. I rekindled my love affair with quilting, a romance that has dwindled in the past 2 years. I discovered where the phrase “grew like weeds” originated while working in the garden. I once again baked cupcakes and cookies. I found myself at yoga on a Monday morning. And, on top of the list of projects (and occasionally cleaning the house), I still found time to just sit.

In my rush to finish my masters and my drive for perfection within my classroom, I had lost a sense of what I needed to re-energize. I had forgotten how creativity, manual labor, and the sweet scent of baked goods can heal a soul. This summer I have been reminded how important it is to take time for me, for my interests. I have been shown how much happier and productive I am if I do something for myself.

All to often during the school year, I found myself up before the sun to prep my classroom and materials. Not only that, but I also found myself grading, planning, printing, and emailing well into the evening. And if I was not doing one of those tasks, I was mulling over my lessons and procedures, worrying that I had not reached every student. I had dreams about IEPs and nightmares about adverbs and adjectives. My sleep was restless because I was not able to turn off.

So far this summer, however, I have felt rested every morning. My grammar nightmares have ceased, and the only thing disrupting my sleep is a hungry, cuddly, curious kitty. Her favorite thing to do is wrestle toes, jump in and out of boxes, and watch birds from the windowsill.

 

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a girl and her box

Next year I plan to take more time for me and my family. I can only be my best self if I have time to unwind, re-energize, and let the creative juices flow. I don’t know that I will find time to quilt once the school year starts, but those cupcakes and cookies will be a monthly, if not weekly, occurrence (trust me, gluten free baked goods CAN be delicious!) In the last few months of school, I began to make a schedule for myself with grading and planning goals. These goals allowed me to stay more focused on the reality of what I could accomplish. I still worried, pondered, and adjusted plans at night, but no longer did I fret over a stack of ungraded papers. This schedule and goal list is a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I will ever be able to completely leave it all at school, but I will strive to focus more on what I enjoy in my time off.

 

Posted in reflection

How Technology Found Its Place

Every one of my grad school classes has professed the need for tech tools in the classroom. I have left each one with a list of websites, apps, and resources to use in my own class, mostly written off as I never saw the importance. What could be better than good ol’ Ticonderoga and composition notebook? That is, until I had my own students. Growing up we always were given books. We never had smartboards. We never had laptops or ipads. We were given paper, pencil, and told to take notes from the overhead projector. I say this, not to flaunt my age, but because that is how classes were led only 5-10 years ago. And, while this was my experience, this was my expectation of how to lead my students.

As I began my lesson plans, however, the tech tools still called to me as if they were sirens from a far off land. I longed for iPads so we could integrate the many iOS apps available to classrooms. I searched for videos and TedED talks to assist my students’ visual understanding of abstract concepts. I fell for the trap. My love of paper and pencil gave way to a newfound understanding that technology can help today’s learners grasp material in a more concrete way than before.

I have now created my own list of what tools are useful in the classroom. This list is based on the resources available in my district, what is beneficial and interesting to my students, and complementary to the curriculum. Most everything is free, or has a free version (what is better than free, right?)  I will certainly be adding to this list throughout the years, and have already started making a list of tech tools to check into for next year. My biggest goal for next year is to start a classroom website or Google Classroom. My students need a place where all of their resources are available and where I can keep their information organized. This will also serve as a communication tool for families with helpful dates, classroom procedures, additional handouts (ie: weekly vocab words), and upcoming events. I want my classroom to be completely transparent, and a classroom website is an easy way to do that.

My top classroom resources are:

  1. Spotify – This is the only app that I paid for personally this year, and it was WELL worth it. Music makes everything more fun. I love my Spotify premium account because there are no dreaded ads and you can make and listen to playlists. There are many classroom friendly playlists that my students love including Jazz, instrumental pop songs, and Classical.
  2. Google Slides – Our school uses Google apps, so all students have a Google email account with access to Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Slides, the works. I used Google Slides in a variety of ways in my classroom this year including introducing topics to my students (just like a power point). My students also created many Google Slides presentations to show understanding of concepts, research projects, group work, etc. A colleague has created Jeopardy games through Slides, a goal of mine for next year.

    Screenshot (30)
    Using Google Slides allows me to incorporate relevant examples -with images – beyond the stories we have read in class.
  3. Google Docs (next year Google Classroom) – Most, if not all, of my students’ assignments were written on a Google Doc. This past year, students turned these in via email. This process became tedious when searching for student papers, resulting in several misplaced assignments. To ease this process, I am planning to use Google Classroom next year which will allow for all assignments to be turned in through the portal. Because my classroom did not have a SmartBoard, Google Docs has also allowed me to take notes on the board and then keep them for the next day or future reflection.
  4. Prezi – Toward the end of the year I began making more Prezis. Prezi is similar to Google Slides in that you can introduce content in a presentation, mostly linearly. Prezi is more flexible, however, with its visual formatting.

    Screenshot (29)
    My 6th Graders love seeing the theme of the Prezi of the week. Prezi’s are also very easy to share via email, remind, or website.
  5. ReadTheory – ReadTheory is a great individualized reading tool. Students take an assessment, and the site gives assignements based on level. Each assignment consists of a reading and 5 questions. Students receive points for their efforts and move up or down levels based on questions correct. The best thing about this site is that it gives students an explanation of correct answers. You can also print off grade level passages each week to work through with your class.
  6. NewsELA – Real news stories with quizzes to help students on informational text. There are so many stories to choose from, that every student can find something they like. The best part about this site is the variety of stories based on level. I do wish, however, that students received feedback as to WHY their answers were incorrect.
  7. NoRedInk – NoRedInk is a great tool for interactive grammar. We used it mostly as a whole class exercise, but you can create individual student accounts and assign students problems to work. You can also assign pre and post assessments and assign lessons based on that data. This past year I used this as a supplemental review, but next year I plan to use it more extensively. This tool also has a free and pay version.
  8. Remind – My parents LOVED that I used Remind (previously Remind101) to communicate. They received a text or email with every message sent and could reply directly to me. It was so simple to get info out and receive responses back. Because I would schedule tests and papers a unit at a time, I loved that I could schedule posts to be sent to parents ahead of time. This way, the communication was taken care of, and I only had to worry about adding minor adjustments.
  9. Flocabulary – If we had extra time at the end of a day, or just needed a break, I would show a Flocabulary video. Flocabulary does have a pay option, but many of their videos are available on YouTube. My personal favorite is the Figurative Language video.
  10. Quizlet – Quizlet allows you to sets of digital flashcards. Students can access these by creating their own accounts. We used this for vocabulary review. Students have access to play games with the words, take a pretest, or study words as flash cards. Teachers can also create and use the online tests if you wish.
  11. Kahoot.it – My kids LIVED for Kahoot. If you haven’t heard of Kahoot, do yourself a favor and look it up now. It is by far the best game platform for the classroom that exists (or at least, that I have found). In order to play, your students need access to a computer or phone. You create a multiple choice quiz and the students compete to see who can answer the questions correctly the quickest. There are also countless  public kahoots that you can borrow for your class. The best part – you can download their data to use for remediation, reteaching, quiz scores, etc.
  12. Kidblog.org – I like the idea of having a class newsletter written by my students (see transparency, written above) Coming 2016-2017 or future
  13. GoNoodle – Coming 2016-2017
  14. ThinkCERCA – Coming 2016-2017
  15. Glogster – Coming 2016-2017
Posted in reflection, teaching practice

The 3 Rs: Reading, Rhetoric, and Reflection

Many days in the classroom I found myself questioning whether or not my methods were valid – was I teaching poetry correctly, was I teaching writing correctly, was I teaching analysis correctly. This past week I received affirmation of my own methods. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend  APSI – AP Summer Institute for new Pre-AP English teachers. It was four days full of reading, community, sharing experiences, jokes, writing, analyzing, and more.  I may not have previously known the official names for analysis formats, but I was doing everything correctly. I had been teaching my students Jane Schaffer analysis. I had been teaching TP-CASTT poetry analysis. I may have set the standards high, and we may have had many days full of struggle, but my students were getting it, and they will be ready when they get to high school.

One of the biggest things that resonated with me this past week was that we teach what we know. My instructor’s biggest goal was to reteach new concepts, new strategies, and a new love of topics that may have been mistaught to us during our own education. One of her main focuses was poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with poems, but I love poetry because of its puzzle like nature.

I guess, too, that I have been blessed to have had wonderful English teachers who have taught me the many skills that my APSI instructor focused on. It has been drilled into my head that every paragraph needs a quote, and every quote needs to prove your point, and every quote needs to be explained – a Jane Schaffer analysis (or T.S./C.D./C.M.). That’s what we always did; I just didn’t know it had a name.

When we read poems, we always summarized, looked for hidden meaning and figurative language, identified tone, and reflected on theme. That’s what we always did; I just didn’t know it had a name – TP-CASTT.

I left Friday with a newfound confidence for my ability. I left Friday with a newfound excitement for August. I left Friday with a list of items to prepare. I left Friday ready to hit the ground running.

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One of my biggest goals for next year is to be more goofy. My instructor said, as all teachers have heard at some point in their career, “Teaching is 25% preparation, 75% theater.” Until she began imparting her wisdom upon us – and I began reflecting upon my year – I did not realize how true this statement was. If my students were not understanding a concept, no amount of recitation will help them, it is all in my presentation. That is where the videos, the songs, the games, the markers, the games, the projects, the theater comes in. I attribute much of my 6th grader’s grammar knowledge to songs, markers, and construction paper. So, while I did have the analysis methods correct, I need to work on my theatrics. Some days my classroom was a multi-act play, and other days the worst Off-Broadway production. Here’s to next year winning a Tony!

Posted in reflection

Managing Minds

This weekend I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel of other masters students to enlighten those new to the field. Many in the audience were second career teachers, hoping to have finally found their way  to their calling. The 6 panel members had a collective 20 years in the classroom, with my measly 1. Needless to say, I felt that my knowledge was inferior compared to the 10 year veteran sitting to my left.

While I did impart my sage wisdom to the eager minds of my new colleagues, I wish that I had shared so much more. One panel member, shared with the doe-eyed audience that you do not have to be experts in the field, that classroom management is so much more, that content is 2% teaching and management the other 98%. While I’m not sure that his statistics are correct, I can attest to the fact that no matter how solid you are on verbs and adjectives and sentence structure, the students will not gain that information if you are not solid on classroom management.

What I wished I had said to this new class of teachers was that you will mess up. You will not be consistent 100% of the time. You will forget to make copies and you will make copies of the entirely wrong thing. You will come to school with the best laid plans, finally remembering all of your copies and materials, and will have forgotten the 3 hour lock-down drill. You will have meetings every week, sometimes every day of every week. You will get sick, and then better, and then sicker than you could ever imagine, and then wonder if you finally caught mono. You will reteach lessons, wondering [hoping] if your students will finally grasp the content. You will be more tired than you could possibly imagine. This is because you are human, you work with humans, and you teach humans. This is because you are trying to grade 80 papers. This is because you are trying to complete engaging lesson plans for all 80 students while reflecting on last week and looking over the unit tests. This is because you stayed up late to complete grad school work. This is because you made time to have a life outside of school. And that is ok. Own your mistakes; they are how you show your own learning process and show that you are human too.

But also know that in the end, you will have taught these 80 middle schoolers that it is ok to be human. That it is ok to ask questions. That reading a book isn’t just about regurgitating the plot, that it is about experiencing a new world. That collaboration is about communication. That learning is fun.

While I may not have shared all of that with the incoming class of masters students, I hope that I gave them hope. Hope for the field, hope for their new career, and hope in themselves.

 

Posted in books

Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover

I just want to leave this here for you all to peruse. Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is on our school’s summer reading list, and it ranks high on my students’ list of choices. If you don’t know anything about the book, it is 2015 Newbery and Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner. Many of my students are picking this book up because it is 1) a book in verse and 2) about two brothers who play basketball. I plan to read it soon and will let you know how it is!

Kwame Alexander has just recently come out with another book in verse, Booked, that was featured today on the podcast Nerdette . Also on the podcast today was Judy Blume. Both authors discuss current book trends, their newest books, and what influenced their writings. If you have 30 minutes, it is a great listen.

Posted in reflection

A Summer to Reflect

This week marks the second week of true summer vacation that I have had since middle school. Fitting that I have also just finished my first year teaching middle school. With this summer of firsts, I find myself not quite sure what to do with myself. Coming off of a busy year of teaching, what I understand every year of teaching is like, I find myself searching for projects, not content with just sitting on the couch all day. Also fitting is the fact that today, although the second week of summer vacation, is the first day that I am not sick. Yes, I succumbed to a nasty bug the day that summer vacation started, another first that I hear is quite common in the world of teaching.

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Auri, the three legged wonder

So, in all of my recent time spent sitting on the couch, watching Netflix and daytime tv, catching up on my lengthy reading list, and cuddling with my kitty, I have begun to make another lengthy list – a list of projects.

  1. Take my final Praxis exam
  2. Read ALL of my school’s summer reading books
  3. Go out to lunch with friends
  4. Straighten out the garden
  5. Create a class website
  6. Reflect on my first year

And that brings me here. While  I found myself reflecting on my practice as a teacher each day, I did not write many reflections down. I plan, throughout the summer, to reflect on my first year of teaching – what went well, what didn’t go well, and what needs tweaking. My hope is that, by the time school begins, I will have a much better grasp on the how to approach my classroom and will have cured, or at least curbed, my summer boredom.

Just a bit of background before we get started. My first year certainly had its ups and downs, but I was supported the whole time by family, friends, and a wonderful team. I found myself teaching this year at a charter school where I will be teaching again next year. This past year I taught 6th and 8th grade English. Next year, if all stays the course, I will be teaching only 6th grade English. I will be leaving behind most of my team to help establish a new chapter in our school. While this was a big decision for me, I am excited for the challenge and prospect that this adventure will bring. I have loved my 6th graders, the curriculum, their curiosity, and their youthfulness. Yes, the 8th graders still hold a dear place in my heart, but elementary is where I find myself called.