Posted in classroom, reflection, teaching practice

Sweet Summer Time – A Year in Review

It’s officially summer break, and this teacher is so happy. I just finished (read survived) my second year teaching – yay! While this year was easier having the experience, it certainly had its challenges. Our district opened a new school, and I was part of the inaugural team. This not only meant a new team, but a new building, new admins, new curriculum opportunities, hundreds of new families, and kiddos that have never been in our district, following our rules and procedures. Next year (my third year), will certainly be easier since we will have indoctrinated the students and families to our ways.

Reflecting on my year, though, the newness of the school is not what stands out in my mind. Yes, I think the newness made us all feel more like a family, creating something together. And the kids sure got a kick out of all of “the firsts.” They got to be the first to play on the playground, the first to sit in their desks, many were the first to use their textbooks and classroom novels, the first to sit in the classrooms, scuff up the floors, sticker up the lockers, and bring laughter to the halls. But what really stands out to me are all of the experiences that I got to share with my students. Having finished my masters in December, I had buckets full of newfound time that I could dedicate to creating more engaging lessons. I discovered that creating a fun name for an activity is sometimes all it takes to turn a boring, run of the mill worksheet into the most anticipated day of the week, month, or even semester. We did two big activity days that the kids were talking about up to the last day of school: Review Olympics and Escape Room.

The first, “Review Olympics,” was a day of games meant to review concepts before our unit test. I stole activities and worksheets from other days, things I knew the kids had enjoyed and learned from, modified them for the current content, and told the kiddos we would be competing for The Olympics. They got together in teams of 4 and picked a team name, and then it was off to the games. The key to making every student participate, I found, was telling them that their team would be disqualified if not every student participated. I would not disqualify the team from every game, just the game they were lacking participation. While this sounds extremely harsh, I found that students were more likely to pull their lagging teammates along with the added incentive. Oh, and I also had real prizes that I picked up from the Target Dollar Spot (slime, fun erasers, notebooks, locker mirrors).

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Four students completing the vocabulary sort. These ladies worked so well as a team!

The activities, while involving a TON of prep (thank you to my kind, eager, helpful students for cutting and sorting many sentences and game pieces), were an easy and fun way to check for student understanding. They also allowed me to help students/groups one on one who were struggling with the content. The main activities I used were:

  1. Definition sort (seen above) – give students definitions of literary terms and words; they must then sort the words with the correct definition
  2. Part of Speech People Hunt (Kagan Strategy) – Part of Speech Search Sample
  3. Figurative Language Four (8) Corners – Due to the large number of “corners” and the congested room, each team sent a representative to the front. The representatives stood with their backs to the wall, could not run, shove, or otherwise impede the travel of the other participants. I read an example of figurative language and they went to the appropriate label. This was really fun to watch their brains work, especially on the idiom/hyperbole examples.
  4. Quizizz – This was an independent game. Each person must complete the quizizz (and then I could see their data for later remediation/support), but the team with the single highest score won the points. This helped to give the early finishers something to do. Since it was still essentially a team competition, they wanted to make sure that all players do well. If you haven’t created quizizz before, you need to. They are super easy, and the kids like them more than kahoot. (and they have fun memes!)
  5. Narrative Writing Grading – Because 6th graders get tested on narrative writing, I wanted to incorporate a narrative writing activity into the ACT Aspire Games. I gave students a writing sample and asked them to give it a grade. They used a rubric and collectively came up with a grade. The key for judging this activity was to give students a clear guideline to follow. I asked my students to, following the rubric, give the author 3 things he/she did well and 4 things he/she needs to improve upon.

I definitely plan on hosting the Review Olympics again next year. I need to be better at saving my supplies so that I don’t have to recreate them every games. But I honestly cannot think of a more engaging activity in my classroom.

What do you do in your classroom to review? What is the most engaging activity you lead this past year?

Posted in teaching practice

Engagement

One of my goals for the current school year is increasing classroom engagement. Last year being my first year, I was happy to just have covered all of the material. But, now that I more fully understand the curriculum, I can better prepare engaging lessons. To be honest, during my first few months of teaching, I was just happy if students were taking notes quietly in their seats. I now know that quiet note taking does not always equal engaged students who are grasping content.

Last week, my 43 week of teaching, I believe I finally  achieved full student engagement. On multiple lessons. Teacher win!
20160920_162848The first lesson focused on setting. After it became evident that many of my students did not fully understand setting, I decided to break out the art supplies. We read “The King of Mazy May,” a short story about the Klondike Gold Rush, and then students drew a picture of Walt’s home. They not only had to draw a picture, they also had to write to explain why they included each element. The students loved this activity, and it was great to see their creativity as they included various elements. One of my students even water colored his picture at home! And on top of it all, we now have new wallpaper for our classroom!

Next, we began using Quizlet Live. Let me tell you, if you have not yet used Quizlet Live in your class, you are missing out! I have never seen my students so excited about their vocabulary words. The gist of the program is students work together on teams to compete with others. This competition is based on your quizlet deck (online flashcards), and the students race to answer the most correct. Every single one of my students participated, helped each other, and cheered each other on. Yes, it was extremely loud, but the good kind of loud.

The final lesson came about when nearly all of my students were struggling with the difference between direct and indirect characterization. We had taken notes and read examples, but it was still not clicking. So again, to the art supplies I went! Students sorted examples into direct and indirect characterization by cutting out examples from “The King of Mazy May” and gluing them into a graphic organizer. Because this was an in class activity, I was able to float around the room as students practiced identifying the quotes.

The moral of my most successful week to date is to:

  • not be afraid of noise
  • never underestimate the power of art supplies
  • reteach when needed, sometimes starting over from square one
Posted in books, teaching practice

Authentic Reading – Inauthentic Opinion

“Fake it till you make it.”

I have heard this saying many times, in many contexts, from many people. But I didn’t know the true meaning of this saying until I began teaching. My previous jobs – I say job because do you truly have a career shift in your 20s – provided on the job training, slow progression to larger tasks, individualized work plans, and the opportunity to figure things out before a big event or project. Sure, teaching has its training, classes, support systems, but you don’t really know what you’re doing until you meet your students. You “fake it till you make it.” They may know that you are new; if they have been to the school before, the will know you are new. But they don’t have to know that you are unsure of yourself.

While this is the largest application of faking it till you make it, there are countless others: sharing your love of reading (even if you hate it), sharing your school spirit (even if your basketball team hasn’t won a game in years), sharing your penchant for grammar (even if comma rules give you nightmares). Your students are sponges. They pick up everything you say and everything you do. They focus on your tone and your facial expressions. They can tell if the topic of the day is your favorite or not. But, they can also be easily fooled.

Our school teaches two novels a year in tandem with the text book. The novel for 6th grade will be changing to Wonder (yay!), but we had been teaching Dragonwings. I don’t know if you had ever read Dragonwings, but it was definitely not my cup of tea. It did have adventure and magic realism, but I’m more into realistic fiction, science fiction, and memoirs. Did my students know that I didn’t like this book, though? No! I told them before we started how much I loved the book and how excited I was to discuss it with them. They went home, read ahead, and could not wait to tell me their favorite parts.

I knew in those weeks that I could not steal any learning moments from my students. I could not steal any joy from them. Just because we may be covering something that I did not care for, that does not mean that one of my students may not find it to be the most fascinating piece of literature ever written. By faking your enthusiasm for required content, you allow your students the opportunity to make their own decisions about the content. They may come to the same conclusion you – many of my students did – but let them have that experience.

Posted in teaching practice

When Discussion Gets Tough

As I sit here, I’m not quite sure where to begin writing. Reflecting on the week’s, month’s, year’s events, I am saddened by the state of our world and the society where our young people are expected to find their place. This past year I taught at an urban school. My students came from all backgrounds, races, countries, economic status, and family make up. My students had a variety of obstacles during the year. Many were miles below grade level while many were miles ahead. Many took care of siblings while parents worked while others worked themselves. I had students from single parent homes, students from broken homes, students from two parent homes. I had students who had experienced gang activity and the prison system while others imagined they were far, far away from that world. But no matter the class makeup, we all had educational goals to accomplish. These students were a family. They came to school everyday, despite their many differences, and succeeded.

As I sit here and reflect on the recent deaths – Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and 5 Dallas police officers – I anticipate questions from this group of students. Why did this happen? Why were these men apprehended? Why were the police killed if they were helping the protest? When will this stop? At the beginning of the year, I was nervous to have these conversations with my 6th and 8th graders, believing that I was there to teach reading skills and grammar, and that these conversations should happen in Social Studies or at home. I was terrified to say the wrong thing, and so instead I said nothing.

Saying nothing is worse than saying the wrong thing, especially to a group of middle school students. They are receiving information from social media, their friends, the news, parents, but they do not know how to process it. As educators, we can and should have these tough conversations with our students. We should be willing and able to help our students navigate these situations by finding the facts, by finding the heroes, by finding support, and by finding an individual outlet. Many of my students merely wanted an outlet; with so many feelings, they needed a way to channel their emotion productively. Eventually we began writing about these feelings. My students wrote poetry, songs, stories, all from the heart. They wanted to share their thoughts and opinions. They had an outlet and someone to listen to them.

http://www.tolerance.org has wonderful resources to help teaching about any difference. They published a package of resources in August 2014 in response to the Michael Brown shooting. While several of these resources are specific to Ferguson and Michael Brown, many others are applicable to today’s events as well. Other resources and articles you may find helpful are:

 

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, 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 teaching practice

Reading as Mentor

I am a novice middle school English teacher, finding her way in the city. Instilling a passion for storytelling is one of my favorite things about my job. My philosophy, before even beginning my career, was that reading and writing can build community and allow all students access to the curriculum. And how right I was. My school, a small charter school, implemented a summer reading program. Students were provided a list of 10 books, and were asked to read only one. Many of my students did even less, “reading” a book that they had read in elementary school and passing it off as their summer accomplishment. Little did the students know, the school had also poured thousands of dollars this summer to stock the classrooms full of books for the eager-minded to peruse, check out, take home, and pour over.

While many of you may have the luxury of a school library, our school has not had that; my students have been lucky to have a shelf or two of books to pick through. But this year when the students arrived, each room was filled with titles that any middle schooler would be anxious to read. My students began flying through them. My kiddos who reluctantly “read” their summer reading book have now read well over 10 to 15 books each, and I cannot get them to put them down. Our discussions now begin with “What are Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling up to these days?” [Yes, my students follow authors.] And if I’m stuck on a lesson plan, I know that I can always fall back on the books. These kids always have their books, and they use them to discuss climax, resolution, metaphor, character development, comedy, tragedy, even grammar. The most beautiful thing that I have witnessed is the care with which my students recommend books to each other, picking a book that they know will help their friends and describing the aspects of the story that spoke to them. The excitement in their voices is testament to the connection they have made with the stories and the eagerness they have to share their experiences.

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My ever-growing reading list, made by my students. These are only some of the books that have taken their hearts, shown them the way, and will never stay on the book shelf.

I have witnessed the power that stories can have over reaching middle schoolers. Adolescents crave a story that is relatable, about someone his or her own age, or about something they may have gone through themselves. The most common request I get from a student is for a “book about life in middle school.” These kids want to hear about others like them. Many of my students have lived hard lives, and those that haven’t lived truly “hard” lives, may have difficult circumstances. Books and stories help them to realize that they aren’t alone.

Psychologist Albert Bandura explains that we develop through a combination of behaviors, environmental factors, and cognitive factors. His research shows that we learn behaviors from what is modeled for us, cognitively choosing what to emulate, but only aware of what behaviors are presented (Santrock, 2014, p.25). Within my own experiences, I believe that this idea of modeling, specifically within books and stories, helps to achieve many different goals. As I previously stated, books and stories help students to situate themselves within a larger community when they may otherwise feel alone. If the student is going through a particularly difficult time (move, failure, bullying, even death), books and stories can provide students with alternate behaviors to successfully – and sometimes unsuccessfully – overcome these obstacles. The multitude of models presented within the literary canon allows students a better chance to develop their decisions than had these same students been left only to the models presented within their environment.

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Book day is one of our favorite days. Seeing the new additions to the shelves encourages every student to find a story to dive into. Thanks to the large support from parents for helping our classroom library to grow.

When I was told that my school would be using the book Book Love by Penny Kittle as a basis for our literacy instruction, I was over the moon. I had previously read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller and had fallen in love with her philosophy. Penny Kittle’s ideas were very similar, but more targeted to secondary classrooms. I knew that when I had my own classroom, I wanted it to look like theirs. I wanted the bookshelves packed with 2000 books. I wanted the student led book talks. I wanted the reflective reading journals. When I began reflecting myself, I realized, what was most important was the experience for the students. What made Miller’s and Kittle’s approach so amazing was that it didn’t ultimately matter if her students read 5 or 50 books. What mattered was that the classroom environment fostered collegial conversation about books. Many of their students, just like mine, grew within the year they taught them. The growth looks different for each student, but the end goal is growth. Growth cannot happen if conversations cannot happen – conversations about genre, about characters, about what makes a book good, interesting, even horrible – and that is what makes this process fun and exciting.

Adolescents, in my opinion and experience, learn best if they can experience their learning hands on. As I have mentioned, I focus my efforts in my classroom on providing students with ample opportunities to read and analyze stories that students have found, read, and are interested in. According to developmentalist Lev Vygotsky, children learn best from each other and from more knowledgeable peers (Santrock, 2014, p.187-188). The reading and writing model that I have worked to cultivate in my classroom allows for students to take charge of their own learning and teach each other using materials at their individual level. Another benefit of the independent reading model is that students read what they are interested in. Sometimes this results in students reading below their level, but more often than not, they are challenging themselves because the story is so engaging. Vygotsky’s idea of scaffolding encourages a levelized approach where children receive additional support to ensure that all students are able to grasp the concepts.

I believe that allowing students the liberty to choose their own materials and providing them with additional supports along the way encourages the development of lifelong readers and learners. My goal as an educator is to facilitate the learning process both within my classroom and beyond. By facilitating discussions about books and stories, and using my students’ interests, I am not only able to achieve this goal, but allow my students to develop to their full potential as a learner.


References

Kittle, P. (2013). Book love: developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: awakening the inner reader in every child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Santrock, J. W. (2014). Child development (14th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.