Friday, June 9, 2017

Rise to the Challenge: 2016-2017 Lessons Learned

2016-2017 Lessons Learned

I grew up going to public schools and never had a reason to think anything other than wonderful thoughts about public education.  But my years working in a large, urban school district with so many problems and too much administration had made me question my loyalties.  Public and private schools have more differences than just populations.  What I learned this year is how different the philosophies are, and how they impact the learning environment.

Here are my takeaways from my first year as a private school teacher, after many years working in public schools:

1. Consequences are a good thing.  Kids learn from their mistakes and come back stronger than ever.

2.  Kids will rise to high standards.  Don't make things easier for kids just because their life outside of school may be difficult.  Set high standards, teach them how to get there, let them learn from their mistakes, and no matter what, don't do it for them.  Shortcuts and freebies are a disservice to their growth and an insult to their intelligence.

3.  The future of America IS in good hands.  There are still respectful, hard working, and driven kids out there.  They will make good choices and lead us with intelligence and dignity.

4.  There are kids who still LOVE school.  Lots of them.  You just have to look in the right places.

These, of course, are just my experiences; but, I feel so inspired and rejuvenated by what I have seen at this school this year.  And, my experiences are directly linked to my past experiences in a school where expectations were low, consequences did not exist, and the students ran the school with violence, instead of the teachers and administration running the school.  And even though the school I was at before the awful one was considered a good school, I believe that consequences were not consistent or strong enough, and expectations were low.  I think that ANY kid can fall into the categories of my four takeaways if put in the right environment.  The public schools in my area need to go back to holding ALL students responsible for their actions.  Period.

The biggest thing I have found this year is the difference in curriculum between the public schools in my area and the private school I am at.  The private school curriculum for 6th graders is FAR more rigorous than the 6th grade curriculum I taught in the public schools. (My students this year had the exact same vocabulary development curriculum that I taught in 9th/10th grade in the public school). Why is that?  We all teach from the same standards?  My students don't know the difference so they just do the work.  They don't complain.  They are just excited to learn new things all of the time.  Lower expectations = less learning and less success.  Also, I think the kids are happier and more successful due to the amount of "non-tested" classes they take: classroom art (once a week) and studio art (1-2 times a week), music (2-3 times a week), phy ed (3 times a week), Spanish (2-3 times a week),  computer (2 times a week).  Of these classes, the only one the public schools had was PE, and that was at a minimum.  Maybe twice a week, but usually for only 1 semester or quarter.  Students in high school could take some of these as electives, but with no previous exposure, many kids just didn't take the classes or were just bodies in the space.  If music class is the thing that makes a kid love going to school, then this public school district was not for them.  It's sad.  We chose the private school for our daughter based on the "extra" classes; however, now that I have experienced it from a teacher's perspective, I am even more convinced that we made the right choice.

I know there are public school districts out there that are doing great things.  This is just my experiences in my area of our world.  The point is, change has been good for me.  It has reenergized and inspired me to be a better teacher.  Changing schools has restored my faith in the future.

~L




Thursday, June 8, 2017

What Side are You on?

Today is one of those days that makes me sad as a teacher, a parent, and a curriculum writer.

I have recently noticed that there are two "teams" of teachers developing.  One team that seems to be fun, enthusiastic, and supportive of one another, and one team that is full of negativity; constantly accusing other teachers of not being good enough.  Let me explain what I mean:

Team 1 (aka the fun group):
These teachers seem to be super energized all of the time.  They have pinterest classrooms and either create or sell items on TPT (or other sites).  They are all about creating an experience for students that supports their learning.  They also seem to be the group that wants everyone to succeed - even other teachers.

Team 2 (the all business group):
These teachers seem to be so focused on the serious aspects of teaching - the problems of the world, AYP, the achievement gap - that they forget that learning can be enjoyable.  They also seem to be the teachers who are constantly criticizing the teachers from Team 1.

Now, these are just my simple observations in the community where I live and I teach.  As a parent, I prefer my daughter be in the classroom of Team 1.  This is how I remember school when I grew up in the 70s & 80s.  Rooms weren't super cute back then, but they were cute for the time period.  School was fun because the teachers were energetic, which got me excited about school.  I want my child to be excited about school.  Team 1 knows how to do that.

Here's where my sadness comes into today's post.  I received an email from someone about a blog post that was written by a Kindergarten teacher who is very against TPT sellers and teachers who use TPT.  He basically accused these teachers of not being supportive of one another because they are selling their products.  He also said that the content on TPT was not up to par.  (He also has never purchased anything from TPT).  His post had too many comments to count; many of them agreeing with him.  His "open discussion" was nothing more than a venue to gripe about teachers who decorate their rooms cute and who sell out on TPT by offering crappy content.  😓

Yep.  I have had items on TPT for awhile now.  I can attest that everything I create and sell I first create for my students to meet the standards.  Questions I routinely ask myself include:

How will this push my students to new understandings?
Am I meeting the needs of all of my students?
Will my students be able to demonstrate their new understandings?
Is this lesson meaningful and relevant?

I have purchased products off of TPT for years.  I have purchased a few items that did not meet my needs.  Does that mean that it is crappy, like the blogger and commenters claimed?  Of course not!  Does that mean that they did not put effort and energy into creating something that helped their students meet the standards?  No, again.  The Team 2 teachers seem to be so down on the Team 1 teachers.  It is as if they think that they know everything, and that they are the only teachers doing a good job.

As I have posted in the past; I don't do cute.  I just don't.  Do I mind it? Of course not.  The only thing that bothers me is when decorating seems to take front and center stage, rather than content, but I have only seen that once.  But, as I remember from my childhood, plain old worksheets that had purple printing from the school ditto copy machine did nothing for my engagement.  In fact, they didn't engage me whatsoever.  I have worked in both settings: the super cute and the all business all the time districts.  Here is what I have noticed:

The kids with the TPT/Pinterest teachers were far more engaged than the kids in the All Business schools.  I recently left a large urban district.  The kids were disengaged in every classroom.  In my classrooms, as soon as I started sprucing them up, the kids noticed and interacted with me more.  They participated.  One 10th grade student I had last year actually commented about my room to me at the end of the year.  She told me that she didn't trust my blond hair and energy at the beginning of the year (because this is the ALL Business district), but that by the end of the year, she realized that the energy I put into my room and activities showed that I was "pretty cool."  She said she realize that I cared about them and that she learned more that year than any other year.  Huh.

The sad thing is, I left the district.  I personally could not handle the negativity anymore.  The tearing down of teachers who wanted to make learning meaningful and special for their kids.  The mentality of "I am the only teacher doing it right" drove me crazy.  Even the principals were in on it.  How is that helpful?

Here is my plug for TPT:

I work in a system that is continually cutting teachers, paying them poorly, and expecting teachers to contribute a very high amount of their own salary to the classroom.  My second year of school I spent nearly $250 on Kleenex alone.  I couldn't make my car or student loan payment, but my students could blow their nose.  Why is it bad if I make something to sell to other teachers to help pay for things that my students need to be successful?  When the district won't pay for it?

I have also turned to TPT many times when I did not have the time to create something.  I knew what I wanted to use to jack the lesson up a bit, and I was able to find it online.  The texts and curriculum that districts provide are usually bare bones, with very little provided to help with differentiation.  I use TPT as a means to find methods of differentiation that I maybe wouldn't have thought of.  When you consider how much districts spend on curriculum, you would think that they could be more than just a set of books, workbooks, and a teacher's manual.  The way I see it, me spending my own dollar on a product on TPT makes their curriculum better.

I have yet to see a teacher put "crap" on TPT.  Maybe I've just been lucky.  At any rate, this blanket mentality of TPT sellers being only in it for the money and not for actual teaching is too common among the All Business set.

What makes me sad is that both groups accuse each other of not being supportive.  The All Business set says that teachers who sell their items are being selfish.  The Super Cute team thinks that the All Business set is not supportive of them trying to provide pencils and whatnot for their students by selling on TPT.  Meanwhile, nothing gets accomplished.

When it comes to which side I am on, I find that I am right in the middle.  I believe that cute and fun can coexist with challenging, meaningful instruction.  I want to engage kids, and if that means once in a while shopping on TPT or sprucing up my room, I will do it.

Am I saying that education isn't serious business right now?  Absolutely not.  But I'm also saying that teachers need to do what works for them, and not expect everyone else to find the same methods as fantastic as they do.  Different doesn't mean bad.  Isn't that what we teach kids?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Already Planning for 2017-2018

Summer vacation here for us, and I'm already planning for next year!

After a trip to the zoo this morning, I grabbed a lawn chair and got to work organizing my ideas for next year.  I realize that this is a little crazy, but I want to get started when my thoughts are still fresh.

One of the big changes I want to make next year is to add more informational text into our literature lessons.  When I worked in public schools, the push was for all nonfiction, all the time.  The only people that seemed to get to teach literature were high school English teachers.  I worked so hard to research nonfiction strategies and to develop new strategies that fit my students' needs.  I felt that leaving out fiction texts was creating an imbalance of reading skills, but I understood it (to a certain degree).  Well, now that I am at a private school, I've found that I'm not teaching anywhere close to the same amounts of nonfiction.  I added nonfiction connecting texts along the way, but I did not feel that these lessons were as artistically and authentically woven into the curriculum as I would have liked.  So, I will be spending the summer revamping the curriculum to make the connections between nonfiction and fiction both relevant and purposeful.  As I mentioned in an earlier post (the last one, maybe), I have so many different ones that I use, that I will probably have to wait until I assess the kids to make final determinations.  I love doing this sort of thing.

Anyway, that was way to long of a description to explain what this post is about.  As I think about how I want to teach the nonfiction parts of our units, I am going to have several active reading activities to meet the different needs of the kids.  To get prepared, I am recreating ALL of my strategy organizers in power point.  They print better, they look better, and I like them better.

I started posting some of the ones I created on TPT, and will post more as I get them done.  The ones that I am posting are easy to use with any subject area.  I am still thinking that I will try to create a bundle of my favorite reading activities that anyone can use for teaching nonfiction.  I will go into detail of each one in future posts, but here is what I have up on TPT so far:





I just finished the ABC Notes redo today.  Most people I know use this as a prereading activity, but I use it as a way to take notes while actively reading.  The kids write down all of the information the gather from the text on the chart.  Students can either record topic specific vocabulary that start with the letter, important people and places that begin with that letter, or create a phrase about the topic using a strong verb that starts with each letter.  I love using this note taking method.  Creating the phrases takes a good comprehension skills, not to mention great critical thinking skills.  When I introduce the activity, I usually "encourage" students to create at least 1-2 strong verb phrases, but by the third or fourth time using this method, I start requiring a certain number of phrases.  It is a great way to both challenge the kids reading and thinking skills and assess what students need some support (not to mention those that may need to be pushed a bit more).  Love this.

All of these activities can be found in my TPT store, and I will go into more detail about each in future posts.  I hope it is as much of a beautiful day wherever you are as it is here!

~L






Saturday, June 3, 2017

Informational Text Reading Strategies Part 1

Since I'm usually one, if not the, only reading specialist in my schools, I am always asked by other content teachers for reading activities.  When I taught high school, we tried to introduce one strategy per semester that the whole school would use.  Now, this of course only works if everyone is on board, and when I taught public school, that was difficult.  People are often very set in their ways when it comes to teaching.  I had one principal who always said it so well.

"It doesn't matter what subject you teach.  We are all reading teachers."

It was still difficult to get everyone to buy into to teaching something differently or, teaching something they were not comfortable with, but we did have several teachers that made a true effort. (Thanks, chemistry team!)  From what I understand, that practice died when I left, which is sad.

I now work at a school where most teachers are willing to try new things to help the kids, so I hope to get this started again.  It really makes life easy if the kids all know and practice a certain strategy.  You only have to tell the kids what they are doing, and they can jump right in with very little direction.  

My Social Studies partner loves my activities, so I have started to redesign the activities to make them more current and easier to use.  The first one I gave her is perfect for Social Studies and Science; really any course that uses a text book.  I call this activity "Title Turn-around."


I love this activity, because gets kids reading with a specific purpose.  First, the student takes the chapter title, heading, or subheading of the section and turns it into a question.  For example if the heading is:

The Life of a Cell

The student would change the heading to:

What is the Life of a Cell?

After they write down the original heading and the new question on the graphic organizer, they actively read the passage to answer the question they created.  As they find the answers, they them down in the next column.  

Besides the "reading with a purpose" part, I LOVE the next added bonus of the activity.  By writing down the answers to the question, the students then have a note sheet to study from when preparing for tests or just reviewing before a class activity.  When they fold the paper in half, they only see the heading and question.  The student then tries to answer the question without looking at the other side.  Finally, the student can unfold the page and check their answers.  Genius.  

I can remember reading text book assignments as a kid, and I had no purpose for reading the pages.  In fact, I don't think I really learned anything while reading.  I wish I had known these techniques as a kid.  Not only would it have sped the process up, but I wouldn't have been half asleep while reading the chapters.  Engagement is gold.

I hope you like this activity.  I have it posted in my TPT store, along with a few other strategies.  Someone asked me to do an Informational Text Strategy Bundle, so I will probably work on it over the summer.  I will post another strategy soon!

~L

They Know Me So Well

End of the year gifts from a couple students.  They know me so well 😂




Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gearing up for the last week!

The last week of the 2016-2017 school year is here! And I'm happy, but I'm also feeling a bit sad.  I have loved this year so much.  Even on the most difficult days, working here has been such a blessing.  I love that I am "teaching" again - something that I had not felt like I was doing during the 2015-2016 school year.  I just don't want this year to end.  But.... it has to.  I can't wait to see what these 93 6th graders do in the future :)

Since my grandma died a few weeks ago, I've had trouble getting back on track.  I got so far behind on grading and packing up my room, that the last several days have been just a race.  I really want to enjoy the end of the year, but it has been CRAZY!

With the school year winding down, I have been teaching all of my favorite end of the year lessons with my kids.  On Friday, we did an activity that I have been doing for years.  It's one of those activities that not only fills me with joy, but it is a final eye-opening moment for my kids: that breakthrough when they realize how everything that you have done this year is intertwined and has a purpose.

I call this activity "connection chains," and I know that there are other versions out there, so if anyone has a more zippy name let me know.  In this activity, students make text to self, text, world, and media connections between everything that we have read all year.  I mean EVERYTHING that we have read: from class novels to choice novels, articles, other subjects texts books, art assignments, their English research papers, and on and on.  Although it starts out as an individual activity, the students then share and work together to complete the tasks.  I love it when they make connections that are so insightful and built off of meaningful discussions with their classmates.  This year I chose 6 "anchor" texts to get the ball rolling: Pictures of Hollis Woods, Esperanza Rising, Bud, Not Buddy, The Cay, Holes, and Four Miles to Pinecone.  I hang the anchor links around the room and the students make connections to each text.

I start with this worksheet.  I've seen others that are similar, but none that I have found include the writing component that I added.  In my book, writing = thinking.  This year I printed the tasks on several colors of paper and let the students pick their starting color.  (In the olden days, hehe, I just cut up strips of paper ahead of time and had the kids write everything on them.  I found that this led to a bit of disorganization and always confusion - especially from the kids that maybe didn't "hear" the directions).


So, the kids attach their connection links to the six anchor texts around the room.  By the end of the day, the 6 chains are pretty long, since all four periods made connections during the day.  The kids all ask what we are going to do with the chains, and I always say, "I haven't decided yet.  Any good ideas?"  I then hang them up during my prep or after school, and I always get the same reaction.  It is the best part!  To see the kids faces when they walk in and see their work hanging from the ceiling is so awesome.  It's like they forget they are "big kids" for a little bit.  This year was no exception.  Every class was so excited to see their work displayed like this - they all had a part in the creation. (This year is especially cool because I didn't have a single student absent on the day we did this, so it truly is a creation made by every student.)  This is that big "ah-ha" moment that melts every teacher's heart.  That moment that we can see the growth our students have made, and receive affirmation that they are ready to be sent on to the next year.  Can you tell how much I love this activity?  The discussions about the various connections that we had were amazing and inspiring.  (I wish I would have recorded some of them.)

Here are some pics of our chain this year:




Remember when I said that my room used to be a closet?  Now you have proof!  It's teeny tiny, dark and dank.  It's currently a disaster, as I have already started taking things down and getting ready for summer.  (What's the saying? It always gets worse before it gets better?) That wall that you are looking at?  Will be torn down the day after school gets out to make my room bigger.  I am coping with this total mess right now as I pack EVERYTHING up.  I've already taken down and stashed away many of the items that made this room feel like an energized classroom, so these chains have kind of helped to add a festive spirit to the end of the year.   The kids were so excited, that many of them took more link sheets home to make more connections over the weekend.

Hear are a few more shots:



These chain worksheets are part of my TPT set, End of the Year Activities for ELA.  We also started the Literature Mosaics from the same set, so I will post pics next week.



Have a great Memorial Day everyone!

~L



Monday, May 15, 2017

A Tough Week

My post tonight is short and sweet.  This past week my family lost someone special to us.  Blogging has not felt right.  I've struggled to stay focused on teaching, when my heart is elsewhere.  Tomorrow my family and I will travel 300 miles to celebrate a life that shaped my own.  Again - so hard to be a good teacher this week...

Today in class, I realized that there are only 12.5 days left of school.  So even though I am broken, I decided to come up with an activity that helps students reflect on their growth this year.  We've worked a great deal on developing a growth mindset, so I came up with a "last week of school" activity to go with those lessons, and really wrap up a great year.

I think it will be fun:



So, even in the midst of my struggles, I did get some good news.  My boss talked to me today about expanding my class room.  I hope that it goes through!  No more room that is the size of a closet! (It really was a storage closet.)  Anyway, life goes on....


~L