Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Slice of Life: Looking on the bright side of life

My last teaching job, while fulfilling, drained me both physically and emotionally. Much of that had to do with the fact that my drive to and from work every day lasted nearly an hour. That distance had both a physical and mental impact. And I did it for seven years.

The commute for my new job is less than a half hour. While I'd certainly love it to be even less than that, I'm not complaining. Not only does my new school get out about 15 minutes earlier than my old school, but I've found that I can even run a few errands and STILL get home sooner than I would have by just going straight home from my old job. Suddenly I'm feeling a sense of freedom I've never felt before. I'm getting home every day feeling, not only less overwhelmed than I ever did before, but I feel like I still have time to get things accomplished after I've made dinner.

Despite the fact I still feel the way most teachers do -- like there is never enough time to get everything done -- this year I feel hopeful that I can experience the work-life balance I was so desperately seeking in my first seven years. The weight on my heart, mind, and spirit has suddenly been lifted. 

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Celebrate the New School Year


I thought I would participate in my first "Celebrate This Week" post, established by Ruth Ayers, since each day of the start of this new school year found something new and joyous to celebrate. Here is the rundown:

Monday
Today began the first week of school at my new/old school (new because it's my first year teaching there/old because it's where I went to school). No matter how many years I've been teaching, the first day will always be nerve-racking. Being the new kid compounds that times ten! Plus, being a graduate of this school piles on the pressure of expectations in some ways. Still, it was a great first day and I'm excited to learn and write alongside my students.


Tuesday
Still in the "getting to know you" phase with my 8th graders - AKA "What's your name again?" But I had a great moment in all three of my classes when I was convinced they'd all think they were too cool to sit on the floor and have a picture book read to them, but instead most of them got up and sat on the floor with great enthusiasm and listened attentively to the story, which was Deborah Freedman's The Story of Fish and Snail. Afterwards we talked about the message of the story, which is to move outside your comfort zone, take risks, and be brave. We even invited Deborah into our conversation by asking her a question on Twitter:

Tuesday was also cause for celebration because author Gae Polisner was in town and she led a wonderful event at Nicola's Books with three other YA authors called 90 Second reads. It was so wonderful hanging out with Nerdy friends and authors.


Wednesday
 Today we continued our class discussion about being brave by showing my classes the video "Brave" by Sara Bareilles and then asked them to write about the ways they plan to be brave this school year.

When I asked each of my classes who wanted to be brave and share with everyone, I had one brave soul in my last hour raise his hand and proceed to share words so heartfelt and moving that I couldn't help but find tears welling up in my eyes. And on the first week of school no less! It wasn't long before a few more students showed their bravery and shared their thoughts with the class too. I have no doubt this is gong to be a great school year.

Wednesday was also my husband's birthday and we celebrated by having dinner with some friends at one of our favorite restaurants, Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, and then attending another book event at Nicola's, this time for author Kathleen Flinn's new memoir, Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, which is a book I will do doubt be using as a mentor text in my own classroom. 


Thursday
Parent night. Which always gets my hands clammy and my face about three or four shades of red and blotchy, as I am not the most articulate of speakers when I am nervous. But the best part of the night is when I had a parent come up to me and tell me how much it meant to her that I wrote a syllabus that was so positive and uplifting. She said, "So often teachers write what students can't do. I was so impressed at how you focused on the positive."


Friday
Today I finally got around to showing my students the classroom library and how to check out books with Booksource Classroom Organizer. They took some time to peruse the shelves and book boxes, and most students left class with a new book to read. Individual discussions with students about favorite books or what types of books they were looking for reminded me of just how important it is to make those personal connections with kids to show we care about them and their interests. That idea his home even more when I read this article on Slate about the two things students want from their professors more than anything else. I think it can also be said of K-12 teachers as well. 

I also had the privilege of meeting the newest Nerdy Book Club member, Sarah Andersen's baby boy, Jack William.
Jack Will
Not only is he absolutely precious, but as Brian Wyzlic pointed out yesterday on Facebook, it's a WONDERful thing that Jack Will was born in August (especially since Sarah was due in September!). And if you don't understand that reference, it's time for you to drop everything and read Wonder by RJ Palacio. What makes Jack's name even more special is that Sarah didn't even make the Wonder connection until Brian pointed it out. Such a happy moment or serendipity.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"I'm sorry and congratulations!"

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I was recently hired to teach 8th grade English at the school I attended from 5th-12th grade. Yesterday was the first day of school. It was a short first day but packed with emotion as I not only made my way back into the classroom, but also the place I called my second home for so many years. It feels good to be back amongst students, but it feels extra special to be in a place that is so familiar and full of so many fond memories. I am excited to see what this school year brings.


Every year on the first day of school I have students write about the following JK Rowling quote:

Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something. Unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all -- in which case, you fail by default. 

My favorite response of the day was, " When my friends fail, I'm [going to] say 'I'm sorry and congratulations.'" What an insightful response! That might be my pep talk for students who encounter stumbling blocks in their learning this year. What a great tag line to remind kids that failure, while frustrating, is just a building block to success.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

New beginnings: a look into my past, present, and future

Today it was back to work -- a new teacher orientation meeting at my new/old school. I use the term new/old because it just so happens that my new place of employment is the school I attended from 5th-12th grade.

Me in 8th grade -- the very grade I'll be teaching at the same school I attended

Part of today's orientation was to take a tour of the entire campus since it is quite large -- encompassing a K-12 school as well as a Catholic parish. As I entered both the church and high school today, I was struck by how true it is that scent is the sense that is most closely associated with memory. The smells in both of those two buildings were exactly the same as they were twenty years ago. Immediately and like a bolt of lightning, the memories came flooding back. As I walked through the church and down the main aisle, I saw myself walking down that same aisle at my 8th grade and high school graduation. As I walked through the high school gym, I smiled at the memory of cheering for varsity basketball games. But more importantly, I recalled with great fondness how much this school felt like a second home and helped give normalcy to a childhood and adolescence that was fraught with angst and family issues that, upon further reflection, were much bigger and grown-up than I realized at the time. My teachers, friends, and school community helped give me the faith and stability that I needed, and for that I am forever grateful.

So it was with both a heavy and joyful heart that I wandered through these buildings today. For the other new teachers, it was likely just a routine tour, but for me it was where my past and present suddenly crashed in a head-on collision.

There are moments in your life that happen and you say to yourself, "This feels right. This is where I'm meant to be." Today, I say those words wholeheartedly. I knew it from our opening prayer to the time the meeting was over and I drove away with a huge smile on my face despite the raging headache that was wreaking havoc with my ability to do anything productive and caused me to leave before I could do any work in my classroom.

I end this post today with the way our meeting began, with a beautiful prayer and reflection that speaks so much to the heart of a teacher.


It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord's work.


Nothing we do is complete.

No one sermon says all that should be said.
No one prayer fully expresses our faith. 

No one reconciliation brings perfection.
No one program accomplishes the mission.
No one set of goals and objectives include everything.


This is what we are about. 
We plant seeds that one day will grow. 
We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.


We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.
 

And although we may never see the end results,
we remain workers, ministers, not Messiahs. 
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.


Adapted from A Future Not Our Own by Bishop Ken Untener

Monday, August 4, 2014

Enough with the lip service

So Campbell Brown continues to make the rounds on TV show after TV show in her crusade to end teacher tenure. Today she appeared on Morning Joe with David Boies, the lawyer who will be representing the parents in the case in New York that disputes teacher tenure. 

Here's the thing: I understand the desire for people to have the debate over tenure and whether or not it's effective. By all means, let's debate it. But when you continue to have a discussion that is one-sided and continually leave teachers out of the conversation, talking ABOUT them rather than with them, then don't give me lip service like, "This is not anti-teacher." Actions speak much louder than words.

Since teachers aren't invited to the debate, I encourage you to share your concerns via social media. Tweet directly at Ms. Brown and Mr. Boies. Tweet to shows like Morning Joe and The Colbert Report. People need to hear our voices. They've been stifled for far too long.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Advocating for students should not mean silencing teachers

I've only just recently become aware of the controversy surrounding former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown and her mission to end teacher tenure, but you can be sure I'm getting myself up to speed after her appearance on the Colbert Report. 

Once again, teachers are receiving the brunt of the media's ire as the conversation revolves around teachers, yet we are not given a seat at the table. So educators must resort to writing tweets and blog posts (sometimes anonymously for fear of their jobs) because no one in the media is inviting us on shows like the Colbert Report to rebut the arguments of non-educators who think they know the best way to educate children. Who needs undergraduate and graduate degrees in education along with years of classroom experience when you have corporate backers with lots of money to tell us how to educate children, am I right?

So since I nor any other teachers for that matter have been invited to the debate that I'm supposedly trying to silence, I must write my rebuttals here on this blog.

Brown stated that 91% of teachers in New York were rated either effective or highly effective despite the fact that only 31% of students are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. She then followed up those statistics with the question "How does that compute?"  I'll tell you how that computes: it's called "standardized tests are not an accurate reflection of a student's abilities and have very little to do with students and everything to do with politics and money." Education blogger Jersey Jazzman said it more accurately than my emotional diatribe, so I'm just going to quote him directly:

What Brown neglects to mention, of course, is that New York's test scores plummeted this past year when the state changed to Common Core-aligned tests.  Everyone who knows anything about testing knows that New York has been monkeying with the passing rates for years, as cut scores shift for reasons having nothing to do with actual changes in student achievement. 

In her Colbert interview, Brown called teacher tenure laws anachronistic, outdated, and antiquated. It seems to me that in 2014, if a teacher can get fired for teaching evolution as Colbert pointed out, or working for a school and writing a blog post about homophones can result in a dismissal, that tenure is needed now more than ever.

And let's not fail to see the irony in the fact that Brown founded a group called the Parents Transparency Project, yet she is choosing to ignore transparency about the people who are funding her efforts to end teacher tenure. Once again I will quote Jersey Jazzman:

And that is precisely the problem: the debate about tenure is now dominated by telegenic partisans who have no knowledge of education policy and won't reveal their funders -- all the while, the voices of teachers are excluded. 

I encourage you to read Jersey Jazzman's entire blog post because it is incredibly enlightening.

Meanwhile, let's not forget that in her crusade to end teacher tenure to rid the system of ineffective teachers, the people Brown and her "educational" crusaders are likely to end up hurting are passionate, caring teachers like these:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My beef with "Word Crimes"

I know a lot of people have posted this new Weird Al video to their social media feeds and laughed about it

but I have to be honest and say that I've been stewing about it for the past two weeks. As an English teacher, I am programmed to notice things like symbolism, metaphor, and juxtaposition in everyday life. So maybe it was because the day before I saw this video, I had just read Kevin English's brilliant post about the notion of "bad grammar" and then the very next day I experience a heavy dose of the exact issue Kevin is cringing about.

I know I run the risk of being told I have no sense of humor here when I say I didn't find "Word Crimes" funny at all. I especially don't find it productive to share in a classroom full of students who are already likely intimidated by writing. Let's just give them more reasons to think they can't do it. Grammar Girl also concurs with my finding no humor in the video and explains why she finds it problematic:

Perhaps the most troubling thing for me is seeing teachers who say they are going to use this in class because kids will find it funny and it will make them care about grammar. The entire ending of the video is putting down people who have trouble writing. The video says it’s OK to call people who can’t spell morons, droolers, spastics, and mouth breathers. Really, you’re going to use an educational tool that tells your struggling kids that they’re stupid? It just blows my mind that any teacher would think that’s OK.

Maybe I'm just hypersensitive about this issue since I will be presenting at NCTE in November with some amazing teachers about how we can try to change this narrative of "students can't write" but I want to empower my students to feel like they CAN write, not give them yet another reason to feel like it's something completely out of reach for them.

I posted these very thoughts about this issue on Facebook and a spirited debate ensued, some teachers finding my stance problematic because I put little faith in students to "get" that it's parody, but thankfully, I had the wit and wisdom of my friend and fellow NCTE presenter Kevin English on my side, who always knows exactly the right thing to say, and how to say it much more eloquently than I could:

I believe that the moves we make in our classroom, including the clips that we share, should lift students up. I don't see a place for this in the classroom for the reasons Beth already shared. I work with many students who struggle with writing. What they don't need is to continue the idea that I, as an English teacher, am the keeper of the rules and the wielder of the red pen. There is value in their home languages and grammars, and language changes all the time. Should students recognize that their audiences might judge them because they don't adhere to rules? Yes. Should they also know that what they bring to the classroom is valued, important, and equally legitimate? Even more so!

The title alone bothers me. These aren't "crimes," even jokingly so. Students hear enough punitive language as it is. It reminds me of the time a student said he "raped" his test. There's a power structure at play here in language, but I don't lose anything when someone swaps "fewer" with "less." But I can lose my relationship with that person if I point out what people would consider a misuse.

What compounds this debate is that there are so many usage guides that disagree and all purport to be the authoritative voice on academic English. This is why I want students to think more like a linguist. Does it make sense? Is it clear in meaning? Are there any moments that could confuse readers as to what your intended meaning is?

A few days later, Kevin shared a link with me that took me to a blog post by Lauren Squires called 25 Questions for Teaching with "Word Crimes" which urges teachers to do just what Kevin wants his students to do: think like a linguist rather than a grammarian:

So as a teacher, I want to say: Weird Al can think what he wants about language, and you the audience can laugh along or not, depending on your views on language or taste in music or whatever. But please do not mistake the video itself for an educational video. It will not teach students about language. It will not teach students about grammar. I've seen many comparisons to Schoolhouse Rock, but would any student who didn't already know what a "preposition" was leave Weird Al's video understanding it? No. Rather, on its face, this video teaches people that there is a right way to speak/write, and if you don't do things that way, you're a bad person (or a sewer person? or a person with a disability?) who should not breed. Nothing about how language works, or why these "rules" are what they are.

So I hope that if you are a teacher and you do want to use this video with students, you do it in a way that engages in a discussion, not only about the humor of it, but also why it is problematic. I pray that it isn't used as more fodder for grammarians to lecture students about how "improper" their writing is. Please read Lauren's 25 Questions for Teaching with "Word Crimes" before you show this video in a classroom.


Edited to add the following tweets as part of the conversation: