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What it is all about

Next week, I will begin my tenth year of teaching. I am celebrating this milestone with great satisfaction and nostalgia.

I’m also thinking about this meeting that I had shortly before beginning my very first year as a teacher. There was a staff member who was sharing some information with me. I still remember her saying, “So, some of these resources will help you make it through the year and then we’ll see if you’re really cut out for teaching or if you run off and do something else with your life.” I looked her right in the eyes, little baby teacher that I was, and said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I’m proud to say that I made good on that promise. Teaching isn’t for everyone, but teaching is for me. That much I knew even back then.

Look, it’s not an easy job. I now know that every time you think you’ve got the hang of teaching, every time you start feeling like you’re really a pretty fantastic teaching professional, reality will happily intervene to humble you. There are still points in every year where I feel like a beginner all over again. Ask any teacher you know–no matter how experienced we are, there are always points in the year where we start to question something (or EVERYTHING) about how we do our jobs.

There is nothing I could write that could prepare someone for what this job is, and I am still learning myself how it all goes. However, there are some things that I’m very sure of after being in the classroom for this long. As a victory lap for my decade year, I’d like to share ten things that I now know after ten years of teaching. Especially if you are a new teacher, I hope you find this list hopeful, helpful, and steadying as we welcome the kids through the doors once again.

TEN THINGS I KNOW AFTER TEN YEARS OF TEACHING

    1. It helps to be positive and excited even when it seems like no one cares. It does matter. I am a person who is notorious for seeing the brighter side, and giving a peppy, enthusiastic greeting to my all of my kids as they walk through the hallways. It is hard to do this when you are tired, when you have a headache, and when the teenagers whom you are greeting with care and warmth stare through you as if you are actually invisible with hardly a grunt in response. At the end of the year, though, one of the most common points of feedback I get from my students is how welcomed I always made them feel, and how my excitement for what I’m teaching really helped them learn. Kids respond to good energy… they don’t always show it, but it is worth it to summon the effort to be their sunbeam, even when it seems like it’s not making a difference.

2. There are no bad kids. Are there students in my teaching past whose very names make me shudder as I remember the behavioral or academic difficulties I weathered with them? Of course. But even the most challenging, frustrating, inflammatory students are not bad kids. There is no such thing as a bad kid. There are kids with trauma, kids with illnesses, kids without support, angry kids, scared kids, kids who lack self-control. But they are all good kids. If you refuse to accept their reputation and spend the time to get to know them, to gently keep pushing even when they resist you, you will find the goodness. They may still be rude. They may still struggle. But they are still worth your time–sometimes you are the only person who is fighting for them.

3. Teachers are most effective when they embrace the nerd within. Students respond to passion. Everything young people perceive is through a lens of intense emotion. To compete with that, you need to gush and rave and freak out with joy about what you’re teaching. It may be dorky to start yelling about how utterly outrageously good The Crucible is because the unit is only a week away and you seriously count down the days every year until having the privilege of teaching it, but kids respond to that when it is genuine! If I present students with a bookshelf filled with books, there might be a couple of them who want to investigate it on their own. If I take a book off of that shelf and start talking about how it personally changed my dang life with its awesomeness, I will have a waiting list seven kids deep to check it out. Embrace the nerd within. You know you love your content area. Show them why.

4. Teachers do the wrong thing sometimes. There will be days where you will do something stupid. You will react to a student the wrong way in a bad moment and make a kid feel terrible. You will enter an assignment score in the online gradebook for Ashley F. that was actually the score for Ashley T., and somehow lose Ashley F.’s original score in the process. You will listen to a hateful comment from a student in class and want so badly to address it, but end up freezing, your face turning red with anger as you just say nothing. These mistakes will make you feel like garbage. But they happen because you are an imperfect human being. The best thing you can do to remedy this is to address it with an honest apology to the student that was affected–students understand and respect this. And don’t be too hard on yourself, because we all have bad moments.

5. Business hours are necessary for sanity. To not suffer burnout as a teacher, you need a system for keeping your work life and home life separate. You will be much happier if you are not “on call” 24 hours a day. Do yourself a favor and try to leave your work at work. When you walk out the school doors, there are no more emails, no more quizzes to grade, no more plans to plan until you return the next day. Keep your weekends open for yourself and your family as much as humanly possible. Listen: Even though you are a teacher, you are allowed to have a life. It will make you a better teacher. If you struggle with this, find someone who has it figured out, and learn their ways.

6. Clean slate club. This is one of those cliches that is actually true. If something doesn’t go well in one of your classes, it’s easy to get sucked into negative thinking: you’re doing everything all wrong, your class is never going to be well-behaved, and Bobby in the front row hates your guts for being a lousy teacher. But then, the next day, you try again, and everything is okay again! (In all likelihood, Bobby in the front row has already forgotten the thing you stayed up all night agonizing about.) Students and teachers both bounce back very easily. Bad days may occur, but as long as you approach it with kindness and a desire to understand, a new day is always a clean slate.

7. Teachers disagree with each other a lot, but they are incredibly caring. No matter where you work, you’ll encounter other educators who have different opinions from yours. They may have different ideas about adopting new strategies or keeping old ones. They may hold on to a certain classroom management philosophy with an iron fist. They may just think your fashion sense is whack or misunderstand you on a fundamental level. Decisions are not always unanimous and meetings are not always harmonious. However, all of that falls away when you look at what these people do for kids. Teachers are extraordinarily caring people. They show it in different ways, but they are all kind, self-sacrificing people who want to help others in their own way. If you can tap into that commonality, it’s a lot easier to mediate differences of opinion.

8. Build your legacy! One of the most enjoyable things about being a teacher is the legend that builds up around you. What goes into that legend is sometimes within your control, and other times up to the whims of fate. Seriously, though, it’s amazing to hear kids say “I always heard that this was a great class” or “My older sister had you as her teacher and I’m excited that it’s my turn now.” The more and the longer you invest in your school community, the larger your legacy reaches. You start to feel more admiration and trust from your students, which is really the best feeling in the whole world.

9. Describe behavioral expectations in physical terms. This is a super effective classroom management strategy that has been invaluable to me over the years. When you want students to redirect and do something other than what they are doing, be direct and literal in your requests for compliance–tell them what to do physically to achieve the desired outcome. Instead of telling them “Pay attention,” ask them to “Look at my eyes with your eyes.” Instead of saying “stop bothering her,” say, “I want you to move your desk three feet to the left and turn it to face the window.” Instead of saying “Does everybody get it?” say “Take your notebook out. Draw a big smiley face if you understand and a frown if you don’t. Hold up your notebooks.” Works like a charm–whatever management challenge your class throws at you, if you can think up a physical direction to counter it, better results will follow.

10. Teaching keeps you young. Maybe you’ve seen that funny meme around that says something like “Teaching? Stressful? I feel great, and I’m only 32!” along with a photograph of a woman who could easily be 90+. It gives me a good guffaw. However, I have to say, some of the most supernaturally young-looking people I know happen to be teachers, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Surrounded by all that youthful energy keeps us hopeful, as long as we’re doing it right. We can’t sit still very long without someone needing our attention, and we laugh constantly because kids are often fun and hilarious. Plus we’re usually up on the newest weird slang, music, and fashion trends. We might even feel some extra pressure to stay hydrated with all those teenage athletes walking around with their giant Nalgene water bottles. Sure, the teacher is the oldest person in the room. But if you’re a teacher who enjoys your job, odds are that you have a youthful soul.

 

I’d like to end this post with a thank you, to all the remarkable students and colleagues who have blessed my life along this ten-year journey.

Thank you, Milwaukee School of Languages.

Thank you, St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy.

Thank you, Sheboygan Falls High School.

Thank you, Port Washington High School. It’s been my privilege. I think I’ll keep going.

Have you ever picked up a bag that was far heavier than you thought it would be? Maybe it’s a purse, or a suitcase, or possibly a backpack. There’s that moment of surprise, then you make a closer inspection of the object: What’s in here, bricks?! There’s a physical readjustment. Oh yeah, we think, lift with your legs. And we hoist it up, managing as best as we can.

Teaching is kind of like that sometimes. A lot of our students are carrying heavy things around. Some of those things they put in our arms, and we end up carrying them, too.

Certain privileges land in our laps as educators, and one of them is being witness to the stories of young people. Especially as English teachers, who encourage our students to learn the power of writing about their lives, there are things that come across our desks that can accumulate quickly in emotional weight. Kids might write about trouble with friends, family issues, self-esteem problems, bad memories, mental illness… We forget this, but everything that touches the adult world touches children, too. Young people aren’t too young to have pain, and while most assignments are intentionally skewed to accommodate positive memories, sometimes stories about wounds, whether old or new, need somewhere to go.

It is both a blessing and a burden to be trusted with such stories. On the one hand, you feel grateful that the student would trust you enough to share a difficult memory. On the other hand, the little moments where you say to yourself “I can’t believe a kid had to go through this” can add up quickly and silently. Professionalism demands that we keep these stories confidential (barring, of course, any support that we notify in situations where mandatory reporting or guidance interventions are required). We understand and honor this. We just lay these stories on top of our own.

We might also hear about something that a student has gone through after the fact, getting looped in to a confidential notification so that we can best support and accommodate the student. Especially when such things happen to students that we’ve worked with closely for a long time, knowing that they are hurting can be crushing. We can’t talk about these stories either, because students deserve our confidentiality and discretion. We keep a professional distance and try to keep it about the learning, while trying not to worry too much. But we don’t forget that stuff. We just carry it. Some years give us a lot to carry.

It’s a tough situation to be in. Of course, as teachers, we are more removed from student situations than families are, and sometimes I wonder to myself how much I really have the right to worry or not worry over a particular kid. My professional responsibility is to make sure that students have the environment and tools to learn as best they can. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t lie awake some nights hoping things are going to be ok for one of my students.

Teaching is a career about people, and I wish there was more concrete emotional support–for pre-service teachers all the way up to veterans–for the caretakers themselves. There are plenty of feel-good messages out there, of course, that encourage us to think of the difference that we’re making and to stay positive and grateful. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to practicing real skills surrounding self-care and managing anxiety, I think people who work in caring professions tend to have deficits. We don’t always understand the extent of the weight we carry, until we find ourselves sick or down in a way that takes a while to come back from. And we don’t always know what techniques work best for us to keep our (emotional and physical) selves healthy enough to keep going. I count myself among this number–I am still learning how to identify how much weight is in my backpack, so to speak, and how I need to tend to myself to make sure I can keep carrying it.

Self care fuels emotional strength! As I’ve found out personally, it also may spur an addiction to bath bombs, so watch out for that one. If you or your students need a little more information about aspects of self-care to help make your backpacks lighter, check out this beginner guide that I created for my homeroom kids (and for me): Self Care. Use/distribute however you like!

At the end of this Teacher Appreciation Week, I have two messages to send:

To students, never doubt that your teachers care about you and worry over you, even if they don’t seem to express it outright.

To teachers, never feel bad about practicing self-care or reaching out for support of your own. Just because your soul can provide for others doesn’t mean it can go forever without being renewed and fed.

 

Happy holiday season! Santa, if you’re listening, I’d like to explain one thing that I know is on a lot of teachers’ Christmas lists–an oversized box of passion, with the batteries included. Here’s what I mean.

Schools are always trying something new. As someone who is committed to research-driven teaching methods, I do like to push myself to dive into new theories, recommendations, and strategies. But as long as schools exist, there will always be someone new coming to town to tout the Next Big Thing that will revolutionize education. And sometimes a back-to-basics approach can remind us of what’s most important.

I think we sometimes forget that the true core of teaching, the best thing about teaching, can’t ever be summed up with a buzzword or sold for a price-per-student fee, because it’s just too personal. And for content-area teachers in high schools, a big part of that is our love for our subjects. If I were to define the concept of “high school teacher” to an alien, this is what I would say: A high school teacher is a person who loves a certain discipline or skill so much that they spend their life helping young people to learn it. Good teachers know that our passion for what we teach, why we teach, and who we teach will always come first.

Am I just being sentimental here? Maybe we should look at some data. Would a study that synthesizes findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students be convincing enough? In the recently published Visible Learning research (Hattie, 2016) about the individual impacts of over 250 elements in education, “Teacher Credibility” was named as one of the top ten positive influences on student learning, with 0.90 effect size. That is MASSIVE! What is this magical element of teaching that can impact students so strongly for the better? Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher, Hattie, and Frey, 2016) defines it as such: “a constellation of characteristics, including trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy.” In other words, caring teachers who know their content, demonstrate a dynamic excitement about it, and create a sense of urgency to learn it will have a profound impact on their students. If we ever doubted that, the numbers are here to remind us that good teaching relies on a personal energy that cannot be bought, nor can it be faked. It can only come from that irreplaceable, exciting feeling of passion that brings many teachers to the career. People, maybe, like me, who find themselves floored with wonder over the power of words to create beautiful moments within a flawed world. Or people who relish the truths hidden deep within the structure of mathematics, with its unwavering consistency and elegant logic. Or people who have an uncommonly deep respect for history, who understand the figures of our past as if they were intimate acquaintances.

This kind of dynamic, contagious, urgent excitement for a particular type of knowledge is what inspires students to learn. And that makes sense, right? Do you remember a teacher who loved a certain book so much that it made you read it and love it? Or maybe a science teacher who was so gosh darn excited about each and every lab that it made you curious about science in a new way? Or a social studies teacher who made you care about the events in the world because he was always sharing relevant news articles constantly? Maybe you were lucky enough to be a part of something–a discussion, a performance, a debate, or a project that was so engaging that it set you on the path to the life you now lead as an adult?

Those milestone learning experiences are part of the magic of education, and they are propelled by the incredible force within teachers who love what they teach. But that force does not always flow freely–it can get damaged when teachers are overwhelmed, when staff morale is suffering, when time is not available to tap into that passion. Depending on where we are in our lives, personal struggles with mental health or home concerns can also dim the light of the most passionate teacher. In these times of lower ebb, support from others can help. It might be a kind email from a colleague, a chance to connect with other experts in the content area, or just a genuine comment from a student or parent that says, “Hey, I see what you do, and I value it.”  There is no educator resource more powerful then a simple vote of confidence to cultivate that shared excitement for learning which powers good teaching. When members of our community get excited about the same things that teachers are excited about, it creates this huge, good energy that makes our school days bright and productive.

So here’s my Christmas wish: I wish that school communities everywhere might recognize the very real (quantifiable, even!) positive impact that individual teacher passion has on student learning. Help us notice it, support it, and fuel it however we can… because an excited teacher is not only an effective one, but a happy one, too.

Happy Holidays.

At the beginning of this school year, I set up some growth mindset self-talk phrases on my bulletin board. I had seen many great examples of elementary boards that encourage students down this kind of mental path, and I adapted what I saw online to suit my purposes, rephrasing when necessary to fit my high school clientele. While these are things that I hope my students will eventually be able to internalize, it takes modeling from me to show them how to adopt a mindset where they are at an emotionally healthy and academically ready place for learning. I’d like to share the statements that I use and a couple of ways that they pop up in real student interactions.

One of the biggest indicators to me that a student is going to grow in their skills and succeed in a class is their ability to problem-solve and self-advocate. In my classroom, that often means extra one-on-one help from me. If you know any high school students, you know that asking for help isn’t always their strong suit. I get around this by introducing non-optional, one-on-one conferencing with my students often, especially early in the year. We conference on their reading, their writing, their ideas for projects… and yes, it does take up a good chunk of class time. But it’s so valuable, because it builds a routine and a comfort with approaching me one-on-one. It simply becomes part of the daily workings of class. During a conference, I will speak problem-solving thinking processes aloud that could benefit them–things like, “Hey, since you’re having trouble finding a book, let’s go through how to look up titles on the library catalog by subject or author. I bet that would be a good tool to use” or “You know, it seems like you really had trouble with your conclusion of your last essay. Should we plan ahead for that this time by talking about how to write a successful conclusion?” It doesn’t take long before they start approaching me and adopting that kind of language on their own. In turn, I try to always make myself easily available and approachable for students who need support.

After nine years of teaching, I’ve cultivated some great standard responses for common questions or complaints from students. One of my favorites is set up with the cry of, “This is really hard! I don’t get it at all!” In response, I crack a huge smile and enthusiastically say, “Well, that’s a relief. If you thought it was easy and didn’t need any help figuring it out, I wouldn’t have a job! That’s why I’m here: to help you learn.” I often remind students that physical tasks, like riding a bike, take a lot of practice to learn and perfect. Why would a mental task be any different? Learning is a gradual process that doesn’t yield perfect results the first time. That’s a very freeing thing to realize. Early learning attempts should be free of pressure and judgement. Another classic comeback I have is this: “It’s ok that you’re struggling. That’s normal at first. You wouldn’t make fun of a baby for not being able to talk very well, would you? You’re still a beginner, but you will get better the more we practice.” It may seem obvious, but it can help a student snap out of the (incorrect) assumption that certain academic skills are just inherent to our personalities–instead, they arrive through exposure, study, and experience. Just like in the weight room, the more we train, the more challenge we can handle!


Laziness and apathy are the enemies of discovery. It’s important to me that students learn how to challenge themselves. Too often the focus is on “What do I need to do in order to be done as quickly as possible?” I’m sure this is in some way a symptom of our hurried, hectic modern lives, but most students default to being impatient, sloppy, and rushed…especially in their writing. For students who work at a high skill level, they often get by on “good enough” without actually challenging themselves. I try to show students the value of slow consideration and revision through modeling my own writing as it takes shape. I also attempt to relentlessly push students forward in my feedback. Even an “A” paper will get revision suggestions from me in the comments–I’m sure that’s initially frustrating to my students, but I explain that one of the reasons I love writing so much is that the difficulty level is unlimited! We are always growing, and there’s always a way to revise and improve. I intentionally talk about how hard writing is. Even for someone who thinks, teaches, and does writing for a living, writing presents a challenge. “If you’re not working hard or feeling challenged, you’re not doing it right”: another axiom that I hold my kids to. The struggle should be welcomed–it’s an indication that you’re working at an appropriate level of difficulty. I want to teach all my students to savor challenge. Still figuring that one out.

For kids who felt chronically helpless, giving up is the easiest way out. By the time they’ve reached the teenage years, many of them have mastered disengaging at a profound enough level to frustrate their teachers into leaving them alone to stagnate. My approach with these kids is a broken record question: “What is the first, small thing we can do to move forward?” I keep asking this. I may go away and come back. The question is always the same. I’ve come to learn that often, students are stuck on taking a step because the step feels too big. Writing an essay seems impossible. So instead, I cut it up into more digestible pieces. Depending on the student, he or she may need very small pieces. [ 1. Get out notebook. 2. Find a pen. 3. Write your name at the top of the page. 4. Write the title of the assignment. 5. Tell me about your ideas. 6. Let’s make a list of some of the ideas you just talked about. 7. Our first sentence should introduce the topic. What could you say? 8. Write that down. We can change it later….] Is it spoon-feeding? Yeah. But here’s the thing: kids eventually get sick of being spoon fed. When they rehearse the smaller steps enough times, they start to do it themselves. Small progress is still progress, and creates momentum to carry them through the task over time.

Some people feel that jealousy and comparison to others are good motivators when used correctly. I am not one of those people. I believe that one of the greatest keys to happiness in one’s life is to view the successes of others as sources of admiration and potential collaboration opportunities. This is a pretty big mind shift to ask for in our culture of individualism and competition, but I really try to foster it. So many times, I’ve heard someone say of a person who does well at something “I hate her” or “I hate him.” Hate? Really? A lot of the time, this hatred comes from the jealousy of how “easily” a certain skill seems to come to an individual. But this overlooks the work behind the scenes. Success comes from diligent work, so if I call out a student as a positive example in class, I focus on the process, not the product. I hope that this teaches students that they can imitate one another’s strategies for success, rather than believing that “good” students are just somehow magically good. I call attention to writing that has gone through several drafts, a student’s copious practice sessions before a speech, a meticulous set of index cards that indicates devoted studying. I give examples of people that I admire and imitate–even if my imitation is not as good as their example, it still makes me better! We all have strengths and weaknesses, and there’s much to celebrate together.

Happy New Year… new teaching year, that is! The restorative powers of summer vacation have worked their magic, and I am completely refreshed and ready for my ninth year of teaching to begin. I feel extra excited about this September because I’ve reached a point of joyful re-commitment to being a teacher after a couple conflicted years of quietly taking exploratory steps toward other career paths. Last spring, I abandoned that preparation with the help of wise people in my life who helped me arrive at the decision that working in education is really, really where I still want to be. I couldn’t be more sure of that right now, and that certainty has prompted a fresh passion akin to that of my first-year teacher self. I’ll freely admit that there have been some times in recent years where I had to remind myself that Younger Me would want to punch Current Me in the face for how cynical or powerless I was feeling about my teaching career. But that’s how life is–circles, cycles, death and rebirth. And here we are at a new beginning once again.

So I am READY TO GO. This new vigor is making new things happen. I even re-covered my bulletin board! I have big plans for unrolling cool new elements of my classroom that I’ve never attempted before, and I want to share two of the first ones I’m going to be trying out. Maybe they will inspire you!

NEW GOAL #1: Beautiful Words on the Superb Insights Board

I remember a workshop with Kelly Gallagher where he mentioned that he likes to begin or end his classes each day with what he calls “beautiful words”–a small snippet of great writing that can come from any source, including student work. That idea made so much sense to me. Kids write amazing things all the time, and while an individual may benefit a little bit from me writing “WOW–what a sentence!” on his or her essay, my whole classroom would benefit far more if every student could appreciate that awesome phrase or paragraph, thinking about how it was put together and what makes it so good. So I’m taking a simple step to showcase the beautiful words of my students with a display area on my (newly re-covered) bulletin board. It looks like this. [Click image to enlarge]

I have four different areas where I’ll be showcasing student words. I’ve preloaded it with examples I pulled from last year’s student work.

Beautiful language – poetic, lyrical, figurative language that sings on the page

Intelligent point – an especially smart or insightful observation

Words to live by – wisdom, wit, or humor

Now that is how to write a sentence! – impressive use of complex grammatical constructs

My plan is to update the board essentially constantly. Whenever I run across a portion of student writing that is particularly impressive, I’m going to type it up, anonymously share it with the class, and add it to the board. I think this practice will offer opportunities for micro-mini-lessons on writing, while also celebrating the successes of a wide range of students. (The students currently featured on the board were not all “A” students! But their voices all had something worthwhile to share.) Since any motivation to write is good motivation, I’m hoping that kids will start really trying to outdo each other to make it on the board!

 

NEW GOAL #2: Community Building with Class Newsletter 

A part of me has always wanted to put out a classroom newsletter–something similar to what my kindergarten teacher used to send home to my parents that covers what kids are learning in class, with updates and news. But I have never gotten myself together quite enough to make a classroom publication happen. I mean… who has that kind of time? Not me. Or do I?

As I was reflecting this summer, I realized that I can make this goal happen as long as I scale it correctly. While I do not have time to put together a frequent newsletter with photographs, excerpts of student work, and meaningful quotes from the authors that we’re studying, I do have time to send a succinct email every couple weeks. A colleague of mine blew my mind last year when she showed me how to easily mass email all the parents of my students at once. (How the heck did I never learn about that before?) I’m going to utilize this newfound power to create a bi-weekly email newsletter of sorts that covers just essential news from my junior class. Here’s the draft of my first message:

News from Mrs. Casey’s Communications Classroom

Hello, parents and families! If you’re getting this email, it means that your child is a student in my Communications III class. I’m trying something new this year and sending an update via email every couple weeks, so you can learn more about what is going on in our classroom. I promise to keep these emails short and sweet. You’ll see the following categories in each email:

What are we learning?

Any big projects or tests coming up?

 Ask your student more about…

Don’t forget that your student’s current grades are always available via Powerschool, 24 hours a day. Also, a full description of daily lessons–including homework assignments, announcements, links, and more–is featured on my Haiku page accessible via your student’s portal.

Best regards.

I hope that the newsletter will build community with my students’ families. Through my updates, I hope that they feel closer to what’s going on in my classroom, and that they are more likely to engage their child in conversations about what they are learning and creating in positive, interested ways. I find that during parent-teacher conferences, many parents feel like getting their child to talk to them about school is a shot in the dark. I think these updates will help shed more light, hopefully strengthening the triangle of communication and support between parents, students, and me. It will give me a chance to share awesome news about student success, and to help parents feel more connected and involved with our classroom work.

There are more ideas where those came from, but for now I’ll just say this–Happy New Year, teachers! Punch that inner cynic in the face and go do good work. It’s going to be an amazing year!

 

Here’s my department, grinning with joy on a full day of professional development in June. Why are we beaming with megawatt happiness, you ask? Well, it has everything to do with the tall, brilliant blond educator in the middle: the one and only Penny Kittle.

We’ve waited patiently for two years since first scheduling Penny to come do a literacy workshop with our district and surrounding area teachers. On Wednesday, June 21st, in the early morning, I got to pick her up from her hotel and–by way of Fiddleheads Coffee shop–escort her to the presentation site. Engaged and brimming with positive teacher energy from the moment she began, Penny delivered a beautifully curated tour through daily reading, writing, revising, and modeling with students. While there’s no substitute for hearing Penny speak in person, I’d like to share some of the most pressing, inventive, and inspired moments from the workshop, in hopes that some of you might also gain from this sunbeam of professionalism and passion.

A Dose of Truth:

I found myself nodding deeply at this opening statement about teachers: “We’re working hard, but sometimes I think we’re working on the wrong things.” Penny started the day by reminding us of some sobering statistics, which represent behavior that many of us see in our classrooms every day. Plainly said, American students are not sustaining the increase in reading volume and skills that they initially obtain in late elementary school–in fact, many finish high school without truly finishing a single book. Meanwhile, an average of 5,000 pages per year of reading are expected in the first year of college. No wonder so many who are admitted to universities simply drop out.  Students are not prepared for college, and it’s our problem to solve.

Today’s educational landscape is different–very different–than it was 50 years ago. Many well-meaning educators who are following a traditional model find frustration when they ask classes to tackle daunting schedules of lengthy whole-class texts throughout the year. Many students fake their way through a schedule like this and simply don’t read, relying on Sparknotes and YouTube summaries instead to skate by, get “right answers” on quizzes and achieve a conversational knowledge of the plot without actually experiencing the book. This kind of classroom practice can’t keep stumbling blindly forward. There’s no use in trying to cover oodles of high-level curricular content when kids can’t read longer material over sustained periods of time. Teachers will check off items in their syllabi, but not all students will learn. As Penny put it, “People get focused on teaching stuff, not kids.”

The first step to a better way is understanding the difference between what is essential, what is important, and what is nice to know. For example, while being familiar with Jane Austen’s work in particular may be nice to know, what’s truly essential is helping students learn to read more, read better, and (eventually) read deeper.

Classroom Practices:

So how do we build up our students and help them become readers? Penny quoted Richard Allington’s research, which provides a starting equation: engagement in reading + volume of reading = complexity in student thinking. Allington’s work makes clear that “older struggling readers will never become fluent and proficient readers unless volume is increased.”

Penny’s model of incorporating high volumes of independent reading into her classroom work helps build a foundational practice of reading, prioritizing choice as an initial motivator which leads to students building their own reading lists that grow in depth and sophistication through close conferencing with the teacher. Penny is adamant that there are no non-readers, simply dormant readers, and that any kid can find their own reading home, where books start to push them outside of their own environments and perspectives in life-changing ways. (You can read more about this in Penny’s Book Love.)

Penny’s message is that consistent, one-on-one conferencing with students about their reading is the ideal way to push reading skills and volume forward–constantly engaging with, checking in on, and making suggestions for students. I’ve seen this in my own practice… one particular student I worked with this year called himself “not much of a reader” in September and logged a measly 30 pages (if that) per week. After a whole year of dogging him with suggestions and asking about his reading progress every day, he ended up being the kid with quiet tears streaming down his face in the back of my classroom during silent reading, turning the final page of a 500+ page book. That’s Penny Kittle magic right there.

In addition to reading, there are a lot of other things Penny’s students are working on each day. Her daily classroom practices provide time for at least a little bit of each of these actions every day:

READ

WRITE

STUDY

CREATE

SHARE

It’s a simple list of five words, but if you do them in the classroom every day, it adds up to serious literacy power.

Coolest resources:

In the section of the workshop that focused on student writing, so many useful and game-changing resources were mentioned. While this isn’t all of them, I’d recommend these in particular as truly cool resources for the writing classroom. Check them out!

Best American Infographics : this volume, published annually, is great for modeling argument in non-fiction writing, craft lessons, and a starting point for informational writing.

Flipgrid: video sharing in a bite-size, super easy format. Penny’s students make short videos to tell her what to focus on when giving feedback on their writing.

Penny Kittle’s website: resources to make all of this stuff I’m talking about happen!

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle: a place to start when thinking about how to teach conversation skills and academic discussion.

Moving Writers web community: home of a massive, categorized mentor text dropbox–a content area teacher’s dream.

Bottom line:

One of the most important ideas that Penny shared was that a school’s social capital lies in the connections between educators and the extent to which they share that knowledge. It’s a reminder that none of us is out here alone–we need to connect, share, and build knowledge whenever possible if we want to construct a powerful school community. Those of us in this profession need to stand fast and commit to practices that will move our students forward–into the world, into a life of reading, writing, and learning. It’s not always easy, but we can do it, because we know why we’re here. To quote Penny one last time, “Teaching well is an act of rebellion that is based on an act of love.”

We’re still glowing too, Mrs. Kittle.  Thanks for everything.

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.

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!

 

Black Round Analog Wall Clock

Anyone might agree to the statement that high school students have their share of drama. These are the years when all kinds of hormones run amok and create a world of feeling so vivid that it’s practically exploding. Parents know all too well the unpredictable bursts of joy, rage, and irritation that teenagers have been famous for since forever.

And on top of that, there’s something new. More and more young people are falling into our gaping, growing mental health crisis of anxiety disorders. Flying on the wings of ever-present disturbing media images and fueled by the pressure cooker of social media’s unforgiving threats and expectations, debilitating mental health issues have become increasingly prominent in our nation’s youth. If we’re being honest, we have to recognize that quite a few of our students feel a little bit scared most of the time.

But, oddly enough, despite the maelstrom of emotions swirling about us, I would argue that many high school teachers stay well away from talking about “Feelings.” (Make sure you give it a capital F and say it in a hushed tone.) I have had conversations with teachers who firmly state that they are “not much of a talk-about-your-Feelings kind of person.” As if it’s silly. As if it’s elementary. As if it’s weak. Or just because we get so focused on content that we forget the people that are staring us in the face while we’re trying to teach it. I will argue, though, that putting feelings front and center in the teaching of high school kids can make a more effective teacher. It strengthens our student’s trust in us, of one another, and helps them get stronger. 

So what am I talking about here? Am I describing a classroom world where every special snowflake is coddled and allowed to avoid anything that makes said snowflake uncomfortable? Absolutely not. I tend to share the sentiment that psychiatrist Rob Haskell espouses in his recent article on child anxiety for Vogue:

 Laypeople and professionals alike have pointed to something else at play in the anxiety epidemic, or rather a pair of paradoxical factors: We are both putting stress on our children and trying to protect them from the uncomfortable feelings that can be an appropriate response to stress. This sends a confusing message–that the world is dangerous and that kids don’t have the tools to manage those dangers.

Bearing this in mind, I try to empathize with my students’ sincere emotional struggles–whether fleeting or chronic. However, I also make it my mission to equip them with the tools they need to flow through those feelings and find strength on the other side. Of course, I am not a clinical psychologist, nor should I ever be confused with one. But I am a person who cares for children, and who feels a heavy responsibility toward helping them become successful adults. I’d like to share some of the ways that I put feelings first in my high school classroom.

1. When there’s something going on that is impacting the emotional climate in my classroom, I acknowledge it and advise students about how to manage their reactions while in my room. Teachers know what kinds of situations will create powder kegs of emotion. For example, this month, I taught the day after the presidential election. I had already heard a variety of comments shouted in the hallway before first hour to confirm my assumption that students would be keyed up about it. Before I started teaching, I addressed my class with this message: “Hi, everyone! Now, I need to be honest with you–I think today is going to be kind of difficult here at school because of the election results last night. Many of us were up very late, for one, and might not be at our best. But also, some of you are feeling very excited and happy about the results. Others of you are feeling very sad and nervous about the results. That creates a tough situation for me as a teacher, because we all need to work together today. So, I’m asking you to press pause on whatever you’re feeling while you’re in class so that we can avoid getting derailed by conflict or being distracted by our feelings. It’s very important to have political opinions and conversations, but we’re going to put those away in a box for now, so we can focus on other things. (Sidenote: I did have one student start to taunt another for his political affiliation, but I just reminded the taunter, “Hey, hey–away in the box, remember?” and he promptly apologized.) 

2.  When asking students to do something potentially anxiety-producing, I provide coping strategies, opportunities to practice in low-pressure environments, and include success stories of others who have faced their fears and won. My junior classes are currently in their public speaking unit. The final assessment for this unit is a solo speech of the student’s own design. Throughout the four-week unit, I teach them how to use their physical posture to feel and appear more confident. I give them early practice opportunities without evaluation other than copious praise. I counsel students one-on-one about what to do to manage nervousness beforehand. And I share awesome examples of people who have overcome their speaking fear, such as this incredibly moving talk by Megan Washington:

3. I model the appropriate sharing of positive and negative emotions. I never overshare, but I will be honest about how I’m feeling with my students. When they ask me how I’m doing, I might say, “I’m doing great! Even though I’m tired, I’m in a really good mood.” Or, I might say, “Pretty good, but feeling a little nervous about my big training run this weekend. I’ve never gone 20 miles in a row.” I will also be up front with students about my physical well-being. Sometimes I’ll start class with, “Hello, class! Just to let you know, I’m losing my voice today, so if I seem kind of tired, it’s because I’m a bit sick. Nothing to worry about, though; we’ll get through it!” On the horrifying occasion of a student’s death, I cried with my class, and told them I didn’t think I could be very productive that day and I didn’t mind if they took some time to process as well.

4. I teach about self-care. When exam time comes around and my students look visibly stressed, I remind them that grades are merely a measurement of their academic knowledge at one moment in time, and have nothing to do with their goodness as a person. I talk frankly with my students about the benefits of exercise, experiencing nature, eating and drinking nutritious things, hugging pillows, and learning to say “no” to obligations that overload them. These are real skills that adults need to negotiate the world, stay balanced, and avoid burnout. Whenever I can, I share the idea that we can’t control everything, that we don’t have to be perfect, and that we can be nice to ourselves even when we fail. I wish more of my teachers had told me such things. Even, (especially) in high school.

Nobody knew more about helping children understand emotions than the late master educator Fred Rogers. I’ll leave you with two of his quotes to ponder as you step back into your classroom this week:

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.”

“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

From The World According to Mister Rogers

 

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.