Why Is the Only Way Up to Go Out?

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I tweeted this message out the other night and the response was tremendous.  I began teaching in 2005 and many of my friends have already left the classroom.  Almost all of them are still in education, but they are no longer teachers.  My friends are principals, vice-principals, supervisors, coaches, curriculum coordinators, professional development coordinators, and every other title in the education world.  Many of them were phenomenal teachers and it saddens me to know that they are no longer bringing that enthusiasm and expertise to students.  That’s part of the reason I have no interest in that world.  It’s not that I don’t want to take on a leadership position…..I would love that!  But there are few options for teachers who want to remain in the classroom.

It made me feel better to learn that I am not the only teacher who does not plan to enter administration in the near future (or ever, at this point). During the conversation on Twitter it became clear that talented teachers  crave leadership positions.  So then why is it that the only way to move into a leadership position in education is to move out of the classroom? The Atlantic took on this issue a few days ago in “Great Teachers Don’t Always Want to Become Principals“.

I think that part of the reason teachers are not given the same respect as other careers is because many members of the general public view it as a stop-gap.  There are two choices, in their eyes: if you are a great teacher then you teach for a few years (ideally under 10 years) and move into administration, or if you are a bad teacher you stay in the classroom.  I can’t tell you how often I am asked when I plan to get an administrative position and when I respond with “never”, people just stare at me. “But you are a good teacher!” they often say.  That means I shouldn’t stay in the classroom?

And I’m not knocking those who do move into administration!  All of my friends are fantastic at their new jobs, too.  I just hate that the only way to take on a leadership role is through that type of position, the one that removes you from the classroom.

I’ve already completed by National Board Certification but most districts don’t even treat that as equivalent to a masters degree, so there aren’t a lot of leadership opportunities available.  There are some national opportunities, but most of them involve leaving the classroom for a sabbatical at the least and forever in some cases.  That’s not what I am interested in.  I want to stay in the classroom and continue working with kids!

How can we allow teachers to take on leadership roles (not necessarily entirely new positions) and still keep good teachers in the classroom?  I know of some districts that create hybrid positions and I think that’s a great idea.  Teachers spend part of their day in the classroom, teaching their students, and the other part of the day running professional development and mentoring other teachers.  To me, that seems perfect.  It allows new teachers to learn from master teachers while also keeping those teachers in the classroom part-time.  Lots of districts have professional development coordinators who are solely administrators but I’d love to see those become hybrid positions.  Spend the morning teaching (the same type of classes you would normally teach, with consistent kids) and the afternoon planning PD, running PD sessions, and working with other teachers.

I know if that was an option I’d gladly take it at some point.  But I can’t see myself leaving the classroom completely, because teaching is my passion.  What about you?  What type of leadership position do you think should exist for teachers who want to stay in the classroom?

Game Theory, Video Games, Failure, and the Classroom

Something that has been on my mind a lot this year is how we can harness the power of video games in our classrooms.  Game theory is something powerful and I think we need to grab it and pull it into our classrooms! Many of my students love to play video games, and I find it fascinating.  Now I’m not one of those old ladies who can’t understand why the kids love those “darn games!” (lol).  Instead, what fascinates me is how willing they are to fail in a game.  Sometimes they will “die” for hours on end, trying different routes and theories.  Failing is not only ok, but encouraged.  They work around obstacles and problems, they innovate solutions, they talk with other gamers- everything I want to see them doing in the classroom. So how can we transfer those some ideas of embracing failure?  How do we make it ok to “lose a life” so to say, in a project or writing piece?  How do we make it acceptable to try something over and over, working hard to get it right without giving up?

In video games, kids embrace difficult problems.  They fail over and over again as they work towards defeating the game.  Failure is part of the fun.  Yet many of those same kids balk at assignments in school when they require creative problem solving.  Or even worse- if the assignment involves writing (and following a process that includes *gasp* revision!), I have many students who shut down after their first draft.  I haven’t come up with any ideas yet, but this is something that has been on my mind all year.  There has to be a way to transfer the problem-solving techniques used in video games to something academic, like a writing piece.

I started thinking about game theory back in the summer when I read Carol Jago’s awesome book With Rigor for All, Second Edition: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature. Carol mentions many of the same thoughts I have and she inspired a lot of new thinking for me.  Then at the beginning of the school year one of my former students sent me the following email:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yn9fTc_WMbo

I found this TED talk amazing. I did some thinking on the AIDS discovery found on gamers and what I came up with is, “Gamers found this cure because we were motivated with this ‘game layer’”. I found this and I wondered, “well why can’t I apply this to my everyday life?”

This is how I finished my physics work without moving to tumblr or something. I figured a way to make everything I do in my life a score, or “ChampCoins”. The more efficietly I do my homework or chores, the more champcoins I win. If I reach my goal, I get video game time :DDD

This way of motivation is powerful (por ejemplo, look at the discovery gamers found). Simply adding a score pushed them to eventually find something.

Are videogames a waste of time… or the way of the future?

I was floored when I read it.  What powerful intrinsic motivation!  And the metacognitive awareness to realize that his motivation in video games can be transferred to school work makes me so proud.  The AIDs discovery he is referring to can be found here.  “Foldit is a program created by researchers at the University of Washington that ‘transforms problems of science into a competitive computer game,’ says Fox News. More than 236,000 players have registered for the game over the past three years. Players manipulate virtual molecular structures…After being challenged by researchers to help map this [retroviral] protease, several players worked together to solve this particular puzzle in a matter of days.”  I shared the article on our Facebook page at the beginning of year because it fascinated me, never imagining that any of my students would flip the scenario around to benefit them.  But now that Mike has done it, I grill him about it every few weeks.  As of the end of December, he was still following the same protocol and says his grades are definitely better than they were before he started this method of doing his school work.  How awesome is that?

I have ordered a bunch of books on game theory and it’s something I plan to explore more over the next few months.  I know that there is something important here and we just need to dig deep enough to find it.  Has anyone else spend time thinking about game theory and its place in the classroom?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!  And I’m always looking for more resources to help me out!

New Year’s Resolutions for Teachers

The Cornerstone Blog has a great post about New Year’s Resolutions for teachers.    We all catch ourselves doing it.  You know, saying, “Next year I won’t let *blank* happen!”.  But why wait until next year?  From The Cornerstone Blog:

“So in light of this, I present the “Not Waiting for a New Year” resolution. What do you want to change NOW in your teaching practice? What thing is so important that you can’t afford to write off this year’s kids and wait for a fresh start in the fall? What’s really pressing for you?”

 

So head on over and post your New Year’s Resolutions!  

 

My resolution?  To give my students more time for independent reading and writing.  I have somehow managed to lose focus as the year has moved forward and that independent time has fallen by the wayside.  So I will be reworking a few routines and procedures so that I can make that time every day.

Learning About Our Students as Readers

Over the last few days I have been trying to get to know my new students as readers. At the end of last year I was a walking encyclopedia, a who’s who of book recommendations. Even now, I read a book and immediately think, “I know exactly who would love this”! But a new class means starting over from scratch. While I love the clean slate offered by a new year, it frustrates me that I am not an expert on my students yet!

Yesterday we organized our classroom library as a review of genres. It served as a great way to review genre definitions while also letting the students see the variety of titles the library has to offer. There were a lot of stunned reactions, let me tell ya! While most of my students told me that they dislike reading, I told them that’s just because they haven’t enjoyed the books they read up to this point. I promised to find them a genre, author, or series they will enjoy this year! But it’s hard when I don’t know them yet. :)

Today I booktalked a few “guaranteed” titles before we headed to the school media center; just a few to whet their appetite while I start reading interviews and read their literacy profiles. The titles I talked about today included Life As We Knew It, Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, The Face on the Milk Carton, Just Grace, Turnabout , and Cirque Du Freak Life As We Knew It was a huge hit, and Cracker! went over well with the war buffs.  Every student left school today with a book.  Even better?  When I ended independent reading today, there were a few soft groans.  I asked for a show of hands, saying “How many of you were annoyed that I interrupted your reading?  How many people didn’t want to stop?”  About hald the class raised their hands.  One boy said, “This has never happened to me before!”

It’s amazing how passion is contagious.  Our kids deserve our passion- whether it be for reading, science, history, geography, math, or anything else.  That passion will spread, as long as our passion is genuine.  That is true teaching.

I’m off to read more reading inventories now, and hopefully get to know my students better!

Vista Print

For the last few weeks I have been having a lot of fun with Vista Print.  What is Vista Print?

With more than 13 million customers worldwide, VistaPrint is a leading online supplier of high-quality graphic design services and customized printed products to small businesses and consumers. We offer high-quality solution for graphic design and full-color printing in small quantities, without the premium price.

Vista Print is a godsend for teachers.  They have daily free items.  Yes, you read that right.  FREE.  All you have to pay is shipping and handling.  You can order up to 10 free items per order.  How awesome is that?  They carry almost any graphics product you can think of, from postcards to business cards to car door magnets.

If you are an office supply junkie like me, I guarantee Vista Print will become a vice, an addiction.  It’s crazy!  I have already placed 5 orders and received 3 of them.  The quality is top-notch and everything is perfect.  I can’t wait to start using everything.  Now if only school would start…

I put together a document with some of the items I have ordered so far.  I gleaned most of these ideas from all over the web, putting my own twist on them.  The best ideas have all been gathered on this great website, so be sure to explore it.  It seems that a lot of primary teachers use Vista Print, so I did a lot of tweaking to get items that were cool enough for 6th graders without being babyish.  Plus, I wanted each item to serve a purpose in my room, one that would help me stay organized

My Vista Print Ideas- Click to download!

My Middle School Language Arts Classroom…

I have spent the past few days beginning to plan out next year. I am a third year teacher, so some of my units are ready to go, others need tweaking, and some are being rewritten from scratch! However, I wanted to share what my normal day looks like so that other teachers can possible get some ideas!

I teach in a team setting: I teach Language Arts and my students have a different teacher for math, and a third teacher for science/social studies. I have two classes- my homeroom and my afternoon class.  I teach Language Arts in a 2 hours block.  M homeroom stays with me all morning, then we go to lunch, afterwards I get my afternoon class before they go to special.  Because of this, we start each day with a Do-Now. I am in charge of the Do-Now for my two classes on Mondays and Wednesdays. Traditionally, we use DOL as our Language do-now, but I want to change that next year. Granted, the ease of use is a big temptation, but the research shows that DOL doesn’t help kids use correct grammar in context. And I am willing to bet half my students just put any old answers down and wait for us to go over the correct answers together. So this summer I am revamping all of my grammar plans! This means I need a do-now. It has to be something quick and easy (we have a ten-minute homeroom) but also needs to hold students accountable. Any ideas?

Word Study: This year, I plan on using a mix of direct instruction, inquiry, and grammar in context for grammar. Right now I am writing my curriculum, based on our state and district standards. I am using Don and Jenny Killgallon’s Story Grammar for Elementary School: A Sentence-Composing Approach and Grammar for Middle School, Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, And Style into Writer’s Workshop and EVERYDAY EDITING: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer’s Workshop. Last but not least, I am waiting for Constance Weaver’s The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching. I know, it’s a lot! But when I went to the Columbia Teacher’s College Reunion Saturday back in March, I went to great session on teaching grammar in middle school. The presenter introduced all these great books to me, and I was inspired.

We have a district spelling curriculum, which means we have a spelling pretest on Mondays. Students complete a spelling contract during the week (that I wrote) and take a final spelling test on Friday.

Vocabulary is something I am still struggling with. Last year I followed Linda Rief’s model. I had my students find 5 vocabulary words each week from their reading. They then defined them, wrote each word in the sentence that they found it, and handed it in. For extra credit they included the etymology of the word. I just didn’t feel it was successful with my students, so I am searching for a new idea this year.

Reading Workshop: Reading workshop, reading workshop, reading workshop!!! I start my reading workshop with a mini-lesson. My students have one Language Arts binder that is divided in 8 sections. (I may amend this to 6-7 sections this year.) One section is devoted entirely to mini-lessons and notes from mini-lessons. The section begins with a table of contents that the students fill in each day, noting the subject of the lesson.

This year, I plan to use more short texts in my mini-lessons, so that my students have common texts but can still focus on their independent novels. This will allow me to differentiate more in conferences, but all the students will have common texts at hand. For this purpose, I am reading Less is More: Teaching Literature With Short Texts, Grades 6-12 by Kimberly Hill Campbell.

After the mini-lesson and guided practice, we break into independent reading. During this time, students read independently, putting into practice the skills we have learned. During this time, I have individual conferences with students and pull small groups. I also sometimes (especially at the beginning of the year, when I am building the reading foundation) just read with the students. This models an adult enjoying reading, something they don’t always see. They also see me enjoying their literature, children’s, middle-grade, and YA, valuing it.

I do teach whole-class novels, as they are required by the district. But I love the novels we do together, and they allow us to have a common text. Plus, I don’t assign the reading for homework- we treat it as a read-aloud/whole class novel. I do a lot of text marking, teaching them how to annotate their books. It’s a skill they will need in future years and one I never learned (and wish I did!). Our whole class novels are: Tuck Everlasting, The Giver, and The Devil’s Arithmetic .

Writing Workshop: My students keep a writing notebook. I start the year with a lot of activities from Notebook Know-How: Strategies For The Writer’s Notebook. My students have a little bit of experience with the workshop method in the primary grades, but not since then. I really have to ease them into it. For the first half of the year, their weekly homework is to write 4 entries in their notebook. I collect these as a homework assignment.

This year I will be using the front half of the writer’s notebook for their writing and the back half for notes and mini-lessons. I am hoping this helps keeps them more organized. And to be honest, it will keep me more organized, too!

In 6th grade, we focus a lot on persuasive writing because it is tested on the state tests. But I start the year with launching the writer’s notebook. Then we ease into personal narrative. I am working on what we will do after that! I do know I will be doing my poetry unit again because it was such a success. :) And I plan on doing my multi-genre projects again at the end of the year. Right now, I am paging through Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Grades 3-5 for ideas.

Read-Aloud: My favorite part of each day is at the end of class. That’s when we have our read-aloud. During the read-aloud I model higher-level thinking and other comprehension skills. And the students love it! We experience various genres and everyone. To see what we read this year, check out this post.

As for how I choose my read-alouds, it’s all about the kidlitosphere! I read reviews, read Newbery contenders, and of course turn to some of my personal favorites. The read-alouds change with each class and each year. This way, they stay fresh and personalized!

I still have a lot of work to do for next year, but I am getting excited. I love my grade level and I love teaching language arts. Hopefully, this post can help some other middle school English teachers!

Summer Literacy Packets and Summer Reading

At the end of the school year I handed out a Summer Literacy Packet to my students.  I told my students it was completely voluntary, and I am very happy to say that a few of my students have been sending me weekly emails detailing their progress.  And come August I expect a few more to pop their notebooks in the mail to me.  It’s been awesome being able to continue our literacy dialogue through the summer months and I am enjoying the deeper conversations we have been having over email.  But today I received a letter essay from one of my students that only further fueled my anger with required summer reading lists.

This particular student is a very strong reader, and an avid one.  She is currently reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  (Three of the six books on our summer reading list are classics).  The email I received from her today broke my heart.  This girl loves to read and shouldn’t be forced to read a book that she is hating.  All year long I preached choice, choice, choice.  I taught my students to choose books on their level, and to be aware when books are not on their level.  Tom Sawyer needs a good deal of scaffolding for 7th graders, and that scaffolding can’t happen over the summer, when students are on their own.

I want to share a few quotes from her letter:

Today, I read chapters 15 and 16 in Tom Sawyer.  So far I rate this book a three out of ten.  this book is really boring and I do not understand it.  Every chapter talks about something different then the last chapter.  It doesn’t flow very well.  It also shocks me that it is considered a classic because I am not enjoying it.  I expect more from a classic than this book has to offer

Is this how we want to introduce the classics, the canon of English literature to our students?  How long will this attitude stay with these student?

Also, they talk in old southern accents and use older words and use old fashioned tools and devices.  Finally, it is boring because the print is small, it is hard to read, the characters are boring, the adventures are boring, and basically the whole book is boring.

Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!  This should not be happening!  The vocabulary is difficult, the accents are hard to decipher, and a lot of the “adventures” require a good deal of historical background knowledge.  All things students are not being supported with during summer reading.  Ridiculous!

I would recommend this book to no one except older people from the South.  This book is boring and a waste of time.  I can’t wait to finish this book and be done with the required summer reading!

The only thing these required reading lists is doing is making our students despise the classics.  There is nothing wrong with the classics, but forcing students to read them independently, without the background knowledge and support they require is practically cruel.  It really is a shame.

Percy Jackson and Greek Mythology

Right now, my two classes are completely obsessed with our read-aloud: The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1). I chose the first book in the Percy Jackson series as our final read aloud for the year because it is the perfect tie-in with my kids’ Greece unit in Social Studies.  I love the entire series, and was hoping my kids would enjoy the book (and get hooked on the series over the summer).  In no way was I prepared for complete and utter obsession that would result!

My students are BEGGING to have more read-aloud time everyday.  We stop and talk about the myths that Riordan alludes to and they are quickly becoming experts on Greek mythology.  It is a perfect example of using a read-aloud to teach the content areas.  My two classes have been reading the novel together and the other two classes on our team have not.  During the Greece unit, their social studies teacher has commented numerous times on my class’ enthusiasm and knowledge about the mythology, gods, and goddesses.  All of the knowledge has come from the conversations that spring from our read-aloud.  No direct instruction, just conversations!

The best part?  Many of my students purchased the first 3 books from Scholastic and told me that their plan for this summer is to read the next 3 books in the series.  That’s the best thing this reading teacher can hear.  :)

Environmental Issues in the Classroom

Everyone knows that Earth Day is coming up, but there are also a few other environmentally-related events going on this month.

-NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION WEEK (April 13-19)

National Environmental Education Week promotes the understanding and protection of the environment by actively engaging students and teachers in a week of environmental learning and service before Earth Day. Register online to receive lesson plans, activities, and other resources.

-NATIONAL WILDLIFE WEEK (April 19-27)
Get outside and watch for wildlife with National Wildlife Federation’s Nature Quest Wildlife Watch! You can participate by simply downloading a “watch” list of wildlife for your state, taking a walk around your schoolyard or favorite outdoor spot, and noting how many animals and plants you can find. Afterwards, you can report your sightings online.

-EARTH DAY (April 22)

Participate in various Earth Day activities across the country. Be sure to sign up as an educator to get access to the lesson plans and ideas!

-NO CHILD LEFT INSIDE

The No Child Left Inside Coalition is an organization made up of more than 190 groups from across the United States. The membership includes environmental, educational, business, public health, outdoor recreation and conservation groups. The No Child Left Inside Coalition speaks for a large group of Americans who believe young people should receive a strong education about their natural world. I am a huge fan of this group. The group has presented the No Child Left Inside Act to Congress and the latest news is that a subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee will have a field hearing on the No Child Left Inside Act of 2007 – the first hearing on our legislation to date. The hearing will take place on Earth Day, from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. As an educator, I see the effects of nature deficit disorder in my classroom on a daily basis. This is a phenomenal organization and they could use all the support they can get!

TCRWP Saturday Reunion

At 5:40am this morning, I was out the door and headed towards school, where I would drop off my car, meet up with some friends, and head to the train station. By 6:35am I was on a northbound train headed to Penn Station. By 8:00am I was inside Riverside Church on Riverside Dr. in NYC. After years of trying to attend, I was finally at Teacher’s College Saturday Reunion.

When my colleagues and I arrived, we picked up our schedules and began scanning the multitude of workshops being offered. Within moments I announced I would be eating my brown bag lunch on the run and attending all four sessions. My colleagues quickly agreed. How could I possibly choose to give up a session for something as silly as lunch?! As I read the descriptions of the many sessions being offered, I was circling possibilities left and right. How on earth would I ever decide which workshops to attend?

Eventually, I made my choices. In the meantime, we made our way to the main chapel to hear the keynote speaker. Tomie dePaolo (author of over 200 books, including Strega Nona), renowned and award-winning author/illustrator gave a rousing talk entitled “No Teacher Left Behind”. He was a brilliant speaker and had the packed church in stitches. He shared many tales of his childhood and the importance that reading and writing held in it. He is also a strong supporter of teachers. He told us that his personal book sales have decreased 50% since the inception of No Child Left Behind. He and his agent attribute this to the huge number of teachers and school districts which can no longer purchase and use his books because they must focus on “the test”. It was a staggering statistic and I would be very interested in hearing if other authors have experienced a similar drop in sales.

After dePaolo’s speech, I made my way to my first session. I was very excited to finally hear Mary Ehrenworth (om/gp/product/0325006881?ie=UTF8&tag=thereazon-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0325006881″>The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language) speak, as she heads the middle school aspects of the Project. She gave a great presentation on working with stronger readers, the ones who are usually left on their own in workshop. She shared some great picture books to use in small groups that allow students to stretch their thinking above and beyond the literal. I ended up with a great list of picture books and plan to order one immediately, for our Holocaust unit.

More importantly, Ehrenworth told the group that we can not expect our students to be readers if we are not readers ourselves. We must share books with them, carry books around, even tell them, “I’m sorry, I didn’t even get to finish planning my lesson last night- I was reading this phenomenal book!” You will teach them more with that non-lesson that you would with any mini-lesson. She also shared a great analogy, courtesy of Lester Laminack. Ask any middle schooler what they can’t wait to do, and invariably you will hear “drive”. We don’t teach them this desire- there are no minilessons, no group discussions, no direct instruction on why driving is great. Instead, their experiences with cars and in cars have made this a natural desire. We need to make reading just as natural a desire. They should want to read, they should desire to read. I can’t wait to share that analogy with some of my colleagues!

My next session with with the famous Lucy Calkins (The Art of Teaching Reading, The Art of Teaching Writing). Her session was standing room only and it was like being in the presence of a celebrity. While she didn’t teach as much as motivate, she was extremely inspiring. She shared some sample writing with us and I still managed to learn a lot.

The third session was one I was looking forward to because it focused on grammar. A project leader (whose name escapes me right now) took us through a typical week of grammar instruction in the middle school she coaches. It was a great marriage of direct instruction and inquiry, and a model I think my district would be satisfied with me pursuing. She also told us that we shouldn’t spend more time planning our grammar lessons that we actually spend teaching grammar. So if we teach 20 minutes of direct instruction grammar during word study, then don’t plan for 3 hours. I took lots of notes in that session and walked out with a booklist of books I must buy! Already I am planning to get Constance Weaver’s The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching and Don Killgallon’s Grammar for Middle School: A Sentence-Composing Approach–A Student Worktext. Has any used either of these? Or have a suggestion for where I could find them a little cheaper?

I was very excited for the last session. Georgia Heard shared her poetry unit of study with us and it was phenomenal! First of all, she was a lot younger than I expected (which surprised me, for some reason). It was so inspiring to hear her share her own experiences with poetry in the classroom. I also have a much better understanding of the doors to poetry that she discusses in Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School. I took copious notes in all the sessions, but especially hers, and can’t wait to go back and read them over to let them really sink in.

I swear, I was such a fangirl today. I could have stayed at TC all day, because I was finally in the presence of these men and women who have shaped so much of my teaching. They were practically celebrities to me. To hear my own beliefs and experiences in the classroom affirmed by the Project leaders and the other teachers attending the Reunion really strengthened my resolve to continue what I am doing. It was an invigorating, renewing, energizing day. I would go every month if they offered it! My next goal is to attend a summer institute at TC, as soon as I can afford it (our district doesn’t pay for it). If 5 hours taught me this much today, I can’t imagine what a week would do! I would just need a little more sleep. Getting up at 5am killed me today!!

Oh, and I finally experienced a document camera/ELMO for the first time today. How do I get one in my classroom?! It was amazing! I could already name a million ways I would use it in my classroom!!!

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