Saturday, April 26, 2014

Finding Inspration in the Classroom: Sarah Andersen

Yesterday I had the honor and privilege of visiting my friend Sarah Andersen's high school English classroom. I have been saying since June that I wanted to spend this year visiting friends' classrooms to get inspired. I wanted to be part of a new conversation: one that celebrates teachers rather than casts aspersions on them.

Well, up until now I've kind of squandered that opportunity. I was taking a graduate class in the fall so a lot of my free time was spent doing research for that class. Then January began the snowiest winter on record in the state of Michigan. There was a new snow storm every week and as a result, schools are now having to scramble to add days to the end of the year due to the plethora of snow days that were being dished out. So needless to say, I wasn't very enthusiastic about making plans to visit friends' classrooms between the months of January and March because I knew I'd probably end up having to reschedule anyway.

So Sarah's classroom is the first one I've visited this year and it was the perfect one to start with. I am almost finished with my last class before I can take the test to add a high school English endorsement on my teaching certificate. Up until this point I've had an elementary certificate with a 6-8 language arts endorsement. I've always wanted to teach high school and now I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Sarah's class
Sarah reads Boy 21 aloud to her sophomores
Beginning with her first hour class I could immediately tell that Sarah has an amazing group of students. Sarah began the class with a read aloud of the book Boy 21 by Matthew Quick. I was thrilled to see that despite the fact that Sarah teaches high school kids, she still sees the importance of reading aloud to build community and shared reading experiences. So often teachers stop reading to students once they reach middle school. It was wonderful to see a high school teacher embracing the benefits of reading aloud despite what many teachers of that age group might deem as a waste of precious time.

I was equally impressed with how Sarah's students truly enjoy being read to. When she opened the book and began reading, all students put down their phones, other work, even other books, and just listened to the story. One student in the front row even closed his eyes, as if he was trying to soak in every single word she was reading. I have to admit, it was quite soothing. I'm used to being the one doing the reading, not being read to so that was a nice change.

The rest of Sarah's day was spent with her seniors who were working on practicing their senior exit projects. I enjoyed watching her students present, and was equally impressed with the smart, concise feedback Sarah gave to her students. She wasn't just ticking off points on a rubric, she truly wanted to know more about her kids as people and what they plan for their future careers.

Sarah's class
Bookshelves line every wall in sarah's classroom
Throughout the day, the thing that stuck with me the most was that I had the chance to bear witness to such a culture of literacy in Sarah's room, even when books weren't part of the day's lesson. The walls in Sarah's room are lined with bookshelves and baskets of books for students to check out, her whiteboard and decorations all shout "This is a classroom that loves books!", Sarah talks books with her students during downtime, and more importantly, the students talk books with each other.

If I had any apprehensions about teaching high school before yesterday, spending the day with Sarah helped squelch those fears. She proved to me that building relationships with your students and creating a classroom community always trumps content and curriculum. If I was looking for inspiration, I certainly found it. I only wish that the often ridiculous PD that districts force upon teachers could be
Sarah's class
Bookish announcements
replaced with observing another teacher for the day. Teaching can be such an isolating job that we very rarely get to see other master teachers in action. So many of my friends are teachers and yet I can count on one hand the number of times I've been able to see them interact with their students.

After yesterday's wonderful experience, I am looking to fill my spring calendar with more classroom visits. I've already got another one planned for next week. At this rate, I will be ready and rarin' to teach come September!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

Now that you've stolen like an artist, it's time to Show Your Work!

Coming off his wildly successful Steal Like an Artist, in Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon asks you to go beyond just taking inspiration from others. Now it's time to share what you've learned -- or what you are learning, rather. This book is an artist's way of explaining the importance of having a PLN (personal learning network). It's nothing new for me, it's just told from the perspective of an artist rather than a teacher so the different point of view helped further emphasize for me the need to be involved in social networking in order to get your name out there. As Kleon says early in the book, "It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn't online, it doesn't exist."

Given the work I do right now in social media and how I fell into that job, pretty much everything Austin Kleon says in this book applies to my life, right down to "Imagine if your next boss didn't have to read your resume because he already reads your blog." Putting yourself out there for your profession can mean that opportunities find you rather than the other way around.

Show Your Work! is just another way of saying Use Your Outside Voice -- sort of. Maybe not entirely, but I think the spirit of this book meshes really well with the message of Use Your Outside Voice, which is to stop being silent and to put yourself out there for the sake of your profession. 

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
Published: March 6, 2014
Publisher: Workman
Pages: 215
Disclosure: Purchased Copy

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Outside Voices from the Inside: Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive

Yesterday I posted my review of Meenoo Rami's new book Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching and today I'm proud to interview her here on Use Your Outside Voice.

Meenoo teaches high school English at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA and is also the organizer of the wildly popular weekly twitter chat, #engchat, which happens every Monday evening at 7 PM ET. She is a teacher leader in every sense of the word, presenting at many national teaching conferences, and is now the author of her first book. I am proud to have her here on the blog today.

How long have you been teaching? 
I have been teaching for 8 years in the School District of Philadelphia.

What initially drew you to a career in education? 
When I entered Philadelphia schools through my work at City Year, I was shocked to see some of the challenges and inequities in schools, instead of just complaining about state of urban education, I wanted to do something. In my own small way, I wanted to make a difference in the world.

What motivates you as a teacher? 
I think my kids motivate me to be better each day. They bring new ways of seeing the world, thinking about the world, and I learn from them and am shaped by my interactions with them. I think this keeps me going.

What has been your best classroom memory thus far? 
I am not sure if I can choose one single memory but yesterday I had a fantastic day, I was able to participate on two different webinars around Connected Learning yesterday and both of these webinars featured my students. Listening to them talk about the ways they have grown as readers, writers, and thinkers was really awesome. I guess I am happy when I see my students grow.

What do you want the future of education to look like? 
Most of all, I want the people who are doing this work everyday to have some say in the policies that shape the future of education. I hope teachers will agree that the factory model of education is outdated and we need to move towards practices that help our students become makers, doers, creators in our classrooms

What makes you stay in the classroom?
The joy and challenge of being with my students everyday. They push me to become the very best version of myself.

What do the words "use your outside voice" mean to you? 
I think it means going public with our work, I think it means that we as teachers need to share the good things that are happening in all our classrooms. I think we need to take an active part in the dialogue around education and education reform.

Order your copy of Thrive today:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching by Meenoo Rami

Meenoo Rami is the creator of the wildly popular weekly educational Twitter chat #engchat. As someone who organizes monthly twitter chats, I can't even imagine how she comes up with all her ideas for her weekly chat. That is a lot of planning and organizing. But I'm glad she does because her drive to create opportunities for herself and other teachers to grow their PLN is not just admirable, but also useful.

So it's no surprise in Thrive, Meenoo has a thing or two to share with new teachers and veterans alike about how to (re)invigorate teachers to take control of a job that often consumes your life to the point of burn out. Rather than waiting for educational policy to turn the tide, Meenoo has taken her career satisfaction into her own hands and has shared with her readers her five steps to making that happen for you as well:

1. Turn to mentors
2. Join and build networks
3. Keep your work intellectually challenging
4. Listen to yourself
5. Empower your students

Thrive is a slim volume of only five chapters, but that's all it needs really. But don't let its slimness fool you into thinking there's not much substance here. If anything, its 97 pages are saying, "I know you're busy. I know you think you don't have time to read me. But I promise you, it will be worth it in the end."

Thrive is not a PD book. It is an inspirational book. It is a book to remind us all why we picked this profession in the first place and how we can make sure it doesn't chew us up and spit us out. It's a book to remind us that despite all the outside forces affecting what we do in the classroom, in the end, it's your classroom and your students and you have the power to be a force for change.

Disclosure: Review copy provided by Heinemann Publishing

Meenoo Rami is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches her students English at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. Mixing moments of joy, laughter, risk and encouragement, Meenoo pushes her students to think critically about their connection to the word and the world. Meenoo did her undergraduate work at Bradley University in Illinois in areas of Philosophy and English and completed her Master’s degree in Secondary Education at Temple University.  Meenoo also contributes to the work of school-wide events and professional learning communities at SLA. Meenoo works as a teacher-consultant for the Philadelphia Writing Project. She has shared her classroom practice at various conferences  such as: NCTE, ISTE, ASCD, EduCon, Urban Sites Conference for National Writing Project, and #140edu. Meenoo also runs a weekly twitter chat for English teachers called #engchat which brings together teachers from around the country to discuss ideas related to teaching of English. Her first book, THRIVE  from Heinemann will be out in March 2014. In her free time, Meenoo can be found on her bike, on her yoga mat or in her kitchen tinkering with a vegetarian recipe.  

To connect with Meenoo, you can find her on these social media networks:

THRIVE Blog Tour Stops
Jen Vincnet at Teach Mentor Texts
Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn at A Year of Reading
Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy
Kira Baker Doyle at Kira J Baker-Doyle, Ph.D.
Sarah Mulhern Gross at The Reading Zone
Kate Roberts and Maggie B. Roberts at Indent
Beth Shaum at Use Your Outside Voice
Linda Baie at Teacher Dance
Troy Hicks at Hickstro
Joy Kirr at Genius Hour
Tara Smith at The Teaching Life
Antero Garcia at The American Crawl
John Spencer at Education Rethink
Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsberg at Unleashing Readers

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The human side of our profession

There is a wonderful series of photos that was posted over at The Huffington Post this week that captures a moment in a teacher's day most people don't get to see: the moment after the kids leave and it's just you alone in your room, exhaustion overtakes you, and you're just hoping you made a difference today.

I wish more people could catch a glimpse at the human side of the profession. I applaud photographer Aliza Eliazarov for taking this project on.

Check out to photo series here.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The power of poetry - #NatPoMo

Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets. His words are so simple but they strike such a chord. I can't pick just one of his poems as my favorite because I love so many, but this one stands out thanks to a student who performed it one year in my class. He was painfully shy and hardly ever spoke, but when it was his turn to perform a poem from memory, he got up and gave a quiet, gentle, yet convincing rendition of this Langston Hughes poem. Despite his shyness, I still remember the courage I felt from him in that performance as he looked every one of his classmates in the eye. I get chills just thinking about it.

Dream Variations

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Happy National Poetry Month! Many people consider poetry to be a superfluous, unnecessary endeavor to study in school, but I disagree 100%. Poetry, more than prose, shows us just how powerful words can be and is incredibly empowering when we give students the opportunity to take their own journeys with poetry rather than forcing nothing but close readings and "hidden meaning" analysis. I'll be sharing many of my favorite poems this month with the hope that you'll just enjoy the words. No analysis required. I think Billy Collins would approve.

Introduction to Poetry

By Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem   
and hold it up to the light   
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem   
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room   
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski   
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose   
to find out what it really means.