to the class of 2016: on the power of thought

When I think about the class of 2016…

I think about Rene’s eye roll and sassy hip sway. I’m so sorry I missed your pole dancing performance.

I think about Bianca’s powerful serve on the volleyball court and confident voice of leadership in class discussions.

I think about how the only thing bigger than Chantel’s mouth is her heart.

I think about how we stomped you in staff versus senior volleyball.

I think about Rubby’s laugh and Nana’s immediate departures to the bathroom upon arriving to the class.

I think about those of you I taught during 8th grade: Daniel, Joe, Cindy, Jennifer, Laura, Bianca, Jacky, Naomi, Luis…and the way we would gather in the hall to discuss The Book Thief because we just could not wait until class started.

I think about the mighty four, petite in size but giants in spirit.

I think about bowling, from Joe’s cradle grip to Wheat’s rebellious gym shoes to Chantel just trying to get it straight to the amazing backward shots through the legs.

I think about the moment Noora finally let me into her heart.

I think about how Luke became Lu-uke, two syllables representing a kind gentleman.

I think about Marlen’s brilliant and beautiful way with words.

I think about Edgar in the hall, whose mocking me as “sheriff” shifted into his own role of influence as he put rambunctious middle schoolers in their place. Thank you, Sheriff, for having my back.

I think about Cindy’s quiet strength in the midst of tremendous challenge.

I think about our meeting with Joe, adults upon adults gathered in a circle of support, where the tears flowed as freely as the love.

I think about the losses Jennifer suffered this year, but also the tearful and confident declaration in front of our class of what she found: her voice.

I think about how heartbroken I was to lose almost half of our AP Lit class at semester. But I also think about how the remaining 12 grew into a family woven tightly together by heartstrings. Sitting around a table, sharing our dishes and the stories behind them, I thought about how proud I was to call you my sons and daughters. Sitting around a table, discussing books, I thought about how you were going to blow away other college students during classes. Thank you, AP Lit students, mis hijos y hijas, for what you taught me. Never forget your Daddy Davenport.

I think about these memories, the times I’ve shared with you, the lessons I’ve both taught you and learned from you, because ultimately if I can tell you one thing before you leave:

Thinking is power.

Be the people who analyze everything, who look with a critical eye, who question with depth, who challenge with openness, because this thinking will give you insight into how the world works; remember… everything is an argument. Knowing this means you will see what tries to keep you down, you will see the resources to change that, and most importantly you will see the strength and courage inside yourself to write your story as YOU see fit. Knowing this also means you will see who is on your side, what support is beneath you, and what glory lies ahead of you.

To the class of 2016, thinking is power. But remember and honor and prioritize that the truest and deepest thoughts come from the heart and soul, and from those anchors, I will always think of you with love and pride.

Congratulations!

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sanctifying space for closure

May brings showers, raindrops of tears that roll down the cheeks as I say goodbye and best wishes to students who have melded into the tissue of my heart. And without the protection of umbrella or raincoat, I run directly into the impending storm clouds of emotions. I dance in the rain because I need closure. I dance in the rain because I know my students need closure.

I work with students who are often dealing with trauma of some sort: poverty, abuse, violence, homelessness, illegal status, witness to crimes, gangs, addiction, broken homes and shattered dreams…weights pile atop their shoulders. With trauma comes ambiguity, abrupt endings that bleed into frail beginnings all tainted with confusion and unanswered questions. Always on alert, students who have suffered trauma cannot regulate their emotions:

Shields and Cicchetti suggest that hypervigilance may play a key role in undermining the development of emotional self-regulation. They postulate that, unlike the nontraumatized child, the hypervigilant child cannot shift away from distressing cues in the service of maintaining emotional regulation.

As not only an academic content teacher but a safe-haven-guardian, I need to create the space in my classroom for students to safely regulate (identify, embrace, express purposefully) their emotions…especially as we near a conclusive separation. After all, I have spent the entire year loving my students into greatness, and such a relationship cannot just snap without the time and place to say goodbye and thank you and good luck and I love you and see you on Facebook. So much of their lives is spent with things or people they care about abruptly falling into an abyss; I need to model the ability to say goodbye as an empowerment for smooth transitions instead of a series of sudden fractures. By building the space for closure and modeling goodbyes, I teach my students the language of emotions–not avoidance or hypervigilance, but leveraging emotions for their betterment:

Trauma often impairs the ability of children to use words and pictures to identify their feelings. Children who have trouble using language to communicate emotions cannot always “formulate a flexible response” to situations and may react impulsively. Learning to identify and articulate emotions will help them regulate their reactions.

Closure is not easy, especially in a society that prides itself in ignoring emotions for the sake of independence and/or productivity. But more than ever, it is critical that I both teach and model for my students the ability to transition gracefully, to choose how they say goodbye rather than having it afflicted upon them as one more traumatic event.

And so I design ceremonies in order to sanctify space for closure in my classes. Food parties. Reflection projects. Card signing. Verbal storytelling. Gifts. Personal mementos. And once I’ve done it with the seniors who leave next week, I’ll break my heart all over again for the freshman to whom I also have to say goodbye this year so that they can also have closure.

The rain pours down from closure’s clouds and steals my breath and dirties the hem of my pants and blurs my vision; it is soul-soaking.


But after the rain, the glorious aftermath. The way the sun sparkles on one lingering raindrop on a leaf. The smell of newness. The opening of a flower that is no longer thirsty. The parting of the clouds to reveal Heaven’s smiles.  The hope that hangs on the air.

My students deserve that.

on the path to rigor: demystifying differentiation

I have spent the majority of my career teaching advanced courses such as International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement to upperclassman. So after it had been decided that I was going to teach 9th grade in the 2015-2016 school year, my standard response and running joke was:

Pray for my soul.

It is now May, and I can honestly say not only has my soul survived teaching 9th grade this year…it has even thrived. This of course was not without struggle: I had to tighten my behavior management approaches and often went home discouraged. However, now that I have taught a class of 25 freshman (comprised of 16 students who are emerging bilinguals, 7 students who have IEP’s, and a range of baseline Lexile scores from 65-1121), I can honestly say, with confidence rather than just educational jargon, that I know how to differentiate. With this in mind, I feel both growth and fulfillment in my professional growth plan areas for the 2015-2016 school year:

I6: Provides differentiation that addresses students’ instructional needs and supports mastery of content-language objective(s)

I2: Provides rigorous tasks that require critical thinking with appropriate digital and other supports to ensure students’ success

As I reflect now, I recognize more than ever that differentiation and rigor go hand in hand. Since rigor is about appropriate level of challenge for all students, each student needs to be challenged at a different level through individualized resources.

This year would not have proved as fruitful in my professional growth without the presence of so many quality people around me. I could not have grown in differentiation this year without the collaboration of my colleagues, especially Johanna and Julia. Johanna daily provided another set of eyes, and often she pushed me to challenge our students beyond what I thought was possible. She also encouraged me when I felt defeated about our 9th graders’ progress or behavior (or lack thereof), ensuring that I persevere in a way that would honor the rigor she knew I sought on behalf of our students. Julia’s regular input of SPEDucator expertise regarding ways to modify and strategies for support in and out of the classroom for students with IEP’s was invaluable. Through Julia, I learned that students can demonstrate a tremendous amount of intelligence if they are given the scaffolding to do so. Other conversations that benefited me were based in our school’s instructional team. Lastly, I relied heavily on the LEAP framework and its supplements for differentiation strategies.

In light of my focus on differentiating to attain rigor, I targeted two of the three genres that I remember learning from our work with University of Colorado Denver Professional Development: differentiation in process and product.

The primary way I differentiated in process was to create scaffolds for students. For all students, I frequently created graphic organizers to support learning. However, for students who needed more structure with writing, I created a paragraph frame. The graphic organizers looked the same from afar, so to students the process seemed singular, but for the students who needed more, the process was individualized for their needs:

I did a similar approach for students who needed intervention with reading. Their graphic organizers included a paraphrase of Shakespeare, whereas the other students did not have this support and had to complete this task collaboratively. Not only did this tactic allow for students to access the text, it also reduced steps in the process—another differentiation strategy for process:

In addition to scaffolds, I changed the way I planned to differentiate the process for students. For example, I would have multiple levels of texts about the same content. In a jigsaw strategy, students who had a lower Lexile would have texts at their level, but then would talk with other people at different levels about the same content. This ensured every student felt a sense of responsibility to the group and the content while also allowing each person to be appropriately challenged. Beyond jigsaw strategy, I often used groupings to differentiate process as well—either through homogeneous or heterogeneous mixings.

I offered differentiation along the way, but I also ensured that products were tailored to the abilities of students, intentionally providing each student the appropriate level of rigor. For example, students had to write a style analysis paper per the district curriculum. For the general student population, their prompt was a multi-paragraph essay analyzing one author:

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For students who needed more challenge, their prompt was a multi-paragraph essay that compared and contrasted two authors:

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For students who needed additional support, I created a prompt to analyze one author, but in a shorter multi-paragraph essay:

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As I sit with incoming data from the end of the year, the numerical impact of differentiation on my students has been profound. From the first to the most recent argumentative essay, students grew their class average from 10.2 to a class average of 15.3—a proficient score! Of even greater pride and joy to me is the growth of those students who have IEP’s…many of them increased their score by almost 10 points! In terms of reading, this section of 9th graders began the year with an average SRI of 788 and finished the year with an average SRI of 932–an average growth of 144 points.

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However, more important to me than numbers are stories. One of my students who began the year at a 3rd grade reading level said this of the characters from To Kill A Mockingbird:

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Nothing brings me greater joy than a student who sees herself in the characters of a canonical text!

Feedback from students also shows they feel challenged at the appropriate level. The majority of students–both those who have IEP’s and those who do not–feel that the class “is hard, but it helps them grow”:

I am most proud of this feedback from students though:

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This is feedback from students with IEP’s who feel that I take into consideration their accommodations the majority of the time. I know for a fact this would NOT have been reflected in surveys from past years as a teacher, so I feel proud of how I have grown in differentiation.

As I look ahead at next year, I am drawn to two next steps. First and foremost, the key to differentiation is practice, practice, practice. The more I apply strategies to differentiate process and product, the less time-consuming it will become (a frequent and valid complaint about differentiation). I especially see this as important as I will double my student load next year! I also want to grow in my ability to offer students independence in and ownership over what scaffolds they use; often the challenge lies in how I offer scaffolds but then also empower students to wean off of them or only use them when necessary and to the extent that they need. Or better yet, how do I help students find and/or create their own scaffolds…which is how it will be in college and the real world.

On a deeper level, my next step is to embrace the fear that comes with the unknown. I started the year worried about what kind of teacher I would be in such a challenging class with new content. And, now, I finish the year with an answer to that. Without the risk of trying something new, something scary, I would not have grown in the way I have…and for that I am just as grateful for my freshman as I hope they are for me.

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