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Education Matters: What is the purpose of your leadership?

When we think of leaders, we tend to think of those who stand up in front of crowds. Those who guide individuals within a certain profession. But, what is that individual’s purpose in leadership?

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We might be naive to believe every leader has a best, professional interest in mind. Certain leadership positions pay well. Some people strive to reach high levels (and I would still argue, for what purpose). Some are simply good speakers who attract audiences.

When I began teaching, I taught learners who struggle with reading comprehension. Many of my learners were sitting in high school classrooms, yet reading at an elementary level. Some of these students had been lost in “the system,” some were focused more on athletics rather than education, some had been socially promoted, but all were struggling and feeling insecure about their abilities. This insecurity surfaced through a multitude of prior experiences, including negative educational experiences, unsupportive teachers, peer pressure, socio-economic challenges, and repetition of the phrase “I’m not good at reading.” These students are often not seen as “leaders” among their peers.

Today, I teach “the top of the class.” My students are AP Literature and Composition students. For the past three years, I’ve taught all honors and AP level courses. Prior to that, I taught primarily co-taught and “regular” English courses. My current students strive for top numbers. 100% validates them, where 89% is failing for them. They need to be in the top 5% of their class. They are the “leaders” among their peers. They are involved in several organizations and extracurriculars.

But at what cost? What is their purpose in choosing this sort of leadership?

Here is the cost I’ve observed over the past few years:

  • overwhelming stress
  • apathy
  • regurgitation of learning rather than synthesis
  • competition rather than collaboration
  • reduced empathy
  • going through the motions
  • entitlement based on completing tasks (not meeting academic expectations)
  • reduced creativity
  • inability to problem-solve
  • fear of participating in student-directed conversation
  • skipping class/school to avoid a test or work submission on the due date (not prepared)
  • inability to prioritize and manage time
  • inability to focus on what is important (too many things on their mind)
  • little to no intrinsic motivation
  • inability to strengthen areas of passion or interest because they are spread too thin with all involvements
  • little to no sleep=more stress=more irritability=more illness

Their purpose:

  • meet expectations (personal, parent, teacher, society)
    • the school expectation is to demonstrate ability to effectively practice and apply skill-based learning to multiple and within varying environments
  • go to great colleges
    • this seems to be based on cultural symbolism rather than actual ranking in most cases
  • …???

Where is the passion? Where is the growth? Where is the personal responsibility? 

If these students are the leaders among their peers, why would a struggling student aspire to be among the “select honors” students? The honors students are stressed, overwhelmed, emotional. The struggling student needs a responsive supporter, a collaborative partner, and perhaps a mentor teacher.

Similarly, why would colleagues wish to be leaders if leaders show little to no passion for what they do? What is the purpose of becoming a leader? Is it the pay? The prestige? The expectation? Leaders are often viewed as those who are left to “take over” what bosses do not wish to do. But what if the leader is truly a bridge between colleagues and bosses? What if leaders took on responsibilities based on their intrinsic motivation and chose to lead as a method of collaboration rather than competition? Leaders value working with all individuals as a way to learn, grow, and achieve.

Leaders work among colleagues, not above.

Leaders practice the lessons they disseminate. Leaders listen on a professional and personal level. They have empathy. They demonstrate problem-solving and expect the same from those around them. They take on responsibility because it is all about the passion and purpose of the cause, not because “everyone needs to jump through hoops.” They seek the positive within all situations and embrace change, all the while showing that change does not imply ease or smooth sailing. Leaders collaborate and share effectively. They ask for feedback and truly ponder what that feedback implies. They reflect and reflect and reflect. They value and validate everyone’s experience.

So, just because others seem to be in leadership roles, that does not necessarily mean they are leaders. What is their purpose? Is it to elevate themselves to a higher platform or is it to elevate everyone? I’m not suggesting that only one certain leadership way is correct. But, I am an idealist. It is my hope that we (human beings) all work for the betterment of our community, society, and world, and, for me, working toward that means that I’m rising to my own expectations while helping other meet their own.

PS…never under-estimate the value and worth of others. People break stereotypes and generalizations every day- both positively and negatively. If we believe in each other, amazingly positive things can happen.

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Education Matters: First Moments in Teaching

My teaching career began back in 2000. I taught first grade that first year. Florida was in critical shortage, and so, my English degree self took on the challenge of obtaining my temporary teaching certification. While that school year was not the most favorable experience, it truly allowed me to learn and grow as a professional. I almost believe that everyone should be required to teach at every level of schooling.

That first year was extremely stressful. I went into teaching first grade thinking how hard can this be? I clearly know more than these kids! But, that was not the greatest challenge.

I began teaching at one school in August. Prior to the first day of class, I was asked to come to the principal’s office. There I met with two other brand new first grade teachers. Because Hillsborough County School District is so large, we all were apparently hired on the very same day, at the same time. The principal looked at the three of us and told us this news. She then stated that there was a “unit loss” at our school. One of us would have to leave since there were not enough students who registered for that building. Fortunately, we would be placed in the “pool” of teachers to be assigned to buildings with a “unit gain.” The one teacher was a newly wed and the other, a single mother. They needed security. I was merely a 21 year old, living on my own, who could bounce back from this situation. I offered to go in the “pool.”

A blessing in disguise. There I sat, in a library in downtown Tampa somewhere. I received a paper that listed all the schools with a unit gain. From there, based on seniority, our names were called. I marked schools off the list as they became claimed by others in the room. Then, I heard my name. In a scramble, I took a school that was only a fifteen minute drive from my apartment.

This process took until the first week of October. When I reported to my new school, I was showed to a trailer. I was in the last trailer, furthest from the building, in the fourth and final row of trailers. My trailer was fairly spacious and had two large cabinets for storage. The carpet was a dingy blue, the cabinets were brown. There was no bathroom, the main school building would need to be used for that. In a school where 93% of the population is Hispanic, I learned that my 20 students would come from the other four first grade classrooms. Those teachers chose five students each who would then become members of my class. In October, after almost two months of school, those teachers knew who they wanted to place with me.

I knew it was my fate. I had no seniority. I was a first year teacher. I had no experience from education courses while in college. I did major in education my first semester, but after my professor asked me “How do you expect to teach if you can’t learn?” I quickly dropped that major and never looked back. She was aware of my learning disability, and she didn’t think I’d ever be able to teach.

Those students became my family. We worked together to problem solve in our situation. I obtained books and furniture from the the education depository downtown. I checked books out from the public library. I was not provided with any resources from the school as they were not anticipating a unit gain. Because I was far removed from the other first grade teachers, and the building, I worked independently. Some parents thought I was just a babysitter, others couldn’t communicate with me due to the language barrier. No matter what, I knew those children had been rejected by their other teacher, and I wasn’t going to allow them to feel that rejection. They would not feel the failure that I had felt because of having a learning disability and because of my professor.

I learned about culture that year. Most of my children were late to school. They came from hard-working migrant families who did field work prior to sunrise to avoid the oppressing Florida heat. I learned about the foster system. Three of my students were living in a foster home. One student lived with her grandmother. I learned this information after she stole my pencils, pens, hole puncher, notebook, glue, markers, and tape off my desk. When I called home about the missing items, her grandmother told me how much she loves school now and wants to become a teacher. Grandma saw that the little girl had brought home all the items and apologized that they were taken. I never did see those things again, but for some reason, it was okay. I did speak with the little girl about stealing, and we decided that if she needed or wanted something, she would ask first.

We used the world around us to learn. We “read the walls” of the room, where I strung student work and fun posters. Students would watch PBS upon arrival to my room, and once everyone was there, we would discuss what they learned from Clifford the Big Red Dog or Curious George. Then, we would read a book about them. I’d lead them through questioning the story, vocabulary exploration, rhyme patterns, describing pictures. I sat in on other teacher’s classes and observed what they would do. I’d make a list of things to implement into my teaching. There were several bomb threats for the county that year. Every school would evacuate. I created a “bomb bag” for lack of better terminology. I packed books, snacks, crayons, pencils, coloring pages, and we would sit out back on the grass and continue to learn together. The students never complained.

That year taught me so much about cultures, education, perseverance, learners, resiliency, and endurance. I gave all that I had that year. So much so, I did not teach the following year. I needed a break. I loved those kids, and I often wonder what happened to them after that year. My hope is that I was able to instill a love of learning for them, as they have done that for me. It is because of them that I’m a motivated teacher today and a life-long learner.

By the way: Those students, who had been labeled to fail first grade, all made it to second grade, except for the one who moved into a class for autistic children. I’m proud of how hard they worked that year. They closed the gap from not being able to recognize some letters, to reading effectively using various strategies. 🙂

Education Matters: Student Driven Conversation

Once I set the standards and expectations for discussions, I really try to sit back from the students and allow them to drive the conversation. I usually do this by running a discussion at the beginning of a unit. From there, we discuss higher order thinking and deeper analysis of our literature.

At the start of a class where discussion will take place, I provide them 10-15 minutes to plan out their discussion points. Now, this works well because I teach AP Literature. They come in and review their notes from all companion texts and the unit’s major work. They then can highlight the parts they wish to discuss based on their thoughts and feelings for the day. They do read in preparation, though. For my 9th graders, I ask that they complete a homework discussion planning worksheet the night prior to the whole class conversation.

There is a beauty that evolves from student driven conversation. They have this realization once they can trust each other. They take conversational risks. They begin to dig deeper. The occasional silence used to get to me. I’d want to interject, and many times I did, but that silence forces them to continue to dig. That is when the real thought-provoking conversation begins. They want to overcome the silence, so they change tracks- illuminate new ideas or possibilities.

I used to believe I needed to guide the conversation. Now, I’m happy to model questioning without spending much time having all the answers. I want my questions to provoke thoughts and create more inquisitive students.

If they begin to struggle, I always ask them- what is the universal idea the author is presenting? What is being said about us, the reader, the society member, the human race?

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The depth of student thought can be amazing if we give them time, space, and practice to find their voice.

Education Matters: State of Exhaustion

Ever feel like this?

I grew up and attended school, K-12 in Maryland, and every spring there was a spring break. In Florida, spring break came early because school ended in late May- a teacher’s dream come true! In Massachusetts, there was a February break and a spring break, which, as a teacher, I would have been willing to just work through February break and get out of school prior to late June. But, in Pennsylvania, there are no spring breaks. A four day weekend, of which one of those days can be a make-up snow day, is simply not enough of a break.

I know, I know. Teachers have the easiest job in the world. Summers off. A contractual day that ends somewhere around 3:30pm. But, as a teacher of seniors, and as a high school educator for the past 13 years, I can attest to the following:

  • Seniors need a break– after the stress from college applications, college visits, scholarship deadlines, parent vs. student arguments, pressures of leaving home, funding education, leaving friends, building boundaries, independence= mental exhaustion
    • PS…many of these students confide with tears, anger, and frustration, in their teachers
      • Total letters of recommendation I’ve written this year: 82
      • Total scholarship letters of recommendation I’ve written this year: 17
      • Total number of scholarship essays edited this year: 67
  • All students need a break!-By spring, standardized testing stress is high. Students and teachers have been learning curriculum and practicing skills
    • Students feel the pressure to succeed
    • Teachers feel the pressure to succeed
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  • The last break was the Christmas break in December. This time is full of joy or anguish, depending on the child and family. There is often much running around, or loneliness…or even both. The, in my school, students return to be thrust into final exams (for the semester- block scheduling), and into a new semester of brand new classes and teachers.
  • Teachers need a break– Teachers have parent-teacher conferences leading into Thanksgiving and implement learning plans for struggling students between Thanksgiving and Christmas
  • Most teachers grade work and continue to plan over Christmas break while hosting family or traveling
  • Upon return from Christmas, teachers gear up for final skill practice and final exams
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  • An argument for rest and sleep!
    • If we perform better when well-rested, why wouldn’t we want to rest prior to standardized assessments- SAT, AP exams, state mandated assessments, final exams???
  • Rest between practice reinforces the need for students to retain and practice their application of skills- thus, placing more emphasis on skill practice rather than regurgitation
  • Trudging through education does not help with academic progress, it deters it. Students begin to dread coming to school- some become habitually late or skip school altogether.

Here are sample checklists of the responsibilities of juniors and seniors in high school:

Providing a designated week off for everyone in education places value on the health and well-being of all involved. I know there is an argument from parents on finding someone to watch younger children. Perhaps schools could parter with local community organizations to provide fun “summer camp” style programs for children that week for a small fee. Perhaps families could plan their vacations during that spring break rather than the educational trips throughout the school year. What is the value of the mental health of others?

As for my students, I promise:

  • To be aware of when you need a break
    • I will provide a reduction in homework or no homework at all
    • We will work collaboratively so that I may assess your needs and reduce your independent workload
  • We will talk. We will discuss our literature, our lives, our sanity…or insanity. We will begin each class as a new day with new experiences.
  • I will always value you, your thoughts, your perspectives.
  • I will run.
    • I will run my frustrations away.
    • I will run to keep my mind straight.
    • I will run to review reflect upon my lessons.
    • I will run to keep myself healthy.
  • I will continue to encourage you to do your very best.
    • I will reassure you that you will bounce back from adversity.
    • I will reassure you that all seniors struggle at this time of the year.
    • I will reassure you that your parents are well-intentioned.
    • I will reassure you that you can fulfill your dreams with goals and hard work.
  • that once you are a student in my class, you are my kid forever…

Education Matters- Student Interests

Dear Students,

Never doubt your voice. You are important. You do matter. I would love to see what could happen in education if students shared their thoughts, ideas, and innovations. Learning only really occurs if, 1. You are intrinsically motivated, or 2. If you falter.

Other students are not smarter than you! Those schools are no better or worse off than yours. Imagine a world where you were the problem-solver. I want you to find your voice and explore what can happen. Of course, I want you to “use your powers for good, not evil.”

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https://www.dosomething.org/us

How can we achieve a better learning environment that becomes a better professional and societal environment? What suggestions do you have to offer? Have you inquired about what other students your age are doing? Have you challenged yourself to make a difference in your school, your community, your world? If not, what is stopping you. If so, share your thoughts and messages.

And don’t forget to provide us adults with feedback! We need to know what is going on in the student mind. Provide a balance- negative, positive, and solution.

  • What will help you learn?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • How can you help others be successful?
  • What can teachers do to better meet your needs?
  • Do you reflect on your learnings? What has it taught you about yourself?
  • In what moments have you found yourself having profound learning experiences?
  • What do you anticipate your needs will be after you graduate from high school? College?

Share what is done well so your schools can continue to strive for the betterment of all stakeholders in education.

Sincerely,

TeacherGirl03

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A Fresh Start

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It’s weird to be in late March and suggest it is time for a fresh start. This, especially, given the school year is drawing to an end. But knowing that things are already mounting for next school year, I cannot help but begin to delegate my other responsibilities now.

This year has been…complicated…as my students would say. I’ve been pulled in every professional direction possible. And while I only really have one prep this year, I’m a member of at least six different committees. I’m in meetings at least three days a week. My graduate classes for my second master’s degree are inspirational, all the while, my daily work is causing me to burn out.

Things need to change. I need to start today. It is the only way to preserve myself.

Life-changing Literature

I’m so passionate about helping others. Perhaps that is why I became and educator. When I was a child, I struggled with learning. Often times I was dismissed by my own teachers because of my academic challenges. Being told that I will never be able to go to college or become much in life caused a deep-seeded depression. My mom was the one to turn things around and teach me to use teacher criticism as my motivation. My goal: Prove them all wrong.

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 8.26.32 AMAnd that is what I’ve done. Each day, I set out to be the absolute best teacher I can be. Many days it is exhausting, but absolutely fulfilling. Sure, I’ve already proven myself. I completed undergrad. I obtained my master’s degree. I’m even working on my second master’s while teaching full time and raising two beautiful boys. But I’m not finished yet.

I want to leave an impact, a legacy of some kind. When I read all these remarkable author’s through my AP Lit program, I can’t help but to wonder how I can change the world. I want to help others acknowledge the weaknesses of our society and strive to make positive change. For the remainder of this semester, I will work to make positive change in my community.

 

Hybrid, flipped, blended, inspired

Last night I participated in the Genius Hour discussion on Twitter through #whatisschool. This is my go to PLN. The group is innovative and unassuming. We have educators at every level speaking freely about what works and what motivates and inspires students while holding students accountable for learning.

This weekly chat motivates me to stay connected to new developments in education. It also inspires me to develop new lessons and activities for the classroom.

Other teachers often ask me how I come up with my ideas and how I find time to do what I do. Well, right now I’m on the bike at the gym writing this post. I have one of my own children in Vacation Bible School and the other in gym daycare. I also Twitter stalk…actively.

So, here is my cheat sheet for staying clever and in tune:

Follow/participate in the following Twitter chats:
#whatisschool
#hybridlearning
#flippedlearning
#blendedlearning

Click on the blog posts under those searches to discover what other teachers are do. Adapt their lessons based on what you need.

I’m also in love with Zite. I actively retweet findings in there that deal with educational research, technology in education, and inspirational education.

Share your voice! Educators need to have their voices heard. We need to help each other through these changes in education. Many of us have been on classroom islands up until this point. If you aren’t comfortable opening your classroom door, at least open a Twitter account and reach out online. Share what works. Share the concerns. Share the needs. Let the folks outside our schools better understand what is happening.

Our goal, help every child succeed in life.
Make it your mission go spend at least 5 minutes a few times a week lurking online conducting your own educational research for the upcoming year!

#GeniusHour: Reflection and Tips

Tonight #whatisschool will host a Twitter chat about #geniushour at 7pm EST. I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect back over and share my three years of facilitating #20Time, also known as #GeniusHour, in my own high school English classroom.

TRUTHS (my own):
This process can be an amazing experience, even when it isn’t.

The first semester I attempted 20 Time, I had no idea what I was doing. That actually was part of the fun of it. I was upfront and honest with my honors students about that. By the time we started, we already had a good relationship. I let them know that I, too, would pursue a passion during 20 Time as I would never ask them to do something that I’m not willing to do.

Our goal: identify a passion and spend one block period a week (fun Friday!) determining a way to use that passion to better our local community.

I was extremely impressed with the student efforts. We filled food pantries, learned more about Autism and Celiac Disease, and sent cards to kids in hospitals.

I was on a natural high after that semester. Part of me felt as though I had mastered the concept of genius hour.

Spring semester brought me my regular English students. Many were not as engaged in the process as the previous semester. I felt like I was fighting a losing battle after week one.

Our goal: identify a passion that you can pursue as a career OR conduct research on how to get into college for something you like to do.

Admittedly, we abandoned the work after four weeks. The room was overpowered by negativity from students who simply didn’t want to be in English class.

It wasn’t until course reflection time that I learned how many students appreciated the process. It looked and sounded completely different for this class in comparison to honors, but it was just as important, if not more so, to many of these students. #TeacherFail

Over the years I have been asked what could other grades and subjects do for Genius Hour. While I did begin with freshmen, I have done this work with my juniors as well.

English Ideas:
Freshmen- identify your passion and research ways you can use your passion to better our local community. Then do it!

Sophomores- same as above, but take a global approach. How can you use your passion to better or help another country or our world in general. Then do it!

Juniors- my students researched college, career and military opportunities as they, themselves, will be a responsible member of our society soon enough. They called recruiters and learned what courses, GPA, and experience they would need to pursue their future dreams.

Seniors- pay it forward campaign- what legacy do you wish to leave? In what ways did you need help? How can you change the district’s educational system to help others coming up through?

Phone calls- make students call a professional who currently does what they hope to do. I was amazed at the anxiety students have with making a phone call. They are so used to texting and emailing. We wrote scripts and practiced leaving messages (with area code- some did not realize this, too, is important!).

Pitch Day- The most important day of all
The idea of Genius Hour is to put students through a process of learning in which there is inquiry, discovery, discomfort (in a safe environment), failure, critical thinking, and problem solving. All of which will happen naturally within the process. It is the process, not the end product, that is most important. Sure. Products can be amazing and fun, but, the student growth and development is the goal. We want to make lifelong, intrinsic learners who can overcome adversity in life.

Don’t skip Pitch Day. Have students invite their families (my students make an iMovie that showcases their work and our classroom. Invite administration. Students simply pitch their idea and share their memorable moments from the process- good and bad. Pitch day holds students accountable for completing the work properly. Parents love to see their high school student’s work!

My juniors- had a different kind of pitch day. We invited local college recruiters, military recruiters, and the Peace Corps to come to our school one morning. My students then interviewed the recruiters to better understand what needs to be done over the next year to prepare for life after high school.

Other subjects and ideas:
Identify a local community facility that is planning to renovate. Work with math, art, and various other courses to pitch plans and measurements for the work. If the idea is accepted, do it! Real world experience is key!

Adopt a community and collaborate with English, science and math to assess the needs of that community. Whether in the US or abroad, strategize ways the classes can use current resources and/or fundraise to help that community. This approach might also include students teaching others in that community course skills (master level of instruction).

Okay, I’ve gone on far too long for a blog post. If you are interested in working with me or talking more, email or Tweet TeacherGirl03!
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