Reflective Teaching Practices – Week 1

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(Photo compliments of Mistie Bibee from freeimages.com)

I am beginning my quest to reflect back on my teaching practice each day and week for the rest of the semester/year. During this reflective period, I am throwing out or reworking what isn’t getting my students engaged. Though I am posting for my own professional use, I invite anyone to offer suggestions and critiques into what I am doing or what I could be doing in the future.

There were two specific areas I wanted to highlight with 8th grade. First, I recapped parenthetical documentation. We went over this prior to Christmas break and it needed to be reviewed for a paper they are doing in Social Studies. The lesson in December went well, however, the review was just mehh! One class asked questions and were engaged. My first class, however, was unresponsive and I think if I used jumper cables they wouldn’t have budged. So, the initial lesson was good. On the other hand, the review needs some spice.

Next, the 8th graders finished their semester writing reflections. I asked them to look at their first piece of writing from the beginning of the year and it was awesome to just watch their facial reactions. I then had them follow-up with some basic reflections questions. They all did really well for the most part. I will definitely keep doing reflections.

As a side note, although 8th graders did well, I have some work to do with the 7th graders. Last week we started to look at Civil Right issues prior to us starting to Role of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. I showed a short video to the classes, but I feel that I need to do more here. Some how I need to incorporate informational text reading at the beginning of this unit.

I also need to continue to work on grammar and doing more of it in my classes.

Cheers!


Reflections of a Middle School Teacher

Ahhh! Yup, school is out for the Summer. At the start of every year I tell my students that we need to treat each other as if we are family. AND… just like family we will get sick of each other and bicker, pick, and get tired of each other’s habits. Well, I can honestly say we were at the edge. It was time for us to part ways and have a break. My students were ready and I was ready too.

It was an exciting year for me professionally. The book Create, Compose, and Connect Troy Hicks and I wrote was published, another book I contributed to is coming out very soon, and I am working on a book with some really great educators from all levels right now. In addition, I had the opportunity to present at some excellent conferences here in Michigan. I also felt I did a better job as a reading teacher, but I still have a long ways to go to consider myself stellar.

Looking back on this past school year has left me with mixed feelings. On one hand I feel as if the students completed a lot of writing and dug pretty deep into some reading throughout the year. On the other hand, I struggled with students retaining information as we made connections later on in the school year. My colleagues struggled with this as well and at times it was very exhausting to get students to make connections from earlier lessons.

As a middle school staff, I feel that we grew more this year and we are continuing to keep the students at the center. We are striving everyday to do what is best for them. In particular I worked more closely with our S.S. teacher on doing article of week, a historical research paper, and we worked on a written report for our Salmon in the Classroom Project. You can see where we were featured on Michigan-Out-of-Doors. You can see us around the 20:00 minute mark.

 

The Social Studies teacher and I  are starting to mutually appreciate each other’s strengths and I know our professional relationship will continue to grow. This year I really tried to be patient with all staff members and recognize their strengths when I could.

Besides trying to build more positive relationships with all of my colleagues, we will have a schedule change for next year, which is positive. We will now have about 60 minutes per class to teach. I am very excited about this because when our S.S. teacher figured it out, we are actually getting one extra class period per week when all of the extra minutes are added together. Prior to this we only had about 52 minutes per class.  I feel that my class discussions around different text we are reading or the different genres we are writing will be deeper and the students will have the opportunity to do more critical thinking. Feeling rushed to get through material could potentially fall to the wayside if all goes well (snow days could hinder this).

In addition to having more time with students, our principal made a push to put a more solid curriculum in place. Our monthly early release meetings can at times be a joke. In the department I co-chair we work hard to keep moving forward and we have done some tremendous work with the CCSS Anchor Standards, but from what I have heard from other departments, participants were using the time to shoot the bull and grade papers. At times when we have met as a whole district, it has irked me to see fellow teachers also grading papers.

This past year, it was proposed that there is a more solid focus on developing curriculum maps, pacing guides, and establishing what is important in concerns with the anchor standards. Though this was received well at our district improvement meeting, time wore on, and there were some complaints about what we needed to accomplish within our departments. My big question is why? Why are questioning what should be in place already.  We can’t just adopt the CCSS and say that is our curriculum. Personally, I am glad we are being asked to do this. Yes, I am willing to take time over my Summer break to make my teaching better and do what is best for students.

Overall, I am glad this year has come to a close. There are many aspects of my teaching that I am going to change. I am also spending the Summer reading some professional texts on how to become a better reading teacher. Summer is not a time to be lazy, it is time to think about our instructional practices and what we are going to do to help our students succeed. However, a few beverages are nice too!

Cheers!


CCSS Does Not Mean an S.O.S.

It feels good to take on a different format of writing with me writing this blog, I am not going to lie.  It has been over a month since my last post.  I have been extremely busy writing the book and submitting other pieces for publication.  The good news is that I feel as if the home stretch is here or at least near.  Recently, I have been doing more reading on the Common Core State Standards and simply listening to people have discussions on the curriculum as a whole.  After listening to some teachers rant and rave, completing some reading that left me shaking my head, I can’t help but ask anyone who is willing to listen, what is all of the complaining about, really?

I want to begin by mentioning how my state (Michigan) and some other states are trying to now “back out” of implementing the CCSS. Why you may ask?  Quite simply the fear of losing local control or state control of schools or so it appears that way.  This is one place I shake my head from side to side.  Let’s be rational here, the federal government is not trying to take over our schools. Let’s think about what one of the reasons the CCSS was developed.  One of the reasons was to have consistency within schools on what is being taught. Does it have higher demands for students? Yes sir! Is it going to be more work on our part as teachers? Yes ma’am.  Not once have I ever thought the Common Core was designed for a hostile government take over of any school.

Next, I want to address the parent (of a different school from where I teach) who threatened to take their 3 children out of the school their children attend if the teacher or district tried to use the Common Core as the curriculum.  I will be honest with you, I didn’t react to the parent in a hostile manner when I was listening. I just listened.  After their ranting and demoralizing of the CCSS, I asked one question.  What do you not like about the Common Core?  Their answer: It is too hard for my children and too demanding.  On the inside, I was screaming, but on the outside, I politely said thank you for sharing your concern.  To me, their response summed up why I see the work ethic I do today of some students, including the ones that I teach.  Some students (and parents) don’t understand they have to work hard in school!  It isn’t just about socializing or sports.  Furthermore, those students who may struggle a little, are probably going to have to work even harder. Wow and yes that does suck! Should I be teaching work ethic in my class too? Oh wait, I think I do!

Now, I am not saying the CCSS does not have flaws, because it does.  However, I really like what the Common Core is trying to do for our students.  Here are just a few things I notice:

  • Engages our students with more informational text.
  • Causes our students to have higher level thinking skills.
  • Consistency across states with curriculum.
  • The ability for flexibility on how we teach the skills that need to be met.
  • Students get engaged in all 3 genres (narrative, informational, argumentative.

While I notice the positives of the CCSS, the one gripe I will make public here is the little it says about students reflecting on their own work. Reflection is key for student improvement in whatever they do. As a matter of fact, it is a life skill that is essential for growing as an individual. I have to constantly reflect all the time on how to do a better job with my students.

With that being said, I can strongly say the CCSS is not going away anytime soon.  Though we don’t have to embrace it like a big fluffy teddy bear, it is no reason to toss out the emergency S.O.S. life belt.

Cheers!

 


Will the Common Core Burn Out Teachers?

I am almost 1/2 way through the 3rd marking period and I am not going to lie, I am exhausted. Now, I do have a full plate when it comes to everything else going on in my life, but I want to talk about just teaching for a moment. Despite the fact I just turned 35, I have no plans of slowing down anywhere.

Anyone who knows me, realizes I do not settle for average. It is one of the main reasons my principal and I get along so well. I work hard for my students and am trying to set an example for them all. In addition, I am a supporter of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and see endless Possibilities. Freedom to be creative with assessments, integration of technology, collaborative learning, more vigorous learning (Yes, I said vigorous, not rigorous!), and the idea students can do research projects are just a few reasons why I see the upside to the CCSS.

On the other hand, I hear and read the negativity about the Common Core weekly. Teachers don’t think it is clear enough, they feel the need to start over with lesson and unit plans, others feel the Core has unrealistic expectations for students from kindergarten to twelfth grade.

I hear everyone loud and clear and I am not trying to add to the complaining, but I am wondering if the Common Core is going to push some teachers over the edge. Currently I teach both 7th and 8th grade English and the CCSS is fully implemented. My lessons are not only driven by the Common Core, but I also do sample Smarter Balanced Assessment questions with each of my classes. I have very little time to do anything else. I am sure other teachers feel the same way.

With little time to breathe, I worry about a few things. First, I worry about the potential for quicker burn out amongst younger teachers who are entering the profession. Are the younger teachers going to feel the task of implementing a challenging curriculum too demanding? Will the CCSS overwhelm them to the point they seek other job opportunities? I guess time will tell.

In addition to new teacher burnout, I worry about teachers being too accepting of a canned curriculum program that teachers will purchase so they don’t have to do any work as far as creating thoughtful and inspiring lessons. It is a concern that is a reality, trust me. There are many textbook companies and publishing companies that are going to produce Common Core guides, lesson plans, how-to’s, and many other resources. Eventually, the market will be flooded with a plethora of information on how to reach our students through the CCSS.

In all honesty, it is going to take hard work and determination to elevate our students to the level they need to be. It is going to take collaborative meetings between elementary, middle and high school teachers to sort out the finer detail. We will be forced to rethink what we are doing in our own classrooms and reevaluate what can stay and what has to go. It is not going to be easy and thus far, for me, it hasn’t. However, I will continue to push forward and do what it takes to be successful with my students. Even if it means I take a thermos of coffee into work everyday to stay awake.

Cheers!


As the Common Core Band Wagon Rolls By, I Stand and Wave

I wasn’t sure how to title today’s post.  I hope by the time anyone reads this, my post is well understand.

Recently we had another department meeting and I must say I enjoy our department meetings because we are always busy and engaged and trying to do what is best for the students that face us every day! One of the high school teachers was feeling the pressure of potentially not doing enough to meet the demands of the Common Core State Standards. The word rigor came into focus (See my previous post on rigor -vs – vigor). As the conversation progressed,  I couldn’t help but wonder how many other teachers are feeling the way my colleague has been. Their thinking was perhaps if  they used another Shakespeare unit in addition to what they were already doing might make their class more demanding and students would be required to do more deeper thinking.  Note to anyone: Adding more, does not mean a class is more rigorous (My colleague wasn’t thinking this, I just wanted to throw that out there).

This also spurred the conversation about looking at different curriculum in general to use in the classroom.  Though we weren’t considering replacing what we are currently doing, we were discussing what other possibilities could be included to extend our current practices or what were valuable resources to aid us in our teaching.

I have done a lot more thinking since that meeting and my colleague had a great point about what they have observed.  The sad thing is, I have observed it too. We have both noticed this mad frantic race to implement Common Core and have heard teachers discussing how their schools have these curriculum teams to rewrite their entire curriculum and these huge meetings are taking place to change to the CCSS.   In addition, everyone is making this mad dash to find the best books that are available to help them implement the CCSS.

Well, as I stand here and wave at the bandwagon rolling past me with others on it, I will tell you I haven’t completely changed my curriculum or gone to some canned program that companies might be trying to sell to schools and teachers. When my school did switch to the Common Core, I got out my curriculum and went through it with the Common Core Standards right next to it.  I went through and looked at what standards I was already meeting with the existing units and lessons I was teaching. Now, was I missing some things?  Absolutely! I will admit, I had to do some overhauling in some areas and not so much in others.

What I didn’t do was scrap everything I was doing in my classroom and look for the easy way out by trying to find existing CCSS units.  The Common Core allows us to use what we already know and it also challenges to implement new ideas and technologies.  I strongly believe if teachers are trying to find the magic button for teaching the Common Core in their classroom, they are going to be really disappointed, because there isn’t a magic button to push.

So, if you feel you are one of those people who are completely lost and you hope there is going to be this miracle curriculum program that is going to come out for you to use in your classroom, I invite you to examine what you are currently doing in your classroom first before jumping on the band wagon.  If you do jump on, I will be waving to you as you roll past!

Cheers!


Mobile Devices: A Teachers Responsibility

Getting closer to the school year is dangerous for me.  I tend to have thought after thought going through my head and I get all of these ideas to do things in the classroom and I never make the conscious effort to write them down anywhere.  Well, today, I am.  Those that follow me and others who know me understand and know my passion for using cell phones and other mobile devices in the classroom.  Today, I started examining and thinking about using these devices from a different angle. An angle where I honestly feel it is my responsibility to help my students use these devices in the classroom and to teach them how to use them responsibly.

I can hear teachers screaming now saying, “Not me, it isn’t my responsibility!”  Yes, there are many skeptical teachers out there who believe these types of devices have no place in the classroom.  Others, already feel overwhelmed with the Common Core Standards and don’t want to add one more thing to their plate.  Though teaching students how to use mobile devices may have its challenges, it doesn’t add to my existing curriculum, it enhances it.   My passion for using mobile devices goes deeper than just being excited about the latest and greatest flashy items that can be used in the classroom.

1. Students Learn Differently – I have mentioned before how students grow up with technology in their hands.  From cell phones, Ipads, Kindles, and Nooks, it is easily accessible to students.  Think for a moment if a middle schooler has a question about anything in general.  Where do you think they look for that answer?  You got it, the internet!  In addition, according to Pew Internet Studies about 75% of students ages 12-17 possess cell phones. Those cell phones are used for texting (hmm, I smell writing opportunities here), emailing, surfing the internet and accessing social media outlets.  Our language arts department adopted Schoology for the upcoming school year ( a social media site for teachers and their students).  The bottom line is we can’t shove text books in front of our kids day after day or even have them do drill and kill exercises.  The best teachers I ever had from elementary to college were the ones that kept the class or students engaged.  Mobile devices can help me as a teacher to keep my students engaged.

2. Collaboration – One of the biggest reasons I love using mobile devices in my classroom is for collaboration. Literature circles are an easy way for teachers to expose their students to numerous novels and at the same time teach the students responsibility by assigning roles to each group member.  Keeping the spirit of the Common Core in mind, I add cell phones into the mix and my students not only collaborating with technology, but now the conversation can take place beyond the walls of the classroom and students start discussing the book without any prompting by me the teacher. Social media sites like Schoology also allows the students who don’t have mobile devices, to still interact via desktop computer.  In another instance, my students can collaborate on their writing via Google Docs.  For the past two years my students have been amazed at how Google Docs works and what it can provide.  Students instantly become connected learners when they collaborate on a piece of writing by their peers.  Google Docs was awesome for the writing group my colleague and I put together this past school year.  Watching students’ writing transform and go through the entire writing process is amazing.  The finished product is no doubt better with Google Docs because of the collaboration amongst students.

3. Digital Citizenship – To me this one term brings everything into focus for me. Part of me almost thinks as teachers we all have a duty to discuss and model this for our students. Again, some teachers may give the proverbial eye roll and bark out, “What about the parents?”  I know it may sound funny, but the parents are in just as much need to learn about digital citizenship.  Last week I proposed to my principal an “Ed Tech night” where parents get to engage themselves in what their child may do during a school day with technology.  In addition, I want to discuss with parents digital citizenship and what that means.  I want to talk to them about how students are using their cell phones in inappropriate and why it is inappropriate. Furthermore, discussing with parents what cyber bullying looks like and what affects it can have on another student.  Hopefully by engaging the parent as well as the student, some issues can be eliminated and parents will have a better grasp on why I use mobile devices in my classroom.  Needless to say, my principal is embracing the idea and we are meeting about it next week.

I am not sure if my reasoning is reasonable or even understandable, but I do know I am passionate about my job, my students, and the reasons it is important to implement mobile devices into my classroom.  When I hear in the hallway how much my students love my class because of how I use cell phones, I get pumped. After all, you don’t hear students say they enjoy language arts class.

Cheers!


Middle of the Road and Self Reflection

With the weather outside finally looking frightful, I figured I could do more good writing my blog than spending time outside like I have the last couple of days.

Today was very interesting in a number of different ways. I can’t tell you how much I have been really enjoying our staff meetings this year that are led by our principal. He truly is trying to think outside of the box and make changes in a positive direction. His leadership is excellent and I always feel really good when I leave our meetings.

Today, we first discussed the idea of “tracking” students. What this would mean for our school district is students would be put into classes based on abilities. For instance, higher achieving students would be placed in one class and the lower achieving students would be placed in another class. Though we didn’t place a concrete definition of “low achieving”, the conversation revolved around students who were C, D, and F students. Furthermore, the low achieving students tend to be more chatty, and have difficulty turning in their homework. During the conversation, the term “middle of the road” students reoccured. With the idea of tracking being discussed, curriculum itself would stay the same. However, the higher achieving students would be able to move at a faster pace and essentially do extra “work”. Now, if you think about the lower achieving students, they still need to meet the same standards set by the curriculum. If these lower achieving students are supposed to meet the same standards how are they going to achieve this feat if they are not moving fast and we are tracking them in a lower level class. My counselor put it best when she said we pay so much attention to the lower achieving students and and on occasion we will help higher achieving students reach new heights, but what about the students who are in the “middle of the road” who are not doing well with the curriculum or meeting our expectations? Too me, this is a great question. In reality we need to think about how we approach these two group of students. As my brain was soaking all of this in, I wanted to say we need to stop being selfish and realize we all need to make changes with the way we teach and approach the students. If we open our minds to new ideas, we may have an impact on more of the student population.

The second part of our meeting was about teacher evaluations. The state of Michigan is supposed to have an evaluation piece in place in April. This evaluation piece will let school districts know how teachers are supposed to be evaluated by an administrator. Our principal today shared how he will do non-formal evaluations and it was very intriguing. He found an application for his Ipad and it looks like a very informative assessment tool. I really like what my principal said about having evaluations done. He told us that evaluations are tools for us to help us be better teachers. They are not tools in which to ridicule our teaching style. We need to be able to handle constructive criticism and be able to change things about our teaching to help the students. These past few weeks I have been considering ways I can improve my own teaching. I know I am not reaching every student and I know I need to work on being better organized in certain areas. Furthermore, I need to look at different ways to assess certain standards in the curriculum. I think we need to self evaluate ourselves to be successful in addition to our more formal evaluations. We need to be willing to change what doesn’t work in our classroom. I sense big changes coming for me second semester as I evaluate myself and I sense some heated discussions that will lead to making more of our students reach success.

Cheers!