Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pursuing Growth and Health

For the majority of educators, putting themselves "out there" becomes a common job requirement. Presenting a lesson after a new haircut, tripping in front of students, or just plain starting a new year all require a sort of jumping out of your comfort zone. As new priorities, dictates, and research come down the pipe, the majority of educators are observed and evaluated much more frequently than in the past and have revised both content and pedagogical directions of their classrooms drastically. On top of that, educators are facing a myriad of critics: everyone from parents and politicians to strangers and comedians on social media have an opinion on changes to education. 

However, it's not like educators are necessarily more comfortable with putting themselves forward for critique or potential rejection than the non-education population. I have seen educators refuse to go to a professional development without knowing someone that will be at the session. I have heard many educators refuse to revise lessons with changing curriculum or testing because the current rumblings in politics lead them to mistrust the validity and consistency of those changes. 

As for myself, I am consistently seeking out those "leave my comfort zone" opportunities. I have honed my interview skills, reflected, researched, and practiced- and failed. Spectacularly. Embarrassingly. Painfully. 

Even as I write this, I know what to say to myself- so? Suck it up. It's part of growth; it's all a learning experience. Every failure is just the chance to grow. It's your 20's....they are supposed to suck. What kind of model are you to students if you are not approaching failure as a chance to grow?

That's all true, but I just coming back to the idea from Dave Stuart Jr.'s e-book "Never Finished"- no teacher starts out burnt out. NO ONE. 

So, backpedaling a bit, what can individuals do to prevent burnout and what can system-level organizations do to build up professionals? Here, have some info-graphics! 

In a nutshell, make sure you are prioritizing your long-term growth, and not just professionally. 

While I am a big fan of personal responsibility in creating healthy careers, I think all organizations, schools, and professional development opportunities should take a serious look at their applicant process. Specifically...
Whether you are selecting students for a writing competition, or one day hiring candidates, you have the power to build people into leaders or contribute to bitterness and burnout. Be sensitive.

Love and light,
-Ms. L

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mercury Retrograde

Credit: the internet search for "Mercury Retrograde"
It's been a pensive week. Maybe it's the resolution season, or just the gathering of W2's for taxes, or just the whispers of change in the air. Or maybe it's because I am a scientist gathering evidence, a historian looking into the past for clues to the present, and an unmoored artist, all rolled into one.

I realize that the past was not clean, neat, or pain free. I also know that the future also demands different things, causing my own personal evolution, and therefore I simply cannot be static-ever. So, it's not exactly nostalgia that I'm feeling; it's just that I feel the need to self-assess and evaluate my own professional and personal growth and make sure I am not swerving towards some foggy cliff in the near future. I feel like things have gotten a little too wonky to not suspect cliffs.

I've re-read old emails from ASMSA (circa 2006), my application for Teach for America, and emails from my my earliest days of teaching (circa 2011). I've re-read sections from Eat, Pray, Love- a book I vividly remember reading in the winter of 2007-2008. I've been drawn back to books that formed my initial thoughts about education: Teach Like A Champion, Teaching as Leadership, and the big green manual of required readings.

After all of that introspection, I cried- a couple of times, really. I cried because I was both ashamed of the girl I was at ASMSA and because I missed her- I was once someone who was independent enough to leave home at 16 years old, and insecure enough to cling to people. I had meaningful relationships- now, I have obligations. I felt painful twinges of guilt reading my application to Teach for America-where are my fundamental values as a teacher today and do they line up with that application, now five years old-or should they even line up any more? Am I really making an impact in educational equality for all students, not just the ones that pass through my classroom?

Not that there aren't things to celebrate! Of course, in my fourth year of education, things that were once incredibly complicated or strange to me as a new teacher, suddenly make sense to me. I have a new critical understanding of all educational theories, arguments, and texts, including things I once accepted without question. I also have the ability (finally) to have some free time; it's taken four years to reclaim Sundays, to not sleep through the news most evenings, and to not fight semi-regular panic attacks. I have even left school with just one bag on occasion lately.

However, to paraphrase/quote Hairspray, "I'm hungry for something that I can't eat!" Yes, I have miles and miles to go professionally, but I don't want to build my life solely around my professional life, or give up my core values professionally-there has to be some balance. As I consider next steps and next jobs, I don't want to sacrifice my values or abandon the good things about myself. Self-reflection is good-it's just uncomfortable.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Sometimes, the thanksgiving posts that clog my social media soaked life sound an awful lot like a celebrity at an awards show: "First of all, I want to thank God and my manager..." 

I get it-it's good to take stock and give thanks, even if it's only once a year. It's just terribly ironic that many Americans give thanks on their Facebook page, eat a huge meal, and then spend hundreds of dollars online or after a rousing fist-fight at the local mega-mart.

As for me, I'm going to eat a reasonable lunch with my parents, review math skills for my upcoming GRE, and hopefully catch a movie later. We're not big on sharing, so here's my thankful list.

  • thankful for a good memory of good times
  • thankful for forgiveness 
  • a huge world 
  • good books and good people who love books 
  • teachers to look up to
  • my own good health
  • my Dad's sense of humor
  • my mom's strength 
  • baby calves
  • friends and thought partners
  • concerts
  • sinus medication
  • seat belts 
  • dependable shoes and vests
  • wild animals and wild spaces
  • Vegetarians
  • Stubborn people; kind people; artists; historians;
  • Fairy tales and musicals
  • Fast shipping
  • Old men and tattooed ladies 
  • Foster and adopted families
  • Glasses 
  • High schoolers that like Lisa Frank stickers

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Power of Honesty in Teaching

Listening to NPR book podcast this weekend, I heard a powerful quote from the author of this book: control your memory or it will control you. This quote shook me because a very good friend recently told me that they were HIV positive. I was immediately upset, not just for my friend, but that there is such stigma associated with it. I know that within my own community, there is zero conversation or awareness of HIV, even though we know that our kids are often engaging in very risky behavior. So little has changed in the years since the epidemic first took place in many rural and suburban southern communities that they have become the new epicenter of the HIV/AIDS crisis in America.

So, I was faced with a quandary to chew over as I drove to a planning meeting for Arkansas Delta Writing Project- how would I 'control' this event in my life into something productive and less ugly? During our meeting to plan the upcoming reunion ADWP session, it hit me- like most questions I have in my classroom, writing would be the answer. One of my new ADWP teacher-buddies even shared how she got her 5th graders writing in order to deal with a classmate's very tragic death. I borrowed strength from this teacher-friend and decided to launch a conversation in my classroom. Ready or not, inaction was not an option.

This was one of the scariest teaching moments I have ever approached in a classroom. I quickly took my journal scribblings and created a hot-mess of a short story. It was heavy on the flashbacks and dripping with raw emotion-a lot like a lot of my student's writing. I gave it to my students with no author attribution, and truthfully, I didn't know whether to tell them it was me. I gave a basic mini-lesson about peer conferencing, taken directly from ADWP,  told them I would model how to conduct a peer conference using my piece. I read it, then let kids give a praise and a suggestion or question.

I did decide to reveal that I was the author in all of my classes, but in the process we had some really intense and fruitful conversations in my classes about giving feedback to writers and building a strong community. Some of my students who had just viciously torn apart my writing were deeply apologetic and contrite when I revealed I had written a personal story. In most of my classes, we also had good conversations about viruses, immunizations, ebola, bullying, and having tough conversations.

To finish out our conversation, tomorrow students will set up their blogs and begin creating their writing portfolios. I encouraged students to spend the rest of the class working on a previous journal prompt, their own personal narratives, or their article of the week response. While walking around conferencing with students, a few students whispered to me "can I tell my story, too?" A few students for the first time pushed their notebooks to me and asked "is this good?" A few students stuck around after class to tell me about their novels, raps, or how they always write when they feel depressed.

Perhaps this is the seedling of a positive classroom culture, and perhaps I have what it takes to nurture it into more of an oak tree. There is this whole underground creative vibe to my class that just needs to be coaxed out through my own honesty-it's scary, but so very worth it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September Blog Challenge: Best of Teacher Technology Information

Two of the biggest challenges facing teachers wanting to use more technology in the classroom is the availability of devices, whether that's iPads, laptops, or cameras, and getting cut-to-the-point professional development. While there are certainly ways to gain access to more devices independently, such as creating a Donor's Choose project, that issue is often more of an administrative and school-site issue. However, I think teachers can gain access to high quality technology-centered development if they are willing to both demand higher quality professional development within their own schools while taking ownership of their development. One of the easiest ways to grab on to new professional development opportunities is to explore the internet (of course!) Here's a few ideas to get you started...

Best General Sites to Squeeze Professional Development Out Of (Least Time Commitment)
Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook- I consider these "passive" professional development opportunities. You sign up, follow a few key people, but then it is up to you how much time you want to spend. Don't know where to start? Here's a brief list. 

1. Pinterest: Search for the specific device or lesson you are interested in integrating technology. Got 1 iPad for your class? Search "1 iPad classroom." You can also follow boards you find through your searches. Of course, you could also start with my board for teacher technology. 

2. Twitter: I suggest starting by following your favorite authors, professional or not. I follow Kelly Gallagher Neil Gaiman  and Stephen King. Each of those twitter accounts are thought provoking, funny, and inspiring. Teachers will also really enjoy following different hashtags for professional development, such as #Engchat for English teachers. (Also, definitely follow #teacherproblems for a bit of humor.) 

3. Facebook: Have teacher friends at different districts? Teach in a large district? You can take ownership of your development while gaining crowd-sourcing power by creating content groups on Facebook. You should also check out professional organizations content groups on Facebook. 

Individual/Group Blogs (Medium Time Commitment)
  1. www.coolcatteacher.com  Ran by a real teacher, Cool Cat Teacher focuses on many technology hints and tips. I really recommend the "Tips for Beginners" (top right hand side of the page) as a good starting point. 
  2. http://www.alicekeeler.com/teachertech/ Also, a general website chalked full of teacher technology tips. 
  3. www.teacherpop.org Teacherpop is a website ran by Teach for America as a blog and resource page for new teachers. It often has technology-centered resources. 
  4. This best of technology list. I bookmarked this list and occasionally click on a different blog. Don't be afraid to run a google search for your content and technology, or your grade-level and technology. You never know what blog you might kick up! 
Upcoming posts
  • Organizing files and professional development records 
  • Grading faster and more effectively 
  • Prioritizing technology skills for students 
Feel free to comment your favorite technology professional development resources or make suggestions! 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

September Blog Challenge: Google Drive Apps

My school is currently in the middle of seismic shifts in technology. Just this year...

  • New evaluation system using the website Bloomboard to manage files and meetings
  • All teachers now have Macbook Airs (previously desktops running Windows) 
  • Lesson plans to be uploaded through Google drive
  • Moving to a new online gradebook system-called TAC for teacher access system 
I'm sure other schools are also finding themselves attempting changes in technology; unfortunately, it seems like there is just never enough time in the school day to do everything teachers have to do, never mind the new technology tips and trips! However, technology can save time and deeply engage students. So, I'm challenging myself to blog about some of the new technology tips and tricks I've found really helpful through the month of September in the hopes that it might help someone out in internet-land. 

My first topic: Making Google Drive work for you... with apps! 

In Google Drive, when you click the big red button in the upper left corner marked 'create', you will have the option of using all of Google Drive's version of documents, presentations, and spreadsheets. For your every day life, these programs work perfectly well. However, for many teachers, they just don't have the same features as more traditional programs, like Microsoft's Powerpoint. My favorite app to replace presentations and Microsoft's Powerpoint in Zoho Show. Here's how to use it: 

At the bottom of the create page, you will see the button marked "connect more apps." I searched for "powerpoint" and found Zoho Show. You will have to click "yes" to make it the default program to open powerpoint files and other slideshows. 
Once you connect Zoho Show, just click "create" then "Zoho Show." To use this app, like most other apps, you must click accept in order for it to connect with your email and other security features. After that, it will offer you 15 templates to choose from, but then the basic arrangements are a lot like Powerpoint. Here's an example: 
I have personally really loved using Zoho Show; I haven't really even missed Powerpoint! If you find yourself missing certain programs but only have access to Google Drive, try searching in the app store for replacements. You might find something really awesome! 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Power of Choice

Today was one of the only days in my teaching career where I walked away feeling like I had truly done the right thing by every student. Being an educator means that you will never know for sure if you are doing the right thing; everyone has an opinion about what you should be doing in your classroom, after all. Test prep, close reading, word walls, exit tickets-I've been advised to do all of that (and more) at some point in every single class period-as if there really is some perfect recipe for a lesson. Hint: there really aren't magic bullets in education. Sorry.

But here at the beginning of my fourth year, after a very special summer with the Arkansas Delta Writing Institute, I plunged into my classroom with something resembling confidence. Okay, maybe that's not the right word-fear mixed with passion multiplied by commitment all poured over the top of years worth of reflection, sweat, and tears (all baked at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 months-to terribly mix my metaphors).

The balance to strike at the beginning of this year at my school is schedule changes, technology hot messes, and getting to know students in a meaningful way, all while itching to get started on whatever standards or units that have been shoved at you or you've carefully developed and edited-whichever. In my first week of school, my students read two non-fiction articles, set up writing notebooks, and worked on internalizing a growth mindset through discussion and a short exit ticket.

It was just alright-maybe a little energizing to actually meet students. But then today happened.

I took all of my classes to the library and all of my students checked out a book and established a page amount goal, based on Penny Kittle's Book Love. The only real direction I gave was in selecting a title that wasn't too terribly difficult.
Blatantly borrowed stock photograph. 
Did some of my kids wimp out and get really easy reads? Absolutely. Did some of my kids want to re-read books from junior high, probably out of a lack of confidence? Yes.  But In Cold Blood, The Things They Carried, westerns, sports books, biographies, and non-fiction books about wars were all checked out by kids who were excited to read. I was able to talk to almost every single student about books in a meaningful way. I gave a mini-lesson about dialogue on the side. Even my most reluctant readers walked away with a book and at least 20 minutes of reading.

My principal came in at the beginning of first period and asked if we were doing a research paper; I said no, we were just checking out books. I felt a twinge of embarrassment and shame-just checking out books? What was I doing? It turns out, I was building the foundation for life-long readers.

I feel energized and passionate; I still have a long way to go to sustain a meaningful and productive independent reading program in my classroom that leads students to increasingly challenging books. I am working on building in choice and creativity, as well as argument and research, into my writing units. But-I've jumped in. No going back.