Monday, July 25, 2016

It Takes A Village

As a parent, I have quickly learned the true meaning of “it takes a village.” With two under two, my hands are full. Inevitably, one is crying or crawling in the direction of danger, but I am so fortunate to parent with a strong partner – a father who truly understands the inner-workings of the small, sensitive girl type.

Raising children is incredibly challenging – even in an ideal situation. I am lucky to be surrounded by a large, very involved, extended family. My whole life has been filled with family functions and outings to the countless museums, day trips, and birthday celebrations. My grandparents on both sides, my parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles, and cousins are precious people in my life, and I have been even more blessed in the last two years to watch all of these people love my children in ways that I cannot. Currently, this love mostly involves giving my oldest daughter cookies, but I am sure that these roles will continue to evolve as my daughters get older. It takes a village.

Educating students and preparing them for “the real world” is an insurmountable feat. In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, students must be tech-savvy, media literate and effective communicators in multiple formats. They need to be able to think critically, analyze, and engage in a fast-paced, ever-evolving society. These skills are not ones that they will acquire in a lesson, a day, or even a school year. They must repeatedly be taught, refined, and honed. Again, it takes a village to educate one child.

We do not live in vacuums. Even though it might seem like a school, community, or town is representative of the entire world to our students, there is so much beyond what they can see and fathom in their schools. The same sentiment is true for us. Outside of our own schools, there are different perspectives, ideas, methods, and people who have so much to share and wisdom to provide. As society, technology, and ideas quickly evolve, I know I find myself running to keep up. Because of this feeling, I am so grateful for my village – my personal learning network – that has helped inform me, encourage me, and provide me with great resources. The people who make up this PLN are the people I engage with on a daily basis. They are my colleagues in my school and my district. They are the speech coaches with whom I spend countless hours on cold Saturdays scoring tournaments. They are the people that I talk to both frequently and infrequently on Twitter, who encourage, reply, comment, and share articles, perspectives, and wisdom. Again, being in this profession often requires a village of collaborators to encourage each of us to be our very best.

How do we best utilize our professional PLN?

1. Read.

The NEAEdutopia, the NYT Learning NetworkEducation WeekISTEtech blogs, and teacher blogs – there are so many organizations to access with the latest on educational policy, tools, practices, and methodologies. These resources are easy to find, browse, and provide support to educators. Scrolling through Twitter, it is easy to spot interesting articles, resources, and links to more information about a variety of educational topics. Clicking a few links can lead to fantastic resources and information. Just as we encourage our students to read, we too should read to learn more about the ever-changing ideas of our field.

2. Attend conferences and engage in professional development.

In the past few years, I have forced myself to present at conferences. For my first few years especially, I struggled with the idea that I had nothing new to offer or lacked the experience to share ideas. Thankfully, I had a friend who dragged me with her to a #edcamp. At my first #edcamp in Wisconsin, I realized that every person has something to share – regardless of years in the profession. We are all unique and have creative ideas. It is innately within us as educators. As such, it is important to share and speak out. Recently, I have made it a goal to present at more structured conferences. I found that by collaborating with peers over presentations, I learn more about my practice than I ever realized possible. Preparing for a presentation has challenged me to reflect upon my practices – not just what I do, but also why I do what I do in the classroom. This metacognitive exercise is invaluable and as a result of challenging myself to do this, I have learned so much. 

Professional development that occurs locally at the school and district levels can also provide meaningful experiences. While we don't love every meeting we sit in, we can gain some insight, perspective, or tool that we might not have thought about before by being open, receptive, and engaged. 

3. Listen.

Listening is the most underappreciated facet of literacy. We are all often too busy and bombarded with messages of every kind to truly take the time to stop and listen. It is essential for us to allow ourselves time to listen – to experts, to colleagues, and even to ourselves. By listening, we can reflect and understand the ideas and perspectives others to even greater levels than we might have imaged.

4. Speak.

Along with listening, we need to speak – kindly and openly. It is better when we work together. The load, which is already heavy, becomes lighter. Our ideas and practices become richer when we share. Ultimately, our business is about kids and community. We all want what’s best for them. We simply need to share our best ideas and selves to provide that for them. Again, it takes a village.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reading Children's Books: Lessons Learned from Olivia

Summer burns away all too quickly, and this one has been a particularly bright one. With two kids under two, my pace has slowed and my desire to savor each moment has deepened. Besides taking walks and going to the park (which has become quite busy these past few weeks with Pokemon Go), my daughters and I find ourselves at the library multiple times a week. As a result, I have been thumbing through pages nonstop. Personally, this has been a summer of reading memoirs - often involving cancer, loss, and small children. Perfectly ideal for my current life stage, right? Always on the move, I have been turning speed-reading sessions squeezed in between excursions with the little ones and feeding into speech pieces. Dejected Dramatic Interpretations and melancholy Prose Readings have filled my "Cut Scripts" folder in Google Drive to the digital brim. Despite the emotional turmoil I have voluntarily forced myself to endure, I'm ready for another Speech season.

In addition to ugly crying my eyes out yet another story of a young family being torn apart by illness far too soon, I've been reading as many children's books as I can carry out the library doors with at least one child in my arms. As a family, we enjoy  (or rather my husband decided we should enjoy) The Bernstein Bears series, Dr. Seuss books, Chicka Chika Boom Boom - the classics. Thanks to a former student (named Olivia), we have also been reading the Olivia series. We laugh, we read and reread pages of text, and we discussion the lessons and themes that Olivia has taught. (Of course, these conversations are often one-sided - my oldest is not even two. Currently, our communication relies heavily upon tone and Daniel Tiger songs. I have faith that she's absorbing some empathy!)

Life lessons according to Olivia: 

5. "Just because it's called a veggie loaf, it doesn't mean it can't be something more exciting, like a veggie castle."

Sometimes, life is hard. Children cry. Cars break down. Illness happens. In spite of the challenges life presents, we have the opportunity to look at a difficult situation and create something exciting. Each experience, no matter the initial reaction, can lead to a great conversation, a sweet moment, or a strengthening of either oneself or relationships. Like Olivia notes, we choose to view what is presented to us as either something awful or we can choose to see what lies before us as a new possibility - one full of hope.

4. "I know this is hard to believe, but more of something isn't always better."

Slowing down is an amazing and freeing feeling. This summer, I've allowed myself to get lost in my thoughts. I take walks with my daughters, sat on swings, and gotten a little dirty. In a culture of busyness, I have adverted the trap this summer. Yes, I'm still running literally and figuratively a great deal. Nap time and my evening still allow me to return to activities in my cherished to-do list journal, but I'm allowing myself to leave items unchecked. There's always tomorrow. Today, I'll take time for my family.

3. "A little appreciation goes a long way."

Gratitude and thankfulness are often a topic I raise with my Speech Team students. Teaching students for showing gratitude, to write thank-you notes, and to appreciate what has been given to them is essential. These are life skills we all should implement. Demonstrating a bit of gratitude and appreciation for even the smallest of gestures and kindness shown to us can improve the world around us exponentially. A few words or even and a gracious smile can enhance our world.

2. "Sometimes you just have to use your big voice."

I teach and coach speech. I spend nearly every day of my life (even during the summer) engaging with my students, and yet, I still find myself exhibiting anxiety about speaking in front of groups at times. Personally, I fear discord and can be known to shy away from a debate, but I have attempted to take a note from Olivia and share my beliefs. I've been writing more, and I allow myself to be more vocal without over-worrying about piquing the thoughts of others.

Being able to communicate is essential to success in adulthood. We are always being asked to articulate our thoughts and ideas through writing, speaking, and listening. Finding one's voice is invaluable and must be cultivated in students today. I will continue to find opportunities to share my voice positively with others - not for me but for them. Actions speak volumes about who we are and what we value. Speaking up and speaking out positively can enhance our collective understanding of the world, which in turn, makes it a better place to be.

1. "When playing a cowbell, never underestimate the importance of enthusiasm."

Enthusiasm is a sign of passion. It is excitement with a focused directive. Enthusiasm feels like running down a hill, gaining momentum toward the finish line. Enthusiasm is powerful. Making noise and marching to the beat of her own drum, Olivia has reminded me this summer that I need to hit the reset button every once in a while and reflect on how I am living my life. A teacher's life is not measured in calendar years. It is marked by bells, and semesters, and holiday breaks. Maintaining joy and enthusiasm makes the tough days easier, the fun days more memorable, and the important days more meaningful.

Watching Harper run to the door of the library and turn sharply left toward the children's section brings me great joy. Fostering a love of learning and reading starts early. Books provide us with an opportunity to explore the world beyond ourselves. While sometimes the stories we discover and the paths we travel are filled with trepidation and loss, life can seem immediately more joyful when we take the time to view the world as a small child does - wonderful with each new page.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Relationships and the Numbers that Really Matter

My podcast consumption is at an all-time high. Recently, I listened to The Hidden Brain's episode entitled "Students and Teachers." While the content wasn't necessarily new information, the episode was filled with facts and data that we often overlook or push to the back burner. The questions were posed: How do we close the achievement gap? How do we improve test scores, grades, and academic achievement as a whole? And most significantly- what truly matters in improving the educational experience of our students?

Data. It's a dreaded word, especially in the humanities fields, but it is an important one. I get it - data is often associated with frustration, lack of relevance, and the time taken away from instruction and building relationships with our students. (Side note: I am the daughter of a math teacher turned principal who understands data better than anyone I know. What she sees in numbers is unparalleled by anyone I know, and it has made her very successful at her job. My dad's an economics man. He reveres socio-political news as a way to understand human beings and the world we have created. To add to my influences and the chagrin of my parents when I told them I wanted to be an English teacher, my older brother is a former math teacher (specifically stats). I grew up around math; I appreciate them. Numbers help me make sense of the world.

While I honestly have little interest in ACT testing data, other forms of data can be utilized to improve our understanding of our students. When gathered and applied correctly, data can provide us with valuable information about our students and how to best serve their needs. Localized assessments, formative reviews (which can be FUN... I personally love dancing to the Kahoot music), surveys, and parent contact can provide us with information about students' interests, past experiences, motivation, and can challenge us to consider what works in our classrooms. Qualitative data, while harder to gather and organize, is invaluable to us in our individual classrooms with our students. 

Immediately after the "d" word was mentioned, Shankar Vedantam, the host of the podcast, turned his focus toward relationships and supported this notion with more data and more science. What matters most concerning the achievement gap (which is a multi-layered and complex issue) in the classroom is how we connect to our students. When students and teachers form strong bonds, test scores improve, students are far more likely to complete high school, and overall academic achievement improves. The academic numbers then translate to future earning potential and success post-schooling. And those are the numbers that matter; those post-secondary achievement numbers are the ones that ultimately improve the lives of our students. Also, teacher performance improves with stronger student-teacher relationships, which in turn, improves the quality of students' experience. Relationships are reciprocal.

So - how do we build better relationships? What goals do I want to reflect upon, reinforce, and improve next fall? 

1. Allow myself time. 

Time is our most precious commodity. In any given classroom, curriculum maps consume and overwhelm us. The need to cover specific material does place a significant amount of pressure on us, but there are ways to carve out time. Encouraging students to write blog posts, narratives, or reflection papers can reinforce skills while allowing time for teachers and students to build relationships. Talking before and after class with each student as they walk in and out of the classroom is a fast way to personalize each relationship (even with the students who run out the door because they have to get into gym volleyball - that struggle is real at my school). 

Sometimes when the going gets tough, stop and take a minute to close the books, devices, etc. and check in. This past semester, I had a few cookie days. I brought in cookies, told my students to take a few when they walked in, sat, and chatted. Especially during busy testing times and the end of a semester crunch, taking the time to chat and eat a cookie allowed them to de-stress, connect with classmates and me, and gave us something to look forward to after completing the next major task. There's always time for a cookie. 

2. Get involved. 

Coaching, sponsoring a club, attending activities, or just being present... there are so many ways to get involved. Going to dances, showing up at games, wearing t-shirts designed by students that support various clubs, and simply opening the door before and/or after school is immensely important in showing students 1. I care. 2. I'm here. Even if they don't stop in, knowing that they can make a significant difference to my students. 

3. Leave the door open. 

Yes, physically leaving the door open to the classroom is a symbolic gesture that communicates volumes to students (although, technically - I think it's against fire codes). When possible, show or at least make it clear that the door's always open. I sit in my classroom every morning, and while it's mostly full of kids I coach, I usually end up with a few other regulars who want to use a Chromebook, need me to print something, or simply want to talk. I don't complete many academic tasks, but so much more is accomplished in terms of forming these relationships. 

4. Communicate high (yet attainable) expectations. 

Students will rise to the occasion. They will accomplish so much more when they know we believe in them. One idea that made me pause when listening to the podcast was the idea of personalizing notes. By leaving sticky notes on surveys when a researcher wanted people to complete them, he saw a rise in completed surveys and interaction with students. When feedback is personalized and direct, students will respond. Providing personalized notes and messages is time-consuming, yes, but more often than not, it is incredibly valuable in motivating and inspiring students to reach new levels of achievements (Check out the article "You've Been Doing A Fantastic Job. Just One More Thing..." from the New York Times.  

5. Contact parents. 

This part of the episode was the most convicting. In a study conducted by Harvard and Brown, researchers found that sending a weekly message to parents increased student performance. When parents hear information about their students' school experience, they are more likely to talk to their students. When people hear positive information and receive encouraging reinforcement, they are far more likely to want to continue to succeed and will even be more inclined to respond to critiques and feedback after hearing something positive. Communication is key. While I do send home emails on occasion to my lower-level students, I do not do this nearly enough with my other students. Communicating with parents and sending positive feedback is something that I must do more of and am planning on making a part of my goals for the 2016-2017 school year. After all, communication is one of the six essential skills to success! Thanks, NPR.

We've all heard the adage that relationships are a two-way street. To me, relationships between students and teachers (and parents, too) resembles a round-a-bout - slightly unnerving, a little hectic at times, containing several different directions in which to veer, and powerful when all the pieces work together. 

Works Cited

"In The Classroom, Common Ground Can Transform GPAs." NPR. NPR, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 05 July      2016.

Kamenetz, Anya. "How To Raise Brilliant Children, According To Science." NPR. NPR, 05 July  
     2016. Web. 05 July 2016.

Kamenetz, Anya. "Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them?" NPR.      NPR, 28 May 2015. Web. 5 July 2016.

Tugend, Alina. "You’ve Been Doing a Fantastic Job. Just One Thing ..." The New York Times. The
     New York Times, 05 Apr. 2013. Web. 05 July 2016.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Memoirs and Meaning

"Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life."
-The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr 

Scan. Read. Get lost in pages. Cry a little. Reread. Find the message. Become inspired. Cut. Repeat.

This is the process by which I cut a speech piece for my students. Sometimes with a particular student in mind, other times with an arbitrary idea of the archetype of a student that inevitably finds his or her way on the team. We tend to attract a type. Like minded people always seem to find one another. This process is mentally draining and greatly affects my ability to sleep. As a result, I try to complete as much of this process as possible in the summer. The anxiety that builds as I begin the arduous process is slightly stifling and probably the most depleting part of the process until I finally allow myself to dive into a text and hopefully discover something beautiful. Yes, this description is a bit dramatic, but it has become a small and thankfully brief part of the speech season preparation process - one in which I now find myself immersed.

Every story has a message, and every message carries meaning. Above all else, the most impactful part of speech team is connecting that message to a young person who can internalize, process, share, and apply its meaning to his or her life.

Understanding the learning opportunity here makes my work a tedious labor of love. As I craft an eight-minute, 1200 word story, I must carefully consider how an idea can indeed set a spark in my students' audiences and most importantly, how this idea could pervasively influence the perspective of my students.

This summer I have found myself devouring memoirs page after page. I cannot seem to quell my curiosity for the stories of others. Point-of-view and perspective have a significant impact on how we understand and see the world. Appreciating the opportunity to glimpse into the lives of others, I find myself reflecting on my life - where I am now and what I valued at the beginning of my teaching career. How naive and optimistic I was at 22 years of age; how I still refuse to relinquish my optimism even though it is challenged far too often.

What I've Learned From Memoirs

1. Our pasts significantly influence our perspectives and reactions to shortcomings.

As Alfred Tennyson stated, "I am a part of all that I have met." Our perceptions are shaped by our pasts. Just as it is important in reading comprehension, our background knowledge and schema determines our reactions to the experiences we encounter. As such, where we were forges the path to where we go. Memoir writing is infiltrated with childhood stories and ideas that resurface in our presents. These stories are written with the intent to share, instruct, and inspire. Venturing into the lives of others through memoir promotes reflection and empathy as readers place themselves in the shoes of the people on the page.

2. We can choose how we react to the obstacles we face.

The subject that seems to be the greatest instigator of writing is death. Death is finite. It marks the end of an era and can also be a spark that leads to a richer understanding of the world or a fresh perspective that might have otherwise been discovered. My June reading was burdened by death, but with this finality comes hope. With loss comes the promise of a better future.

3. Not every tragedy is the end of the world.

In the novel, It's Okay To Laugh (Cryings Cool Too) by Nora McInery Purmort the author expresses her refusal to mourn her husband until after his death. She lived in the present and valued the memories that were created as a result - in spite of the pain and hardship she ultimately endured. It is okay to laugh at the tough stuff, too. If she can laugh, so can I. The sky isn't falling today, Chicken Little.

4. We are innately hopeful human beings. At least, I like to think so.

If people can find the courage to keep moving and share their stories with the world in the face of fatal illnesses and sudden tragedies, I can overcome challenges, too. If they can find words to inspire and ways to make their lives, and the lives of those they love, matter, I can too. We are relational people. We were made to share our stories and can learn much from one another.

Must Read Memoirs for any Sensitive Soul:

5. The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

This book was an impulse pickup at the library. In search of another book with a similar call number, I stumbled upon this title and instantly knew that this work on writing as a female in a digital age would become an oratorical declamation. Empowering and engaging, this book touches on important social issues and made for an empowering read.

4. A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The themes in this text have become recurrent in my reading. Beautiful, tragic, and engaging - this book touches on grief, loss, and struggling to cope with the challenges life has given us.

3. It's Okay To Laugh (Cryings Cool Too) by Nora McInery Purmort 

I found this book after reading her article on Slate entitled "Don't Tell Me To Put Down My Phone," on the new nonfiction shelf of the library. Witty, sassy, and real - this book tells the story of Purmort's courage in the face of cancer and how her family chose to keep living even with the worst prognosis.

2. Please Stop Laughing at Me: One Woman's Inspirational Story by Jodee Blanco 

This book focuses on bullying and has been on my must-read list for a while. Blanco's story is a must-read for anyone who teaches teens. It is tragic that bullying occurs, but listening to her story can help others cope with their own.

1. Two Kisses For Maddy by Matthew Logelin

I avoided reading this book for about a month. This is the real life story of Matthew Logelin, who loses his wife unexpected one day after giving birth to their daughter. This story is the most sincere, honest, and painful reads I have read to date. Once I started reading this book, I couldn't put it down. 

...and I'll keep turning the pages, delving into the lives others, empathetically in search of meaning through the blackened kaleidoscopes that I call my eyes. 
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