Category Archives: Jessica

Without Contact, There Can Be No Impact

Stories

“I had gone off to be a teacher, asking myself from time to time if I could teach English in such a way that people would stop killing each other.” -Mary Rose O’Reilley

As soon as I came across this quote in Peter H. Johnston’s book, Choice Words, I immediately related to it, which then caused me to feel alienated.  You see, this book had been assigned as a school-wide PLC read.  Aside from being one of the few that would complain about having to READ A BOOK (English teachers, anyone?), I also knew that the next day we would have to discuss this reading.  I knew I would bring up this quote.  I knew commotion would stir as everyone discussed what a preposterous notion this was.

OF COURSE we can’t stop murder.  OF COURSE we can’t change the whole world.  OF COURSE we can’t save them all.

Does the fact that we can’t change reality mean we shouldn’t still try?  Does the possibility of not reaching one hundred percent success prevent you from setting a goal in the first place?

I read all of that before it seemed real–the “killing” part, at least.  It was before everything changed.

I saw his name flash by on another student’s Facebook status closely followed by words like too soon, I love you, rest easy, etc.  I quickly went over to check his page as I found myself whispering to myself, “No, no, no, no, no.”  When I found his page, my worst fear was confirmed.  My former student had been shot and killed the night before.

As I stared at his picture, my mind ventured back to almost everyday after school last year, my first year teaching, when this student was in my classroom.

The news story that soon followed confirmed that the altercation occurred to settle a debt of $70.  He went to defend his friend, and as the other kids refused to fight, he walked away and was shot in the back.

$70.

Since that moment, just a few months ago, this quote crosses my mind almost daily.  I find myself thinking, What if we talked more about violence in the classroom?  If he had gone to college, would he have been in this same situation?  If he was not afraid to ask questions, maybe he would have asked someone for the money or helped his friend earn it rather than attempting to settle the debt in another way.  If this… if that…if only.

I know it is not healthy to think of all the things I should have done, but the truth is that I do.  I believe teaching can change lives not because we know things, but because we know kids.  Students want to be known, even if they don’t let on that it’s true.

I don’t only think of what I should have done, but I let it propel me into, What more can I do this time, today, this class period, for this student?

In a conversation with my 3TT friends, we were discussing “worksheet teaching.”  In a very long and broad conversation, I told them another story that happened that week, and then I thought:

You have to get really close to have an impact, but getting close makes things really difficult sometimes.  No wonder teachers sit at desks.  There’s less skin in the game that way.

Honestly, that’s how it feels some days–like I’m scraping off tiny pieces of myself to try and fill what these kids need.

So I write to patch the scrapes, air out the wounds, and find the light breaking through the cracks.

Today I’m not writing to lament about teaching, to share war stories or anything of that nature, but just to heal.

Teachers need to write because it pieces us back together.  We need to write, because others need to see our hurts to know they’re not alone.  

Like Brene Brown says, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” Despite the pushes for test scores, data, and measurable growth, we teach souls every single day.  Those stories need to be told.

What do you do to heal from the inevitable trials of teaching souls?  Do you think teachers can “stop the killing,” or should teachers refrain from distracting themselves with such lofty aspirations?  Let’s start a conversation in the comments.

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She usually takes on major life events all at once rather than bit by bit, such as starting graduate school, buying a house, going to Europe, and preparing for two new classes next year.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

 

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3 Types of Talk to Boost Confidence and Community

the hate u give

My first day of teaching was going to be great, because I WAS PREPARED.

I wrote a speech, long hand, about 5 pages.  It was going to communicate what students could expect from the class and what they should know about me.  It was going to INSPIRE them.  They would hang on my every word.

Forget all of the appalling things I just mentioned–you haven’t even heard the best part.

After I gave my approximate 35 minute speech, and students were drooling as a result of my awesomeness, we would have A DISCUSSION.

Drop the mic.  Best teacher ever.  My students will have a voice!

Needless to say, having never been in the classroom before, my first day was a shock.  Most students did not want to hear a single word I had to say, much less ABOUT MYSELF.  My voice was gone by the end of the day and I was in tears because I had no idea how to go back and do it for another round of classes the next day.

I had no idea discussions needed planning and structuring.  I thought they just HAPPENED.

Oh–sweet, naive, extremely troubled Baby Mrs. Paxson.

Almost two years later, we never have a discussion without some sort of structure.  The structure can be minor, or it can be massive.  It can simply be planning on my part, planning on the students’ parts, or it can be structure that I pull out of my back pocket to maximize of a discussion that materializes out of thin air.  It can mean a different configuration of desks, or a script to which students can refer if they get stuck.

When we teach literacy, we can’t just command students to “talk.” We have to give them tools and materials and practices so that they are building their houses of reading, writing, speaking, and listening on a solid foundation, rather than a shaky one (insert your chosen Three Little Pigs invocation here).

Here are a few of my favorite ways to structure talk in the classroom, that can really work for ANYTHING from talking about books, to talking about real world issues, to reviewing pieces of writing, to students encouraging each other in passions and endeavors.

AVID Strategy, 30 Second Expert:

I learned this strategy through AVID, and it is so stinking versatile, it kills me.  I’ve adapted it many times to fit what we need, but the underlying concept is in the script.  I used this last during our Life at 40 Unit in which students were exploring desired careers and imagining/researching a possible life path.  In order to get students thinking and talking about career paths, after we did a little bit of preliminary research and decision-making, I posted two sentence stems on the board.

I’m an expert about (desired career) because I found out that __________________________.

I will be an expert at (desired career) because I am (character trait), (character trait), and (character trait).

Now, after they fill out these sentence stems, here is where the magic happens.  Students are required to pair up and repeat this script to a partner.  Their partner must actively listen and repeat what this student said in their own words.

Here are some conversations I got to hear that day:

  • “I will be an expert at physical therapy because I look on the bright side of things and I don’t give up on people.”
  • “I will be an expert at cardiology because I have discovered that I can learn anything, and will work harder than anyone sitting next to me.” (Positive self talk, anyone?)
  • (Repeating back to their partner) “I think you will be a great teacher because every time I talk to you in class, I feel heard and understood.  You stated you were a good listener, and I have experienced that from you.”

This is just a small glimpse into the conversations that can happen with 30 second expert.  Students feel silly at first, and they joke A LOT with these scripts, but even so, if you change your thoughts you can change your world.  Sometimes changing thoughts means changing the way you talk about yourself to others.  This allows students to phrase things they’ve just learned or mastered in a way that helps them realize they have added to their learner toolbox.

Speed-Dating:  

We are major speed daters over here at 3TT.  We speed date books ALL THE TIME.  I’ve also found that the speed dating format is golden for a lot of things such as when students bring in their own news articles for an assignment, giving post-it blessings, reviewing and revising writing, trying different mentor sentences and sharing, or really any situation in which you would like to allow students to have face-to-face time with many different ideas and possibilities.  You could also do 30 second expert in a speed-dating format!Structured Talk

 

Socratic Seminar:

I am by no means an expert on Socratic Seminar, but many different educators have different ways to get students talking about higher level questioning in a group setting.  B’s Book Love has some of my favorites.  In 822, we’ve tried fishbowl, whole class circle, passing stickies, and inner/outer circle with a live Twitter Chat.  They’re all great.  When my kids hear Socratic Seminar, they know I mean serious business, so this usually elicits slightly more academic talk.

Ultimately, structured talk promotes confidence and community in the classroom because it not only communicates high expectations, but it gives students the building blocks to reach those expectations and with skills they will carry into the real world!

How do you structure talk in your classroom?  Have you learned any tricks along the way?  Share them with us below!

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She usually takes on major life events all at once rather than bit by bit, such as starting graduate school, buying a house, going to Europe, and preparing for two new classes next year.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

 

The Savior Complex

The Savior Complex

The lesson was going great. Discussions were facilitating deep thinking, work was getting done, kids were talking about their reading without my prompting.  Then I saw him: Head down, possible drool pool hiding beneath the pillow he constructed out of his arms.  As I went to gently shake him awake, I thought, Shoot–how did I miss that?  I had been furiously conferencing with other students and must have been turned the other way.  Almost simultaneously, I heard a student–who generally favors the hyperbolic statement–say, It is so freezing in here.  I HATE THIS CLASS.  

And then it started to go.

Matthew Quick’s character, Bartholomew Neal, would call it the angry man in his stomach.

Oskar Schell would claim he was getting heavy boots again, and might pinch himself for his shortcomings.

Julia Cameron dismisses it as the Inner Critic.

The Bible would call them lies spun by the enemy.

Either way, the moment I hear a negative comment, see a student who has slipped through the cracks for five minutes, or stare at all the red in my grade book for hopeful graduating seniors, I can’t seem to quiet that voice–whatever you choose to call IT–no matter how many times I attempt to smother or extinguish the flame.

IT says: You’re the worst teacher on the planet.

What makes you think you can change the world, or even one class period, one student?

They say you’re doing a great job, but what does anyone really know?  Don’t they just see what you present to them?

And worst of all, God didn’t place you here, He probably just forgot for awhile, and this is where you ended up.

Amateur.  Inadequate.  Soft.  Never Enough.

Forget the fact that I know all these thoughts are false.  They plague my mind daily, hourly, sometimes even by the minute.  So what is it that allows me to take the few negatives as failures, even when juxtaposed with many more positives?

In response to one of my messages one day, my friend and trusted mentor, Amy, called it The Savior Complex.  We want to save all the students–ALL OF THEM.  And by save, I mean engage, facilitate growth in life and learning, help them to feel loved and valued, encourage their ambitions and challenge them each and every day.

Seems doable.  (Not that I set lofty goals or anything.)

It’s my goal in these last few weeks to focus on the positive and deal with the negative.  I don’t want one to replace the other.  I don’t want to only see the positive, because that would take away the growth.  I just want to give each one its due in contributing to what I speak to myself each day.

Just like I tell my students:  Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t dream of saying to someone else.

How do you deal with that Angry Man in your stomach or the Inner Critic?  Let me know in the comments!

P.S. (Can 11 weeks qualify as “a few?”)

Note: This post was originally published on Jessica Jordana.

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

Letting Go in the Name of Book Love

letting go

I am a super fan of Pro/Con lists, although the true reflection of these lists never seem to govern my life as much as the making of them does.  Let me explain.

I can always think of a million reasons not to do something, but if I’ve already decided I want to do it, the Pros generally outweigh the Cons because of just that–weight.  Sometimes the reasons TO do something are fewer, but are so weighty that they can’t be ignored.

Workshop was that for me.

pro con

This is a real picture of my real notebook.  Please don’t judge the fact that I give myself pep talks within my P/C Lists.

 

Here are a few Cons of workshop from my list at the beginning of this year:

  • I’ll be on my own, pretty much.
  • I’m young, and everyone will think I’m just trying to rock the boat.
  • WHERE WILL I GET THE BOOKS?!!
  • Once I get those books, likely via my own dwindling bank account, how will I keep track of the books?  I already go broke on borrowed pencils–and those cost…well… can anyone break a penny?
  • What if I haven’t read enough to recommend enough?

Sure, all of these were true then, and are still true now.  However, I think the weight of the Pros on this list were hard to ignore:

  • I could truly build something that would become a lifelong skill that carries students through the rest of their lives as learners.
  • Great readers have the potential to be great writers.  You can’t do what you’ve never seen (at least not well).
  • Reading in builds empathy.  Reading far and wide builds empathy far and wide.

To be honest, the biggest fear on that list of Cons was the idea of losing books.  We teachers, just as Lisa pointed out yesterday, are notorious for going broke for the cause.

I started workshop anyway.  As soon as I met 3rd Period this year, Terri-Rose quickly became the actualization of my worst nightmare.  On the first day when we checked out books, she insisted on taking three home to peruse because she couldn’t make a decision.  My first endeavor into workshop, I wasn’t quite sure if that was a thing.  I gritted my teeth and slowly expelled a perfectionistic breath, attempting to inhale a free spirit (something which usually doesn’t hover near me much less inhabit my own body).  She held three of my shiny new bestsellers bought with my own money after the small grant I obtained already ran out.  I told her she could do that as long as she signed them out and brought two of them back to me the next time.  I glanced over my shoulder to my then-meager amount of books after the first checkout.  Who knew 300 books could go so quickly?  I might never see them again.  

But, you know what, I did.  Most of them.  Terri-Rose still hasn’t learned to make a decision.  Whenever she finishes one book, she takes two more.  She’ll get halfway through one, and then give it back to me.

I’ll ask, “You didn’t like this one?”

She’ll say, “I do, but I want someone else to be able to read it while I finish this other one.” We developed a system with her book marks.  She likes to use candy wrappers (always pristine) to mark her place, so she’ll hand me the candy wrapper, and I’ll put a sticky note on it with the book title and page number to hand back to her when she’s ready for that book again.  It’s a nice system.

The other day, she came into class raving about a book.  It’s a normal occurrence.  She’s never quiet about something she loves–a quality I’m hoping to channel more in the future.  She wanted to barrel her way through Everything, Everything because the movie is slated to release in May.

Then came the request.

“Mrs. Paxson, I have this pen pal in Weatherford and we’ve started talking about books.  I told her about Everything, Everything, and the movie coming out and now she really wants to read it.  Would it be okay if I mailed it to her to read and then she mails it back before school is over?  I can even ask her to write a review for it before she sends it back!”

The exhale and inhale was quicker this time, mostly because I was leaping for joy inside at the desire to share the Book Love.  I agreed to the terms of her proposal, and I can’t wait to get the book back with a long distance review.

All of those Cons, like I said before, still stand true.  I’ve lost some books this year–probably five or six.  But the weight of the Pros have grown heavier with success and small triumphs–more than I ever thought they might.

As I think of Terri-Rose, unable to make a decision, reading books halfway through and two at a time, always sharing with friends before she’s even close to done, I’m reminded of my own reading life.  It’s a real one, not one for a grade or to check a box.

Then I think: Holy crap–it works.

What moments have surprised you with sharing #BookLove and watching it grow?

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

 

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