Category: Educational Leadership

Committing to Equity in Our Diverse Classrooms

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Summer gives educators important mental space. Few people understand the word “chaos” quite like a teacher who’s elbow-deep in the joyful mire of managing her classroom during the school year. When we’re simultaneously focusing on feedback, meetings, lesson planning, events, data, e-mail, conferences, and instruction, there’s not always time to ponder the larger issues that surround our profession. As I’ve been enjoying this summer space to delve into educational theory and continue my graduate work, the chaos has quieted enough for me to hear the echo of an important assertion that I need to recommit to as I start my seventh year of teaching this fall. Here it is:

There’s no such thing as a classroom where diversity doesn’t matter, and teaching with an intentional goal of equity needs to be a priority for all teachers.

As our nation’s famed achievement gaps fluctuate slightly from year to year, their staying power reveals the social crevasses deeper than the Marianas Trench that run through our school hallways. Simply put, our education system still unfairly marginalizes students of color and students in living in poverty. Disparities in achievement don’t end there, either—gender, sexual orientation, home language, and physical ability can also be weighty deciding factors in a student’s level of access to success. These disparities impact future career and earning potential, mental and physical health, as well as likeliness of incarceration. It’s an overwhelmingly massive problem, with historical roots in institutionalized discrimination that many, many hardworking policymakers, academics, administrators, educators, and parents continue to fight. And it’s not just in urban areas. It’s system-wide. No district is immune. We’re all symptomatic to some degree.

We do want justice for all. We want to see all kids get a fair chance to succeed. But when data set after data set shows American schools still failing to close achievement gaps, it’s hard. As teachers, sometimes we cope by blocking out worries about inequity in our schools. We relinquish ownership of the issue. We say things like, “Well, the fact that this student won’t turn in his work has nothing to do with me” or “I’m just here to teach English. I teach things and it’s up to students to learn them, that’s it. I didn’t create the problems in education.” Here’s my message to you—don’t give in to that. Responding to diversity matters. It matters in cities, in suburbs, and rural communities. It matters because we have the agency to create a salve of parity in the small environments where we can still claim power as individual educators. It’s our job to care about, grapple with, question, and claim the ways in which diversity is addressed within our own schools.

I’d like to share with you a short list of research-supported methods that I hope to use in the coming year to work toward this goal of creating a more equitable classroom. (Read more about the research in the resources linked to each name: Banks 1999; Steele 2010; Milner 2010; Schippers, Scheepers, and Peterson 2015.)

Recognizing my own privilege and resisting colorblindness means understanding that differences—in race, gender, culture, etc.—between my students and me are important and not to be ignored. Because of my race, language, social status, and other aspects of my identity, I’ve been afforded certain social privileges free of charge which position me in a place of power. I cannot be blind to this fact, nor can I pretend that all of my students have been handed an equal backpack of privilege. By seeing and acknowledging the different identities and experiences that my students bring to the classroom, I allow myself to respond to them as individuals with needs that may be different from what I assume them to be. By making my classroom a safe space to discuss variances in identity, I prevent myself from robbing my students of agency when their perceptions vary from my own.

Understanding stereotype threat requires me to recognize that the way in which I frame an assessment can alter my students’ performance. In situations where students are conscious of an aspect of themselves (ex. being female) that is negatively stereotyped in certain subject areas (ex. mathematics), they consistently underperform. This effect can be counteracted by helping students focus on different aspects of their identities (ex. membership in an academic community) before an assessment, where the identity is associated with positive performance.

Honoring multiple perspectives in curriculum is a requirement for transformative multicultural education. In preparing students of all colors—yes, even white–and backgrounds for our increasingly diverse society, it is crucial that the stories we tell in education reflect a spectrum of cultural perspectives. This means teaching texts that include female authors and authors of color in addition to the European, white, Christian male authors that dominate the canon. It means teaching history as it was experienced by the conquerors as well as the voiceless. It means fostering critical thinking and discussion rather than seeking predetermined, one-dimensional responses.

Narrative interventions have powerful potential to increase achievement in students who are in danger of failure. This means I need to commit to helping my students express their academic goals in writing, asking them to envision the steps that they will take to achieve their goals and how the end result will impact their personal lives in a positive way. Students need the chance to think about and express what they truly want to accomplish academically and why. And I need to be involved in those goals as well–be aware of them and do what I can to support them.

Building community connections and positive relationships with students that I don’t initially have things in common with is something that takes work, and sometimes even a little bit of strategy. But I need to remember that the quickest way to boost a student’s achievement is to get him or her to invest in my classroom. That means investing in me as a person, and can only happen if the student feels that I genuinely connect with him or her. Whether it’s taking a moment to talk about some favorite music, showing up for a basketball game, calling home to check in with mom, or attending community events, the time teachers spend relating to students personally builds us a bridge across the staggering depth of the trench. When a relationship is created, the cultural tension of difference can fade.

Don’t look down. Look forward. Let’s do the work we need to do to create more opportunities for all of our students.

Fighting the Good Fight

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When I teach metaphor in my literature classes, I encourage my students to push beyond decoding simply for meaning, toward interpretation in a connotative, cultural sense. In other words, I not only want them to be able to say what the metaphor means, but also to show why that particular metaphor was chosen in the first place. For instance, take Gascoigne’s poem “For That He Looked Not upon Her,” in which he uses animal metaphors to reflect on his past relationship with a woman who turned out to be nothing but trouble:

The mouse which once hath broken out of trap
Is seldom ’ticèd with the trustless bait,
But lies aloof for fear of more mishap,
And feedeth still in doubt of deep deceit.
 
And so we start with meaning. The speaker uses the analogy of the once-caught mouse avoiding the trap to mean that he, once caught in this woman’s manipulation, will not be ensnared again. But there’s more. “Why is it a mouse in a trap?” I ask my students, “Why not a bear, or a robber, or a beaver?” So much more then comes to light. By putting himself in the role of the mouse, the speaker shows his comparative weakness and low status in juxtaposition with the former lover. She’s made him feel like a tiny, brainless, scurrying animal. She has “fed” him deceit–betrayed him so completely that he literally feels that he’s ingested the shame that her affections lured him into. She, cast as the trap, is cold, metallic, and brutal; a mere snap of deadly machinery to his soft, innocent (and now wary) mouse.
 
Metaphors carry the weight of old instincts with them. That’s what makes them one of the most powerful literary devices, along with allusion, of them all. Metaphors are worth considering for a moment. It’s this belief which led me, today, to think more deeply about my favorite metaphor to use when encouraging fellow teachers, and sometimes even myself: Keep fighting the good fight.
 
“Why this metaphor?” I asked myself. It’s downright combative, suggestive of violent struggle. Where does it even come from? Do I even know what I’m saying?! (You can see how quickly being a literary thinker can lead one to crisis.) So, I decided to do some research.
 
I found that the origin of this particular idiom is actually a Biblical quote from Timothy 6.12–“Fight the Good Fight of Faith.” It was a popular phrase in several English hymns of the 1800’s. Over time, the phrase has adopted a more general meaning, which The Oxford English Dictionary (aka the unquestionable word nerd guidebook) describes as,  “To campaign or struggle valiantly for a just cause; to defend what one believes to be right.” After reading it phrased as such, the instinct that makes this phrase pop off of my tongue so often is clearer to me.
 
Especially at this time of the year, teaching can feel like a good fight. The attention of students who have been engaged all semester long can start to wane with warmer weather. Seniors begin checking or stressing out as the life beyond high school looms. Students who have been difficult since day one can become downright maddening in their habitual apathy or resistance. It can be tempting, as a teacher, to feel helpless and resigned. This is where the fight comes in. It’s the time to appeal to the noble warrior spirit that lurks within every teacher who cares too much to quit fighting for kids.
 
Late April and May are the time to dig deep. Something that feels almost blasphemous to say–but which is absolutely true–is that caring, really caring, about over a hundred kids each day on a personal level is exhausting. Sometimes they don’t listen. Sometimes they don’t perform. Sometimes they don’t understand your explanation the first, second, or third time. Sometimes they don’t follow through. Sometimes they’re rude. But good teachers don’t lie down. Good teachers fight the good fight. We fight to care harder. We fight to crank out lessons so exciting that the students can’t help but look up. We fight to keep challenging our learners of all levels, refusing to let them give up. Because we sure as heck ain’t giving up. It is a good fight. It’s the best cause I can think of. But we can only win if we’re willing to go into battle.
 
If teachers are warriors, we also have our spoils of victory. Some of mine recently have included…
 
*A previously combative student who completed almost none of my assignments during Quarter 3 is now interacting positively with me and is working AHEAD on a major project.
 
*I found a reminder letter from a student organization left behind in my room with spontaneous poetry scribbled on it–extra non-assigned practice in a style that we taught to our juniors over a month ago.
 
*My AP students are discussing ideas of race and privilege in Native Son with such astute intellect that it puts many groups of upper level college students I’ve seen to shame.
 
*My Comm III students are asking cool, conceptual, thought-provoking questions in their synthesis essays… and actually care about pursuing those questions on a philosophical level.
 
*Seeing the names of a few kids on next year’s AP roster–students who I encouraged to take the course even though it will present them a significant academic challenge.
 
*Every smile. Every “good morning.” Every “have a good weekend.” Every kid, honestly.
 
If you feel like the end of every school day has you emerging from battle these days, well, you’re not alone. Just remember, we’re all fighting together toward the same end. I’ll leave you with a snippet of lyrics from the fantastic, super-literate modern folk band The Decemberists.
 
This is why
why we fight
why we lie awake
this is why
this is why we fight.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Teacher as Academic: Why it’s Worth It to Work Toward Getting Published

Earlier this school year, I accomplished one of my longtime career goals–submitting an article for publication in an professional academic journal. The Wisconsin English Journal ran the article that I wrote this past summer, which was based on the work I did with the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project in 2013. For anyone who’d like to read it, here’s the link to the table of contents for Vol. 56, No. 2. You’ll see the link to the .pdf of my article entitled “Crucial Creativity: Addressing State Standards While Fostering Creative Student Authorship” toward the bottom of the page. In her letter from the editor, Mary Louise Gomez previews the article as such:

“Amy Harter provides a strong
argument against a perceived call of the
Wisconsin Common Core State Standards
(CCSS) for more non-fiction writing and less
creative writing. Harter argues that creative
writing is indeed a powerful and engaging
genre into which students can be inducted.
This author presents powerful arguments for
the writing of poetry, plays, song lyrics, and
other so-called “creative writing” that also
are key ways to form arguments and affect
one’s audiences.”

 Words cannot explain how proud I am to have my first journal article publication under my belt. It not only represents many, many hours of impassioned research, writing, revising, talking-out, and polishing, but it also represents a step toward “making it” as a professional who contributes meaningfully to the academic side of our profession.

Isn’t it strange that, as educators, we still sometimes have a hard time viewing ourselves as academics? For me, seeing my name in print brought me to tears–it gave me a soaring feeling of professional validation. And  it cannot be overstated how important professional validation is for teachers–for the many of us who were asked back in college to justify why on earth we’d choose this career over others of greater promise, for the many of us who have been casually scoffed at for our small salaries, for the many of us who wonder how we might hope to be viewed as professionals in a culture that doesn’t always respect or understand what we do. For us, a sense of validation and celebration of our research, ideas, and achievements, is huge.

Here’s the thing about that–writing is the path that allows us to explore, define, and share our ideas about our profession. For this reason, I think far greater numbers of practicing K-12 teachers need to be lending their voices to the field of education through professional writing. Maybe it’s an article for a journal. Maybe it’s a conference or workshop session proposal. Maybe it’s an editorial or letter to a public official. Maybe it’s a piece of original curriculum. Or, hey, maybe it’s a blog! 🙂

The message is this, fellow teachers: You can, and should, do it.

Why?

Because teachers deserve to learn about things in their field from others who are currently practicing within it.

Because you already do action research in your classroom every day as you introduce new teaching techniques and observe their effects on your students. You are, by virtue of your position, making observations and tracking data. Teacher = researcher.

Because the expertise lent by your experience in the classroom, especially when put in the context of current educational research, is invaluable.

Because you are a professional, and have the capacity to influence and lead in your profession.

Because it can give a meaningful focus and purpose to your professional reading.

Because it is a way to earn the validation that you deserve as a professional educator. 

Because you already have the support you need to write and publish a piece of professional writing, even if you don’t know it yet. Talk to your peers, talk to presenters at conferences, get involved in a National Writing Project site near you, or send an email of inquiry to a publication you’d like to submit to. Many of them have very responsive editing staffs who, even if they don’t accept your piece, will send you a response with suggestions to make your future writing more successful.

There are many, many opportunities out there for teachers to offer their voices to the conversations surrounding what education can and will look like in the future. Consider offering yours. If I can do it, so can you. 🙂

A Creative Writing Rap

As the research saga for my writing project inquiry unfolds, it is producing several unexpected cool things. For one, I got to talk in person with Kelly Gallagher at a wonderful workshop based on his book Write Like This, hosted at Port Washington High School on June 28th, and got a lot of unexpected insight on my research topic in the process! [P.s. If you don’t already, you should probably be following Kelly Gallagher on Twitter. He retweets a lot of amazing resources, and he himself is an amazing resource. Buy his books–they are immediately useful in your writing classroom.]

Another cool thing, which happened today, is that I had a breakthrough associated with the way I want to facilitate the interactive part of my Writing Project workshop on day one of the summer institute. Since it will deal in part with writing rap lyrics for informational and argumentative purposes, I wrote one of my own as a model. The lyrics, and a link to the actual track, are below. (Yes, that’s me rapping as well.) Why not take risks? As Gallagher says, “I go, you go.” Enjoy! 🙂

Young teacher, just comin’ up: stand up, say your name, get attendance done
I had a class of kids who trusted in me to show them things about the world that they never had seen
I taught writing, putting ideas on paper and screen, how to make what you say match up what you mean
I saw young women tell stories, young men discover poetry—saw words sing like winds that
brush the leaves of birch trees.
And it would overcome me, the importance of that career choice
Even a child without a house can find a home in his voice, you know?
The power of art, resilient truth of the heart,creative visions strong enough to tear self-doubt apart:
These things are vital. They fulfill a human need—to say, “Hey, these thoughts? They come from within me.”
Wielding fiction to become an intellectual force. It means more than simply analyzing a source.
To really know how to write, you need to know how to fight—cause a motion, emotion, make words take flight.
And you would know that, if you spent time in a high school every day.
The room is filled with secret poets who have something unique to say.
After I taught for a few years more, the state adopted this idea called the Common Core,
where certain standards are set, skills that students should learn, and teachers must abide if they
expect to earn.
Looking through, I wondered where creativity went; the amount of literary writing dropped to twenty
percent, and Poetry no longer is ever required. This country’s writing curriculum is being rewired.
The guy who wrote it actually gave as his reasoning: “No one gives a shit about how you feel.”
He said that writing stories won’t lead to jobs that are real.
So what are we to do about a poverty of fiction? Trying to uphold the right to use imagination?
Discuss and debate, knowing students need to create, backing up our techniques with research done by big names.
And what’s more, we can’t be scared of what the core offers; it’s our job to skillfully train our young authors.
There are notes in the standards about teacher discretion, and it’s there where we can find the space to
alter our lessons to preserve the tradition of creating rhymes, and storytelling just like Homer in the ancient times, because words unfurled are the way to connect with the world. You know?
Informational writers might one day work at Wikipedia, but it’s the storytellers who create the new media.
A writer who makes us see through his mind’s eye is gonna be the “check out my Pulitzer Prize” guy
But even those who put literature aside after high school are smarter knowing how to use narrative as a
tool: Sell me a boat, or convince me to vote, inform my health and my views, help me relate to the news.
You need stories to do that, to touch the cares of people, to define cultural ideals about good and evil.
Listen, turn the page, press play, that’s how the themes of our era were made.
I want to put a notebook in every kid’s hand with a cover that says “make us understand.”
Using writing rich in metaphor, real life knocking down the door, getting yourself unstuck, whatever you
can drum up. Show me love or heroism, show me visions of the future.
Uncap the joy of sunlight or the pain of ripping out a suture.
Create an image, tied to a message, tied to life.
I give you freedom to actually learn how to write, where what’s real and imagined combine.
Make possibilities that you are the one to define.
You are the one to define

*

Listen by clicking here: Creative Writing

Beats provided by The Passion HiFi ~ Thank you!

Saving Creative Writing: A Writing Project Inquiry Proposal

I am extremely proud and happy to return to this year’s Invitational Summer Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee  affiliate of the National Writing Project. Three years ago, I participated as a teacher consultant. This year, I’m serving as a facilitator. I’m excited to get a second go-round at this transformational, career-changing piece of professional development, this time as a guide and coach for other educators who are having their very first Writing Project experience.

The point of the Writing Project ISI is to develop teachers as researchers, experts on the teaching of writing, and as writers themselves. When I participated in 2010, the latter was the aspect of the experience that rejuvenated my soul. Having the time, the space, and the reason to write creatively brought me back, mentally, to why I first had the idea to become an English teacher–writing sustains me. Something about making thoughts permanent, making words into art, and giving strength and structure to my imagination makes writing one of the most fulfilling things in my life. For me, becoming a storyteller was always the most thrilling part of being an English student; and being in charge of the training of young storytellers, poets, and philosophers was what I had in mind when I applied to the School of Education in my undergrad years. Creating fiction, in my opinion, is a vital task for the development of creative thinking in students. 

Even though I’m a facilitator this summer, I’m still going to be conducting new research of my own, and creating a new Teacher Inquiry Workshop to demonstrate my findings as they are applicable to the classroom. And I’ve decided to let my strong feelings about the importance of creative writing guide my study. Since Wisconsin adopted the Common Core State Standards, it seems that less and less space is being afforded for the literary arts while argumentative, informative, and research writing take center stage. In fact, nowhere in the  Common Core State Standards for high school language arts does it overtly require a high school student to write a single poem, play, or story during any of the four years. It seems to suggest that creative writing is superfluous fluff. Personally, I feel that this view is a disservice to the minds and hearts of our students, who need experience in creating something altogether new in order to know how to envision solutions to problems. More than that, they deserve a chance to tell stories, let their voices off a tether, and explore the power of their own generative imaginations.

I believe that the teaching of creative writing in high school is crucial to the development of young writers. And I want to prove that teachers can address the writing standards–even as overtly geared toward non-fiction as they are–through the teaching of creative writing.

The following are my working inquiry questions:

1. How can the teaching of creative writing (such as poetry, fictitious prose, and drama) be used to directly address and fulfill the Common Core State Standards for Writing in the high school classroom?

2. What are the benefits of teaching creative writing–as far as student motivation, learning outcomes, marketability, and critical thinking–that cannot be addressed by non-fiction writing alone?

As the summer goes on, I’ll be posting more about what I discover, in an effort to provide other educators with the justification that they need to keep creative writing alive in the classroom. Also, in an effort to practice what I preach, I’ve started an online collection of some of my own creative writing, which I hope to add to throughout the summer.

SAVE  CREATIVE WRITING IN OUR SCHOOLS! Comment below or “like” the Universe as Text Facebook page to join the conversation.

The Last Three Years: What makes a great teaching team?

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Most teachers find themselves at a crossroads or two, as careers reach transitional points and the best teaching “home” turns up in a new place. I now find myself at such a crossroads for the second time in my career, as I prepare to leave my current placement, which I’ve held for three years, to pursue a new position in the Communications department at Port Washington High School. This fills me with excitement and zeal for discovery as I look forward to connecting with new students, advancing my career, and learning new things from colleagues with vast experience and wisdom to share. Still, while packing up my classroom this weekend, I realized how difficult it will be for me to face this final week of teaching at Sheboygan Falls High.

The experience of teaching at SFHS gave me so much that one might think it would be difficult to pinpoint just one particular thing that made three years’ worth of plans, projects, presentations, performances, professional development, and pedagogy memorable. But it’s not. All alliteration aside, when I think about the last three years, it’s the people that will keep this chapter of my career ingrained in my heart. Specifically, the people in my department. As we all move on to shift our teaching directions in big and small ways next year, I know that I need to thank the stars that I somehow landed in such an amazing team. So, I’ve decided, as my tribute to these many days spent teaching together, I’d write my thank you in the form of a list: Things that Make a Great Teaching Team. This, of course, comes with the implication that I could not have learned these things without working alongside my outstanding team, lovingly and forever known as “the superdepartment.”

superdept

Things that Make a Great Teaching Team

Laughter: Teachers who work together with positivity are able to find humor in all situations–to ease frustration, to find a way through befuddlement, to celebrate success, to delight in the work of teaching.

Expertise: A fantastic team is made up of wickedly smart teachers, who have measured expertise in specific content/pedagogical areas. The members of the team know each other’s strengths, and put each other in the position to share, develop, and actively use their specialized outstanding knowledge and abilities.

Drive: The team is comprised of people who have a strong desire to work together in order to make each day better and more successful for students. They simply don’t ever stop creating, reading, questioning, revising, experimenting, and collaborating.

Communication: Effective team members trust one another, and are clear about what they are thinking, needing, and doing. They ask questions, challenge one another when appropriate, and relate to and support each other openly. They build lessons, curriculum, and initiatives together, working in person and online as a group.

Risk-Taking: An outstanding team is not afraid of doing things that have never been done before. In fact, when convinced of positive potential, they actively pursue it. They welcome challenge, ambitious projects, and new approaches. They know that as a team, their risk-taking will result in new knowledge and breakthroughs.

Compassion: A truly cohesive team cares for one another and their students unconditionally. A warm, receptive, caring attitude towards every team member is something that can be counted on at all times.

Purpose: Team members are able to develop and define their mission(s) for the year. This mission unites the team as each teacher does what he or she can to make progress toward the team goals, with the knowledge that results will be seen. A sense of purpose pervades the cohort and inspires them to work for results.

 

Thanks for a great ride, guys. This has been three years well spent. 🙂

Managing Teacher Morale from the Inside

Unfortunately for me, I began my teaching career in a place and in a time that is… well… maybe not the best place and time to be a teacher. Teacher morale across the U.S. is at the lowest it’s been in 25 years.  And in case anybody’s wondering if, as just one teacher in just one school, you can tell that there are some serious morale issues in the system, trust me: you can tell. It’s an issue of politics. It’s an issue of economics. It’s an issue of the performance of our national public education system. But for teachers, it necessarily becomes personal. The first time I wrote about this was in 2011, when I shared some reflections and a mental approach for dealing with some of the uncomfortable realities of how public education has changed in my own state. I find myself needing to weigh in on the topic again, after reading this sobering teacher morale-related blog post from one of my longtime colleagues and friends, Ms. S. She expresses many of the same concerns I’ve heard about from fellow teachers from many different schools–the burden of exponentially increasing responsibilities and accountability, the financially crippling cuts and freezes in pay, the sense of powerlessness, and the fear associated with speaking up about any of it. Some of these I’ve experienced myself. Plainly said, it’s an injustice, especially to highly effective, early-career educators who are trying to establish themselves as leaders and innovators in the churning belly of a system that seems hell-bent on merely spitting them back out.  

Taking political action, on local, state, and national levels is one way to try to make a difference in the current climate, but that’s not useful for making a personal difference right now. As professionals with a daily, important job to do, we can’t just tune out until the next election term rolls around. So, what do we do–today–about teacher morale… as teachers?

I don’t have all the answers. But I have a couple. I am, after all, the very official self-appointed Morale Officer of the English department at my school. Yeah, it’s a made up title, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not legitimate! 🙂  Sometimes, to get out of a very deep, dark hole, one has to be creative. And that’s not limited to inventing honorary titles. Here are some other things you can do:

Morale Toolkit

I think the absolute best defense against low morale is building a strong support system via a professional support network. I wrote in-depth about how to do that in this post from a couple years back. Nothing is more helpful during times of struggle than relating to and seeking support from other educators.

Also, don’t let this job kill you! Stay strong, literally, by being kind to yourself in what you eat, how much mental and physical rest you afford yourself, and opportunities you give yourself to exercise and feel physically alive and well. If your devotion to your teaching (and associated responsibilities) are impinging on your ability to fulfill these things, you have taken on too much. Teachers are heroes, but they don’t need to be martyrs. You’ll be a better educator if you are healthy and whole. Jealously guard your own health and sanity. Sometimes, the grading can wait.

While I don’t think that “do it for the kids” should be a reason to pile extra expectation without compensation onto our educators, I do think that teachers should take a moment each day to look around at the difference that they are creating. Look at those kids, and what they can do, and what they love to do that they never thought they would, because of your influence. No amount of bureaucracy will ever be able to stomp out the wonder or beauty of that.

One very specific thing to try in order to stay interested in and inspired by your teaching career is incorporating your own interests and hobbies into your teaching methods. Since I can’t always find the time or money to pursue creative endeavors, I sometimes make my teaching into my creative endeavor. For example, I love to write, draw, and perform. So, I’ll make a comic strip to teach my students a new skill. Or I’ll write a piece of short fiction to demonstrate author craft. I’ll recite a rap to my class to teach them something. These things give me joy and fulfillment because they are my favorite things to do! By applying them to my teaching, I’m making my job fun, and my students also get to feed off of my engaged interest in the method/medium of the day’s lesson.

Another strategy that’s a bit harder to define is… silliness. Laughter is a necessary remedy in low-morale environments. It’s ok to be a little “out there” sometimes in one’s efforts to make colleagues smile or to create a positive vibe in the teaching day. How about a short, relevant-to-the-curriculum Play-Doh activity at the beginning of class? Maybe have your students write a parody skit to review some literature. Play very, very mild practical jokes on your colleagues, if they are up for such a challenge. Or, when all else fails, you can make a poster of your department members as superheroes like I did.

Oh, yes I did: omg_dept2

Courtesy of Marvel.com’s “Create Your Own Superhero” game.

Finally, the gold standard for beating low morale is what I like to call stupidly stubborn positivity. This means coming into work with a (stupid?) grin and calling out “good morning!” to everyone you pass. This means smiling at and personally meeting every student at the door. This means occasionally responding to the dreaded, “How’s it going?” question in the copyroom with a brave, non-sarcastic, “Pretty fantastic!” Think I’m crazy? Try it. Things are going to get better–that possibility needs to become a fact in your mind in order for you to reframe your reality into a positive one. There is such a thing as good days. Don’t let the bad things–because there will always be bad things–completely steal the spirit that got you into this career. You’re here. You are doing good things. Keep. Fighting.

I know that none of these suggestions will make the struggles evaporate, pay the bills, or protect us from forces over which we have little control. But they might help in the meantime. Please share other strategies, connect, and lift up. From our joined sense of mission and our combined intelligence as educational leaders, we can help keep the otherwise overwhelming tide of low morale at bay.

 

Great Expectations: Bringing Rigor Vita into the Classroom

One of the biggest words in education theory today is rigor. According to the Rigor/Relevance Framework established by the International Center for Leadership in Education, academic rigor refers to “learning in which students demonstrate a thorough, in-depth mastery of challenging tasks to develop cognitive skills through reflective thought, analysis, problem-solving, evaluation, or creativity.” This expectation, that teachers will demonstrate a curriculum that not only covers the basics, but also challenges each student to the utmost of his or her ability, can leave already overburdened or disenfranchised educators feeling pressured. We might find ourselves asking things like, “How am I supposed to show rigor when some of my students can’t even read up to grade level?” There’s no magical potion to turn struggling students into savants, this much is true. But I’d like to posit that boosting the rigor of our courses, rather than something to shrink from, is something that we should be applying with a vengeance.

On the curricular level, standards are set by the nation, the state, and the district. For those of us working with the Common Core State Standards, we’ve noticed the rigor ramping up. But really, when you walk into a real world classroom, it’s not the state of Wisconsin that’s setting the bar for the students’ performance. The person setting that bar is the person standing at the front of the room. We all know about The Standards, but what about our standards? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got them. Go ahead, say it with me:

“I have standards!”

This is what I tell my students when they ask me why something is so hard, or why they are expected to do something in such a particular way. It’s because I have standards–for them, for my classroom, for myself as a professional. And they are rigorous standards, because I know my students will reach toward what I expect for them. And I expect excellence! As my hideously wonderful tie-dye classroom poster proclaims, excellence is the goal. No matter where we fall, we are better when we aim for superior performance. And my daily demand for a higher standard from my students is far more immediate and powerful than the CCSS binder sitting sagely on my bookshelf. It makes them want to be better. That desire is fuel for a fire that can equate to greater achievement, even in the most unexpected places.

Concrete and Realistic Ways to Implement Greater Rigor in the High School Classroom

Communicate Effectively and Often: Students really do want to please, despite how much they may sometimes protest. And that’s a lot easier to do when they know what is expected. Create challenging, but very clear learning targets and explain them often, in different ways. As students begin work, engage the lost and distracted in an open conversation–“do you know what we’re doing right now?” Many times, the answer is “no,” but quickly becomes “ok!” after a personal connection. You can also recruit more with-it students to explain classroom processes to a nearby classmate. Take the time to verbally monitor success (it’s a great way to formatively assess on the spot). It only takes a moment to say, “This part that you wrote is really strong because…” or “What did you think of the way the author comes across in this paragraph?” The more acquainted we can be with our students’ current performance, the better we learn how to appropriately challenge and support them next.

Dare to Demand Amazing Things: Wish your students could do something like… perform a scene from Twelfth Night for a live audience? Or market and sell a unique product? Or have professional conversations with local community members? Or design a school vegetable garden? They can. If you need someone to say it, I’m saying it: They Absolutely Can. They need resources and guidance, and may have some failures along the way, but young people are unbelievably capable. Society doesn’t always view teenagers for the wonders they are. Especially if they know that an adult believes that they can do something, they will rise to the occasion. Try to implement one amazing thing per year–something that expects students to reach beyond their normal capabilities for a classroom cause.

Accept that there Is Such a Thing as “Unacceptable” Part of rigor is making a clear statement that mediocrity is not enough. Resist the fear of the irritated parent phone call and draw a bold line that defines unacceptable performance. If a student falls short of expectations, it’s ok to hand work right back to them and say, “This is not acceptable.” Paired with an understanding ear, a re-clarification of expectations, and an opportunity for another try, this is an important moment for teacher and student. Struggling students in this scenario are able to express their areas of struggle, while the lazy or line-pushing students get the message that… well… we have standards! I also try to mirror society’s expectations by defining unacceptable social actions (such as trash-talking anyone in my presence), and even unacceptable grammar mistakes (papers with instances of the wrong “there/their/they’re” get harshly downgraded or, on occasion, handed back without a grade)!

Research Your Own Practicum and Content  Students can tell when their teacher is working hard to provide quality instruction. Consider doing a bit of new reading on something you’ve taught many times before. If we want our students to respect the idea of lifelong learning, we need to model it! High standards for our teaching translate to rigor in expectations… because when our passion overflows, we want our students to understand the subject with the same intriguing complexity that we do.

Celebrate Hard Work  Through your classroom actions and outright statements, communicate the value of hard work. Help students understand that the immediate gratification of Google searches will only go so far in building true knowledge. Help them build reading stamina. Rejoice in the painfully slow but successful interpretation of a 17th century text. Share the deliciously frustrating reality of the writing and research process that makes the payoff that much sweeter. When students know that success doesn’t just descend from above onto the “A” students, they start to make a connection between industriousness and achievement.

Be a Cheerleader  Be vocal when students do well. Write proud comments on their work. Brag about them in the announcements. Post their work in the display case. Write an article about them in the school newspaper. One honest, affirming comment can inspire a student to work twice as hard. Yesterday, after my students finished reading their original poems for the class, I said, “These were so good! You guys make me want to stand up and cheer!” It was true! Every kid deserves to hear something like that once in a while. And don’t reserve praise just for overachievers–when a D average student pulls out a B- performance, it is just as much cause for affirmation and validation.

Create a Culture of Team Achievement The broken record classroom management philosophy that I’ve had since day one has been “We’re all in this together.” Friendly competition can be stimulating, but at the end of the day, students need to understand that the classroom is a community. Make them aware of the fact that their actions, words, and attitude have real power over those in their vicinity. Encourage them to encourage each other, and they’ll want to do well–not just for themselves, but for each other.

 

Writing Center Work Translates to Teaching: an interview

 

Interview at UW-Milwaukee

Earlier this year, I was happy to revisit the beautiful UW-Milwaukee Writing Center, where I worked as an undergrad, for an interview. The UWM Writing Center, which you can visit by going to The Writing Center Homepage, was one of my first steps as an educator, and has often translated into my teaching. [You can read even more about that in this post from last year.]

In the interview, which is the latest in an ongoing series of short interviews with current and alumni tutors, I was asked to describe how my work in the UWM Writing Center influenced my teaching career. Trust me when I say that these few minutes are just a fraction of what I was able to talk about! The idea of a writing center is a beautifully simple one–to provide a place where student writers can communicate with other, highly qualified student writers to receive feedback without the pressure or power dynamic of a student-instructor relationship. It’s a great idea for high schools, too. I hope that one day I’ll be able to work with my colleagues to start one at my own place of employment. If and when that happens, I’ll continue to draw from the rich supply of experience that I gained in the WC. 🙂

 

Top Ten

The school that I work for has the tradition of holding a formal banquet to honor the top ten students in the graduating class and a group of ten influential teachers as chosen by the students. This year, I was lucky and surprised to be chosen by Miss D., a shining young literary scholar who took my AP Literature and Composition class as well as my Theater Arts class this year. It was interesting and enjoyable to say the least to meet the parents of these fine young individuals, to get a nod from administration, to eat delicious food, and to see everyone dressed up in formal attire..

It really is special to attend a banquet that honors outstanding academic achievement as well as the role that teachers play in creating the atmosphere for that achievement to occur. The honors and accolades earned by this group of students was impressive to say the least, but what made the occasion memorable was how honestly and precisely the students were able to pinpoint, in their brief speeches, ways in which a particular teacher was able to spark something important in them, to light their path on the journey of self-discovery. Each student needs something a little different to discover his or her genius, and that made me sit and ponder the vast diversity in teaching styles, personalities, and types of expertise among teachers. As much as popular culture may at times reinforce a single image of what “the teacher” looks like or does, real teachers have extremely individualized ways of doing what they do. All teachers have an individual, unique potential to really strike a particular type of student. Skilled teachers are able to engage every kid in their classroom. But really clicking with a student to the point that he or she views you as truly influential? That’s something rare… and has much to do with the chemistry between a student’s way of seeing the world and the unique style and spirit of the teacher whom they admire.

Thinking about the fact that I clicked with one of these outstanding students, that I sparked something within her, makes me feel proud to be her teacher. It also makes me feel proud to be a teacher, since we have such an exceptional opportunity to connect to other human beings in a meaningful way by virtue of our profession. And the best thing is that each new year presents new opportunities for unique connections, as the cards are reshuffled and both students and teachers hopefully anticipate a lucky hand.

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