Tuesday, July 28, 2015

teaching tuesday on "raising" students

I have a lot of whirly-swirly thoughts floating in my head and my heart about teaching and what it is that I'm really doing here. (which, not ironically, seems to be the question I ask God the most.)

Beyond, or perhaps, beneath the complexities of managing a diverse, equitable classroom and having good pedagogy and all of those other education buzzwords, mostly I think about how much I love my students. I believe in them and I want them to succeed because even a small taste of success is a step in the right direction for them. Highs for them are highs for me, and lows for them are problems for me to help solve and a listening ear to be given.

I've been thinking more recently about how often those of us who are involved in the lives of the growing, whether that's being a parent, a mentor, a teacher, or what-have-you, seem to be stuck in surviving the day-to-day spinning wheels. When you're replaying the same movie again for your toddler or that one kid shows up, refusing to do any work for you for the third day in a row, it can be hard to think of the larger picture of what we're all really doing here.

What types of people are we raising?

I understand that I'm not "raising" my students in the same way that their parents are, but I spend an hour each day with them and you can bet that I am hoping and dreaming with them and for them with my whole soul. It takes a village, right?

Yes, I want my students to be better writers and debaters and readers and all of those English skills that really are very important. I want them to have the words to voice those deep quavers of the human soul that are what make literature and art and history stand the test of time.

Mostly, I want my students to be brave. And kind, gracious, aware young adults who take chances and know both when to reach out and when to hold back.  I want them to forgive seventy times seven and then turn their cheek again.  I hope that they know that there's some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for (thanks, Tolkien).

I hope to keep that bigger picture in my mind and heart this year. After all, those are the skills worth developing. How we get there is a different story.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Monday Musings on becoming beautiful and quiet

In my twenty-fourth year, I went through a devastating loss of a long and beloved friendship.

Once we separated, I was very alone. I had just turned twenty-five and it felt like I was rebuilding my life. I was scared. I would pray over and over that God would come and remake my life into something beautiful, like Ecc 3:11 says He will.  I imagined that I would be transformed into a new person, like 2 Cor 5:17 talks about. Somehow, I would not be this me, but rather a very different one, because this edition clearly wasn't working so well. 

What I found over a year of unearthing that I was broken was God bringing me back to myself in Him. He reminded me of those quiet moments as a child when I could easily doodle or read or daydream for hours outside under the shade of the large tree in my backyard. He showed me that He had created me and He was pleased with me. This devastating truth is one I have to fight for, often. When I was scared and worried about making new friends, He put them in my path and told me that this doesn't have to be the end; things can be built from what feels like ashes. He gave me hope.

God unveiled himself to me as quietly powerful and deeply loving and in turn, I found myself quieted in His greatness and grace. I felt and feel myself drawing near to Him if, for nothing else, but to be near; there is no personal agenda to have God swoop in mightily or to have day-to-day whims of my heart accomplished.

I think I am beginning to understand 1 Peter 3:3-6 more:
"Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening."

I love the descriptions that Peter uses. I can see that "the hidden person of the heart" is who I am in Christ, as Colossians 3:3 says. As I walk nearer to God, I understand how that imperishable beauty shines forth as many rough edges and blemishes of sin are smoothed away. The women are noted as "holy women who hoped in God", which is a powerful and distinct description of a person, one I hold as desirable as having a heart like David's. Imagine if "she hopes in God" was the first characteristic someone attached to your name!

For years, I thought that particular verse couldn't apply to me or I didn't want it to because, well, I'm not sure anyone would describe me that way. I have big, crazy curly hair that I fully embrace, I dress in many colors and patterns, and I have a loud, full laugh that comes out often. I didn't want to be a meek, mouse-like woman, which is an incorrect image that this verse sometimes inspires.

I thought that a gentle and quiet spirit meant that I couldn't be vibrant. What I am discovering, instead, is that it is a quiet, awe-struck humbleness that is transforming me more like Christ, and thus a better and purer version of myself, as an image bearer of Him.

So friends, if you find me being quiet, you can trust that there is a previous desperation of my soul that has been assuaged and I may just be basking in the goodness of our God.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Writing Wednesday

 The following is an identity poem that I had to write for a equity-based grad class last month. 
I am
a young girl
in a small town,
reading stories to escape.

the daughter of a plumber
and an insurance agent,
the intelligent
and uneducated.

the teen listening to the heartbeat
of the Mississippi,
knowing that there must be more
than this worn-down empty town.

the girl with friends
whose problems cannot be
cut away
or drank away
no matter how hard they try.

the do-gooder
who spends her free time volunteering,
bolstering the resume for college,
and hoping people know
they are worth more
than they credit themselves.

the bright-eyed
and terrified young woman
who moved to a city for college,
overwhelmed in education and new rules,
seemingly a million miles away
from her small town roots.

the vowels in these voices
reach out and hang in the air,
while home voices’ vowels warm up
and float out,
welcoming and friendly.

the student balancing between two worlds,
clicking the miniscule puzzle pieces
into place,
trying to make out the bigger picture
of the stress and uncertainty. 
the young know-it-all director
leading a staff of students,
adults, and teens in Arkansas,
another small town
home away from home.

trying to make a difference,
but maybe just breaking things.

the new teacher
putting the pieces together
from past life to past life,
making sense of this calling.

intoxicated with potential,
hoping for the hopeless,
sanding down
tough layers,
until they see,
wondering if it will
ever be enough.

the young adult,
reading stories to escape,
refueling dreams,
pushing onward.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


We are 8 days from the end of the trimester.

Last week felt like I couldn't breathe -- so much grading, professional development classes & a bible study didn't leave much time for getting caught up.

Plus, my 11th graders are working on a video project that until Friday, I was completely freaking out about.

Here are things that I have learned this trimester as I have completely revamped how I teach and think about lessons:

1. Engagement is not flashy. 
I thought I needed to have so many youtube clips and real-life things all the time to keep students engaged. Connecting our classroom to their lives is very important, but mostly I need to give them opportunities to engage in the process with me. For the types of classes I teach, that I means I try not to go longer than 15 minutes without students having a chance to talk to each other, work on something, or complete an activity that allows them to process what we are talking about. It has made a huge difference in how my classes feel.

Take a look at your lessons -- are you doing the work & practice when students could easily do that on their phones? For example, instead of giving students video clip examples of all 7 types of conflicts in a story (person vs person, person vs. nature, etc.), I gave them 3 and made them find 4 on their own. They're doing the work for me, practicing identification skills, & showing off things they like. It's a win-win.

2. Classroom management starts with the lesson.
About once a week I have a lesson that just clunks and sputters along like my '93 Pontiac that I had when I was 16. Those days are not great and they leave me frustrated for longer than they should as I try to figure out where the lesson broke down. (On the plus side, only 3 super sucky lessons a week isn't too bad!)
Such a beautiful car for 16-year-old me.
My cool-ness has only been in decline since.

I have some very needy students (let's call us the Hot Mess Brigade - HMB) this trimester, but I'm having a lot less classroom management issues because students are engaged in my lessons.

Having issues? Look at how often students get to participate in your lessons. Taking notes doesn't count! When do your students get to process through writing, talking, and creating, what you're trying to teach them?

Real talk, there are management issues, especially related to cell phones, that come up way too often in my room (calling a dean 3x in one week for ONE CLASS?!). But again, the general vibe is so much better than it felt my first two years because students aren't as bored, disengaged, or confused about what's happening because they have to participate frequently.

3. There is only so much you can do.
I've given myself cut-off times during the day. Some weeks it was 4pm or 7pm or 9pm when I said I was done with all the things, whether that was dishes, cooking, cleaning, grading, planning, or whatever, and then I got to hug my cats and zone out on TV or read or just lay down. I've been a better teacher and human for it. Sorry HMB -- that's why I take forever to grade projects but don't want to pull my hair out as often when you are crazy.
Obviously, that has included this blog -- the heavy reflections were good but overwhelming as I revamped all of my curriculum! Look for more posts this upcoming semester.

4. Give students more than they can handle.
My HMB has a major video project that we're working on. Our last essay was like pulling teeth... so I wasn't feeling too confident. I almost cancelled the project because I was worried that we would just 100% botch it because it was too ambitious for us even though I had worked to scaffold skills better.

Thursday was an okay day as students got used to cameras & played around, but not enough to assuage my fears. Friday, students were discussing the original premise of their videos (what?!), camera angles to use, acting, interviewing, smiling, working together, advocating for themselves... aka, totally engaged & stepping up their game. We have 5 more days, so we'll see how the end product turns out.

This is how students will make you feel
when they surpass expectations. They
look at you like that other dog, too.
I'm not kidding you, I'm so proud of them. I want to type that sentence 18 more times so that I can fully convey how proud of them I am. So proud. Did you know that I'm proud of them?

So, long story short, give students something a little above their heads, support them like crazy, and watch them surprise you & surpass your expectations.

For those who are in their first two years of teaching, it gets better. So much better. You find your groove, you learn so much more, students respect you more, and the whole process smoothens out and requires less of your ENTIRE LIFE than it did your first year when all the things are straight up crazy.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday Sabbath

As a third year teacher, I'm trying to be very intentional with my time so that the end of the year isn't as rough has it has been the last couple of years.

Here's how I rested this weekend:
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants just feels good. Also, the men in this movie are particularly attractive AND the landscape in Greece is breathtaking.

I also did other grown up things like go to the DMV to transfer my car title and get plates, make a meal plan for the week and cook a pretty good casserole, if I do say so myself.

Finally, our church had what we call a family meeting today where they provided us with BBQ and an ice cream truck pulled up in the middle of the lunch! WHAT. I totally had two different treats. I love my church for many more reasons aside from a surprise ice cream truck, but that was pretty sweet, literally.

Get my very English teacher-y joke? I have a very refined sense of humor.

Friday, September 5, 2014

friday of the first week: interruptions

On Thursday night, I wasn't sure I was going to make it. I had been working at a crazy pace all week and just couldn't ramp myself back up. At 8:30, I tucked myself into bed and set my alarm for 4:30am.

What do you know... I finished my work that morning quicker than I would have if I had struggled through it the night before.  I even managed to put together an outfit that earned me a lot of compliments, which I have to say was a nice boost to a tired Friday.

Here's what was on the docket:
-Figurative vs. Literal Language. I used "Stereo Heart" by Gym Class Heroes to have students identify language that had more than one meaning. Drax, from Guardians of the Galaxy was a fun tie-in for showing LITERAL meaning. Not as many students saw the movie as I had hoped, but the handful that did appreciated the reference. 
-Simile vs. Metaphor. From figurative language, we spiraled into more specifics by defining a simile vs. a metaphor. We went back to "Stereo Hearts" and labeled the previously identified figurative language as either a simile or metaphor. Then, we switched to a 2nd example: "Happy" by Pharrell has exactly 1 metaphor and 1 simile, so it's a fun example that you need to pay attention to!

-Thinking Map: Tree map. We classified what they love about stories by using a tree map. 
-Preassessment for short story elements.

-Preassessment for The Young Man and the Sea. I used this to check their writing skills in preparation for the theme essay we'll write and to get a better understanding of their reading/inferencing skills.

Success? B
+Students were very engaged in the examples & memes I used along with my figurative language lesson in my 9th grade class.  I feel good about this one because I actually came up with it myself! (Can I get an amen, teachers?!) On Monday, we'll go deeper where they have to find their own examples in songs that they like and then eventually create similes and metaphors themselves.
-My 1st hour was interrupted 5-6 times with staff coming in for schedule changes and whatnot. That class was great about the disruption, but it just threw the flow off. I realized about 10 minutes into my 2nd hour that I was still in that disrupted place and that lesson was clunkier than it should have been.
-4 new students were added to my 2nd hour, bringing that class up to 36. I need to get those four caught up on things.
+In my 9th grade class, they wrote a scene from last night's reading from the police officer's perspective and shared in small groups. Each group selected a piece of writing and a reader (didn't have to be the same person). We built an encouraging environment by welcoming each reader to the stage by applauding them to the stage and applauding them back to their desk. It was a fun strategy that I learned through my NUA training in August.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

the second day, 2014

If I feel like I have a hard time with day one, day two is a mixed bag.

There's still the halting awkwardness of getting systems set up for class -- organizing notebooks, finding where to turn things in, repeating expectations often -- while trying to learn everyone's names and beginning to shift into content.

Here's what was on the docket today:

-Finish scavenger hunt & review to ensure everyone knows where to turn things in, collect graded assignments, etc.
-Set up notebooks
-What makes a good story? An activity to brainstorm what you love about the stories that you love, in whatever form they may appear -- book, story, tv show, song, video game, blog, etc.

-Partner Introductions
-Scavenger Hunt & Check out books
-20 Questions with pages 1-4 of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

SC 11A
-Finish scavenger hunt & review
-Introduce the idea of skimming the text
-The Young Man and the Sea web quest to build background knowledge

-Notebook set up felt awkward in Short Stories. I think maybe I was a bit too impatient and didn't quite give students the time that they needed to get everything done. I also should have had them list out their favorite stories before I had them staple in their notes on Thinking Maps.

+I'm excited for the brainstorming activity, though. Students had 5 minutes to all the stories that they love, in whatever form that they love. Using a bubble map, they'll choose 3 to describe what they love about each story, and then in groups, they'll use a tree map to categorize commonalities. I like that on day two, students can talk about what they like in a story -- it starts the idea of reading on a positive note and engages them because they're talking about things they love. 

-YM&S web quest needs to be modified. I bet I can find more visual information and less text-heavy websites to use than what I have had in the past. It's just too text heavy for Els, even with walking them through the idea of skimming. I had reduced the workload from last year to this year, but still, it seems too much. Also, the skill of skimming is something I'd like to scaffold more.

+Partner introductions went well in each class. I like that they had to introduce someone else and say something about that person. I feel like all of my classes learned well.

-I have some enthusiastic students who are getting each other off task when given work time. I need to do more expectation reinforcement with them and also make sure that when I create the seating chart, they're not sitting together.  It's a cluster in the same spot of the room in two of my hours. I think it's throwing the pacing of the lessons off because they're taking longer than they should.

+I had a student who was very quiet and reserved yesterday. Today he seemed to be about the same, so during partner introductions, I helped get him introduced to some people I saw that had similar interests -- some boys who feel particularly "with-it" and friendly. I think that was a good connection for him.