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. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Highly Ineffective

As teachers head back to school, we have lots of hoops that we jump through to get ready: getting supplies, attending PD, and creating our classroom name just a few. Sadly, a new hoop has been added for those teachers whose evaluations are based on NYS 3-8 test scores. Because the students' scores take
so long to arrive from NYSED, our evaluations aren't finalized until the beginning of September (four months after said tests were taken). The tests comprise 40% of my evaluation, which will soon be 50% once my school's hardship waiver ends and Govenor Cuomo's most recent evaluation reforms are put in place. Unless the NY Supreme Court's decision in Lederman v. King vindicates all teachers in this numbers game that has dire consequences for many dedicated educators.

Before I left in June, I knew how I had fared with the other 60%. This part based on my two classroom observations. For the past 15 years, I have always received positive feedback on the learning that takes place in my room. I work hard every year to ensure that my teaching reflects the students who are in front of me. I utilize feedback from my past year's students to refine my craft and try to improve. I also enjoy the feedback from my supervisor's observations and the conversations we have around teaching. You would think that leaving for the summer knowing that 60% of my evaluation was positive would make the remaining 40% less worrisome. If I have been seen doing good work, deemed an innovator in my building, and praised for the community I foster with my students, how could my final evaluation not be positive? 

Our current evaluation system, where teachers are deemed Ineffective, Developing, Effective, or Highly Effective, has been in place for 3 years. In that time I have never received the same rating. The first year I was deemed Developing. This meant I was placed on a Teacher Improvement Plan or TIP for the year. It must have worked because the following year I was given the rating of Effective. And last week, I found out that I was, finally, Highly Effective. I was stunned when I read it. I thought that there was something missing. A mistake had been made. I have been told by administrators not to expect a Highly Effective rating because it was very difficult to achieve within the rubric and scoring bands. But here I was, Highly Effective. Someone might look at my evaluations these past few years and try to argue that it shows the system is working. Look here. This teacher rose to the occasion! She took the critical feedback and data and worked hard to become the best teacher she could be. My ratings showed improvement, so I must have improved, right?

Not quite.

If you look at my evaluations closely, you'll notice that it wasn't really me or my teaching that changed. My observations show the same reflective teacher who tries new things, revises curriculum, and is responsive to her students. So if I didn't change, what did?

First I would point to the test scores. The year I was given a Developing rating, my district chose to use a different assessment for the growth score portion of my evaluation. My 40% was divided among two tests: my students' achievement on the NYS 7th grade ELA exam and their growth on the pre/post tests using a computerized assessment called the NWEA. The latter is a horrific test that asked students questions which were far removed from the curriculum in my classroom. It was painful watching them sit there trying to do well asking me why they were being tested on content that we hadn't covered in class. I told them not to worry and do their best. After all, their results were only for my evaluation. While we were told that data would help us to learn more about our students' strengths and weaknesses, how could data from a test that didn't actually reflect my teaching help me to improve? I, not surprisingly, received 0/20 possible points towards my evaluation. I was given the label of Developing and a TIP. Happily, my district chose to drop the NWEA the next year, but the damage had been done. My students were given an unnecessarily stressful and confusing test, precious class time was wasted administering it in the fall and spring, and my supervisor and I would have to waste more time next year meeting about my TIP.

Receiving a rating of Effective the next year, people might exclaim that my TIP was a success. No, no. I was deemed Developing not due to NYS test results, not because of the teaching in my classroom, but rather because my district made a poor decision in choosing to administer the NWEA. It is as simple as that. My rating went up because they realized their mistake and figured out a way for my students' NYS test scores to be used for both the achievement and growth score portions that make up the 40%. And this past year, we altered that even more so that my achievement score wasn't simply based on my own 7th grade students results but rather building-wide scores. We as a district decided to do this for most teachers since our students score well on the NYS ELA, Math, and Science exams.

Which brings me to the other factor in my dramatic improvement these past three years: my students. You see, in the world of education reform, I am one of the lucky ones. While our district's demographics have changed over the fifteen years I have taught here to include higher numbers of special education students, English language learners and kids' who receive free or reduced lunch, the majority of our kids come from middle/upper class homes and start school ready to learn. In essence, I have won the teacher lottery. Research has shown that these demographics practically guarantee good test scores. Factors beyond my control, therefore, play a critical role in my evaluation. This is just one of the reasons that teacher evaluations based on test scores are not statistically sound. Use of the Value Added Method or VAM has been proven to be an invalid way to determine a teacher's effectiveness. And yet here we are. 

I am not proud of my current rating of Highly Effective. I find it to be insulting to my profession that no matter what is observed in our classrooms that our rating is ultimately determined by test scores. I also know no matter what I do or don't do in my teaching, that I won't ever be handed an Ineffective rating. This is a luxury for those who teach in suburban or affluent districts with student populations that tip the scales in our favor.  It is not fair. It is not equitable. And it surely is not an effective way to evaluate this profession. Hopefully the case of Sheri Lederman will force NYSED to develop a system that we deserve.

PS:  Lederman's case is based on the Ineffective rating she received after years of earning stellar evaluations. This year, she was rated Effective.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Summer Growth

As I left the parking lot of my middle school in June, I couldn't leave fast enough. I was feeling drained and exhausted. So much so that the thought of September was one that felt overwhelming, and I couldn't imagine having the energy to begin another year.  There were lots of reasons that left me feeling this way. It was the first time I had ever dreaded the upcoming year. Not good.

With September beginning next week along with my first day of school, I am amazed at the turnaround in my attitude about heading back into my classroom. This summer was exactly what I needed to shake off the trials and tribulations of the past year and feel prepared and excited to get to know a whole new group of 7th graders.

These past few weeks the news have been filled with a lot of negative stories about education and teaching. They are a reminder that a lot of what made the past year difficult will still be there at the start of this year. But this summer was filled with experiences that not only allowed me to renew myself physically but also reaffirmed my own beliefs about teaching. I feel stronger, more supported and ready.

My summer began with the CDWP's Summer Institute, which grew my circle of colleagues and friends. It was the ideal way to decompress after the past year. While the idea of delaying my vacation to participate and co-facilitate professional development for three weeks might sound crazy, I assure you that it was a necessity. The writing, reading and talking we did over that time allowed me to clear out the dark clouds and remind myself about the wonderful opportunities that my teaching allows me.  I left with a confidence in my work with digital student portfolios and the promise that I would begin to pursue other colleagues in my district at the elementary and high school level in order to make my vision of K-12 portfolios a reality.

With the support of my co-facilitator Alicia, who teaches at the high school in my district, we organized a meeting with other high school teachers who were interested in utilizing the portfolio websites that were started in middle school. I was so grateful for their excitement at how they could incorporate this work into their classes this year. We began talking of how we could continue to meet and support each other during the school year. They made plans to reach out to other teachers who they thought would be interested.  While this was just our initial meeting, it was another aspect of my summer that built up the anticipation for September and erased the dread. In part because I knew our work would continue into the school year, and I am so looking forward to that.

At the same time, Becky, another wonderfully supportive colleague, reached out about how we could begin digital portfolio work at the elementary level. Becky sent out a simple tweet,

and I was immediately connected to a wonderful group of elementary teachers across my district that were excited about embarking on this journey with me. We were able to meet face-to-face yesterday and talked about all the possibilities for digital portfolios. We shared resources and were inspired by one another. This collaboration is yet another reason why I feel ready for this year and excited about our continued work together.

This summer, educators' ethics have been questioned and we have been labeled as whiners, but I offer my summer up as evidence to the contrary. The teachers I know are passionate and go above and beyond the stereotypes offered up in the media. We use our summers to recharge and finally have time to reflect on our craft. We look for ways to improve and rethink the work we do with our students. We collaborate with those that encourage our ideas and support our creativity. The connections I have made this summer are ones that have the potential to impact me for years to come. But for now I am happy to carry them with me into this year and see where it will all lead.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Missing Cuomo

It has been almost 6 months since my #InviteCuomo post. Alas, my offer was not accepted. I know that I was one of thousands of teachers who attempted to engage you, Governor, in a dialogue by asking you to step into a classroom and see the reality of education. And in the process, allow you to see that the failing schools myth you so loudly trumpet is not exactly what it seems.  While your silence to our invites did not surprise me, there were a few days where I nervously imagined what it would be like for you to enter room 356. I had made lots of promises of what you would see. As I have been reflecting this summer on the past year with my 7th graders, I think you missed so much more.  Boy, did you miss out.

You could have attended our PSA Film Festival, an event attended by students, teachers, parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. Here we celebrated weeks of hard work by small groups of students on our team who each wrote, directed, acted, produced and edited a public service announcement video. They chose an issue they wanted to inform other students at Farnsworth Middle School about, crafted a message and found a creative way to get their message across. You wouldn't have seen it in their videos, but they struggled and fought through lots of frustration in bringing their ideas to life. But they succeeded and were amazing. Watching each video, you wouldn't be able to guess at each student's standardized tests scores. There is no bubbling or regurgitating of textual details. Students were tasked to find something that means something to them, which fueled their research, and ultimately their message. Sitting in the audience of our little film festival, I know you would have been impressed with what these 12-13 years old have to say about what is important to them. You missed healthy ninjas, portals to other worlds, and superheroes wiping out litter. You could have laughed with us as I unveiled their blooper reel as a surprise gift to them for all of their hard work. But you missed it.

You could have watched them craft realistic short stories. Stories that reflected the problems they face. You would have overheard conversations about developing characters, creating 3-D scenes, and the purpose behind dialogue and how to punctuate it. You missed the chance to read their drafts about heartbreak and loss, triumph and confidence, challenging authority and doing what's right.  You would have watched as students revised using feedback that I gave them via voice comments I recorded using an app called Kaizena. You would have been amazed at how we incorporated technology into the writing process and probably would have remarked how much things have changed when you were in school. But you missed it.

I thought if you were going to pick a time to visit room 356, it might have been around testing time since that seems to be of great importance to you.  You would have watched as instead of test prep, we began work on a realistic/fantasy novel called A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.  (You might have been shocked when you heard me offer test prep packets to students who wanted them but that we would not be spending time during class because we had more important work to do. Some kids took them...most did not.) As we read the novel, you would have marveled at the questions and insights students grappled with during discussion. Later in the year, we would learn just how important this work was. You see this story is ultimately about a boy of my students' age who is coming to terms with the fact that his mother will ultimately lose her battle with cancer and the importance for him in talking about what he was dealing with and the importance for his friends and family to not treat him any different because of what he was going through. You see, a few weeks after we finished reading this novel, one of my own 7th graders suddenly lost his father to cancer. The novel helped us all during this terribly difficult time as we all coped with such a devasting loss. You missed the empathy my students showed as they learned the news, and the love and care they demonstrated as their teammate returned to school. I have never been so proud as a teacher. But you missed it.

Look, I know you are busy. You have a state to run. But in making education one of your priorities, it is every educator's responsibility to make sure that the decisions being made are based on what is actually happening in our classrooms. When you revise the teacher evaluation system or create the new receivership plan looking through the lens of test scores only, you do a great disservice to what is actually taking place in schools across New York State.  When you are not taking into account students' lives in and outside of the classroom, you ensure that nothing will change.  You are missing the chance to truly make a difference to not only improve students' academic success but their success as citizens and as human beings. Those are the lessons that matter most.

Test scores are such a skewed view of our educational system.  Basing decisions around them is misguided and has caused what I fear is irreparable damage. Damage to the students, who despite being told to have a growth mindset, are pigeonholed by tests and given the message that numbers are the true measure of learning. Damage to teachers, who despite being told to encourage critical thinking and problem solving, are handed curriculum and standards that don't acknowledge their expertise when it comes to crafting lessons and responding to the learners in front of them. We are demeaned by the numbers we receive, which vary from year to year, because the our students change each year, the assessments change each year, and a myriad of other variables that make the evaluation system invalid. If you were to step into a classroom and observe the realities of our day, I believe you would realize the absurdity of trying to place our, students and teachers, work on a point scale.

So with the start of school a month away, I am inviting you once again to visit room 356. Or return to any of the many invites you received last year and choose any of those classrooms. I know no matter who you choose, you will find things that will amaze, surprise, and impress you. I know the classrooms you visit have the power to put you back in touch and help you to see a clearer picture that test scores simply do not offer. I know you would still be welcome. Let's begin the dialogue that has been missing and begin to create a system that ensures success rather than failure. Check your calendar and see if there is any time during the 10-month school year to visit. I am hoping you won't miss out.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Because of You

Tomorrow marks the final day of the 2015 Summer Institute. While the thought of summer vacation finally starting is exciting, I would not have traded the experience of the past three weeks for anything. Being given the opportunity to co-facilitate the SI is a multi-layered gift. One where you receive new insights into the teaching of writing, new renewed strength to head back into the classroom in the fall (especially after the doozy of a year we all had), and new colleagues, who after three weeks, I hope I can call friends.

During our session today, facilitators shared their CDWP story about life after the Summer Institute and the impact that being a member of the Writing Project has had on our professional development and our lives as professionals. We spoke about the loneliness one can feel heading back to school after an experience that often changes your thinking as a teacher in really deep ways.  We encouraged participants to find their peeps...those colleagues in their buildings who they know can understand and support them. We encouraged them to find their voice as both an educator and leader, whether that means as the leader of the students in their classroom or in their department or among their staff. And lastly, we encouraged them to support each other because the bonds that are created in the SI are powerful and ones, that for me and many others, have endured years beyond the SI.

As Amy (CDWP cohort 2009) shared her story and thanked everyone for the experience of the past three weeks, she so eloquently stated, "I am a better teacher because of all of you."  This really took my breath away because it truly is the heart of the Summer Institute, CDWP and the National Writing Project...teachers teaching teachers.  And so I would like to take a moment to thank each of the wonderful teachers I had the honor of working and learning from during the Summer Institute.

Thank you, Melissa. I am a better teacher because you reinforced for me the power of writing each day with my students. You gave me new ideas of writing prompts that I can't wait to use in the coming school year. You have me obsessed with finding my own claw foot bathtub for my classroom to give kids unique spaces to write in. The teachers in your district are so lucky to have the opportunity to work with you in your new role. I know that you will find your peeps and word of what you offer your colleagues will  spread like wildfire because your passion for teaching, learning and students is contagious.

Thank you, Lindsay. I am a better teacher because of your enthusiasm for writing as a reading teacher. I will be visiting the Home Depot and Lowe's frequently in the coming weeks to steal paint chips for the many ways you got me thinking of how to use them to bolster my students' vocabulary in their writing. I know your confidence will serve you well as you head back to your building and inspire your colleagues to rethink not only writing instruction but the resource they now have in you.

Thank you, Sarah. I am a better teacher because of you because of the writing I did while during your demonstration lesson. Your prompts were a reminder that those that are the most simple can often be the most powerful. From that writing, I have an idea for what I hope will be a new way for students' to connect to the novel The Giver. I so appreciated the positive energy that you brought to the SI each day and that I know you give to your students each day. Teaching is clearly a part of your soul.

Thank you, Chelsea. I am a better teacher because of you because of the way you made me think of how to ask students to engage with a text. I can't wait to revise the true/false statements I use before starting The Giver and break them down into simple one word prompts to engage them in writing and conversation. I hope to have them revisit those words and their writing as a way for them to respond after reading the novel. Your students are so very lucky to have a teacher who is not only thoughtful but also listens to what they have to say. Although, I am sure it is your infectious laughter that they appreciate most.

Thank you, Jen. I am a better teacher because of how you made me rethink an activity that I use every year. You gave me a fresh perspective on what makes it truly powerful as we ask students to engage with vocabulary. I have so many ideas across a myriad of units about how I can incorporate your lesson. You truly invest in your students and the learning that takes place in your classroom. That is a lesson any teacher can learn from.

Thank you, Christina. I am a better teacher because you asked us to tackle a topic that I think any good teacher of writing struggles with, revision. From your lesson, you showed me the power in asking a student to name what they like about their writing. For when learning starts from a positive, a real writing community can grow. I can only imagine the trust that is fostered between you and your students each year. We all have so much to learn from you.

Thank you, Jean. I am a better teacher because you demonstrated and reminded us of the importance of asking kids to stop, write and think. That "reading" isn't just about decoding and comprehending the words, but rather the richness comes from the writing and talking done around the text. We all were in earnest today as we echoed the sentiment that you would be our ideal PD keynote speaker. Each day your insights and questions added so much to all of our thinking. I am grateful for the ways you encouraged our discussions and will eagerly await our follow-up meetings to continue what was started this summer.

Thank you, Casey. I am a better teacher because you showed us all how your perspective as a speech and language teacher is such an important one. In asking us to look at how students use conjunctions and prepositions to create more complex thinking, I am excited to incorporate what I learned. I have struggled with these kinds of skills in my writing instruction and now am empowered to share with my fellow teammates to make this something we all work on as our students write across the curriculum. You started the Summer Institute feeling like you might not be a good fit. I hope this experience has proven you wrong because our table would not have been the same without your voice.

Thank you, Megan. I am a better teacher because your lesson had great connections to a writing assignment in my own curriculum. But in seeing your approach, I found ways to enrich and support my students in new ways. You know how to encourage your students to be honest in their writing, which is a gift and something that demands a certain type of trust in a classroom. You are able to nurture your students, and I know that gift will serve you well as you enter motherhood.

Thank you, Aaron, Alicia, Amy, Bob and Carol. I am a better teacher because of the work we have collaborated on over the years.  I am lucky to call you colleagues, and even luckier to count you as my friends. Through writing, reading and talking, we have accomplished a great deal. We have much to be proud of and to celebrate. Working together this summer certainly reaffirmed that for me. I am always grateful for the time I get to spend with each one of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Ending the school year and heading straight into the Summer Institute is always a bit daunting. The days are intense and the work can be draining. But at its core, it is energizing in a way that only the Writing Project can provide. It is because of you CDWP that I am a better teacher each and every year.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Happy Data

In asking students to complete evaluations of me and my class, I am ultimately collecting what I now deem as a four-letter Now this isn't your usual kind of data, although I will share some pie charts (pretty impressive, huh?), but some of the data is narrative and not easily put into a chart. The data I will be focusing on today is the stuff that is the hardest to focus on...the positives. When one receives feedback, the positive comments make you feel good for about a second because, sadly, the negatives are much louder to our sensitive ears. I would say that the positive feedback students gave me far outweighed the negatives, but notice yesterday I chose to write about some of the more critical feedback first. So today, I would like to try something that I often cringe at. I am going to share the positives and pat myself on the back.

Below is a word cloud I generated using Tagul. This represents my students' answers to the question:
In ONE word, describe Mrs. Fanning.
If you have never generated a word cloud before, any word you add more than once gets bigger in size. So for anyone thinking that I decided which words to emphasize, I assure you, I did not.  My students did, inadvertently, by choosing the same word to describe me. When I let my eyes focus on the larger words, I get pretty overwhelmed. There is nothing in my professional evaluation that can compare to it. And if you can look at the many smaller words, I get equally overwhelmed at all the really great ways my students chose to describe me. Whether or not I get deemed as Effective or even Developing in the fall (I won't know until then because of how long it takes for the test scores to be calculated, which end up determining my "teacher score", and while I have been deemed both Effective and Developing in the past two years, I know I won't be Highly Effective because administration tells us not to expect such a lofty goal), I know that the majority of my students left 7th grade with a positive experience, and that is all I truly care about.

The next word cloud reflects students' answers to the question:
In ONE word, describe 7th grade language arts.
Below are a few of the fancy pie charts created based on the multiple-choice answers I offered to students for each question.  I chose to include the really positive ones keeping with the purpose of my post. The evaluation students complete is created using Google Forms. Once you have your results, you can open the form, click Responses in the toolbar and choose Summary of Responses to see your data summarized for you.
While the questions on my evaluation are not designed to mirror those on my professional evaluation, there is some overlap, such as the examples above. More than likely I only received an Effective in those areas. One could argue this data suggests otherwise.

Lastly, I give kids room to elaborate on what they thought of my class and ask them to freely express how they feel.  I tell them that this is the most important part of my evaluation as their responses serve as a place for me to learn and grow from as I prepare for next year.  Their responses to this question are the scariest to read as they reveal some hard truths for what the year was like for some students. But today, I am focusing on the happy, so here are some that I would like to hold on to and remember whenever I feel like I'm having a Stuart Smalley moment and need to be reminded that I am good enough, smart enough and doggone it, my students like me: 

I felt that LA this year was the most I have learned in this topic. This topic is my worst and MRS. Fanning made it easy for me to learn and boosted me up skill wise. I thought she did a perfect job teaching. I also like how she incorporated the Chromebooks into the lessons.

I like language arts because most of the time it gives me the opportunity to share my feelings and how my life has been, what I like to do and also it gave me the opportunity to have such a great language arts teacher. 

I think language arts was a very good class to take. It taught me the basic understanding of reading and writing. I feel that my English language has improved drastically over this year. Mrs. Fanning was an amazing teacher. She made class fun, while also taught us very well. She knew how to motivate us and she knew how to properly teach each individual student. Thank you, Mrs. Fanning.  

Mrs.fanning thanks for being our l.a teacher. when ever i walk in your room i always have a smile on my face. I'm really going to miss you.

I loved language arts this year. It was filled with laughs and Mrs. Fanning made it fun for all of us! Mrs. Fanning made it really fun to learn and I have always looked forward to going to her class, especially when we were reading 'A Monster Calls.' All of the projects that we did in her class were fun. Without a doubt I will miss her and her class next year.

I think that Language Arts could be my favorite class of the seventh grade year. Mrs.Fanning is a great teacher to have for this subject. She always listens to what you have to say and will help you in any way possible. I love how she lets us write in our own way about things that we get to choose throughout the year. I wish I could have her for 8th Grade!

This year alone I feel that I have grown so much as a reader and writer because of all the projects we did (The Giver, Truth Piece, etc.), the amount of focus my wonderful LA teacher gave me (thank you Mrs. Fanning), and the ideas of all my peers (parents, friends, etc.) I just hope that next year it will only be better but I will have a hard time enjoying 8th grade LA like it was 7th grade LA because of all the new experiences given to me this year (blog, website,etc.). So I would just like to thank you Mrs. Fanning for giving me a wonderful year at Farnsworth middle school and that no other teacher could teach me as much as you did and no teacher could teach me the way you did. I will remember you because of what you have done for me. Thank you.

I started the year really not liking language arts class. I thought it was a waste of a core block. When I came to this class Mrs. Fanning really showed me how much fun it is to write and how important languages arts was. Mrs. Fanning made everything fun or tried her hardest to make everything fun. I would definitely stay in this 7th grade class if I could.

Mrs. Fanning was a wonderful teacher. I appreciated the way she handled herself as a person and as a teacher. One thing that really stuck out to me was when she was home she video chatted with us so we didn't have to miss a day. I was very impressed with her effort to help her students in the best way possible even though it might not be as convenient to her. I liked how our year was set up. I thought that our curriculum was well thought out and planned.

I think that language arts was a class I had to work very hard in. It was difficult but not impossible, that's what I like. Mrs. Fanning was a very excellent teacher that was able to explain things well and also demonstrate them. I think that Mrs. Fanning gave a lot of useful assignments like the fish bowl and the writing prompt. Student next year will do just fine with Mrs. Fanning. :)

This year in language arts I thought was one of the best and hardest. I was pushed to think outside the box and creatively. Mrs. Fanning always helped me when I needed it and would always make sure that I was doing okay. When I was at my weakest and thought I could do nothing she let me know that she was there for me. That was all I needed to feel better. I needed to know that someone was there for me when I needed them; and she let me know that there was always someone there. Without Mrs. Fanning I would have failed seventh grade and would have felt like no one cared about me. Mrs. Fanning was one of the best teachers I could ever ask for. I loved how she made language arts interesting and fun. She had the right amount of discipline and fun for me to look forward to my class.

Language arts this year was an interesting class for me. I never would've thought that PSAs could be included in the class, but I still enjoyed making them. At times I kind of didn't want to go to language arts because I never could figure out what we would be doing, and it was one of the classes that I struggled a bit in. I enjoyed having a blog. Being able to write freely just makes me feel good about myself, even though that I'm not really a great writer. Mrs. Fanning was (and still is) an amazing teacher. She responded to every email quickly (and I still wonder how she does it), and she answered so many questions that I had. She listened to every student, and helped to make sure that their work was completed. When something didn't make sense, she explained it in a way that I could understand. She helped students to stay on track when they were fooling around. Mrs. Fanning (it feels weird to not say "you") helped all of us grow this year, and I really have to thank her for that. Although, Mrs. Fanning really needs to blog more. Her last post was from March.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Answering My Critics

Yesterday, I mentioned that I ask my students to complete an end-of-the-year evaluation where they get a chance to tell me what they thought of me and my class. A few students chose to critique the focus I have on their digital student portfolios. They told me that it was a waste of their time and didn't understand the purpose. Some of these comments came from students who didn't truly engage in the work and whose portfolios were haphazardly done without much effort. And then there were the critiques from kids whose websites were exemplary. These comments were the hardest to digest because to look at their work you would think, Wow, this student really understands what it means to reflect on their work and their learning. It takes some time for me to read through these evaluations and then I have to walk away for a bit. In order to be able to think through this student feedback, I need a couple of weeks to distance myself from the personal reactions I have initially.

People ask me why I even bother with student evaluations, especially if I am going to take it personally. Well, my whole job is personal. How can it not be? We are dealing with human beings. If I was able to go through an entire school year and not make a single personal connection with a student, I shudder to think what that year would be like. So when I earnestly ask my kids to give me feedback, I know that it will bring me some moments of heartache and that my feelings will be hurt. 

But it is worth it. 

I look at my class as an ever-evolving course. Having the luxury of continually teaching 7th grade ELA for the past 15 years, it is an opportunity to hone my craft in a way that few educators get. If I was silly enough to think that my students didn't have anything to teach me, my work wouldn't be in the place it is today. So during the last week, I make that time to change roles with my students and ask them for feedback on what they both appreciated and what they didn't in my class.

Now that I have had a few weeks away from the classroom, I read these negative comments about our portfolio work with clearer eyes. First, I can remind myself that just because these students didn't get the purpose behind their portfolios doesn't make the work any less valuable. Instead of being disappointed by these comments, I am able to ask myself some great questions to continue to improve this work for my students next year. How can I make the purpose more visible for kids? How can I bridge the work to other 7th grade teachers who share my students? How can I work with teachers K-6 to build more of a foundation for this work so it isn't brand new in 7th grade? How I can I hand the baton to my colleagues 8-12 so that the work isn't abandoned but extended to a point where these sites have a real world currency for students as they enter college or the work force?

I have heard rumblings from my district that digital portfolios are the direction they want to move in. While this was validating, I haven't felt like I was viewed as a resource in making this shift. Again, I reacted by taking it personally and allowed my emotions to get the better of me. But after time to mull over this lack of action and the critique that my own students offered, I have a renewed sense of purpose. I am going to move forward and make the powerful collaboration I envision happen rather than wait for administration to figure it out. I am going to continue to revise the portfolio process to work on those weaknesses that my former students pointed out. This work will never be finished. Like anything worthwhile in life, time should be given to stop, reflect, acknowledge, and revise. For if we don't, we never point to the success in the work or the areas for improvement. We don't continue to evolve. I would never want the work I do with kids to become stagnant. Their evaluations are a reminder of how I can continue to push myself. I attempt to answer their critiques and use them to guide me as I head towards another fall.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Summer Time

In my end-of-the-year student evaluations, a student responded to my question of how I could improve for next year with, "Mrs. Fanning should blog more because her last post was in March." Late March, actually, but her comment was true. In early June, another student asked me why I didn't blog each week as they were required to do. In response to both of these students, I have lots of reasons why I don't write more often: grading, meetings, lesson planning, oh yeah, my family.  (Did I mention we are trying to sell our home?) During the school year, time is precious for any teacher. So as a writer/blogger, it is easy to push it aside as something that doesn't fit into my day that already doesn't have enough hours in it. 

And then summertime comes along, or as I like to call it summer time. This break from the hectic school schedule that allows educators the freedom to go at a slower pace, catch our breaths, and, hopefully, recharge before we begin again come September. During this time, I finally am able to immerse myself in the writing I am kept from all year (and reading for that matter). I begin summer by co-facilitating the Capital District Writing Project's Summer Institute (SI), a three-weeklong intensive inquiry into the teaching of writing. I write every day. And each day I tell myself that I will use some time to generate my long-awaited new blog post, and yet, two weeks have gone by and nothing. 

So here I sit outside writing on my in-laws' deck under cover of an umbrella on a gorgeous July Saturday, and I have finally the courage to write. And yes, I do mean courage. Blogging for me is terrifying. At the end of the day, it isn't my to-do list that keeps me from typing up a new post. But rather, it is the voice inside my head that asks, Who do you think you are? Who gives a damn what you think about teaching or education? Why is your classroom so interesting? It is the ever-popular roadblock of self-doubt that I believe any writer struggles with that keeps me from making the time to write.

So for today, I am telling that voice to shut up. I can write whenever I feel like it. Because if there is one thing you realize from participating at the SI (or are reminded of when you return as a facilitator), it is that to be a teacher of writing you need to write. Not necessarily for an audience, but that is a bonus, but to engage in the act and constantly remind yourself how hard it is. To never lose that feeling of what our students go through in our classrooms as we ask them to engage in the act of writing. I write because I know what it teaches me, how it enriches my teaching, and the joy it brings to me personally.

I am under no delusion that my writing needs to serve a greater purpose than that. For what remains of my summer time, I hope to continue on this path as I think on this past year and begin to imagine what the coming year will bring. I will write my way through it and to it.  Because when I let three months slip by without it, I know it is a missed opportunity to reflect and get down the story of my classroom and the vision of what my classroom could be. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Day 18: Create a metaphor/simile/analogy that describes your teaching philosophy

Confession: I skipped 'Day 17'. That prompt asked me to identify the most challenging issue in education today. For that I will simply refer you to some of my earlier posts. Not to mention there are too many at this moment to possible narrow down. And I simply don't have the energy.

So!  On to something a bit more positive and, hopefully, energizing. (Fingers crossed.)

This past Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to speak at a UAlbany graduate class that had read an article I had co-authored (with the amazing Brigid Schmidt!) on assessment and the importance of teacher inquiry. Professor Kelly Wissman's course, Practitioner and Participatory Action Research, revolves around teacher research. She asked me to talk about my own inquiry experiences as well as my involvement in the Capital District Writing Project (CDWP). I, of course, was very nervous and not sure of what exactly I would say that afternoon to her students. But once our conversation got going, it allowed me to reflect on my teaching and philosophy in a public setting that reaffirmed why I do what I do.

In talking of CDWP, I explained that I would not be the teacher I am had it not been for my Writing Project colleagues. This organization teaches me how to be a reflective educator, encourages my teacher voice and helps me to truly know the importance of inquiry both for me and my students. I wondered what my classroom would be like had I not participated in their four-week Summer Institute in 2004. I encouraged all the graduate students, many who are full-time teachers and literacy specialists, to consider applying this summer. It was transformative for me...and I never hesitate to invite others to apply and let it transform them.

As the conversation shifted to my classroom, I spoke of the ways that technology and inquiry have shaped my pedagogy. We talked about the messiness of teaching and how one has to be comfortable with that messiness in order to improve and try to make it less messy the next time. I wanted them to know that I didn't have any "answers" to how to successfully center one's practice around inquiry; I only had experiences ripe with failures. But in thinking through those disappointments, I regrouped and adjusted for my next lesson, next unit, next year's group of 7th graders. I thrive in the examination of my teaching choices and how it can always be better...even when I feel something was successful.

I'm not sure if there is a good metaphor/simile/analogy that describes all of this. I'm not a chameleon. For the chameleon changes and camouflages in order to protect itself. That's not me. I change in order to meet the needs of my students. And while this constant change and revision of my craft makes me feel alive as a teacher, it is driven by what is best for them. My students.

I like the idea that there simply is no metaphor that would do my (and really it is so many teachers') teaching philosophy justice. I believe that, despite what you hear in the media and from politicians, this thing we call teaching is the most complex profession there is. It is not something you can package, bottle up, and market. There is no rubric that could cover the many facets of what we do in a day. And there certainly is no test that could measure the impact we have every day. It is, in fact, messy. When it becomes easy, straight forward and simple to predict, it isn't being done the way it needs to be. So if you happen to think of a metaphor, keep it to yourself. I'm not interested.

Friday, February 13, 2015

One of Those Days

Today was one of those days. You know the kind. The sort of day you wake up and wonder if you are going to make it through to the end. For teachers, those days are usually ones before a long break. But today was a triple whammy: the day before vacation, the day before Valentine's Day (lots of candy and sugar running through the halls) and Friday the 13th. Trepidatiously, I began my day.

On top of these beyond-my-control variables, I also had planned our team's annual PSA Film Festival. Being my fourth year, I was determined that this year, things would go smoothly. (Friday the 13th be damned!) Each year this simple celebration of student-created  public service announcement videos has been a stress-filled, hectic afternoon that came close to being a disaster. In past years, I've been screamed at by parents, had major technical difficulties, and even shed tears (sad, not happy ones).

But this year, I was prepared and made sure that nothing could go wrong. I left plenty of time in between grading the PSAs and the film festival.  Time to give kids feedback and allow them time to revise their videos if needed. Time to look through all of their video footage and create a surprise blooper reel video for them. Time to do a practice run with Mrs. Nichols to make sure the videos would play with no trouble.

And so, it was one of those days.

One of those days where you couldn't be more proud of your students. A day where you get the opportunity to share kids' hard work with their parents. A day where former students return to support their younger siblings. A day where you get to laugh with everyone who makes up your team: teachers, students and families.  A day where you feel like you might want to shed some tears (happy, not sad ones). This was one of those days.

So as we head off to our February break, I just want to say thank you to everyone. Today was one of those awesome, wonderfully fabulous days.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


*This is part of the social media campaign to invite our governor into our schools to say what our schools and students really need. 

Govenor Cuomo,

I would like to cordially invite you into room 356, an 7th grade English Language Arts classroom, at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, NY.  Here are just a few things that the 7th graders in room 356 are working on...writing, reading, blogging, reflecting, creating, thinking, worrying, growing, maturing, listening, speaking, producing, procrastinating, inquiring, laughing, hiding, figuring, analyzing, comprehending, hypothesizing, theorizing, brainstorming, arguing, and being.

If you accepted this invitation you would write with us, hear us share our writing, and listen to us share our stories. You would read with us, hear us share our thinking and listen as we try to make sense of our world.  You would see us use paper, pencils, Chromebooks, imaginations, cell phones, apps, opinions, cameras, experiences, folders, hearts. Some of us would be sitting at desks, some in couches, a rocking chair, bungee chairs, or standing at pub tables.

In room 356 you would find we are writers, filmmakers, photographers, readers, story tellers, citizens, bloggers, artists, learners, journalists, thinkers, friends, a community. The students you declared you are the lobbyist for are room 356.

I am inviting you in not to meet with me. Not to put my teaching on display for you, but to put you in touch with a chapter of the NYS K-12 Student Lobby for whom you are working so hard. My fear is you know nothing of the craft that is my profession. For while your mother happened to be a teacher, that does not give you the right to judge my work. My own mother was a nurse, but yet I do not profess to know the best way to treat a patient.  So if you accept this invitation, it would be to meet with your constituents, the students of room 356. Because before a lobbyist can attempt to influence those who make the decisions, he must first talk to those whose interests he represents. Otherwise, on whose behalf are you lobbying?

I propose you visit the 7th grade students in room 356, your 7th grade students, to tell them how you are representing them. Let them hear from you what you are demanding from the legislature on their behalf. Come and explain to them how their test scores will be responsible for 50% of their teachers' evaluation. Hear their reactions as they try to understand how their performance over three days won't simply determine whether they are a 1, 2, 3 or 4, but their score makes up half of their teachers' score. It could result in their teachers' termination. That their younger sibling might not have the same teachers. That they might not be able to visit me in room 356 next year as the 8th graders do so often. Come and help them understand why those three days in April sitting, reading, bubbling and writing aren't stressful enough already. Because I have a feeling, that unlike most lobbyists, you didn't run your ideas by the students you represent.

Better yet, Governor, you should come and sit in room 356 on one of those mornings in April. Sit among your students with your No. 2 pencil for 90 minutes and take the all-important test. Sit and bubble as one of them and struggle to determine the best answer. And after those three days sitting, reading, bubbling and writing, talk to the students you lobby for about why their answers are more important than all the other work we have done all year that can't be measured via Pearson or PARCC and convince them that what you are proposing is in their best interests.

Their responses would hopefully give you pause. I wonder, would you listen to them? Would you entertain their questions, their doubts, their concerns? Or would you be silent? And would your silence reveal you for the true lobbyist that you are? The millionaires' lobbyist. The hedge fund managers' lobbyist. The charter schools' lobbyist. 

This may seem like I am putting too much trust in a group of 13 year olds, but I know one steadfast truth about kids: they can spot a phony a mile away. A phony who claims to be looking out for them when he clearly has another agenda. A politician through and through, who misuses his power instead of doing what is right. 

So come into room 356 and have at it. Because my guess is, you won't last even a few minutes.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Virtual Me

Last night was one of those nights where it is difficult being both a teacher and a mom.  My daughter didn't have an appetite at dinner due to an upset tummy. I knew this was a real ailment since we were having her favorite, my husband's chicken parm, for dinner. She would never pass that up.  So as we got ready for bed, we prepared too for the chance of vomiting (sorry I can't think of a euphemism for that).

After attempting to get some sleep, she soon called me back upstairs and the inevitable happened. As I cleaned her up, threw her bedding in the washing machine (I let me husband take care of the actual mess), I mentally began to prepare for the fact that I wouldn't be in school the next day. This is where being a teacher and a parent is challenging. On the days that my husband stays home with one of our sick daughters, he simply sends an email and that is that. For a teacher though, not only do I email, I have to request a substitute (hopefully one is available...this is a growing problem these days), and write lesson plans so that classes can happen in my absence.

Simply taking a day off for a teacher is never simple. I find it is more work than actually being there. So as I began to plan for what I would type in my substitute lesson plan, I was concerned about the wrench that my absence would throw into the work that my students are in the midst of. They are working on a group project in order to plan, shoot and edit a public service announcement video or PSA. In order for this process to go smoothly, I have learned in doing this unit for the past several years that my feedback is crucial in order for the kids to produce a successful video. As they brainstorm a topic, slogan, scenario and the voiceover, I am there checking in and approving their ideas along the way. This year we were off to a great start...barring a few two-hour delays that had cut our time together short last week.

Luckily since I have my Chromebook cart, I initially started to think of how we could use email to conference on ideas during class. But the thought of my students having to type out their ideas, and then me typing my feedback in response seemed like it would take too long.  I then thought about how the kids could call me at home via my classroom phone so we could talk instead of type. That thought, though, lead to an even better one. Google Hangout. I realized we had the power to have a video chat where we could both see each other. I immediately texted my teammate who co-teaches with me during class to see if we could make it work. As usual my colleagues were supportive and set up a Chromebook where the kids could step up during class to run their ideas by me.

Class went extremely well. Not only did I get to see how class went, but I was able to talk to each group several times.

Some groups even carried "me" into the hallway to conference so we didn't have to talk over the din of the other group conversations happening.

It was also nice to see my students working diligently.This is what I truly love about technology. It allows for so many great learning opportunities.  And for once, not being at school wasn't so stressful.

PS:  My daughter is feeling much better!