Category: Reflections

If You Build It, They Will Come: Thoughts on Green Bay’s UntitledTown Book & Author Festival

A little less than a month ago, I attended the inaugural UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay, Wisconsin. When a few friends and a former professor initially told me about the concept for a weekend-long, free-to-the-public celebration of reading and writing, I geeked out. When I subsequently learned that Sherman Alexie and Margaret Atwood would be speaking in the closing keynote, I had a full-out geek attack. A whole weekend with readers and writers everywhere, teaching and learning about how to read and write with more passion and prowess? Be still my ink-dripping English teacher heart!

It’s easy to wane in enthusiasm in late April and May, when so many of us have to put on a tough face to keep kids (and even ourselves) motivated about learning. This year, though, attending UntitledTown was exactly the reinvigoration I needed to finish the teaching year out with gusto. I spent the whole weekend thinking, “I remember! I remember why I love  teaching about the written word so dang much!” It was a downright gift, and one that’s too good not to share. So, in hopes that some of my inspiration overflow may find its way to you, fellow teachers, I’d like to share my top four takeaways from my weekend at UntitledTown.

On teaching writing – Good storytelling comes down to details and human understanding. In her session “The Art of Truth,” author Blair Braverman put it so well: “The structure and principles of telling stories are the same in fiction and non-fiction. The most important thing to make writing vivid is your eye for rich, surprising detail that reflects human decisions.” She encouraged those who wanted to write compelling stories to sit down and talk with others–even strangers–at length, because to write is to also understand the thoughts and experiences of others. In an author panel entitled “Thrills and Threats and Tenderness,” Larry Watson encouraged writers to not think so much about technique, urging instead to “Think about people.” Ben Percy offered his variation on this theme as well, saying “Narrative progress and emotional progress are equally important. Transformation is essential for good writing.” Great reminders for the writing classroom, especially when we need to get back in touch with why we do what we do.

On the power that language holds over our lives – The word that ends the argument in a moment. Sherman Alexie speaks the way he writes, with a hectic, hilarious, sweeping energy that can draw laughter and tears with equal ease. In his talk on his upcoming memoir, he told a story about his own mother and father arguing in a dying tribal language that he didn’t understand; he remembers rarely hearing his father speak it, but when he did, he could bring the room to silence. “That’s the tragedy of losing a language,” Alexie said. “You lose the word that ends the argument in a moment.” Preserving words, using them, and respecting them is a way of harnessing power. Why teach a high school kid to read Shakespeare? This is why.

On the importance of the humanities – Engaging human wholeness. Margaret Atwood is a mage of modern English language literature, a tour de force of a woman. In speaking about her celebrated dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, she made the point that in the totalitarian regime of the book, there are no novels, no poems, plays, or shows–it is a world where women aren’t allowed to read, and nobody ever has to get offended by art. In her talk, Atwood gave nothing short of a battle cry for protecting the humanities in our own world: “Who are we? The humanities answers this question differently than science…. not everything about us is the sum of our biological parts. Any educational system that ignores this is not engaging human wholeness. We are art-making beings. We are story-making beings. Through art, we not only express, but we explore and question.” I cried.

On reading and writing communities – If you build it, they (the readers, the writers, the lovers of words) will come. The whole concept of this festival was an unproven one, and the board wasn’t completely sure what to expect–would the little city of Green Bay really be enough of a destination to attract enough speakers and attendees to make the vision possible? The answer is yes. Even in the cold, dismal weather, the city was hopping. Events were packed, and people were buzzing with excitement. Several times over the weekend, I thought to myself, “Seriously, where did all these people come from?” People of all ages, shapes, and styles who wanted more chances to read and write. They were everywhere. It spoke to the fact that our communities are full of people who are (often quietly or secretly) hungry to write and read more. How fortunate that, in Green Bay, they could come together and find each other!

The writers are out there. Someone had to put the first book in their hands. Someone had to tell them their stories were worth telling. Someone had to show them how and why to love language. We teachers are the headwaters of that stream, the keepers of that flame. And it makes me proud. Thanks, UntitledTown, for reminding me that my teacher-writer-reader spirit is not (even close to) alone.

English on.

Into the Woods! A Transcendentalist Day at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

Sometimes the world is just so big that we forget it’s even there.

Teaching our junior unit on transcendentalism is always a highlight of the end of the year. Beyond just teaching about the American philosophical giants of the mid-1800s, we work on understanding the legacy of the transcendentals and their lasting ideals of self-reliance, solitude, and free thought. We try to transform our classroom walls into windows that turn within, as student consider their own personal philosophies. Last year while reflecting on this unit–so much about thinking and writing born of the natural world’s inspiration–it seemed to us that we shouldn’t just be turning walls into windows. We should be opening those windows, and streaming out into the place where Emerson found his spirit, and Thoreau found his soul–the woods. What good is reading about the connection between man and nature, if you can’t feel it?

Yep, you know what that means! Field. Trip. Time. With this goal in mind, we spent several months planning a day of workshops, inside and outside, where students could read, write, hike, observe plants and animals, and maybe even lose themselves (safely) in a place of solitude and reflection. We found a perfect partnership in Milwaukee’s Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, which prioritizes experiential, environmental education in its mission statement and boasts six miles of trails over 185 acres of beautiful natural ecosystems along Lake Michigan.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you announce to over one hundred teenagers that you’re taking them to the forest. They seemed excited, in an uncertain kind of way, about spending a day outside. For most of them, this would be an unfamiliar kind of experience. We primed them all week leading up to the trip by introducing them to transcendentalism, reading about the science behind effects that nature has on the brain, and practicing field notes in the classroom. Here’s my example from the classroom practice, written in the same little red field notebook that we provided to each of our students on field trip day:

Our full plan for the day was developed by our team of five teachers and three staff members at the center. We rotated five groups of around 20 students between five mini-workshops including geocaching (staffed by the nature center), and hands-on lessons in transcendentalist ideas, nature writing, reflective writing, and field notes, all written by our teaching team. (If you’d like access to our curriculum to adapt for your own nature field trip, find it here, shared with the permission of my colleagues.)

We took 107 high school juniors out to navigate, tread through mud, hop on rocks, watch sun-baked turtles, listen to birdsong, to write and read and eat bag lunches and laugh. It was curriculum brought to life. The students were really kids on this trip, laughing, shrieking, stretching, and having actual dynamic conversations.  They were excited and adventuresome. They dug in to what we were doing. They walked all day. This is teaching at its best and most pure–creating an experience, guiding pupils on how to explore it, and watching them feel a spark of curiosity drive a search for knowledge. 

“Wait, I want to write a little more!”

“I’m muddy, but I don’t even care.”

“Why don’t we do this all the time?”

“Do we really have to leave?”

“It’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you so much for putting this together.”

“Thank you for planning this.”

“Thank you for taking us here.”

 

I was so happy that my heart was breaking a little bit. I was thinking about all the time that the average high school student spends in a desk filling out bubbles, when he or she could be making or doing something that connects to his or her learning instead. I’m so grateful that we were able to have this golden day in nature to help new learning catch fire. We need so much more of this. The first step is cultivating partnerships between schools and outside organizations like the SANC–it’s fantastic when we can support one another’s missions and open the world to kids in the meantime.

I also got to hold a snake! (So did the students, at least those who had good feelings about snakes!) Touch is such an important sense–we touch to connect, to understand. Learning about the natural world is only so much trivia until you get to feel the squirm of a snake’s muscles contracting as he sneaks gently around your arm. It’s a different kind of bond, a deeper kind of understanding that takes you from interested to caring. Immersive education is crucial to natural preservation efforts… because in order to act, you have to care. Thanks to this experience, we got to reach out and touch our big, big world.

Pretty darn awesome. Thanks again to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center for helping us make our transcendentalist teaching dreams come true!

 

They Remember Who We Are: The Immense Impact of the Individual Classroom Teacher

At the end of this summer, I proudly completed my Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In the culminating weeks of my coursework, I wrote an in-depth literature review on the topic of character education. I was exploring several questions; most prominently, I was seeking a way to sort through the broad spectrum of existing programs, strategies, and beliefs about how schools teach our students to become good citizens in addition to becoming savvy scholars. What strategies are effective? How is that effectiveness measured? How does the complicated history of character education inform our present? Does developing character translate to academic achievement?

As you might imagine, the deeper I dug into those questions, the more complex and conflicting my findings became. On one particular afternoon, feeling overwhelmed at the process of synthesizing and interpreting the research I had read, I resorted to wandering around Golda Meir library. I had this strong sense that, if only I could find the perfect spot in the meandering depths of the stacks, inspiration would flood me and all my struggles would dissipate. Weirdly enough, it happened. It all started with this:

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I moved to a desk below an unassuming plaque mounted to the brick. It’s you and me, Walter Hewitt Cheever, I thought, plunking my bag down on the chair. I started to read the information below the name, and there it was:

Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend.

We loved him.

Walter Hewitt Cheever, whoever he was, taught at UWM from age 38 until his death nearly three decades later. He “served faithfully.” My grandfather wasn’t even born yet when Cheever died, but yet here was I, a teacher from 2016, finishing up my master’s degree in the company of his modest little memorial. What struck me was that nothing of Cheever’s academic discipline or scholarship was mentioned. I don’t know what his subject matter of expertise was, what he published, or what content his students learned. Tears, out of nowhere, started to push at my eyelids as I read the epitaph over again. Love. Ideals. Character. These are the words that Cheever’s students and colleagues decided to put on his plaque, way back at the beginning of the Roaring 20’s. And oddly enough, the story of this piece of metal in the odd corner of the university library mirrors what, to me, were the most fascinating aspects of my research on character education.

On that day and those that followed, I started to articulate, in writing, everything that I learned about the ways that schools attempt to teach students about things like kindness, leadership, and responsibility. Part of it breaks down to this: the individual classroom teacher has a bigger impact than nearly any other school-based factor–not just on learning, but on the people our students grow up to be.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

*In 2003, Williams, et.al interviewed students about their feelings regarding a newly implemented character education program at their schools. The responses that the researchers got, however, had little to do with the actual curriculum that the program used. Instead, individual teachers’ behavior and attitudes were consistently mentioned. The questions were about the program, but the answers were about the teachers as role models.

*Also in 2003, another researcher named Richard Weissbourd found that even when schools have been massively restructured in policy or curriculum, students remained largely oblivious to the changes; yet, when questioned about their feelings regarding new initiatives, they typically responded with observations about a specific teacher’s actions or lessons. Again, we see that students interpret individual teachers’ behavior and messages as the voice of their school’s character mission. This puts a lot of moral responsibility on teachers’ shoulders! Weissbourd acknowledged that a special support and training of teachers is needed in order to help character education work: “Schools can best support students’ moral development by helping teachers manage the stresses of their profession and by increasing teachers’ capacity for reflection and empathy” (p. 6).

*Especially for students who may not have a home life that provides safety and empathy, the environments of their classrooms can make a profound difference in academic success as well as social, emotional, and ethical development (Schaps, 2005).

*While mission statements and stated values may create a formal message about the school’s environment, students are keenly aware of the implicit messages about values that they receive via their daily interactions at school. The positive quality of students’ relationships with teachers dramatically affects their receptiveness to character education (Berkowitz and Bier, 2004).

In today’s educational environment, the collection and interpretation of academic proficiency data is highly prioritized. But there’s a huge part of teaching that isn’t addressed in that sphere. Parents, teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders also care deeply about helping to raise students who can connect with and care for one another. A teacher’s work goes beyond teaching content. In their own classrooms every day, teachers directly impact a student’s potential to flourish, empathize, collaborate, create, and lead. 

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I’ve begun my school year reflecting on these things and thinking back to Walter Hewitt Cheever’s memorial plaque. It’s humbling to think that, especially as the years pass, students may remember relatively little of what we teach, and relatively much more about the kind of people we seem to be in the classroom. To help remind myself of this, I’ve framed my classroom expectations within four core values: bravery, compassion, dedication, and joy–these are ways of thinking and being that have helped me prosper as a person, as a student, and as a teacher. Throughout the year, when I can, I’m going to connect these values to what we do in class. (Bravery and public speaking, dedication and research writing…) It’s my way of purposefully honoring the seamless relationship between building young scholars and guiding young citizens. If they’re watching and listening that closely, I want to make sure that I share something of value when it comes to the things that we fall back on when mere knowledge won’t suffice.

The next time you feel like maybe what you do in the classroom doesn’t matter, think of Cheever. Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend. We loved him.

 

 

References

Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. C. (2004). Research-based character education. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 72-85.

Schaps, E. (2005). The role of supportive school environments in promoting academic success. In T. Hansen, H. Knoff, C. Muller & E. Schaps (Eds.), Getting results: Developing safe and healthy kids, update 5 (p. 37). Sacramento: California Department of Education.

Weissbourd, R. (2003). Moral teachers, moral students. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 6.

Williams, D. D., Yanchar, S. C., Jensen, L. C., & Lewis, C. (2003). Character education in a public high school: A multi-year inquiry into Unified Studies. Journal of Moral Education, 32(1), 3-33.

 

Back to School Feels Like This

I was doing some professional reading recently, and was struck by a quote from D. Jean Clandinin in an 1989 article, entitled “Developing Rhythm in Teaching: The Narrative Study of a Beginning Teacher’s Personal and Practical Knowledge of Classrooms.” Here’s the quote:

“The cyclical organization of time is a particularly striking feature of the professional context of teaching. […] In our work with experienced teachers, these cycles are experienced not merely as objectively imposed cycles but as having meaning; that is, they are experienced rhythmically. In the narrative of experienced teachers, there is an annual reconstruction of experience and it is through this cyclic repetition of school life that teachers come to “know” their classrooms rhythmically” (123). 

We find ourselves here again, at the beginning of another school year cycle. What Clandinin says is true: the longer you teach, the more fundamentally and personally you experience the cycle of teaching as a natural ebb and flow marked by long slow climbs, determined momentum gathering, and frantic happy bursts. It’s a special type of rhythmic understanding that only teachers have.

Everyone who has school age children (and everyone working in big box store retail) knows that it’s Back to School time. That’s as clear as the calendar. But what does Back to School feel like for educators, as we stand, ready to hurtle into the orbit of another new teaching cycle? I’ve heard it jokingly described as “one long Sunday night,” but that’s not quite it. At least, that’s not the rhythm that beats for me.

The end of August is like waking from a sound sleep, still dreaming, but with eyes slowly registering the sight of the sun rising. It’s a charged stillness. Colored paper signs and decorations on the classroom wall flutter, almost imperceptibly, in the quiet humid air of the empty school. Waiting. It’s imaginings of raised hands and the knowledge that sometimes there will be dull headaches that will be instantaneously forgotten when a student approaches the desk asking, “Can I talk to you?” It’s planning out particular blends of tea you will drink at your desk while you read and hold the words of the young, struggling, and bold.

It’s being in the wise company of other teachers, just before the voices in the halls return. It’s the sweet final feel of summer sun on shoulders, running in 5K races and screaming with joy at each other to sprint faster to the finish line. It’s notes of support and love for the teachers who start early, laughing at the familiar stories of negotiating new spaces and new young brains. It’s cardamom zucchini bread and the quiet laughter of Christmas lights misplaced on a foggy lakefront porch, sharing questions and knowings in bare feet. It’s iced chai-fueled conference session planning. It’s eye on the horizon, greeting tanned colleagues with nod and knowing look. It’s being convinced that you are now, suddenly, working harder than you ever have in your life.

It’s saying, “I’m back.”

It’s “This is what I do.”

It’s “Here we go.”

 

It’s newness.

 

Happy BTS14, everyone. Make it your best.

No Year Like a First Year

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Some years come with more of a sense of renewal and ceremony than others, and this past year was a big one for me.

The end of my first year at PWHS actually begins with a look back to my previous teaching position at SFHS. I was honored to be an invitee once again to the Top Ten celebration at Sheboygan Falls, where high achieving students speak about their most influential teachers. (You may remember my posts about the memorable students who invited me last year and the year before that.) This was a really special occasion, since I got to catch up with a brilliant former student and his family. This particular student was one whom I continued to support this year in his college recommendations, and the one who helped me start Shakespeare Club last year. The degree to which this kid understands me was evident from his send off gift–the collection of sharks and flowers that you see in the collage above. I was truly touched by his speech (you can read it here), which reminded me that sometimes the students who are most impacted by an English teacher are the ones who come into their English class dead set against it. This particular student was captured not at first by my love of literature, but by my strange infatuation with sharks and satirical running commentary. This same young man informed me that one of his most recent purchases included Plato’s The Republic. For this reason, ladies and gentlemen, I say, “Whatever it takes,” with a smile of pride and confidence in this young man’s bright future, not only as an engineer-to-be, but as a lifelong reader and writer.

Thinking back to my three years at SFHS and the relationships that I was able to build with students and colleagues make me all the more excited for the years ahead at Port Washington High School. I’ve already started to build some bonds (and the ever-important sense of lore) with many students. I’m particularly grateful to my photography students, for supporting me in my interim art teaching apprenticeship, as we made new discoveries in the darkroom together. One of my students was sweet enough to give me the vintage camera that you see above, a spectacular Kodak Pony 135 from the 1950’s, as a thank you gift, accompanied by an earnest hug. My AP Literature and Composition students were also excited, eager participants in the journey of my first year in the community, willing to come along with whatever difficult or strange approach I devised to engage them in English canonical and contemporary works. Every time I pushed them in their writing skills, they adapted, relishing the work of getting better, sharper, and more precise. My Communications III students, by contrast, were not a highly literary bunch. But one of my favorite moments of the year came when a rough-around-the-edges junior, wearing a size large hunting jacket, turned to me and said, “Ms. H., I really think I’ve gotten better at writing this year. It’s weird, but… I kinda like it now.”

I am thankful to the members of my department who welcomed me with friendship and support. They made it easy to transition and call a new high school “home.”

As I look forward to next year, I’m filled with excitement as I think about building the AP Literature and Composition program even more, forming new bonds with students, and spreading my appreciation both of literature and of sharks to more and more young people.

This is what I adore about teaching:

Every year is a new year.

Every year, I get a chance to be better.

Every year, I get a chance to make a student’s life different than it was before, and to inject their day with a bit of humor, challenge, intellectualism, and a true love for what I do.

Happy summer to all.

 

 

P.s. I made the little photo collage that accompanies this post using PicMonkey.com , which is a free, easy way to make cool picture compilations in seconds! Useful teaching resource for projects and presentations!

 

 

 

The War Against Time: Teaching Well Without Bringing Work Home

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When I started my teaching career, I worked like an absolute fiend. I would get to school an hour early, stay an hour past the last bell, go home, eat, and keep working from 6:30pm to 10:00pm. I would also reserve eight hours every Saturday for grading. While I loved teaching, a desperate panic would often set in as I looked, utterly overwhelmed, at the pile of work to be done that just never seemed to go away. I didn’t see how it was possible to sustain this level of dedication for a whole career. I remember other teachers at my first job telling me, “Don’t take work home–you need time for yourself, too.” I remember thinking “How? I have to design three brand new lessons every night, create materials, find resources, read and give feedback on my students’ multi-page essays… There’s NO WAY I can do my job without taking work home.” I remember asking my district mentor to level with me. “Honestly,” I asked her, “is it even possible for an English teacher to do her job well without taking work home? Will I ever get there?” She smiled knowingly and admitted that she, as a very experienced educator, still spent weekend time grading, but she did dangle a purportedly real-world example of what would become the (seemingly unachievable) goal that I would strive for over the next five years–a colleague of hers who taught English full time, and never did a single moment of work outside of school. “He never stops moving,” she said, “He’s never without his stack of grading or his laptop… But when he leaves for the day, he’s done.” I knew that I needed to get there if I was going to be happy as a teacher. I needed to never stop moving.

Fast forward to this, my fifth year teaching. This year has been the first in which I have actually succeeded–I simply do not do work outside of work. It is my hope that sharing some of my time management strategies can help others who want to make more time for their waking lives to harmonize with–rather than be crushed beneath–their teaching careers. As a result, it is my strong belief that we become better teachers.

A Quick Disclaimer: I have a beautiful career situation that sets me up for success.  I can devote more time to actually doing my job because my commute is all of five minutes. (For two years of my teaching career, I had an hour commute; nobody appreciates a short commute more than I.) Also, my school gives its teachers both a period for prep as well as a period reserved for department collaboration every day–this saves time for all of us to be on the same page and work on projects together as a team while at school. The biggest deal? My class sizes never get much higher than 25. As someone who started her career with classes of 35+, this also plays a huge role in my ability to manage time. (I also do not have children at home, which I’m sure contributes to a nice reserve of mental energy that those who do have kids cannot always count on!) Without all of these perks, I would never be able to handle a schedule of four different courses in five sections without bringing work home.

How Is This Accomplished?

Use the internet to do your lesson planning. My life has gotten so much easier since I took my lesson planning online. For the past two years, I’ve been posting each of my lessons daily on my class websites. Each post includes learning targets, a narrative of the class agenda, and links to all materials (videos, documents, links) that students need to complete the lesson. This helps me blend several tasks into one. What used to be writing out notes to myself, making copies, designing instructional materials, and writing out directions on the board is now one simple step. It also keeps everything organized by date and time, and negates the need to hunt down work for students who were absent. And revising posts from year to year becomes unbelievably simple. No more looking through clunky binders… CTRL + F, and you’ve got exactly what you need in a matter of seconds. Also, I can work on my lesson posts from anywhere, anytime. Thanks, Internet!

Build on previous material. One of the biggest reasons that I was not able to get away from doing work at home early in my career was that I wrote all my own curricular material rather than working from a textbook. Every single school night, I was designing or compiling several somethings for my classes–maybe writing a skit that transformed two chapters of Pride and Prejudice into modern language, creating a “How to write an annotated bibliography” guide, and inventing a grammar review game. ALL IN ONE NIGHT! EVERY NIGHT! FYI: This is insane, and should probably not be attempted, but it is how I operated for the first three years. And it has worked to my benefit over time. I have thousands of pages of curricular material that I’ve written, which creates a library that I can draw from to modify and reuse. I also keep my entire collection of material online using Dropbox and/or Google Docs, so it is instantaneously accessible, searchable, and linkable. If you made it, use it. Revise and recycle successful activities.

Be smart with assessment. Not every assignment needs to have a unique point value. All of my daily assignments are worth 5 points, and I grade them on a formative scale. I try to remember that little daily practice writings are practices. Kids need to know what level of understanding they are reaching. They do not need me to make it worth twelve points and write down three sentences that explain each point that I’ve taken off. This helps grading go by quickly. Is the skill demonstrated perfectly, fairly, not quite, barely, or not at all? This is a question that I can discern and mark extremely quickly. I also do a lot of what I call “live grading,” where I literally record the grade for the assignment as a student is presenting it or as I am walking around the room during student work time. I don’t need to collect things in a pile if I just walked up to a kid’s desk, read it, and gave him verbal feedback that he immediately applied–so I collect as little actual work as possible. I save lengthy written feedback for major assignments, and these I collect in shared Google Docs folders that are organized by my students’ last names. This way, I can type my feedback (SO much faster than handwriting), and I don’t have to sort anything as I transcribe scores into my online gradebook. Students also receive their feedback the instant that I write it.

My formative assessment scale, used for all small assignments. (Point values are 5, 4, 3, 2 out of 5, respectively)
My formative assessment scale, used for all small assignments. (Point values are 5, 4, 3, 2 out of 5, respectively)

Never stop moving. Every minute of time is precious. I know you want to spend the first five minutes of your prep staring at the wall being overwhelmed. I have been there, my friend. But seriously, bring your laptop or notebook or whatever you are using to plan lessons or assess student work wherever you go. Those ten minutes waiting for a staff meeting to begin are useable minutes. The five minutes you’ve given students to silently read an article at the start of class are usable minutes. The twenty minutes that your students are taking to work with a guidance counselor to enroll for classes are usable minutes. I try to keep my focus and drive razor sharp throughout the school day (with the exception of lunch, which should be a mental break). The incentive of not doing work at home helps me keep checking things off of my list rapidly.

Don’t leave the building until you’re done. Since I’ve vowed to do no work at home, I sometimes stay in the building late. But I tell myself that I can’t leave until I’m completely prepared for everything the next day. And I stick to it. If I have to stay until 4:30pm or even 5pm once in a week, it is still absolutely worth the mental freedom of knowing that the moment I get into my car to go home, the rest of the night is always my own time.

Sometimes, you might still take work home. But schedule and adhere to it like a mandatory work commitment. There is one exception to this rule for me, and it’s grading formal essays for my AP Literature and Composition classes. This takes quite a bit of time, because the writing is longer, more complex, and the feedback that I need to give has to move students into a college level of insight and argumentation. Every three weeks or so, I need to schedule extra time to grade these–I usually need about seven hours to accomplish this for my 31 AP students. So I schedule my “work day” on a Saturday. If possible, I do it outside my home, which is supposed to be a relaxing, work-free space. But I go hard and do it all in a row. Because the sooner I have fulfilled my responsibilities to my students, the sooner I can get back to spending time with people I love and freeing my mind up so that I can get to school fresh, excited, and positive on Monday. 🙂

Essentially, I just want others out there to know that it can be done. But it doesn’t happen overnight. My second year of teaching, I actually felt irresponsible for making 9:30pm my “cut-off” point for work, but I had to do it for my own sanity. My third year, I made the cut-off 7:30pm. My fourth year, I added on a “no work on weekends” rule in addition to a 6pm cut-off on weeknights. And now I’m here. I’m living proof that it can be done, without sacrificing doing an excellent job for your students. Challenge yourself to work better, not longer!

Becoming a Hometown Teacher: “The truth is… I am Ironman.”

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 If you’ve seen the movie Ironman (2008)you’ve already probably got the reference–after becoming an improbable, impossibly cool superhero who saves humanity in spite of himself, the multimillionaire Tony Stark is required to deny any allegations of being the-man-behind-the-suit at a packed press conference. He is expected to preserve his personal identity and slink quietly away with his secret, as we’ve seen Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent do time and time again. But, at the last moment of the film, Tony decides to do things his own way. As cameras flash and he starts with “The truth is…” Tony pauses thoughtfully. Then, he throws a curveball that flouts every superhero’s most sacred rule. He just goes ahead and says it:

“I am Ironman.”  And fin.

That line is the perfect punctuation to a film that is masterful in many ways, principally as a character study of Tony “Ironman” Stark. It’s also the line that I’ve started to use as a metaphor for my new role as a teacher in the Communications department at the local high school in the community where I live.

For my whole teaching career thus far, I’ve been more or less harboring a secret identity. Long commutes drew very clear boundaries of space between work and home. Especially in my first couple years of teaching, I found a sense of safety in the fact that my teacher self was completely separated from my “mild alter ego.” As a beginning teacher, the sheer effort of creating and maintaining the role of in-control, assertive expert from 8am to 4pm was exhausting. There was a heavy aspect of performance to my hours in the classroom, where I was still doing the interior work of convincing myself that I could handle the authority I’d been given. I was trying on the suit, as it were. I, like Ironman, accomplished things both heroic and occasionally haphazard. But I was very content to leave the mask at work, whether the day’s outcome had been good or bad. I could always escape to a place where nobody knew me as Ms. H.

Around my third year of teaching, I started becoming much more confident and comfortable in the classroom. My teacher identity had become less and less of a disguise, and more of a natural extension of who I was. Just as Tony Stark tinkers with his suit in his basement lab, I was constantly modifying my mannerisms to more exactly reflect the kind of teacher that I found myself becoming. My classroom demeanor, still assertive, became more organic and playful while remaining smart. I grew immensely in confidence and professionalism, and not just during teaching hours. Before I knew it, I started to actually wish for a teaching situation where I was no longer an import. I wanted to know the impact of being an active part of the community where I taught. My flight patterns were becoming more complex and reliable, and I felt ready to take credit for them.

Here, at the cusp of my fifth year, this wish has been granted as I try out, for the first time, living and working in the same community. I will see my students at the grocery store, the gas station, and at the Memorial Day parade. I will have colleagues and parents living just a few doors down. I will wave at familiar faces when I go out exercising. Most of all, I will do what I do best as a teacher of reading, writing, and thinking–I’m here, and I’m excited about it.  I’m ready to let the full gamut of my reputation as a teacher flow into my “real” life. I get to be a leader in my own city, and impact it positively and visibly. I get to share a sense of community with my students.

And, anyway, like Tony Stark, I’m ready to own up:

I am Ironman.

Writing = Community

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We’ve reached the final day of the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project 2013 summer institute. Being a leader in this community has been so positive for me, and it’s work very worth doing. The more I am involved with people associated with the National Writing Project, the more I want to meet every single one of them. The experience of growing together as creative and professional writers, and of grappling together with the big questions surrounding the teaching of writing in our schools is one that engenders a highly satisfying mix of professional work and personal closeness. It’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced many times in my life… those that share and develop their writing together form strong, trusting, personal connections.

As a facilitator, I enjoyed mentoring fellow educators through the inquiry and presentation process. Leading a writing critique group was also a natural, fulfilling role for me. But I was also learning from my colleagues as much as I was mentoring them. As I reflect on the most thought-provoking presentations, I found that my biggest takeaway from the summer was a re-affirmation of this fact: Writing cannot be separated from community. Writing fosters community, and strong communities support the development of successful writers in turn.

Mrs. S’s presentation on the implementation of writing circles in the classroom (after James Vopat) reminded me anew that providing a safe and smart classroom community where student writers are expected to share, connect, and uphold one another will help young writers flourish and take ownership in their work. In combination with strong teacher leadership and modelling, students will develop immensely as writers because of the daily supportive community provided by their writing partners.

Ms. C’s work was oriented around the idea of using writing as social action (guided by Randy and Catherine Bomer). Listening to her work, I was refreshed in my goal of making writing authentic, purposeful, and immediately useful in my classes. In order to see the change we want in our local communities, we need to take action. When students discover the power that comes with an ability to write in diverse genres with a strong sense of purpose/audience/tone, they unlock their ability to create change in the community where they live. It is our social responsibility as educators to train our students in this regard. Young people need to have the experience of composing for a cause, of using writing to solve problems, forward new ideas, and articulate what is important to them here and now. Writing for an authentic audience to create social change empowers youth in our local communities and sets them up for a lifetime of responsible citizenship.

Mrs. R’s research took the picture even bigger as she discussed the use of fulcrum and texture texts to forward students’ writing skill (as recommended by Sarah Brown Wessling) in conjunction with their sense of cultural understanding and global citizenship. This presentation made me think hard about the connection between literature and empathy. Students who use texts from many varied perspectives surrounding a place, time, or culture will in turn create work that reflects a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the world in comparison to those who process informational text alone. Asking students to create and consider texts of many different textures–both fictional and non-fictional–helps them avoid the “danger of the single story,” as Chimimanda Adichie calls it. In other words, it allows them to step into the lives of others as global citizens, able to relate compassionately to voices outside their own. Writing requires the forward-imagining of the various reactions, thoughts, and experiences of others, and positions the author’s identity in relation to the world around them. When students understand that, they grow to comprehend and respect the richness of voices that contribute to the chorus of the collective human experience.

Thank you, UW-Milwaukee Writing Project participants, for your work in bettering the teaching of writing in Wisconsin, and for the reminder that without strong writers, strong communities cannot exist. Whether in our classroom, our towns, or our world, the power of writing is the key to learning and progress.

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Digital Storytelling around the Media Campfire

We’re almost through with week one of the Writing Project summer institute, and I am once again amazed at the knowledge base and cumulative creative power of all our participants and leaders. On Wednesday, we had a Digital Storytelling Workshop day led by educator and Minnesota Writing Project site leader Candance Doerr-Stevens. (Follow her on Twitter @digflicks). She has also made the slides from her presentation public: see them here! There are wonderful bits of research, pedagogical processes, and example digital stories to be found.

Candance’s infectious energy made the entire day go by in what seemed like a flash. As we learned about the applications for digital storytelling in the classroom and crafted a video piece of our own, I found myself thinking about how participating in the creation of stories through the form of online content is so much more than just “playing on the computer.” It’s taking part in the new, digital tradition of storytelling. Our inner thoughts, emotions surrounding ideas, creative imaginings–in the old tradition, it was rare that these elements of story would ever leave our own homes. Scrawled words seldom traveled beyond a pile of closeted notebooks. Images filled dusty shoeboxes or albums on the bookshelf. But this new digital storytelling makes the world our family room, and we are able to turn our words inside out to craft messages that reach other people around the world. The post-millennium era is often criticized for alienating us from one another as we all stare at our smartphones, but I’d argue that the internet is actually making us into a global family at a crowded, ongoing reunion… We are all out here online together, and it’s easier than ever to share stories instantaneously over space and time. Just as occurs during family reunions, sometimes harsh words are uttered, and sometimes people share a little too much personal information. But often, there is also the bearing of truth, the sharing of support, and the chance for meaningful conversation. Teachers need to be able to help their students be a good family, and part of that is knowing how to pass a good story around–to use Gloria Steinem’s term–the “new campfire” of media. The internet is the new family room, and young people who can wield the power of sound, image, and words to tell stories worth telling are those who will shape and inherit our culture. We just have to look and listen.

See the digital story I created during the workshop below! I used Windows Live Movie Maker to create my video. Both this program and iMovie come standard on Windows PCs and Macs respectively, and are easy to learn and use. If you haven’t ever dabbled in them, now is the time! The only way to learn is to do… I found, edited, and repurposed images and sound to create a new product, with credit to the original authors at the end of the video. As the purpose of this work is solely for personal expression and as an educational example, it is protected under fair use.

 

Top Ten, the Sequel

A year ago, I wrote a post about attending the Top Ten banquet at my school for the first time. The event is organized at the end of each year to give the top ten academically ranked students a chance to gather along with their parents and the school administrators to pay tribute to their chosen most influential teachers. I was lucky enough to be invited back this year, as the guest of a student that I’ve worked with over the past three years in English 10, AP Literature and Composition, and on the school newspaper editorial staff. Here we are in all our plaque-holding smileyness:

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The Top Ten banquet was the perfect special event to mark the end of my time at my current school. Seeing students taking an evening to honor their teachers is always touching and gratifying, but in many ways this year meant so much more to me than the last. Seeing the young people who were my very first batch of sophomores during my first year at SFHS grow up and graduate has given me a taste of what it’s like to become a veteran teacher–one whom students know, trust, and come to for guidance each and every year of their high school career. Seeing this particular young man and his classmates come of age is sparking in me the first inklings of that classic realization which we all understand more the older we get: time is moving very, very quickly. And the time that we share with students in our classrooms can be quite a small space afforded to make a lifetime of impact.

As I listened to my student give me the best tribute speech ever, I got a little teary-eyed. The emotional weight of being handed that wondrous “you meant something to my life” type of recognition is overwhelming, especially when it brings into clear focus how much time, care, work, and trust we’ve  invested, hoping that our teaching will have lasting meaning. I think most teachers, from time to time, secretly dread that… maybe no good has actually been done. Maybe no matter what we do, our students will become who they will become and we’re just here to watch over them for a while. Maybe they won’t retain a dang thing I worked so hard to get across to their young, distracted minds. I know I’ve felt that way on my bad days. But then you have moments like this, where a kid who cares about you stands up and says, Hey. You made me see things I couldn’t see. You helped me learn what I am capable of. You’ve made me want to be better. I wouldn’t be who I am without you, and I will not forget it.  And when that happens, you remember all kinds of things about why you chose this career in the first place.

Endless thanks to all my SF kids for being my shipmates on this six-semester voyage. I won’t forget you, either.