Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why We Need Each Other

I have a student; for this post, we'll call her Lisbeth. She is in one of my honors ELA classes this year. In our district, placement in this class can be overridden my a parent request in spite of teacher recommendation. Now, I am not here to debate this practice, because as their teacher, it is my responsibility to educate every child that is in my classroom. Lisbeth is one of those students whose parent placed her in honors classes.

As I got to know my students, I observed that Lisbeth often took a great deal of time in completing any classroom assignment or project. In spite of the extended time in class and at home, she was actively engaged in her work and she demonstrated mastery in content area standards. She provided her peers with deep and insightful feedback. When she read aloud (yes, she volunteers), she struggles to decode words and lacks fluency. She demonstrates great reading and word strategies as well as endurance when tackling new words or text. Doing some one-on-one work with her, I discovered that although she lacked fluency, her comprehension far exceeded many of her peers.

From my experience, I wanted to conclude that her lack of fluency and the extra time that she needed to complete tasks was not something to focus on. Also, I did not want to make any decisions regarding her obstacles that could potentially damage her self-confidence.

As an educator of middle level students, I don't often need to work with students who lack fluency (unless it's also tied to other reading deficiencies).  Although my instinct told me that since Lisbeth was still finding success, I didn't need to go into rigorous lessons on fluency, I lacked that data to substantiate that decision. That's when I turned to two highly accomplished K-3 educators. Dr. Gay Barnes and Kim Bowen both who have years of experience in positively impacting student learning, especially in reading.  They are vocal advocates for doing what is best for students regardless of whatever trend is blowing through education. I knew they would really listen to all of my observations and the conclusions that I have drawn regarding Lisbeth and give me honest feedback and recommendations.

As we spoke, they came to the same conclusions that I did, but they recommended that I conduct a Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) in order to evaluate if I was missing something in diagnosing Lisbeth and designing the appropriate support for her learning. I hadn't thought of a QRI in thirteen years. Although time consuming, those assessments provide the data I had been lacking regarding the conclusions I had drawn.

Without my conversation with Gay and Kim, I could have easily misdiagnosed what Lisbeth needed. It could have had a negative impact upon her growth professionally and personally. We all need Gays and Kims in our lives who can provide us with honest insight, feedback, and expertise so that we can provide our learners with the best learning opportunities possible.

As we begin a new week, let's all be mindful of the  breadth and depth of experience we have around us, both face-to face and digitally. Let's harness that collective and channel it into empowering our students with the best support system possible.

Photo credit

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Where can student voice lead?

I know that I write about, speak about, and advocate for student voice....often. I truly believe that is a key to reaching our students. They need to have control over their learning, not just in the now, but for a lifetime. Then on Friday,  real-life example of how far student voice and choice can take an individual walked into my classroom.

I have a full-time intern this semester. She prepared a brief activity to introduce herself to my learners. As she began sharing a few things, one item opened a door to a lot of questions for me and my students. She explained that when she completes her internship with us and graduates, she already as a teaching job....for two years....with the Peace Madagascar. I'm sure you can imagine the questions that tidbit sparked. She transparently shared her story and it starts in one of her high school English classes.

In high school, she had a teacher who told the students that they could choose any topic to research. In searching for a topic, she came across the Peace Corps and her interest was peaked. As she dug into her research, she began to see this as an opportunity for her to grow as a person and give back to others.

Upon entering her teacher preparation classes at the University of Alabama, this idea of serving in the Peace Corps resurfaced and she began the journey of making this a reality. She isn't traveling with friends and she knows no one who is or has been in the Peace Corps. Yet, this is something about which she is passionate....thanks to a teacher who gave her an opportunity to choose. And where did that passion take her? All the way to Madagascar (come June 20th).

Her story reinforced why it's truly worth all the planning, conferring, and time involved in giving students a voice in their learning. In so doing, we are investing in our students and their future...and we have no idea how far that will take them. It could take them to the other side of the planet, out into space, or into the great unknown. But we'll never know until we give them that opportunity. Let's give them a voice and let them start their own journey.

Madagascar Image

Want to read more? Here are a few other posts I've written on student voice and choice:

Monday, January 18, 2016

Being Present and Making Moments

At the beginning of a new calendar year, there is much discussion about goals and resolutions. Although my students composed a an email on outlining their plan for the second semester, we set goals in our classroom just about every day regardless of what the date on the calendar reads. Each day is fresh with new ideas, new possibilities, new opportunities. Each day, we are a little different and therefore our path may need to be altered.

Yet, as my students were discussing and writing an email to their future selves, I began to think about what changes I wanted to make, personally and professionally. With the integration of digital tools into our every day lives, we have opportunities to connect and collaborate with people globally. I know I am a much better teacher, a much better person, because of these regular connections through social media. However, as a result, like many of my students and friends, I realize that we often disconnect with those around us in the three-dimensional world to catch up with those in our digital world. Have you ever looked around restaurants? It is very common to see a group of people (of all ages) dining together, but not conversing because they are each on devices.  This happens in professional settings too. 

As I reflected on this, a thought crystallized. We only have limited amounts of time with our students, with our family, with our friends. Once a moment is gone, it will never return. We need to clear time and mental space to truly be present in each of our moments with others. 

For me, I realized that my mind was too cluttered to be able to enjoy moments giggling with my nieces or planning an amazing simulation for my students. I had to clear things off of my plate and out of my mind. That meant saying "no" to truly worthwhile opportunities. It meant removing devices from some of my activities. I have to have space to be creative and breathe so that I can be the best teacher for my students and the best version of me for my family and friends.

Teaching is not about content, it's about students. Life isn't about a checklist, it's about the people that we surround ourselves with and the choices we make. So whether we are conferring with a student on writing, facilitating an improv activity with our class, meeting with a parent to design a path to lead to a student's greatest success, hiking with friends, cooking dinner for loved ones, or binge watching TV in your PJs with your family, let's all strive to make moments. Be present...because that's the greatest gift we can give another person.