Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Growing Great Teachers

Many of us are fortunate to get to host preservice teachers in our classrooms. In the last couple of years, many of them expressed to me a fear of entering the classroom because they know that the statistics show that many of them will not last for 5 years. Let's be honest. Teaching is hard. Very hard. It requires us to analyze and diagnose 30+ students simultaneously every hour every day. I'd like to see a doctor even attempt that.

Teaching is both a science and an art. It requires grit and passion....and a lot of flexibility. So it makes me wonder, for those of us who have been in the classroom and weathered the storms, how do we persevere? What have we figured out as professionals that we can pass on to the next generation of teachers so that they can not only take root, but flourish as an educator?

Develop a PLN. Unfortunately, teaching can be isolating. In many schools, teachers go to their perspective classrooms and shut the door. Some of our preservice teachers, will be in those schools where they are all alone with no one to throw them a life preserver when they are sinking. Many of us have been in that situation. However, knowing that you have a mentor, coach, or listening ear can make a world of difference.

I often get the question from interns, "how do you know so much?" I can attribute a large measure of what I know to the brilliant educators that I have connected with on social media. Although many of our interns use social media, they are unaware of how to connect with likeminded educators who can provide them with support, resources, answers, and encouragement. We need to take the time to help them learn how to build their PLN through tools such as Twitter or Facebook. They need to see how we build powerful relationships with educators who we can learn from and who we can share our experiences with. These carefully curated relationships don't just happen. They take time and guidance. By taking preservice teachers under our wing, we can guide them to a path where they will not be isolated in their classrooms.

Give them a vision of professionalism. So many preservice teachers have a limited view of what it means to be a professional educator. They lack a vision of where one can go as a professional. By giving them the opportunity to attend conferences, Edcamps, Twitter chats, workshops, and other professional events, interns begin to see that teachers are always learning, growing and sharing.

Many of them enter classrooms not knowing about the educational organizations that they can join or certifications that they can earn that will sharpen their teaching practice and propel them into powerful teacher leaders. Preservice teachers often do not have a vision of where they are headed as a professional in the next five years. We need to be that person who taps them on the shoulder and encourages them to become active in professional organizations to grow their practice. After they've been in the classroom for three years, as veteran teachers, we need to encourage them to pursue National Board Certification so that we can start growing great teachers early in their career. Imagine where early career teachers would be if they began their journey toward accomplished teaching early in their career.

Involve them early. Many of us have discovered worthwhile professional endeavors by accident. These are activities that not only keep us informed but also help us to develop relationships with policy makers. One thing that we can easily do is invite preservice/early career teachers to join us in educational functions beyond our schools. Invite them to join you when you go speak with your legislators. Encourage them to attend the town hall meetings or district forums where there are conversations about practices that can impact the teaching and learning in the classroom. When there is a meet and greet for an organization, encourage preservice teachers to join you and actively participate in the conversations. Our profession needs teachers who are articulate and can advocate for our students. This provides preservice/early career teachers the experience to be comfortable in these situations because students need the next generation of teachers to step into these roles. Furthermore, these experiences help them see the impact of what they are doing inside the classroom upon the community outside their classroom walls.

We want to elevate our profession. We want to attract and keep the brightest minds. That cannot happen if we keep losing our teachers. Let's reach out, be a beacon of light and start growing great teachers even before they enter our profession.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Let's Make a Mess

Learning is messy. Very least when it's done right. As classroom teachers we are faced with the immense challenge of diagnosing each of our students: What are their strengths? What are their goals?  Where to they need to grow? How can I help them get there? What ignites a passion within each one?

We work at it daily knowing that simply teaching content area standards is not enough. Our students must have ownership over their learning, see a relevance to what they are doing and employ strategies that work for them. Our learners crave the opportunity to apply what they are doing in a way that makes sense to them. They want to be creative, they want to communicate, they want timely feedback, they want the challenge of critically analyzing and problem solving.

As teachers, how can we provide meaningful experiences for students that are personalized? I wrestle with this question daily. In my ongoing quest to find answers, I began digging into research on the Maker Movement. I wanted to provide my students with the opportunity to prove mastery of content standards, while giving them the freedom to explore, design, create and make. The challenge was that it was my responsibility to facilitate the mastery of ELA standards with my 6th grade students. As an ELA teacher, my administrators expect to see ELA instruction and learning taking place every minute of every day. How could these two things live in harmony? The answer to that question came from a who I had not yet connected with until I saw his laser focus and passion while building and coding a  Lego Mindstorm kit on our Innovation Day (Students Learning the True Value of Literacy). He saw what I had been missing...

We were going to turn our ELA classroom into a Makerspace. Students were going to design, make, or create anything that interested them in order to teach it to a group of 3rd grade students through informational "how-to" writing.  As my intern, Caylyn Harden, and I began planning out the specifics of how to provide students with ELA content instruction and how to manage a Makerspace within our small classroom, she asked if she could take on this challenge for her 10 day unit. 

Students were given an interest survey to determine what types of projects and topics interested them. Caylyn created a basic supply list with a parent letter explaining the what and why of what we would be doing and included a Sign-up Genius request some of the basic supplies that we would need (cardboard, pipe cleaners, masking tape, poly-fill, fabric, thread, yarn, etc.). The focus was never on the materials, but on the learning that would occur when students dove into making. We were creating a host of learning opportunities where students were safe to explore, investigate, fail, persevere, and have fun while harnessing their literacy learning to propel their individual growth.

Learners were exposed to new ideas and methods before they embarked because how can they know what they want to make if they've never experienced something? Caylyn created a collection of about 70 different open-ended challenges providing students an opportunity to find their own path to the destination.We had all kinds of materials (mostly donated) for students to use in meeting these challenges, including four sewing machines (which turned out to be extremely popular). Due to student interest, learners also had the opportunity to build and make with coding, Makey Makey, Google cardboard, Snap Circuits and a variety of other digital tools.

After 2 days of hands-on fun, our learners began making a plan for their creating and their writing. Each student conferred with us one-on-one explaining their plans. Every single one of them was excited about the opportunity to make a mess, document it and share it with an authentic audience. Every single one of them chose something different. For us, that meant we had 90 different projects being made...being made in our extremely tiny classroom and the hallway and the storage closet and the outside courtyard and in any space that they could find to spread out.

Was it messy? Absolutely. It was the biggest, most wonderful mess. Students were 100% focused on their project, on their writing. They could wait to get started and they didn't want to stop at the end of class time. And as their teacher, how could I ask any more than that?

But, I couldn't help but wonder, how can we do this on a regular basis....

Friday, August 5, 2016

Imagine the Possibilities

For many of us, the summer is drawing to a close and we are at the brink of a brand new school year. Although, I will miss some of the freedom and relaxation that a summer offers, I am always excited about all the possibilities that a new year presents.

As I began to think, dream, and plan, this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt continued to come to mind:

"Do one thing every day that scares you."

I first heard this quote from Jeff Charbonneau last January and it really stuck with me. As veteran teachers, it's very easy to fall into routines year after year without taking the time to reflect, analyze, and evaluate not just the "what" but the "why" of each and every decision we make in our classrooms, schools, and our professional lives beyond classroom walls.  Complacency and apathy begin to set in and before we know it, we've drifted away from doing what's best for students into doing what's easiest for us.

As teachers, our sole mission is to positively impact each of our students with each of our choices. That intentional reflection often leads to change, and change can be scary for most of us. But that fear can lead to amazing possibilities for our students and our professional growth.

After months of reflection, research, planning, and plotting, I've created my list of the "something new" that I believe will have a dramatic impact upon my students' learning. These items do cause me to have those nervous butterflies. In the back of my mind I wonder, "What happens if this fails?" The answer is simple: It will be a powerful learning experience for not just me, but for my students. They will learn that it's okay to try new things and fail...and how to continue to move forward to find success. And that is one of the most powerful lessons that our students can learn.

  • Makerspace: Last spring, my intern and I turned our classroom into a makerspace where students pursued their interests, made something unique and documented their progress. They used this experience to write informational text for a class of 3rd grade students. Through this experience, my students far exceeded our content area standards (there were 12 of them tied to this writing and publishing). Every day was jammed back with high-energy, laser focused, enthusiastic learners. This was only a three week unit; I want to bring this into my 6th grade ELA classroom on a full-time basis.
  • Breakout Edu: At the end of last school year, we began dabbling in Breakout Edu. My students would beg for class to continue. Through these series of breakout, puzzle-solving games, they were sharpening their mastery of content standards while strengthening their problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration abilities. Last year we started with the digital games, but this year, I have four of the breakout boxes that I have built. I even have tried my hand at creating my own breakout for the 4th day of school. (Those butterflies are breakdancing in my stomach over this one.)
  • Peer reading recommendations: Although my students have Free Read Friday and book chats once a week, I want to increase their opportunity to recommend books to one another. As teachers we know that a recommendation from a peer carries much more weight that one coming from an adult. My fellow ELA teacher and I are planning on having students create a data base of book recommendations with all of our classes. Also, I have set aside shelves in my classroom for students to place their favorite reads. I know that this "new" thing will take dedication to continue throughout the year. My hope is that once the students get a feel for it, they will continue it on their own.
  • Book shopping: I've tried this in the past, trying to match the right student with the right book at the right time. Honestly, I haven't had much success with it. However, my plan is to do this in conjunction with student recommendations so that any guidance I may be providing will be using the voices of their peers. Although, I've never banned (or discouraged) audio books, knowing my students, I hope to steer some of my ELL and struggling readers in that direction so that they can join in book discussion with their peers as they often feel left out or isolated from this activity. 

That's my list (so far). They all create a different level of unease, but they also create an excitement for all the possibilities that these new practices will bring to my students' learning. Be brave. Try something new. You never know what great places it will lead you and your learners.

I'd love to know what new thing are you trying out this year that scares you. Please feel free to share below.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Students Learning the True Value of Literacy

As educators, we know learners sometimes fail to see the connection between their work inside classroom walls and their lives beyond classroom walls. A question that often arises in many of our students’ heads is, why do we need to learn this?
As their teacher, I wonder how I can help my students see that their time within our classroom is valuable, not just for the few months we are together, but for a lifetime.
One practice I employ is asking students, “Why do you think we need to master this?” Once they get beyond the idea of “We need to know it for the test” or “We need this for next year,” my students begin to discover some interesting ideas about how their learning affects them now and in the future.
This winter, our sixth grade had our annual Innovation Day. This day is built on the 20% principle where students can choose any topic, wondering, or problem that interests them. Students get to spend an entire day becoming experts and creating something to use to teach their peers about their area of expertise on the following day during our Gallery Walk, where they get to share their findings.
This year, we challenged students to make something that would be interactive for their peers (and the others guests we invited). We had an incredible day filled with excitement, passion, and creativity as each project was as unique as the student behind it.
I spent more than two weeks working with each of my students in the planning stages. One task they were expected to do was explain what skills or strategies they had taken from their academic classes that would support their learning on Innovation Day. Seeing that “eureka” moment when students realized how much they would rely upon their literacy abilities to discover answers, solve problems, and create something to share with their peers was exciting.
Because of our Innovation Day, I had the opportunity to see some of my students in a new light. I saw enthusiasm I had not seen before. Students who had been hard to reach or difficult to connect with through our usual classroom activities were now strong, confident, and excited to share their learning with others.
Several students used Lego Mindstorm kits to build and program robots. Another student created authentic, interactive games teaching peers how to make financial investments. Other students built motors, created inventions, or learned the chemistry behind dyeing hair. Some wanted to create a children’s book using tools like StoryJumper or LINTOR Publishing. Others wanted to create videos using WeVideo, PowToon, or iMovie. Some students wanted to create a how-to guide on a Wiki, Tackk, or a Weebly.
As I took time to visit them during their Gallery Walk, I asked each of the students, “What can we do to bring this type of learning into our ELA classroom?”
Even though each student created something unique, students’ answers to my probing question were very similar. They each expressed an interest in composing something that could teach others what they had learned. They all wanted to pay forward their learning.
Using their newly gained experience, my students clearly saw how their mastering of ELA standards supported them in anything they wanted to accomplish. They truly have gained an understanding of the importance of literacy in their lives, not just for a grade or a test, but as a vehicle for taking them anywhere they may want to go—now and in the future.
And their answers to my question, well, that opened the door to a whole new adventure...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Growing Empathy in Today's Tumultuous Society

In light of recent events, I know that many of us are wondering what has happened to bring about these horrific acts upon fellow humans. While at ILA, many of the informal chats face-to-face and on the conference hashtag revolved around What can we, as educators, do to equip our students for the world in which they live? ILA saw this pressing need and scheduled an impromptu conversation facilitated by Cornelius Minor. The room was filled to over capacity with literacy leaders and advocates from all over the world. Mr. Minor did an outstanding job modeling and guiding us through some of these difficult conversations. There was a lot of fear, worry, and tears during this conversation. We all have one purpose: leading our students to making this a better world. And that requires bravery. It involves speaking up and speaking out for all of our students. As I continue to marinate on all of this, I have determined that there are some thoughts that I need to express to my fellow "in-the-trenches" teachers.  If I want for my students to be open and honest, I must be willing to do the same.

One comment that was made during this discussion that has continued to ring in my head is:

Our students leave our classrooms and live different realities.

For the last couple of years, I have striven to bring in literature, historical events, and change-makers who are from different ethnicities and backgrounds so that my students can see themselves in their reading. They need to know that literacy is not just for one part of society. It is a key cog for every person, everywhere. And while I've spent two years reading research and growing my practice into one that is much more culturally responsive, I can't help but ask myself if this is enough. After this difficult conversation at ILA and discussions with respected colleagues and friends I can determine that NO, it is not enough.

Our world is greatly lacking in kindness and empathy for others. As literacy educators, we have the opportunity to use powerful stories to help our students experience the difficult realities that the peer sitting next to them may be living. Many of our students are able to turn off the heinous acts happening worldwide and their lives don't change. For other communities, it turns them on end; turmoil, fear, worry and anxiety blankets their neighborhoods and communities. Distrust builds between communities. And our students are ill-equipped to have the language or ability to have difficult conversations.

Unfortunately, what I hear too often from teachers and parents is that it is not for the schools to discuss. I respectfully disagree. Last year, I had students dealing with mental illness, homelessness, the loss of a parent, attempted suicide, abusive home lives, foster care, addiction, and questioning their sexuality. This is in addition to the usual, middle school drama of being "different," whether it's due to ethnicity, language, religion, appearance, or ability level. Those are very heavy topics for 11 and 12-year-olds to process and deal with in healthy avenues.

Cynthia Lord, author of Rules, said,

"Great stories are about being human."

If our students can walk for a mile in someone else's shoes, experience what lives are like for those who are different from them, they are gaining insight into a reality different from their own. Those characters become our "friends." And when readers meet a new peer, the experience gained through walking around for a time with those in different realities will evoke kindness and empathy for others, even if they are very different.

As teachers, it is crucial that we get these powerful stories into the hands of our students. I am not advocating that every book is for every student. We must know our students and their parents. Have conversations with them about difficult topics. Make sure that they are ready to wear another reality for a time. We no longer can afford to brush difficult conversations under the rug and ignore them.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for lives outside the classroom walls. So let's dig into these great stories and nurture empathy in each of our learners. Because our students deserve a better present and future than what we have now.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Teaching Writing: What do you do with all the other students?

In my last post, Teaching Writing: Is it a race against time?, I shared some ways that I have found to give my students the benefit of quality writing instruction within our limited class time. The most common question I hear is, "What do you do with all of the other students while you are conferring and doing small group lessons?" This has been quite a journey for me; I have found a lot of things that didn't work. Like you, I want my students to be engaged in meaningful work, but they also have to stay focused so that I can dedicate my time to the student(s) with which I am working. I am still working at fine tuning my practice, but I have found that literacy centers have been the key to meeting my goals.

I spend over 90% of my time with students either in small group lessons or in one-on-one conferring. Much of the success of using literacy centers comes from having my students set the expectations for themselves while they are either working independently, in pairs, or in a small group. They become the monitors of their own (and their peer's) choices. It puts them in control of the choices that they are making. By letting them have that ownership, I discovered that engagement increases and off-task disruptions are kept to a minimum.

Also, because this is a new for most of my students, we have a gradual release into centers. They need the time to build the endurance to self-monitor and stay engaged for longer periods of time. At the beginning of the school year, we may only devote 10-15 minutes to Lit Centers. As students show that they have an understanding of what the expectations are and they learn how to self-monitor and engage themselves in their work, we slowly increase the time until they are able to devote an entire ELA block to staying focused and on task. To be transparent, my middle schoolers become very adept at this quickly. However, they are middle schoolers. On occasion, I will stop and remind them to evaluate their choices: Are you actively engaged in your work? Are you being as productive as possible? What will change/increase your growth? 

Another crucial cog in this process is for students to be engaged in meaningful work. Learners want to know that their work is worthwhile; it's helping them reach their individual goals. As classroom teachers, I'm sure we've all given students work that is a time filler. Students know when an activity, assignment, or project is basically a glorified babysitting tool. The danger in that is we are sending a message to our students that they aren't the most important entity in our classrooms. They need to know that we all have very important work to complete. Our time is valuable. When designing Literacy Centers, each center needs to provide students with choice. They need to push student's learning and growth wherever they are on the learning continuum. Lit Centers should be a time where students can practice, fail, reflect, and retry. Learners should know not just the "what" but the "why" behind each of the centers in which they are engaged.

To design my Lit Centers, I have combined many different schools of thought (The Daily 5, Writer's Workshop, etc.) to make them work for my middle level learners. Typically, we have six centers that students rotate through each week. Some of the centers may last for several weeks, but most of them can be completed within a week. The centers are: Read to Self, Liberating Lexis (meaningful, individualized vocabulary development), Read with Others, Reflection (typically done on KidBlog), Grammar Grabber (using mentor texts with authentic practice), Publishing Studio (as a project based classroom, we always have a working project). Some centers are independent, some are for student pairs, and some are for a small group.

The learning activities change each week based on the standards learners are working on mastering. Because our 6th grade team plans cross-curricular units, sometimes they are working on the ELA piece of a cross-curricular plan. These centers include the freedom of choice while allowing students the creativity to pursue interests, capitalize on strengths, and grow in areas of weakness. Students know that they are accountable for completing all centers within a given time frame. They understand that the work in which they are engaging is practice to push them towards mastering content standards and reaching their personal goals.

I have found that by combining Lit Centers with writing conferences and small group differentiated instruction, my students grow tremendously. They are happy, enthusiastic, engaged, and self-motivated. They are not only growing to demonstrate mastery of ELA standards, but they are also developing crucial life skills: time management, accountability, collaboration, communication, perseverance, problem solving, and creative thinking.

That is what all of my others students are doing while I'm conferring and conducting mini-lessons. I'm working on making a few tweaks for next year. I'd love to hear how you keep your students actively engaged while you work with small groups of students.

Further reading:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Teaching Writing: Is it a race against time?

As a classroom teacher, the biggest struggle I face is feeling like I have enough time. Time to get to know my students, time to help them reach their personal goals, time to guide them in mastering standards, time to provide them with the learning opportunities they deserve. But never do I feel like I fight that time battle more than when it comes to growing great writers. And based on a conversation from EdcampNBCT, I am not alone. Time was the number one frustration listed when we engaged in a conversation about challenges we face when teaching writing and/or using the writer's workshop model.

I wish I had the answers to finding the time we need to not just rush through every student's writing, but truly devote the time that is needed for students to develop their own voices, experience (and learn from) the struggles of a writer, overcome those struggles, and fine tune their writing prowess. Since none of us have Hermione's time turner, I thought I would share some of the ways that I have found to save time without sacrificing the quality of the instruction and support each individual student needs to grow into a great writer.

One of the biggest commitments that we have is to provide our students with timely, personalized feedback. Like most of you, I would spend hours editing papers, writing feedback, often to have students ignore my suggestions when they went through a revision process. This is amplified when you have multiple classes of students. We want to give our students personalized and timely feedback so as to push their growth and keep the momentum of the writing project progressing, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Through trial and error, I have discovered that if each of my students creates and shares a Google document where they compose/curate all of their writing from brainstorming, planning, drafting, revisions, and editing, I can type feedback comments into their document much faster than if I am writing them with pen and paper. An added bonus is that both the writer and I know what feedback has been left. When leaving feedback, I am focusing only on the standards that my writers are working on proving mastery of in that project. However, as I am reading and leaving feedback, I am making notes of patterns of error within their writing. If I see that a student is struggling with subject verb agreement, I will plan a special small group lesson and additional practice for that student until he/she demonstrates mastery of that skill.

When I shifted to using Google Docs, I found I had more time to contribute meaningful feedback to my students more frequently. It also afforded students the opportunity to receive feedback from their peers. Because it is in Google Docs, students can easily refer to the feedback when making revisions, weighing the ideas and making deliberate choices in their next draft. They can see the evolution of their growth throughout the project.

A second way, I've discovered for saving time while not sacrificing the quality of instruction was I stopped editing their writing. Now I know that there are a lot of English teachers (including an earlier me) who may be shocked by this idea. Here is my rationale: if we are changing, editing and rewriting their work, we impose our voice, ideas and opinions upon them. We steal the ownership of their writing. We take away crucial learning opportunities. As educators, we know that students learn by doing, failing, and retrying. Yet, as writing instructors, we tend to take that away. There is no wonder why so many students hate writing; we tell them we want them to have a voice and then we contradict ourselves by superseding our voice, opinions, and ideas onto their work.

For learning to be meaningful, students need to have that ownership. They need to have the creative license to write and create. Learners need to experience the struggles that come from meaningful work and feel the triumphs of hard work, perseverance and dedication. By providing them feedback on the side of Google Doc, conferring with them one-on-one, supporting them with small group mini-lessons, we are facilitating that type of environment for our students. We are providing them with the tools to master writing, while encouraging them to hone their voices.

Do these strategies and tools give us unlimited time with our writers? Unfortunately, no. But, they present us with more time to spend growing great writers while still focusing on best writing practices. And ultimately, isn't that what we want for our learners?

I'm always looking for new way to sharpen my teaching practice. I'd love to hear any time saving tip you have discovered that still affords you the ability to provide accomplished writing instruction to your students. Thanks in advance!

Further reading on related topics: