Leaving the classroom

The tradition in my classroom for the last day of school is simultaneously one of the best things I do and one of the hardest. I have the students of every class period gather into a circle and I tell each of my 8th graders something I will always remember about them, something I will miss about them, or something I hope for their future. I do this with every class throughout the day, for every one of the 140 students who’ve been entrusted to my care and teaching for the school year. It is one of the hardest days of the year because I have to let go of all these young people. I send them off into the world hoping that they are prepared, hoping that they feel strong and successful, and hoping they know that I see them, I know them, I care about them and that it doesn’t end when they leave my classroom.

Mightier than the sword

This year, the routine was no different. I circled up my classes and proceeded to publicly send each student off into the world with a compliment. I told Alex that his writing was powerful; that he should always have confidence in his voice and his unique perspective on the world and that he should keep his Precise Pilot V5 Rollerball Pen with him at all times. I told Tatiana that what I’d remember about her most this year was when she was so frustrated when trying to finish a unit final after school one day that she stormed out of the classroom in tears…and then came back to finish that final and make herself incredibly proud. I told Victor I’d miss hearing him say, “True” in that inflection that has now become part of my speech, that I’d miss our morning hellos to each other, each reciting the other’s full name (middle names included), and that I’d miss the way he infused his humor into helping run our classroom. I told Jade that I hoped she’d keep writing, that telling the story of her father’s hunger strike at the detention center was important, that she and her mother showed fierce endurance, and that her story mattered. I told Cristian that I hoped he’d keep asking for help when he needed it as he’d learned to do this year because when he took a risk and advocated for himself, he benefited. I told Julio I’d remember him getting hooked on reading this year, reading every gossipy novel he could find and not caring that he was not the typical audience for teen girl drama. I told Tyson that I knew from the narrative he’d written about his grandfather that he truly understands the value of family and that he would grow up to be a good man. I told each of them something to bolster their confidence, validate their experience, strengthen their heart.

When the last period of the day came, my final class came in. We moved to the circle together. I went through the same process, but had to stop when I arrived at the final student, Alyssa. She looked at me and said, “Can you not say anything to me right now? I can’t handle it.” I looked her in the eye, which was all the encouragement we needed to both start crying. We stood up and silently hugged each other. Class ended and other students joined the hug and then filed out of the room.

Later I found two handmade cards taped to my computer screen. One was from Alyssa. It was a card thanking me and included the line, “You made me a much better person and I could never repay you.”

Hand-written card from Alyssa
Hand-written card from Alyssa

Early that day, Alyssa had been honored with the Principal’s Award. Part of what was shared about her was what I’d written: “Alyssa’s enthusiasm for life exceeds most people’s. She is open and honest and incredibly excited by just about everything. Alyssa shares her talents with classmates by supporting them through great questioning, supportive comments, and positivity. In addition, she holds herself to very high standards. Alyssa pushes herself to revise her work, put in great effort, and accept feedback. She attacks things with gusto and generosity, which means she will have a rich, full life and will enhance the lives of those around her.” Unknowingly, we’d both credited each other with enriching those around us. That is the beautiful reciprocal nature of teaching. Being a teacher has made me a better person. Having the honor of impacting young people’s lives has been a humbling and powerful experience.

Cleaning up my classroom this year after students left that last day was different for two reasons. One reason is because I saw Alyssa making her way off campus. She told me that she planned to go home and be sad and eat the Oreos she had purchased the previous evening as part of her wallowing plan. I told her it sounded like a good plan and that Oreos were my favorite. Her face brightened and she asked whether it would be okay to go home and then return with the Oreos for us to eat together while she helped me to clean my classroom. Of course, I said yes.

Fuel for cleaning

As Alyssa organized the classroom library, I read through the student surveys I’d collected the last full week of school. Each year, I seek feedback from my students about my teaching and their experience of being a student in my room. In the responses, I found the following comments:

  • Without this class, I wouldn’t be ready for high school. You made me figure things out on my own and even though I didn’t always like it, I know you helped me to become independent.
  • In this class, I stressed about nothing so I could focus on my studies and learn.
  • Why do you teach? You teach because you’re a believer. You want to challenge us and for us to challenge ourselves and succeed. You believe education is the greatest possession anyone can have, therefore you teach.

The other reason cleaning my classroom that day was different, though I was not allowing myself to acknowledge it then, was because I would not just vacate my classroom for the summer; I wouldn’t be returning to it. Though many days are ridiculously tough and the challenges seems insurmountable and the amount of tedium and numbers of decisions to be made in a single day are mind-numbing, knowing that students are deeply impacted has kept me at it for 11 years. Education is opportunity. Education is freedom. Education is access. Education is power. Education is choice. Education is possibility.

I am so committed to ensuring that every Alex, Tatiana, Victor, Jade, Cristian, Julio, Tyson, Alyssa has exactly what they need to succeed, to be challenged and grow, and to have whatever life they choose that I am willing to step out of the classroom to drive this work at the systems level.

That day, I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. Granted, I don’t like goodbyes, but I also didn’t say that because I will remain connected to my classroom and to my students. That strong connection and commitment will continue to inspire me and focus my work.

I told Alyssa in an email a few weeks later that I would be moving into a new role. She wrote back to me, “Even though I believe you are a very wonderful and inspiring teacher, this job sounds perfect for you. You will make such a huge impact on education in this position. This makes me feel very proud to have been in your class. I’m very happy for you.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better farewell.

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Bumping along the bottom

Married to education

This photograph is from the start of the year, when all the supplies in my classroom were new, reams of paper were new and untouched, waiting for the graphite of freshly sharpened pencils to impress them with their novel ideas and powerful words. This student told me she was married to her education. Such a beautiful idea. Right now, I think too many of my students would say they are indifferent to education. Or they wouldn’t even bother putting together a sentence about it.

We are all definitely in the bottom valley of the school year.

Second semester has started and I see too many students who still don’t write in complete sentences, who don’t read posters or the screen or directions, who are still coming to class in February without supplies. Last Friday, students were to write a short essay proving the theme of a poem. I supported the work by providing examples and sentence starters and gave them a structure for their thesis statement. Somehow, in more than one class, more than one student thought that just writing the first sentence of the essay was enough work. For an entire class period.

As their teacher, it makes me more than a little bit panicky. I can’t help but wonder what life will offer to anyone who puts in minimal effort. And yes, it’s my job to teach reading and writing and speaking and listening and vocabulary, but I also take ownership of my students’ abilities to develop into confident, competent, contributing, happy adults.

I would like all of students to really know that their day in school is for them, that they are capable and can be successful, and that their effort and learning are the most important things. I want to help them do things that are going to make them proud of themselves.

I have tried to multiple approaches to help direct them toward this goal.

Sometimes with boys, I resort to a little bit of tough-love, like when I put Joaquin on blast last week after he’d said he was the best student in class but spent class time pushing up a bicep with his finger to show someone across the room how strong he was. I invited him to demonstrate this to everyone if it was really worth class time. He declined. And apologized for it the next day. But he’s still not working to his potential.

I’ve challenged students by telling them that I hope they struggle with the work. When they groaned at this idea and appeared incensed that I wanted them to struggle, I told them that if the work was too easy, it wouldn’t be worth their time and that the struggles are where they’ll learn. They seemed to find that suspect.

I have tried using positive, descriptive feedback for the fantastic things I am witnessing every day. I offer compliments at the end of class each period and describe scholarly behaviors I witnessed, like when Monica asked each table member to share his/her idea or when Vanna describe his method for trying to answer a question and then asked others what they did. So Monica and Vanna are still doing great things, but too many of their classmates are sitting back doing less than great things.

I’ve threatened or promised calls home. After the third day in a row when Jose didn’t do work for the first 20 minutes of class and I was so frustrated and talked to him about making a call home, Jose told me his brother is at home all day. I asked what his 19 year old brother had told him about education. Jose looked down and told me that his brother said he needed to work hard in school. I asked Jose to give me something better to report to his brother. I told him I wanted to call Felipe when I could say that Jose was working hard, just like his big brother had told him to do.

With my second period class today, I ended the day by sharing my disappointment. I told them that I’m a positive, optimistic person and that I wanted to see all the good things that were going on in the room and be happy about that. But, I told them, I was too distracted by the choices of 10 students in that class who again did very little. I told them that it made me really worried about them and about their futures. I told them that if they only put very little effort into things, they would only get very little back. I told them that their day at school was for them to learn and grow, but they needed to engage with the challenge in order for that to happen.

I don’t like to end class with a little lecture about my disappointment, but I needed to express my concerns and then they needed to head to third period. As they quietly filtered out, Christopher came up to me and sheepishly asked, “Am I one of the ten?”

I gave him honest feedback; that he’s not one of the ten because he puts in effort, but that he doesn’t do so consistently. He nodded and thanked me. And just like that, all of that frustration melted away.

So I’ll be back tomorrow and the next day and the next day trying to figure out new ways to reach my students and help them be persistent and resilient. Because they deserve the best, from me, from themselves, and for their lives.

 

Class Disruption

Students logging into Edmodo to access classroom resources
Students logging into Edmodo (or, as some of my students call it, Facebook for school) to access classroom resources

When I think of the complex task of teaching my students, four things stand out to me as incredible challenges:

A. Data and feedback for all students to push their learning

B. Differentiation (to address low skills, gaps, challenge)

C. Rigorous content instruction aligned to Common Core Standards

D. Engagement and agency for all students

With 145 students with different strengths and needs, this is an overwhelming task. In any given class period, there is just one of me and between 27-31 students. And there are only 55 minutes of class time. Providing all students the instruction they need requires some novel thinking: enter blended learning, the best thing since sliced bread. Really.

Students work together on an assignment on an iPad
Students work together on an assignment loaded into Edmodo

Fortunately for my teaching career and for my students, I was introduced to blended learning last year. I researched, explored, and then experimented in my classroom, learning along with my students. At first, it was simply adding in a digital library for students to use during independent reading. Next was adding in the use an online platform for organizing resources, loading lessons, and providing access to students outside of class time. Students were more than excited about the new technologies that have helped to make their classroom a bit more like the world in which we all operate now. Also, student engagement and excitement seems to rise exponentially when you say, “Yes, you can use your phone.”

Students showing the new education apps they've put on their smarphones
Students showing the new education apps they’ve put on their smartphones

The informal results were amazing. Through Edmodo, I chatted with Karla on a Saturday afternoon about an upcoming assignment. In class, she preferred to read, maintaining a high F average for the class for nearly the entire year, and opted to skip most assignments. However, when she had the resources with her and could contact me on her own time, she engaged with classwork in a way I hadn’t seen before. I was happy to send her messages with ideas specific to the choices she’d made with the writing assignment. She was thankful for the help and has come back to visit this year, telling her younger brother that I’m the best teacher ever and she’ll hurt him if he ever disrespects me. While I don’t condone violence nor corroborate her assessment of me, I do take to heart that Karla, a student for whom school wasn’t working well, feels a strong connection with a teacher and with school.

Some blended learning models probably won’t work well with my population of students: teaching at a school with high poverty means many do not have computers and/or internet at home. But digital resources change the way I can deliver instruction inside and outside of the classroom. I’ve been thrilled about being able to increase the quality and quantity of what I offer to students and to maximize instruction (primarily through shifting my instruction from whole group lessons to small group instruction) so that all students are getting what they need and are empowered to take a more active role in their own learning.

A student reads an article from Newsela on his smartphone
A student reads an article from Newsela on his smartphone

Case in point: student use of Newsela. Newsela is “Unlimited access to hundreds of leveled news articles and Common Core–aligned quizzes, with new articles every day.” I signed up for this resource after learning about it this fall. I created groups for all of my classes and my students created accounts. I assign articles for my students to read and they read them at a level of their choosing. At the end, they take a quiz. The data is catalogued immediately in my account and comes to me in a summary email each week.

Newsela results in a summary email to me
Newsela results in a summary email

What is most exciting is how engaged my students are with it. Students receive immediate feedback when they take the quiz at the end of an assigned article. Without my prompting, they share results with each other and have figured out how to retake a quiz by changing the lexile (or reading level). When I look at their results, I can see not only their test score, but at which level they read and tested and which Common Core Standards they’re mastering.

This week, I overheard a student ask his peer, who had selected the highest lexile level on her Newsela article, “Why are you reading at that level?” She replied, “Because I want to feel smart reading all those big words.” So, not only would we both get immediate feedback about her results while this student worked to master Common Core Standards, the reading was differentiated and she chose a real challenge to push herself.

Yep, best thing since sliced bread!

Code word

It’s good to have a code word. One of mine is “dude.” This is what I call my students when I am beyond frustrated with them. Generally, I try to keep my tone and facial expressions neutral or positive, so I need to clue my students into my disappointment with that one syllable term. It works well.

Last week, I think I used it like this:

“Dude, what are you doing?”

I called attention to a student who was not doing anything remotely connected to on-task class work. Immediately, other students pointed out, “She’s mad. She called him ‘dude’.” Realizing the gravity of the situation, Mukhtar snapped to attention and corrected his behavior by actually doing class work.

I don’t know if I was mad, but I would say I have entered the low-point of the following graph:

Screenshot 2013-11-20 19.04.56

While this graph references the attitudes of first year teachers, I think these phases apply to nearly all teachers. The cyclical nature of the work means that there are low-points. And ours coincide with the darkest days of the year. Disillusionment was palpable last week. Poor Mukhtar may have been called ‘dude’ no fewer than four times.

Luckily, some of the tough love is paying off. Sometimes I feel I have to be really tough on my students because I know what they’re up against. Students at my school, ~90% of whom receive free or reduced lunch, come into school already well behind their grade-level peers. This year we pilot a new state test and it is HARD. Hard as in I, a college graduate who likes a challenge, had trouble with it. So when students groaned when I passed out a one-page story this week, I let them have it. I told them that while I was frustrated, the real concern was the fact that they were defeating themselves before a completely do-able task, and if this was as much grit as they could show, I wasn’t worried about them just in school, but in their whole darn lives.

I probably didn’t say darn and maybe it wasn’t nice to lay it on so thick, but I meant it. After that, I dismissed them on to the rest of their day.

One student, Quentin, missed the impromptu lecture because his behavior had been too disruptive. When he asked about the assignment the following day, Mukhtar told him, “We’re supposed to read this story. And if we don’t, she’s worried about us, not just in school but in our whole lives.”

I must have looked amazed because he smiled at me and said, “See? I listened. I heard what you said.”

That might be why having a code word pays off. Dude knows when to pay attention. It kind of made my week. Oh, and then I saw this outside today:

photo (1)

That beautiful scene on my school campus and Mukhtar really hearing me might get me through the whole month of November.

Data, student led conferences, and small group instruction

Attachment-1

One of the most daunting things about teaching 8th grade English Language Arts (aside from spending 6 hours daily with 12 and 13 year olds) is that I have to know 135 students as readers and writers and move them all forward. I am tasked with teaching them grade-level content in reading, writing, vocabulary, speaking and listening, critical thinking, tech-literacy and general “how to be a positive, productive person and play well with others.” In addition, I have to know where they are, know every students’ specific struggles, strengths, and which instructional strategies will have the greatest impact for them.

What could be more daunting than this? Telling their parents about it.

My school hosts student led conferences several times a year. I prepare my students by having them select their best work to show their families. I post directions for them on the board, instructing them to lead their conferences and show their families the hard work and smart thinking they’re doing. I step to the side and force them to take charge. I love watching these young scholars explain their work and make their parents swell with pride. I love hearing more than one conference happening in my room at a time in more than one language. Students tell about their classwork in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer, etc. Hearing my students explain our routines and procedures lets me know that those parameters give them the support they need to take risks and learn. When my students have completed their presentations, it is inevitable that every parent wants to know from me how their student can earn an A, whether he/she is being good in class, and exactly what I will be doing for their child this school year.

Happily, I can tell them that. I collect multiple pieces of data on all of my students. I can tell their families that based on the data (national test data on reading content, state test data on reading and writing, classroom assessments for reading and writing, one-on-one reading assessments, anecdotal observations regarding affective behaviors, etc.), I will provide X, Y, and Z supports/challenges/interventions for their children.

I told Gustavo’s family that he and four other students must pursue the Honors Option in class and will be required to read a variety of challenging texts and engage in academic discussions about them in order to live up to their potential this year. Gustavo’s family nodded in agreement with this plan.

I told Melanie’s family that their dream of her achieving an A in class for the year was not likely attainable because while she works hard and will earn high marks for her excellent student behaviors, the grade-level assessments may prove too difficult as she still reads at a 5th grade level and writes at a 4th grade level. I told them that we would make progress this year but that she might not reach grade level until the following year. I would support her by having her read from a digital library this year to find interesting, appropriate level text and she would be supported with sentence frames and organizational tools for writing assignments. While this was tough news to deliver and probably tougher news to hear, Melanie’s family assented to the plan without complaint, most likely knowing that while it didn’t feel good, it was an honest assessment and a strong plan.

When Christopher’s dad told me in his limited English that he thought Christopher read well but didn’t comprehend what he read, I was able to pull out an assessment I’d done with Christopher that showed the same thing; his accuracy when he read was at 97% or 98% while he showed limited or unsatisfactory comprehension. I told his father that because of that, Christopher would be working with me in small group for 45 minutes a week, focusing on comprehension. His father seemed to sigh with relief to know that yes, he was right, and yes, we’d work on it deliberately this year.

I love conferences because I get a chance to see my students with their families. I see from which parent they get their curly/straight/coarse hair and their broad/dimpled/infectious smiles and I see what capable big siblings or picked-on little siblings they are. I see how much it matters to their families that I know them all and teach them all, meeting them where they are and pushing them to where they need to be. I don’t think there could be greater inspiration than that. Even though it’s daunting, I’m up for it.

Teaching Twain

20131003-140736.jpg

I’m teaching my 8th grade students to read and understand the writings of Mark Twain.

In case you haven’t tried using a book written in the 1870s with a collection of modern teenagers whose reading levels range from 3rd to 10th grade with most falling somewhere in the 5th/6th grade range and whose interests range from cell phones to video games and not to fishing holes and barefoot summers in Mississippi, it’s a challenge.

We began by exploring the historical context and cultural impact of Mark Twain, as well as examining art work for his books in order to build some background knowledge and forge a bridge toward understanding his complex writing. But before page four in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we’d encountered at least 19 challenging vocabulary words. I instructed my students to follow along with me as I read with this caveat: “There will be words you don’t understand, so let those go. Hang on to things you can understand.”

With expressive reading, frequent stops, and deliberate questioning, my students are understanding and enjoying reading Mark Twain, I swear.

Evidence to prove this:

1. Some of the boys in my class have taken to insulting each other by quoting the book. Sure, I should warn them about threats and one colleague even suggested that I write a referral for a student, but hearing a student tell another that if he doesn’t let go of his chair, he’s going to “steal sheep” is music to this educator’s twisted ears. They keep threatening to lick each other and tan each other, and I have little interest in correcting their behavior because I am celebrating that they are adapting the language as their own. That the comments are violent and that they’ve made them vaguely sexual concerns me only a little because, hey, I know my audience.

2. This muffin + quote, which were presented to me by one of my superstar students this morning.

20131003-142717.jpg[It should read …”telling their unhappiness to the unhappy.”]

Reasons to do this:

1. My students have exposure to a great American author and are having success reading a challenging classic. I have heard more than one student say, “Oh, I’ve heard of Mark Twain. Now I know who he is.”

2. In one class period, students predicted that Tom would likely use reverse psychology to trick his friends into painting the fence for him. They were excited to see that they were correct and had the experience of reading this seminal piece of writing. In this same class period, a student correctly posited, defined, and then explained that he believed Mark Twain broke the 4th wall when he wrote, “If he [Tom] had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book…” which increased the knowledge and pushed the thinking of the entire class.

3. More unexpected gifts, like muffins with quotes, insults derived from rich literature, and sophisticated comments regarding author’s craft.

Finding the silver lining

Some moments in teaching are harder than others.

photo (2)

Last week, the toughest moment was when I noticed that as I was pointing to something on the board, there was a red dot on my hand. It was from a laser pointer which meant that what I needed to do was find the culprit (quickly, stealthily) from among the 28 students in class, take the laser pointer, and make the boy in possession of it feel so bad that he wouldn’t do it again for at least a week…but would still do classwork that day. Luckily, an entire table of students admitted their involvement in the transgression immediately, leaving me feeling supremely competent and accomplished in my stellar classroom management skills.

But today there were too many tough moments where my skills failed me. In 3rd period, a student was so upset with me for enforcing the rules that she told me she wouldn’t do any work and put her face directly down on her desk. I let this continue for nearly 20 minutes before I exacted a consequence. I had thought I could entice her into cooperating and engaging. I was wrong on that count. However, the silver lining was that at the end of the day, we had a chance to debrief. I asked her, “Who does it hurt when you refuse to do any work?” She smiled at me as she lied, “You?” We were able to connect and recommit to working hard for each other, despite all the challenge and frustration it will surely bring.

The worst was that today in 4th period, one student bucked so hard against my refusal to let him opt out that we had a small power struggle. It wasn’t pretty and I wish I could go back and do it again. This student was angry that I wouldn’t let him skip doing hard work and he responded with cutting comments. I should have found a way for him to save face and for me to remain in charge of my classroom (as happened last week, when I had to get firm with a student and had the fortune to hear another comment to himself, “So she can get strict…that’s good to know.”). Instead, things were not quick nor painless, and I will most likely replay that moment for another few hours before I go to sleep tonight.

Fortunately, we get to start again tomorrow. I get to spend a whole school year with this student and will have many more chances to convince him that yes, he is smart and while it matters, it’s more important/valuable/impressive that he’s willing to work hard and that he’s willing to put himself and his thinking out there. Because we learn the most when we take risks and make mistakes.

So, the silver lining is that we made mistakes today. And we have the delightfully painful opportunity to learn from them.