Saturday, May 30, 2015

Graduations = Celebration & Reflection

This week we celebrated 8th grade graduation. So naturally this is a good time to reflect on what a wonderful school year it has been. It's hard to believe it's been almost a year since I announced I would be returning to the classroom as an 8th grade English teacher at my alma mater. This year has been everything I had hoped it would be. I had a wonderful group of students, my schedule was about as low-stress as it could be (I come in late morning, teach three English classes, and am home before 4:00), and I immediately felt at home in the community since this is where I went to school.

Since this was my first 8th grade graduation as a teacher at the school I attended, naturally, it would stand to reason that I would start to think back to my own 8th grade graduation 21 years ago.
This is a picture of me with one of my best friends from middle school and high school. Looking at this picture, it's so funny to see how much we've changed (check out my pouffy hair!) but in the few times we have been able to get together over the past few years where we can catch up over dinner, we quickly go into reminiscing mode.

Middle school and high school was an incredibly turbulent time in my family life, so having the support of such a stable, accepting school community helped bring some normalcy to my otherwise dysfunctional life. So to say I am now teaching in the place that helped give me that normalcy and accept me for who I was despite my struggles is a great privilege. When I look at this picture of me from 21 years ago, I see a naive little girl who doesn't have a clue how lucky she got in life. I could choose to focus on the things that make my life difficult or the things that didn't go right, but when it comes right down to it, I have been blessed more than most, and I recognize that more than you know. So despite my struggles, I'm here to say that life is pretty great. And every day is a celebration.

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Sunday, May 17, 2015

To Teach, the Journey in Comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner

Radical and philosophical are two words I'd use to describe To Teach by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner. It will make you question every tradition, rule, and classroom procedure we foist upon children in the name of education and discipline.

In this book, Ayers attempts to squash the notion of the mythical heroic teacher "saving" his students from their lives, but in a somewhat contradictory fashion, this book is also a kind of hero's journey in its own right, as the teacher sets out on a quest with her students and returns transformed.

Rather than write a full review, I thought I'd just share some of my favorite quotes from the book:

The universe is expanding, and knowledge is infinite. At some point, good teachers must plunge into the unknown alongside their students, to adventure on together (5). 

Teaching at its best is not a matter of technique -- it's primarily an act of love (11).

Knowledge, like love, is something you can give away without losing a thing (44).

I want to build spaces where life is lived in the present tense -- where life in school is life itself (45).

All I want to do is teach a really good kindergarten class to 18-year-olds (58). - Avi Lessing

The vapid, formulaic style in which [textbooks] are written functions as a sort of muzac for the mind (69).

Standards are important, it's true. But who decides what the standards are? And can standards ever be definitively summed up? Since knowledge is infinite, and knowing intersubjective and multidimensional, anyone who tries to bracket thinking in any definitive sense is, in essence, killing learning (74).

In some ways every student, every teacher is an entire universe, and it's the relationship, the interaction, that makes learning come to life (75).

Teaching is the vocation of vocations, a calling that shepherds a multitude of other callings (93).

If teachers are never self-critical, they will become dogmatic, losing their capacity for renewal and growth (98).

Education at its best rests on twin pillars of enlightenment and liberation (121).

And then there's this:
To Teach
My favorite sequence in the whole book. Because even though it's about an interaction with a kindergartner, so much of this rings true with a few of my middle schoolers. #TheStruggleIsReal

Cross-posted to my book blog, A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust.

To Teach, the Journey in Comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner
Published: May 1, 2010
Publisher: Teachers College Press
Pages: 128
Genre/Format: Nonfiction sequential art
Disclosure: Purchased copy

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Celebrate middle schoolers

Yesterday was our 8th graders' last day of school. Next week they're off to Washington, D.C. and then they graduate on May 26th. The day ended with an 8th grade vs. teachers volleyball game, and boy did they go all out with their outfit selections:
8th grade vs teachers volleyball 2015
I mean, who ever thought a gecko could play volleyball so well? :) (Incidentally, the teachers won.)

It has been such a wonderful school year. I am so happy that I decided to come back to the classroom and to spend my days with middle schoolers. I know there are many people out there who meet me and tell me what a saint I am for teaching middle school, but I absolutely love it. Yes they are egocentric. Yes they can have attitudes. Yes they can have an extreme sense of what they think is fair and unfair.

But they're also funny, thoughtful, and creative. They ask difficult questions and have the capacity to teach adults how to be present.

So those of you who meet any teacher for the first time ask and ask what grade they teach, rather than telling middle school teachers what saints they are, I challenge you to instead genuinely ask us what they like best about teaching that age group. Because for me, I am in my element when I'm teaching teenagers. Not so much with five year-olds. Oh, who am I kidding? I don't have a clue what to do with five year-olds, and quite frankly, I don't want to find out. But at the same time, I also have mad respect for those who do. It just seems like middle school teachers bear the brunt of the, "Bless you for teaching that age group. I don't know how you do it" spiel from the general public.

We do it because we choose to do it. It's really not that big of a deal to us. Most of the time it's not the kids that make us the most crazy.  But that's a discussion for another blog post. Today I am celebrating my students.

So thank you 8th graders for being you. You have pushed me to think harder and answer some tough questions. We've had some productive, difficult discussions, but in the end, I hope I have taught you to never stop asking the hard questions and to always be curious. Good luck in high school -- I know you'll do great things!

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Thank You John Oliver for TRULY appreciating teachers

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. I am always conflicted about this time of year. Our country spends most of the year blaming teachers for the failures of schools, not bothering to look at the more systemic problems of poverty, lack of funding, overcrowded classrooms, and bureaucracy that prevent us from being able to do our jobs to the best of our ability. So I know this is going to make me sound ungrateful, but I get a little irritable during this time of year. The media and politicians think it's OK to blame us and shame us during the other 51 weeks of the year and then make up for it during one week in May by lavishing us with empty, insincere praise and giving us free burritos.

But then there's John Oliver. On Sunday May 3rd, the beginning of Teacher Appreciation Week, Oliver aired a nearly 20-minute-long scathing segment on his show Last Week Tonight on standardized tests. Not only did he expose the ignorance, hypocrisy, and injustice of it all, but he did so in both a succinct and humorous way...

"Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of kids will vomit. Tests are supposed to be assessment of skills, not a rap battle on 8-Mile Road."

Now THAT'S how you thank a teacher. I only hope our president and secretary of education were watching.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Skyping with Natalie Lloyd

Natalie Lloyd SkypeYesterday Natalie Lloyd, author of A Snicker of Magic, Skyped with my 8th graders. They asked thoughtful questions and showed a palpable enthusiasm for learning about the life of an author we've gotten to know through her magical book. Since my students are middle schoolers closing in on entering high school, they often try to act all tough and disconnected, but I think they were genuinely happy and excited to talk to an author whose story and writing we have been invested in all year. You see, we didn't just love her story, but we also found inspiration in Natalie's words to strive to make ourselves better writers.

As the school year is winding down and I find myself having only two weeks left with my 8th graders, I'm happy Natalie was so generous with her time and willing to talk to my students. It was a beautiful experience, one that I hope gives them sweet Blackberry Sunrise memories.

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Let it be written, let it be done

Feeling the sun's warmthI walked outside today, felt the warmth of the sun on my face, looked up and said, "Thank you for this moment. It's nice to see you again. It's been a long time since I've felt your light."

Here in Southeastern Michigan we've had a couple warm days since Spring began, but on those days I've either been dealing with weather/pressure related headaches or I've been stuck inside doing school work.Today was the first warm day I could actually go out and enjoy.

I found out earlier this week that the proposal I wrote for the NCTE convention in November with Kevin English, Amy Watkins, Lindsay Grady, and Dave Stuart was accepted. Our session is called Doing More Isn't Doing Better: How to be an English Teacher and Have a Life. Truth be told, I had an inkling of an idea for this session a few years ago but I was really hoping someone else would come up with this idea and present about this topic because I wanted some answers. Turns out, if you want something done you've gotta do it yourself. So just like Kevin and I took a stance this year that Students CAN Write and learned as we went, so too will we learn as we go about How to be an English Teacher and Have a Life.

I'm starting today. By sitting in the sun, feeling its warmth, and not feeling guilty about all those writing assignments I need to grade and lessons I need to plan right now. I'm choosing to have a life and to be present in this moment rather than worrying about everything that is unfinished. There is ALWAYS something that is unfinished when you're a teacher. And so, my mantra for the 2015-2016 school year and the rest of this school year will be: doing more isn't doing better.

Let it be written, let it be done.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

5 things I loved about this week

1. It's finally grilling weather!
Lately I've had zero motivation to cook dinner when I get home from work. I think it's because I am ready for warm grilling weather and Michigan has been a total punk about that. FINALLY today it was warm and sunny enough for grilling and reading on the patio... or both at the same time.
Grilling and reading weather

2. NCTE proposals accepted!
For the past couple years I have had an inkling of an idea for an NCTE session that I was hoping SOMEONE ELSE would propose because I really wanted answers to a certain question. After scheming with Kevin English at NCTE last November and getting Amy Watkins, Lindsay Grady, and Dave Stuart on board, it looks like we're going to be seeking the answers to this question on our own in a session called Doing More Isn't Doing Better: How to be an English Teacher and Have a Life. If you want something done you gotta do it yourself, amiright? ;)  I'm excited to be presenting with such passionate teachers.

I'll also be presenting in two other sessions, an Ignite session, which I did last year as a last-minute addition and had a blast, as well as another teacher advocacy session with Cathy Fleischer, the professor whose grad class inspired this blog.

3. Canton Book Project books delivered
Celebrate post
On Thursday I visited Amanda Davies in her classroom to give her students copies of The Crossover as part of the Canton Book Project. Amanda's students gave copies of Brown Girl Dreaming to 5th graders in the district this week so I was elated to give these books to some of her deserving students. Amdanda texted me on Friday with two pictures of students she had given the books to with the following message:

3 books delivered. [One boy] actually cheered when I gave him the book. He said it's the first book he's ever owned. [Another boy] looked at the first page and said, "You can write poetry like that?" And then talked about who he's going to incorporate the structures from the book in his own writing.

My response to her?

OK, I am officially crying now.

4. Bearing witness to book love
Last week I had my new friend Victor, who is a rep for Simon and Schuster, visit my classroom and booktalk some of their upcoming YA books as well as some old favorites. He also brought a bunch of books to share with my students, which I then raffled off. Given how much I have struggled this year to motivate kids to read and choose their own books, I was over the moon when all of the kids who won books have been carrying them around from class to class with them this week.
Celebrate post

5. Poetry Month celebrations
Every year I end poetry month with students performing a poem of their own choosing from memory. This year I thought about not doing it just because I'm running out of time with my 8th graders. Based on yesterday's blog post, you can see why I'm glad I didn't abandon this tradition.

Speaking of Poetry Month, check out my post on the NCTE blog from Thursday: Will Poetry Be Done Tomorrow? 

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Friday, May 1, 2015

Why I make my students memorize a poem every year...

Yesterday National Poetry Month came to a close and my 8th graders celebrated by performing a poem from memory. Given the very few days I have left with my students, I briefly toyed with the idea of not doing it this year. But every year, I am always reminded again and again why I continue to do this activity in my classroom...

...For the student whose confidence is fragile, but got up in front of the class and remembered every single line of her poem despite thinking that she wouldn't. 

...For the struggling student who despite seeing some of his classmates have to tell their teacher that they weren't ready because they hadn't studied, got up in front of the class and showed everyone how it's done.

...For some of the popular students who perhaps don't always empathize with those who struggle, to see them understand what it's like to be humbled on occasion. 

...For the student who didn't just want to perform her poem, but wanted to tell everyone about the life of the poet to help others better understand the words she was saying.

...For the student who would rather be seen as macho than smart, to watch him give a sensitive and powerful performance of a poem by Tupac Shakur.

...For the contentment of seeing students applaud and cheer for their struggling classmates.

...For the student who was filled with so much anxiety that she was full-on sobbing at lunch, but who got up in front of the entire class later in the day and performed "Still I Rise" with so much emotion and power that she made me cry.

I might have missed out on some material I had to "cover" with my students by having them perform poems instead, but I think the benefits of this experience outweigh the drawbacks. On the surface, students just memorized a poem, but as I've seen this year, and what has been reinforced to me year in and year out, is that they learn more from this experience than they realize. I know I do.