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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

This Nine Weeks in Education

With every new year I have to do what I always do, decide I need to change things up! I am going to classify that as "pulling an Emily." I can't ever leave well enough alone; there is always another big idea or interest I have that I must find a way to pull into the class. Let's face it, even though there are serious educational standards met in teaching Serial, my ultimate reason for including it in my curriculum is because I need someone to talk to about something I am interested in and my husband refuses to listen to a podcast. I guess he is too afraid he will wake up wearing skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts, in other words 19 year old John. 

But back to starting the year, I made the decision to restructure my AP Language course by topical units.  This was not a wholly original idea as I spend much time reading other Language syllabi online, and now also have the AP Seminar model to gently take ideas from.  For each nine weeks, we are exploring a different topic with the overall goal within each nine weeks being we will practice rhetorical analysis as we look to identify the construction of arguments in various modes (video, audio, articles, and passages), argumentation as we develop our positions in response to each topic, and synthesis as students are asked to see the connection between each piece we cover identifying common threads in seemingly unrelated materials. 

This nine weeks is all about issues surrounding education. I have several articles, TED talks, documentaries, etc. that I began this unit knowing I wanted to cover, but I am allowing for the flexibility to see where the students' interests develop and adjust as needed. This probably drives some of my students crazy that I can't hand them a calendar of assignments for the nine weeks...but thank goodness for Google calendar! Easy to move around with no mess! So what has been the result half way through the nine weeks? 

Well, first we started by looking at a course letter written from a professor, Bill Taylor, discussing academic integrity. The letter gave my classes an opportunity to discuss transparently some really sensitive issues concerning their own behavior within the academic environment without actually talking about themselves (clever right?). It also allowed me to discuss what I feel is my responsibility to my students as a teacher. I found that overall students were really engaged. We were able to talk about the real root of cheating and plagiarism; a lack of confidence in their own abilities. One of my students even emailed Bill Taylor, which the class decided was really dumb because this guy is way too busy to respond to a bunch of teenagers. To their surprise he e-mailed back a thoughtful response withing 24 hours. Thanks Bill! Here is the letter.

Next, we watched two videos concerning issues in education. The fist was Derek Muller's “This Will Revolutionize Education” in which he discusses why technology won't revolutionize education focusing on two reasons: 1. Technology is not inherently superior, animations over static graphics, videoed presentations over live lectures etc. and 2. Learning is inherently a social activity, motivated and encouraged by interactions with others. My initial thought was that my students would return to class disagreeing with many of Muller's statements seeing has how I frequently find them watching videos solving math problems and Chemistry concepts. However, they overwhelmingly agreed. I had them complete a follow up using an anonymous Google form as to try and get honest feedback. The students want to have face to face interactions! Most seemed to feel that the technology integrated into their classrooms caused more problems and generated more work. While the flipped classroom is an excellent idea, it still requires students to be accountable for material outside of the classroom when their lives get even more hectic. It essential keeps them connected 24 hours a day, and I don't know about you, but I like to do "m y life" when I'm at home. That's really a whole issue to discuss in itself and probably just extinguished any hopes of me being added to a technology committee. One comment that stuck with me was when a student asked "why don't these people making decisions ever come and talk to us about what we want?" We also followed up this discussion with Sir Ken Robinson's "Education Paradigms" video

For the rest of the nine weeks we will be exploring different issues in education dealing with gender, race, and socioeconomic concerns. This gives me a chance to show students the documentary Waiting on Superman. It is an eye opener for them to see how desperately some students want an education and are put in an impossible situation in which to try and succeed. I am full of ideas about what I want my students to do with this information. They are also full of opinions about what teaching models they believe work best. So here is my idea: why not give students the opportunity to present a lesson to the class in a way they feel like would be most effective. This is for two reasons, one being that I am interested in their ideas and if they work! Also, they need to see how very difficult it can be to adapt lessons to a multitude of learning styles. I am also considering testing out the stability ball theory for students who have difficulty focusing. Could be very risky....

I am trying to be flexible and let the students dictate where we go next! The hope is, in the end, they will be able to create a compelling solution to all of the education problems we are facing. Big dreams!!! 

Students Needs Are Our Needs Too.

Discussing teaching styles and effective educational practices in my classroom over the past few weeks has been a vulnerable position to be in as a teacher. You can't have students engaged in discussing their own classroom experiences without reflecting to see if any of these comments are based on events in your own classroom. I was transparent with my students about these feelings as we discussed, because as uncomfortable as it may be, I have to be open to hearing how students view their experience in my class. I could very easily continue teaching with blinders to my effectiveness; teacher knows best right? We can very easily slip into this sort of mentality, as if degrees and training make us above taking into consideration student input. At the root, it is a pride issue.

While reflecting on my own teaching practices and discussing what an ideal classroom environment would look like, I couldn't help but make a natural connection to the parallel of a teacher in the school environment. We spend so much time focusing on how we can engage our students and create positive classroom environments conducive to student success, and for good reason. Students are our audience. We are here in order to help them succeed.  However, how much time do we spend making sure that our educators in the front lines feel just as encouraged? engaged? challenged? Here are a few of my observations. While I know there are many facets to educational leadership that make focusing on some of the following points difficult, I just want to point out areas in which I feel are important to creating a positive climate.

1. Engage all teachers in meaningful positions of involvement. We as teachers learn to make a concerted effort to include and engage all students in our classrooms. Whether we use graded discussions, online feedback, or old school popsicle sticks, we all long to figure out a way to pull that reserved student out of their shell and into the conversation. It would be so much easier to let the four students who are always willing to participate dominate the discussions, and as a result, the classroom. This is easy, and truthfully lazy. It takes absolutely no effort on our part to continually look to Suzy "people pleaser" as our go to for running errands, passing out papers, answering questions, and leading classroom activities. But what do the other 25 students in the classroom gain besides a strong sense of animosity toward the blatant bias? We have taught the other students, while maybe unintentionally, that they are not needed and their efforts aren't important. At one time or another we have all been a part of this class. The one where the same few students are constantly crowded around the teachers desk while the rest of the students are left to feel that they are somehow less important.

Maybe in the end it doesn't really matter? As long as the duties are completed and the committee positions are filled we can all go along without any issues. And maybe that is true. But what if there is a better way? What if we could work to engage more of our teachers in meaningful positions?

If in our classroom we continue to allow the same four people to run the show, we are constantly only hearing from the same point of view. These students see through their own unique lens of experience and will not generate a new perspective. Maybe we like it that way because their personalities and philosophies fit with our own thus not causing us to have to stretch our own understanding. Without the input of other students we have resigned ourselves to continue down the same line of thinking. But what we have given other students the opportunity and they choose not to volunteer? We face this every day in the classroom and it would be easy to throw our hands up and say "I tried." It is our job as leaders to cultivate the relationships. Find opportunities to place students in positions to succeed. One small success may very well lead to the confidence to engage more often. In the work environment it is the responsibility of educational leaders to push their faculty out of their comfort zones in order to promote growth. Is it easier to go to the same few teachers for every position you need filled because you already have an established relationship? Absolutely, but that is also the path of least resistance. And how might the other teachers who have been looking for an opportunity to plug in feel as a result? Probably resistant to offering any real help if they don't feel valued. Rita Pierson in her TED Talk "Every Student Needs a Champion" makes a statement that "students don't learn from teachers they don't like." Employees don't work at their optimum level for employers who don't value them. It is our job as the leaders to build the relationship and motivate involvement.

2. Get to know those who work for you. We spend much of our time the first weeks of class conducting personality type surveys, learning style inventories, student interest questionnaires and get to know you activities. Why do we do this? To learn who we are working with in order to effectively meet our students where they are and adjust our teaching methods to meet their needs. Think back to the last time you started the school year at your school. How much time was spent trying to get to know who you are as a teacher? How much time was spent asking you what needs you have and how they might best be served? How much time was taken to discuss your strengths as a professional and your long term goals as a teacher? Probably little to none, and it is understandable why. There is far too much to do before students walk into the building. I wonder though what a world of difference it would make if we committed and invested in knowing who the teachers in those classrooms, the teachers we place all of the pressure on to meet standards and teach students, the teachers we ask so much of beyond their classroom duties, really are? How could we utilize so many creative, intelligent, innovative minds to make an impact? I can tell an immediate difference in my students when I begin to show interest in the qualities that make each of them unique. We just finished taking the Myers- Briggs personality test in class last week. We took a day to just discuss the results together and figure out what roles we would each be most effective in. Participation in the classroom discussion the following day on an article they were asked to read was significantly higher. Why? They felt important and understood. They felt validated for who they are, even if they aren't the extrovert sitting on the front row. They felt like a meaningful part of a large social structure. What if we showed this kind of interest in our educators?

3. Spend time showing understanding the teachers. Positive feedback is essential to building our students' confidence. We as adults have been told ratios like 3 positive comments for every negative comment are the most effective models, yet why do we think the same shouldn't be true within the professional community? Rita Pierson discussed her strategy for motivating failing students by placing a +20 on their paper rather than a -80. Still an F right? Yes, but you have told the student that they aren't all bad. +20 says you did something right, +20 says you aren't a lost cause. We as adults need this same encouragement. We all walk into our school buildings with so many outside struggles weighing us down. Sick parents to take care of, concerns for our children to think about, spouses, and bills, and second jobs, and our own mental health. Yet, we often time treat one another with very little compassion. We quickly bark out all of the negatives and judgement without spending any time building up and encouraging. Why would we think this would work? Why do we think that people will feel compelled to go above and beyond for those that have put little effort into being empathetic? We can't understand a behavior until you take time to get to the root of the problem. We can't continually yell at students for not completing assignments or being a disruption in class and have any real meaningful effect without understanding. Why are they not completing the work? Do they not understand the assignment? Are there circumstances that are making paying attention in class difficult? This is our job as classroom leaders to figure out. Could you imagine showing up at a parent conference and saying " I have no idea why Johnny has an F in this class, I mean I did my part. It is up to Johnny to figure it out." Why shouldn't we create working environments in which education leaders seek to understand those where a possible frustration really stems from?

4. Set clear team goals. When we pass out our course syllabi every fall it begins with a list of intended outcomes and goals. Many of us have these objectives visible in our classroom in the form of essential questions that we will look to answer throughout the school year. We create a united long range goal for the course. In lesson planning we break each lesson into smaller sections. We give our students objectives to be met in order to show mastery of a concept. We may even write these on our board each day. For a school faculty to be successful there has to be a clear focus. One united vision in which we are all working together to achieve. We also can't have goals thrown at teachers without any clear path as to how to meet these goals. This creates uncertainty and frustration. It is the responsibility of the leader to come to its members with an organized and structured plan of action.

So many of these points come back to seeking understanding first. Understand your audience, make choices based on their strengths, utilize more of your members, create a clear achievable goal, and seek to support and understand. A positive work environment can only have a positive impact on our students. Because in the end, adults are just big kids who have become better at pretending we have it together. We still all have the same needs.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Picture It: Sketch Notes Day 2

I began class on the second day by going over my sketch note instructions. I've try to let students know that everything I am asking them to do I am attempting as well.  Students broke into three groups today based on the poem they chose for their writing assignment. They then shared their sketch notes in order to help analyze and understand the poem. Here are some examples.

They were also asked to continue to add to their sketches as they discussed. I know for myself, I added to my instructional sketch notes throughout the day depending on questions students asked. The prompt question for their essay asked for them to identify the “complex relationship” in the poem. It didn’t occur to me until half way through the day that some of the students didn’t fully understand what I meant by complex. I then added an illustration to better capture the concept.

For some students, this type of assignment is their kryptonite. It pushes them out of their comfort zone. My response has been #1 sometimes we need to be pushed to look at something a different way and #2 not every assignment will ask you to process information in this way. For me it is my comfort zone. I visualize everything. I can see how pieces fit together and how one concept is part of a larger idea. I felt encouraged to see students come to an understanding by looking at someone else’s visualization even if they weren’t able to capture that same level of visualization on their own.
My hope is that as students come in on Monday to write, the visual cues will serve as a quick reminder of their analysis and help them to formulate ideas for their essay.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Picture It: Visualization and Sketch Notes

This week in class we have been preparing to write our first poetry analysis essay. We have spent the week discussing the purpose of the essay and walking through a practice essay prompt and poem. As I planned for day 3, I just felt like we were getting into a rut in the process. This may be even how you feel having read the first three sentences of this post. Even though I was varying the activities from whole group discussion, small group, modeling, and students creating samples...I just wanted something else to do.

I came across a link to a blog post discussing the idea of "SketchNotes" The concept isn't new. I regularly include visual representation in class whether it be graphic organizers or projects, however I like that this is taking visualization out of the realm of the creative assignment and positioning it as a new way of note taking. There are some great examples of student who have created notes for their history chapter lectures.

I began class today by introducing the idea of sketch notes to my students. We watched this short introduction video I then went on to give my overview notes for the essay using my first attempt and sketch noting. It isn't nearly as detailed as what they saw in the video, but a nice starting point.

 I then asked students to analyze their poem using the TPFASTT method, which have been using all year. This time we are visualizing the process. They will be able to use these notes for their in-class essay on Monday.

The idea of sketch noting isn't just doodling, which we connect with a juvenile past time. Sunni Brown's TED talk focuses on just that: Sunni Brown: Doodlers, unite! What I found really interesting after researching the topic is the growing demand for what some call doodlers, or in more sophisticated terms, a graphic facilitator or graphic recorder. They are looked at as problem solvers who help companies and organizations structure board meetings in a way that takes conversation and ideas that might have been missed, and graphically represent how they fit into a bigger picture.

Looking forward to sharing finished products tomorrow!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Those Behind Us

Last weekend my family and I participated in the Baby Steps 5k supporting the Amelia Center. The Amelia Center is a grief counseling center for children and bereaved parents. Many of the groups were running in memory of a lost child, and we ourselves were there to support two families who have recently lost children.

My goal for the run was just to run the entire race. No matter how tired I felt I made a promise to myself not to stop. For some people three miles is a warm up to their workout. For me, the three miles is a real accomplishment. Several times I reminded myself of the reason for the run, and that I am physically able to have my heart pump blood and move my legs to carry me through. I also continued to think of what a blessing it is to have a healthy two year old to wake up to bring that morning to the race. That was my inspiration. Run for those who can not.

When I finished the race I felt good about my time and proud of myself. I was standing around catching my breath when a woman about my own age came up to speak with me. She told me she was running in honor of a daughter she had recently lost. She was at the race by herself and her running partner had canceled the day before. Unbeknownst to me, she had been behind me the entire race. She said that staying behind me motivated her to keep going. We had a really touching conversation that left me feeling the impact of a divine appointment with someone else. It wasn't anything that "I" did. I was in the middle of my own struggle to continue.

As I saw my husband come across the finish line with Coley on his back it made me appreciate even more the life of our child. How easy it is to take those moments for granted.

How often in life are we in this situation? We don't realize those that are running behind us. We don't realize the impact of our actions. This really hits home with me as I am at school preparing to start another year. Our words and attitude have an impact. The students sitting in our classroom are looking to us for not only curriculum, but for support in their own lives. My hope is that I can keep the end goal in mind and run a race that is a motivation to those following. We never know who they might be and what needs they might have.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Final Thoughts for the Year!

I am overly critical of myself. I find myself at the end of each school year wishing I had done an assignment differently or spent more time on a particular skill. It is what attracts me something like Crossfit. The competition and the need to do better each time. I get home and keep thinking I could have gone faster or lifted more. When I clipped my toe and had my first injury on the box jump I felt so frustrated at myself that I hadn't just jumped higher. It's the same quality that lead me to finally give up the cake side business. I would constantly scrutinize and pick apart the details. When I felt totally stressed and near tears my husband would say "it's just cake" in which I responded "no it isn't." It is never "just cake" it's a moment of a birth or anniversary. A celebration of a wedding or a baby. These moments happen once and I want it to be special. That's how I feel about my class. No matter my personal issues these students only get one opportunity to have 10th grade English (that's not exactly true, but you get the idea). While I know their whole future doesn't hinge on the teaching of The Scarlet Letter I have a responsibility to give them what they need to move forward.
Reaching back in the vault here are a few of my favorites:

At the end of the day though I have to know this: that I have done my best! I hope that as my students leave my classroom they can feel the love I have for the literature  and how much I really enjoy interacting with them each day. Here is what I sent my students as my parting words. And of course in Mrs. Barnes style it is very short and to the point :)

Words of Wisdom (or an attempt at wisdom) from Mrs. Barnes
1. NEVER EVER use “I think” “I believe” “In my opinion” “In this essay I will write about” in any paper!
2. Weather/season are always more than just about the weather in literature (winter –Ethan Frome, storms-Julius Caesar, etc).
3. You can do more than you think you can do.
4. We are too mature to use transitions like: First, second, finally and in conclusion. Show off what you know!
5. You have probably learned more than you realize from the discussions in class.
6. Connection to meanings aren't the devil. They are actually good practice in seeing the big picture in all of life.
7. Never call authors by their first name when writing. You don’t know them like that. (Always use their full name the first time)
8. If someone has pen on their face…just tell them…they may need to call their mom.
9. You may actually find reading enjoyable! Give it a chance.
10. Always cite your quotes…ALWAYS! If you didn't say it someone else deserves credit for it.
11. In reading comprehension questions remember the rule of thumb to first establish the tone of the piece – then eliminate answer choices based on the tone of the piece. (Passage positive/answers positive).
12. Never underestimate the power of your words on those around you. You have the power to lift people up and tear them down all in one short breathe.
13. The Scarlet Letter really isn't as bad as you may believe it to be. By that standard neither is Great Expectations. Pip and Hester can be alluded to in a lot of your future literary conversations. Use them!
14. Characters’ names are important. Your parents thought a lot about what your name means just as author’s plan out character names. Because of this take the extra effort to spell them correctly.
15. Reading isn't stupid…Stupid people don’t read.
16. Good writing may be one of the strongest tools in your arsenal for the future.
17.  It isn't as bad as you think it will be if you just get started.
18. Projects aren't about artistic ability, but are more about your ability to see an idea in a totally new way. That is what the world will want from you…a creative way of seeing the same things everyone else sees.
19. Never use words like “good” or “bad”…they don’t say anything. Be specific.
20. If you didn't answer the “Why” or “How” you didn't do your job!
21. Tone is not a device…Devices get across tone!
22. Logos, Pathos, and Ethos can’t stand along! Something has to get across the appeal! (Scary movies are scary because of…)
23. Try speaking to people you don’t know in class. You may find they have really interesting things to say!
24. BE careful with the words “Always” and “Never”(forgive me for my usage J). - They can be fighting words!
25. You will be surprised what you already know next year in AP! If you are going on to regular be a smarty pants!
26. Don’t just drop quotes in your writing. Give context- who said what where?
27. If you don’t know…don’t let them know you don’t know. Speak with confidence and you might find they believe you anyway.
28. I find it a great myth that people can only be “Math/Science” or “History/English” you can like numbers and letters too!
29. Literature is not the study of cold words from dead white men on paper- it is the study of our human condition. How we press on against life’s obstacles, how we handle life’s failures, and how love and hope can rise above all else.
30. Be responsible for yourself. In the end you are the only one who holds the power for your success or failure.
31. Have a sense of humor about yourself! It makes life much more enjoyable!
32. Comments on your essays are not personal. They are really there to make you a better writer. See comment # 16.
33. Don’t just use imagery, diction, and foreshadowing on connection to meaning charts. It looks like you couldn't find anything.
34. Each of you are cared for and thought about.
35. If you have a problem it is most easily received when you also have a solution. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

The "S" Word

I've written a draft of this post a few times and found myself really unsure about whether or not to share it, or exactly how to articulate the sentiment. SHARING. There, I said it. Maybe I've become more aware the importance of the "S" word as it has gained value in my own life with a toddler at home. Sharing is not an innate act. We are not all the selfless creatures we might want to believe ourselves to be. We want to keep our stuff - whether it be physical or intellectual. While Coley is determined to keep her pile of rocks to herself, I find many teacher sit on their own ideas and accomplishments like a stubborn toddler. Why the fear? What is there to lose?

I would argue there are no truly original ideas. We are all influenced by what we hear, see and read. Unknowingly we are all probably holding onto the illusion that we created this masterpiece of an assignment, that in all actuality was the culmination of the ideas of many. Why is there such hesitation in our community to share with one another? Are we so afraid of someone getting credit for our great idea? What would that credit look like? A child who learns something? It seems so silly not share in a profession that should be about continually pushing ourselves to find a way to reach our students and innovate new practices for mastering a skill. 

I have a few theories on this, and they are my own so take them for whatever that is worth. I believe in education there is such a lack of recognition and options for upward mobility that we become very stingy with unimportant "stuff". Like who has the closest parking spot, who is closest to the bathroom, whose classroom has the most windows, who has the better schedule.  Without any way to distinguish ourselves we seem to hold on to these silly benchmarks. This is "my" project that I do with "my" class. We can become like dogs marking our territory. In the end the only people losing out are the students. I find it totally ridiculous that people would pay for lesson plans online. Why would we make our colleagues pay for an idea that is probably the hodgepodge of workshops and online resources and other teachers' previous projects? I know many may feel differently about this, but I think it is terrible that we would make it so difficult to help one another. Why would you keep something that has been a successful tool for you away from those it could benefit?  Why would you withhold your shovel to watch someone dig their hole with a spoon? 

There is also the new emergence of individual branding. My sister-in-law and I were having a conversation over Christmas about this very thing. She had just come back from a conference for dietitians  At the conference there was an entire session just on professional branding. Finding your "thing" and tweeting, blogging, promoting yourself as a master of knowledge in that area. The same thing is happening in education. You first need a Twitter presence, a cool nickname (preferably with a pun or some obscure literary reference if you are an English teacher), a blog (well...can't beat 'em join 'em), and then you can get on the presenter/lecture circuit. I'm really not degrading the practice, but it does create competition that wasn't there before. It isn't enough to just do a good job in the classroom. You also have to be the face of a whole movement. You need a professional head shot on Twitter to reach your mass audience with 140 characters of life changing wisdom. I think it perpetuates some fear of sharing. We are pushed to self-promote and talk about our awesomeness. We can become, if we aren't careful, educational narcissists. 

I have encountered some wonderful educators who have literally given me everything they have. At the mention of something I am thinking about teaching, they get absolutely giddy about passing on everything that they so enjoyed using. Why can't we all be so gracious? How do we create an environment that supports the art of sharing? It is such a disappointment to see great strategies someone is using after the unit is over. Sharing, as in any element of a relationship, works best when both parties are participating. Sharing our successes, and failures as well, are what help us grow. All of my best ideas have come from being able to brainstorm with fellow teachers. I am thankful for all of those who help me daily to take an idea and turn it into something wonderful. In the end everything amazing that our students create is their own creation. We only give them the tools and direction. 

By the way I am more than willing to share anything I have...:)