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Category Archives: Professional Learning Community

A Call for Real Opportunities to Learn — Not More Test Prep

Natl Literacy Trust Survey 2016

Of course, this data caught my eye.

My friend Gary Anderson posted it on Facebook with this link to the National Literacy Trust Findings from their Annual Literacy Survey 2016: Celebrating Reading for Enjoyment.

I had just spent the day working with teachers in Clear Creek ISD as they launched their two week STAAR Academy, a series of summer school-like classes designed to immerse students in authentic reading and writing — not the typical mode of tutorials often offered in the hope of helping students pass their state mandated English exams.

Billy Eastman, Clear Creek ISD High School ELA and World Languages Coordinator, is a visionary who believes in his teachers and in the students they serve. He knows that when students choose books they want to read, experience learning in an environment that validates their personal lives and learning journeys, and are given space and instruction that allows them to write about the topics that matter to them, students grow. They grow in confidence, and they grow in ability.

Thirty-five teachers met with me in a two hour institute this morning. We read and talked and wrote and talked. We built a community of teacher-readers and writers. We engaged in learning — all with a central goal:  How can we create a space for all students to advance as readers and writers?

Then, teachers planned. In teams they designed lessons intent on engaging students as real readers and writers — not just students reading and writing for a test.

After lunch, teachers facilitated similar community building activities with the roughly 250 students attending the academy.

With generous funding by his district, Mr. Eastman was able to provide books, lots of new high-interest YA literature, in which students could choose a book they want to read. This is the first step in “celebrating reading for enjoyment” and all the benefits that come with it.

As I visited the 12 classrooms this afternoon, I witnessed students writing and talking about their reading lives.

“I like stories okay,” one boy said, “but I don’t like to read.”

“I’m not really into reading,” said another.

“Reading isn’t my thing,” another boy said.

I asked one young man if he liked to read, and he told me: “Yes, I read a lot.” He had just selected Scythe, the new book by Neil Shusterman, and I could tell he was eager to get started reading it. He’d already read Unwind and quickly told me how much he enjoyed that series. The other three students in this boy’s small group were less enthusiastic about reading anything, but they were willing to try. One chose Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, another Boy 21 by Matthew Quick, and the other Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez.

As I observed every classroom this afternoon, I noticed a few things:

  • The ratio of boys to girls in most every classroom was at least 4 to 1.
  • Boys want to read books that look “tough.” The cover has to captivate them.
  • Girls will choose books with male protagonists more often than boys will choose books with female protagonists.
  • Few students choose historical fiction — they seem drawn to realistic fiction and dystopian.
  • Many students chose books teachers might deem too difficult for them. (One of the most popular book choices offered today was All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.)

For the next nine weekdays, students will read their chosen books and spend time engaged in their community of learners. They will practice the moves of real readers and writers as teachers practice the routines of readers-writers workshop and read and write beside their students. Besides the obvious benefit for students, teachers will engage in the kind of professional development that truly matters, the kind that gives hands-on experience with students as they practice the art and craft of teaching.

I am excited for the outcome. I am excited that teachers are excited. I am honored to be a part of Mr. Eastman’s vision for his district.

So what does this have to do with the National Literacy Trusts’ Annual Survey? A lot.

As I read through the report this evening, I found nothing startling or surprising. Of course, there are advantages to reading for enjoyment.

But then I shifted my thinking and began questioning the why and the what. Why does the data say what it does? Why are their gaps in enjoyment between boys and girls? Why are their gaps between age groups? What is happening in schools that might be causing these gaps? What is happening in students’ lives that might be causing these gaps? What can change if we approach reading and writing instruction differently? What should change?

I challenge you to read the report and ask yourself similar questions. Then, I challenge you to take the next step:  follow Billy Eastman’s lead. Whatever your sphere of influence, how can you allow a space for reading for enjoyment? And if you haven’t done so yet: How can you change the model of instruction in your classroom, in your school, or in your district so all students have the chance to become real readers and writers who enjoy what they read and write?

Don’t all students deserve similar opportunities to learn — not more test prep?

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in the fall). She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy because it keeps her focused on her own improvement. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she’d love it if you follow this blog!

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Learning from One Another – Professional Development is Everywhere

As high school cliques go, I was never a part of the “cool kids” group. I loitered around the exterior, occasionally granted access to view what went on behind the curtain, but knowing people who know people didn’t really make much of a difference in terms of obtaining a season pass to all things elite.

I was a somewhat lovable dork, voted most compassionate of my high school class (please read this amazing post about being nice vs. being kind, because I was far too nice in high school), content to spend time laughing with my band geek friends and the ever flexible crowd made up of people who really tried not to care what went on at the “totally awesome” parties thrown by people too important to acknowledge the existence of 92% of their graduating class.

Now, in retrospect, I was saved from many things:  painful experiences that would have blown my sheltered innocence far before I could handle it, drama related to pecking order and perceived slights over social class, Gatsby-esque flaps fueled by alcohol and beautiful shirts.

These days, in the professional world, having a collaborative group that functions supportively, creatively, cohesively, also has many benefits reminiscent of those true friends from years past who helped get me through, helped raise me up, helped make me better. The teachers in my department are simply amazing, and I am lucky to have a season pass to be a part of their cool.

Across the profession, some of us meet weekly (or more often) in PLC meetings. Some of us meet in spare moments after school, chance encounters in the hallway, and Google hangout planning sessions. Some of us befriend the teacher next door and talk shop at all hours. It’s about growing as professionals, even when it’s sometimes just about what we’re all “doing tomorrow.”

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However, growing as a professional, these days, can also mean connections that are far from the traditional and learning that comes from very surprising places. In these trying professional times, to be a teacher requires hits of rejuvenation whenever and wherever we can get them.

Take, for example, Shana’s post from last week on her professional development enthusiasm and the message she shared with 3TT. I listened to her message and hurriedly wrote down two ideas I wanted to try right away.

That is the magic of connecting with other professionals: learning (or reviewing) what can bring back (or sustain) the spark that every classroom teacher needs in order to weather the slings and arrows of our craft.

Those sessions where you fill up page after page of quotes, insights, lesson ideas, tips, and tricks. Where you are the cool kid, not because you’ve adjusted who you are in any way, but because you have built up who you are and what you do.

Over the course of this year, I have come to see professional development as something that is happening every surprising moment, from all possible angles. pd2

Below, some reminders (that I myself needed this year) of how empowering learning is. If we forget about, resist, or otherwise close ourselves off to new ideas, review of what works, or even the very basics of our craft (Let me hear you : teachers must be readers and writers or we are in the business of false advertising) what unfortunate hypocrisy we make of what we purport to do each and every day.

Embracing PD Opportunities Based on Your Needs

Whether it’s to pursue an advanced degree, get continuing education credits, fulfill a district initiative, or to explore a topic of interest, professional development can be hugely invigorating to daily practice (It can also be a flop and/or downright insulting, but that’s for another post).

For example, I am typing this blog post today, because I was in need. I needed support to help make the move to workshop and to lead my department through that move. I Google searched “readers and writers workshop,” started reading the 3TT blog, emailed Amy to ask her a million questions, and then insisted to my district that 3TT needed to come for professional development in Franklin. It was some of the most authentic PD I’ve received in fourteen years of teaching.

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Sometimes, it can feel like professional development gets overwhelming. We have professional development opportunities at staff meetings, during mandatory extra hours outside of the school day, and in order to fulfill countless professional expectations of record keeping, curriculum development, and reflection.

However, through professional development organized by and for teachers, we learn from those who know best and know now because they are in the trenches. Seek out professional development for yourself that speaks to the needs you feel need to be met in your classroom.

Creating a PLC with Students 

Sheridan lingered after class yesterday. She’s actually the inspiration for this entire post.

Shyly, she asked if it would be alright to share an article with me. “I ran across this article yesterday while I was looking for something else and it intrigued me so much that I read it.”

With a smile on my face I said, “What were you looking for?”

She laughed, “I don’t even know. I never found it! But I think you’ll like this, so I’ll send it to you.”

What arrived was a link to a Washington Post article from a few years back. Alexis Wiggins, the daughter of Grant Wiggins (of Understanding By Design fame), is also an educator and had shadowed a student for several days. Her takeaways in this article about what students experience every day hit home with me in a big way.
Not because her insights were new or because they would change everything I do on a daily basis, but for two reasons.

The ideas were a reminder of a perspective that often falls away in the face of daily routine and that reminder was shared with me by a student of my own.

Sheridan in no way was looking to make me feel bad, but she did exactly what I tell my kids that reading, sharing, and reflecting should do : remind us of what we need to make a priority each day.

Wiggins research on students needing to feel valued, engaged, and physically and mentally present isn’t new to me, but the article was the best kind of professional development: Kid centered, kid inspired, immediately applicable to my classroom.

Look for, solicit, or otherwise beg students to share with you what is making them think. Direct them to places like Austin Kleon’s newsletter or Arts and Letters Daily, so they can study new and unique ideas, talk about those insights in class, connect them to current learning, and expand your repertoire of resources, insights, and enthusiasm.

 

Hanging with the Cool Kids

Expanding our definitions of professional develop can also be hugely beneficial.

You’re doing it already, you know. Reading this blog. Reading other blogs, following educational news, getting active in political topics that weigh on our schools, our kids, and our jobs.

Go even further:

  • Follow the English rockstars on social media– Kittle, Gallagher, Newkirk, Morrell, Miller, Anderson, just to name a few.
  • Like the Facebook pages of authors your students love – I’ve had Angie Thomas and Matthew Quick like posts my students and I wrote just in the past few weeks.
  • Tag big names in your posts – Opening your insights or questions up to a wider pd3audience.
  • Jump on Twitter chats –  You don’t ever even need to comment, if you don’t want to. You can just read, click on links to other great articles/insights/lessons, and remain anonymous. You can watch a chat as it’s happening, or follow a hashtag back to a conversation that’s already happened and read through what was said. Here is a link to scheduled Twitter chats that educators might find value in.

Keep learning intentionally.

Not only will you open yourself to an even wider world of resources, insights, opinions, and discussion, but sometimes, you’ll hear personally from these teaching megastars, and let this fangirl tell you, that discipleship can take you all the way back to that thrilling peek behind the curtain of the cool kids.

What professional development opportunities have you found most beneficial to your career? Whether it be attendance at a national conference or stalking a Twitter chat, we’d love to have you join the conversation in the comments below! 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite pens for note taking during professional development are Paper Mate Flair pens in a variety of colors. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Learning from Other Teachers

5054c4145eaf8a4c41c3bbd1d1954cdd.jpgI have so much hope for our profession, our students, and our society.

In a pretty pessimistic world, want to know why I’m so optimistic?

Because I believe in our future teachers.  After an entire school year of working with preservice educators, I have seen so much energy, excitement, and engagement from every single one of my students.  Every challenge that comes their way–whether in the form of an assignment, a tough reading, or grappling with a seemingly unsolvable education issue–only reaffirms their desire to help their students.  They just careso much.

A fantastic conference I attended last week was a wonderful reminder of all of that hope I have for teachers and teaching and learners and learning.  We’re here because of love–love for who and what and how we teach.  Yesterday, I shared my learning from the morning sessions of that conference, and today I’d like to share the ideas, quotes, and joy I heard in my afternoon sessions.

Session Three:  On Teaching Writing & Knowing Our Students

This amazing session was led by three preservice teachers who interned in high school ELA classrooms in our community.  Each of them spoke about their struggles and successes with so much passion that I was left feeling proud to be a teacher by the end of their talks.

Idea:  Audio Recording Peer Feedback–I absolutely loved Katie N.’s idea of having students record their feedback to peers.  After a semester of struggling to get her students to view themselves and one another of being capable and worthy of giving authentic, valuable feedback, she hit upon the idea of having students read one another’s papers ahead of time, prepare some comments, and then record a few minutes of thoughts, responses, suggestions, and connections.  I can’t wait to have my students try this idea!

Quote:  “When I conferenced with my students, so many of them really surprised me!!”  Danielle focused on looking for patterns in her students’ extracurricular involvement and how it might connect to their engagement, motivation, and success in schools.  She had lots of preconceived notions about how her athletes, club members, or student body leaders might act in the classroom, and many of them were wrong.  She loved the experience of being surprised by her students when she took the time to confer with each of them multiple times.

Just Joy:  Katie P. was interested in taking a whole class novel study far beyond the book.  While reading A Separate Peace with her students, she encouraged her students to read the novel through a critical literacy lens, identify social issues they could connect to their own school community, and then take action to improve the state of those issues.  As a result of her teaching, the students in her class created a club focused on improving mental health by participating in mindfulness activities like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.

As she spoke about this new awareness of mental health issues in a school that had been plagued by student suicides, Katie teared up–as did many of us in the room listening to her speak.  I was so impressed and inspired by the power this young teacher realized she had to change a school community.

Session Four: On Evaluating Ourselves

In this session, led by a mix of teachers and school leaders, speakers presented on ways in which they looked at their own teaching, their whole classroom, or their entire school community; identified a problem; and then attempted to fix their issue.  Many of their inquiries resulted in some amazingly ambitious goals–one principal wanted to find a way to improve her students’ poor attendance, which was often caused by factors stemming from a community plagued by poverty; a group of teachers formed a committee to implement more responsive, sensitive discipline into their elementary school; and an academic coach shared ways she’d aggressively procured free technology into her school for teachers and students to use to improve learning.

I loved all these school leaders’ ideas, but I found one presenter’s approach to strengthening pedagogy incredibly effective and easy to implement.  Josh Karr, a high school math teacher, simply emailed his colleagues and invited them to form an informal PLC to evaluate themselves.

Idea:  Record Your Teaching–Josh invited his whole faculty, via email, to video record one of their lessons, watch it alone, and then bring a small clip to share with a partner in their mini-PLC after school.  Thirteen teachers agreed to participate, and showed up, quite nervously, with their recordings.  They paired up, regardless of content area or grade level, and worked together to analyze their videos, give and get feedback, and talk through some questions they had.  I loved this super easy, low-stakes idea to self- and peer-evaluate our teaching in such a welcoming way.

Quote:  “We laughed at how many teachers didn’t even have students in their videos.”  Josh told a funny story about how several of the teachers’ video cameras had only been pointed at the teachers themselves, and how they didn’t realize this narrow-minded view until they started talking with colleagues.  It was a real revelation for many of these teachers to realize that, wow, their worldview wasn’t very student-centered.  I was so uplifted by hearing Josh speak about how this simple activity prompted these teachers to stop looking at themselves for evidence of good teaching, and to begin looking at their students instead.

Just Joy:  Josh talked about what an inspiring thing it was to be part of this tiny community of teachers within his school, which included teachers from all content areas, and even the band director.  He gave me such hope when he shared how the teachers’ video recordings had evolved over the weeks to include more students, more difficult class periods, and more and more vulnerable learning.

I loved hearing how teachers of all levels of experience and expertise were willing to open themselves up to their colleagues for the sake of improving their students’ learning opportunities.  It’s a hard thing, in this profession, to invite criticism of our teaching when our  work can sometimes be thankless.  I can’t wait to try this idea with my students and colleagues alike.


Check out Part I of this post from yesterday, and then please leave us a comment:  what strategies, ideas, or frames of mind might you try out in your classroom?  Will you share some fantastic lessons you’ve gleaned from good conferences in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Getting Invigorated by Good PD

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I love this accurate graphic about PD by Sylvia Duckworth.

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to attend some of the best professional development I’ve been to in a while–and it was free!

At the end of the day, I left my 3TT friends a seven-minute WhatsApp message of out-of-breath enthusiasm, describing my day’s learning.  That’s how you know it’s been a good day.

The conference I attended is held annually to celebrate our Masters’ students’ impending graduation and entry into the field of teaching.  The all-day event features presentations by both preservice and practicing teachers, academic coaches, and principals.

Before the conference, speakers are invited to conduct an inquiry into one aspect of their practice, then present on their methods, findings, and insights.  I attended four absolutely wonderful sessions, and filled up six pages in my notebook with ideas and quotes and just joy–and I’d love to share them with you all.  Today I’ll share ideas gleaned from my morning session, and tomorrow I’ll share what I learned from the afternoon portion of events.

Session One:  On Independent Reading

In my head, I called this session “What you do after you’ve read Book Love,” because it was full of amazing ideas that I’m certain would be Penny Kittle-approved.  One presenter, Andy Patrick (@MrPatrickELA), absolutely blew my mind with the ways he’s clearly innovated independent reading.

Idea:  Reverse Reading Rates–Andy explained that when students chose a challenge book, they took a new reading rate and then used their findings to determine how long it would take them to finish the book.  The students could set a completion goal, Andy could touch on this goal in his conferences with them, and when the book was finished, students reflected on their reading process.  Since I’ve struggled with reading rates and accountability, I just loved this idea.

Quote:  “I never let them off the hook” when they tell me they don’t like reading.  Andy followed this fantastic one-liner up with his philosophy that they just weren’t reading the right books, and it was his job to help his students find them.

Just Joy:  I left this session absolutely impassioned thanks to Andy’s flurry of ideas.  He tossed out strategies like using quotes about the joy of reading as quickwrite prompts, his determination to get colleagues on board with teaching reading across the curriculum, and how great teachers of reading cannot excel unless they are real readers themselves.  YAAAAAAAASSSSSSS was the prevailing word in my notebook after that session!

Session Two:  Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Grammar

After leaving the first session, I had no idea how any other speakers could top that.  Luckily, I was just as inspired by three preservice teachers who’d done their internships in middle school ELA classrooms, and who shared their optimism for our profession in the form of their research.

Idea:  Say Something Journals–Sierra shared that many of her seventh graders weren’t engaged in reading independently or as a whole class, and she wanted a way to spark their interest in their texts.  She created journals, simply folded out of notebook paper, in which students could practice recording their internal reactions to something while reading during class.  When they were reading shared texts, she had students trade journals and giggle about the similarities and differences in their reactions.  The journals culminated in getting the reader to “say something” about the “something” they believed the writer was trying to “say.”  I loved Sierra’s emphasis on the transactional nature of reading, rather than a linear interpretation of a book’s message.

Quote:  “Why don’t they just capitalize their i’s?!” said Tori, who struggled with getting her 8th graders to use grammatical conventions in their writing, even after conferences and practice sessions in which students proved they knew what they were supposed to be doing.  Tori’s presentation was characterized by her sheer love of grammar and her bewilderment about why the heck kids could study mentor texts, send flawless text messages, and yet still refuse to obey the conventions of standard English.

One student’s response?  “Well, I just think capital I’s aren’t very cute.”

Just Joy:  Charity brought sophistication and high expectations to her 8th graders by teaching them about what critical literacy is and then working with them to practice it when reading nonfiction texts.  She focused on helping students develop discussion skills to practice thinking, reading, writing, and speaking within a critical literacy framework, all while reading place-based texts they helped her select.

I think my jaw was on the ground throughout the whole of this brilliant young teacher’s presentation–I want my daughter in her classroom someday, I kept thinking to myself.  What a treat to end my morning by feeling so hopeful about the new talent entering our profession!

Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow, and please share with us in the comments–what have you learned from strong PD sessions you’ve attended?

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

 

Add Your Drop in the Ocean

I am a big proponent of teachers walking the talk of writing. If we teach it, shouldn’t we know the struggles our students face as they apply our teaching? Shouldn’t we experience similar struggles so we have ideas on how to help our kids? This seems like such a simple thing, yet so many teachers surprise me when they do not claim the title of writer.

I am a writer. And I have become an evangelist for teachers as writers.

My co-writers here at Three Teachers Talk and I extend the invitation again:  please write with us. We’d love to publish the experiences you’re having with your readers and writers. Share your successes and your struggles. Share a student-made list of their favorite authors or poems or books. Share student work. Share your reflections.

Just share.

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To write a guest post, please complete this simple form. We’ll get back to you ASAP.

 

Why I Returned to Hard-Copy Grading

tumblr_maccshmi241rvog5q.gifGrading, grading, grading.

Sigh.

As the kids say, I literally cannot even.

Where do I begin?

Grading, to me, is one of the necessary evils of education–along with mandatory monthly fire drills, whole-building staff meetings, and standardized tests.  I have disliked it for the duration of my teaching career, as I have disliked all of those things, but I still have not found a way to avoid it.

When I left the high school classroom last May, one of the things I was happiest to let go was grading.  (That and those damned fire drills.)

But I didn’t expect to come to loathe grading even more when I began teaching college students.

There were a few reasons I disliked grading in my new job:  first, I found that, by dint of the course designs I inherited, that the only “grades” given were at the very end of the semester.  This meant that what little formative feedback was built into the course wasn’t seen as valuable–by the students nor the other instructors I was working with.  I sat in meetings where a colleague complained about “having to do all that reading and write all those comments for nothing” (“nothing” being no grade).  I thought to myself, wow, you’re missing the whole point of formative feedback.

Another thing I loathed was that most everything was electronic.  Any assignment due was expected to be turned in via email/eCampus/Google Drive two days prior to the class meeting, and the instructor was to give feedback and a grade before class began on Friday.  This meant that the only feedback about a student’s work was always only given by the instructor, and that students never saw one another’s work.

So, as the semester moved along, I began to make some changes to the course design:  more formative feedback, more frequent turn-in checkpoints for large assignments, lots of ungraded, low-stakes drafting of ideas in class.  We all hobbled to the end, adjusting assignments and expectations as we went.

But over the winter break, as I reflected and gathered the many post-its of ideas I’d stuck here and there, seeking to refine our syllabus and clarify our goals, I thought of one major change I could make that would solve a lot of my problems with the course.

Return to paper.

img_7291Good, old-fashioned, print-it-out-and-bring-it-to-class-and-turn-it-in assignment submission.

This practice has had a few key benefits for me so far this semester.  First, I am seeing much more clarity of thought in my students’ talk in class–I suspect because they’re treating their weekly one-pagers as first drafts of their thinking, and then re-reading them, as evidenced by their frequent typo corrections or asides to me in the margins.

Second, the issue of opacity between students’ assignment submissions is gone.  Each class meeting, I try to build in a time to share our writing, whether by trading papers, using our papers as an artifact to support some talk, or asking students to comment on one another’s work.  I ask students to read not just for content, to glean multiple perspectives, but also to read for structure, to see how other writers think through the issues we’re grappling with.  As a result, I’ve seen a great deal of growth in how students structure their writing, as well as a transformation in the confidence of their writing voices as they engage with (and often question) the ideas in the texts we read.

Third, we’ve been reading Visible Learners this semester, which encourages the practice of documentation for the purpose of reflection.  By having concrete documentation of our thinking in the form of hard-copy papers, as well as hard-copy documentation of responsive thinking in the form of my comments or their peers’ in the margins, it is much easier to trace patterns and progress in our thinking.

Fourth, I’ve found that removing laptops or tablets from the equation when students share work actually improves the quality of their conversation.  I’ve been reading widely about how detrimental our devices can be to our talk, so I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce our screen time in class.  Fewer devices lead to more robust dialogue, which leads to better thinking and writing and time together overall.

Finally, my students are now accustomed to receiving frequent formative feedback and have come to expect and welcome it.  Initially, the students were a little wary when they saw my scribbles, assuming they were all corrections, but then were delighted when they actually read the feedback a peer or I had left.  Now, they hunger for the moments when a friend hands them back their paper with a handwritten note, or I return assignments the next class.

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Switching to hard-copy grading has improved a great deal of my work with my students, and although I still haven’t come to love grading, I am enjoying it a lot more this semester.

Now to tackle that huge stack of one-pagers that’s been staring at me all morning…!

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

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Need a Friend? Yup, Me Too.

Our juniors spent last Tuesday morning taking the ACT test, along with every other junior in the state of Wisconsin. I spent the morning watching them take the test. Talk about mind numbing.

“You will now be taking the fourth part of the test in Science. You will have 35 minutes to complete this test. Please open your test booklets and try not to fall out of your chairs after three hours of testing, during which I have listened to you sniffle, shuffle, and sigh to the point of my own mental health crisis. I mean…you may begin.”

On days when I hand out Kleenex and monitor bubble fill in, I long for interactive class periods of inquiry, exchange, and exploration. However, that sometimes is a pipe dream as well.

Lately, it’s been a bit like pulling teeth to get kids to participate. Pushing them to meet their reading goals feels less like inspiring work, and more like drudgery (How much more inspirational do you need me to be with this whole reading gig? Just DO IT already.). Their quarter three blank stares and exhausted sighs have me resisting the urge to fix my vacant eyes right back at them and mouth breathe until they see their reflections in the mirror of my face.

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 At times like these, I am reminded by fellow trench mates that we teachers need love too. I don’t want to feel tired, occasionally demoralized, and ill tempered, but I’m there, and part of the reason is that I know my kids are there too.

Workshop can be legitimately magical. Students reading more than they ever have, writing for authentic audiences, and hearing each other speak deeply and passionately about real life issues through literacy. But, Shana didn’t post 9 Books to Hook Your Holdouts for nothing. Amy had the Tissue Issue and needed to Write When It Was Hard.  Jessica is finding her way in a brand new workshop classroom. And countless sources across the web detail teacher burnout and student engagement struggles.

So when our newest contributor Jessica to 3TT reached out over the weekend with: “You ladies are rockstar teachers. Do you ever have discipline or complacency struggles in your classroom?” I had to smile. And then laugh. And then cry a little. And then…

I was taken back to a conversation with a colleague a few years back, where an offhanded comment poked me right in the teacher feels. We had actually been talking about this very idea – the slump we can all feel when teaching gets somewhat less Stand and Deliver and more, students loitering around the complacency trough.

“Well,” he had said somewhat smugly, “As long as you have engaging lessons, students don’t check out.”

Oh. Really? That’s awesome for you…

Listen, I get his point, and to some extent I agree, of course engagement has to be at the heart of what we do, but from personal experience as a learner, it’s not always possible to engage all of the kids all of the time (collective gasp, coupled with Lisa polishing her resume). And that can be exhausting and frustrating to educators, and disruptive to the class.

But today, I am not here to provide advice for how to move forward with this issue in the classroom (I happen to know for a fact that my 3TT ladies have several posts up their sleeves all about engagement. Stay tuned!).

strong

I’m actually here to quickly remind everyone, because I needed the reminder too, that when you are feeling like you could arrange for Big Bird to walk in the door and hand out cookies to everyone in the class, but no one would crack a smile, you need…friends.

Teacher friends.

In your building, down the hall, gathered at PLC, across the country, on the phone, send a quick note, smile at your neighbors, friends.

trouble

I, for one, am a lucky duck in this department. I work with friends. Dear friends.

Stand up in her wedding, give a quick tearful hug, giggle over buffalo chicken dip, join a bowling league, talk about Ryan Adams, compare Lularoe leggings, grab a drink, bake some cookies, geek out over Out of Print literary shirts, talk about being daddy’s girls, Irish Oatmeal, send each other lip sync videos, eye roll at the same time, laugh first and ask questions later, friends ( I think I hit everyone in the department. Seriously. I love you people). 

So, whenever possible, and especially when you feel like you might voluntarily throw yourself down the stairs rather than walk into 3rd period, find people to spill your guts to. Find people to share your successes and colossal failures with. Friends who share mini lesson ideas and friends who share unbelievable content knowledge. Fresh out of college and boundlessly energetic friends, and experienced, measured, and wise friends. Those who have seen decades in the classroom and those who weren’t born yet when you started teaching.

Take the time to engage with the people you work with, both as educators and as humans. Engagement at work increases when we have friends. Harvard said so.

And if the people you work with don’t do this for you, branch out.

The ladies at 3TT have been WhatsApp-ing (verb I just created) lately. We use voice messages, pictures, texts, and links to talk about classroom questions, vent about burnout, explore possible post ideas, and discuss who’s drinking which variety of wine tonight.

There are always ways to connect with like-minded, similarly leaning, comparably focused educators. And there are ways to connect with challenging, make you reflect on your practice, I can’t believe I used to do that too educators who can help reassure you that you are making the right moves, even when those moves are difficult.

Hand someone a cup of coffee and take a seat.

Open up Twitter and join a #chat.

Send one of the Three Teachers (really five of us now, how cool is that?) an email and we’d be glad to listen. 

Don’t close your door and let handing out Kleenex to kids feel like a highlight of positive, professional interaction.

Friends can help you feel sane, productive, positive, and human again. A few kind words, commiseration, a hug, and a maybe a quick snack.

Little else is needed to take the deep breath necessary and get back to 3rd period.

Except maybe, Spring Break.

We’d love to hear your shout-outs to fellow educators who help you right your ship, stay afloat, and just keep swimming! Please share in the comments below. 

shout out.png

 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of friends at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She almost left the profession in year one, and would have, if not for fellow English teacher Erin Doucette who took Lisa under her wing and taught her the importance of being yourself in the classroom, challenging you students, and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day every year without fail. I love the teacher you are and the teacher you have helped me to become. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 


 

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