Monday, May 18, 2015

Why You Matter..

Like most of us, I am feeling the familiar burn at the end of the year, and beginning to doubt all the hard work put in.  Did I do enough?  Did my students really learn anything?  How could I have kept that one kid from dropping out?
These were the questions running through my mind as I drove to work this morning.  Then I took a second to skim my Twitter feed and found this gem via Shaina Glass:

It was a great reminder that the Year Is Not Over.  There is still time to make a difference, time to impact, time to learn, time to create change, and time to do more.

And then, in my first period class I encountered a second reminder.  I noticed one of my students sitting at his desk, no work in hand, a forlorn look stretched across his face.  I sat next to him and the conversation went like so... (name changed of course)

Me "Joe, what's up?  Where is your work?"

Joe (eyes watering): "It's gone. Someone took my binder and all my work was in it.  I'll just get a zero."

Me (hiding the anger I feel about the stolen work):  "Well.  You still have time, and I will let you have a little more.  No reason to give up."

Joe (stares.. ignores me)

Me (I just get up and walk away.  I want him to decompress a bit.  What should I say...I walk around and assist other students as needed.  After about 5 minutes I come back and sit next to him.)

Synopsis of longer version:
I proceed to have a conversation with him about life and how unfair it can be and how that doesn't change when you get older.  Life can be brutal, and at times almost rip you in two.  But, what we have to learn is how to overcome the obstacles and most importantly not let our emotions dictate what we do.  I tell him that I know he is strong enough and smart enough to get the work done and not to give up.  I tell him that if he needs to go the bathroom and yell that he can and should.
Then I left him alone to decide what he wanted to do.

A few minutes later I noticed him quietly writing, and I made sure to let him know how proud I was of him as he left for his next class.  He had decided to write a second version of the stolen poem.

The moral of the story isn't that I am some magical wizard who can move mountains, but that there is still work to be done.  It would have been much easier to just let him sit, or just give him a grade for the work he had completed.  After all, I had seen it with my own eyes. He is a good student and always gets his work done, why not just let him off the hook.  I mean... it is the end of the year and as one student put it "we have finished our test..what more do we need to learn?" (a comment that almost sent me off the rails, but one that resonated and helped me make sure our last lesson was a meaningful challenge)  But what message would I have sent to him, to all the others working feverishly to get the job done?  That the above comment by student X was true?? That my expectations had somehow lowered after the test?? That I didn't believe he could overcome a highly frustrating and annoying event??
As usual I was reminded how important a role we play in learning by a student.  He reminded me that our work as teachers is never done, and that we have one of the most important jobs in the world.  We shape young minds.  As I've stated before, we are the purveyors of intellect, the curators of human capitol in a variety of forms.  Each day we have the opportunity to make a difference, and so we push on.
Holding him accountable and setting high expectations forced me to do the same for myself.  I wasn't sure what to say right away, which is one reason I had to walk away.  I took time to think about how he felt, how I would feel, and what I do daily in the same situations.  That 5 minutes was crucial in helping me figure out what to say.  It is so easy when we are frustrated to let our own emotions drive us to say too little or not enough.  Letting him off the hook or allowing my own emotional state of the day dictate my response would have made me a fraud, and the students would have learned from that instead.  I thought of a post I read by Josh Stumpenhorst titled They Are Watching.  It really stuck with me, and continues to help me when I find myself struggling for the right response or reaction.

So if you too are feeling the end of the year doubt creep in or the summer slide hitting a bit early, keep your head up and remember that what you do still matters.  Even when it seems like the students are already gone and you feel like you are talking to a wall, fight on and live for the little wins.    If you start to wonder if you matter, I'm here to tell you that you do..even on your worst day.  Kids will be kids and teens will be teens, a bunch of Silent Bobs. They won't tell you how much you meant until senior year or the day they invite you to their wedding.  It might not always seem like it, but everything you do matters and each day that you choose to show up and try to be your best is a day that changes the lives of those around you.

I look to my PLN for support and strength and can say that they play a huge role in helping me when things get tough.  So if you don't have one, get one!  Thanks to all of you around the world who teach and inspire me daily:)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Why students need frustration

Frustration leads to learning, so why aren't why isn't there more of it in education?

My students are currently working on what I have named the American Teen Project.  I got the idea after watching a piece on The Veteran Photo Project, and a book I have called It's Complicated: The American Teenager.  I come up with a lot of great ideas while watching or listening to the news.  You can check out the instructions here, and use them if you like.  We will be sharing our final product on Twitter.

We are on day three of the project.  The first day (a Friday) I spent time in class going over the concept, introducing the required pieces and discussing expectations.  They were then given the weekend to take the required two photographs.  They returned on Monday, and we reviewed what a manifesto is and they were given time to draft.
As we all know, a manifesto is short and sweet.  However, it is a meaningful piece of writing and usually is in a very different format than the students are used to writing in.

Yesterday was such a great day.  It was a great day for me, and a FRUSTRATING day for the students.  This feeling is what drives me to blog today.  I often hear teachers and administrators discussing the concept of student frustration, and they often feel that there is no place for it in the classroom.
Isn't frustration a natural part of life? Isn't it our job to help students learn to not only succeed when feeling frustrated, but to flourish?  Think about it..... What would have happened if Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King or Marie Curie had just decided to avoid frustration?  What a sad world we would live in, and what a sad bunch of individuals they would have been.
Frustration is a natural part of the learning process, and a sign that learning is occurring.
I believe we need to frustrate our students more.
Because of this belief I viewed yesterday as a success.  Students were frustrated and made comments like "this is hard."  When I asked them what made it hard they responded, "Because you are making us think."
Now, I believe they have to think in their other classes too.  I know I have made them think before.  But the thinking was very controlled and confined.  I believe we often give them too much and ask them to do too little.  We scaffold, explain and put everything in a box.   I find this to be a huge issue in ELA because of testing.  Students are often taught only one way to write, and therefore only one way to generate/display ideas. This works and is necessary for some lessons.   But, we must also give them room to struggle and allow them a space to problem solve.  We must let them find their own answers, their own instructions and models.  We must ask them to THINK, to seek out information, and to ask probing questions related to what they are learning. Writing and thinking are by nature messy.  Neither is clean or linear until a final draft is complete.  Such is thinking.  But if we never give students the opportunity to refine this thinking through independent inquiry, then how will they ever be able to do it? And this is the root of the frustration. I ask them to do something they have not done a lot of, and naturally there is pushback.  "Think and figure it out on your own," I tell them.

This is what we do as adults isn't it,  and  this is what the 21st century job market demands.  So why aren't we creating more of these moments in our classes??  What exactly are we afraid of?

So far the students are feeling more confident today.  They worked on revising and editing their manifestos.  Some of them finally had their aha moment and began an actual draft.  They looked to each other and Google for answers.  They looked to me for guidance.  The frustration level was limited, and the learning enhanced.

A wonderful day indeed.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Digital Portfolios Please...

Happy Thursday everyone:)

I just returned from pulling my students' writing portfolios from our ELA department, and I got to thinking.....

How do we get schools/districts to start using digital portfolios??

I believe we must promote digital portfolios as much as possible in order to keep better track of student writing and use it more effectively as data for planning.  This would also make the writing more relevant for the students, and allow them to access it anywhere.

Down and dirty:
Data in all shapes and forms is critical when it comes to effectively planning lessons and addressing student needs.  While it should not drive all decision making, it should play an integral role in the development of such.  I believe we do the students a great disservice when we file away their writing and never look at it.  If the writing were housed digitally teachers could access the date and use it to plan before the school year begins.  What a relief and help this would be.

Student buy-in.  We all want it, especially when it comes to writing.  We need our students to be effective communicators.  How are we supposed to accomplish this if they can't see their own growth, analyze and discuss their own weaknesses and strengths?  Digital portfolios would allow them to share with family, friends, and students across the world.  Now that is an authentic audience.  Students can comment in real time and work when absent.

One of the best things would be the fact that their work could travel with them anywhere. Wouldn't it be nice to get a new student, and have an idea of where they are at in their learning/thinking/writing process.

Your classes aren't one-to-one?  Mine either.  Sometimes I take my students to the library and utilize the computers in there.  Most of the time though I use the few devices I have.  Hmm..8 at this time.  I just had two die on me:(
The teacher might also have students write their rough drafts and then type what they have on the computer.  This tends to work well since students work at various paces.
I also borrow devices from the library, and my colleagues.  Students can check out devices from the library too, and many of them do.
It might seem impossible, but there are ways to work around not having a one-to-one system.
Another idea is for the the teacher/school/district to start off with a minimum number of items housed.  This would allow for the staggering of the use of devices.
I also apply for grants through each year and ask for Chromebooks.  I figure I can eventually build a one-to-one class.  Hopefully:)

I know change is difficult and there are a lot of ideas/trends being knocked around, but this is a concept educators must implement soon.

 Here is a more structured conversation on the topic courtesy of Holly Clark's twitter feed (if you don't follow her you should!).

Keep up the good fight!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How your toughest class can stretch you the most..

Last week I had the great fortune to fail, and fail miserably with a lesson.  It was during a 90 minute class at the end of the day that my epic failure occurred.
I was attempting to teach a lesson that had gone quite smoothly the rest of the day.  However, about 30 minutes into class and nothing was getting accomplished.  I was frustrated, the students were frustrated and it was just a melting pot of anxiety, disappointment and sheer annoyance for all.
Class ended and I was extremely upset.
 "What is wrong with this class?!" I thought.  All my other classes had completed the lesson, all my other classes did the work. "They are just lazy."  I was supposed to stay after and help some students, but instead I left in order to decompress and avoid taking out my frustrations on anyone else.

This was the best decision I made.  Like most of us, I just couldn't stop thinking about what a disaster that class had been.  Slowly I went back through the lesson and thought about what went on.  And then it hit me.  The kids weren't lazy, the lesson just plain sucked.  This year I went from teaching all co-teach classes, to teaching only one (7th).  Up until this day my students had been working with rote activities that required little autonomy.  So why on earth was I surprised that when I set this mixed level class free they flailed?  The answer is because I wasn't being true to my own pedagogy, but instead trying to fit myself into a box and with it the lesson and the entire class.  In doing so I failed to give the lesson and the class the consideration they deserved.
As I began looking back I realized that this year I have focused more on trying to prepare my students for the test as best as possible.  In doing so I tried to adopt the beliefs and strategies of others.  Some of these are founded on research and well thought out ideas, while others are founded on fear and archaic systems.
Why?  Nobody forced me, nobody threatened me.  However, like many of my fellow educators I live in a world where "the test" drives a lot of the thinking and doing. I became hungry for my students to succeed, for them to beat the very beast scratching at our doors. What a mistake.
Last year I tried a number of new things, and watched my students struggle beautifully as they worked through problems and built their own knowledge base.  But this year I started off on the opposite foot, and it was the worst mistake ever.
After that 7th period class I realized that I needed to be true to my own pedagogical beliefs.  As a trusted colleague once told me, "as long as your ideas are based on sound pedagogy, then the learning will occur".  She was right.  I have returned to my messy, mistake driven learning and things are as they once were.  7th period is still a toughie and requires an ample amount of attention and flexibility on my part.
But I now realize that they are my best class.  For had they not challenged me when all my other classes were just doing, then I would have never come to my afore mentioned realization.  I love them because they keep me grounded on what matters.  And what matters are my students and their learning.  The test will not go away, and there will be other failures (I hope).  But 7th period helped remind me why I teach in the first place, because it is challenging and it allows me to challenge others.  I am given the task of preparing them to thrive in the 21st century work force.  I am tasked with creating innovators and leaders.  I can't do that in a box.
So don't discount the class that holds your feet to the fire, because they just might save you from losing yourself.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Share: You just might keep someone in the Game

I have been meaning to share a post on teaching inference for some time now. Extra time seems as elusive as ever,but I am determined to start blogging on a regular basis.  More importantly, I am determined to start sharing ideas, questions and problems.

A few years ago my colleague and I were pouring over our student data.  We found that many of our students struggle to make high level inferences.  Fast forward three years later, and we notice this is a recurring problem.
Which reminds me of something else I want to speak on.  There is a common dialogue I hear among some educators when faced with this situation.
It goes a little something like this:
"Ugh..weren't they supposed to learn this in plug in any grade you like.  Why should I have to teach this?"

Let me repeat..this is among SOME and not ALL.  And, as an educator I get the frustration one feels when wanting to move forward rather than look back.  This situation often forces teachers to work with content or skills less familiar, it requires more work, and naturally leads to more stress. This creates the negative relationship most educators have with said situation.

The world of education is changing drastically, and so with it the student body.  Teachers much constantly work to close gaps, make new connections and rebuild fractured intellectual structures.
And so, this is why I want to share.   I hope I encourage some of you to share.  Also, please tell me how I can improve on lessons!!
I think we can help each other feel less intimidated by our jobs and the idea of teaching the old or unknown.  But, we can only do this if we make our task less daunting.  I see great educators come and go all the time.  Some leave forever because the job has just become too much.  So here is my first step at keeping my peers healthy and in the game.  I hope you can find a way to use this.

Now to the lesson: Created by myself and Shelby Acevedo
I am just going to outline it and tell you about the resources.  If you need any extra details please let me know.
Objective: Students will understand what an inference is.  Students will understand how to make and inference and will know the difference between "zooming in" and "zooming out".

Resources Needed: Zoom:
See the Ocean:  This book is out of print but can still be purchased.  It is wonderful!

Step 1:  I begin the lesson by posting a picture from CNN's Week in Pictures.  This is a great place to find interesting pictures that really engage the students.  I pair it with the question "What has happened to this person or what is going on?"  The students are given 3-5 minutes to generate a response.  I then let them share. We discuss how they know what they know.  We leave it at that.

Step 2:  I put the kids in groups of about 4.  I tell them that they will be competing against each other in a challenge.  They are told to assign a scribe, and that they will have to work together quietly to figure something out.  Now, if you have an administrator that insists they all be "doing something" (which they are..thinking, practicing effective communication, analyzing images) then you can have them all write.  I like to focus on the thinking and discussing, so I assign one scribe.

Step 3: Begin by going through the book page by page, and make sure you include the cover.
Ask them "What is this?"  I give them 1 minute to discuss and write an answer down.  Repeat over and over.  It is so fun to listen to the kids.

Step 4: Debrief with the students.  It is very important to talk about the process.  I like to go to a particular page (one with girl and play village, they always refer to her as Snow White). I explain that what they were doing was making an inference or analyzing something. I tell them it is the same thing we have been doing with texts.  I remind them that analysis is just breaking something down.  I then reference the warm-up and we discuss briefly.

We discuss how they immediately applied background knowledge, but that they were zooming in on the girl.  We then talk about zooming out and looking at the entire page and then making a guess at what is on it.  I tell them that they do the same thing when reading and analyzing a text.
And this is when they have their aha moment. Most are able to make the connection and realize that they often zoom in and focus on one thing without applying it to context when analyzing text.

  • The group who correctly identified the most pictures wins candy.  

The first year we taught this lesson, and then we then moved to See the Ocean.  The students read the story and were asked to find parts of the story where they could infer that the character was blind.  There are many hints.  Some students figure it out right away, but others don't get it till the end of the book.  However, the text is accessible and the students can focus on the skill more easily.  I seem to have deleted my old file, but it would have looked something like this..

Text Says: When she could talk, she asked endless questions about the ocean.  

“How old is it? How big? How deep? What’s the color? Why the waves?  Why the sound?”
Inference: The story says they travel to the ocean often, but Nellie still asks a lot of questions. In particular she asks "what color". This is weird and makes me thinks she can't see or something. If she can, why would she ask what color it is.
I think one year I had them identify and analyze 2, and then they had to get with a peer and take notes on theirs. I really need to start recording like my colleague Del Villar.

Now I reference zooming in and zooming out with my students when we are revising and editing their writing. I even have students say "Ah..ya. I zoomed in.."
Keep up the good fight:)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

WebQuest: A useful tool in any classroom

Good morning!

I wanted to share a tool that I have found useful in the frontloading of information and the building of background knowledge.

My students come to me with varied levels of what most people consider traditional background knowledge.  I have students new to the country, some who have been in and out of school their entire lives, and some that have limited exposure to books and news.  I often find that this is one of the biggest barriers when it comes to my students' ability to read and understand a text.  As we all know, making connections via background knowledge is an integral part of the reading process.  Couple this with a student body that struggles to finish a short story, let alone a book and you have a recipe for confusion and frustration.

So, last year I decided I was going to teach a book.  I am usually a fan of short stories (my next blog post!), but I decided I wanted to teach Night.  We are fortunate enough to have a Holocaust museum here in the city, and I knew I could take some kids there.  So naturally, this book seemed like a no-brainer and I began tackling the lesson plan.  While sitting, staring and wondering how I was going to get my kids into the idea of reading, I remembered a Shakespeare WebQuest I used in class a few years back.  BAM...this is what I was going to do.  I began looking online for a Holocaust WebQuest, but I couldn't seem to find one that I thought would serve my needs. What is an educator to do then? Get creative!
I made my own using Google Sites..

Now to the actual point of my post.  What this site allowed me to do was address the needs of multiple learners.  While thinking about what to include and how to engage students, I decided to just try and hit all learning styles.  I made sure to include visual and audio.  I then collaborated with a colleague on how to best assess their learning along the way.  She suggested open-ended questions that required them to think deeply about what they read/heard/viewed.  While this all seems like a lot of work (and it was), it is sooo worth it.
I took the students to the lab and gave them the link.  I then instructed them that they needed to read the instructions and speak with a peer before asking me "what do I do?".  For the most part they could figure it out and began their journey.  I walked around monitoring students and was surprised at what I heard.  Students were gasping and actually talking about what they were seeing or hearing.  Some students were crying, while others felt compelled to tell me how angry they were.  This lesson quickly became one of few that will stay with me forever as a game changer (hopefully I experience more as I grow).  It seems like such a simple tool, but my students (some who truly had no knowledge of this historical event) taught me how powerful a well designed WebQuest can be.

  • This is not a lesson for those who do not want students to be frustrated by the way.  I believe that there is a level of functional frustration necessary to learning.  If we are to create critical thinkers and problem solvers, then we must let them struggle to some degree.  Because many of my students had little experience with tech, they sat for a bit working through the frustration.  In the end they figured out how to navigate the lesson and get their work done.  I think this is important to remember when giving students something new and a bit challenging.  
Skills addressed by the lesson:
21st Century learning skills:
Digital Literacy
Skilled Communication
Problem Solving
Collaborate with Others
Other Skills Addressed:
Engage in Meaningful Discourse
Build background knowledge

When it came time to read the book I felt that the students were equipped with some of the tools needed to help them digest and process the text at a more critical level.  I believe the WebQuest also worked on a psychological level to help them feel more confident in attacking the book.  There is a sense of helplessness one feels when they know they don't know.  And contrary to what some believe, our students are usually more keenly aware of this than we are.  
We read the book and it was glorious:)

I think a wonderful extension or entirely new activity would be to have students create a WebQuest after reading a specific text.  I love the idea of letting them create and demonstrate their knowledge. Thinking this might be in my next unit.....

Here is a helpful sight if you want a clearer explanation of what a WebQuest is:

Do you have any great WebQuest tools or ideas?  If so, please share away.  Together we can foster a new generation of learners:)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Does Attribution Really Matter?

I would argue that it does, especially in our line of work.  However, I have recently learned that this is not a mindset pervasive in our world.  And my question is, "Why not?"

I have the privilege of working with some of the most talented people I've ever known, and while you might think this has something to do with loyalty or friendship, it doesn't.  I think one of the reasons I was drawn to teaching is the fact that is requires constant self-improvement, collaboration, research, learning, failing, leading, and know..all that other stuff.  Because of the nature of our work, most of us are fortunate to work with creative, intellectual people who truly value what we do as teachers, and learners.

Unfortunately, most people outside the realm of education have little (or a muddied) understanding  of the lengths we go to create the optimal learning environment for our students.  An amazing classroom is not the immaculate conception of a specific school or administration, but a Darwinian endeavor in exploration and curation of ideas.

So why then, are there educators out there who say "I don't need to give credit to anyone?"

I find this to be quite disheartening.  If we don't respect and honor what we do, then who will?  It is up to us to make sure that the world understands the toil beneath the books.  We are the creators of intellect, the great architects of dissonance, questioning, and the purveyors of knowledge.

But who will buy from us if we are stealing from each other???