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.