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Monthly Archives: June 2010

As I begin my work with the 2010 UW-Milwaukee Writing Project, I am dumbfounded by the amount of things I am learning, creating, and considering each day. It’s intense and priceless, and I hope to share some of my reflections on the experience soon. For right now, I just have time to quickly share two extremely cool resources that I learned about on Day Two: Spicy Nodes and Storybird.

Spicy Nodes are interactive graphic organizers that you can create online. They are really neat due to their animated, limitless nature. You start with a main topic and some surrounding subtopics. Then, by clicking on a subtopic, you get more infomation which can then be complicated even further by clicking and clicking your way through the information. Hard to explain, but easy to see: check out SpicyNodes.org. I can imagine many applications for showing and making these in the classroom, especially when it comes to exploring topics with many complex facets.

Storybird is a fantastic website where users can quickly and easily create their own storybook by pairing words with work submitted by professional artists. A Storybird can be completed individually or collaboratively, by emailing the unfinished piece to a new author, who can then add to or edit the story as they see fit. Books can then be published on the website, visible to everyone or just a few, depending on your preference. Go to Storybird.com to try it out. This would be a perfect option for a project where older students create something for younger ones, or even with the younger ones.

Here’s a page from one of my Storybird books (click to make it big!):

Stay tuned for more cool resources and tales from the Writing Project. I love learning!

As the reality of leaving MPS continues to sink in, I’m feeling many different emotions. Much of this is mourning for the classroom, colleagues, and students I’ll leave behind. It’s a time of transition, and a difficult one at that. But despite the looming emptiness of those feelings, I can’t help but feel simply grateful for this past year. I have a stack of letters that I’ve saved from students over the course of the year, and all I have to do is read through them to put a smile on my face. Here are some of the things they’ve written:

“I just wanted to thank you for teaching my last year of English. I couldn’t have picked a better teacher.”

“I enjoy going to your class every day. Your class is the one I look forward to. I have so much fun!”

“I appreciate Ms. H, just because she’s awesome in her ways.”

“You are an amazing teacher and mentor. Thank you for having the patience to put up with the Class of 2010!”

“You are pretty much the reason that I am going to college. You helped me so much, even when no one else had time.

“Thank you so much for giving me someone to talk to when I needed it. You were the only one I actually opened up to. I had a good time in your class.”

“I think you are one of the coolest people I have ever met and you are one of my favorite teachers at this school. I felt extra special when you pushed me towards going to college… I guess what I’m really trying to say is that you inspired me.”

“You made English, the one class I always hated, fun for the first time. I looked forward to coming, and actually did read the books.”

“You always told me I was an amazing thinker and writer. Thank you for that. I promise, I will keep writing.”

“I love you, Ms. H and I’ll miss you! You rock!”

They may be written on folded looseleaf, sometimes with an occasional spelling error, but these letters are worth their weight in one hundred dollar bills. So often, it’s not that easy to tell if you’re making a difference as a teacher, if anyone is paying attention, if your students are reacting to what you do. But in the end, they usually make themselves known. I thank each one for their letters–they will mean a lot to me long after their authors have forgotten that they were written. 🙂

Here’s an image from the recent rally at MPS Central Services. Yep, there’s me–at left, with the microphone.

This past weekend, I was unexpectedly laid off from my job as an MPS high school English teacher. I got the notice in the mail, the day before the last day of school. I’m one of 481 other educators–many of them friends–who lost their jobs due to budget cuts. In this, the first layoff since 1982, there’s confusion, uncertainty, and rumor abounding. We’re now hearing that there may be some reconsideration due to the public reaction, but nothing is certain. In any event, it’s a crime to remove excellent, energetic young teachers in mass numbers from the district that needs it most.

I’m a high performer who chose to teach in MPS because I know that the students of Milwaukee need and deserve the absolute best education possible. I love teaching urban kids. I come to work every day with a smile on my face. I worked hard this year, always with meaning behind my actions. But instead of celebrating the last day with my students, I unfortunately had to spend my last day bursting into tears in front of my seventh graders, who surrounded me in a giant hug. As I urged them, I encourage anyone who is upset about the layoff crisis to express your concerns directly to the board. A message to all school board members may be called in or emailed to the Office of Board Governance at 414-475-8284 or governance@mail.milwaukee.k12.wi.us   As I explained to them after I got myself together, neither crying nor yelling solves anything. Only well-thought-out action does.

I know that I will find another teaching job, and that I will devote myself to my next assignment wholeheartedly no matter where I arrive. That’s one of the great things about teaching: kids are kids. City, country, suburb. They all have problems to face alongside unique, mind-blowing potential to succeed. I love to teach and MPS can’t take that away. I just wish they wouldn’t take me away from the city I’ve grown so loyal to and the students that I will never stop advocating for.

I am proud to say that I’ve had my goal for my Professional Development Plan approved in my first year of teaching. Here’s a sneak peak at the research I’ll be doing over the next three-four years.

Reflection 

 English teachers have always put forth giant efforts to unlock the hidden joys of literature for young adults who don’t necessarily see the “joy” at first glance. However, in today’s modern age of technology, the gap that English teachers bridge is larger than ever. The dusty pages of the printed word seem passé to many youth, despite the fact that they are writing novels’ worth of sentences via text message every day! The online world is covered in text—both stellar and pathetic—and therefore the ability to navigate it and create it is more pertinent than ever before. Still, many youth fail to see the relationship between their constantly typing fingers flying across shiny devices and the dog-eared page of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. I’ve also watched my students struggle to write a literary interpretation, despite the fact that they post their own poetry on their blogs! My hope is not to drag my students back to the time before our online, globalized world; rather, it is to give them the tools to understand it, be prepared to work within it, and appreciate the rich literary past that they can now buy with the click of a button on Amazon.com!

 I have noticed that the few times I’ve attempted to integrate visual media and technology into my teaching, the students instantly perk up. The students that get confused by a page seem to gravitate with longing toward a screen, particularly if there are some stimulating images involved. I want to know how I can get better at making this tendency work for me, to inspire and enrich literature/writing learning experiences for my 21st century kids.

Goal

I will research media/visual methods of language arts instruction and integrate visual media and technology into my literature and writing pedagogy so that students will increase media literacy, my instruction is better serving visual learners, and students leave my high school classes prepared to thrive as readers and writers in our increasingly media-saturated world.

Rationale

  By integrating visual media and technology in my classroom, I hope to raise student interest as well as performance on writing and literature tasks. I teach a diverse population of students in many ways; however, one thing they have in common is the media-saturated, technology-driven professional world that they will enter upon graduation. This is a situation that fascinates them, and also represents a crucial component of what “literacy” means today. It is my hope that as I involve more media and technology in my teaching, students will be better able to understand and exhibit skills in literature and writing. If all goes well, they’ll also be able to more easily transfer these skills to the modern workplace.

I finished out the final three weeks with my senior contemporary literature class reading Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. While Albom’s work is not generally my literary cup of tea, my students were crying for something that didn’t require intensive interpretation and decoding to understand, particularly at the tail end of their senior year. So, I thought something a little “lighter” might be fitting.

To counterbalance the easier reading, I decided to ramp up my in-class expectations and designed a complex unit that included student-led thematic discussions each day, student-created activities to explore the ideas presented in the text, and nightly journaling [this expectation had a plethora of options, including graphic novel style, collage, poetry, and interviews alongside traditional reader response writing]. For the final three weeks, my students essentially ran the class. And I must say, they did a mighty fine job of it.

Turning over the power and control in one’s classroom is a scary thing, but I thought it was fitting for seniors–they are soon to be considered adults in their society, and should be able to act as such. As one of my own mentors is fond of saying, “It should be every teacher’s goal to become obsolete.” By the time they graduate, my students should no longer need me. They should be able to do everything that I’ve taught them all by themselves. And, for me, they truly did.

The most incredible thing about this unit was the response that my students had to the text itself. If you haven’t read it, Tuesdays with Morrie is the true story of a man and his relationship with his dying former professor, Morrie. Morrie also happens to be a truly remarkable soul who chooses to turn his slow death from ALS into his final thesis–lessons on living. The book chronicles Morrie’s discussions with Mitch, touching on topics from marriage to money. Morrie’s overall message is very simple and pure: Love never fails. Be who you are. Give of yourself to others. Create your own culture.  To me, these are messages with great value, but I was worried that my class might reject them as “too sappy” or even unrealistic. In fact, they acted quite the opposite.

My kids took to Morrie like a prophet. Every day there were new reactions to the musings of this old man, declarations of “I never even thought of that before” and “this book is changing the way I look at my life.” There were tears, there were public apologies and vows, there were major life choices being turned around. As the reading progressed, our class, too, became centered around discussions on How to Live. I got inspired and required the students to commit a random act of kindness, leave behind a Pay it Forward card and journal about it. The unit was a huge success and produced some of the best writing, thinking, and discussion I saw all year long. Many students even thanked me for including the book in my curriculum–even those who fought me on every single other text.

What this leaves me thinking about is the thin line that we walk as educators between academic directors and life coaches. In our Morrie unit, my students started engaging me personally on discussion topics like “What is real love?” or “How do you have a fulfilling life” or “Why do we need to forgive others?”  While I am a public school teacher and neccesarily skirted any religious-based theories, I did give them my ideas. They seemed fascinated and thirsty for someone to tell them about what is truly important, and how to live life the “right” way. As I always do, I stayed very open in my own contributions–there’s no ONE right way to live, but I was intrigued at how closely they listened to the story of how I chose my career in comparison to my lectures on how to avoid a comma splice. 🙂

I am the first one to demand that quality teaching be based off of rigorous, objectives-based academics. Still, when you really talk about what it means to be a teacher, things are a little more complex. A big part of this job is letting students know that you also support them as people, that you’re there to cheer them on, guide them, and support them.

As I congratulated my students on graduation night, I knew that the hugs were not for the semicolons. They were for giving knowledge as well as wisdom. How blessed am I to be in a career where I can share so much of myself with others? Very.

I agree with Morrie: “The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning” (43). I consider it my privilege to have guided this first group of 12th graders through a full school year.

Congratulations, Class of 2010!

WCTE, or the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English is a professional organization for English Educators in our state. They provide many great resources and a home for those teachers among us who see this job as something alive and important. I was lucky enough to be honored by them for my student teaching last year, and I was ridiculously fortunate to be nominated for the first year teacher award this year. Before I had even heard of that happening, I was already in the process of writing a letter of recommendation for the award on behalf of my colleague and friend, Ms. S.  To me, she’s just the teacher du jour, and learning about what she does in her classroom always inspires me to up the ante in my own! To introduce her, briefly, I’ll provide an exerpt from my letter:

In a place where poverty-fed tensions run high, Ms. S is an oasis of peace and consistency for her students. She runs a class where kids always know what is expected of them and how they can reach that goal. Her many classroom management strategies diffuse the intense anger, hunger, and fear that are a daily reality for her students, allowing them to focus on the mysteries of literature. She will stop at nothing to delight and intrigue her students, from incorporating hip-hop lyrics into literary analysis, to bringing digital photography into a unit on identity, to raising enough money so that each and every student can buy a new book of their choice for Christmas. She’s also a master of more traditional instructional forays, particularly when it comes to helping students construct organized, effective essays. She’s giving her students the tools they need to come out of high school as adult readers and writers. An accomplished writer herself (and a National Writing Project fellow), this is one of her greatest strengths.

While I don’t think she really needed my help, I was proud to offer my two cents on behalf of this exemplary first year teacher. To my delight, it was recently announced that Ms. S. is, indeed, the WCTE first year teacher of the year. Congrats, Ms. S!  It’s great to see you recognized for everything that many colleagues and students already knew: you are awesome.

And as if that couldn’t be any cooler, WCTE also sent me a letter stating that, while I did not receive the award, they were deeply impressed at my own classroom innovations, professional esteem, and devotion to my students and colleagues. They generously provided me with a year’s membership to the organization, with hope to see me at next year’s conference.

Two acknowledgements are needed here:

1. WCTE  Chairs and Officers- Thank you for recognizing young teachers. We need it. We work so hard, often against great odds, and often with a passion that outweighs our short experience. This celebration of the “new blood” is exactly what we need to feel like we are welcome and vital to the profession. It is also great to know that the world of English Education is bigger than just our schools or even our districts. Your professional support is so important to seeing the big, collegiate picture of this career that we share.

2. First Year Teachers- Thank you for working yourselves to tears, to exhaustion, to joy. Whether you’ve got an award to show for it or not, you are a hero in my eyes. We’re shaping the future of education, hopefully for the better. We can do it. We’re smart, and we’re here. To all of you, congrats on completing Year One!