150 Daffodils Woke Me Up

Daffodil and sun, enhanced a little

Image by Martin LaBar via Flickr

As this school year winds down, I am more mindful than ever that I’ve neglected this blog.  Reflecting on the year, I can say that after a strong, exceptionally positive start to the school year, somewhere in the middle I felt I was practically drowning in a sea of political negativity.  I felt bombarded by innumerable negative messages about public education from the media, from the federal and state departments of education, and from other educators who also felt attacked.  I was mired in that negativity so fully that I sometimes felt physically ill.  I felt nearly paralyzed.

I’m glad that now I can think about that unfortunate emotional and spiritual state in the past tense.  I’m not sure when I experienced the turning point, but there was definitely a day when I felt I was emerging from a long walk through purgatory.  I remember the slow and gradual sensation of shedding layer upon layer of burden, much of it confounded by my own internal struggle with the issues at the heart of the political melee about education.

But when? How? Maybe it came with my renewed enthusiasm for teaching as I began to see the rewards of my hard work and the hard work of my students as we near the end of the year. I woke up to the realization that my classroom is fun AND productive. Maybe it was listening to my students in American Literature not only read aloud in their reading circles, but also question, clarify and help one another make meaning from the text of a novel on their own as I circulated among them, observing with absolute pride.  It could have been watching all three of my publications classes doing work far and above my expectations, conducting workshops for middle schoolers and publishing their work, making yearbook deadlines, and producing amazing broadcast news segments.  Maybe it happened as I was reading the acknowledgements my seniors were writing for their exit project portfolios that included all the people who were instrumental in their success, not only me and my partner teacher, but their professional mentors, their friends and their parents, which renewed my awareness that we do have a village here, not a splintered, fractured, disheartened community of naysayers and critics.

Computing Sciences outreach program for high s...

Image by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory via Flickr

I began the year committed to incorporating more technology into my lessons.  I introduced my students to Prezi, Google Docs, Webspiration, Yudu, Blogger, Edmodo, and Creative Commons among others.  One of my students told me yesterday that she uses Google Docs for everything now.  Another mentioned a few days ago that Google Docs is great because he doesn’t have word processing software at home.  As I circulate the computer lab while my students work on Google Docs, I notice the number of files they have there that are not related to my class, and it makes me smile.  One of my seniors published her photography portfolio on Yudu for her senior project. We are still using Edmodo as a communication tool pretty regularly.  My students often remind me to post assignments or reminders there so they will get text message alerts.  In retrospect, my tech integration was wildly successful for the first year.

iPad Display Item

Image via Wikipedia

Now my hope is that we will be using iPads in my AP Literature class next year instead of textbooks.  I would appreciate any help or advice anyone can provide me in light of that possibility.

Whatever the reason, I feel I’ve turned a corner, perhaps even when the outlook for public education seems to be at its darkest.  I know that what matters most, of course, are the relationships, the challenge, the engagement, and the academic and social growth of my students.  I feel confident that the way I combine my knowledge and talents, my students’ knowledge and talents, the standards, technology, and the support of parents, community and my PLN, public education is alive and well in my classroom, and at the end of the day, that is what matters most to my students and their families.

happy valentines day - pink gerbera with a hea...

Image by Vanessa Pike-Russell via Flickr

I am committed, therefore, to posting only about the victories and struggles that my students and I experience in my classroom. I will not further amplify the power of negative media or politics by commenting on it here.  I learned that there is nothing to gain from spiraling into the depths of negativity.  Insulate yourself against those forces, continue to learn how to improve your practice, believe in yourself and your students, and celebrate their achievements–and yours.

Resist. Learn. Believe. Achieve.

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On feeding distortions to the social mob…

As I craft a unit focusing on civil disobedience and ask my students to consider the Transcendentalist views of Henry David Thoreau and his influence on Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, I have been taken aback by a few recent events.  Before I continue, let me first lay a rather superficial foundation for my thoughts in the interest of space and time.  Thoreau was clearly a man of principle who believed that an individual’s purpose and rights could be perverted by the “social mob.”  He talked about how “majority rule” ignored the rights of individuals in matters that should be ruled by conscience.  His thoughts have been associated with non-conformity, not as rebellion, but as a way to conscientiously object to unjust laws and stand for his individual conscience and moral principles.

This discussion has been going on in my American literature classroom after our study of Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But My Life.  A Holocaust survivor, Klein recalls her experiences in Nazi forced labor camps and her survival of the three-month long, wintry Death March.  Her experience was horrific, yet touching and inspiring.  It allowed my students to investigate more deeply and personally the impact of Nazi persecution on individual, actual people.  My students were astonished and shocked by what they learned.

We connected these ideas by looking at how society forms stereotypical views based on a local, national or global crisis.  We continue to examine the impact of these stereotypical views on INDIVIDUALS.  We shy from big numbers.  We could talk about the 6 million Jews who were exterminated during the Holocaust, no doubt a staggering, though incomprehensible number.  But stereotypes are easy to apply to large groups because in large groups people lose their individual identity.  Examining these topics through the eyes of individuals has shed new light on the impact of stereotyping for my students.

Now, what we have been studying through literature, reflective writing, and discussion has compelled me to comment on topics that have been the focus of several Twitter discussions and blogs I’ve been following.

1.  Scroggins v. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak

The messages communicated by Scroggins via his attack on Anderson’s YA novel, Speak, are insulting and demeaning to many who have found Anderson’s book to be powerful and necessary.  Scroggins is guaranteed the right to his opinion by the First Amendment; however, he ignores the rights of readers and authors across the country based on the very same principle.  As a Christian, I am appalled that he believes he speaks in my best interest.  His opinion potentially radicalizes Christianity in a way that I believe is inaccurate and repulsive.  The resulting stereotypes would ignore my INDIVIDUAL belief and right to choose for myself and my own children reading that I believe will be meaningful and empowering.  He has also infuriated my many students who have CHOSEN to read Speak.  They each took from it a unique meaning and significance, but they agreed that the book was, indeed, one of the most influential and powerful books they had ever read.  Scroggins has overgeneralized, marginalized, stereotyped people and underestimated the reaction he would ignite when he equated rape with soft core porn.  He ignored the individual.  He ignored the world teens live in every day.  He ignored the many women, rape victims themselves, who have found their own voices thanks to Anderson’s book.  He instead chose to demonstrate “Christian” values as those which equate recreational sex with rape. Where is his conscience?  Where is his value of the human spirit and human dignity?  Where is his recognition of wrongdoing?  Where is his empathy for victims of sexual crime?  He was loud, selfish and inaccurate–a dangerous combination.

2. Politicians, Media Ratings and Rich People v. Teachers

Now there’s an even match.  When will our culture stop vilifying teachers?  When will people realize that politicians invent education “issues” to win votes?  School is one of the few compulsory experiences in the US; therefore, politicians can instantly broaden their appeal when they focus on “fixing” the “shortcomings” of American public education, which translates: fire teachers, close schools and make them profitable factories by which students enter as individuals and are either spit out as cookie-cutter copies of one another or altogether alienated from learning.  When it comes to matters of children and money, they have the public’s immediate attention.  The problem is that when politicians, media sweethearts and billionaire dropouts have conversations about quality education, they intentionally leave out the voices of effective teachers and education leaders.  They fail to acknowledge that in so doing, they stereotype teachers as “bad” and ineffective.  They ignore the MANY “supermen” and “superwomen” who are in the trenches every single day, overworked, overwhelmed and under-appreciated, who love working with children and seeing them grow both socially and intellectually, who somehow insulate themselves against mass firings, finger-pointing and the growing harangue about “broken” schools.  They ignore both new and veteran teachers who do more with less every day, who work tirelessly to prepare students to function in a digital world when they have few digital tools at their disposal, who became educators without thinking for one minute about how much they would be paid, and who work through the summer months reading, learning and preparing at their own expense to become better teachers for their next 150+ students.  These public figures equate ALL teachers with the most ineffective teachers they had when they were in school 30 years ago.  Their overgeneralization has taken a deeply emotional toll on hardworking, effective teachers who toil in classrooms across the country every day because they were born to be teachers.  For shame! They claim to represent and advocate for under-represented people.  I am here to say that their self-righteous efforts have resulted in a monstrous attack on some of the most selfless INDIVIDUALS in the American workforce, essentially rendering them silent by leaving them out of their conversation.  If they want to know what really goes on in schools across the country, if they want to see how real teachers want to reform education in a way that makes sense, they need to step out of the spotlight and step into American classrooms and engage some professional educators in real conversations about school reform.

Public figures must stop feeding the “social mob” through misrepresentation and distortion and start recognizing the value of individuals.  Instead of tearing people down, perhaps, like Gerda Weissmann Klein, they could build on hope, heart and faith to lead an effort to overcome the obstacles we all face.  Must we destroy to create?  Can we not collaborate to improve?  Shouldn’t real reform be a victory for every individual and not just a biased, quick-fix political stunt?

Powerful voices must first listen carefully and consider the lives, the sacrifices, the rights and the experiences of individuals, human beings, before they SPEAK.

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Come on in, the water’s fine…

Photo by Arvind Balaraman, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of my goals for the summer was to learn about integrating technology into my instruction to further engage my students.  It’s always risky bringing something completely new into the classroom, especially on the first day.  Number one, you have established no personal credibility with your students yet, and number two, you have no idea how they will react to it no matter how excited you may be.

I approached the first week of school with enthusiasm, though, knowing I had a plan thanks to my PLN, and the support of some really great educators on Twitter. After the first week of school, I can proudly say that my students are actively viewing links, commenting, and have now begun to respond not just at my request or just to me, but voluntarily to one another on Edmodo. It’s pretty exciting to be able to participate in ongoing discussion of class topics after school hours and over the weekend.  They didn’t all jump right on the bus the first day, but I persisted in requesting that they join, post and respond.  I also posted some great related links and video to prompt their interaction.

My publications students have already embraced Wallwisher, and have used it to post some exciting ideas for our first issue of the school newspaper.  It’s been a great way for them to avoid coming in to class with duplicate ideas.  They can view each others’ ideas from home and post new or related ideas immediately.  It will save us time during class, and it allows me to observe and contribute.

I also found some great information about mind mapping over the summer.  I adapted the mind map method to give my students a medium for communicating their reflective thinking, and hopefully to connect past and present to future-oriented thinking.  The purpose of my students’ maps was to explore and illustrate the most influential forces and experiences in their lives.  It worked incredibly well for both my juniors and my seniors.  My junior class, American lit and composition, will be working through units connected to the theme of identity.  My senior class, English lit and advanced comp, is beginning the year by designing their Capstone Project, known in some other schools as a senior exit project.  The maps have been a great way for them to explore themselves as they investigate career interests and narrow down research and project topics.  I was not surprised to find that some students were able to begin their maps almost immediately, while others just needed a little prompting, and still others seemed to have never thought about who they are and how they arrived there. No matter where they began, though, I have been impressed with students’ progress and results.  I am anxious to hear them share their final maps on Monday and Tuesday.

All of these have been useful tools to get to know my new students, as well.  I feel like I have already “broken through” the early awkward stage and started to forge some great relationships and, consequently, to develop a terrific rapport with my students.    I am confident that week two will be one during which we will dive into and make progress with content.

During the next few weeks, I am hoping to layer student blogging into my instruction. I’ve been investigating different free blog hosts including Blogger and Edublogs as well as how to manage them using Google Reader.  I have plans very soon to use Glogster to help my yearbook staff market this year’s book, too.

If you have any tips or advice, I would gladly accept!  So far I have found this to be exciting and enriching, so come on in!  The water’s fine! 😛

Lake Michigan sunset, photo by C. Wilkeson

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There is something about the first days of a new school year that refreshes my heart, mind and soul.  It’s not the smell of new supplies or the squeaky clean building with its shiny waxed floors.  It’s not the aroma of freshly brewed coffee or the box of red ripe tomatoes in the teacher’s lounge with the sign that says “take some..PLEASE”.  It’s not even that these are the only days of the year when my desk is relatively clear and perfectly organized.

Students.  They bring backpacks, notebooks, pencils, calculators, new shoes, new outfits, new hairstyles, and new attitudes.  But most notably, students bring life to school.  Their collective energy fills the halls. Each group creates its own unique chemistry in each classroom.  Without students the school building is like a heart without blood, like lungs without oxygen.

Nothing can replace the feeling of  students running to me for a hug because they’ve missed me.  Nothing can match when a student comes to my door to tell me that she really connected with something I said during class, so much that she cried.  What can equal students coming in after school to ask for guidance?  What compares to students asking questions, commenting and contributing on our class social media site?

During these first two days, I’ve listened to students tell me about their summer jobs, concerts they’ve attended, movies they’ve seen, and places they’ve visited.  I’ve listened to them read their own poetry, essays or share their original comic strips that grew out of their summer reading. I  have listened to their ideas for their Capstone projects, and though some are unsure, their genuine concern about making just the right choice tells me so much about them. It’s a reunion of shared purpose.

They infuse me with their energy.  In those first two days, I commit myself to connecting with each and every student who walks through my door.  This is more than a reunion.

This is my communion.

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“You can’t make me…”

After reading “You Don’t Need to Be Brilliant to Be Wise” by George Couros on his blog The Principal of Change, I was inspired to respond at length.

How many times have we heard little ones say “you can’t make me” when told they must do something that they think is unreasonable?  Children have a sense of justice from a young age, hence their repetition of the phrase “that’s not fair!”  For the most part, kids know what is right and what is wrong.  What happens, then, when seemingly arbitrary rules are created to “simplify” school and classroom management?  What happens when everyone pays for the disrespect or irresponsibility of a few?  How can we justify what essentially amounts to punishment en masse when it requires that we deny access or permission to those who would not abuse it?

Further, what, then, happens when teachers are subject to the same sense of rule-making by school leaders?  As George stated in his post, if school leaders can’t trust teachers to do the right thing, then why should parents? Educators talk a lot about the importance of building relationships with students and colleagues and creating a safe environment for academic and professional risk-taking, but do the rules they create serve to support those ideas? Do they support efforts to engage and build relationships with parents and community?

I started my first year of teaching with a set of ten classroom rules–I thought ten rules was nicely limited. I don’t even remember exactly what they were.   As a beginning teacher, I saw veteran teachers all around me making lists of rules, so I followed suit. Making rules was the rule.

Now I have no classroom rules and only two expectations:  be respectful and be responsible.  I believe these two behaviors are essential to building trust in the classroom.  I believe that I have to model them, too.  Sadly, I’ve known some teachers who have been less than respectful of their students and colleagues, as well as those who always manage to blame others for their mistakes and shortcomings.  Thankfully, they are few.  Teachers should also be able to live up to their own expectations if they expect their students to.  I’ve heard teachers talk about how their college degrees, their age, or their experience should exempt them from the expectations we have of children. Ridiculous and egocentric. We must never forget that we are all teaching future adults! We must be cognizant of the implications of our behavior and the hidden curriculum embedded in our rules.

I remember reading a passage in a book, though it’s been so long ago I can’t remember when or where, that talked about how great teachers know when they must be quietly subversive in a world of school rules.  Teachers should know when to break rules to do what’s right.  Young teachers are often less likely to take those “risks,” but as a veteran teacher, I am.  I break rules when I feel that enforcing them would break my own expectations of being respectful and responsible.

When students are with me, I see their faces and their hearts, not the logos on their t-shirts or the number of holes in their jeans.  I am loath to take away a cell phone because their parent texts them during class and I can hear it vibrate, and I cringe at the idea of denying a student his iPod when he is more productive while he listens to music.  I choose to retain the momentum of learning in my classroom without the disruptions that “rule enforcement” introduce.  Instead, I choose to model respect and responsibility, speak gently and respectfully to students who err, and expect and trust them to make better choices every day.  The best “rule” of all is that teachers should do whatever it takes to help students learn in a way that is best for them, creating in their classrooms a climate of mutual trust, respect and responsibility in which students voluntarily strive to meet high expectations.

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The Power of Passion

Passion.   I associate passion with the color red for its vibrant depth and closeness to the heart.  It is the lifeblood that feeds energy, creativity, enthusiasm and commitment.  Passion is intensity of purpose.  It is adrenaline.  It is BELIEF.

Though this is a challenging time to be an educator, that climate creates opportunities for teachers to rise to the challenge.  Some teachers rise more quickly than others.  Some rise up to lead in a crisis-free climate, some need crisis to push them into action, while others can look crisis in the face and walk away seemingly unaffected, unmoved.  Each of those educators–the eager, the panicked, and the passive–may all be passionate.

We teach our students to be tolerant of differences, to appreciate that people come from different backgrounds and practice different customs and that diversity makes life richer, but do educators appreciate their own differences?

Educators demonstrate their passions about teaching in myriad ways.  Some internalize it only to see it burst forth in the form of inspired and connected classroom dialogue.  Some find a venue for their teaching passions on the football field or the volleyball court.  Some wax effusive about new ideas and approaches.  Still others engage in vision building, seeing the school as a whole and imagining what could be, then moving on to see that the vision is realized.

We must adjust our perceptions of passion and see that it may run in us like a quiet and deep river or flail about like the chop on a lake on a windy day.  If we believe in our collective passion, adjust to the way we each express it, and use that energy to move our schools forward to benefit our students and center our community, then we can overcome any obstacle that lay in front of us.

Don’t shake your finger at the quiet teacher, and don’t shake your head at the vocal one.  Instead, connect! Talk! Ask! Then LISTEN.  It is as valuable that we know our colleagues–their strengths, their challenges, and their passions–as it is important for us to know our students.

I challenge education leaders to provide opportunities for faculty members to share professional passions.  Find a way to facilitate conversations between teachers that will help them to really see each other, to bond, and to unify.  While the process may be bumpy, and it surely will include a few rough patches, in the end, it will empower and energize.

“Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion”  ~George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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Tonight I participated in my first ever #engchat on Twitter.  The special guest was teacher-author Jim Burke, whose book The English Teacher’s Companion has been on my shelf, dog-eared and edge-worn, for a few years now.  I have passed this book around at department meetings, I’ve lent it to other teachers, and I’ve regularly used it as a pedagogical source and a source in my graduate work.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been reading and participating in Jim Burke’s English Companion Ning, also.  It is a rich resource for  those of us who teach language arts, but it also offers some noteworthy ideas for all teachers. It was truly a thrill to participate in such a valuable discussion about ELA instruction in real time with him.

This is what I gleaned from the discussion:

We must connect with our students on a human level. The human connection will help us to interpret student competencies and needs. It will help us to differentiate instruction, select appropriately challenging texts, and make those texts meaningful to our students. A teacher’s authenticity in the classroom is essential to building those important human connections.

As a side note, let us not forget the importance of building human connections with parents.  I think we often forget the role parents can play in helping us to help their children achieve.  Where we make human connections with parents, we may also tap into resources beyond what we’d hoped or imagined, resources like volunteer time, fundraising efforts, resource donations, professional expertise, and mentors.  We need to encourage parents to be partners, and sometimes, we need to show them how to be partners!  Engage parents.

Another idea tweeted was that we need to be clear about the goals and objectives of our lessons.  We should be sharing those objectives with students daily!  Sometimes, because ELA curriculum tends to be more “recursive” and integrated than that of other content areas which are more linear, it is more difficult to isolate objectives for our lessons.  Although a lesson could target 17 indicators under 5 different standards, we must prioritize objectives by choosing three which we will emphasize in terms of student learning outcomes.  The magic number seems to be “3”.  If you set more than three learning goals or objectives, your point is lost.

I also read several tweets about overarching themes or essential/guiding questions as a way to organize course content and set objectives.  I use essential questions and love them for developing thematic instruction.  Centering instruction around essential questions can strengthen the connection between curriculum and students.  It also encourages teachers to go beyond the anthology to use a variety of textual resources, allowing for scaffolding with non-fiction texts, engaging students in Socratic seminars or discussions focused on related poetic texts, or asking students to write (this year in student blogs in my class) about how the texts connect both to the students themselves and to the other texts in the unit.

I read several tweets about the role of technology not only as a general instructional tool in any classroom, but also how we must see that students are literate “both in the digital and traditional world” (#engchat @padgets).  There was some debate about how much tech should be included in classroom instruction as well as whether tech is a necessary element in effective ELA instruction.  I believe that if tech serves to engage students in dialogue with texts, with each other about texts and ideas, and with the literate world beyond the four walls of my classroom, then it is a valuable tool for effective ELA instruction.  Tech will remain a tool, however, and not content in and of itself.

I am sure that as the chat rolled down the page sometimes so quickly it was dizzying, I missed a few great thoughts.  I am thankful, though, that I had the opportunity to participate.  There is nothing as valuable to my instruction as the infectious enthusiasm of colleagues who care deeply about the quality of what they do to serve the learning of their students every day.  A special thanks to the #engchat founder and moderator @sapereaude and to Jim Burke (@englishcomp) for making it possible.

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