Category: Issues in Education

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

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

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

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

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

We loved him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

References

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

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

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

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

 

Where the Teaching Life and Political Life Meet–What Does the Law Say?

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I’m excited to share an article of mine that was published in this month’s issue of  Wisconsin Lawyer  magazine, entitled “Speaking Up: The First Amendment and Wisconsin’s Public Educators.” The article is the result of a special graduate project that I completed as part of my ongoing master’s coursework at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Special thanks are due to Dr. Pritchard from the Journalism and Media Studies program at UWM, for his mentorship and feedback during my research and writing process!

The article explores both historical and current law surrounding the intersection between public educators’ jobs and their political actions, with a focus on Wisconsin cases. I set out to answer the question, “How much protection does the First Amendment extend to the speech of public school teachers?” In other words, what can teachers legally say and do to participate robustly in political life… without getting in trouble for it? What does the law really say, and why?

To find out, check out the article by clicking here.

Thanks for reading!

Listening Down the Hallway: Teaching Through Doubt

Teaching is unpredictable on many different levels. Sometimes it seems like our very existence in the classroom is governed by uncertainty. This uncertainty can pop up in many small ways. What will my students be like today? What will they do? What will they need? What unforeseen events or circumstances will I need to adapt to? Did I say the right things today? Did my students learn from me? 

Uncertainty can surge up in the form of much larger questions, too. Am I really making a difference? What will my future as an educator look like? Do people find any value in what I do? Am I even in the right careerEspecially in times of high stress or low staff morale, the sandpit of doubt manifests surreptitiously beneath our feet. And getting out of it can be… a special challenge.

Having one such day recently, I walked down the long Communications Department hallway to make some copies during my prep hour. I was treading carefully (because of the metaphorical quicksand and all), so I’ll admit that I was walking a bit more slowly than usual. As it turned out, slowing down physically also quieted my mind. The worried questions that had been scrolling in my head dropped off one by one, and by the time I was halfway down the hall, my head was clear. In that mind-quiet, I become suddenly aware of what I was hearing: a whole hallway worth of my colleagues teaching, a chorus of voices simultaneously audible through their respective classroom doors. Mr. B’s hip introspection. Mrs. L’s patient guidance. Mrs. G’s honest laughter. Mrs. H’s enthusiastic explanation. Mrs. F’s wry wit. And Mrs. U’s unbelievably clear and carrying Teacher Voice with a capital T. You have to understand, these people are really good teachers.

I stopped for a minute, and leaned against a locker.

I listened.

I let the sounds weave a poem in the air and my sense of uncertainty floated away like a tetherless buoy. These are good days, I thought. These are good days with good people. I was literally hearing learning happen. Over a hundred students just behind each door in the hallway were all learning at once in the same space. And beyond that, more hallways with more students were learning even more things all at once! As can happen when one deeply ponders otherwise obvious facts, it staggered me to think about it. Such a massive force for good was happening, and I was there, standing right in the middle of it.

I don’t have a catch all answer to doubt. But I know that there’s one thing I won’t ever doubt. I will never doubt that teachers everywhere are working really hard to be there for their students. And when I think about all the fantastic teaching that’s happening in my hallway (and the hallways beyond mine in all the school, all the city, all the state, and all the country!) all at once, the magnitude of sheer, recklessly dedicated courage that teachers bring to work with them each day comes into focus. To teach is to have the confidence to say, “I know some things about the world. I want to share them with you. I want to teach you how to walk in this way, to write and speak and read.” To teach requires a boldness that slices through doubt. On the days when I feel like I’m not the one who has it, all I need to do is listen down the hallway to be reminded that I’m in the most capable of company. My colleagues are my steady ground–a plank across the sand.

If you feel your steps start to sink, take a moment in the hallway to listen and admire the fellow teachers around you. There’s a lot of intellectual firepower there, and a lot of love.

These are good days with good people.

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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.

You Can’t Cut Truth from a Budget: A Response to the Proposed Cuts to the UW System’s Resources and Mission

UPDATE: Shortly after the post below was published, Governor Walker tweeted that his removal of The Wisconsin Idea from the UW System mission statement was a “drafting error” and that it would be replaced in his most recent version of the budget. Here’s the tweet:

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This is a positive rhetorical move, but the question remains whether or not the reasoning behind Walker’s proposed cuts remains true to The Wisconsin Idea. (Does he walk the walk, in other words?) Evidence seems to point to the contrary. Keep reading to consider my argument about the link between this type of rhetorical oversight and the implied accompanying motivations for political action.
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In case you haven’t been following the news in Wisconsin surrounding our governor’s proposal to implement deep cuts to the University of Wisconsin system, here are the essential facts.

*Governor Walker has proposed $300 million worth of budget cuts to the UW System overall, to be implemented over the next two years. This is a 13% cut to the overall UW budget.

*The plan also includes a two-year tuition freeze.

*This decrease in state aid is intended to improve the state’s financial situation, and to provide the universities with more autonomy in establishing employee salaries and benefits, as well as to expand campuses’ ability to add property and resources via different regulations on procurement contracts and construction projects.

*University leaders are troubled by the prospect of this cut, noting that large-scale layoffs and program cuts will likely derail many university initiatives currently in place.

*And, most recently, the governor suggested this revision to the mission statement of the UW System, removing the essentials of the Wisconsin Idea and striking the phrase “search for truth” in favor of a stronger focus on creating contributors to the state’s workforce:

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Reading about this makes me extremely uneasy. As a lifetime Wisconsin native, as a UW System alumnus, as a public school teacher, and as a current UW system graduate student, I have a deep, personal feeling of connection with the UW System: its faculty, its facilities, its goals, its ideals, and its strong sense of responsibility to improve the quality of life in our state. That commitment is the embodiment of The Wisconsin Idea–the part of the UW mission statement which defines it as one of the finest public university systems in the nation. This is the idea that the impact of a public university should be directed toward the betterment of its community. This is the idea that the human condition and the search for truth are vital in the process of education. This is the idea that the governor wants to omit in his revision of the UW System’s mission statement.

I experienced the power of The Wisconsin Idea personally as I went through the UW-Milwaukee education program, where I was required to invest my talent back into the city by completing two semesters of student teaching within the Milwaukee Public School system. This and many other aspects of my UW education made me aware of social issues, equipped me with the tools I needed to contribute something to improve upon those issues, and required that I take action to participate in my community and make a positive change. My schooling required me to be a force for good in my own city, in my own state, of which I was and still am zealously proud. 

I have carried this sense of service and action with me throughout my career–a sense that was imbued in me by the cohesive, devoted, demanding, and brilliant professors that guided my learning. They taught me how to research and interpret data on a mathematical and human level. They taught me how to be an assertive leader in my field, even though I was young. They taught me how to innovate. They taught me the value of speaking up and digging into problems as a maker of solutions. Yes, they taught me how to teach well. But more: they taught me how to give the benefits of my education back to the people of Wisconsin.

I don’t know how much money needs to be spent, cut, invested, or redirected to keep our state’s economy running smoothly. This is not a post that posits the correct amount of money to cut from the correct sources. This is a post about respecting the purpose of education in our lives. The proposed slash to the UW System budget is bolstered by the fundamental idea that the search for truth is frivolous and that we don’t have to uphold a commitment to playing an active role in bettering the lives of those around us. It’s a move that supports a streamlined, factory-like higher education system which holds grooming earners for the workforce as its sole objective. This mentality, paired with the threat of a crippling economic blow to our UW schools, eviscerates the very soul of public higher education as we’ve known it in our state for over a century.

This proposed political move is about more than saving dollars. It’s about a paradigm shift in the way that we see the outcomes of higher education. My plea to those with the power to prevent or re-envision this budget proposal is this: when you’re looking at the numbers, please consider…

How much is cultivating the search for truth worth to you?

How much is working to improve the human condition worth to you?

How much is the accessibility to education for all people worth to you?

How much is a group of young people with the long-term desire to reinvest in their community worth to you?

How much is a century-old state tradition of leadership which is motivated by ideals rather than profit worth to you?

How much is the exploration of new ideas worth to you?

Is it your belief that meeting workforce needs is the primary reason why young people should attend a University of Wisconsin school?

I urge you, voters and policymakers, to consider the impact of these proposed cuts with an eye to the end result. Ten years, fifty years, one hundred years down the line, I dearly hope we can say that any economic shifts that were made to the UW System budget in our time were made with the intent of strengthening the long-term legacy of higher education that has always been such a bright spot in our beautiful state. Being both realistic and critical is essential to making a decision that can benefit the state without devastating our commitment to an education that makes us not just better employees, but better people.

I speak for thousands of UW System supporters when I say this:

I still believe in the Wisconsin Idea.

Please understand that our soul is not for sale.

A Textbook Case

What is teaching, really, anyway?

This was the question that started to brush my mind last week, when the members of my department and I sat through a sales pitch from a major textbook company unveiling their new set of books, workbooks, and online materials for the high school English classroom. I felt horrified and seduced at the same time–these materials had absolutely everything one would need to stop lesson planning and simply follow the program trajectory. Worry not! Every piece, every student task, every assessment and enrichment tool was carefully engineered to the appropriate rigor, standards, and theme. It was slick. It was interactive. And, it was touted by the representatives as something that could transform our hardworking lives into an easygoing dream. But that’s when I started wondering… if we purchased these materials and I did nothing but deliver them, could I really call it teaching?

Before I could pursue that train of thought, the saleswoman began demonstrating the online component of the textbook, preloaded and constantly updated with video, audio, and tutorials to go with everything and anything my students would be expected to learn. In envisioning my teaching life using these materials, I saw a very simple–albeit somewhat monotonous–alternative to my typical, burstingly generative, yet vastly time-consuming lesson planning norm. But I couldn’t shake the bad feeling that grew with every moment of the presentation. I wondered if I was maybe being unreasonable.

What, exactly, was the matter?

The thing that’s the matter with this type of curriculum is this: I didn’t make it. I have no connection to it. If every single thing my students read, write, and do points back to a perfect fit as a predetermined cog in some grand machinery of education, my value as an educator depreciates.  In a way, following a textbook program to the letter may make my students smarter readers… but only in these clean, perfectly directed situations. Real reading and creating is messy and confused. Being able to balance those points of confusion with curiosity is a real and crucial skill for becoming a generative, creative individual. Looking at these materials, I found myself asking, “Where is the personal power?” A textbook progression cannot respond to students, or urge them to pursue their own passions. A textbook by itself, even the best one, only offers preparation for a culture of query-and-enter-response–one that I would argue is an ill fit for the reality of the culture today’s students have inherited. This culture is a one of create-your-own-idea and open mic. It’s been my mantra this year: students of this age need to create. And as a teacher of this age, I need to create, too. That includes my curriculum.

What do I lose if I let “Textbook, Incorporated” tell me what and how to teach? I lose responsivity. I lose a personal sense of purpose. I lose the power that my love of word and art lends to specific lessons I’ve designed. I lose the opportunity to use the value of my own thought process and insight as a model for a new way to think. 

A canned curriculum will not ever be enough to replace true teaching. Let me put it this way–I don’t having lasting memories of any classroom activity I ever did in a textbook. I remember rich discussions–even arguments, and watching my teacher lead my class through a piece of text or sharing an example of writing. I remember choosing books to study, I remember finding plates of artwork to write about. I remember watching films that made me cry. I remember giving speeches. I remember writing poetry. I remember singing on stage. I remember building the model of a house’s framework. I remember my teacher’s hilarious sweaters and how he would talk about the elements of the periodic table as if they were dear friends.

 If reading out a textbook’s instructions represented the majority of my teaching, I would never have to do… nearly anything, except give feedback on student work and manage my students. But here’s the thing… I have a teaching degree. I know my standards, and I know how to select content and how to design classroom activities that address the standards. I could write a textbook. Therefore, I am a viable textbook alternative. I, too, am interactive, self-updating, and tuned-in to student needs. I, too, am a veritable library of teaching approaches and activities. But most important: I also have the added perk of being a human being who can form meaningful connections with my kids.

I do think that, in some situations, a textbook adoption can improve and guide the curriculum of a program. Of course, teachers who utilize textbooks do not by nature have to default to them all the time, and can work them in as an effective resource. However, in our case, I was very relieved to be a part of a department who gave a respectful yet decisive “no thank you” to the proposed purchase of the textbook set we were offered. In my opinion, no textbook can ever exceed the effectiveness of teacher-designed curriculum, when creative, highly professional educators are designing it for their own classrooms.

The question was “What is teaching?” The answer I came to is “a human expertise, passed on through curiosity and connection.” People are the pathway to learning. Whether we use a textbook or not, we simply cannot just sit at a desk and assign chapters. Our students’ learning lives depend on it.

Crucial Creativity: Addressing State Standards While Fostering Creative Student Authorship

In this post, I’ve attached the materials from my July 8th teacher inquiry workshop at UW-Milwaukee. Teachers, please feel free to cite my PowerPoint as you plan your writing curriculum to rationalize your teaching of creative writing while still maintaining alignment with the Common Core State Standards. If you are interested in or have questions about this workshop, please contact me through the Universe as Text Facebook page. (See link on navigation bar at the top of the screen.) 🙂

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Presentation preview: crucialcreativityworkshop

 

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.

Reflections on TECH Forum Chicago

At the beginning of the month, I got the chance to attend an educational technology conference called TECH Forum, sponsored by Tech & LearningI headed down to Lincolnshire, IL along with my superstar colleague Ms. J and our school’s technology specialist, Mr. L. This was the first teaching conference I’ve attended where technology was the sole, specialized focus, and it was really refreshing to be able to consider both educational theory and practical methodology side by side.

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The opening keynote, given by the hilarious and brilliant Dr. Yong Zhao, reinforced the message that our schools are in a creativity crisis. He discussed the “side effects” of a standardized test chasing culture that leave students dry in their desire to learn and create, and called attention to the value of asking where we really want our students to go: “Sure, we have the Race to the Top. But… Race to the Top of what?” The essential messsage of the keynote can be boiled down to simple, but powerful terms–Through the incorporation of technology and teaching methods that allow for students to ideate, create, and disrupt the status quo, we can better prepare our students for the astounding modern world, where the norm is persistent reinvention.

The morning session I attended, “Approaching a Holistic Technology Integration Strategy” presented by Daniel Rezac, Andy Kohl, and Elizabeth Greene, focused on how to inspire true teacher buy-in for technology initiatives. It grappled with the question of how to establish teams to help tech integration become more than just the delivery of gadgets but rather a way of teaching and learning. I could very much relate to the key points and problems raised–with time stretched thin and new technology rolling out at a breakneck pace, how do we establish a space for educators to embrace and integrate new classroom technologies? The solutions offered gave the overall impression that a “coaching”/co-teaching model of school IT can help make that space that is needed to launch new methodologies in a more relevant way, in more classrooms, for a more lasting impact.

In the afternoon, I facilitated a roundtable discussion, “Teachers as Bloggers,” where I shared my experience as a teacher-blogger both in and out of the classroom. [My handout from the discussion can be found here: Teachers as Bloggers ] While I was expecting more of a mini blogger convention to be happening at my table, I was surprised that the majority of my participants came with questions of their own about the purpose and effectiveness of blogging–many were from schools where a blog for every teacher was newly mandatory. It seems that maintaining a web presence is quickly becoming an expectation for every educator… And indeed it must become so, if teaching is to develop alongside other disciplines. We had some great conversations, and ultimately defined four key components of successful blogging: (1) Visual content such as photos/video, (2) Candor and the sharing of true anecdotes, (3) Demonstrated expertise, and (4) Practical, immediately applicable information or resources. In such a young genre, there’s still much to explore. But if we’re teaching kids who are already cultivating their own online presence, it’s crucial for us to go there as well, as teachers and participants in the digital-social landscape.

After eating WAY too many of some of the most elegant mini-desserts I’ve ever seen, I finished up the day by attending “Managing Schools, Classrooms, and Information with Google Apps” presented by Hank Thiele and Jennie Magiera, to refresh my knowledge of all things Google. The things teachers can use Google to do…for free…just continue to amaze my brain. In the five past years, the possibilities have exploded: sharing and co-editing content, giving/receiving feedback, building websites, gathering data, conducting synchronous meetings through messaging/videochat, relying on self-saving, self-updating everything that’s accessible from everywhere. It’s. Just. INSANE!

Today’s students have so much power to impact their world. All they need is an internet connection. As teachers, we have new responsibility to guide them in how to wield that power for good, for themselves, in order to alter the futurescape in the countless new ways that they will envision.

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.