Thursday, November 27, 2014

Day 16: If you could have one superpower to use in the classroom, what would it be and how would it help?

There are a lot of teacher sites that have articles about the superpowers that teachers do have: super hearing, titanium bladders, keen sense of lie detection, etc. These are cute articles that, to me, seem a bit condescending (despite the fact that their audience are teachers) and a bit of internet fluff. In a time when school violence is so common place that a school shooting may not even get national attention, the idea of teacher as hero isn't that far-fetched. From Columbine to Sandy Hook, the valor and strength that educators show when faced with a dangerous person is something that I worry we are starting to take for granted. When you read the narratives of the decisions that teachers in those incomprehensible situations make, I don't know what else you could define it as other than a superpower.

And then there are the sacrifices that teachers make day-to-day. From the time they dedicate, to the money they give, to the emotional and mental demands that are chalked up to "just being a teacher".   It is akin to a superhero who has to live part of their lives in service to others and while doing so, giving up a part of themselves. Just as Clark Kent can't turn off his concern for the greater good of the citizens of Metropolis, a teacher brings their work and their kids home with them. They live two lives, where one sometimes trumps the other because of the pledge that has been made to their students.

I don't know if there is another superpower I would want to have that could help me do my job. I at first imagined having the power to see into my students' lives a bit more. To see the heavy baggage they might be carrying with them each day. But in having a 110 students, my chest started to tighten about the toll that knowledge would take. It is hard enough to be privy to some of the information I already do know. If I had a full scope of insight into my kids, the times where I already feel overwhelmed by one student's struggles would be multiplied to such a degree that I don't know how I would manage the responsibility I would feel to help and support my students.

Looking outside my classroom, I thought that what teachers could use today would be a mega-super-sonic voice that could not be ignored. A voice that would cut through the political rhetoric of those that are seeking to reform our schools and yet have no real experience in education. A voice that was able to deflect the misuse of data, the greed of corporate education reform, standards that are assumed to be effective but have never been field tested, the notion that tenure equals a job for life, the politicians who use schools as a pawn in their effort to garner more support, the idea that teachers can be assigned points in order to determine their effectiveness, the movement to use standardized tests to determine funding and creating cookie-cutter classrooms where the test is a scare tactic for both kids and teachers, and lastly, I would want a voice that was able to empower teachers to be the professionals that they are and give them the confidence to speak without fear of retribution. Because when we don't, that affects what happens inside our classrooms. Educators become hesitant to buck the system in moments where they know the system isn't what is best for kids.

In teaching for the past 15 years, I can tell you that any voice we had has been strategically eroded. And along with that, so too, is the faith that all the sacrifices we make for our vocation are for that greater good. Teachers are leaving at a record rate. New teachers are not staying.  Veteran teachers are retiring early. As an educator who isn't going anywhere, I guess maybe we need a kind of shield for the kryptonite that is corporate education reform. A shield that, like a loud booming voice, would deflect the nonsense and illogical decisions that are being made today when it comes to schools. Decisions that equate a lack of support that is weighing down any kind of progress in public education. Because when it comes down to it, this shield would represent one very important and powerful element that is absent, which is respect. And until our culture in America shifts to revering teachers instead of demonizing them, any superpower we might have is muted.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Dodge

Anis Mojgani, Brendan Constantine, Sean Thomas Dougherty, and Dave Caserio

On Friday, Oct. 24, I had the pleasure of tagging along with GHS students and teachers on a field trip to The Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ. The festival is held every two years and celebrates the written word over the course of four days. Friday is traditionally a free day for high school students to attend. We attended various workshops that focused on one poet or featured a panel of poets. Getting to listen to them read and speak about their craft was a powerful experience for all of us. As a teacher of writing, it was amazing to hear these esteemed poets reaffirm beliefs that I try to instill in my own student writers very fulfilling. I left with my confidence strengthened that for my students who may pursue a life of writing, my class might offer them a time where they felt supported in that endeavor.
Eavan Boland

As the trip approached, I not only looked forward to the festival but also to spending the day with some of my former 7th graders. Reading the list of participants made me a bit giddy as I saw that I would get an opportunity to reconnect with students in a way that I had never had before. Reconnecting through a common interest in writing. Some of these students were ones I had told when they were 12 that I felt they were destined to be writers. Seeing that they had been nominated and had accepted the invitation to attend this poetry festival just made me happy. And knowing that I would get to go on this day-long journey with them was truly joyful. Not to mention I got to meet new students who were so friendly and sweet. All 40 students were great.
Alex, Hannah, me, Tristin, Maddy, Taylor and Christine

My favorite part of the day was when I made an executive decision to skip our scheduled session and go to another one on Poetry and Performance that featured a favorite poet of mine, Anis Mojgani. It turned out to be the highlight of our day and the one that my group of nine students thought would be the one they would remember the most. Here is a clip from Anis' encore poem:

For our final workshop, we attended a session on Poetry and Music in this amazing theater. We all were in awe of the space as we entered the balcony. It was a wonderful way to end the day. I think we all sat there grateful for the experiences we had together.
It was a poetically exquisite day spent with some amazing individuals. I am so appreciative that field trips are still part of the education we offer to students in Guilderland. This is mostly thanks to our parents, who are able to fund their children to go on any trip. I know other districts are not so lucky. And I know, too, that when budgets are tight, funding field trips seems like a misallocation of already dwindling funds. This, to me, is sad. The times where we are able to take our students out of our classrooms to experience the world can be life changing for some. It can open their eyes to things they might never discover. It is, I believe, a critical part of any education. These experiences demonstrate to kids what the world has to offer and, in the process, they might discover what they have to offer the world.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Day 15: Name three strengths you have as an educator.

Let's be honest. Teachers are rarely the kind to talk about how great they are. I've been writing, thinking, mulling over, and revising this post for almost two weeks now. It is not because I am having trouble narrowing down a long list of pats-on-the-back down to three. I have found different ways of identifying strengths while at the same time explaining why those qualities are also weaknesses. Needless to say, this prompt has made me very uncomfortable.

And then last week, tragedy struck both at school and in my family. 

I won't go into the detail about the horrific crime that was committed against a family who resides in the school district I work in. (You can read about it here.)  What I will say is that it demonstrated what kind of true strength educators show when dealing with a crisis such as this. Teachers at the elementary school that the young brothers attended surrounded their students with love and support. Going so far as to ride the school bus home and to school to make them feel safe. Social workers and counselors from around the district went to the school to ensure that staff and students had the ability to navigate these waters that no community thinks they will have to enter. The strength of my colleagues, while not surprising, was inspiring. I know that it is our strength as educators that will see us through this very sad chapter in our lives. It is our strength that will allow us to care for our students, to listen to them, and find a way to continue on learning and working together.

During this horrific week at school, my family was dealing with a terrible loss. My husband's uncle had recently gotten engaged to his girlfriend, whom the family loved very much. Tragically, she was taken too soon in a bicycle accident. My husband and I traveled to Massachusetts to be with family and mourn the loss of Pam.  The funeral was heartbreaking as person after person got up to speak to the wonderful woman they had loved. I learned that Pam was also a teacher working with students learning English. As I sat there and listened to the stories that spoke to Pam's character and strength, I couldn't help but think that the qualities her family loved her for were ones that demonstrates the strengths of an educator. And as each of her loved ones spoke they echoed the qualities that Pam will always be remembered for: her sense of humor, her kindness, and her ability to let the people she cared for know that she loved them.

 I thought, what three better strengths for an educator to possess? 

Humor, kindness and love should come before any curriculum. Any test. They are the things that bond us not just as teachers and students but as human beings. It was what was seeing my own colleagues through the grief of the past week. It speaks to the humanity of our profession and what our true duty and calling is all about.  I can only hope that my students view these three qualities as strengths in me.  I try hard every day to incorporate them into the work that we do together.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Day 14: What is feedback for learning, and how well do you give it to students?

This is always my biggest weakness as a teacher. When it comes to reading and writing, the time that is required to give that one-on-one feedback to 7th graders that they need is daunting. Due to lack of time and large classes, you have to get creative in finding ways to work it in. I think feedback for learning means not just communicating to a student what they did well or what they are struggling with but to then allow time for students to take that feedback and put it into practice. I believe feedback should be part of the learning process and not something that is given at the end. Students crave feedback as they are figuring things out and need guidance along the way. They appreciate the chance to utilize that feedback before they earn a grade and are surprised by what they needed to work more on.

Instead of listing all the various ways I've given feedback in the past, I'll focus instead on the ways this year  I plan to give it to my 111 students. This year will be a challenge but knowing what I know about what has worked in the past, I know that I must make the time for it. Lord knows the time won't magically be added to my teaching day. In order to make the time, I have tried to pare down some of the work my kids will create to not only give me time to respond but to give them time to rework and revise.

The first tool I am using more is my electronic grade book. We are now able to write notes next to assignments to clarify a grade. I think this feedback will not inform my students but hopefully will empower parents to see what literacy skills they might be able to work on at home. This could be through conversation about movie or encouraging their writing at home.

I plan on continuing to use Google Docs with my students, which allows for written comments to be added to a piece of writing. In addition to this, I am going to try the app Kaizena. Much like a Google Doc comment, Kaizena allows you to leave feedback on a draft but in the form of voice recorded comments. I hope that this won't be too time consuming, but I think it will benefit my students to hear me explain something versus reading my explanation.  We'll see!

At the end of the day, it is in having a conversation with a student that I think ultimately benefits a student in making progress. While I feel I struggle with giving feedback, I know that I am doing the best I can. This might never be something I truly master, but it is the part of my craft that I constantly reflect and work on each year.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Day 13: Name the 5 top edtech tools you use on a consistent basis, and rank them by their perceived (by you) effectiveness.

#5. Elmo
I will never forget the first time I heard about an Elmo or document camera. It was truly a turning point in educational technology. It was the first step towards creating a tool that allowed a teacher to engage students in a new way. Students could now project their work onto a screen and examine their thinking, share their writing or ask the class for help. They could share a passage from their book and point directly to the language they wanted to speak to. Not to mention, no more overhead projector and transparencies...woo hoo! I thought I would never have access to such a useful and exciting innovation. When I returned from a two-year maternity leave though, I came back to a classroom that was not only equipped with an Elmo but an interactive white board as well. In just two short years, the Elmo was being bypassed by other tools. While I don't use my Elmo as much as I had first imagined, it's benefits are still impacting my teaching and the way I am able to engage my students to share their thinking and work.

#4. Cell Phones
While I know cell phones are still viewed with trepidation in the classroom, especially in middle school, I have tried to demystify them for my students. When you tell a student that they have to keep them in their locker or not even allow them in the building, they are devalued and students aren't asked to maximize the potential that they hold.  We use our phones to take photos of our work, research a question, email reminders, write a blog post or upload media to WeVideo. They are time savers not the time wasters they have been cast as. And when a student commits a social cell phone faux pas, I use it as a teachable moment in using that powerful tool in a responsible and respectful manner.  Lord knows, they aren't going anywhere. 

#3. Chromebooks
I haven't had my Chromebooks (CBs) for a full semester and they are already an integral part of my teaching. Gone are the days of scheduling precious computer lab time or feeling guilt over how many days I had reserved the laptop carts. What a difference it is not having that one layer of stress (in a profession that has too many layers and new ones continued to be added) in my day. Being able to integrate technology and give students the time they need to work in class instead of outside is a relief for us all. It allows for more time for instruction on how to use a particular application, troubleshoot, and then go beyond the basics. My mantra with students is that, "You can't break Google." This a line used to encourage their curiosity and asks them to delve into the apps we use without my direction. Some would but lots wouldn't. Having CBs allows us to explore a bit more together in order to get them comfortable enough to venture on their own. I'm hoping to see a big difference in having CBs in my room this year, for a full year, and seeing students ease with the technology grow and deepen each quarter.

#2. Google Apps For Education (GAFE)
When I found out that my district had secured a domain using GAFE, I was beyond excited. I and a few other teachers across the district knew the potential they held and begged for the chance to begin using them with our students.  Student accounts were configured, and a page had been turned in my teaching. I used the final days of my summer participating in a digital workshop on using Google Sites to create student portfolio websites. I now had digital tools available to both me and my students that would allow for work that I had only dreamed of. I had two administrators observing that first class in the computer lab as I asked students to log in to their Google accounts. Easier said than done. It took forever troubleshooting, resetting passwords, and translating to my ELL students who didn't speak any English. A more sane teacher would have called it quits right then. But I am a true glutton for punishment.  And as I look back on that frustrating and comical start, I am amazed at how far we have come as a GAFE school district. More and more teachers are taking advantage of the usefulness in asking their kids to utilize these tools. This year, I learned, that our district will be making a move towards all students having a portfolio website. It makes all of the wondering I've done about if the work my students and I have been engaged in has all been worth it evaporate, and I'm pretty proud of what we have accomplished together.

#1. Promethean Board
As I said before, returning to the classroom after a two-year leave, I discovered I would have an interactive white board or Promethean Board. Luckily I had gone to check out my classroom in early August and saw it mounted on my wall. I couldn't believe it. Yes, I was happy to see such a surprise, but I also couldn't figure why no one had bothered to tell me. I soon realized there was no training being planned for me. Geez, I didn't even know how to turn the thing on.  Panicked and determined not to look stupid in front of my students, I was fortunate to find a workshop being offered at another school that was giving a basic training. I signed up and left with so many ideas of how I could engage my students. There are so many bells and whistles (literally and figuratively) that I still feel after three years of teaching with my Promethean Board that I know I have only scratched the surface. But the power of being able to save my students' thinking, pull it up on another day, or show one class' thinking to another (sometimes even different years) has added a depth to my teaching that I could not live without.  It allows us to utilize different forms of media to inspire us and to enrich us. I am sure in 10 years I will have an even more amazing version of it, but for now I can't imagine teaching without it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Taking a break from the blogging challenge so that I can think through one of my classes yesterday. It was one of those classes that you wish you could hit pause and then rewind and try again.  There was a small vocal minority of the class that were behaving in a way that, I felt, was rude and disrespectful. And I let them get the better of me.

I have expressed how challenging this year feels. Class sizes are larger and student needs are diverse. I am truly taking it day by day. But yesterday afternoon, I was running low on patience and I allowed my attitude to mirror that of those few students who tried to steer class in a different direction.

I have decided that tomorrow I will offer an apology to that class.  First to the majority who sit patiently, who actively and appropriately engage in class, and who not only have to suffer through when other students act up but when I allow those students to upset me.  Why is it so easy to let a few negative people take hold when the majority are positive?  I want those kids to know that I let them down yesterday, and I am going to not do it again.

I am also going to apologize to those that were acting up.  If I expect them to come to class and respectfully interact and participate, then my losing my cool isn't really the best way to model that.  I am sorry for not being able to handle things differently yesterday.  It won't happen again.

I am also going to offer the kids a chance to let me know how they felt about yesterday. I plan to offer them to write me, anonymously if they so choose, about their role in Wednesday's class and what they plan on doing differently. I will begin by offering up my own mea culpa, but I am not taking the full blame.  Everyone one of us who was there contributed to the attitude of the class. From those that chose to not act appropriately to those who gave attention to the negative behavior and, knowingly or not, reinforced and made it acceptable by laughing and smiling.  We all have to commit to making a change or nothing will.

This might sound like a simple discipline issue but for me it is more than that.  I structure my class in ways to try to create a safe community where we can talk and listen to each other. Yesterday was not that. It was uncomfortable and at times disrespectful. At so early a point in the year, I need to see if we can get back on track or else that class might have to look very different from my other three. I don't want to see that happen.

I took this as an opportunity to look back at the evaluation my students last year filled out on me and my class.  I was feeling pretty low yesterday and thought maybe my previous kids would give me some insight into how I might need to make things better this year. I found a lot of great constructive criticism that I had already realized in my own reflection on last year.  The trouble was that the very structures they praised, like the freedom to choose things in my class, are the very things that I am now questioning. Am I throwing the baby away with the bathwater if I make changes due to the actions of a few?  I'm hoping for a redo with this group so that we can move forward and learn from the situation instead of having to create restrictions.

Lastly, looking through last year's evaluations was definitely something that helped to buoy my spirits.  And I want to hold on to all the positive things those kids had to say.  One question had them choose one word to describe me as a teacher.  I created this word cloud to save it as a reminder and not get so discouraged:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Day 12: How do you envision your teaching changing over the next five years?

This question has had me thinking and writing for days. The first day I took the glass-half-empty approach. After 10 minutes I had pages in my notebook railing against NCLB to RTTT, APPR to CCSS, King to Cuomo on to high stakes testing and the decimation of school budgets. I imagined how the effects of all these deforms (yes 'de' not 're') are pushing us further back in time. All of the progress we have made in education over the past 30 years is slipping through our fingers. I imagined all of these data-driven decisions leading us back to tracked classes and teaching at Farnsworth Junior High because our middle school philosophy had been eroded over time.

Then I took a deep breath. I downshifted  into trying a glass-half-full perspective. I imagined those who are speaking up and fighting back actually making progress and turning the tide. I see the focus returning to preparing our students to be better citizens and worthwhile human beings and not simply college and career ready. I envisioned allowing students to be co-collaborators in creating curriculum that is designed to allow them to follow their  passions and pursue their curiosity about the world.  I hope we will be tasking them with improving themselves and our world.

And tonight, I realized something else about the next five years. As I drove home with my husband from our daughters' elementary school's open house, I realized that in five years both my daughters will be with me at the middle school (in my class if you ask them today). This realization made me take another deep breath and hold tight to that glass being half full...for them.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Day 11: What is your favorite part of the school day and why?

If you knew the day I had today, you would know how challenging it is to respond to this prompt. But I think that my inability to name a "favorite" part after what felt like a never-ending day, is evidence that teachers can't really have a favorite part. A teacher's day is too unpredictable. The moving parts, that are our students, make feeling totally comfortable in any of it an impossibility. 

I deal in 12-13 year olds. I'm pretty sure it is the most difficult time in life where you are constantly in flux with highs and lows. I never take for granted that I can't count on who is walking through the classroom door. No matter how engaging the lesson, we might be having a bad day.

And so for today, my favorite part is this moment. Sitting on the couch in my sweatshirt and sweatpants typing away this terrible, rotten, no-good very bad day.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Day 10: 5...4...3...2...1

Share 5 random facts about yourself:
1. I am the 6th of 7 children.
2. I won a singing contest...once.
3. I have been in love with Johnny Depp since I was 12 years old.
4. I have given birth twice but have never experienced labor pains.
5. My daughter's name, Jane Beatrice, is the reverse of what my mom wanted to call me (Beatrice Jane...BJ for short!) but my Grandma Beatrice wouldn't allow it.

Share 4 things from your bucket list:
1. Take my daughters to Disney...I have never been.
2. Go to Paris, France, with my daughters when they are adults.
3. Be within 20 feet of JD. (Maybe in Paris?)
4. Become an avid golfer...once again!

Share 3 things you hope for this year, as a "person" or an educator:
1. Sell my house.
2. Buy a new house.
3. Not to go broke doing #1 or #2.

Share 2 things that have made you laugh or cry as an educator:
1. Cry- Saying goodbye to amazing colleagues as they move on or retire.
2. Laugh- My students make me laugh everyday, and I try to make them laugh.

Share one thing you wish more people knew about you:
That while I can overreact and get over zealous at times, that it comes from a place of true caring for my profession, my colleagues and my students. I can't help it...I love what I do.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Day 9: Write about your biggest accomplishments in your teaching that no one knows about (or may not even care).

After a very long day of teaching and then Open House with my students' parents, I figured I could use that as an excuse to skip a day in my blogging challenge. Understandable, no?  After all, I had been mulling this prompt over for the past 24 hours and had not been able to come up with a single thing. Teachers usually aren't people who like to toot their own horns.  And even though this prompt suggests writing about something minor, mundane or even silly, I was at a loss. 

Driving home at 8:30 p.m. this evening, it dawned on me that I had discovered what to write about. You see, I have a very real fear of public speaking. Strange, I know, as I have a job that requires me to standup and talk to a group of people. But those people are 12 years old, and that crowd I have no trouble handling. Adults, on the other hand, cause me to tremble, my voice shakes and I have trouble catching my breath. Every year as Open House looms, I try to not think about my fear and tell myself that this year will be fine.

After having a lovely home-cooked meal with my entire team of colleagues, cooked by the one and only Mr. Wolf, I entered FMS and immediately began to feel my heart start to beat a little faster. As I set up the computer display, the adrenaline starts pumping and my hands shakily tap the keyboard.  My mouth runs dry. Here we go again.

I am proud that I am able to make it through Open House each year all the while trying to control the inner panic that tries to take hold. I think I do a pretty good job. But I also know it is because I am surrounded by my amazing teammates, who help me feel safe and secure in the fact that we will get through it together.  It was a very special night that I won't soon forget (even though I am glad it is over).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Day 8: What's in your desk drawer, and what can you infer from those contents?

Hmmm.  Today's prompt is tricky because, well, I simply don't have a desk drawer.  When I returned to the classroom in 2010 from my two-year maternity leave, I came back to a room filled with new technology: a Promethean Board, a projector, and a teacher work station that included my desktop computer and an Elmo Projector.

While the teacher station is technically a desk, it has no drawers.  The room did also have a traditional teacher desk.  A big, wooden behemoth that took up a lot of precious space. One of the first things I did that summer before the kids came was ask the custodial staff to remove it.  This helped to open up the room a bit and allow for different configurations of the student desks instead of just having them in rows.

What did I do with my supplies you might ask? I bought baskets and buckets and made them more accessible to my students.  I wanted to make the most of not just the space of but also the time I would have with kids as well.  By allowing things to be more accessible, instead of stored away in my teacher desk drawers, I hoped to show kids I trusted them with the materials that they might need over the course of the year.  I didn't need them to ask permission but rather see what was available at their finger tips, figure out what they needed, and use it.

I have never regretted getting ride of that teacher desk. I have since tried to shed other items in my class that function more as things that take up space versus an item that is truly useful to me and my students. Too much clutter is not conducive to learning.

So what can I infer from my non-existent desk drawer?  I think it conveys that the classroom that I occupy is not merely mine but rather ours.  By including students in the ownership of our space, I hope to show them that I trust them.  And in doing so, they are more mindful of respecting that space. Now don't get me wrong.  They are still 12 and 13 year-olds who need reminding of picking up after themselves, but I like to think they appreciate it anyways.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Day 7: Colleague who was or is your biggest inspiration

This prompt is simply unfair. If you read yesterday's post then you know there are too many candidates in the running for this.  I thought I might list each name and say one thing about how that person inspires me. Nice thought but reality is that it is Friday after my first full week with all 110 of my students. I think that list would take me more than a day, not to mention I would be terrified of leaving off the name of anyone.  I can just skip this one, right?

But the more I thought and wrote about it in my notebook today, I realized there is one person who I truly look up to, respect, am in awe of, frankly, and who truly inspires me. That person is Alicia Wein. I knew that many of you who might read this would say, "Yeah, Alicia totally inspires me too." So I figured I should take this opportunity to let her know.

I have been lucky to have a relationship with Alicia that has developed over the years in a multitude of ways.  While we didn't first meet until we both applied and were accepted into the Capital District Writing Project, we had been district colleagues for close to five years. But she was in the high school and I was at the middle school and, sadly, our paths never crossed.

Since meeting her, she has been my 2004 CDWP cohort member, Guilderland colleague, Summer Institute co-facilitator, writing group compadre and, most importantly, friend. In all of these roles, I have always been inspired by her. I remember being amazed during our 2004 Summer Institute at her quiet demeanor but impressive intellect. The depth of her thoughtfulness is something I think most people would identify as her best quality among her many others. This is always inspiring.

As her Guilderland colleague, I often think to myself that I am possibly preparing my students in case they have Ms. Wein (who is just one of the talented English teachers that are our GHS English department).  Former students always sing her praises for being that teacher who challenges, engages and makes you enjoy her class.  One student referred to her class as "easy" because she "gives you credit as long as you do the work." What is glossed over in that statement though is the kind of, dare I say, rigorous work that that is demanding and relevant to students' lives. This inspires the kind of lessons and work that I challenge my own students with. Alicia leads by example, and I am truly grateful for all that she has taught and shared with me.

As a friend, she is the consummate good listener. Someone you can vent to, laugh with, cry with and be quiet with. She is, as we say in our writing group, one of my Bi+€#es. 😊 She inspires to me to be a better friend.

I hope you don't mind this love letter, of sorts, Alicia. But you are a true inspiration to me and many of your colleagues and I wanted to be sure you knew.❤️

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Day 6: What does a good mentor "do"?

Teaching is one of those professions where mentoring happens no matter if you are in your first year or last year. For me, mentoring is a relationship where people support one another, listen to each other and encourage rather than judge.  A relationship where learning occurs.  Sometimes one person might learn more than the other...but I think a good mentor is someone who learns as well.

My first mentors are the exception because neither of us knew that I would take their example and use it as I figured out what kind of teacher I wanted to be.  They were the teachers I had growing up.  While I didn't realize I wanted to teach until college, once I figured it out, I thought often about those adults that had inspired, challenged and engaged me over the years.  Those were my first mentors as I entered into my education classes.  I would remember and then compare them to what I was learning about teaching.  It helped me to confirm what information was true and what might not be. And let's face it.  If you go through school without ever feeling connected to a teacher, chances are you probably won't enter the profession.

It was in college that I encountered my next group of influential mentors:  my professors, supervisors and cooperating teachers.  These educators opened my eyes to all that had changed since I had been in school.  I was exposed to rich texts, resources and so much more than I had encountered in my own education.  They guided and gave me wonderful feedback as I played with ideas and developed my own pedagogy. After graduating and finding a job, I was lucky to have one of my professors as a colleague in my district.  I knew I was in the right place.

As I entered my school building and my 7th grade position 15 years ago, I was surrounded by the most consummate professionals.  Seasoned veterans. Teachers that had cultivated and maintained one of the most touted middle school cultures in the state.

While they served as mentors in my classroom, they also mentored me as a fellow and new union member.  I was lucky to be surrounded by those that were able to share with me the history of how Farnsworth Middle School came to be.  I learned about battles they fought and won to ensure that teachers had a voice when it came to what was right for kids.

It is because of their tutelage in the ways of our union that I felt confident enough to get involved. I stepped up to be our building secretary, which led to a building rep position on our district Representative Council. Those experiences led to me to run for co-building president, where I take a daily active role in representing and fighting for the rights of the teachers in my building.  It is a huge responsibility and one I don't take lightly.  For as I fight for the colleagues I work with each day, I am, too, fighting the fight of those that came before me.  I don't want to let those mentors down.

And after 15 years, I am still in need of mentoring.  For that I look to my friends and colleagues in my building, in my district, and to those in other districts who inspire me to keep working on my craft.  Mentoring is about learning after all.  And whether you know you are my mentor or not, I appreciate the skill and expertise that I am surrounded by.  I can only hope that I have served others as a mentor.  That I have supported, listened and encouraged rather than judge.  For I would not be the teacher I am today without any of those key teaching influences.  And to them, I say thank you.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Day 5: What I see and what I don't see in my classroom

I snapped this photo quickly this morning. I thought in order to respond to today's prompt, my classroom wouldn't be my classroom without my students.  It is a totally different space without the energy of the kids. Sort of like walking into an empty church or empty stadium. The quiet just feels too loud. So I hope my kids don't mind me including them.  After all, during our time together it is our room not mine.

The second half of this prompt really stumps me.  I take it as a possible wish list of sorts for the kinds of things I would like to see in my classroom. I have said before that I am see myself as lucky. There are times where I talk to teachers in other districts or in other states who can't believe some of the ways in which I am supported. From our culture to technogy down to our schedule, I know that I have so much provided for me professionally. To ask for more, seems a bit selfish to me. With the hand I've been dealt, I'll stick.

As for what I see? I see writing. Kids writing in their notebooks. Published writing of my former students hung up around the walls. Writing in the form of books that cover the numerous shelves in my room. Writing is at the center of this room.

I see technology that facilitates my instruction in order to be able to reach all the different types of learners in my room. From the Elmo, to the Promethean Board, to the projector to my Chromebooks, I have the gift of many tools at my fingertips. 

I see students sitting together with a selection of various types of seating available to ensure comfort as we work.  This is indicative of the importance of choice in my room. Students choose their seats and who they sit with; it is a struggle at times with 7th graders. I try to use it as one way to teach them the independence and responsibility that they crave. At the same time they are choosing what to write, whether to use my prompt or figure out their own topic.  They choose.

When I look at my room, I am proud of what I see. I have tried to create a space that I want to walk into each day. A place that students look forward coming to. I wonder though, what do you see?  What don't you see?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Day 4: The part about teaching I love the most

Yesterday, I wrote about how a teacher is evaluated and the nonsense numbers that we earn that compose our evaluation score.  I mentioned how teaching is one of the most humanistic of professions.  In thinking about my post for today, I thought at first I would just speak about my students.  It is that cliche teacher response, but we really are here because of the kids.  But as I continued along that path, I realized that it goes beyond just the kids, although they are at the heart of what we do.

What I truly love the most about teaching are all of the people that are in my life because of the job I have chosen.  I started to think about people who work at a desk, work from home or an office.  Do other professions develop work-based relationships?  Of course. But not in the way that a teacher does. First and foremost are the students, who I spend 10 months with.  Reading with.  Writing with. I get to know them personally through the work that takes place within the classroom.  Through the extra time that I spend with them outside of class.  I am someone that they will take with them as they move on, for better or worse.  I am a part of their experience.  And because of social media, I have been able to keep track of so many more of them.  Watching them to continue to grow and become adults, become the people that I hoped they could be.

I realize that other professions have colleagues that become close.  Maybe even are friends outside of work.  But I think that educators form different kinds of relationships with each other.  I have my building colleagues, my district colleagues, and my CDWP colleagues, who all support me in so many ways. Professionally and personally.  The connections I have made are crucial to the work that I do.  They challenge me, inspire me, and buoy me to in a job that can easily overwhelm an individual.  I am so very lucky to have such an amazing network of people that truly care about me. (If you are one of the ones listed above, thank you!)

Lastly is the community in which I teach.  I work within a culture that has always supported its teachers. We are told in many ways how much the work that we do is valued by all stakeholders. While we are currently in the process of negotiating our teachers contract, I have faith that those sitting at the table will do right by the people who, they say, matter.  Who, they say, are talented, creative, and make a difference in our students' lives.  I can only hope that the resolution aknowledges our passion and dedication for what we do.  (Pardon my soapbox.)

To all of the people who have touched my teaching life:  former teachers, mentors, colleagues, and students, know that I am who I am today because of you.  I am in awe when I think of the sheer number of people who I have forged a connection with over these past 15 years.  Too bad that isn't the number that matters most.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Day 3: Evaluation

Today's prompt is about which "observation" area I would like to improve upon this year.  While I don't have the rubric right in front of me, I am having trouble with this one.  Not with the idea of improving.  On the contrary. I believe all educators should be deemed "developing", which in our current evaluation system, this term is used in a negative way to mean a teacher is in some way sub-par.  I know that I am always trying to improve in all areas of my teaching.  The fact that I might earn a 4 (highest rating) on some of the areas of the rubric doesn't mean that I check those things off.  I don't say to myself, "Well, I have mastered that!"  Teaching just doesn't work that way.

I wonder why the creators of this challenge had to ask participants to use the rubric they are evaluated by to think of how they wanted to improve.  While most would end up choosing something that could be found there anyway, it gives a little too much power to that document in my opinion.  Any teacher who would take on a #reflectiveteaching blogging challenge probably wouldn't have trouble identifying areas on their own.

There are many things wrong with our current teacher evaluation system.  One of which is that the way in which we are judged by an administrator and the tool that s/he uses to write about our skills as a teacher is diminished once a score is assigned to those areas.  Teaching is the most humanistic of jobs.  We deal in people.  To think that you are able to quantify what we do each day is absurd.  Not to mention that at the end of the day, what s/he believes to be true about a teacher could be trumped by student test scores.  I could be viewed during my observations as a master teacher, but if my students don't perform on test day, that is what matters most.

I'll get off my soapbox for a moment to try to address the prompt. This year, my department is trying to be more aligned in what we teach.  It will involve tough conversations, open-minds and the ability to take a hard look at our own teaching.  I am up for this challenge.  Collaborating with colleagues is dependent on a school culture that encourages and gives time to allow for this kind of work.  I want to make take advantage of the time we are given to learn from my peers and continue to improve upon my curriculum and my teaching.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Day 2: Technology

Day 2 in the blogging challenge asks: write about one piece of technology that you would like to try this year, and why.  This should be an easy prompt for me since I integrate technology into each of my units and am always looking for new things to try.  With having Chromebooks for an entire year for the first time though, I am really looking at the edtech I use and how I might really reflect on how we might use it in a better way.  Because we now have a key ingredient that you need in order to be truly successful with technology and that is time.  Gone are the days of fighting for a computer lab.  Fitting it in when we were able.  We will now have the luxury of time to delve a little deeper into our blogs, our portfolio websites, and the many other platforms that we will use to create with this year. Before introducing more technology to my students, I think I want to relish in the time that we will have in the coming months to allow these 7th graders to really feel confident in how they express themselves in each of these digital ways.

Now that we have daily access to the Internet, our Google apps, and critical tools, which is a truly a powerful thing, I want to make sure to stay true to the one technology that never fails: pen and paper.  I want to make sure my classroom is a balance of all the above when it comes to reading and writing. My students will still walk through my door prepared with a folder and a notebook.  A folder to collect the many texts we will read, mark up, argue about, study and discuss at length. Their writer's notebook will still be used for the silent writing time that I will continue to start class with.  My students will grow in their stamina to write and think independently over the next ten months because this kind of work will facilitate the work that they will eventually bring into a digital form.

The one piece of technology that I will be trying with students this year is a new Google app called Classroom. This will be a resource for students to look up assignments, post questions and communicate with both me and their classmates.  My teammates and I are transitioning to Classroom and will no longer maintain our team website. While I am excited about the possibilities with Classroom and the interactive nature that I think students will enjoy, the one drawback is that parents won't have direct access to it.  By 7th grade, students are still trying to learn independence and responsibility with their schoolwork. Gone are their elementary days of the 'take-home' folder, where they would sit and go through their papers with their parents each night.  My hope is that Classroom could be an almost virtual 'take-home' folder for students and their parents with the caveat that a parent must sit down with their child in order to view, since the student has to log into their Google account.  Then they can view and discuss assignments if the need arises.  I will be introducing this new app next week and am excited to show it to students.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Day 1: Goals for the year

One goal I have this year is to utilize this blog more.  I came across this 30-day blogging challenge for teachers. I thought it was the jump start I needed since my personal challenge is to blog all 180 days of school. A lofty goal, I know, but I am committed to try.

Fittingly, day 1 of the challenge is to write about my goals for the year. As usual I have many and feel as though I am choosing to reinvent my year once again. Despite my 14 years of teaching 7th grade, I simply can't do things like I did the previous year. I feel that each year, my new students deserve more than for me to serve up the same lessons. First because my last-year students end up teaching me so much.  Learning is definitely reciprocal, and I bring into the next year all the successes and flops from the previous year to steer me in a different direction. Second because the students that I will meet tomorrow are all individuals who I will try to get to know and teach them wherever they are at. Since my new kids are not carbon copies of my formers then how could my teaching be?

I also will be starting September with my class set of Chromebooks. Having these tools have allowed me the freedom to not only dramatically rethink my curriculum but are helping me to realize some of my teaching dreams. This year I have the goal of making my student's learning truly personalized as they embark on a year-long inquiry on something they are passionate about. Something they are curious about. Something they will choose to learn more about this year. In doing so, we will use the 7th grade curriculum to further our inquiries culminating in an end-of-the-year project to present our work.  I am very excited!

I wil end with some goals that for me as a teacher will never change. That my students feel safe in my classroom. That they walk in with relief to be in my classroom rather than dread. That they feel respected to share their thinking and writing with no fear of being laughed at or ridiculed.  That they see me as an advocate who is fair and willing to listen.  I start each year with these and feel I could always do more than the year before. And so I try. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Comfortably Uncomfortable

A colleague recently told me that they didn't incorporate technology into their teaching because they weren't comfortable with it like I was. I listened and thought that was a fair comment.  But the more I mulled it over, I realized that in her statement was the assumption that I am comfortable with technology. I began to think about what it is like for me when I try something new with my students.  

Am I comfortable?  

Well, no, not with the technology itself at least. I am comfortable though with the fact that my students and I will run into trouble. I am comfortable exploring something that might not turn out the way I envisioned. Quite simply, my comfort is in the fact that I don't need to be 100% in control. When my lesson plan is flexible, we are open to whatever questions and problems arise. Sometimes the plan is to let my students' questions be the plan and see where that leads us.  I've come to realize that my favorite student response now isn't, "Mrs. Fanning, I understand." But rather, "Mrs. Fanning, I figured it out."  

So no, I am not comfortable with technology. And any teacher who utilizes it knows that to use technology, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  (Well, maybe not for teachers like my special education teammate, who holds a degree in computer science.)  As the song goes, you have to just let it go, trust in your students and yourself as their guide, and know that true teaching is showing kids the power of playing and making mistakes in order to learn.

This isn't meant to be an argument that teachers must use technology. (I'll save that for another post.) At the very least, being uncomfortable shouldn't be used as an excuse for not using it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Christmas Eve in April

    At home on a much-needed April break,  I am anticipating returning to school next week like a kid on Christmas Eve.  When we get back, we will have a new addition to room 356.  Not a new student, not a new piece of comfy furniture, but a cart of 30 Chromebooks!  Having computers in the classroom every day for the rest of the school year will open lots of new possibilities for me and my 7th graders.

     I imagine being so much more productive during class time and, hopefully, reducing the amount of work students will have to do at home.  This is especially important for my students who have limited computer access outside of school.  Not only will students have the Chromebooks during language arts but Tutorial as well, not to mention Access and Activity Period.

     These last ten weeks are usually the hardest with the weather getting nicer and summer just around the corner.  I am hoping that this infusion of technology will help to keep us engaged as we finish our work together for the year.  Having time to use the Chromebooks with my current students, who already know so much about Google apps, will also enable me to get ready for the fall and how to best prepare my new crop of 7th graders to get them up and running more smoothly.

    Seriously.  This is a game changer.  In a month where we are bogged down with two weeks of NYS testing (and days of scoring for me), our Chromebooks are a bright shining light in an otherwise oppressive month.  I am so thankful for my school district's progressive approach to technology and providing such rich opportunities for me and my students.  Bring on the 4th quarter!

Saturday, March 8, 2014


It has been too long since my last post.  As the weeks and months ticked by and I willingly neglected my blog, I began to feel like I had failed somehow.  I am positive that this is something that happens with all bloggers.  And so, here I am.  Dusting myself off.  Hopping back into that saddle.

Much like me, I allowed my students to fall behind with their blogs.  My last assigned post was at the start of the New Year.  I finally assigned another one due next Friday.  I told them we needed to revive their blogs, which had lay dormant for too long.  Many students nodded in agreement. Some I could tell were hoping that I had simply forgotten about them.

It made me wonder though if it is possible to get students to take ownership of their blogs and write without the need for due dates.  I had from the start of this year made it clear that I was not responsible for what they wrote about.  My mantra had always been, You are the boss of your blog.  I never once slipped and asked them to write a post related to something in class.  I only encouraged them, if they were stuck about what to write about, to use their writer's notebook for ideas or even to lift an entry out of there to use for a blog post.  A safety net of sorts. 

As I announced yesterday though that a new post would be due next week, I walked over to one student who proudly announced he had already written one.  Really?  He showed me that he had posted before a due date was announced.  I excitedly looked, and before I noticed the date stamp read January 24, asked how many times he had posted since our last due date.  "Just once," he explained, "I was trying to stay ahead of when one might be due."  I told him that was great and walked away a bit deflated. 

I know that for a blogger to truly be engaged it is important for the writing to serve a particular need for the writer.  When a teacher tells a student they must maintain a blog, well, then it really isn't as authentic of an experience.  I shouldn't be disappointed that none of my students continued blogging without my say so.  It is, after all, probably just another school assignment to them.  And as with my own blog, which I don't think I started out of a particular need but rather to serve as a role model for my students, I, too, didn't maintain. 

All of this doesn't make me want to abandon blogging . . . my own or my students.  I know that it is the act of writing our blogs that are important.  Ours simply serve a different purpose, a different need.  For my kids, it is another space to practice their writing, to develop their voice, to explore what is important to them.  For me as well, I am able to engage in the practice of writing, figure out who I am as a writer and a teacher, and reflect on the work I do as an educator. 

So while our blogging hiatus has left me with a tinge of guilt, it has also taught me again something about why I started with it in the first place.  I feel like we are like someone who stops exercising for a few months and realizes they have to start up again.  And one we do, I know we will be glad we did.