Year 13 Begins

The next few weeks are going to be very hectic for me. I return to work on August 1 and students arrive on August 8. I will be working on getting my classroom set up and planning my first quarter. One of the challenges that I am (very) excited to face is the implementation of 1:1 technology. For those of you who aren’t knowledgeable in educationese, it means that all of my students will have netbooks and the use of textbooks will be limited. The transition will be fairly easy for me because I don’t generally use the textbook anyway and I had a classroom set of netbooks in my classroom next year. I still have to plan and plan and plan (it makes my brain happy). I’ve decided to take my teaching a step further and make my class inquiry based. It is a big step for me because I give up some of the control that I am used to. Thing is, the kids are fully engaged when you give them a choice.

Another challenge that I face is the fact that I will have to work with new people this school year. Because of teacher movement, half of freshman level teachers are brand new to the school. Some are even brand new to teaching. I love that we have fresh ideas, but I am also sad because our group last year worked well together. They knew me and my quirks. They didn’t get upset when I would hide in my room because I needed alone time. Plus, I get terribly shy and anxious when working with new people. I’m either silent or have diarrhea of the mouth and say the stupidest things! Time to retrain everyone (myself included).

One of the aspects of teaching that I love is mentoring new teachers. I like offering them support and helping them make it through the first few years. Teaching is hard and if you don’t have support, you’ll never make it. True words, those. I’ve already met one of our brand new baby teachers (term of endearment, btw). My first impression of him was that he was T.A.L.L. I have no idea how tall he is, but I had to twist my neck to talk to him. He’s an Algebra teacher, but I won’t hold it against him. (J/K. I love my mathmagician friends. They astound me.) It was exciting to hear his ideas for next year. He is so fresh and so hopeful. I want to help him keep some of that as the year progresses.

I went into work yesterday to get the keys to my classroom. Usually I don’t go into work this far in advance. However, I have a new classroom.

I know! First a new principal then new teachers and now a new classroom. Doesn’t anyone understand my brain?!?!

I have 12 years of teacher stuff. At the end of May, I had to sort through scads and scads of resources to determine whether or not I needed them anymore. I ended up getting rid of/recycling 8 big black garbage bags of things I hadn’t used in a long time. I didn’t realize how cathartic it would be to get rid of so much. Even though I pared down my resources, I still had to pack them up to be moved to my new room.

Here it is, in its natural state:

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Before I can even think about planning or the other hundreds of things teachers do at the beginning of the new year, I have to unpack. Things just don’t work unless I’ve got my little nest set up. The room is so much bigger than my previous one AND it has more storage. You know what the best feeling is, though?

I don’t have enough stuff to fill up the storage space! I don’t feel completely overwhelmed with things. Maybe this will help me in the next school year. I’ll have space to breathe.

This year is looking up already!

Oh, don’t worry, I’ll post my classroom when it is finished. I know ya’ll were skeered that I’d forget to show you the beauty of it. =)

Reason #127 Why I Teach

Today we were eating a special lunch to celebrate my daughter’s kindergarten promotion and a young lady approached me.

Young lady: Hey! Aren’t you Mrs. F.?

Me: Yes, I am.

Young Lady: You are my sister’s favorite teacher. She talks about you all the time.

The catch? I taught her in 6th grade. She will be a senior next year.

Who says teachers don’t make an impact? Crazy people, that’s who.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year… Sort of

As summer approaches, there is a feeling of anticipation and frustration. Students and teachers are counting the days until the sweet, sweet release of the last day of school. We are occupying the same space, but there is a tenuous truce, an air of tolerance, safe in the knowledge that we only have a few days left until the end of school.

Everyone is sick of each other.

This sick is not a simple cold; it is a festering buboe of yuck that is about to pop. Kids are tired of the “blah, blah” they hear when we talk. We are tired of seeing their lovely faces. Even the good kids start to grind on the last nerve. It is nothing personal. The beginning of the next year will bring a return of the fond feelings that arrive with the hope that a new year brings. Right now, however, there is a gritting of teeth as we all keep up the facade that we are not tired of each other.

As we wrap up the year, there are some mannerisms of theirs that are making me nuts. The fact that they lose focus every three minutes (okay, that might be an exaggeration but some days it feels that way) makes me hang my head in frustration. When they start cleaning up five minutes before the bell rings –even when I am closing up the lesson and still talking — it screams disrespect. Unfortunately, at this time of year, it is something that increases in frequency. I know this but it still irritates me.

They are also tired of my mannerisms. Okay, maybe this is not true. I asked my kids what irritated them the most about me and they gave me nothing. Seriously! The only thing that they could give me was that sometimes I’m too nice and they are worried that I will be taken advantage of. Silly kids. I told them that I could try to be meaner, but they didn’t think that was a good idea.

I tried new things this year. Some were successful– integrating even more technology in my classroom. Other things bombed like the movie Battleship (my attempt to get a classroom blog going). The one thing that seemed to affect my students the most was when I  arranged my classroom to a completely non-teacher centered classroom.

How do you make kids squirm?
I’ve found the answer.

My kiddos got positively twitchy. I didn’t realize that switching it around like this would freak them out so much. I have to admit that I took twisted pleasure out of their discomfort. The amazing thing, though, is that most grew to like it. It gave them a feeling of freedom that they didn’t have when they were stuck facing the board. I also noticed something else. They stopped asking me questions and started working more on their own. My goal has always been to make myself unnecessary in my classroom. Achievement unlocked!

I am quite fond of my students. I will be even fonder of them when they are no longer with me every day.

Four days and counting…

Ripples in my Pond: Twitter and My Donors Choose Project

Right now I am completely in awe of the power of social networking. I recently submitted a project to Donors Choose to purchase a classroom set of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Donors Choose is a place where teachers can post projects and donors can donate as much or as little as they choose. I heard of it through comments on this post by The Bloggess (who is really very sweet, in spite of all her declarations that she is not).

I looked at the website and immediately thought, “Oh, this will never happen. I don’t know enough people.” Then I started thinking of my social media network. I follow some of the most amazing, generous, funny people. I decided right then and there that I was going to do this thing. After all, you never get anything unless you try, right?

So, I spent a couple of days filling out the proposal, stressing over every word. When I submitted it, it came back approved. *YAY* The next step was getting the word out.

Last night I turned into to a human spambot. No… a spamhuman. (Oh great, now I am hearing Monty Python in my head. Lovely day, innit?) I have never been very good at self-promotion. Asking for help makes me feel all funny inside. Asking people for help with MONEY makes me feel like … well, I don’t want to put a disturbing image in your mind. Let me just say that it is incredibly uncomfortable.

My followers were very kind and didn’t jump ship when I started asking everyone I knew to retweet my project.

My twitter friends Amy (@lucysfootball) and @patrixmyth assured me that I wasn’t a spambot. It was good because I was beginning to wonder. Lisa (@lgalaviz), another generous person though she tries to deny it, decided not to retweet it just once, but a million times. If you don’t follow them on twitter, go, do. If you aren’t on twitter at all, sign up, then follow them. It is easier that way.

My heart swelled when pnut from my favorite-band-of-all-time-forever-and-always 311. If you’ve never checked them out, you need to. They are an amazing group of guys and their music is the rockin’est.

Then Neil Gaiman HIMSELF retweeted it. Not only that, but he replied to my request for a retweet! I think my hubby thought I blew a gasket. I was jumping up and down from the joy of the response. I thought I was too cool to react like that. I guess I am a geek at heart. I am embracing that part of me.

All of this ties into the novel itself and the unit that I am going to be teaching. Every action has meaning. If I had read that comment and not done anything about it, I would still be sitting here, trying to figure out how to get a great book for my students to read. I made the choice. The velocity of that choice allowed me to experience this awe-inspiring moment. Because I took this step, my project was funded in less… than… eight… hours!!

To all the donors and those who helped me: Thanks for being the ripples in my pond.

Teach Like a Champion and Positive Framing

My summer professional development included two book studies. My favorite book out of the two was definitely Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. The book contains techniques that master teachers use on a daily basis to help students succeed. Each technique is broken down into a key idea, rules/methods, and examples. The book not only details the steps for each technique, but it also includes a DVD that shows video of master teachers modeling them in a real classroom. It is a book that you can read in little pieces, something that I really appreciate being a mom.

As I was reading the book, I kept on seeing things that I do without thinking. I realized that the ways I reacted were not the most conducive to encouraging student achievement. The techniques given were fixes that were logical. In fact, Lemov’s suggestions are easy and, if done consistently, become good habits. 
One of the techniques that really stood out to me was number 43 called “Positive Framing.” The key idea behind Positive Framing is: “Make corrections consistently and positively. Narrate the world you want your students to see even while you are relentlessly improving it” (p. 205). The essence of this technique is to live in the now and be positive about what you are asking the students to do. It does not mean that you only talk about the positive things that students do. It means that you focus on interventions for behavior, but you do so in a positive manner. You have the expectation that students will behave a certain way and you use reminders instead of guilt/punishment to maintain the direction that you want the class to go in.

I was really struck by the rule “assume the best” (p. 205). According to Lemov, it is important to not “attribute to ill intention what could be the result of lack of distraction, lack of practice, or genuine misunderstanding.” Now, I feel that I am positive when it comes to my classroom manner. My students enjoy my class and generally feel good about themselves when they leave. However, when I ask my students to do something, I realize that I often frame it negatively.

Lemov, D (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 
techniques that put students on the path to 
college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (p. 109)

For example, when I have a student that isn’t on task, I sometimes say,  “If you don’t get on task, I am going to have to start requiring you to stay after school to make up time.” Lemov points out that, by stating it this way, I am assuming that the student will not stay on task. The solution is to say “Show me your best SLANT” and walk away “as if you couldn’t imagine a world in which (the student) wouldn’t do it” (p. 206). Of course, you may have to go back a couple of times to make sure that the student knows exactly what is expected, but it tells the student EXACTLY what you want him or her to do.

Imagine what it would be like if you started this at the beginning of the year? Off-task behavior would still be there, of course, but I bet it would be much easier to get the whole class back on track if you reacted positively by stating high expectations and standards. The entire book is like that. I kept on having “aha” moments as I worked through it. If are looking for a book that will improve your classroom management almost instantaneously, this is definitely a book to check out!

__________________________________________
Have you read a book this summer that really made you think? Leave me a comment because I’d love to check it out!

Philly "Phirsts"

Okay… I know that was a bad joke, but it made me giggle.

My district sent me to the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Conference in Philadelphia. I was one of the lucky ones that got chosen. I was very excited to go. What I didn’t realize at the time that I was chosen is the fact that this trip would change my perceptions of so many things.

First off, Philadelphia is an awe-inspiring city. I didn’t realize how much history and diversity is packed in the small area where we were. We stayed at the DoubleTree on Broad Street. It is a gorgeous facility with a lobby that is great for people watching and hanging out. The best thing about it is that it was within walking distance of so much. I took advantage of it as much as I could.

Here are some of my firsts in Philadelphia:

I had my first Philly Cheesesteak at Spatoro’s in Reading Terminal Market. Let me tell you, the experience was definitely an interesting one. I waited in line for 45 minutes for the steaky-cheesy-oniony-peppery deliciousnes. Believe me, it was worth the wait. I now have a baseline for what a good Cheesesteak tastes like.

The buildings had murals on them!

I had my first ride in a taxi. It may sound corny, but it was something that I’ve always wanted to do. Luckily, I was with a very city-savvy young lady who made sure I didn’t die (thanks, Tracy).

I walked around a big city by myself. Previously, I wouldn’t be caught dead by myself in a place the size of Philadelphia. Here is the back story: My travel companions didn’t want to go to a gift shop that I wanted to enter. Instead of just passing it by, I told them that they could go ahead without me. It was a phenomenal feeling not having the pure anxiety that I used to have when walking alone. By the end of the trip, I was completely comfortable with being on my own.

Broad Street

I talked to people I didn’t know at all. In fact, I made first contact. Usually I sit back, observing everyone, thinking things in my head that I want to say aloud, and keeping silent. I pushed myself out there and struck up conversations with complete strangers. I decided that this ISTE conference would be one where I focused on my networking skills. It was very enriching. I think I get why people do it now. I am still not 100% comfortable with it, but I’m closer.

I took my alone time when I needed it. I am not good at taking myself out of a situation or a group because I don’t want people to think that I am not social. I’ve come to realize that I need my solitude in order to process. If I don’t get this, I go into a sort of a panic mode. By giving myself permission to go be by myself without feeling guilty, I was able to avoid some of the troubles that I usually have when dealing with large groups. It also helped that the great group of people I am with didn’t take it personally when I didn’t hang out with them.

Overall, the ISTE conference really enriched my life, both personally and professionally. I am so very thankful for the opportunity. I think I am going to have to figure out how I can attend next year’s conference in San Diego!

7 Ways to Increase Comprehension in Struggling Readers

If you have never had an opportunity to go to one of Dr. Archer’s conferences and you are even remotely interested in literacy, you need to figure out a way to go to one. Beg your administrators, save up your change, have multiple yard sales, ANYTHING to help you make it. Dr. Archer is charismatic, entertaining, and generous. To top it all off, the strategies that she presents are research-based as well as practical. She focuses so much on active participation that it is easy to see why her methods are so effective.

My top 7 Take-Aways from the Conference

1. Don’t commit assum-icide. Sometimes we, as teachers, forget that our students don’t come pre-packaged with the information that want them to know. Because we assume, we generate gaps in our students’ knowledge. These gaps interfere with comprehension to a great extent. It seems logical, but I know that I have been guilty of assum-icide.

2. One of the best things you can do for struggling students is to *teach* them. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but, if you really think about it, how much time to do we actually get to do this? It is the explicit instruction that really helps the struggling readers. Discovery learning definitely has its place, but if the students have no knowledge base, there is little chance that they are going to discover on their own.

3. Teaching reading should not just happen in the Language Arts and English classes. Every subject area has an incredible opportunity to teach reading strategies to help their students become fluent readers. Content area teachers need to get out there and share information with their students while teaching them HOW to read it. 

4. Without automaticity, comprehension is inhibited. With fluency comes comprehension. If a student’s cognitive energy is being put into decoding, there is no energy left for comprehension. It is essential to give students the skills they need in order to be fluent readers. 

5. Practice, practice, practice. I know that I am very good at initial instruction. I can get my kids rip-roaring ready to go. The units that we work on are (usually) successful, and the students demonstrate mastery at the end. Dr. Archer asked us what would happen if we tested our students two units down the road. Would they demonstrate the same amount of mastery?I realized that my students might not. Practice is key. Working in cumulative review into my lessons will help prevent my students from losing what they’ve  learned.

6. Teach vocabulary explicitly. Pick the words that you want your students to really own. They need to be unknown words, abstract in nature, and applicable. Boutique words (words that students will never see in their real lives) aren’t ones that should be focused on. This made me think of the short story “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry. One of the vocabulary words that the teacher edition suggested for explicit instruction was mendency squad. Would that be a vocabulary word that is worth spending the time teaching? I am going to start asking myself that question more often, now.

7. Get an English Language Learner dictionary. These dictionaries give student friendly definitions. When you teach vocabulary, you need to provide your students with definitions that they can understand. Anyone who has checked out a dictionary lately probably has noticed that the definitions aren’t readily accessible to your average adolescent reader. The definitions in these dictionaries take the work out of creating denotations that are understandable.



Final Thoughts
There was so much more that I learned from the conference. The three days were not in vain. I just know that I am excited to see how the new practices and procedures increase the success of my struggling readers. For those of you who have heard Dr. Archer, I have one final thought. Woo-woo. 🙂