Thursday, September 26, 2013

Feeling Overwhelmed

My school system has a new hybrid block schedule in place this year.  Honestly, no one is a fan.  It's complex and weird-- some strange combination of a 7-period day and a 4x4 block.  Part of the reason for the change is that students now take eight classes per year, rather than seven, so they have more opportunities for credits.  Another reason is that teachers, who previously had to be paid extra to teach more than five classes, are now all teaching six with no extra pay.  

Who doesn't love a list?

  • I adore my 90-minute classes, because I feel like we're accomplishing so much. 
  • I adore my kids this year.  Most of them are super sweet and very fun.
  • I adore that it's Homecoming Week, and I work with an incredible group of faculty and staff who know how to have fun and be professional.  (More on that later.) 
  • I adore that I work with a principal who respects us and gives us room to do our jobs.

  • I don't adore that I have double the planning, but not double the planning time
  • I don't adore not knowing all my kids until second semester.  
  • I don't adore the massive amount of grading I'm experiencing from my block classes.
  • I don't adore that I feel nearly as busy and overwhelmed as I did while completing my National Board Portfolio last year.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with a group of teachers from lots of surrounding counties.  We were asked to rate our school year on a scale from 0-10.  I thought about it, and maybe I'm a glass-half-full kind of person, but I decided my school year deserved a B, so I went with 9.  Let me tell you, it has been much worse before.  Aside from one person, no one else in the room gave their year above a 6.5.  Huh!  Maybe I'm not the only one feeling overworked and underpaid.  Sometimes it's just nice to commiserate, huh?  

Remembering my blessings this morning-- my kids are fine; my classroom is my own and is full of learning and love; my bills are paid even if my wallet's not full.  It's not so bad, after all.
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Monday, September 23, 2013

Monday Mash-Up: The Real World

Happy Monday morning!  I am thrilled to call my first linky, Better Together, a success.  I needed help, so I reached out to my blogging friends for advice.  I love collaborating with other great teachers, and I can't express enough how much better we all are together.  I had four great entries- check them out!

1. "Collaboration=Creative Genius," from Katie @ The Oatmeal Chronicles contributed lots of great ideas: paired work, tiered questions, extension cards, and "switching students" in co-teaching settings.  I am especially excited about the extension cards, and am working on a set of those for my room today!  (And I used her narrative-songs-for-plot-structure lesson plan Thursday with great success!)

2. "Teaching Tuesday: Classroom Management," from Elizabeth @ E, Myself, and I discusses mutual respect, tough love, and being a team player.  My favorite part?  

"If you call me a b*^#@$, I'm giving you detention and calling home.  Every.time.  Period.  BUT, I'm not going to cause a scene about it, and I'm NOT going to hold a grudge.  The next morning, I will greet you with a smile.  When it's done, it's done."

3. "Better Together," from Suzanne @ The Curly Classroom offers some great advice for co-teaching, which I'm new to this year.  While I feel like my co-teacher and I are off to a great start, I definitely hope to start planning more together.

4.  "Stayin' Alive: My Classroom Management Survival Strategy," from Joanna @ Daydreaming in Maths has some good classroom management tips for surviving with those "trouble-makers."  I love the bit about spending quality time with them and getting to know their "why."  Plus, it's kind of awesome that Joanna is from Cape Town, South Africa!  

Keep your eyes peeled for my next Better Together Link-Up in October.  I'd love suggestions for topics!

Now, on to some of my other favorites from around the blogosphere this week-- which all seem to revolve around the real world.

"The 'Real World,'" from Josh @ Stump the Teacher is a deep inspection of what those two words mean.  Every teacher likes to think that s/he is preparing students for the real world, but what exactly does that entail?  We may not realize it, but many kids are already living in a world that's all too real.  

"Why I'll Let My Kids Get Teased at School," by Adriana Velez for The Stir is another one of those for-moms-but-could-definitely-be-for-teachers-too posts.  I have said for a long time that rather than constantly harping about eliminating bullying, we should spend as much time teaching our kids to develop a thick skin and react appropriately.  There will always be bullies in the real world, even in adulthood.  We choose to give them power over us-- or not.  Please know, I'm not in the business of ignoring bullying.  I just really like what Adriana has to say about the importance of letting kids learn to deal.

Similarly, "Have We Made Things TOO Easy for Today's Kids?" by Bill Ferriter for the Center for Teaching Quality focuses on the fact that teachers are working much harder than students in many classrooms today.  He compares modern classrooms to the ones he attended as a student, and the results are obvious.  Again, I'm not calling for a return to teachers who do nothing but lecture and dole out classroom spankings, but I do think it's time we give kids some responsibility.  After all, isn't that our job-- to prepare them for the real world?

Finally, a look into a classroom where kids are learning in the real world:  Katie @ A Hundred Affections has put together "A Crazy Idea That Just Might Not Be So Crazy After All."  In order to help her students connect to their American literature studies in a real way, Katie has devised a heartwarming, beautiful, educational service-learning project for her students.  They'll be writing a memorial book, creating a memorial garden, and even marching with The Wounded Warrior Project.  This is the kind of service-learning kids will never forget, and I can't think of a way to better connect classroom learning with the real world.  Major kudos!

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Midweek Confessions: Playing Dumb

I'm linking up with E, Myself, and I for this week's Midweek Confessions.  Here goes . . . 

I'm blonde.  I'm a woman.  This makes me neither stupid, nor a bad driver, nor mathematically inept.  Why, then, do we sometimes perpetuate stereotypes about ourselves?  

I hate math.  Hate it.  In fact, I detest it so much that I celebrated like it was my birfday when I realized I had finished my last-ever math class.  As a result, I've spent many, many years making disparaging jokes at my own expense.  An example: A kid in my study hall last year asked a fairly simple subtraction question.  My response?  "I don't know; I'm an English teacher."  This has always been fun for me-- it unites me with other math-haters.  Things like this . . . 

and this . . . 

and this . . . 

have always struck me as hilarious.  But here's my dirty little secret-- I'm not really bad at math.  I really don't like it, I don't see its value beyond the basics, and I am glad to never have to do it again-- but I made good grades in math classes.  I understood it fairly easily.  So why do I do that?  Why pretend to lack intelligence?  

This latest revelation comes from an essay my Advanced English 9 students just read, called "Math and After Math," and written by Lensey Namioka.  In it, the a young girl's classmates view her as strange and different because she is a girl who's good at math.  After we read, I had my kids do a class fishbowl discussion about stereotypes.  I asked how many of my (honor student) girls had ever pretended to not "get" something so that they'd feel less different.  Almost all of them raised their hands.  Wow.  I was shocked . . . until I realized that I, too, was guilty of faking it.  Even though my self-deprecation is a joke to me, what kind of example am I setting for the young ladies in my classroom?  

I've become more conscious lately of what I say, especially in the presence of my kids.  It's scary to think about the influence I might have on kids I spend so much time with-- and I am promising myself that I'll do a better job of representing myself from here on out.

We are all guilty of saying things we regret to our students-- please share your stories, so I don't feel so terrible!

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Monday Mash-Up: Teacher Moms and Tin Foil

Good Monday morning!  It was a beautiful autumnal weekend at my house- so beautiful, in fact, that I'm not sure I'm ready for Monday to be here.  Alas, it is-- so here's some good reading to brighten your Monday.

"6 Words You Should Say Today" by Rachel Macy Stafford for HuffPost reminds us of the importance of encouraging words. Although written for mothers, this post (like many other mom-blogs) speaks to me as a teacher, too.  Take a look at these six words, and I think you'll understand.  Phrases like "I love to watch you write" and "I love to hear you read Juliet's part" come to mind.

"Character Foils-- That's a Wrap!" from Lori at The Curly Classroom brings dramatic foils to life with a hands-on activity involving real aluminum foil.  I love the creativity involved here, and how a few rolls of aluminum foil could easily cement a literary term in the minds of my students.

"Domestic Enemies of the Teacher Mom" from Rants from Mommyland is hilarious and oh-too-true.  I have taught lots of my colleagues' children over the years, and I know it isn't fun to be a "teacher's kid."  This piece focuses on the other half of that partnership-- the Teacher Mom-- and all the struggles involved in having two incredibly tough and important jobs.

Morning Meetings with Jesus: 180 Devotions for Teachers, by Susan O'Carroll Drake, isn't a blog like most of my Monday Mash-Up pieces; it's a book.  I have to share even if it breaks format. I found it while surfing for a few new Kindle books, and I love it.  Each devotion (one for every day of the school year) is short and to-the-point, and comes across as uplifting, not "preachy."  I read one each morning while I get ready, and I find that they're an inspiring start to my school days.

Finally, "No Defense for Webster's 'N' Word," from Secondary Solutions, is a great read for teachers and students.  English teachers encounter this word in lots of great literature. (Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn come to mind immediately.) It's always uncomfortable and can spark some heated discussion among my students, so I like to address it up front with the kids.  This article links to a great PDF, written by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, that I plan to share in class this week.

Did I miss anything great this week?  Please share fantastic "teacher-reads" in the comments. And-- don't forget to link up with me this week to share some tips for Better Together!
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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fostering Critical Thinking with Fishbowl Discussions

In my experience, teenagers tend to struggle with writing for two major reasons: 

1) They're not used to thinking critically.
2) They don't know how to put their thoughts into words.

I have no qualms about saying that I wholeheartedly blame our testing culture.  We're teaching the youth of our nation to think in terms of A, B, C, or D-- not to analyze, rationalize, criticize, or evaluate.  However, lest this blog turn into one giant anti-testing rantfest, I'd prefer to focus on what I can do with what I have.  What I have is a room full of kids who need to learn to think critically so that they can not only write well, but also be productive in the real world.  What I can do is model critical thinking for them and let them practice in a safe environment.

I've heard of fishbowl discussions for years, but this year is the first time I've tried them.  Wow!  I'm holding at least one a week in most of my classes, and they're changing the way my classroom works.  The concept is simple:

1. Choose 3-4 students to be "fish"-- to sit in the front of the room and serve as the leaders of the discussion.

2. Ask discussion questions, one at a time, of the fish.  Allow them to hash out their responses as a panel, and then open the discussion to the rest of the class.

My kids are so responsive to this format!  Our discussions are lively and so insightful.  It's amazing what kids can come up with when we let them think.  I have to say, at first they all seemed to feel a need to address me for their responses, rather than the class.  To get them discussing together, I moved to the back of the room, spoke only when necessary, and occasionally redirected kids who were turning around to face me.  I'm also more than happy to spend some time on a (related) tangent, because I want to allow discussions to flow freely and kids to express their thoughts fully before we rest a topic.

I chose my first "fish" based on their outgoing personalities.  To get the figurative ball rolling, I wanted kids who would have no problem expressing themselves.  After the initial discussion, though, I usually choose kids who were notably quiet during the last discussion.  This way, I make sure that they're accountable for participation.  (I also take a participation grade.)

Fishbowl discussions are revolutionizing my kids' writing, because they're eliminating the problems I listed first-- they are forced to think critically, and talking through their thoughts helps them to formulate the words they need to write.

What tricks do you use to get kids discussing?
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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Better Together Linky Party: September 2013

I'm hosting my first ever linky!  I'm pretty excited about this, because I desperately need your help could use a few new ideas. 

Confession time: I am struggling with a class this year.  I don't like to admit it, but I have a group that is a challenge for me.  It's my biggest class, and has a large percentage of IEPs and 504 plans-- lots of accommodations to remember and implement.  This class has a wide variety of ability levels-- which I know, every class has, but this one is a doozy.  There are kids who I can't believe made it out of elementary school, and there are kids who I know should be in Advanced English instead.  On top of all of that, there are 3-4 kids who are blurters or noise-makers.  

My challenges right now (in this class) are these:  
1. How do I teach a high school English class in which many of the students can't write a coherent sentence or read beyond a 4th-grade level?  Shakespeare and research papers are coming all too soon, y'all.

2. What do I do with the kids who can do all of the above and are rapidly becoming super bored with the repetition?

3. How do I manage the behavior of all those attention-starved kids who just can't stop shouting out irrelevant comments or making strange noises?  I have known for a long time how to deal with these kids one at a time, or even two at a time, but there are so many of them in this group.

4. This challenge is a positive challenge.  I'm working with a special education co-teacher for the first time ever in this class, and while she's fantastic and we're working well together, I'd still love some tips on collaborative teaching.

So now to the real point-- I've decided to host a monthly linky party, which I'm calling Better Together.  I  have written so many times about the importance of collaboration in education.  It's time to start widening my network of teacher-friend-mentors.  

Please share your best tips and lesson plans, and link up with me!  Because I totally need advice right now, our focus for September's party will be on behavior management, co-teaching, and working with a wide variety of ability levels.  We're all in this together, so please feel free to share your ideas for any grade level, or even homeschooling.  I think we'll be amazed at what we can learn from one another.

Linky Rules
1. Grab my button from the top and link back to M*Print.
2. Link up your post on a classroom-related tip or lesson idea, not your entire blog.
3. Explore!  Visit some other link-ups and learn something yourself.

Link up any time between now and next Saturday.  I'll feature my favorite post when the link-up closes next week.  Happy linking!

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TBA's Ultimate Linky Party

Friday, September 13, 2013

redditgifts for the Teachers 2013

Having been back into the school year for three weeks now, I feel like I'm finally hitting my stride again.  That means new blog posts coming up!

Right now, though, I just had to send out a huge thank-you to redditgifts, who created a gift exchange called redditgifts for Teachers 2013 just for people to send teachers free stuff!  I mean, wow.  DonorsChoose, and now this one, too?!  There are so many good people in the world, y'all.  

I heard about the exchange and sent in a request for a gift.  It asked me to fill in some details about my classroom, like what grade level and subject(s) I teach, what we needed/wanted most, and our school colors.  A week or so later, I got an email saying that my "Santa" had shipped a package for me!

When the boxes arrived, I ripped into them immediately and found the most-used resources my classroom needs: a huge 6-pack of tissues, and a big bottle of hand sanitizer.  No flu in my room this year!  

I had really never heard of reddit before, and I'm not sure if this is an annual event or a one-time deal, but how awesome was that?  Someone, out of the kindness of his/her giant heart, just decided to mail my kids a gift.  

Happy Friday!  It doesn't get much better than free classroom supplies, in my book.
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Monday, September 9, 2013

When It All Goes Wrong: Monday Mash-Up

Happy Monday!  I have just a couple of favorites to share this week, but they're both true gems.  For me, the first few weeks are always difficult.  I am tired, I don't know all of my kids well yet, and I'm adjusting to a new schedule.  The best laid plans of mice and teachers . . . well, you know the rest.  Both of my Monday Mash-Up honorees this week address what it's like when things just go wrong.

1. "They Can't All Be Great," from The Curly Classroom, describes my nightmare classroom scenario.  It has happened to all of us:  you've planned a fantastic lesson that should inspire critical thinking and personal connections with a text, only to see it fall flat.  

2.  "How a Rough First Year Became a Career," by Justin Minkel for The Center for Teaching Quality, describes my career perfectly.  I have to say, my first year was straight from hell in many ways.  I went through some personal issues that year, and added to the stress and struggle of being a brand-new teacher, I would never have made it without lots of support from my teacher-friends.  But, as Minkel writes, I learned from it and grew into a better person and educator.
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Friday, September 6, 2013

Epic. Hard. Radical. No Sleep.

     Friday nights are usually reserved for non-school related relaxation at my house.  At the end of a week, I need rejuvenation, and so I ignore my stack of work and do something mindless.  This Friday night, however, was different.  CBS aired its new documentary, TEACH, and I was riveted to my seat.  Yes, I was thinking about work.  A lot.  But it was all the rejuvenation I needed.

     TEACH documents the lives of four teachers throughout a school year.  If you missed it, find it and watch it immediately!  I've never seen a truer portrayal of what it is to be a teacher.  

Photo Credit

Some of my favorite moments:

1. Matt.  Period.  He was wonderful, and I wish he had been my 4th period teacher.

2. Joel's humorous "yo mama" joke approach to teaching thesis statements.  How awesome is that?!  Using it Monday.

3. This quote from Lindsay: "There's not a kid out there that doesn't want to be successful."

4. And this one from Matt, after a student noted that she didn't like reading:  "I get you.  But is this important for you?  Yes.  Yeira, I care about you too much to let you not give me your best, do you understand?"  I'm not sure I've ever articulated it like that for my kids-- that I push them out of love-- but I sure as heck will now.

5. Lindsay's administrator, Shawn, collaborating with her to create 360° Math, a system with boards around the room on which students work problems, while the teacher stands in the center and observes, providing support.  My colleagues and I are already planning for a 360° learning room.  

6. Joel's team-style t-shirts and "Eye of the Tiger" to pump his kids up for the AP Exam.

7. Watching these "celebrity" teachers experience the same frustrations and self-doubt that I sometimes find crippling.  In our talks tonight while we were watching, a colleague of mine said that she had realized that when we stopped feeling that doubt, it would be then that we needed to worry.  She's right.  It's the very fact that we question ourselves, and strive to always improve, that makes us good teachers.

8. Seeing many of them reaching out to colleagues for support.  I wouldn't have lasted a year in this business without my fantastic group of teacher-friends.  Remember this post?  Just a few days ago, I came across a challenging situation in my room.  Within hours, I had lots of new strategies from my girls.  We are all better together.

9. When asked to describe their year, Joel's students' responses: "Epic." "Hard." "Radical." "No sleep."  Obviously, they were talking about AP high school classes, but- best summary of teaching I've heard yet.

As the host, Queen Latifah said

Why take on such a tough job when the odds feel stacked against you? Teachers have lives of their own, families of their own, dreams of their own- but every day they show up, dig a little deeper, and do whatever it takes.

TEACH was exactly the pick-me-up I needed after a few weeks of Year Five under my belt.  I'm excited to dive into lesson planning with a whole new spark tomorrow!
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Monday, September 2, 2013

Monday Mash-Up: Character Education Edition

The first few days of school kicked my butt, y'all.  And of course, teaching comes first-- so my apologies, but I missed my Monday Mash-Up last week.  So to make up for it . . . I lumped all my favorites from last week in with this week's.  Take a look!

1. An Open Letter to Parents from Your Child's Teacher, from A Hundred Affections, tells it like it is.  Honestly?  It should be required reading for all parents.  Every August.  

2. 23 Things I Want My Kids to Know, from Finding Joy, is a poignantly written piece about teaching kids what's really important in life.  Although it's written by a mother (and probably for mothers), it made perfect sense to me as a teacher.  Some key "things" that stood out:  
           7. Help others. Volunteer.  Give of               your time.
           14. Seek to understand.
           18. Always be willing to learn.

Character education at its finest: this is one mom who doesn't need to read the Open Letter.  She already gets it.

3. Lord, Miley Cyrus caused a bit of a stir this week with her VMA performance.  Parents (and teachers) shuddered across America.  And the internet exploded.  Dear Students, Never Feel Like You Have to Be Miley Cyrus, by Eat.Write.Teach., speaks to our kids about self-respect.  I love that this post doesn't focus on the negative, but goes on to name a long list of celebrities who do set a positive example.

4.  And finally- a different view.  The beautifully named She isn't a hurricane. reminds us all that Ms. Cyrus is indeed a human being.  Kudos to the talented Hannah Brencher for gently and poetically shaming me out of my mean-girl judgment and into the compassion Miley probably really needs from the world right now.  

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