book reflection: “Teach Like Yourself” preface & ch 1

As you know from my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity these days.

With a bit of serendipity in the ether, a group I’ve been a part of for a while resurged on my Facebook feed with an invitation to a book club (thank you Kathie for the inspiration) about Teach Like Yourself by Gravity Goldberg. Yes, please!

So, for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be responding and reflecting to this book. Here is what’s on my mind after the preface and chapter 1.

Relationships.

“It took some time for me to realize that being my true self as a teacher was exactly what my students needed…We know that students learn more from teachers they trust and with whom they have a strong relationship. And students can’t form strong relationships with teachers if they are not showing up as their true selves.

I always have focused on relationships in my classroom; however, as of late, in reflection on recent discouragements, I am renewed in my dedication to this approach. Knowing our school will be starting the next school year digitally, my mind is already creating lists of ideas and activities to get to know my students. And to introduce them to my true self as well.

One approach I am really excited to resurrect in my classroom is getting to know my students through their writing. To do this, I will offer more invitations for non-academic writing and conferences. I remember my first year of teaching, I had my students journal daily and I responded weekly. The amount of time required was unsustainable, but those were some of the richest moments I’ve had with students. I need to modify that in order to reintroduce it to my practice.

Standards vs strengths.

These two pages hit me h.a.r.d. from chapter 1:

In many ways, while the narrowing of targets due to standards-based teaching is a good thing, it also has led me to a deficit-based approach: what standards are they not meeting and how do I get them there? This reduces students to checklists and prevents me from celebrating and building on their strengths. One of Goldberg’s points in the book is that this deficit-based model arises from our self-help approach: what’s broken and how can I fix it? Not only do I see my students through this lens, but myself. And it results in anxiety and stress and heavy burdens that do not inspire anyone. Especially in a cutthroat, high-stakes environment where the name of the college means everything… I have to create a refuge in my classroom.

Comparison.

I feed on perfection. I like to be the best. Because of this, I often look around to see who is on point and how I can emulate them. This is not a bad thing! However, when I try to replace myself with them… it is. I need to do a better job seeing mentors as role models, not instructional manuals. This will take courage, and yes, sometimes even confrontation. But my students deserve ME as MY best self for them, not an impostor of someone else.

For the first time in a long time, I am bursting with excitement to go back to school. The ideas and plans are keeping me up at night–but in a good way. Creativity is flowing; writing calls to me like a long-lost lover. I feel inspired and reinvigorated. I know this is because I am returning to myself as a teacher.

authenticiKEY

Wanted: the OG Mrs. Davenport.

Have you seen her?

Sadly, I don’t think I have in a while either.

I knew moving away from urban education would have reverberations. Some I predicted; some were unpredictable yet unsurprising.

But I fear in some ways I’ve lost myself in the transition.

A question I am holding at the center of everything lately is:

What does it mean for me to be authentic as a teacher?

It is different from this chameleonizing.

It is different from this acquiescing.

It is different from this flatlining.

It is different from this.

At the end of the year, I administered a survey to my students. While the results were overwhelmingly positive, I of course do that thing where I focus on the not so positive. And one of the results that sticks in my gut the most is in response to the prompt I feel connected to Mrs. Davenport. This was one of my lowest scores! This used to be my forte! This used to be my everything!

Oh my teacher heart hurts.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on that data point lately. (I’m grateful for some soulfull colleagues who helped me through this process: thank you Nikki & Andrew!) Both of them brought me to authenticity. What that means? For me? How have I held true to who I really am as a teacher? And where have I compromised? What is the state of my teacher heart?

So far, I’ve come up with the following authenticikeys (see what I did there?!):

  1. Play to my strengths & successes. I know I can move students academically with Socratic seminars. I know the value of a shared reading experience. I know how to engage students with a course rooted in the content and not just the skills. I know stories matter. I know a class is much more about energy than anything else. I need to believe in and do what I know works.
  2. Honor growth over regime, process over product. I have been a little duped by the standards movement, I admit it. I have bought in line and sinker. But in some ways, I fear the more I’ve adhered to that philosophy, the less I’ve seen students actually grow. When it becomes about one finish line, no differentiated paths are celebrated. A student’s comment on a survey echoes in my mind as I type this: “I didn’t grow in my writing. I grew in her version of writing.” Ouch. I need to honor the process, the little victories. I need to be creative and innovative so that each student feels shiney. I need to be more holistic in my approach. I need to reclaim what “assessment” means to me and my students.
  3. Channel my fierce mother & believe in myself. I don’t like conflict, so I give in. I have used alignment as a security blanket. I worry about being questioned, being doubted, being challenged. I need to practice what I preach: the trite feedback I too often give my students of “take risks.”
  4. Let go. Be playful. I have a drastically different relationship with my upperclassmen than my underclassmen. And in some ways, this is intentional. But, in some ways, it is damaging. I don’t feel like myself in my grade 9 classroom. I don’t think they know me. I don’t really know them deeply. And as the survey said, they don’t feel connected. So… it’s not working. I need to soften with them, with my approach.

I recognize there a lot of ways this post could be misconstrued. I recognize that I am riding a swinging pendulum back from the following-sheep side. I do not think the other side of rogue-independence is healthy either. There has to be growth; there has to be balance–always.

But I have to be me. I need to be me. For my efficacy. For my teacher heart.

For my students. For whom I want the freedom to be themselves.

Authenticity permits authenticity.

Authenticity inspires authenticity.

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love & learning in the time of coronavirus

*Thanks to my coworker Nikki for inspiring this post’s title.*

I’m a mess.

Let’s just start there.

But I’m kinda grateful…I haven’t been inspired to write in a while, yet here I am, brought to the keys by grief, once again. (Albeit on my old blog; the new one just got too expensive to maintain. I’ve still got to import & organize all my content. But from now on, I’ll be writing here again. It feels like coming home.)

Like many others have done recently across the world, our school closed physically. Yesterday and today have been two grueling days of “getting ready” to take our classrooms online.

My heart sighs. I am heavy wondering if this is permanent: was today a goodbye to my colleagues? What about saying goodbye to my students? That is not my kind of closure. My eyes hurt. So. much. screentime. My spirit is exhausted. The cynicism and criticism seems inexhaustible. When will it ever be good enough? My teacher soul is scared. I didn’t sign up for a virtual learning environment. I thrive on good vibes and quality connection. How will I meaningfully create that online?

And this is just all in my tiny little insignificant world. What about all the seniors worldwide who were robbed of their culminating experiences? What about the elderly parents who are achingly-lonely and isolated for fear of disease? What about students who are already so far behind academically and can’t go home to their own computer and internet service? What about health care workers who are relentless and spent with no end in sight? What about those without insurance? What about all the children who won’t eat regularly, who now will spend all day quarantined in a prison of neglect–at best and abuse–at worst? What about those who have jobs that just ended? No sick days. No pay. No safety net.

I. just. can’t. even. breath. #irony

And yet, even in all this, maybe because of it, I am so grateful.

I am so impressed with how my school has handled this shit show. Communication has been steady and intentional. Encouragement has been overflowing. (Today we even got personal bottles of our drink of choice for our virtual happy hour tomorrow! I mean, who does that? People are losing their jobs, and I’m getting free drinks!) We have been assured our school’s hourly employees will still be taken care of. We have advocates in our human resources, our parents, our bosses. These past two “emergency” PD days, I had substantial hours on both days to plan. I have great insurance and we’re close to a great hospital. Our campus is open-aired and still accessible.

Beyond my job, I am grateful for our apartment, that is expansive and inviting and a good place to quarantine. I am grateful for easy and quick access to the beach (that we are taking advantage of this weekend!) I am grateful for Dave who has pumpkin seeds, wine and homemade meals ready for me because he knows how tough it is. I am grateful our families are healthy. I am grateful for my strong body that swam 2k this morning. And for f***’s sake, I’m grateful we have plenty of toilet paper.

Through all of this, I can’t help but think of metta practice–lovingkindness meditation.

For me. For you. For the vulnerable populations. For those infected. For those recovering. For those traveling. For those scared. For those unemployed. For the politicians I disagree with. For the world.

May we be well.

May we be whole.

May we be happy.

May we be healthy.

May we be free from inner and outer harm.

May we live in peace and with ease.

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a guide to getting a teaching job overseas

***Brazilian Wax Poetica is under construction. Until it’s up and running, I’ll blog on my home site about moving overseas.***

Since we’ve announced our move overseas so I can teach in Brazil, the question often arises: “how did you do it?”

And thus, this post. How DID we do it?

  1. Nurture the adventurer within. We have always been drawn to adventure. Before we married, Dave nearly up and moved out west by himself. When I graduated from college in December, we up and moved to Telluride with all of our belongings packed tightly in a Jeep (including the roof-top-vomit from our cat, whom we naively tried to sedate with Benadryl). We lived in a summer rental cabin, where we could see the snow falling outside through the cracks between the logs. We watched it fall as the electricity bill rose to $400–monthly. We worked at the ski resort, barely making enough to get by. But…we look back on those times like we were floating in a snow globe–magical, nostalgic, memorable.
  2. Reflect on career. Dave has been at his current job longer than he has ever been at any other job. While it has provided numerous treasures, he felt called to something new. Despite so much being unknown, he knew it was time for a change. I have spent the last decade tirelessly serving at-risk youth in three different urban schools. And now, I admit–with tears in my eyes and knots in my gut–that I cannot do it anymore. It was either: leave teaching altogether, or try a new kind of teaching. I am a teacher in my core, so onto something new.
  3. Pay attention to alignment. The stars aligned outside of us–and within us–before we felt confident to pursue teaching overseas. My parents are gone; our pets are gone; our best friends living near us gave us their blessings; Dave’s parents are healthy and successful but aren’t going to get any younger; the Evergreen market to sell our house is primed; we don’t have kids; my internal landscape is settled a bit; we are out of debt. It simply was, and is…the right time.
  4. Network. I am so thankful for several of my friends who have taught and/or who are now teaching overseas. Some I knew for years; some I just met. Through their experiences and advice, we were able to ask questions that opened up doors: most importantly the doors to our own courage.
  5. Be resourceful. It was through those connections that I found out about services that act as an intermediary in the international job search process. With several recommendations, I decided to go with Search Associates (SA)–and I have been very happy. I felt confident that 1, I was vetted and 2, so were the schools on the other end. I set up an account and was able to connect with many job prospects before a job fair.
  6. Go with integrity. In integrity. It is important to me to be good at my job, even when nobody is watching. This is one reason those people in my life who wrote recommendations are so valuable. Also important, not sneaking around my current boss. I am not the type to burn bridges. One, I want to make sure the students I am leaving behind have the best possible opportunity to get the best possible teacher in the best possible timeline to replace me. Two, most international search organizations need a recommendation from a current principal.
  7. Work the job fair. I signed up for SA in November and went to the Boston, MA job fair in January. I revamped my online portfolio. I created business cards for easy access to my picture and credentials. Dave and I (mostly Dave, it pays to have a “trailing spouse”) searched and researched and reresearched countries and cities and prospective schools. When we got to the job fair, we planned what schools we were interested in that also had positions available. We made a plan of attack. Dave went with me, which was a good thing, because we found he was “interviewed” as much–or more–than I was. There is no such thing as too much research or too much planning. 
  8. Only the best. I was not just looking for any job, I was looking for the right one. To uproot our lives here, it had to be perfect. We made a list of what we wanted personally, professionally, and financially. We held to that list fiercely. We wouldn’t settle. However, we also were open-minded, researching opportunities that came to us that we didn’t expect. One of the best resources for this is ISR–a website where employees post reviews of international schools. It is worth the yearly fee.
  9. Energy matters. I can guarantee you that both Dave and I knew Graded was going to be home from the very first interview. There is something to be said about the chemistry present (or not) during the interview. That interview felt more like professionals out for happy hour freely discussing pedagogy than it did a formal evaluation. And to top it all off, when the superintendent pointed out my work with mindfulness–of all things on my loaded two-page resume–I knew it was meant to be.
  10. Bless with gratitude. In the end, I would be an arrogant fool to say it was all us. I am grateful to all of those who sent us advocacy prayers and well wishes and good vibes. I am grateful to God for the ordering of the universe to be so much in favor of us.

 

storytelling using mentor texts

Inevitably, every break brings time for reflection and renewal for teaching. What’s going well? What’s hurting the team? Over winter break, I found myself desperate for a reset in my classroom. Students didn’t even know each other’s names, much less stories; I was the bad guy without enough of the connection that grounds those high expectations; I was so busy trying to collaborate in an overwhelming amount of configurations that I lost my authentic teacher compass; I was buried in systematic behavior expectations that did not align with who I am…and that didn’t work. I felt like a failure…worst, I was uninspired and uninspiring.

Last semester, my colleague and friend started talking about the writing approach which consists of copying mentor texts. She’s all up in this book and talking about it all over the place. (You know, authentic and real PD…not the forced kind; rather the kind that evolves from dialogue and mutual eagerness to grow in our craft.) We implemented mentor texts with our juniors as a way to create real-life writing experiences: reviews.

Slowly these two bodies of reflection met and bowed to each other on the dance floor of my mind: how can I provide students the opportunity to share their stories and improve their writing with mentor texts? How can I create an opportunity for reset while encouraging students to write beyond the traditional (and boring) academic scope (read 5 paragraph essay).

And those two ideas danced. Beautifully and wonderfully, beyond my expectations. Here is how I approached it (some steps are modified for how I wish I would have done it):

  1. I decided on two mentor texts: Maus and Night. This would give students the ultimate choice: story-telling via prose or story-telling via art.
  2. Then I combed both texts looking for engaging prompts and mentor text sections that would elicit stories that matter from my students, the kinds of stories that bond at the heart level. Here are those prompts for Maus and Night.
  3. To begin all this, and to deepen my own connections with students, I also modeled the process, as did my student teacher. I chose for my brain dump a piece about my Mom I had published on this blog a while back. Then I altered it to mimic the mentor text. I also walked through breaking down the mentor text into moves I could mimic.
  4. Next students picked their genre and prompt followed by a rough draft. This draft is not based on the structure or style of the mentor text, but merely is a brain dump to get their stories onto the paper.
  5. Then began the analysis of the mentor texts’ approaches. This was a chance for students to be independently taught writing craft by the mentor text they selected. They were guided through this process using extensive graphic organizers. Here those are for Maus and NightOf course I shouldn’t have been surprised at how this organically produced the close and deep independent reading I’ve been trying to manufacture all year long. But that is exactly what happened. Three cheers for favorable instructional accidents!
  6. After the analysis portion, students transitioned to the remaking of their drafts into the style of their chosen genre. For some, this meant adding dialogue. For others, they rearranged paragraphs. For the artsy, they drew and divided into panels with shading and captions. No matter what, each student was nose deep in a text, looking for how to mimic it. It took a bit for them to get the hang of it, but they did!
  7. At this point, we did some peer workshopping. Secretly, the real point here was the sharing of their stories in partners to prepare them for a larger production. After all, in my head, this IS the reason for this entire writing project: community connections. All the academic benefits are bonuses. (Oops, did I say that out loud?)
  8. Then, the wondrous glory of storytelling: the sharing. I asked for feedback from students regarding which peers they felt most comfortable and uncomfortable sharing with, and then I used that data to place students into a variety of small groups. In those groups, I gave very specific directions to 1, read his/her story out loud and 2, each student was to write a note of encouragement/thank-you letter to the author after he/she shared. I provided sentence frames and colored cards. To me, these are the kinds of days I live for as a teacher. Students huddled together in small groups, sharing secrets of the heart, spinning webs of connection that are strong and trustworthy, a web upon which we build more learning and more connection. A web which catches the light.
  9. Finally, students self-graded using a narrative rubric based on CCSS. In the future, I will do a better job explicitly teaching these elements, because though they were inherent in the works the students produced, the students themselves did not have the language to self-evaluate with specifics.

The pieces the students turned in were breathtaking both in craft and content. Were there grammar errors? Of course…but honestly, who cared when I was seeing some of the best writing I’ve seen from students in my decade of teaching. The pieces were original and unique and authentic and individual and unfettered with the formulaic chains we so often think at-risk students need. The pieces were heart-wrenching with students exposing the dangerous truths of their lives: from gang violence to domestic abuse to homelessness to murder to drugs to suicide to anxiety to sexual assault to the grief of too many orphaned children. I was not reading papers; I was reading souls.

But THE most beautiful moment in this project came the day we shared our stories in small groups. Throughout the day, I roamed to different groups to pop in on students’ stories and leave them a note from my heart to theirs. In one group of two boys and two girls, one of my most difficult and often disengaged boys began sharing his story. As he worked his way through it, it was evident his exterior was cracking. His pace slowed; his face tightened; his eyes moistened; his words chocked. He collapsed into himself, a heaving pile of grief, shattered by bullets past. Literally. His peer, the other boy in the group, silently got up from his seat, walked around the table, knelt beside him, rubbed his back, and just stayed…a steady, silent, comforting rock. It was a moment so beautiful, so raw, I nearly lost my breath.

Who am I kidding? I did.

And things have been better with that student. Not perfect. Not a miracle. But a shaky bridge has been solidified.

And that is just the kind of story I want to write with penstrokes of my career.

 

brazilian wax poetic

I remember it very clearly. I was sitting in front of the computer while Dave sat on our blue leather couch. With my approaching December graduation date from North Central, we were discussing what comes next. What do I do as a teacher who graduates in December? It’s awkward. It’s unfavorable. It’s ill-timed.

And so, I uttered two dangerous words of adventure: what if?

What if we move to Colorado?

What if we work at a ski resort for the season?

What if we just spend a few months playing?

Those two words changed our lives. We moved to Colorado with everything we owned in a jeep. Found careers that we loved and that loved us back. Made new friends and new memories with old friends. Hosted family for holidays and vacations. Embraced the land and the lifestyle of the mountains. Became runners and yogis and cyclists. Experienced new dimensions of the Divine and new nuances of ourselves.

For the last eleven years, we have lived blessed and beautiful lives. Thank you God.

And now: what if?

Dave and I have been revisiting these very two dangerous words for a while now. Adventure calls.

What if we move?

What if it’s far?

What if it’s overseas?

What if it’s completely foreign and unlike any life we’ve ever lived?

Those two very dangerous words of what if have tumbled into two other words: I accept.

This past weekend I attended an international job fair in Boston, at which I found Graded. Before we went, I made a list of what I wanted in an overseas teaching gig: financially, personally and professionally. I pursued schools who met those criteria with a singular devotion. But in the end, or perhaps in the beginning, Graded found me.

And so, Dave and I will be taking this… freak show… circus… adventure on the road starting July 2017, at which time we will move to Sao Paulo, Brazil for a two-year contract. There are a million things to do and a million goodbyes to cry and a million freak-outs to stifle and a million questions to answer…but for now, I’ll settle into the wild-eyed lap of what if.


For those of you interested in the details of our adventure, I’ll be starting a new blog by the title of this post. Stay tuned!

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take this job and shove it?: a tired teacher reflects on when enough is enough 

I don’t know how to write this post.

Partially because on some level I feel like it’s already been written, but the act of putting words and phrases to secret utterances will make them reality lived instead of fear assumed.

Partially because it’s been said before by countless other teachers…ex-teachers.

Partially because this is not anybody’s fault who might be reading this. I have worked in 3 buildings that serve at-risk students, and in each of those places are stories of meaningful and authentic work that makes a difference.

But, I must write it. For me. To breath.

For the first time in my career as a teacher, I don’t honestly know if I can keep doing it. I have spent a decade loving students into learning, but I just feel so… Exhausted. Overworked. Underwhelmed. Ineffective. Discouraged. Heartless. Mistreated. Disrespected. Confused.

Being a teacher has been my everything. It is my ministry. It is my purpose. It is my salvation. It is my joy. It is why I get out of bed in the morning and what I relish as I lay down at night. During every interview for my three teaching jobs, the question was always asked: “Why do you want to be a teacher?” And my response was always the same: “It’s not a want, it’s WHO I am. That’s like asking why do you want to breath?”

But now I find myself choking on the very air that used to sustain me.

I find myself breathless from never being enough. Just today, with some squirrely kids in my advisory, I was waiting for respectful attention. They keep talking, as if I’m not even there. As if this is not even class. Finally one says: “Miss what are you waiting for?” I reply, “Respectful attention.” One of the ringleaders mumbles, “Respect must be earned.” And I broke. I just couldn’t take it anymore. So, all the conferencing I’ve done with you…that’s not respect? All the phone calls home to your parent for positive contacts…that’s not respect? All the food I’ve brought you, that’s not respect? Taking your whole class to spend the period playing basketball, that’s not respect? Asking about how you’re doing, that’s not respect? Lending you one million supplies so you could decorate lockers, that’s not respect? Well…then I guess I better accept disrespect, because I have. nothing. else. to. give.

I am breathless from the frantic data collection. Oh, my method of measuring student progress isn’t enough? Right, I see, let me make 26 spreadsheets, input data, and then make a table of contents just to be able to manage all those spreadsheets. Never mind that all this data collection reduces the time I’m able to do what it’s designed for: respond to it. Can I work on this other data and plan some lessons on it? Oh, sorry, right, no I can’t, because I have to jump through this hoop, for you, for them, for the system. When can I just be a teacher instead of a walking calculator?

I am breathless from the impossible standards. For the past two years, I have had the honor of being labeled as “distinguished.” I worked my ass of for it. But you know what? I had to work a LOT harder in my general ed class than my AP classes. And now, I can’t get a distinguished score to save my life. It’s ironic that the day an email comes out with me being highlighted in a video district-wide for my implementation of a teaching criteria is also the same day that I realize that I’m not being scored so much for what I do as what my students do. But you know what? I can’t control them. And in a new building with students who are not quick to give their trust away, well, I guess there goes my ratings. Does that seem fair? I am the same teacher. It is me. But my scores depend so much on them rather than me. And why do I even care? Is that what teaching is about? I don’t know anymore. How do I know I’m good when my students curse at me in frustration and the system curses me with frustration? Somewhere along the line in leaving no child behind, we’ve left the dignity of teachers out to dry.

I am breathless from the expanding–or shifting–duties of teaching. In college, I learned how to plan and grade, how to teach the art of communication, how to select books and write questions, how to modify for students with special needs, how to use standards. You know what’s missing? HOW TO FREAKING MOTIVATE A STUDENT AND CHANGE THEIR MINDSET. And that is all I spend my job doing anymore. I don’t teach English. I don’t teach academics. I spend 80% of my time managing behavior, attending to social and emotional needs, and figuring out what lever will actually spark a student’s intrinsic motive. I am not doing the work of a teacher. I am doing the work of a cognitive therapist or a motivation scientist. And I don’t have the training. I don’t have the time. I have 150 students. In urban ed as teachers of at-risk students, we always say we are their parents, their teachers, their therapists, their nurses, their lunch ladies, their disciplinarians, their cheerleaders, their coaches, their tutors. Just typing that sentence exhausts. And living it for the last 10 years has me completely drained.

And what is breaking my heart the most right now, what is suffocating me is the crushing-stone-weight of this question: what good is our system doing for at-risk, urban students? We have sacrificed high expectations on the altar of culturally-responsive education. We have buried beneath their specialized needs the conviction that they can–and will–do great things. We have held their hand until they are bruised. We have carried them on our shoulders until their legs have atrophied. We have handicapped them with scaffolds and differentiation and sentence starters and remastery exercises and outlines and modifications and second and third and fourth chances and misdirected restorative justice conversations and soft behavior systems and resources and… And then, they go to their jobs, and they are late, and instead of getting a pass, they get fired. They go to college, and instead of self-advocacy, they wait in vain for a deliver that has always been there. They go to their families, and instead of someone walking them through a hard conversation, they shut down and quit. They go to vote, and instead of having their voice count, they don’t follow directions and their ballot is struck down. Tragically, in an effort to empower students, we have torn them down to helpless, codependent, thoughtless birds who wait for some momma bird somewhere to drop a warm worm in their mouth. I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it. Enabling is a band-aid for cancer. And my students, our students, your students, their students… students… deserve better.

I am left, empty and winded, after this post. Maybe I’m having a bad day, a bad month, a bad semester. Maybe it will all get better next semester. Maybe it’s just displaced attempts to grieve as my therapist thinks. Maybe I’m a baby and need to suck it up. Maybe in April I’ll be writing more posts like this or this or this. Maybe.

But until then, let me catch my breath.

 

to see the light, be the light: shifting perspective

Transitioning back into the classroom full time at a new school has been so. stinking. hard. To the point where I feel caught in a web spun by a mid-life-career-crisis-spider. (More on that to come later.)

I work at least 60 hours a week. I am tired. I am overwhelmed. I never feel good enough. I feel unsuccessful at doing all those things I have written about for so long on this blog–the things that matter most. I am insecure in who I am as a teacher. It has been five years since I’ve had a caseload of 150 students. How do I connect with them all on a meaningful level on a daily basis? The answer is I don’t. I’m not. And it’s killing me (softly with his song).

All of this sob story is old news and has been since early September. What’s burning in my heart currently is an experience I had at a grade level meeting. The facilitator started off the meeting asking for anyone to share good news.

And. I. froze.

Good news…

Hmm…

Let me think…

Ugh…

There’s gotta be something…

O.U.C.H.

I have become that person I don’t want to be: Dramatic. Stuck in the muck of negativity. Drowning in cynicism. Devoid of hope. Lost in the dark.

No. Just no.

I saw this growing up. I love my Mom, and I miss her deeply, and from her I have gained so many strengths and wonderful characteristics. But one thing I do not want to emulate from her was her inability to celebrate good things without attaching a “but.” And because of this, I think more woe came to her.

Because for so much of her life  (pre-cancer), that’s what she saw: woe.

We become what we see. We attract that which is our focus. We reap what we sow. On what we dwell, we cultivate.

I am guilty of ADD: Attentive to Deficit Disorder.

And because I am consumed with them, deficits abound. Because they are at the forefront of my mind, problems manifest regularly.

Time to turn on the light.

  • L. has spent the first few months of school refusing to write. Anything. “I am a reader, but I can’t write. I have never passed an English class, just look at my record.” Just yesterday, at Saturday school, he wrote an entire full page essay, typed.
  • I. and I do not get along. She is constantly defiant and disruptive. But for a brief moment, she was turning in work. Good work. Quality work. At my desk in a conference, I told her: “You hide behind this mask of being a ‘bad girl,’ but I don’t think that’s who you are.” Her eyes glittered.
  • G. was there when I was gently corrected by another adult for an error I made. It was all good. But he looked at me and said, “Miss, you want me to square up for you?”
  • H. wrote: “I appreciate your high expectations. You don’t let us get away with less than our best.”
  • T. complained yesterday at Saturday school about how the work was too hard. I provided him another resource. Soon enough, he is quietly settled into both resources to accomplish the task. Independently. Successfully.

We become what we see. We attract that which is our focus. We reap what we sow. On what we dwell, we cultivate.

Time to see the light.

Time to be the light.

 

 

Learning in Circles: Implementing Effective Socratic Seminars

An edited version of this post first appeared on Edutopia.

“Socratic seminars help me understand other people’s perspective as well as advance my own through critical thinking…They have also helped me become a better leader by engaging my peers in the discussion through deepening questions.” ~BQ, class of 2016

One of my favorite moments as a teacher is when guests come into my classroom, and despite their best attempts to locate me visually and auditorily, they can’t. I am hidden quietly among the students, who are engaged in a student-led, high-level academic discussion.

Throughout my nine years as a high school Language Arts teacher, I have discovered and refined a pivotal strategy that results in such a moment in my classroom: the Socratic seminar (hereafter known as SS). These student-led discussions–based on Socrates method of student inquiry rather than teacher lecture–elicit student ownership, deep thinking, critical questioning, respectful communication and collaboration, academic vocabulary usage, and a rooted sense of community. Though seemingly “off stage,” a meaningful and effective SS only occurs through intentional teacher moves before, during, and after.

SS brought us closer as a class, building a comfortable community and they were fun.” ~RP, class of 2016

Before: Planning

The most important part of a meaningful SS is the planning embedded throughout the year.

  • Let’s get comfortable.
    • There is no SS without risk. And there is no risk without trust. An effective SS occurs because there are thousands of invisible strings of connections already built among students and teacher. Build these connections through social-emotional circles, games, laughter, student surveys, journal entries, icebreakers, sharing of stories, high expectations and follow-through regarding respect, positive postcards home, cheerleading at student games and events, humility and authentic care.
    • Norm, norm, norm. At the beginning of the year, establish classroom procedures, routines, and expectations. At the beginning of every discussion, do the same. Hold students accountable for demonstrating the utmost respect to each other. More often than not, my classroom management is unseen and private. But I never let a disrespectful comment or laugh or eye roll go unaddressed in front of the class. For students to feel safe, they need to know I publicly and privately support them and the safety of our classroom.

“I like SS because it gives us a chance to become leaders and it builds our relationship as a class.” TS, class of 2019

  • Let’s get academic.
    • Use anchor charts to teach, model, and expect use of target vocabulary every period. Establish some way of students recognizing each other’s academic vocabulary use (snapping, tracking). This ensures students both identify and apply target language, offering ample opportunity for practice. Provide resources such as sentence stems, directly teach and model language functions, and expect students to practice them in conversations.
    • Use strategically crafted questions to create daily opportunities for academic conversation in a variety of configurations: partners, tables, small groups, concentric circles, around the world cafes, and kinesthetic activities such as 4 corners or line ups. Use a roster to track participation and ensure all students talk sometime throughout each week.
    • Practice gradual release of discussion leadership throughout the year. At the beginning, model strong facilitation skills and verbally label them for students. Create anchor charts collaboratively of what makes a strong discussion leader, participants, and conversations. Reflect on the day’s discussion: strengths, weaknesses, modifications. Eventually poll the class to see who wants to take a more active role in leading class discussions. In a small group with them, discuss strong and weak leadership moves. Norm with the class how to treat a student taking a risk. And then let them run the show! Afterwards prompt students to reflect on how the the progress of the leader, the class, and themselves. Through this process, by the end of the year almost every discussion is like a SS because the cognitive and discourse responsibilities have transferred entirely to the students.
    • Directly teach, model, practice, and assess analytical and text-based questioning. The top resources I’ve found for this are from AVID. This skill is essential in reading comprehension, high-level discourse, critical thinking, and holistic success in a world inundated with messages. What I’ve found works best is delineating between right/wrong, yes/no questions and those that produce divergent discussion. Additionally, text-dependent questions ground students in the work rather than speculative thinking. Use these types of questions as class discussion and/or writing prompts, collaboratively evaluating and adjusting them as needed. This makes a great opener activity, enhanced by a Teach Like A Champion “building ration through writing” strategy. Teach students to craft these kinds of questions as they read, forming a self-monitoring strategy.

SS help me to understand a novel with much more depth. When I read a book I see the events in one way but in SS I was able to deepen my previous thoughts and create new ones based on what everyone else shared.” ~DGC, class of 2016

  • Let’s get prepared.
    • Choose a rich text that offers cross-content and real-world connections. I often use whole novels as the basis of my SS.
    • Create prep work based on learning objectives and student data. Whether in 9th grade Intro to Lit class or AP Lit class, I found that prep work allows students to feel confident going into the SS: a game-changer.
    • Schedule the SS, providing students enough time to complete the work (either in class or out).
    • Repeatedly explain the purpose and expectations of the SS. I use a contract clearly outlining expectations.

During: Implementing

“A well-run SS is is an artful blend of awkward pauses and meaningful analysis.” ~CS, class of 2016

Once the culture and preparations have been established, it is time to set the scene for the actual SS.

  • Let’s get physical.
    • A SS is best in a circle, where students are equal and I–as a facilitator and not participant–am on the outside. There are a couple of ways to do that based on the class size and dynamics. One giant circle for all students or fishbowl style (where there is an inner circle and an outer; the inner participants speak, the outer participants coach).
    • Announce what supplies are expected in the circle and only allow those (e.g. text, homework prep, assessment sheet).
    • Set up the SS so the target vocabulary anchor charts are visually accessible for student use.
  • Let’s get ready.
    • When students arrive on the SS day, I create a “do now” activity that will last between 5-10 minutes so that I can individually check for prep completion. I do not allow students who are not 100% complete with the prep to participate. At the beginning of the year, this is harsh. But as the year goes on, students rise to expectations and accept this is designed to ensure a better discussion (and often grade).
    • The first SS of the year begins with a lot of direct instruction going over what makes a good one, a bad one, and how students get an A (targets). These targets–which can shift throughout the year–are based on standards and can be active voice, upgraded verbs, academic vocabulary, transitional phrases, textual evidence, clarifying questions, etc. Every SS thereafter, I still spend time at the beginning directly establishing these norms and targets. I also have students set goals.
    • I often start with an opening round question that is light (from ice cream flavors, weekend plans to favorite quote or character). This invites all voices in, helping students take that initial plunge into the conversation.
  • Let’s get better.
    • I practice gradual release of SS throughout the year. Early on, I am inserting myself into the conversation more frequently. These interruptions can be feedback about strong moves, ways to improve, lessons about conservation strategies, highlighting of impressive questions or insights, muting dominant voices, soliciting reserved voices, and/or pausing conversation so students can self-assess and adjust moving forward.  As the year goes on, these interruptions occur less and less as students internalize expectations and step up as facilitators. I’ve also found that the shorter SS are in the beginning, the easier it is for students to master them.
    • In any SS, there will be awkward pauses. Here are some ways to approach those. First, I stress every time this is to be expected and honored as thought time. If it extends unreasonably, I will try any of these strategies: switch seats, whip around, pair share, walk and talk, talking piece, self-assess and/or check grade.
    • Students come to SS with a range of abilities and needs. I’ve found that assigning leadership roles and differentiated targets to be successful for upward differentiation. For scaffolding, provide scripts, sentence starters, peer coaches, small group instruction ahead of time and/or differentiated tasks.

After: Following

SS have helped me with speaking verbally, because at the beginning I didn’t talk and was shy, but now I feel confident.” ~AG, class of 2019

  • Let’s get assessed.
    • The hardest part of SS is assessing them. But over the years, I have refined a tracking and assessing strategy that is easy, accurate, and best of all…it works.
  1. Use a roster. Highlight students who are able to participate. Mark those who are not with a 0 and put a line through the row.
  2. Establish “A moves” (e.g. using academic transitions, speaking in literary tense, using and explaining quotes) and codes for those.
  3. Track student participation using the codes. A colleague of mine does this visually on the doc cam so students have live access to their progress. I also do it privately on a clipboard. Here are some examples.
  1. After, highlight each “A move” a different color. Head a column with number of “A moves” and then another for score. Count up the “A moves” and use predetermined scale to establish grade.
  • Let’s get reflective.
    • The final element to any meaningful SS is reflection–both for student and teacher. Here are some prompts I often use.
      • Teacher: How natural was the conversation? How varied was student participation? How analytical were student comments? How authentic and accurate was the use of academic vocabulary? What do I need to reteach? How do I plan ahead to make the next one better?
      • Student: What do you think your grade should be and why? What did you do well? What did your colleagues do well? What do you need to improve? What does the class need to improve? Did you feel safe sharing your ideas? How can we improve community? How has your thinking about ____ changed?

SS have helped me because it allows me to expand my thinking.” ~MC, class of 2019

What I love the most about effective SS–from community to text analysis to rich discussion to student ownership– is that it feels like a college class. And my students deserve this. As do all students.  

 

welcome home to b261

The first day is everything.

My students spent their summer inundated with news reports about senseless, merciless and unjust killings of people who look just like them. They are afraid.

My students spent their summer working multiple jobs just to keep food on their families’ tables. They are hungry and tired.

My students spent their summer wondering which of their teachers from May would still be there in August. They are insecure.

My students spent their summer listening to a white man’s rhetoric about how they don’t belong in this country, how they’ll be shipped back to a place that is no longer home to them, only to have their vision of this country’s promise cut off by a wall. They are worried.

My students spent their summer surrounded by terror attacks of extremists who (reportedly) worship the same god they do. They are disheartened.

So, yes, the first day is everything.

When they walk into my classroom–into our classroom–they don’t just need a safe place. They don’t just need a restorative place. They don’t just need a grounded place. They don’t just need a comfortable place. They don’t just need a welcoming place.

They need a home where they belong.

  • Home is where the door is open and inviting. It is important that the minute students see our classroom, they know it is for them. I do this with welcoming signs and clear communication.img_8376
  • Home is a place that is tidy and organized. I bought a carpet to ensure the auditory and aesthetic quality of my room was on point. I have bins for students to store their stuff. All of the previous day’s handouts have a place to be with clear labeling. I have minimal decorations as this will arise collaboratively with students’ contributions and academic anchor charts throughout the year.
  • Home is a place where resources abound. My first year student teaching, my mentor had the students bring community supplies for extra credit. I have copied this every year since. We have bad days or forgetful days; when that happens, my students always have what they need in the classroom to be successful–partly because they provide those resources for each other. IMG_8421
  • Home is a place where students are known. I do not want students’ first day to be going over a syllabus.

    Rather, I give a survey the first day so that I can gather important information about who my kiddos are…in school and as a human. While they are taking the survey, I walk around and introduce myself to each of them individually with a handshake. Such a first day procedure ensures that the priceless first impression that our time together will not be about rules, but about them.

  • Home is a place where I as the teacher am known. This was my first year at my current school, so the reputation that in the past had always done so much prework for me was void. So, I brought my reputation to them…alongside my heart. Students walked into the classroom to find this letter.
  • Home is a place where students see themselves. Our first activity as a class was to watch and discuss this video about “what’s your WHY?” I shared with students that there will be times this year where it will be hard and discouraging, and that’s exactly why they need to know why they’re showing up and persevering. Some of their whys (more still to come from students throughout the year) now are on display at the front of the room as a visual reminder to them that this is not about a grade, but about a heart matter.
  • Home is a place where students honor connection. The day after I introduced the why concept, we had circle. In this time, with the passing of a talking piece, students shared who or what their why is and told a story about their why. It was tender and special and bonding. It was a beautiful way to establish the kind of feel we will have in our classroom.img_8387

Just as the circle, I end where I started. The first day is everything. For I know that for there to be great learning in my class, there must be great risk.

And everyone feels more comfortable risking when they feel at home.


For more of my thoughts on how to establish a sense of home where students belong in the classroom, check out:

 

 

 

 

 

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