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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...:)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I guess you had to be there...

It's that time of year when you begin counting down the days left until summer. Along with counting the days comes the anxiety of somehow squeezing in every last bit of information that you so enthusiastically planned out at the beginning of the year. It is always a bittersweet time for me as a teacher. I find myself excited about the break and being able to spend time with my daughter, but I also become critical of all of the expectations I don't feel I have met during the year. It makes me take a look at how valuable every day is with my students. There never feels like enough time!

In saying that every year I've been teaching I feel there has been more pressure put on us to do more, create more, comply more, develop more, engage more...more....more. There is always an endless list of to-dos awaiting my return every morning. On my drive in every morning the media continues their spin that teachers just aren't fulfilling their responsibilities to the students and that the education system is broken. As always you question what is the real problem. A problem this big however is never just on one person's shoulders. One concern that I have though is the value of time. 

I see more and more students just not here. Not present for the material. How can we value the education if we don't value and honor the classroom time? On some level I know that our technological advancements have allowed for students to, if the teacher creates the opportunity,  have a relatively similar experience of the  classroom outside of the classroom via the flipped classroom. But how many students are taking that extra step? I know even with a week long calendar on the board and all of my resources for the week on edmodo, I still have students come in from missing a day asking "what did I miss" without feeling compelled to spend the extra time to get caught up before they return. 

Is it because our society has adopted the mentality of fast results with minimal effort? We think things should all come easily to us without having to put in the hours of work to get there? Education should just happen if your teacher is doing a good job? 

It's like expecting to get in shape by having a gym membership without putting in the hours of sweat and tears to produce the results. How can we expect to raise the standards we have for our students when we can't get them into the classroom five days a week? When there is always another field trip or retreat or training? I understand the value of a real world learning experience. But I don't see why we aren't using all of the technology that has literally been handed to us to make some of these trips happen in the classroom during class time.  

I'm not trying to just complain, if anything I am trying to work out a resolution in my own mind, I would really love to find a solution to the problem. Where does it start? Does it mean that maybe we have to reevaluate what constitutes a legitimate reason to have students miss class time? I think that is a start. Does the value of the school day have to first be recognized at home. I think so, I think we have to expect parents to see that week long Disney adventure in October as a bad idea. If we want to offer our students the best we have, we have to expect that they are here to receive it. On the other side we in the classroom have to give students a reason to expect more. If we find days that are a "waste" and "don't mean anything" then why should they want to be here? Whatever the solution it requires everyone to put forth additional effort, including myself. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Experiencing Feedback?

Following up on my last post on the writing portfolio, we are well underway with one essay down! We have successfully worked through our rhetorical analysis essay and reflected on our writing. I was really surprised at how much my reading of the essays was affected when I wasn't having to attach a grade to the paper. I was more free to really read what they were saying and provide feedback on both what they were doing well and what things they could improve on for a final paper. The next question is will they be more receptive to the feedback since they are not being penalized for the work? I'll have to come up with a way to gauge that!

Part of writing the paper for the portfolio was to complete a reflection on the essay writing process. The questions were:

Reflection Question
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful. “ - Margaret J. Wheatley 

Write a reflection on the process of writing your Rhetorical Analysis Essay. Make sure you cover the following questions. You can elaborate on ideas that are not covered in the paper.

·         Do you feel you achieved the paper’s purpose? Provide some evidence to discuss how you did so.
·         What is a successful part of this process and paper for you? Explain why it was successful.
·         In editing this paper, what would you do differently?
·         What did you find you struggled with on writing this essay? Is there feedback you can give that you feel would help you to be more successful next time?
·         What preparation for this essay did you find helpful? What preparation did you find was not as helpful? 

As I read over their reflections, I saw that many of them were really examining the work they had done. They were taking time to think about thinking! It can be hard enough to get them to think, much less think and write, even harder to think and write and think about writing. Whew! In the feedback I asked what prep work was useful and what wasn't. I began to realize for every person who said one thing didn't help, someone else said it was the most helpful part of the process,  but that is what differentiating instruction is. While a chart helped organize some students' thoughts, reading the student sample papers helped create a clear idea of the assignment for others. Peer review in groups gave the feedback some students needed to continue writing their paper, while others felt the group time was the least valuable part of the process .Providing opportunities for each student to find something that works for them seemed to make the class in general feel confident about the assignment. I gained a lot of valuable feedback as to how I will approach this essay next year as well. 
Creating Opportunities for Feedback
What does feedback look like? It could be as simple as an exit ticket, survey, written response or discussion. Here are some things that I have tried so far this year:
Writing Survey
- Students took the survey on their own writing abilities before we began the portfolio. I could then use the data to guide what I would spend time on in class. Here is a small part of the analysis. I love ending up with visuals to show the class.  This survey helped to gain information at the beginning of class to see what we need to go back over during our discussion on day two.  

After I asked for general feedback of understanding, I asked students to respond with specific ideas that we needed to cover.  This was a great opportunity to have students respond to one another. 
Book Club Survey
Although this one isn't tied to the curriculum, students had been asking throughout the year what I was reading and what other students were reading. Responding to the feedback from students we are in the beginning stages of starting our first book club!  I sent out a survey and the students chose when to meet, what to call the club, and what our first book to read would be. 

What do we do with feedback?

Last year at the end of the year I remember the anxiety in the workrooms as teachers sent out a student survey to their classes to gain insight on their teaching. There was a mixture of emotions from various teachers from hurt feelings to anger to appreciation. I found myself focusing on the one or two negatives rather than all of the positives. It is really hard to not take something personal that is personal. There will always be a students to takes this anonymous survey as a golden opportunity to express a feeling about you that has nothing to do with you as a teacher. So how do we handle feedback in an appropriate way? We can never know what we are doing well until we hear from those who are a part of the process everyday. I don't have the answers, but I will share some things I took away from the experience. 

In asking for feedback you have to be ready to hear things that may not make you feel good. That idea of a perfect world where all of our students love us,our class, the work and can already see into the future where they will reap the benefits of their quest for unlikely. You can't ask your husband " seriously, does this dress make me look fat?" unless you can handle the honest truth (which I can not so I don't ask!). We have to take the egotism out of the equation...and it is SO HARD! Here are some things I have to remind myself:
- Focus on the OVERALL feedback. You will always have extremes either way. If all but one person felt an assignment to be worthwhile and meaningful - let that resonate with you.
- Keep the goal in mind. If the goal is to gain insight into what is working and what isn't, keep that in mind when reading the feedback. Don't get caught up on things that are not relevant to your purpose. 
- Really think about how you word the questions. If you want to focus on an activity, make sure you word the questions specifically. Ask for follow up questions that ask for why? or how? or a specific example. This makes the students have to think about what they are saying and support what they are saying with an example. Sometimes we word questions so that students are confused as to how to answer. You may, without realizing it, generate negative responses. 
- Do something with the feedback! If students respond to a survey give them some way of knowing you have read the information and you are taking what they say into consideration as you move forward. 
- Do not punish someone for their responses. If someone says that "you never really explain anything" don't respond the next day by giving them a mountain of notes and homework. It defeats the purpose and you won't get anything out of them in the future. 
-Have a discussion about why you are giving them the survey and what you are doing the information. If they have a better understanding of the "why" then they can better give you what you are looking for. 
- Always and Never statements. I try and speak with my students about making these kind of statements and how they are generally not true. I learned early on in creating a positive environment at home that "thems fightn' words!" They put people on the defensive. 

When we as people feel our voice matters and we have the ability to impact our environment we feel important and connected. That's how we stay engaged. When we are important to the community we begin to interact in the community. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What mark will I leave on my students' writing?

(all quotes from Jeff Anderson)

I went to the ACTE conference this past Saturday and found myself reeling with ideas about teaching writing. This is always such a struggle- how do you teach someone to write? I have my own about what I can and can not do-  I can teach structure and form, I can give resources to expand vocabulary, I can even help students to properly insert quotations with commentary. However, I can't teach voice. They have to find their voice. How do they find it? Through practice and exposure. The best thing they can do is READ! See writing modeled. See writers taking risks.

"Imitation leads to Innovation."

"By exposing students we make them aware of things without realizing it."  

The question remains how do I help to encourage students as writers? During the keynote speech by Jeff Anderson, the "Write Guy", I began tweeting things he said that really stuck out to me. I am included the quotes in this blog post. Two of those I shared with my students today concerning their writing experience.

  "Create more opportunities for students to have a positive encounter with   writing."  

I started my class with that question today "give me an example of a positive writing experience." The students were excited to share about writing that they have had published, poetry contests they have won, recognition they gained from having their writing used as a "good" sample in class. What I noticed is that majority of these experiences occurred to students during elementary and middle school. I shared my own history of having writing be for me, the one area that I always received positive feedback. Poetry contests (I still remember every word of the poem), reading my essay in front of my AP class in high school (which was really shocking to my classmates since I wasn't the front row, valedictorian seeking student) and college fiction writing classes that made me feel empowered. These things remain vivid memories to myself and my students.

When I asked students to share a negative experience with writing they cited primarily high school experiences. Now, I do understand that there are some justifiable reasons for this. Not until high school are they asked to create writing that critically analyzes a work. The stakes are higher and they are no longer writing for creative purposes. But how do you juggle both?

In addition to the conversation I am having asked students to fill out a personal writing survey  Hopefully it will start our process of self evaluation and reflection and give us some data to direct what we need to focus on in class.

"We are a first draft society. Push students to reread what they have written."

I could take on a million different ideas here - but I have taken on an ambitious project of a portfolio for second semester. What is our focus? REFLECTION and EXPOSURE.

We will be taking more time to not only write the essays, but really focus on the reflection. I want to make a deliberate effort to conference with my students on what they are doing well. Also, by giving them this cover page I am holding myself accountable to give them very outlined directions for each essay, take time to look over sample essays and model writing together, and finally spend time looking back and analyzing the work. The hope is with four essays to look back over we can identify things we are doing well, and things to improve on. I hope this portfolio ends up being a good experience for all of us.

The thing I am really struggling with is what is my role? How do I effectively grade 400 essays over the next 4 months?

"Take out the guilt- grading everything students write makes you a bottleneck in the process"

My thought is that I read all the essays and give comments - mindful of giving a positive to each- and have them write a reflection for each essay. They will receive a grade for turning in the assignments on time.  At the end of the semester they will turn in the entire portfolio, but submit one essay for a final grade. I'm not sure yet if that will be doing them a disservice for gaining feedback in the form of a grade, or if it might alleviate some of the pressure and allow us to write and reflect without consequence?

"Give them the freedom to take risks."

What I find with teaching is that I need to also give myself the freedom to take risks. I rarely, even after 7 years of teaching the same thing, give the same assignment in the same way. And I feel a bit of comfort in the fact that I can say I practice what I preach and I am a reflective teacher. I am going to see how this works. If I feel like I am ending up with a product that shows their development as writers I have achieved my purpose. So cheers to taking risks!