Saturday, October 7, 2017

Back In The Saddle

It is hard to believe that I haven't written in over a year. As a blogger, I don't feel so terrible. But as a teacher, I feel all sorts of guilt. What kind of a role model am I? I have struggled with writing the past year for a few reasons, but I was finally inspired to hit that new post button. I have my colleague, Mrs. Sittig, to thank for that. This year, my Social Arts co-teacher decided to jump in the writing pool as we got our students' blogs set up for the year. Her first couple of posts were just the reminder I needed to remember that blogging is about writing in the moment. You have to not pressure yourself about if your topic is good enough. Just sit down, start typing, and see what comes out.  I had lost sight of that. I only hope I will be able to keep up with her this year!

Speaking of this year, can I tell you how great my students are? When anyone asks how my year is going I have been answering with, "They laugh at my jokes. That's all that matters." And while I don't mean to sound flippant, I truly believe that after 18 years of teaching that laughter is the number one ingredient to having a good year. To be able to laugh with 12-13 year olds might just mean I am very immature but if you have ever hung around with people this age, you know that they don't always let their guard down. I work hard at the beginning of the year to create an atmosphere, alongside Mrs. Sittig, where kids feel safe. I, of course, think this is important for those times when kids are hurting and need someone. I have already had lunch with a new student who was too scared to eat lunch in the cafeteria, listened as a student struggled with the separation of their parents, and grieved with another who had tragically lost their older brother. But in fostering this trust, I also allow for students to find the humor in things, laugh at themselves and me, and never take anything too seriously.

Kids today seem to be so wrapped up in fear and anxiety. I remember how challenging my middle school years were. I can't imagine if I had to battle panic attacks or digestive issues caused by things I felt I couldn't control. With all the pressures of the world that weigh far too heavily on today's youth, I want my classroom to be a place where those things can be set aside for 80 minutes. And if we haven't had a laugh by the time class ends, then I deem it a bad class. A year where students aren't able to be comfortable enough with themselves to laugh at their dorky teacher, that is a bad year.

This year has been filled with lots of smiles, smirks, and laughs. A good year. And if any of my students are reading this, I hope you feel the same way. I am pretty excited to spend the next nine months with you. You have impressed me not just with your work in the classroom but your willingness to try new things. Our time spent volunteering at the Patroon Land Farm was a great day where you showed how you could work together in order to help others. And the amount of you who are working hard to get in your permission slip to volunteer at the soup kitchen has been overwhelming. I've never seen anything like it. And while I know that we have had and will continue to have some bumps in the road here and there, I truly appreciate the effort you have shown.

See? Blogging isn't so hard? I just wrote all that while waiting for my daughters to finish their gymnastics practice! I can't wait to discover what else I will write about this year.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


With Teacher Appreciation Week ending with Mother's Day, this past week the two most important roles in my life were honored. I received a few emails from students who expressed how much they enjoyed having me as their teacher this year.  Well, to be honest, I asked students to choose a Guilderland teacher, past or present, to email and show their appreciation. I always preface this task by saying I am not looking for a pat on the back by anyone.  I encourage them to actually not choose me because I am the one asking them to do it.  It is nice though to be ignored.

In addition to receiving thanks from students, I also received appreciation from some of the teachers who were also on the receiving end of my students' emails. There were kindergarten teachers, world language teachers, even retired teachers!  Some of them stopped me in the halls and said how much the email(s) they got in their inbox made their day. Some teachers tweeted their appreciation:

It was fitting that also last week the GTA celebrated its annual Springfest, an evening where Guilderland teachers who are retiring at the end of the school year are honored.  This is always such a wonderful event. While I knew many of the retirees (several were from FMS), it never matters whether I do or not.  After socializing and eating dinner, we all sit down to listen to speeches given by colleagues about each retiree. Some retirees choose to speak for themselves. Some are sentimental, some are hysterical, all are heartfelt expressions of each teacher's dedication to their students and school. This year we also had a new master of ceremonies...Mrs. Nowak from Altamont Elementary. She created "retiree commercials" as interludes between each speech. They were unbelievable and received the biggest laughs of the night. She did an awesome job of moving the night along. I only wish that I could post them here. Instead, here are a few photos from Springfest.
The view from the table that Mrs. Sittig (my date) were sitting at.

Mrs. Nowak doing her thang!

Mrs. Clum-Dolan speaking on behalf of her colleague and friend, Mrs. Hyland.
In continuing with the spirit of appreciation, I also found some among our students this week. This particular expression of appreciation is a daily occurrence here at FMS and is one of my favorite traditions. When it is a student's birthday, their friends will either stay after school or come in early to decorate that student's locker. They use wrapping paper, drawings, photos and other items to let their friend know how special they are. Middle schoolers are usually not viewed as always being kind, but this simple act of appreciation dispels that myth. I love walking the halls and seeing the various ways that friends show their appreciation for each other.
Some of my awesome Hia7A students decorating their friend's locker.
My week ended with Mother's Day on Sunday.  I had a wonderful breakfast at a diner with my husband and two daughters.  We had hoped to all go golfing together but, alas, the weather did not cooperate.  Maybe next year. I got cute cards and gifts that Jane and Sammy made at school. Those are my favorite kinds of gifts. I appreciate their teachers carving out class time to allow their students to create something to give to their moms.

And look at that...I think I have come full circle. I hope all teachers had a great Teacher Appreciation Week and all moms enjoyed their Mother's Day. It was a good week.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Active Membership

This spring, I decided to run for secretary of my union, the Guilderland Teachers Association. I found out that I was not the only one running for the position and needed to write a statement to be distributed to members about my candidacy. As I looked at my blank computer screen, I crossed my fingers and hoped that I could fill a page.  I thought about giving an overview of my involvement in the GTA over my 16 years.  I thought it was a good place to start.

As I finished explaining my experience, I was surprised to find myself near the bottom of a second page. I had never really sat down before and thought through all of the roles I had taken on over the years as a union member. In seeing it all written down, it made me feel even stronger on tackling this larger role of GTA secretary.

Once I was ready, I asked a few colleagues to read and give me feedback before sending it off.  I was relieved to have it finished and nervous to have all of my colleagues across the district read it.

The very next day though I found out that the other candidate had reconsidered and decided not to run after all. I was, of course, relieved but a little disappointed after having crafted my election statement. So I figured not to let it go to waste and share it here.  Being a union member is an important and critical role in my teaching life, of any teacher's life.  I am glad to be able to share that part of myself as a teacher here.

May 3, 2016

Dear fellow GTA members,

I am writing to you to ask for your support on Tuesday, May 10, as I seek the position of GTA secretary.  I hope in this role, I can continue to devote my time and energy into continuing to make our union stronger.

I have taught at Farnsworth Middle School for the past 16 years as a 7th grade language arts teacher. I came to the district and this building at a time when our staff looked very different than what it does today.  At FMS, I was surrounded by veteran teachers who had been here for many years. I was lucky to be placed on a team with some of them. My teammates not only supported me as a young teacher but also as a young union member. Some of my memories in my early career are, of course, populated with my students and my successes and failures in the classroom. But what stands out, too, are the lessons and education I received on why our union was so important. I heard stories of times we had to stand together and fight for the rights and working conditions that I entered the profession taking for granted. I was instilled with a sense of awe at those who were active union members and took on the roles within our building and our larger teaching unit.

I was inspired by those colleagues, and it didn’t take long before I felt I was ready to play a role in the GTA.  My first position was as FMS building secretary. As a young teacher, it was a job that allowed me to support our building president. I attended TALC and building meetings and took the minutes to share with members. I created fliers and promoted events within our building. While building secretary is not exactly a vocal position, it was one that allowed a young teacher like me to put my toe in the water and get a glimpse of the work that our union does for all of us.

My next step in becoming more active was to take on the position of FMS building representative on our GTA Representative Council. This lead me to an even greater understanding of the work of our union. In meeting monthly with representatives from all seven buildings and our Executive Committee, I got a more global sense of the issues all teachers in our district were dealing with, the good work that was happening across buildings, and a better sense of community in making connections with teachers at all three levels.  Being a building representative also encouraged my own voice in the union as I was able to participate and share my views at both Rep Council and then in reporting back to my colleagues at FMS. Developing my own confidence as a professional has been invaluable to me. It has encouraged me to take more risks by presenting at conferences, becoming a leader in other professional organizations, such as the Capital District Writing Project, and ultimately has allowed me to step up in other ways as a GTA member.

In 2008, I left my building representative position to go on maternity leave. When I returned in 2010-11, I gave myself time to acclimate myself back to the world of teaching. I came back though to APPR, increased testing, and an attack on the teaching profession.  I used my voice to write letters to the editor and had two published in the Times Union.  I spoke during a public comment section of our Guilderland Board of Education meeting to voice my concerns on our newly adopted computerized testing, the NWEAs, for use as local assessments. I also started a blog, where I continue to write about my experiences as a teacher and allow myself a space to voice my concerns about the world of education. While I was not in an elected GTA position during this time, I continued to work as an active member.  

In the spring of 2013, FMS learned that our building president was stepping down. I took this as an opportunity to step back into a new role in the GTA and ran as co-building president alongside Emily Mineau. We have been serving as co-presidents since 2013-14, and it has been an invaluable collaboration. This position has given me an even wider scope of the work of our union. It has challenged me in ways that I didn’t know it would. As leaders in our building, Emily and I work with administration to help members who need union representation. We attend bi-weekly meetings with our building principal to address concerns that staff have and troubleshoot problems that arise.  We make sure the FMS membership stays informed on issues in our district, in our state and nationally. We attend monthly meetings of the Executive Committee, Representative Council, and FMS TALC. I also serve as a representative on the Co-Curricular District Review Committee.  More recently, I have volunteered to serve on the new GTA Local Action Plan or LAP team. This is a group that will allow me to take a role in getting even more of our members to be more active in our union and build community support. I am hoping it will give me the chance to do for my fellow colleagues what my veteran colleagues did for me when I entered Guilderland. I wish for all members to find a role that allows them to make our union stronger.

In taking my work in the GTA a step further, I am seeking the position of GTA secretary. This will allow me to continue my work with the Executive Committee and Rep Council. I am hoping to expand the work of secretary to include more communication via social media and our GTA website. I am positive that all my experience over the past 16 years will serve me well as I look to take on this new role.

Thank you for your time. I hope that you will support my bid for GTA secretary on Tuesday, May 10.

In Solidarity,
Molly Fanning

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Conference with Colleagues

I hit the road once again with my social studies teammie, Mrs. Sittig, to the New York State Council of Social Studies (NYSCSS) annual conference in Albany. We had applied to present with another FMS colleague, Mrs. Cahill, and were so excited to find out our proposal was accepted. I was even more excited to find out we were presenting on Friday, April 1. Why you might ask? Have you ever been in a middle school on April Fools Day? #dodgedabullet

Our presentation was on using Google Apps, Chromebooks, and interdisciplinary work. We had the tiniest room imaginable. It seated about twenty people, but we managed to fit a few more since some in our audience were willing to sit on the floor. No pressure.

You can't see them but there are three wonderful ladies sitting on the floor on the left side of the room.
We used this Google Slides presentation as we spoke for an hour and a half. We talked about our favorite apps, extensions, projects and even shared student work.  While we hadn't rehearsed our talk, I thought it was pretty seamless as we took turns speaking off of various slides. I was so impressed with my partners who were presenting to fellow social studies teachers on their approach to content in ways that incorporate technology in cool and interesting ways. The responses we got both throughout the presentation and after confirmed that we are doing work with students that is both innovative and exciting.

I want to take a moment to thank Mrs. Sittig and Mrs. Cahill for inviting me along. They certainly didn't need me! It was a reminder how important it is to make time for collaboration and sharing of your craft as a teacher. I know most of us constantly feel unsure of ourselves and are waiting for someone to call us out on having no clue what we are doing. Presenting for other educators, while we do it each day with our students, should be a necessary part of our pedagogy. It allows us to be critical of our teaching and, at the same time, celebrate what we do. 

This past April Fools Day was no joke for me. I'm already looking into where we can present next!


Sunday, February 21, 2016

What Keeps You Coming Back

It is Sunday morning before we head back to school from our February break. I know students and teachers alike are fighting that knot in our bellies as we gear up for Monday morning. I am choosing this moment to reflect back on a day last month where I and my colleague had the incredible opportunity to take a group of 21 (we had 22 but one sprained her ankle the night before our trip) students along with a couple of parents to volunteer at the St. John's/St.Ann's Outreach Center to serve lunch. 


We gathered at the front entrance to wait for our bus. I used it as a photo op before we headed out. You can see the excitement on each of my 7th graders' faces. Only two in our group had volunteered here before, so we were all looking forward to see what we had in store for us. I should mention that spots for this trip filled up quickly. I had to turn away students who wanted to volunteer.


We headed into the building bringing with us additional donations of hats, gloves and blankets. One of our parents had offered these items, which were collected via a Red Cross drive. We were so happy to be able to not only donate our time but items that are necessary during any northeast winter.


The board announced our arrival, so I quickly grabbed Sreehitha and Nicaya, our two veteran volunteers, for our photo. These two were so excited to be returning to serve lunch. They kept telling about how amazing the people are and how much fun it was to talk and get to know them. Their enthusiasm made us all feel at home at St. John's.


And then there was Cookie. Gloria Towle-Hilt is a retired FMS teacher who started these trips to the soup kitchen to volunteer.  She now serves on the GCSD BOE. She greeted us all and gave us some background on the program. I was blown away to learn that FMS has been bringing students to volunteer for 25 years! I think we all felt very proud to say that we were now part of that history.


We got right to work. In preparation for the 200 people we would be serving, we were quickly shown how to set up each table. 


Each table needed placemats, condiments, and a centerpiece. Cookie reminded us again and again that the main goal was to make the diners feel welcome. They try to make the experience that of a real restaurant: something the diners aren't able to afford.


As the final touches were put on each table, I looked around and was so impressed with how serious the kids were taking the work. Even being here for 20 minutes, they took ownership over each task and wanted to do their very best.

We sat down once the tables were set up so Cookie could explain how the various responsibilities while serving. She is joined in this photo with Chris the chef from Druthers Restaurant. Druthers has committed to donate the meal to St. John's whenever FMS students are volunteering to serve. Another very proud moment!

As Cookie spoke, she stressed again the importance of making the diners feel welcome. Our number one job was simply to smile. Looking at my kids and the grins they already had, I knew they would not let her down!

Next we determined partners for serving each of the 10 tables, who would dish out food and who would clean tables as new diners arrived. I think everyone was happy with their jobs. And while everyone didn't get the partner they asked for, I used it as an opportunity to remind the kids that today is not about us. Not to mention it gave them a chance to make a new friend.


Natalie and Jayden did a great job manning the salad station. They made sure salad bowls were ready to be served so that no one had to wait.


We were very lucky to have two parents volunteering with us as well! Mrs. Clancy and Mrs. DiCaprio plated the main course. It was all hands on deck.


We were so moved by all the different people and stories that we heard during our time serving. One image that struck many of us were the diners who carried all of their belongings with them (as seen in this photo). It made real for us the struggle of the homeless. Each one of us felt humbled and knew that we all have so much to be grateful for.


This woman, who I will refer to as Z, was in awe of her servers Shannon and Camila. She made sure to call me over to say how impressed she was by these two young women. Z shared her own story: how she had been homeless for many months, how she was fighting to gain custody of her younger brother after losing her mother, and her dreams of starting an organization to help those in need. She wanted to be able to use her own story to make a difference in the lives of others. So inspiring!


As our diners became fewer and fewer, we began the process of cleaning up and breaking down tables. Our students continued to work diligently. Their smiles, too, remained (as seen in this photo of Meghan), and we all felt a kinship in our work. A bond had been formed through our time serving together. We all knew this had been a special day.


Mrs. Sittig and I are joined here with Cookie as we thanked her again for the experience she gave not only our students but us as well. On the bus ride home, I quickly emailed the Community Service Club supervisor, Mrs. Cahill, to let her know that we had a wonderful day...and to ask when our team could volunteer again.  For I know that these are the experiences that keep us coming back each day to teach. While it is great to share novels with kids and encourage them as writers, being able to give them a day like this one is so powerful. I wish that we made it more of a priority in public schools to not just share knowledge but to give kids experience in the world, especially places that are outside of their day-to-day lives. I am very grateful for days like this one and will make it a priority to seek out more ways to carve out time to enrich my students' lives.

Don't take my word for it! Check out these blog posts by some of our students who volunteered:

Saturday, November 14, 2015

When The World Knocks On Our Classroom Door

The tragedy that befell Paris, France, Friday night cast a dark shadow across the globe. You could feel the collective human fear grip us all. As a mother of two young girls, I had to find a way to tune it out and protect them from the violence that was too much for their too-young ears. We cuddled up on the couch and got lost in a movie.

Today we continued in that vein and went to the movie theater to see The Peanuts Movie. I was taken by surprise as Snoopy took to the skies to fight the infamous Red Baron over the French countryside. One scene showed them battling over Paris, around the Eiffel Tower, as Snoopy's doghouse was sprayed with bullet holes. You could hear in the silence of the theater as the adults all held their breath.
So as I look to heading back to my classroom on Monday, I know that the terror in Paris will follow me there as well. It was true after Columbine, 9/11, and Sandy Hook. Teachers everywhere will be preparing for how to talk with students about the horror that took place Friday night. My students and I are reading The Giver, a sci-fi dystopian novel that asks, What if we isolated ourselves from the rest of the world, from our history, from our emotions? In times when human beings demonstrate brutality in a way that is unfathomable to most of us, it is likely that some of my students will wonder if Jonas' community might be onto something. The Community is without problems or pain, terror or fear, destruction or despair. The images from Paris or Beirut or Baghdad make it seem easy for us to relinquish ourselves and our rights as humans that many of us take for granted anyway. 

Prior to starting our study of The Giver, my 7th graders explored what citizenship means. We identified four pillars to help us define the concept: truth, justice, responsibility, and equality. We talked about how citizenship works in our society. We read various picture books, examined dystopias depicted in various commercials and listened to song lyrics with dystopian protagonists. Finally, we studied the short film 2081, based on Kurt Vonnegut's short story masterpiece Harrison Bergeron. We watched as America had devolved into a dystopia in the name of Equality. Harrison rebels against the government, that handicaps citizens to ensure no one is extraordinary, and sacrifices himself in order to expose the truth of their society. Before he is shot and killed, there is a moment where we see his graffiti stencil that reads, Live free or die for death is not the worst of evils. As my students grapple with their own fears growing up in a time where evil is seen all too often, I want to focus their thinking around this notion that Harrison Bergeron tried to express to his fellow citizens.

That when we allow fear to force us into a retreat from our freedoms, our rights, our democratic culture, we do not honor those lives that have been lost. Events like these should remind us to be more vigilant about defending our freedom. When we allow ourselves to be swallowed by our fear, we end up losing those parts of life that are most precious.

The chapters in The Giver that we will read together this week will have us watch Jonas as he comes to understand the truth of his Community, the lack of justice when you don't allow people the freedom to choose, the false sense of responsibility created when no one feels anything, and how equality is hollow when Sameness is the culture.  Literature allows us to talk about ourselves and reflect on both the best and worst in society. So while, talking about the state of our world with my students is never easy, I feel blessed to have a lens like Lois Lowry's brilliant novel to help us gain perspective on overwhelming events like those of this weekend. Good luck to all my colleagues this week as we face yet another tragedy, hold our students' hands, listen and teach.

Friday, October 9, 2015

On A Positive Note

Talk to any teacher, this first month of school has been a stressful one. Instead of launching into the reasons why, I wanted to revel in the positives of this week. And when there are positives to hold on to, they come from one of two places: colleagues or students, and if I am lucky a combination of both.

Yesterday at my team meeting, I was lamenting the fact that the rocking chair in my classroom was in disrepair. The chair was a gift from my sister given to me before the birth of my first daughter, Jane. It sat in my girls' room and was used to nurse, rock and cuddle my babies until they became too big for us to sit together comfortably. When I returned to teaching after my maternity leave, Jane was 3 and Sammy 2, I brought my rocking chair with me into Room 356. It was a lovely reminder of my kids while offering a comfy option for my other kids', my students', to read in.

So for the past five years, many a 7th grader has sat in that chair. And due to extreme use, the bottom crossbars secured to the rockers have broken. I explained to my teammates that I was worried it might become unsafe. My teaching assistants (thanks, Mrs. B and Mrs. P!) without missing a beat suggested I ask the technology department at FMS and explained the tools and word working that students learn in tech class. So once we finished the meeting, I headed back to my room and emailed the tech department attaching photos of the condition my rocking chair was in and wondering if there was anything they could do to repair it. Within 20 minutes, I had a reply from Mr. Ball saying, of course, he would and to send the chair down. I was so happy! I planned on walking it downstairs after school but didn't get the chance. 

Not an hour later, Mr. Ball appeared in 356 and swiftly rescued my chair. We had never talked about how long it would take. I didn't care. The thought that it would be repaired was all I could think about.  I imagined in a couple of weeks having my chair back without the bottom looking as though it would fall apart. And not an hour after he had rescued the chair, Mr. Ball had returned with it!  He instructed me not to allow anyone to sit it in it until tomorrow, I showered him with thanks and as quickly as he had arrived, he was gone. I was stunned as I looked at the rocking chair and saw that it was as good as new.  You couldn't even tell that it had been broken.  Colleagues are good like that. When someone needs help or reaches out, you almost always can be sure that you will find the support you need. From my teammates who listened and helped me problem solve to Mr. Ball volunteering his time and expertise to save my chair, I am truly lucky to have colleagues who care.


The day following all of this, my team was able to volunteer our time by taking a field trip to the Patroon Land Farm, which is an organic farm that donates all the food it grows to the Regional Food Bank. Each year our team travels to the farm to bond and do a bit of good.  While for our past trips we have been blessed with beautiful weather, today was not one of those days. Instead of working in the fields harvesting vegetables, we were relegated to the greenhouse as the rain poured down outside. We were tasked with separating seedling trays.  As you can see below, there were thousands of them!


The work was messy. The trays were obviously dirty and wet. While we never stepped in the fields, you would never know by looking at us. Dirty hands, fingernails, even a few cuts from the plastic trays as prying the trays loose was challenging at times. This was not an easy job. Some members of the team worked non-stop, always looking for another stack to separate. Some had a hard time focusing on the same task for an extended period of time and were distracted by the excitement of the driving rain and the temptation of playing around with the mud. 

As you can see, Anthony worked extremely hard!
After about thirty minutes of working, students began to ask if this was all we would be doing. I shrugged but added that we sadly couldn't go outside because of the rain. So we continued separating and stacking the trays. Finally though, word spread around the room of why we were doing what seemed to a twelve-year-old a boring and unimportant (compared to getting the chance to work in the fields) task.  Turns out that this job, when done by the staff on the farm, takes all winter.  What our team, over 100 people, over 200 hands, could accomplish in less than two hours was saving the farm months of work.  I couldn't believe it. And not only that, but these trays were truly the first step in the process of growing their crops.  In these trays would be planted the initial seeds that they would tend until they were ready to be planted in the fields. From there the crops will grow, be harvested, and make their way to the Regional Food Bank to feed the hungry. And now our team has helped in all of that. Amazing.

I made my way back to the students who had questioned why we were doing this work and watched as their expressions turned from frustration to understanding.  We got back to work and quickly finished the last of the trays.  Once finished, the farm staff gave us a very nice thank you for all of our hard work. They were impressed with how efficient we were and, by the looks on their faces, very grateful to have this tedious task completed. 

I am so grateful that our week ended with such a positive bonding experience. Teaching 7th grade certainly has its daily challenges. But we come back every day and do our best to guide, teach and nurture our current crop of students.