prepare for liftoff: culture shock

In 2010, I spent three weeks in Puebla, Mexico to finish up my master’s program in ESL. Amid ancient cathedrals and extensive teaching units and luxurious welcomes and late-night plaza dancing and studious students and chocolaty mole dishes and open air markets, I found myself–in the air conditioned safety of my hotel room–having a meltdown. My skin crawled. I was overwhelmed with exhaustion. My brain was tangled between two languages. My body felt like it was walking in the twilight zone. My heart ached for home… for comfort, for ease, for freedom from having to work so damn hard to understand the mere basics of life.

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Culture shock.

I can’t help but reflect on that experience as we prepare to move 5,769 miles south to Brazil.

Like the naive American expat I am, I have been predicting the layers of culture shock and in what order they will fall.

  • First: school culture. One of the reasons I am changing student demographics is because over the last ten years teaching, I have felt my pedagogical craft dwindle more and more into the realm of motivational therapy. In each of the three schools I have taught, I have spent the first year there working my way into the hearts and trust of students; if not, there would be no learning. And though that is exactly where I want to dwell, and also where students remain forever with me, it is utterly exhausting to pour the entire contents of your identity out over and over and over and over, just hoping it will stick. (And of course, I do not in anyway blame the students. I blame their trauma and the system, but that is another post.) When interviewing for my new job, one of the questions the superintendent asked me was: “What are you most nervous about?” To which, I responded: “Having to win over another group of students.” He looked at me, quizzically, and then followed with a statement: “Oh, you won’t have to worry about that; Brazilians are so warm and welcoming. They will love you from day one.” Talk about a foreign language. Huh? Additionally, I have spent the last ten years convincing students what they can do: overcome society’s low expectations, overcome their neighborhood’s low expectations, overcome the school’s low expectations, overcome their own low expectations. Now, I wonder how much of my job is going to be convincing students of what they do not have to do: be perfect, pile it on, extend their resumes from two to three pages, add one more club, avoid mistakes, look a certain way, do it all. I have felt my calling the last ten years as one of inspiration; and now, I think it will be more aligned with the archaic definition: giving students the space to breath.
  • Second, city culture. This feels even more poignant as I have spent the last couple of weeks before departing the country in the country. In the mornings, we sit on the porch and watch the circus-squirrels fly from tree to tree and comically climb up (or fall down) a slinky to get to the bird feeder. We sit on the porch and listen to the echo of morning doves and the call of cardinals and the squelch of black birds. We sit on the porch and watch the sunlight dance in and out of shade. We sit on the porch and feel the caress of the wind. We sit on the porch and rest in the peace of nature. We did that in Evergreen, too. And now, we are moving to the straight. up. city. High rises and traffic and airports and favelas and exhaust and pigeon poop and sirens and constant lights… well, I don’t know what else, because we’ve never done it before.
  • Then, third, Brazilian culture. In Mexico, I could manage the language. But Portuguese? And what am I going to wear on a very-liberal-almost-naked beach? How do I pay in a currency I can barely pronounce? Am I going to be just another fat American? How do I get my prescriptions refilled? How do I follow along in a foreign workout class? Am I going to stick out like a sore thumb? What if I cling my forks on the plate in a restaurant? What other faux pas am I going to commit before I even realize what a faux pas is? (And how do you say that? And is there a word for that in Portuguese?) How do I find someone reliable to wax my privates? What if we can’t even find our way out of the airport? What if they think my anxiety-reducing-poop-provoking-magnesium-powder is crack? The more question marks I type, the more I think this actually might be the first after all.

If I’ve learned anything from my meditation practice, it is that 1, what we avoid, expands and 2, by naming it, something loses its grip. And so, this post.

I will welcome culture shock by its name, a guest to the party of adventure.

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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.

 

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:

 

 

 

 

 

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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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:

general

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

C.C

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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on confidence

Don’t you love those trainings that actually get you thinking? Not the ones that waste your time, the ones that leave you with a kink in the neck because you’re constantly glancing at the clock, but the ones that hit you… “in the feels?” (as my kiddos would say). Yesterday I had the blessing of just such a training about leadership in presence and presentation. And what crystallized in mind was moment of clarity about my year.

I am a good teacher. My presence in the classroom is at once formidable yet also friendly. I know, so deep in my core it is a part of my anatomy, that what I have to offer matters to students’ lives: it is a source of empowerment to them. I believe truly that kiddos will leave my classroom better than they arrived…and not because of my endless stream of knowledge (dead end) or my wealth of facts (it’s poor) or the sound of my voice (eww), but rather because I know without a doubt that I have the ability to help students unlock their own knowledge, their own wealth, and their own voice. Because of this deep and authentic sense of assurance, my presence in the classroom is grounded and anchored…confident. And with confidence comes success.

Now, coaching, on the other hand. For all my career, I knew I did not want to be an administrator. But leadership came naturally to me; it always has. And I thought due to this, I could easily transition into a role with a title that made a difference on a larger scale. But in reflection on this year, I have always felt on shaky ground in this new role. Sure I had good intentions. I had good ideas. I had good insights. But none of those qualities fused together, anchored together, in a deep assurance that what I had to offer mattered. I lacked the confidence, confounded by a number of other internal and external challenges (that beg more reflection in another post at another time). And without confidence, my authentic presence suffered, hindering the presents I could offer.

It is hard not to feel like a failure. My heart breaks for all the could-ofs and would-ofs and should-ofs. But, ultimately, I know the greater value lies in non-attachment: replacing self-evaluation with self-reflection. And the lessons I learned this year solidify and fertilize the ground in which I will root myself upon return to the full-time classroom.

present in the pain

Sometimes the stars align so that the same message is being whispered over and over into your ear, at just the right time. A divine echo.

Saturday morning’s yoga class was one of those whispers. Led by a pregnant woman whose roundness in her belly was only rivaled by the curve of her carved biceps, she started class with the intention of being present. She shared that being in her second pregnancy lends itself to the tendency to want the carrying and labor part to be over to get to the “best part”–life with the child. But she explored the irony, that even then, with the joy of a life before her, she can want to rush through, to the next part, always forward, always beyond, always later.

So much rushing leads to the missing of life.

“Be here now,” she said.

But what I heard was, while bowed down in humble downward dog with tears spilling prayers in my eyes:

Be present in the pain.

Following that sacred message, I met with a best friend who also constantly gifts my life with divine whispers. Yoga in friendship, if you will.

And this card was her serendipitous gift:

peace

It’s almost as if she was in cahoots with my yoga instructor.  Divine whispers.

It is no secret that this year has been hard for me. And as the calendar turned to 2016, all that is anchoring my mind is “I can’t wait until next year.” The chance to start over. A proverbial January 1st.  The next part, always forward, always beyond, always later.

Be here now.

Be present in the pain.

It is easy to daydream and fast forward to a different time, where of course I’d be at peace and happy and fulfilled with this and that in place.

It is easy to daydream and fast forward to a different time, where of course I’d be at peace and happy and fulfilled with this and that in place.

That doesn’t exist. All that is is here and now. And true peace is thankfulness without terms, contentment without conditions.

Be here now.

Be present in the pain.

 

 

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