Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Good News

This week I finished sending a good news card to every student's home address. My school has little postcards I can send out with a note about something positive a student did in my class. I started the second week of school, and I was determined to find something good to report about every one before the end of the year. It's not that it took me this long to find something about everyone; it's that it took me this long to find the time to finish up!

Last Friday, I had three seniors in danger of failing sit down and do enough work to move themselves out of the danger zone. I asked them who they'd like me to call to brag, and each was ready with a name. Ending my week such positive interactions with parents made it a little easier for me to spend less mental energy on school over the weekend. And each of the students, for whom attendance is usually an issue, were back the next class to continue building on their work.

I want to remember to make a new academic year resolution for August to find more times to praise my students to their parents and other people in their lives who matter to them. It's amazing what a simple note or phone call home can do -- especially for a kid who doesn't often get positive communication from school.

Teacher friends, what works for you to encourage students? And does your heart break at that moment when you call home with good news and you can tell the parent is expecting more bad news?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Teacher Appreciation Week

Hi, friends! Thanks for all of the teacher love we've all been feeling this week! The good folks at Donors Choose have set up a match code you can use all week to give to our classroom and have your gift matched. Just enter TREAT when you donate. I don't have any specific projects open right now, but I plan on doing a big book order once I get to know my new students in the fall, so a gift card would really help.

Have a great week, everyone!

Monday, May 6, 2013

No More Late Work 2.0

From the beginning of my teaching career, I've wanted to be flexible with deadlines. Allowing students to choose to do the work makes it more meaningful to them. Attempts to punish students for turning work in late haven't worked. Understanding what we're working toward as a big goal broken into small bits that students get to at their own pace seems like a classroom culture that mirrors what happens outside of school.

But I'm not sure I was being as intentional about this ethic as I should have been. My students in higher-level classes started abusing the privilege especially, and many ended last quarter with low grades as a result of not turning in a major paper I had broken into smaller assignments for them.

So, I'm trying something new. I'll still take late work. I don't promise to grade it within a week as with work turned in on time. And I will only take it late with an accompanying paragraph explaining why the work is late. I told students that forgetting is an acceptable answer, but they have to explain why they forgot. The same with simply choosing not to do it in order to focus on other priorities. So far, I've had good results in that more work is coming in at the original deadline, and I've seen some focused reflections that I think will help me organize my own practice to meet student needs a little better. For example, a couple of students asked for some modifications to the writing workshop checklist.

For those of you in the classroom right now, what's working to get this end of the year work in? What isn't? What worked for you when you were in school?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Read This Now

Let's all just forget that a lot of teachers have been questioning the utility of our country's current testing culture for quite some time, and celebrate this article from The Atlantic. Then get ready to talk about meaningful, educator-designed assessments designed to inform instruction rather than punish students, teachers, and schools while making profits for testing companies.  Because that's what's going to happen, people. I feel it in my bones.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Be a Teacher

So many of my friends are graduating, transitioning, and thinking about what's next. In the past weeks, I've seen friends who are smart, capable, and ambitious take big steps on their searches for jobs to help them feel fulfilled and fulfilling. I have some advice for people like that: be a teacher.

If you are looking for a job that feeds the body, mind, and soul, be a teacher. If you want a job that serves our country, be a teacher. If you want a job that is challenging, meaningful, and (probably) uses your undergraduate major, be a teacher. If you want a job that is results-oriented, be a teacher. If you want a job where you can make up all sorts of glorious spreadsheets to track progress and places to improve, be a teacher.

If you want a job that causes you to question, learn, and grow every day, be a teacher.

I have really frustrating days where I feel like I'm at war with cell phones, social media, and the culture of instant gratification. I have days when I am tired, stressed, or worried about money. But the pace and the mission both mean I sleep well at night. My heart breaks for those teachers who counsel others against joining our profession. This is an exciting time to be a teacher.

The standardized test culture frustrates me and damages my students' creativity. Sometimes those who ascribe to a certain type of reform make me really angry at their inability to think about a bigger picture when it comes to school's purpose.  But how can you change those parts that frustrate you if you don't get involved? And how can you stay away when the rewards are so very rich and so very real?

Friday, April 19, 2013

There is So Much Grading

Today is Friday. On Friday, I collect journals from about half of my students. In addition to the formative assignments I have tried to review over the week to inform instruction, I will take these journals home with me. I also have some essays students have polished and turned in for a re-grade. We will talk about the philosophy of the last part later, but I find all of these assignments resting in my bag to be pedagogically useful.

But goodness there are a lot of them. I have roughly 190 pages to read this weekend. I also will chaperone prom and spend some time sprucing up my classroom and creating writing prompts and notes on semicolons for the week to come.

Then there are the non-school things I'd like to do this weekend. I hope to perfect my recipe for gluten-free, vegan pizza. I'd like to go wine tasting with some friends and celebrate another friend's successful dissertation defense. I have to get my car inspected. Atticus wants to spend some time in the woods, and so do I. These activities feel important to rejuvenate and refresh myself so I can be a good teacher to my students (well, maybe not the car inspection). But there are only so many hours in a day.

Honestly, sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by all of the grading that I dream of becoming a guidance counselor because I'd still get to help students grow academically and personally, but I wouldn't have to read as many essays. I love working with my students so much, but I am definitely lacking a system for dealing with student work efficiently. Teacher friends, how do you manage your grading load? What tips do you have for those of us still trying to figure it all out? 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Dear Ms. T. (again)

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of my students refused to write to the editor of our student newspaper. Well, she asked nicely if she could write to me instead. I decided that I am an authentic audience, and she'd still reach our objectives of letter formatting and thoughtful communication, so this is what I received:

Dear Ms. T.,

It has been a wonderful year. At the beginning of the year, I thought it was going to be an awful and long year. I thought it was going to be the worst class ever. I guess I was wrong.

I have had so much fun with you and this class. The beginning was hard for all of us: new teacher, new students, new things to get used to. I'm so happy that you're my teacher in my senior year. You've made this year awesome. You're a great person and a wonderful teacher. It's awesome to think about those moments when we all laugh and work together: great memories.

This class had good and bad times, and I think that we are here to learn how to change things about us. And we are still working on them. I think that next quarter could be better. You could make work more fun, more enjoyable but with the same rules. Maybe more strict. I want to get things done faster but in a fun way. If you could, give us more options, but you have good expectations. I know you can come up with great ideas. Love you!

Student L

I think that's one for the bad day file.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dear Editors

Hello everyone! I am still here, still teaching, and trying to still blog. The weeks after winter break proved to be some of the longest in my nascent teaching career. There's been much to do to prepare students for their standardized tests they should have passed last year. We fight a daily battle against senioritis. And, frankly, I've been enjoying the company of my students so much, I didn't have as many questions or lessons to share.

But I think this blog is probably a good thing in my teaching practice. I've missed hearing from teacher friends (and allies) all over the world. I need your ideas, support, and affirmations, so here we go again!

When the most recent edition of our student newspaper came out, the advisor asked us to encourage students to write letters to the editor. I thought this would create a great authentic audience for writing as well as prevent the monthly battle I do with the newspaper. I assigned students to read the newspaper, select an article that piqued their interest, and write to the editor about it. Some students asked if they had to do the assignment. All but one of my eighty-seven darlings went right ahead and wrote to the editor when I said yes.

Here is my favorite in response to a graphic that displayed teachers answering that question what they would do if they weren't teachers (and it's edited for privacy):

Dear Editors,

     I am a sophomore and your article about teachers was very interesting to me. It made me appreciate my teachers more than I ever did. The people that teach us now could have been anything they wanted to be. But they chose to educate us and help our knowledge grow by teaching us new information every day. I wish that the students that say they don't like their teachers will realize and appreciate that fact. Thanks to you two for taking the time to do this.

Student S

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why School?

With a luxuriously long break, I wasn't quite ready to go back on Monday. But once I was standing in my classroom, I realized how much I had missed my students.

But goodness are they tired. Nearly every high schooler has a story about how they stayed up until two or three in the morning before sleeping until noon or later. Their behavior has also been great so far this week. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that they've been able to sleep on a cycle that is much more beneficial to the teenaged body's wiring.

The school at which I work is fairly progressive and starts comparatively early, but many schools start buses as early as 5:45 a.m. All of this thinking about student health, sleep schedules, and what could be done about that made me think about something larger: Who is school for?

At the beginning of every term, we free write about school. I ask students why they come to school and would they come if it weren't a legal requirement to do so. The answers surprise me. Many don't realize that compulsory attendance laws exist. Most often, I hear that a student would come two or three days a week to check in and see friends. Most surprising, however, is the answer "Of course I would come to school! You need an education to get anywhere in life, duh. And you are a crazy teacher lady for even asking this question. Plus, my mom would probably make me."

I'm not surprised that students think this way. I surprised at the diversity of students providing that answer. All my students, at some point in the day (though not all points), want to learn. They want to be better. They want to know things. But I'm not sure society knows what we want to teach them.

I want to teach my students to be curious and excited about learning. I also want to teach them skills that will make them critical consumers. I don't know if I'm trying to make them good workers, but I want them to find jobs that they are passionate about and able to obtain and keep.

Is this why we invest billions of dollars in education every year? And if it is, why are we not sending more students to college (who can complete the coursework)? Why is youth unemployment so high? I try to stay away from the hand-wringing about how our schools are failing our kids. I think there are successes across the country every day, but if the acrimony in our public sphere continues to exist, I do have to wonder just what we're teaching future citizens.

I think school as an institution needs some direction. We need to let kids know why they come to school every day. We need to not take for granted that they would like to learn to read, write, and arrange blocks. We need to start early on letting kids know why society has decided to compel them to go to school for several hours, five days a week, nine months a year, for thirteen years. Then, they just might stick around. And they might learn something.

I know there's a lot of history regarding immigrant assimilation and child labor laws that led to our current system. So, my question isn't why do we have school. Why should we have school? What do you think?