Saturday, October 5, 2013

Lucky Woman

Traveling on I-90E with my husband, I feel pretty lucky. Friends offered us a pair of tickets to the Red Sox playoff game against the TB Rays.  My students know about my love of the Sox, so I know they can appreciate what a cool surprise this is for me.  It was totally unexpected in a weekend that I had planned to be fairly mundane. My to- do list included laundry, the grocery store and washing windows. But here I am on my way to Fenway.

This lucky feeling was an extension to the luck I have been feeling with my students this year. They have been working hard and their enthusiasm and participation has assured me that engaging them first to determine what they are interested in was the right path to take.  

We are on our way with our first theme of the year: Future. This theme was developed by the kids among four others and then voted on. Each student is crafting an Essential Question for what they would like to explore in this theme. Meanwhile, using the curriculum that I must follow, I am choosing texts, lessons and activities to support them in their work.  

The success of this approach, known as Curriclum Integration, is dependent upon one very important thing: my students. Without their support and willingness to go on this ride with me, I would have had to abandon this experiment early in our time together.  But they show up each day, sometimes with an air of confusion that I am actually interested in what they are curious about, and think, talk, listen and write in order to move us along on our journey into the Future.

Pretty darn lucky.

As if this wasn't enough, they are also blogging. This too they have taken up with great gusto. Their initial posts are going from sounding like what they think I want to hear, to developing into their own voices as they choose what to write. I have told them, "You are the boss of your blog."  It has taken some time for them to trust that I actually mean it. Just yesterday as I gave them their second blog post deadline, I fielded the question of, "What can I write about?"  I reiterated my usual reply, but it was chorused with other students echoing, "Whatever you want . . . you are the boss."

I also have been asked multiple times if they are allowed to write when they want or should they wait for me to tell them.  I am always troubled by this one because I think it shows the current culture of schools. Don't think for yourself. Only answer what you are being asked.  Choose A, B, C, or D.  

I react to this question with lots if excitement and tell them to do what bloggers do.  Write as soon as an idea strikes you.  Don't wait. 

And now I can share with them about the time I wrote a post via my phone on my way to Boston.  Pretty darn lucky.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Art of Language

Now that we have September behind us, what sticks out the most to me is the idea that words, no matter how simple, really do matter. I started the year being given a word to define my teaching and the impact I had on students last year. Leading up to that, I believed that whatever rating I would be given due to the new teacher evaluation system, that it was not important. The idea that you can quantify the myriad of ways a teacher affects his or her students is not only invalid but ridiculous.

My rating was ultimately determined by one test.  A test that my district has abandoned using due to the disconnect between its content and what actually happens in an ELA classroom. Hearing of this decision might lead to the logical conclusion that, perhaps, any rating that was drawn from this poorly chosen assessment, which had been agreed upon by both the teachers union and administration, might be thrown out as well.  Sadly when it comes to decisions in education today, logic is usually no where to be found.

So I am stuck with my rating.  Just a word, right? No big deal. I am 'Developing', and thus, a teacher in need of improvement.  Well, actually, a teacher who needs to improve student test scores on an assessment that will not be given this year.  Logical? A teacher who is deemed 'Effective' when based on how her students performed on the NYS ELA exam. A teacher deemed 'Effective' when administrators observed what really happened in my classroom with students. But still, 'Developing'. The label hangs around my neck until my current students' test scores prove otherwise.  

This is how I started the year, and then I began to get to know my current students. With each day that passed, it has been their words that have chipped away at the burdensome weight of my rating. It happens at the end of each class as they pack up and head out. A few look my way and simply say, "Thank you."  The first time it happened, I was caught off guard.  My reaction was to laugh as if it was a silly thing to say to a teacher.  I certainly wasn't feeling as though I deserved any kind of thank you.  So in return, I said thank you back to those students and shook off that strange feeling of, What just happened?

As the practice of thanking each other as we parted ways each day continued, I began to share what was happening with colleagues, friends and family.  And I as I listened to myself relay it each time, I began to wonder why hearing those words confounded me so.  It saddened me that this simple acknowledgement of the give and take that happens in a classroom as something to be thankful for was not part of our school day routine.  In expressing our mutual thanks to one another, my students taught me something that I knew all along but allowed to be drowned out in the shunning of the American teacher that happens regularly by politicians and the powers that be that hold sway when it comes to current corporate education reforms.  The label assigned to us can create a barrier to those that sit alongside us in the classroom.  It cultivates, while maybe more subconsciously, an adversarial mentality between teachers and students.  Students as mere data points.  Teachers as data collectors. 

This cold and crass understanding by those who claim to know what's best for schools is not only insulting it has the potential to poison the roots of that which allows learning to happen.  Any effective teacher knows that there has to be an element of trust and respect present.  A classroom is not a one-way street.  It isn't simply about what I have to offer them but what we all bring to the table and have to offer one another.  My students and I get that.  If only everyone did.  Instead they set the rules of the game to create a rift in the powerful and amazing relationships my students and I share each year.

And to those that think they can so easily define who I am, who my students are and the value of the work we do together, shame on you.  You do a real dishonor to the teachers who affected you in positive way, that I am sure you could name if asked.  Teachers who you remember not because you were grateful for some test score you earned but thankful for the authentic connection you shared while sharing their love of learning.

Well, I for one will do everything I can to bridge the divide that has been set before us.  I plan to hold tight to my students.  I am firm in my belief that what happens in my classroom is so much more than a test can assess.  My students are beyond the measure of a 1, 2, 3 or 4.  And I am more than the word handed to me by those that dismiss without prejudice the important personal exchanges that happen each day within the walls of our schools.  We will carve our own labels for ourselves this year and will continue to remain thankful for the time we spend each day in that pursuit.

PS:  Lastly, I would like to end with some words of thanks.  First to my students for reminding me of the beauty in what we do each day.  Thanks to their families for shaping such wise twelve year-olds. Thanks to their teachers before me for inspiring such amazing thinkers.  And thanks to my colleagues, family and friends who, too, have expressed simple words that help to keep the focus on what matters in education. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

3 + 3 = 1

At the end of last year, I felt exhausted. In many ways, it was my most difficult year of teaching in my 14-year career.  My students and I had worked hard during each of those 180 days but for the first time, there were many assignments and projects that we either didn't get to or had to cut short.   I really didn't like that feeling.  There were so many things that got in the way of what, I believe, is truly important when it comes to learning. (If you take a look at some of my posts from last year, you will see what some of those things were.)

Over the summer, I take time to read and reflect on the evaluations that my students fill out for me. There was one theme that kept coming up again and again. The theme of independence.  I like to think that I give my students a lot of choice and freedom in their learning.  But what I was hearing from my kids was that they needed even more.  So I am going to listen to those requests and have begun this year in a new way.  A way that will, hopefully, lead to that independence and control that I think students do crave.

Below you will find my first assignment.  I've named it the 3 + 3 = 1 Letter.   It is a step in helping my students get to know me and vice-versa.  In creating a truly democratic classroom, we must first create a sense of community and trust.  I am eagerly awaiting the replies of my students with their own 3 + 3 = 1 letters.  I've even gotten several early! (Not bad for only having one day of school so far.)  Which I am taking as a sign that the changes I am planning to make this year are definitely a step in the right direction.   I hope my blog will serve me this year in sharing the successes and pitfalls of this exciting experiment.  And I hope to hear from those of you that take the time to read about it and will share in it with me. 

Click here to read my 3 + 3 = 1 Letter.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Getting Published

This week both I and one of my students had our pieces of commentary published in our local paper, the Times Union.  I am looking forward to the coming weeks and finding out who else will see their byline in print.  I will add to this post as those become available.

Writing is power, which is a message that is not given to students via the Common Core or standardized testing.  That is what this unit is about and why I love teaching writing.

My commentary:  'Nazi' task was clearly wrong

Lily's commentary:  State tests can't figure qualities of teachers

Evan's commentary:  Cover Up!

Taniya's commentary:  I Think You Got The Wrong Words

Charles' commentary:  Oi Vey Iz Mir Gewalt

Rachel's commentary:  Tan or No Tan?

Fathima's commentary:  Smoking Life or ... Death

Alex's commentary:  Sleepy Time 

Skye's commentary:  R U Texting a Little 2 Much?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Student Inspiration

In these last days of April, I wanted to acknowledge the yin and yang that this month represents for my discipline.  April is National Poetry Month, but it is also the time of year when students in grades 3-8 take their ELA and math New York State exams.  The irony of this is not lost on us English teachers.  This is my attempt to intertwine the two.


I see the courage
I see the courage in each of you
I see the courage in the challenges you all face
I see the courage in the choice you can't erase

You choose to sit
With arms folded
With only your name 
No A, B, C or D
Blank lines stare back at you
Your courage is in your choice to refuse
To not allow these booklets to define
To not allow a number eat away
At the confidence you otherwise display
When not given a time limit

I see the courage
I see the courage in each of you
I see the courage in the challenges you all face
I see the courage in the choice you can't erase

You choose to sit
Pencil in hand
Skimming and guessing
Racing to the word STOP
While you have chosen to play the game
The end result does not matter
For no matter how hard you work
You know in this game the odds are never in your favor

I see the courage
I see the courage in each of you
I see the courage in the challenges you all face
I see the courage in the choice you can't erase

You choose to sit
And work until the end
Determination written all over your face
You know what is at stake
The gauntlet thrown is one you take up proudly
They tell you it won't be easy
Chances are it will reveal more weaknesses than strengths
But you sit to prove them wrong
You bubble in to defend your teacher
To show that you don't need what they are selling
You know better than them
I see the courage
I see the courage in each of you
I see the courage in the challenges you all face
I see the courage in the choice you can't erase

And I am inspired

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

'Tis the Season

This has been a holiday season like no other. While the final week of school leading to vacation is always frenzied, this one was tinged with fear and worry. The tragedy in Newtown, CT, lead to fear and anxiety all over the country for students, parents and educators. It was a long week that culminated in those who chose to prey upon people's fears and spread rumors to further disrupt what is normally an exciting time of year. How anyone can see what the community in Newtown is going through and use that as an opportunity to amuse themselves is beyond me. I know for me and my students we tried to focus on what we could do to help.

During Tutorial, I and my social studies teacher shared with students how a call had been put out to help to transform the new building that will house Sandy Hook Elementary when students return from the holiday break. While psychologists are recommending that the classrooms of this former middle school be made to resemble student's classrooms as much as possible (even down to where markers or a water bottle was left), they are decorating the halls to look like a winter wonderland. They have requested for anyone who would like to help to send unique and creative snowflakes to create a fun space for these children that have been through too much.

Our students rose to the challenge and worked together to create the most amazing and wonderful snowflakes you have ever seen. It was a fantastic way to put their nervous energy to a purpose that will do some good in the world.

Students also gave in a different way this season. In lieu of presents for their team teachers, we asked students and their families to contribute to Heifer International. This organization allows you to gift farm animals to struggling farmers all over the world. As our collection came to a close on Wednesday, we were astounded when the grand total of donations by students, parents and teachers came to $1708! Students who participated (over 70) voted for which animals we would purchase. They chose:  1 cow, 1 llama, 1 sheep, 1 goat, 1 pig, 1 fish farm, 1 water buffalo, 3 rabbits, 1 bee hive, a flock of chicks, a flock of geese, and a flock of ducks. This fundraiser was an amazing success due to the overwhelming generosity of our team of students, parents and teachers.

In language arts as we made our way to the holiday break, students were working in small groups to make a difference in the world by producing public service announcement videos (PSAs).  We began by discussing how our world is not a utopia but rather is complicated with big and small problems.  We watched an episode of 60 Minutes that featured a man who began fighting the injustices of child labor in the world as a seventh grader.  He runs a large charitable organization called Free the Children that not only continues the fight but inspires and empowers young people to find their own cause to make a difference with.  Hia 7A's PSA videos will air on our FMS TV Morning News program in the hopes to raise awareness among the student body with the problems that each small group chose to research.  We will be having a PSA film festival on January 25 at 2:15, where family will be invited in to join as we watch each video.

My final keepsake from the last day of 2012 that I spent with my students is an image of what I like to call the Christmashawk. When people shake their heads in dismay when I tell them I teach 7th grade, it's moments like these for why I truly love this age!

So as we begin the new year in the hopes of leaving behind the things that we would rather forget, I will hold on to these final moments of 2012 and relish the community that is Hiawatha 7A.  I feel very lucky to be a part of this team.