Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Pursuing Happy

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Starting school after a maternity leave is certainly emotional and bittersweet. This return was more difficult than with my older daughters - because the time went too quickly, because this is my final maternity leave, and because this time, my child with CF needs me more. While the mixture of emotions I have felt this past week have been taxing, I have felt overwhelmed with joyful moments. The kindness and support of the school community has reminded me that we are in the business of people. Interspersed with mastering reading strategies and polishing writing techniques, there is a humanistic element to academia; from each other, we teach and learn how to live.

I am not ashamed to admit that I love schedules and to-do lists, and as a teacher, I do not think I am alone in finding comfort in a full calendar. Routine and the sound of a school bell bring subtle comfort. Pavlov himself proved that we could be conditioned by a bell, and upon hearing that sound, my life has returned to normalcy. While still tired from caring for an infant (and a three-year-old and a precocious two-year-old), I am re-energized by the people I interact with each day. Instead of having too much time on my hands to worry and plan for a future that may never come to pass, I am challenged to live in the moment and be present while with the students, the lessons, and yes, even the grading that require my attention now.

How does anyone return to the usual grind after an extended break - especially at the end of a semester and in the middle of the holiday frenzy? How does anyone maintain happiness while transitioning from a family-focused life to a work-life balance regime? 

When anxiously attempting to find a solution to this problem around Thanksgiving, I called upon a colleague for help. Relying on others to help provide feedback and share quality lessons that are effective and engaging can only enrich my students' experiences in my class while allowing me to maintain some semblance of sanity. 

This semester, I packed 12 weeks of work into the first eight weeks of the semester. Knowing that I would be gone motivated me to provide multiple writing experiences and opportunities to gain both formative and summative points. With an accelerated approach to the semester and a fantastic maternity leave substitute who kept the kids burning for learning, I knew I could ease up on introducing new content and instead, focus on reviewing essential writing and analysis skills. 

At the advice of my friend and colleague, Karah, my students watched The Pursuit of Happyness and focused on essential themes that will help students transition from first-semester content to the second semester I-Search Research project. The project's central focus and purpose is to challenge students to determine what will bring them happiness in the future, making exposure to this text a valuable conversation piece and resource for their future writing and research. Analyzing a digital text allowed students to forge deeper connections and analyze the characters and their experiences. After taking notes on the themes in the film, students were then tasked to create an Instagram (on Google Docs) for one of the characters, which allowed them to creatively capture the experiences and lessons within the movie. After captioning several photos and creating a digital story, students then analyzed their pictures and established how the pictures illustrated a major theme from the film.

While a little less conventional, challenging students to use multimedia texts to draw conclusions, make connections, and define key course themes are valuable and meaningful as we culminate a semester's worth of learning. Students then used argumentative writing to prove how three of their six pictures illustrate a theme from our discussion, which allowed them to practice and implement more formal writing skills. This activity not only provided an opportunity to be creative with the photos they took, but it also asked them to write and identify themes that we will continue to discuss next semester. Karah is a rock star teacher, and I'm so grateful that she talked me through and shared this idea!

Returning to this project on HAPPY has not only allowed me to focus on reconnecting to my students and ending the semester on a positive note, but it has also challenged students to apply critical skills using multimedia texts. I am so grateful for friends and colleagues who inspire and support this working mama as I transition back to my happy home away from home. Upon my return to my real home, though, it is always nice to be greeted with a hug.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Matters of the Heart

This semester, I have started several blog posts but left them unfinished. I continually abandoned my ideas over the past few months because each time I write, the content continues to stray further from the formal and academic discoveries made in the classroom to more personal matters. As educators, our lives outside of the brick walls in which we teach are often entwined with our occupation. Our academic lives come home with us and so too do our personal lives when we enter our classrooms. Teaching is, after all, a matter of the heart, and thus, we cannot help but give our hearts fully to our students and our professional-related pursuits.

This school year, I struggled to maintain a smile on my face, to keep pace with my former self, and to explore new instructional methods, concepts, and technology tools that normally consume my free periods. For the first two months of school, I was in the final weeks of pregnancy with my third child and in a significant amount of discomfort caused by his position on a vein that sent shooting pain down my right side. Often hiding in a faculty bathroom to cry during free periods, I fought to keep a smile on my face and deliver the best content to my students - all while coaching a lively team of passionate and energetic group of high school public speakers. It is not in my nature to show shortcomings or to project any sort of negativity, and so I tried to conceal my struggles. As with anything, the notion that a momentary discomfort is temporary kept me motivated and focused on teaching and giving my best to each student I encountered through the end of my pregnancy.

And I did. Teach until the end - about three hours before I gave birth. My son, Jordan, was approximately 2.5 weeks early, and while I knew I was having contractions, I was in denial that he would dare come before the end of the school day! 😊 With only one academic class left to teach, I succumbed to his eagerness to make his appearance in the world and left school, attempting to be as subtle about leaving as possible. With that, my third child was born at 3:33 PM, poetically marking his place in the world and our family.

Since his birth, life has changed. With the birth of each of my children, my disposition has calmed. Spending quality time with each of my children, making memories, and bonding has caused me to pause, embrace stillness, and breathe. With my son, the final chapter in our family of five who was born with a genetic disorder, cystic fibrosis, I strive to treasure these moments even more dearly. Amidst a house with three children age three and under, two dogs, and what some might refer to as pure chaos comes a desire to find work-life balance, to find greater meaning in each experience, and to make relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and most significantly, my students stronger. My world grew brighter with the addition of my son, and as a result, I am sure that it will be an amazing year in which I strive to maintain perspective, gain understanding, embrace positivity, and above all else, remember to just breathe.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Online vs. Face-to-Face Instruction: Surprising Similarities (Part Two)

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FINALLY! All classes taught (the Summer Reading Program for Freshman Struggling Readers for the high school and Intro to Speech for the community college) and taken this summer (Online Learning training courses) are completed. I can rest my mind for three whole days before Speech Camp begins; this summer is flying too fast. This summer has been one of reflection and growth as I approach the start of my 10th year of teaching while challenging me to seek balance as a mom and educator. Since online learning has been such a focus this summer, I sincerely approached this relatively uncharted territory with some reservations, seeking to find the differences between traditional and online learning. My reservation lay mostly in the subjects I teach, communication and humanities, which rely on face-to-face interaction and nonverbal communication. As the summer continued and I engaged with more instructors at various levels of teaching/experience with online learning also in these fields, I was encouraged, surprised, and eager to overcome the minor barriers to some day provide positive and growing experiences for students in this academic area.

The two topics I previously addressed include: Read "Online vs. Face-to-Face Instruction (Part One) HERE

  1. Start with organization. Always have a Plan A, Plan B, and maybe even a Plan C.
  2. Prioritize relationships and tone setting.
Both of these areas of instruction focus on the initial setup and launch of a course, which will most likely be time-consuming at first, although these aspects will become easier with time. After addressing the beginnings of a course, I knew I wanted to reflect on and note the differences of heart of the course - its content. Once the course is established, however, how do the weekly interaction and student learning change?

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3. Student Engagement is #1 - Regardless of Format

Students who participate in online learning expect to be more independent with their work, the pacing of the course, and the activities in which they are required to engage. Because of the asynchronous nature of e-learning, students are expected to be more independent to comprehend content, participate, and complete tasks assigned. That being said, students still need additional support and want to feel connected to their peers, the content, and their instructors on some level. As instructors in any format, it is so important to allow our personalities, interests, and passions to shine through our instruction and content delivery. When we engage in self-disclosure ourselves, students feel a natural connection to the course, are far more likely to log in and participate and will share personal connections and insights. The act of self-disclosure can enliven discussion (forums or face-to-face conversations), lead to higher quality work, and start a dialogue of questions and resource sharing that can lead to further understanding of curriculum by all.

Engagement is pivotal to students' overall experience with the course, attitude toward the content/instructor/peers, and ability to retain information. In an online format (or again, any format), students should share resources, complete outside research (with credible sources), and forge deep connections between the information being learned and class and their lives. An onslaught of recent research studies and articles have addressed the changing needs and expectations of students, which is often attributed to the shift in technology and the frequency of connectivity thanks to mobile device, are centered around the idea that students seek information that is relevant to their lives, useful to their careers or present goals, and involves student-centered work. As such, we ought to work to ensure that curriculum design provides opportunities for students to engage in learning in ways that allow them to take control and feel ownership of their learning. When they are connected to what they are reading, producing, and creating, the learning becomes more meaningful.

Today's students need to apply critical thinking skills and move beyond recalling (or Googling facts). Written communication becomes a necessary skill as students are assessed by their peers and professors based on their grammar, ability to articulate ideas and the tone that is infused with their writing style. Through online interactions and engagement, students develop far more skills than just the those related to the course content. As instructors, we must guide, support, and encourage them to be engaged by being present, active ourselves, and modeling strong communication skills that will enhance their experience and motivate them to continue to log back onto the course's learning management system or in the case of a traditional high school classroom - keep them from scrolling on their phones and tuned into class each day.

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4. Online learning challenges us as educators to incorporate the most up-to-date research and resources.

When students are accessing a majority of course material, and in turn producing work online, a vast sea of information is available with a few simple clicks and key word searches. We are all exposed to a slew of information with every hyperlink we select. As such, we are now challenged with revamping and revising resources to keep pace with the ever-changing landscape of the Internet. Through the experiences I have had this summer, I realize that while this may seem like a daunting task for instructors at any level to keep up with the current research, articles, news, and trends - instructors are not the ones that need to be doing all of the curating. In fact, when students are taught to effectively research and seek out credible resources, they become the fact-finders and presenters of new information. Through discussion forums, students can locate information that pertains to their interests and learning goals, share and discuss the information they find, and synthesize the knowledge they gathered with course content. Providing citations and links to both students and the instructor alike, students lead the charge of maintaining relevance all while engaging in meaningful critical thinking and researching activities.

All of this being said, reinforcing research skills becomes crucial. While it seems as though instructors at every level K-12 incorporate research projects and activities, students often forget or simply block out key strategies and reminders about credibility, how to utilize online databases such as EBSCO and Google Scholar, and cannot for the life of them accurately cite a source using the correct version of APA or MLA even though quality, paid resources like Noodletools or the Purdue OWL provides all the information for them that they could need, students still need guidance in this area. Conducting a fast Google search is convenient and often seems to produce reliable results. As instructors, we need to take the time to explain why credibility matters, how going beyond a Google search can help them in their future careers, academic courses, and even daily lives, and how to evaluate and apply the information they find. These skills require continuous guidance, support, and reinforcement, which is perhaps an explanation as to why my high school students CLAIM they never had to create a works cited page. Students, I see through you and your youthful and often innocent attempts to prevaricate the truth.

My final thoughts:

Through these courses and experiences with online classes as a whole, I have come to realize that quality teaching is quality teaching no matter what platform is used to deliver the content. Students need passionate and personable instructors who teach them essential academic skills that will not only lead to immediate success in the classroom but also life success in any avenue students choose to pursue. While shifting one's methods of teaching to accommodate a different modality can be overwhelming or teaching a course for the first time can become a time-consuming and meticulous process, the same essential elements still must be implemented by instructors to ensure an engaging, rich classroom experience for students that involves relationships, relevancy, and dare I say it, even a little bit of fun!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Online vs. Face-to-Face Instruction: Surprising Similarities (Part One of Two)

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This summer, I enrolled in a few professional development courses for the community college that I adjunct for to qualify to teach online courses. Being able to teach online would allow me to teach multiple night courses during the school year and potentially avoid having to complete the nightly drive to class as often. While these facts alone are appealing, I began this summer skeptical that a Humanities Course (especially a public speaking one) would translate effectively online. With initial trepidation, I found it refreshing to take formal classes again for the first time in two years, and I appreciated that this experience challenged me to deeply consider course design, methodology, and reflect on student engagement. With the finish line of this experience in sight, I realize that these elements of instruction, particularly student engagement, remain surprisingly similar regardless of the format of the course and delivery of instruction. Online teaching, while mostly devoid of the nonverbal aspects of communication and relationship building, can provide rich forums in which to hold conversations about content, explore a multitude of resources, and can foster relationships. Noteworthy differences are felt from a traditional, face-to-face course to an online course, and I am not sold on young people being disciplined enough in their student skills to navigate an online course independent of face-to-face support and relationships, but I must say this platform holds value and the potential opportunities for both instructors and students.

How do we ensure the success of an online course or any course for that matter? The answer lies in the design of both the course and the level of student engagement, which is ultimately fostered by clarity and organization of the instructor, the energy front-loaded into the course, and of course, the relationships that are built through personal and content-specific connections to students' lives.

The question I have asked myself repeatedly (from the lens of an online instructor and also a daily, face-to-face teacher) is how do we accomplish all of these tasks? How do we provide the best learning experience and environment for our students in spite of any challenges, diverse needs, and obstacles that might appear?

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1. Start with organization. Always have a Plan A, Plan B, and maybe even a Plan C.

I am a perpetual organizer. A shelf of un-alphabetized or haphazardly scattered books serves as a source of temptation - calling to be sorted and organized. My friends laugh at my need to sort my Google Drive into numbered and labeled files, by date and completed for future reference as to how I may teach a course again. Color coding brings me joy and perfectly straightened rows, pictures, and papers are an absolute necessity if I do not want my world (or classroom) to feel like chaos. Aside from all those Monica from Friends personality traits, "I'm breezy." Honestly, besides inanimate objects needed to be in their proper places, I love truly chaos and the unexpectedness that people create. This sense of spontaneity is one of the reasons I teach and embrace the youthfulness and zest young people can bring to any experience.

When students enter a room or log in to a classroom, all the best-laid plans often go awry. Each student is a unique individual, with a distinct set of needs, interests, and skills. As such, each student requires an instructor to carefully consider learning outcomes, curriculum, and the best approach for the composite of his or her class during a given semester.

An outline is ESSENTIAL for unit timing purposes and standards aligning, but even classes given the same curriculum map and the set of expectations will inevitably vary. Creating an outline provides a framework for the course, allows the instructor to be more organized and prepared, and gives direction and purpose to the course as a whole. Building in flex time to tweak, change, and adjust to meet the academic and social/emotional needs of our students. With multiple plans and options in place, however, we are prepared and ready to make split second adjustments and recreate the plan even in a moment's notice, even if that plan is not A or B (or that plethoric C that allows me to embrace my inner tranquility and flexibility.

Often in an online course or graduate course in general, the outline is meticulously structured. A prescribed syllabus or curriculum is provided up front, but all learning modules (or weeks of the course) do not need to be presented on day one. In fact, giving students that much access to the course can often hinder learning. The instructor simply must be aware of his/her flexibility in planning assessments or assignments according to department and institutional requirements.

2. Prioritize relationships and tone setting.

Amy Cuddy, a Harvard business professor, has studied first impressions for over a decade. Understanding how to welcome and win the trust of an audience is crucial in establishing the tone for a classroom and according to Forbes, Business Insider, and Time Magazine, a person only has seven fleeting seconds to create that first impression. Shockingly, a Harvard study conducted in 1993 by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal has shown that students can judge a professor's effectiveness by merely watching a TWO-SECOND video clip and then evaluating them both after those two seconds and the end of a course. Yikes! No pressure is felt here.

No this information does not mean that we exclusively have the first few seconds on the first day of the semester to establish our presence and classroom environment, but it does remind me that we need to work consciously and carefully to provide students with an environment that is both structured, clear, and serves as a conduit for meaningful, life-connecting experiences and skills building that will lead our students to a successful next step (whatever that step may be). This type of tone-setting then becomes crucial and as I recall my #1 for this article - does require detailed planning on behalf of the instructor, at least for the first few days or module!

Students want to see us as people. When they're younger or if it is an online class, they often struggle more with fully comprehending that we do not live solely on a computer screen or in school (although I'm pretty sure many people in my community know my car... and may believe otherwise). We have passions, families, and we have imperfections that make us better teachers and lovers of learning. When we can find a way to jump into the mix of those first few days with our students, sit in their desks, look them in the eyes, share a few personal/goofy stories about ourselves, they begin to care more. Even if this additional sense of care is minuscule in the grander scheme of life and our students are resistant to writing papers, giving speeches, completing labs, etc., making them care about each other and us just slightly will naturally increase engagement, increase the positivity of the environment, and draw students to sign back onto the online platform or open a book outside of the physical confines of the classroom.

Tone setting is VITAL to fostering real and authentic relationships, whose memories and impressions will far outlast the definitions of key terms, the formula, or the plot of a book. Relationship building puts content into context, encourages team building and life skills, and allows for students to embrace the grander picture of their educational experiences because they start to care - for others, for what tasks are placed before them, and ultimately, they care more about themselves as they see themselves as part of a community. When students care about themselves and others, they will bring their best selves to class discussions, activities, and experiences - which ultimately leads to an increase in learning and meaning. My surprising realization regarding tone setting in an online learning environment is that besides physically being in the same space as students, it is not different. Best practices in this aspect of beginning a course are the same in any format.

Midpoint thoughts: 

Once the initial tone of the course is established, the real course design begins. My number three (3. Student Engagement is #1 - Regardless of Format) and four (4. Online learning challenges us as educators to incorporate the most up-to-date research and resources) realizations from this summer involve student engagement, which is the heart of instruction in any format and utilizing the most up-to-date and current research to drive student instruction. Note: I will elaborate on these topics in a subsequent post.

Overall, I have been amazed at the similarities between online learning and traditional face-to-face learning. The same strategies that drive course design and curriculum development in an online format remain the same as a face-to-face course with perhaps a little more intentional design to promote student engagement, discussion, and accountability. It is important to note that in online learning asynchronous interaction and connectivity occur 24-7. This loose time phrase does mean that direct interaction between class participants and the instructor occur less frequently and in entirely different means than a traditional course. Of course, this implies different types of activities, assignments, and expectations do exist What I have come to realize, however, is that in spite of these tangible differences, quality approaches to instruction at their core remain relatively unchanged. Quality teaching skills and instructional methods that many instructors have taken years to develop and refine is still vital and an important part of the learning process. The teaching aspect of education still matters and is what helps lead to students to become lifelong learners. What I love about being a teacher and what many others love, can and still does exist across multiple modalities of learning.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Cultivating Lifelong Learning in Every Moment

Time is the most precious commodity we all possess, and I'm sure we all can attest to not ever having enough. When perusing the nonfiction shelf at my high school's library the final week of summer, one book, 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute by Richard Wiseman, caught my eye. In the likeness of Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People, this book's cover seemed to promote methods to improve communication skills, persuasion, and the ability to engage with others - all skills I could implement in my speech classes and communication-based lessons. After finishing summer school and some pre-speech team prep, I have finally found a few fleeting moments to read for my own enjoyment. This book, among a few other nonfiction books, has been far too neatly stacked on my dresser for a month too long.

After reading Joy Kirr's Shift This, I have begun reflecting upon minor ways to improve classroom teaching and instruction this fall that will save time and yet still promote meaningful discussions and experiences for my students. Since time is such a valuable resource, the more meaning infused into a lesson or activity, the greater the chance to impact student growth - both academic and social/emotional. When students recognize the value of a lesson or even a moment of a lesson, they are more likely to remember their experience in class, which can ultimately lead to lifelong learning, which is the goal - right?

Depending upon educational pursuits and career choices, my students will need writing skills to varying degrees. Regardless of their vocational paths, they will need to express themselves, communicate, and be able to discern what they hear, read, and see. 59 Seconds does an exceptional job using psychology experiments and well-researched studies to explain how the messages we construct influence our relationships, our ability to persuade, our motivation, and our overall effectiveness as communicators and leaders in our classroom. While this is not a book focused on education, I appreciated the insights and the broader perspective on human engagement as a whole.

As teachers, we are responsible for sending thousands of verbal and nonverbal messages each day. From face-to-face interactions, hollers in the hallways, and abundant amounts of emails, we are constantly being bombarded with and expected to return clear and thoughtful statements to well over one hundred people a day. These communicative exchanges have not even accounted for the expressions we constantly send nonverbally and often inadvertently. Our profession requires us to be loquacious and engaged communicators on both conscious and subconscious levels. Every action sends a message to our students that influence the overall classroom environment. Even our placement in the room at the onset of a period can send a message and impact the tone of the room. (No wonder many of us struggle with making a straightforward decision about what to eat for dinner at the end of the day! Our communicative circuits are overloaded).

At the school in which I teach, a single class period is only 45 minutes in length. This minuscule moment in time is full of possibility and opportunities to convey critical skills and life messages students, but the brevity is certainly noticeable. Teaching requires a great deal of persuasive techniques. When students have thousands of ideas that they can access from their smartphones, why would they want to turn off their devices and tune into what we are selling? Can't they Google the information that we are projecting to them? Herein lies our daily struggle with engagement and student motivation. What I appreciated about Wiseman's text was his attention to captivating an intended audience. Whether the audience consists of teens in a high school classroom or adults in a professional development setting, the techniques and conclusions he outlined could not only strengths the messages exchanged in a given setting (such as a classroom), but they could also add value to those interactions.

Here are my educational connections and takeaways from 59 Seconds. (I cannot turn off my teacher brain - even when reading to satisfy my own curiosity):

1. Live with and instill an attitude of gratitude in others.

I loved the "attitude of gratitude" concept, which was touched on early in the book. The "attitude of gratitude" was a major theme and focus for my speech team this past year. Being thankful for each opportunity, experience, and person strengthen the team. Living this motto and demonstrating it through actions makes any environment and those within it thrive. Reading through this section of text was a convicting reminded me that this concept does not need to stop with a competitive team. Our attitudes impact our outlook on situations, which in turn affect those around us. As I am developing my curriculum for Junior English this fall, I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about the life of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye and all the Holdens I encountered in my teaching career. Being a teenager is challenging. Whether it be as intense as the death of a loved one or common as a breakup or the loss of a first love, their problems are real and painful to face. Promoting positivity and a grateful outlook on the gifts we are given can help students learn to cope with the struggles they face and even promote empathy, which along with the growth mindset are two areas I want to explore in the 2017-2018 school year). My goal is to have the "attitude of gratitude" promoted on a bulletin board, incorporated into lessons, and even infused into my weekly life challenges that I have been developing for my juniors this fall.

Side note: "Want To Be Happy? Be Grateful" is an awesome TED Talk that touches on a grateful attitude.

2. Be a giver; it's contagious.

Along with an attitude of gratitude, the act of giving is another way to increase happiness and an inviting classroom environment. During the first semester, I am working on a weekly life challenge assignment in which students will be asked to do a simple task that typically involves showing kindness to others. Talking about giving to others needs to be a part of our conversations, especially as we read about characters in texts that are often disliked because they are misunderstood and needed someone to extend a branch of support. Giving to others, whether it be tangible objects or just giving our time or attention, is a fulfilling act that not only brings joy to others but brings joy to us. I want my students to see how easy giving can be and how significantly it can impact our environments. I am excited to see where the life challenge project goes. My students will be blogging about it this fall, and I cannot wait to read the results.

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3. Praise effort over abilities.

Yes, the growth mindset is everywhere! My mother's school district and several others have taken to Dr. Carol Dweck's research. While I have watched a few TED talks and perused a few articles, I have not read Dweck's book. I'd also like to read The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher's Month‑by‑Month Handbook for Empowering Student Achievement by Annie Brock and Heather Hundley, which has been on my radar for a while. Encouraging students to identify their strengths and recognize how hard work truly affects the outcomes of their endeavors is critical. Praising an "A" or winning a medal is not as impactful as praising the journey that it took to reach the achievement. Emphasizing the process of success, in turn, makes students more successful. As a parent of a young family, this concept has become even more important to me as I consider how I praise my daughters and recognize their growth. This year, I want to learn more about the growth mindset and actively discuss and apply this concept with my students, not just in a passive way.

4. Visualize yourself doing instead of achieving.

This concept struck me. I have always thought that I should challenge my students to see themselves achieving their end goals, but shifting our mindset subtly can have a significant impact on the outcome of their achievements. Instead of writing down a goal and looking at the end result, we should challenge our students to focus on the process. Envision how one would work toward the goal rather than completing the goal. This concept makes a great deal of sense. Creating smaller sub-goals and tasks that ultimately lead toward a greater accomplishment is a powerful thought process and can create conversations that last a significant period of time. Our students need to be taught this type of skill before they leave for college or enter the workforce, places in which they will be asked to handle a great deal of responsibilities that require achievement over time. This concept will help me a great deal second semester during the I-Search, a major research project that consumes the greater part of 2nd semester.

5. Consider your legacy.

As teachers, our legacy is never fully realized or seen by us. Often, students venture off into the world and find success, but unless it is through social media, we do not frequently witness how they impact the world. Even with social media, it is hard to discern and articulate our impact on our students, however, the lives we touch are many and do truly have a lasting effect. Promoting lifelong learning is challenging amidst the culture of busy. Students and teachers alike can fall into the trap of being task-oriented individuals, working to complete the daily checklist and not necessarily stopping to think about the intrinsic value of what is being learned on a given day. A personal goal of mine is to allow time, even if it is just a minute in length, each lesson to talk about the why. Why are we doing this? Why are we working on a particular skill? Why are we reading a certain book? I want to challenge myself and my students this year to use why on a daily basis. This word is important, and this word can truly make our students more thoughtful, introspective lovers of learning.

(This picture is a quote from the last page of Joy Kirr's Shift This)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Creating the Climate: Classroom Design

For the past decade, I have taught in one of the smaller classrooms in my school. Nestled into a central hallway, the classroom sees a great deal amount of traffic and is conveniently located near the Special Education office that houses a printer that I can pillage from in a pinch. Being an older classroom with original vents and windows that look directly into windows of another classroom, the room is not without its rustic charms (And by charms, I mean dust. An abounding amount of DUST). Nevertheless, I love this little classroom and the memories that have been created with my students and speech team members through the years. This year, my husband even purchased a portable air purifier, which significantly improved my ability to breathe through allergy season. Why didn't I purchase this miraculous device years ago?

To compensate for the cramped feeling that a small room can exude when 26+ seniors are packed into desks with no air conditioning on an almost summer day, a few years back, I asked my awesome and supportive assistant principal if I could have the custodians remove my teacher desk. Freeing up even a meager few feet significantly impacted the aesthetics of the location. In its place, I was given a narrow table on wheels on which I could rest my computer and sit in the early morning before the start of a school day. I also stocked supplies into a three-drawer contains to house school supplies that my colleagues who also shared the room could use. I even started stashing paperclips and pens in a speech team trophy - another cause to chuckle at my expense (I'm practical if nothing else! What else am I going to use a trophy for? More dust collecting?). Removing the teacher desk, which can be viewed as radical, freed up floor space, encouraged my students to move around the room with increased frequency, and provided me with a flexible, movable, and multi-functional piece of furniture. The act of riding oneself of the teacher desk also made me rethink the space and my habits as a teacher. Proximity is so crucial and can send a myriad of nonverbal messages to students. Through my observations, my constant movement not only keeps me energized throughout the day, but also encourages my students to remain engaged and also gives them another reason to poke fun at my expense! Another subtle change that I made involved moving the desk away from the wall. While the room does not have space to spare, a few feet (I'm petite) allowed me to squeeze behind my students, much to their chagrin. Now I could conference more directly with them and peer at their Chromebook screens as a subtle and gentle reminder to stay focused in the short time we have together each day. 

Next year, my room is approximately 1.5 times the size. I still will not introduce a teacher desk, but I will have additional space to begin infusing flexible seating into my room design. With the third child on the way, my husband and I have been nesting this summer by rearranging furniture and finalizing our daughter's playroom - also known as the entire basement. In doing so, I have procured a worn but functional couch and am aching to find a new shelf or two to be filled with scripts and books that have been boxed or inaccessible to my students for a while now. I am eager to arrange the desks and feel out the space before I begin to fill it. The topic of flexible seating has been on my mind, though, especially with the official adoption of 1:1 and the changes that will bring to student needs and student-life (such as a need to charge a Chromebook on occasion). 

I finally started reading Joy Kirr's Shift This!: How to Implement Gradual Changes for MASSIVE Impact in Your Classroom. I love how reflective her writing is and how much wisdom she shares from her experiences as an educator. Knowing her through Twitter and EdCamps, I have always been inspired by her and find her passion contagious. I am absolutely loving her book and have loved how timely her first few chapters have been to my reflections this summer - especially with room design and construction. After completing the first four chapters, I cannot recommend that every educator who is looking to grow and reflect this summer pick up a copy and read it! (Who isn't learning and growing in some way. That's a part of the gig, right?)

As the summer passes by, here's my list of priorities to consider with the new space:

A Student Center

With the use of technology, we rarely need supplies to demonstrate knowledge or write. Often, student writing is produced on the Chromebooks, but that does not mean we do not shut the Chromebooks to write on whiteboards, journal, complete group work, etc. In fact, closing down the Chromebooks is an excellent way to brainstorm ideas, collaborate, and connect with others. In doing so, we need markers, supplies, and even tape. Students in high school barely bring their books to class let alone a functioning pen or pencil. As a result, having a student center stocked with supplies at the ready and a few chargers for their Chromebooks would be so helpful to all in the room. Instead of a teacher desk, I sincerely have taken to this idea. Plus, I need a place to dock my computer as well. My long, rolly table will serve nicely as a place in which a student or I can access needed supplies, sit if he or she needs to a place work other than a student desk, and as an added bonus the corner that I'm looking at already has all the cords for the computer!

Bulletin Boards

I have NEVER had bulletin boards. I do not feel equipped to craft bulletin boards as a high school teacher. This single fact was one reason why I avoided elementary education. My former elementary teacher turned principal mother, however, is quite talented at bulletin boards and making everything perfectly centered, proportioned, and positioned. I have already enlisted her assistance in this process, but I still need to procure the supplies! What I loved in Joy's book was that she suggested keeping the classroom as an empty canvas - a place in which students can add their ideas, celebrate community happenings, and personalize THEIR classroom. I will devote at least one bulletin board to this purpose; however, I want to develop some skeleton to provide structure. My theme for this board will be "Oh the places we're going..." Yes, perhaps the idea sounds a little youthful for high school upperclassmen but instead of Dr. Seuss centered, articles from the local paper, information about the books we are reading, and what we are learning will appear, and this board will change throughout the school year. Reading and learning is an adventure! This idea is vital to instill in students. Another board will be devoted to my "Life Challenges" theme - a new project I will explore this fall. Students will be blogging about and completing brief life challenges each week. In hopes of developing empathy, making content more relevant, and creating community awareness, I will highlight how and why we should be cognizant of our community by completing and documenting our experiences with these life challenges. So, these are my two primary ideas for the boards. Thank goodness my mom will be helping me put these ideas into fruition.


In my old room, I inherited two narrow bookshelves with no backs. Students would unintentionally push books and play scripts through the back causing unneeded damage to the books. Also, the position of the shelves caused the books to be not accessible to students. I moved the shelves at the end of the year but still found them to be nonfunctional. In the move, I left those shelves behind and am looking for a better bookshelf or even a pocket-style, rotating rack to store the books. I want students to read and embrace the books that are there for them to use. If the shelves prevent or deter the browsing of books, then students are accessing them! Finding the proper shelves is still in works and will come with time.

Seating Arrangements To Spark Conversation and Flexible Seating

Like countless teachers, I have played with the arrangement of desks. Personally, I prefer clusters that allow me to move swiftly and quickly within them. In my old classroom, limited space prevents me from experimenting with the formation. Finally, I settled on three clusters of desks in a horseshoe formation, which worked. Now that I have a different space, I am excited to find a way to spark increased conversation and collaboration with a few variations on the horseshoe formation. Perhaps, I could even try tables or incorporate various types of seating in the future once I have a better vision for the desks. Flexibility seating is such a fascinating topic, and I loved how Shift This touched on experimenting with the possibilities. Also appreciated from this section of the text was the reminder that grant money might be able to help me purchase alternative tables and chairs that would facilitate collaboration and group work to an even greater extent. Any changes to the traditional desks that I currently have will more than likely occur in year two of this venue change, but it is certainly fun to imagine the potential.

A minor shift like moving to a classroom a mere a hallway over is exciting. A new space implies more options and the opportunity to rethink classroom design. Subtle alternations to the arrangement of a classroom can significantly impact on the overall climate. I am excited to read further into of Joy's book, which has raised timely topics for me as an educator and has challenged me to reflect on my goals for the school year that is about to begin. Please check out her blog and her work! Joy is an inspiring lady. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

Twitter for Education: How Tweeting and My PLN Have Inspired Me

In 2011, I caved to millennial pressure and signed up for a Twitter account. During the first two years that I had my very own handle, I only occasionally scrolled through the feed but remained tentative to post anything. I followed a few close friends and was unsure of how to access content that applied to my purposes for using and creating a Twitter account in the first place. Initially, I did not know how to search hashtags for key information or filter through the chaos. Overwhelmed and inefficient at utilizing this social media platform, I rarely gave it a glance.

Approximately two years after my inaugural tweet, a friend from work began sharing her experiences with #sschat and the personal learning network that she formed not only locally but around the country. The ideas she gained, and in turn, shared out were motivating and inspiring her to take on some neat challenges in her classroom. From technology tools to teaching strategies, discipline-specific content to interdisciplinary studies, the information she acquired from the other passionate and innovative teachers she connected with on this platform was incredibly valuable to my friend and the students at our school. After several conversations about how much she was learning and gaining from this experience, I decided that I relinquish an hour into exploring Twitter's potential. Even though I am an English teacher, I was invited to meet my friend and another social studies teacher for a coffee and Twitter chat date.

Upon arrival, I found myself slightly intimidated by the onslaught of devices that filled the table. From computers to tablets to cell phones, it seemed that my two colleagues were able to navigate multiple screens to quickly engage in the fast-paced frenzy that is a Twitter chat on a Monday evening. Abbreviations, hashtags, and edu-lingo allowed them to express meaningful ideas and contribute significantly to a conversation to which I could barely keep pace. Rules such as "Include an A1, A2, Or A3 before responding" and "Don't forget to use the hashtag" were being directed at me. Certainly, my novice nature was showing.

After my first chat, I was in awe at how open and encouraging people were. Teachers were sharing links to favorite resources, their curriculum, blogs, and teaching strategies that they found helpful and spent a great deal of their time curating. The openness of the teachers participating in this PLN was impressive and encouraging. The willingness that this PLN embraced to take risks and attempt lesson plans that may or may not yield favorable results brought me back to the Twitter-verse several times over. Because of Twitter and the members of my PLN, I read more and been exposed to incredible and innovative ideas that encourage me to continue to hone my craft.  I have been inspired by people who care deeply about their students and are constantly challenging themselves to learn more. By reading tweets from educators from all over the country, I view curriculum, read articles, and access resources that I would never have seen without this platform. Most importantly, I am continually encouraged after the both the best and toughest of teaching days.

I am grateful to so many educators that I have never met face-to-face because they have supported and renewed my passion for teaching countless times. Their passion, generosity, and endless curiosity have no doubt made me a better teacher, a more versed individual in current trends and techniques, and taught me how to utilize technology effectively and meaningfully in my classroom. 

What's neat is that it's never too late to jump on the Twitter bandwagon. What advice would I give to a person who, like me, initially had no clue as to how to tap into the amazing resources and individuals connected through Twitter? Here are a few tips:

1. Find a Personal Learning Network (PLN) 

Start searching through the hashtags! Explore a few hashtags that most relate to your content and interests. Signup for Tweetdeck, which allows you to view multiple hashtags at the same time in separate, easy to navigate columns. Jump into conversations and ask questions using the hashtags to help people filter through the noise and find you. Look also for the scheduled chats that occur weekly or monthly.

2. Log in with Some Consistency

Resources, articles, and ideas are being shared at a rapid rate. While not every person can consistently log in and engage in a chat each week, make sure you're opening the app on your phone in a free moment. Browse and scroll a few times a week, even for a short time period. You're guaranteed to find at least one tweet with an interesting article linked, a TED talk to inspire, or a quote to invoke reflection.

3. Don't Just Lurk - Post!

Many people will search familiar hashtags or communities, which is fantastic. Challenge yourself by putting your best ideas and resources forward. Share what's inspiring you! You never know who might view it, respond to you, or share it out to be seen by someone who needs to hear what you have to say. Never doubt your talents, creativity, and the ideas you have to share. I was so scared to engage in my earlier teaching career and doubted my thoughts and perspectives. While I am still always learning and growing, I have come to realize that challenging myself to share my ideas has given me more confidence and encouraged more growth than if I stayed silent.

4. Favorite and Find Meaningful Content

Twitter feeds and Twitter chats move at a rapid pace. When you're on the move or locked into a chat, it can be difficult to process every great resource or idea sent your way. Save great ideas for a time when you can quietly reflect and devote time to exploring further. The best tweets are great to share and retweet later, too!

5. Form Relationships

Especially for people who participate in a Twitter chat consistently, do not be afraid to build relationships. Share your ideas and compliment those ideas that inspire you. Do not hesitate to reach out to people and attribute credit where it is due! When you attend conferences or regional events, do not hesitate to meet up with people face-to-face. We're all equally nerdy and passionate about education. Besides, you do not want to be that person eating alone at an EdCamp anyway!

Reflecting on my Twitter experience is certainly long overdue. I truly am so grateful to the people in my PLN for inspiring me and challenging me to be a better educator on a daily basis. I cannot think of a better professional development experience than Twitter. Tweeting and using Twitter for educational purposes has been a tailored experience that allows me to forge meaningful connections on my own time. I cannot recommend using it enough! If you're interested in reading up on the Twitter chat I help organize, #engsschat, please check out the archives here: https://storify.com/Steph_Sukow 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

New Courses Lead To New Opportunities

This fall, my husband and I are expecting our third (and final) child. In October/November, our children will be turning three, two, and newborn. The closeness in age between my two daughters has been such a blessing to our family, and we are beyond excited to be adding the"epic conclusion" to our trilogy. Organized chaos is the only term that seems appropriate to describe both our personal and professional lives which have melded into one, and we sincerely embrace the pandemonium that we have created. Teaching during the day while co-coaching and co-parenting after school with two small children in our arms have only made my family stronger - physically (holding children for prolonged periods of time has a way of toning the triceps) and emotionally. Of course the pace our lives move at is brisk, but as a teacher, I had already become accustomed to fatigue long before babies entered my world. Chomping on Cheerios with the little ones in between critiquing the elocutionary shenanigans of my "big kids" fill my afternoons seven months of the year.

To assist me in finding some work-life balance, my course load has taken on a routine over the past few school years. Teaching familiar courses and collaborating with teams that have seen little alteration, has allowed me to continue functioning. This coming school year, however, I will take on a course I have yet to teach in my instructional career and will be teaming up with new faces. Change is often regarded as a challenge, and it certainly is, but aside from the time required to make any small deviation from the norm successful, I am eager to open a fresh page and tackle uncharted territory.

What I find rejuvenating about the opportunity to pursue courses I have yet to teach is the opportunity to explore texts that I have not visited since my high school days, engage in conversations about literary devices and character development with adults and students alike, and the task of crafting lessons that focus on students current needs and perspectives. Situations, resources, and events alter so quickly in our world that the prospect of developing curriculum at this moment to reflect the present time is exciting. The taxing part, however, is beginning. Like a young person who sits at a blank Google Doc contemplating how to start a literary analysis, I found myself at the end of this past school year, overwhelmed with where to begin. Pacing a course is always a concern of mine. Wanting to stimulate and stretch students' abilities in a manner that is rigorous but also promotes a strong sense of academic curiosity is no easy feat. Cognitive dissonance is valuable but can also deter a desire to learn. So where to begin?

1. Start with the Skills

Initially, I sat down at my keyboard and brainstormed a list of skills students need to master before moving forward. Promoting literacy skills - the ability to read, write, speak, and listen - is essential. Students need to be utilizing and applying these skills each day and need to be taught to value how interconnected they are. Not only do literacy skills matter in an English classroom, but they also matter in all academic areas not to mention their daily lives. Finding ways to hone these skills is essential no matter the curriculum or content being presented. Examining the curriculum map and required skills that have been crafted by divisional leaders and course curriculum designers is also essential. The more coherent and collaborative level-based teachers are, the more continuity can be created for our students. Learning is a staircase and helping students take the appropriate steps and relying on the knowledge they have been previously taught only enhances their ability to succeed and grow.

2. Establish a Theme and Vision for the Course

After exploring the curriculum map, talking with colleagues, and reflecting on the essential learning targets, I wanted to find a way to create cohesion in the content that I will be included. While some predetermined texts have already been selected for me, I do have some freedom to select shorter works, nonfiction articles, and a second novel to incorporate into my new course. Determining a theme and reflecting on my own experiences with students, I began scouring the Internet to find pieces to pair with Catcher in the Rye that will pique students' interest and allow them to discover nuances and make richer connections between their reading and their lives. As I began to reflect on the cynicism of Holden Caufield which is used as a device to mask his sensitivity and attempts to cope with life challenges, I began to realize that our experiences significantly impact our perceptions. While Holden can be labeled as jaded or spoiled, he's lost and struggling to cope with the situations that life has presented to him, much like many teens who are searching for a better understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. In addition to critical academic skills that will help a student succeed in a classroom setting, I want to cultivate empathy in my students. This coming semester, I will teach to the American Dream while also encouraging students to examine their communities, to reflect upon how their actions and choices impact others, and to seek out ways in which they can make a positive mark on the people they encounter every day. To instill these ideas, I crafted a list of "life challenges" that I will present my students with each week. Each week, students will be asked to give three arbitrarily selected compliments to people they would not normally speak with or give a gift (even a homemade token or item from a vending machine) to someone who appears to need a bit of encouragement, or some small task like this. Each Friday, I intended to have students blog about their experience and what they have learned. Hopefully, these modest but intentional tasks will allow them to think deeply about their roles in the lives of others and reflect on what that means for us as readers of literature, writers, and communicators.

3. Dive into the Curriculum

Strong teachers are perpetual learners. This summer, I am tackling a reading list that not only contains the texts I will be teaching in the fall but also reading a selection of texts that will help me live out the themes I hope to teach my students. Personally, I love nonfiction and motivational books. I love reading books on personal growth and perspectives on how to view the world. One of my favorite reads from last summer was Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't by James C. Collins. This summer, my favorite nonfiction read has been 59 Seconds: Persuasion: Think A Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wisemen, highlight different methods that people can apply during communicative experiences to win over audiences, and make a substantial impact on those we meet. Many of these strategies are discussed in speech courses and could be considered common sense, but so often we learn these lessons through communication mishaps and failures. While I read this book, I slowed my reading pace down to take notes and consider how the persuasive techniques and strategies that I was being presented to me could be incorporated into my course. I attempted to make connections to how Holden and many teens simply do not understand how to present themselves, how to express their ideas, and engage in self-disclosure as a means of positively fostering relationships. I am excited to utilize some of the anecdotes and examples from this text to my students and even suggest it as a free reading choice during the I-Search project my students will complete at the end of the year.

4. Create a Tentative Plan and Leave Room for Deviation

During the middle of this semester, I am anticipating a maternity leave. While I am not due until the very end of October and could be gone for the last six weeks of the semester (which I am sure would make my sub's job easier), my last daughter decided to arrive early - a whole month early. With a history of expeditious punctuality and a few warnings from my doctor, I have a feeling that this child will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Considering my life situation and the fact that I am a planner (to a slightly neurotic degree), I have begun to map out a detailed daily schedule. This level of preparation is not necessary, but it provides me with peace of mind. Having some semblance of a schedule, with an estimation of unit lengths, is essential and also bolsters both synergy and cohesion of skills throughout the semester. Themes and connections are also easier for teachers and students alike when a general calendar is laid out ahead of time. Developing this type of schedule also allows for backward mapping, which is helpful when attempting to develop authentic assessments that measure student growth and progress accurately. One token that I have learned from my impulse to over-prepare is to always build in additional time. Whether a project needs to be extended or simply a discussion warrants the need for further exploration, having extra time allows a teacher to differentiate instruction and gear curriculum to the individual students enrolled in any given course. Being flexible enough to take the time to thoroughly revisit a skill or delve into an activity is so critical for student learning and development.

5. Don't Forget the Fun

Learning requires work! Honing skills, writing, and reading a text might not always be students' favorite experience. That is okay. But when we allow them to demonstrate knowledge in different ways, utilize various tools (that involve technology and more traditional approaches), and vary our class period structure keep learning fun. When we carefully relate content to the present day, incorporate multimedia, and find ways to make learning more student-centered, the careful thought that is required pays off. By instilling our passion and personality into lesson planning, we can only enhance our students' experiences and their overall perception of the course. In a learning environment that leans into fun, students are far more likely to be successful and grow not only as students but also individuals.

I can't wait to see what this fall brings. New experiences both in the classroom and beyond can only lead to wonderful discoveries.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Teaching Reading: Opening the Cover to a World Full of Possibilities

Reading is an activity that many people enjoy later in life. Even my husband as a child would never have considered reading for any reason beyond being forced to for school until he graduated college and started taking a train to work. This sentiment is a common caveat among adults. When speaking with current high school students about whether they choose to read, the response I receive is either a chuckle or an exasperated reply, "With what time?" In the ever increasing treadmill-paced trot that too many of us, adults and youth alike, find ourselves trapped within either because of the current societal expectations or our natural intuition to overcommit, numerous young people (and adults too) often find themselves unable to sit still long enough to engage in this sustained and solitary activity.

Every summer for the past five years, I have had the opportunity to dive into reading with a group of my district's incoming freshmen students. Bright eyed and eager to start school, they often reluctantly come to this particular class because of the preconceived notion that they are enrolled in this class because they did poorly on a placement test, or they simply are not skilled enough to read on their own without support. Their self-efficacy is lower than their peers, and the level of discouragement in their eyes is apparent as they enter the uncharted territories of high school. While the curriculum does require direct instruction with fundamental reading strategies such as summarizing, evaluating, predicting, and inferring, the conversations and connections that can be made during this time to a wide variety of nonfiction and fiction texts provides students with keys that can unlock not only their academic success in their freshman year but also a new perspective on who they are as readers and consumers of diverse literary genres.

This summer, my focus has been placed on the question, "Why do we read?" and "How can we make reading more fun?" The conversations and reflections that my students have generated this year have impressed me immensely. Candidly and honestly, these students have truthful discussed why they do not read and have come to discover that reading is so much more than skimming the pages of the novel they have been assigned in their language arts classes. Reading is a skill, a habit, and a way to communicate with the world. The act of evaluating and deconstructing a text allows us to gain more information that can be used in conversation, to make decisions, and to understand more about ourselves.

Students read much more than they initially recognize. They are constantly latched to their devices like leeches - attempting to devour whatever social media post or notification comes their way. They read online. Even if the articles lack credibility or what many might deem quality content, students (and countless adults) find themselves caught by a catchy title and topics that pique their interest. As our conversations have divulged this summer session into the reasons and motivations for reading, I have attempted to steer our conversation toward nonfiction - toward articles that continue to rouse their curiosity and the types of literature they are far more likely to consume on a regular basis. From sources such as the New York Times Learning Network, Center for Urban Education resource bank from DePaul University, Kelly Gallagher's Article of the Week, Newsela, and Jamestown Reader articles, I have sought to encourage students to recognize what they can learn when they have the patience to search for a text that truly interests, engages, and relates to them. In addition to exposing students to texts, they may naturally encounter online, developing a familiarity with nonfiction reading skills will benefit them in school and on standardized tests. This type of nonfiction reading will also allow them to develop a richer understanding of the world in which they live. While I do love the Abraham Lincoln Books, which are often filled with young adult novels that students often love, I want to encourage my students to access all types of texts. I want them to understand and recognize how much they are consuming online and have resources to which they can turn for credible, high caliber articles if they so choose to explore a particular topic that sparks their curiosity. 

Regardless of age or educational experience, reading has the power to unite us. The more versed in literary content and familiar a person is with the skills required to access knowledge from texts, the more he or she can make informed, educated choices. Reading does not have to necessarily be a top priority or a favorite hobby (a fact I am trying to instill in my students), but it can be viewed as an enjoyable and empowering tool from which a person can gain vast amounts of information from and even an activity a person chooses to do in whatever free time he or she can muster out of life. Will they enjoy everything they read? Absolutely not. Can they gain the confidence and skills to make reading a meaningful part of their daily lives for a variety of purposes? Of course.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bare Walls and Empty Classrooms; Fresh Starts and New Beginnings

Note: This post was written in the final days of school. It's taken me a little time to fully reflect on the year and catch my breath from the whirlwind that was the end of this year and the onset of summer.

Summer has finally crept its way into the halls of my high school. Graduation whipped past me like the cardboard caps flying high into the air while the remaining students are completing day two of final exams. The reality of a summer break has officially hit me. This year, my classroom is completely packed in boxes as I will be making my way to the hallway over into a new classroom. Next year brings different preps than I have taught in the past and will also mark my tenth year teaching. While familiar faces will file through the halls again, the feelings that a new era is about to begin has struck me more significantly than prior years.

This newness and sense of excitement mean the potential for meaningful experiences and memories to be made. Fresh paint will be plastered to the cinder block walls and metallic rafters. I have a larger space to be filled with furniture I do not yet possess and actual bullet boards to decorate. Aside from the physical change of location, I am excited to spend time this summer reading a stack of books that have long been piled up on my shelf, spend time with my family, and regather my thoughts as countless educators do during the weeks of summer.

Looking at the walls that were once lined with posters, I realize that a classroom is more than a space for students to learn - more than just a location in which information is presented, and projects are completed. A classroom is a home - a place where young people learn more than just how to write a claim statement or solve a mathematical formula. The best moments of my first decade of teaching are not the moments in which I finally learned how to teach writing introductions effectively or crafted an annotating lesson that reached even the most struggling sophomore readers. No, the moments that I will hold onto for the next chapter in my career are the ones in which I saw a fearful freshman overcome his speech anxiety and work on perfecting a performance to the best of his ability at painstaking costs; the time I witnessed students realize that what was of the greatest importance was not the grade or accolades that come from producing quality work but the memories and lessons that were learned to achieve those rewards; and the countless times where I saw young people being kind souls to one another, great friends, and supportive shoulders for their peers. These moments all happened in this tiny classroom that I've called my home away from home for the last decade.

We will never fully realize the impact we have - the words that are internalized, the takeaways that students will carry with them past their formative years. We will never fully understand how difficult lessons, both academic and life-based, can teach resilience, foster creativity, and inspire young people to become content, productive, and successful adults. While every once in awhile, we are fortunate enough to get a Facebook message, stumble across a social media post of a former student, or even run into a parent at the grocery store and hear about the great accomplishments that our students have earned, too often we do not witness the next phase, but the possibilities that they have before them continue to inspire me to make my classroom and their high school experiences as much as a safe and homelike space as possible.

And while Thomas Wolfe states in the novel Look Homeward, Angel, that "you can never go home again..." I believe that a person always takes just a little bit of home with them wherever they choose to travel. So as I close my door to C19 for the summer and come back to a new classroom to call my own - a fresh place to forge new memories and inspire young people - I am grateful for the lessons my students have taught me during the formative years of my teaching experience. Here's to new possibilities, new paint, and the next set of adventures to be had.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Teach Speech: What I Learned from Year One of Teaching Community College

May is here and the school year is winding down at a rapid pace. This year, in addition to my high school day job, I am fortunate enough to teach an introductory speech course at a local community college. With only one class period left to administer the final exam, I find myself reflecting on the differences between teaching at the high school and college level, the classroom environment, the students, and the sentiments they hold toward public speaking. While my Thursday evenings (and Friday mornings) are extremely tiring, I have sincerely enjoyed this new challenge and believe that this experience has enriched my content knowledge and approaches to teaching speech. This opportunity has also allowed me to observe different students as they transition from high school students to college students.

The night classes I taught this school year are much more diverse, and the age range of student varies greatly. Surprisingly, I am on the younger end of my classroom demographics. What I have found to be the most interesting factor about my students is the different reasons students have enrolled in my class. The introductory speech course is a required course for all students who intend to graduate with an associate degree and is almost always a requirement for students who plan to continue their education at a four-year university. Reluctantly, students do enroll in this introductory course because this course is mandatory, but their goals and aspirations for certifications and degrees vastly span from nurse to botanist to auto-mechanic. Several students speak English as a second language or are first generation college students and starting post-secondary school is uncharted territory. Of course, there are several students in their late teens and early twenties who simply wished to stay home to save money or did not know what to major in yet. Whatever the reason for continuing their education, I have been very impressed with the lengths at which many of these students have taken to further their coursework and attend a three-hour Thursday night class. 

I have certainly gained a deeper appreciation for different types of students and learned a great deal from my colleagues and the opportunities provided by the college. Overall, I am glad that I have taken on this exhausting experience and would recommend that colleagues who teach at the high school level pursue a similar role at some point in their careers at least once. Because of this experience, I have gained knowledge and am more prepared to teach my high school students for what lies in front of them after graduation day. 

Here's some of what I am taking away from year one:

1. The more experience students have with research and writing, the better prepared they will be for post-secondary learning. 

"I was never taught THAT," is a common comment I hear from students when I introduce research assignments. My colleagues and I often lament over these claims and are frustrated because we know exactly what their previous high school teachers have taught them. The fact of the matter is that both research and essay writing skills do not come naturally to most students and need to be reinforced several times. Frequent practice and repetition is the only way for students to become proficient at conducting research and writing about their findings. Through my conversations with both high school and college students, I have come to realize how universal research and writing skills are and how frequently students are required to complete these types of assignments in their science, history, business, and humanities courses. They are often writing papers at the college level without a great deal of technical guidance often, which makes the need to be able to research and write well an invaluable skill that I must be teaching my students at both levels as a way to prepare them to find success in any discipline they choose to study in the future. 

2. Students are still apprehensive to speak in front of a class - even when they have two decades of work experience in an area on which they are presenting to their peers. 

Many of my college students work full time. They are professionals with a wide variety of experiences. Speaking in front of a class should not be as scary for these individuals because they deliver speeches at work, give presentations, and work with customers, but for a myriad of reasons, all students still exhibit a higher level of apprehension than I would have initially expected. Stage fright needs to be the subject of early classes, and all students - no matter their confidence level - need to be given strategies to cope with this anxiety. Even the most confident and experienced speakers can still experience anxiety when a formal speaking experience. Several strategies such as frequent and informal practice to speak in front of small groups, group work and class discussions to build a collaborative and supportive environment are necessary to build students' confidence. Public speaking is difficult, and my role is to create a more comfortable and positive experience for all my students.

3. Students still need clear direction and organization from the instructor (and still won't always read or hear the directions). 

I chuckle to myself a little when I hear the phrase, "Kids just don't listen." Unfortunately, people of any age or profession struggle with listening to instructions fully or reading directions or emails carefully. We are busy individuals who are easily distracted. We all attempt to multi-task and clear the to-do lists as efficiently as possible. As an instructor, I have to remember that my instructions and directions need to be thorough, clear, and repeated a few times to help my students fully understand what is expected of them as they complete any given task or assignment. This year, I have had a few encounters that have reminded me that even though these are adults, busyness is a common factor in miscommunication. Students need support and clear guidance. As for my high school students, they love hearing stories about mistakes by students at the college level, and often respond with, "It's not just me!" 

4. The learning environment and relationship between students and the instructor are still the most vital parts of the learning process. 

Students' lives and backgrounds greatly impact their learning. Their workload, responsibilities, and relationships impact the time they have to spend on coursework. These life factors also greatly influence their interest, passions, values, and beliefs. Understanding our students' lives outside of the classroom enhances the experience in the classroom. Being able to ask a person how their kids are doing, how work was, or about another project for another class builds rapport and improves the classroom environment stronger. With a strong rapport between the instructor and students, the levels of anxiety wane and students feel more inclined to put forth effort toward the class - especially their speaking assignments that require a significant amount of preparation. Building strong relationships is my favorite part of teaching at any level. I have truly enjoyed working with and forging relationships with my diverse college students and love that this element of teaching is still just a prevalent and vital to the learning experience as it is with my high school students. 

This has been such a valuable and growing experience. I have loved watching these students gain confidence and grow as speakers. In turn, I am so grateful for my students' kind words and the lessons they have taught me. With a fresh perspective and a richer understanding of communication theory, I cannot wait to see what the future brings from teaching speech at any level. 
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