By Kate Harpel
Have students ever asked you why they have to learn a specific skill or told you that they don’t need your class for their future career? Do you ever feel that students have lost their desire to learn? These questions plagued me every school year until I discovered 20% Projects.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, 20% Projects refers to Google’s commitment to giving their workers 20 percent of their work time to work on personal projects that might benefit Google. Since the concept was released to the public, there has been some debate regarding the existence of the management model, but the idea behind 20% Projects--also known as Genius Hour--still resonates in the classroom.
Intrinsic motivation in the classroom--can you imagine?Students working independently on their own passion projects, stopping occasionally to share something new that they learned. It almost sounds too good to be true.
But to varying degrees, it turned out just as good as it sounds. Last year, I introduced 20Time Projects to my freshmen. With some guidance, students pitched unique project ideas to their classmates such as learning how to make handmade fish bait and tackle to becoming a balloon animal master. Administration would walk into my room and find students coding, creating 3D models using 3D printer software, learning chords, crocheting, and painting along with Bob Ross. It was amazing to behold.
To encourage my students, I participated in my own 20% Project. I attempted to learn American Sign Language (ASL) so that I could better communicate with my new student, and I am happy to share that by the end of the project I was able to get by in simple conversation without the aid of the interpreter! I even practiced with a few students who also chose to learn ASL; half a year later, we still sign when we see each other in the hallway!
Note: Do not use this edition of this book. As I was horrified to learn, it is terribly outdated. If you are looking to learn ASL, consider Dr. Bill Vicars’ website and YouTube channel. He’s hilarious.
This year I plan to adapt 20% Projects into a community/service learning project for my college-readiness seniors. Over the summer they perused articles, podcasts, and TEDtalks about a subject of their choice, and my hope is that they will use what they learned for good. Perhaps the girl who researched the history of makeup and hair will organize a free makeup and hair salon pop up for girls in need before Homecoming/Prom. The possibilities are endless!
If you’d like to give 20% Projects a shot, consider checking out Laura Randazzo’s free materials or 20Time’s website, which boasts a variety of videos regarding student successes. Your students will thank you.
What 20% Project would you take on in your classroom? What amazing projects have your students completed? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Kate Harpel teaches English and Mythology at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. She is a West Virginia native, a graduate of the Benedum Collaborative 5-Year Teacher Education Program at West Virginia University, and has been teaching for the past four years. A full time mother to a one-year-old, a full-time wife, and a full-time teacher, Kate spends her elusive free-time in the company of mochas, YA literature, and Netflix.
By: Jeni Gearhart
Dear Teacher on the First Day of School,
Deep breath, this is going to be good. You were born for this.
To the brand-new teacher on your very first day, you can do this.
To the seasoned teacher on your 10th, 25th, or 30th first day, you can do this.
To the burnt-out teacher who barely made it to May last year, you can do this.
To the new mom trying to figure out how to be both Supermom and Rockstar Teacher, you can do this.
To all of us as we pack our lunchboxes and brush the dust off our teacher shoes, we’ve got this.
Every year is different. Every kid is different. The standards change, the tests change, the expectations change—but the heart of this job is the same. The reasons why we got up at 5 AM this morning are sitting in the desks in front of you. The kids matter more than anything else.
Remember the kid who said last year “Miss, this is the first book I’ve liked since 5th grade. Do you got any more like that?”
Remember when that same kid started begging for a few extra minutes of reading time because he needed to find out how the chapter ended.
Remember the kid who wrote the beautiful essay that made you cry—that was the kid who could not write in paragraphs in September.
Remember the kid who calls you “mom” and says it intentionally.
Remember the kid who broke your heart when you found out that he had been abused for years.
Remember the kid who stopped showing up to your class because she was transferred when she was finally moved to a safer home.
Remember why you are here.
To the new teacher, you are probably feeling a rollercoaster of emotions right now.
Last week, you thought you were completely ready to walk into that classroom and solve all of the problems of education. This morning you felt so nauseous you couldn’t eat breakfast and you cried on the way home. Don’t worry. That’s normal. And you will probably feel that every year.
New teacher, these next words are for you. You have signed up for one of the hardest jobs in the world, but you are going to be great. You are not, however, going to be perfect. You are going to mess up hundreds of times this year. That’s ok. Learn from your mistakes, try new things, and ask for advice.
To the seasoned teacher, remember why you entered this profession. Look through that box of thank you notes from past students. Try something new this year. Remember your excitement when you first started. Find that again. Encourage new teachers. They need you.
To the teacher who barely made it to May last year, take care of yourself this year. Find people who give you joy. Read a book or two for you this year, bake some cookies this weekend, or get back in the habit of going to the gym. It is okay that last year wasn’t perfect. This year is a new year. You’ll be great.
To the new mom struggling to figure out a new balance, you can do it. You don’t have to be perfect in either job to still make an impact. Your family knows you love them, and your students do too. Be present.
Teacher, you matter.
This job weighs on our souls. The essays come home with us every night, and the burdens of our students come home too.
Remember the stories of triumph. Remember that for every kid who you can’t reach, there are 15 who will remember your name forever.
Politicians don’t get it, and often the higher ups have forgotten what it is to be in the trenches. Don’t let that keep you from trying to do the impossible.
Teacher, you matter more than the test scores and the school grades. Your students know that even if the newspapers do not.
Teacher, your heart is huge and it breaks easily. When it feels impossible, remember that you are doing something important.
Teacher, take a deep breath. Take those new supplies into the classroom, pack your teacher bag, and walk in with a smile. You’ve got this.
It’s a new year, and it is going to be a good one.
This job matters. You matter.
By Jeni Gearhart
16.1 million adults (6.7% of the population) have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
Last year, I was one of those 16.1 million.
I have gone through four distinct depressions in my life. My first year of college, my first year after graduating college, my first year of teaching, and last spring/summer. You don’t need to know my entire history to realize that it is a factor that has affected my life as an adult.
It has not, however, defined my life.
Depression has made me a better teacher. That is the story I want to tell.
Depression has made me more empathetic, more compassionate, and more passionate about my calling as a teacher. Truthfully, though I absolutely hate those periods of my life when I experience depression, those “lows” make me far more appreciative of the joy felt outside of it.
Being prone to depression can make teaching difficult. When you barely feel able to get out of bed, the idea of being “on” for 8+ hours, let alone energetic and happy in front of 30 teenagers can feel insurmountable. Planning an engaging, thoughtful lesson can be incredibly difficult when simply making decisions on what to pack for lunch is nearly impossible.
And yet, teaching keeps me afloat when I feel at my worst. My students give me joy. Pretending to be happy for them makes me feel just a little bit happier for myself. Teaching gives me purpose. My students get me out of bed on those days.
Last summer, when I experienced my worst depression in ten years, teaching pulled me out of it. Well, teaching, a support system of caring confidants, and antidepressants.
I cannot oversimplify this story. This depression is the one that changed my narrative. At the encouragement of close friends, I sought medical help and was prescribed antidepressants for the first time. I was afraid to take them. The stigma of depression made me fear what it meant to be “medicated”. In my depressed state, I feared that I would be judged. I judged myself, even. Why couldn’t I beat this on my own? I chose to take the medication, and it was one of the best decisions for my overall health and wellbeing.
As of August 1 of this year, I have been on antidepressants for one full year. I’m so glad that I forced past both the stigma and my personal fear and made this decision.
As I mentioned before, this depression changed my narrative. I’ve experienced depression in the past, but not until this year have I recognized how essential it is that we normalize the conversation about mental health. Mental health is as important as physical health.
As teachers, we need to be reminded of this fact. We already don’t take care of ourselves. By default, most of us are overinvolved. We have our school responsibilities, extracurriculars, and community commitments. There is more paperwork every year, and less time to do it. The needs of our students (physical, emotional, intellectual) are overwhelming. We feel underprepared and unable to take care of all their needs.
And, I would surmise that most of us got into this field because we have a big heart, and we feel deeply for our students. I would take a guess that the percentage of teachers who struggle with anxiety and depression is probably above the average for the general population (Health.com ranks us at #7 in their top 12 careers with high rates of depression).
We need to talk about our mental health. It is very easy as teachers to put on a show and hide what is going on beneath the surface. The expectation is that teachers are super humans. We have no first name, no opinions, and no personal life struggles.
Now, that does not mean that I should ever let my personal struggle interfere with my ability to do my job well. My students are not my counselors, nor do they need to know the specifics of my struggles. But, I do think that it is perfectly appropriate to tell students that I have dealt with depression and anxiety in the past. Does this matter for all of my students? No. But it starts to normalize the issue. It makes it OK for them to talk to their friends, me, a guidance counselor, or other trusted adults.
I am thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression. When a student is struggling with depression, I get it. I recognize it, and I have a different level of compassion for them. Do I lower my expectations for them in my class? No. But, I give them grace and point them in the direction of those who can offer more help. I remind them that they are strong. They are capable. They are worthy. They are loved.
We talk about mental health in my English classroom. When we discuss characters who we would otherwise label “insane” (AKA: Lady Macbeth), I make it known that we are labeling their actions for a thematic purpose, but that there is far more beneath the surface that we are not told. When we discuss Hamlet, we also discuss Hamlet’s depression. And, of course, YA lit is full of these struggles.
A few years back, I got a sweet note from a student. A student who never talked to me specifically about her experience with depression. She thanked me for how I discussed mental health (offhandedly, I don’t think it was the purpose of my lesson). She said “Thank you for treating depression like it is something ‘real’, not something that just happens to ‘those other people’. You made my experience real. You made me ok.”
Teaching is hard. Life is hard. Both are so beautiful.
I’m so thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression.
WVCTE is wondering...
As teachers, what conversations about mental illness should we be having? How do we maintain our mental health in an emotionally demanding profession?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
By Karla Hilliard
Summer is great, isn’t it? You know that feeling? The read by the pool, lose track of days, backyard hangout kind of feeling? Isn’t it great when you can have unadulterated time with your favorite writers (or wines) without grading guilt? Don't you love when you can go to a Body Combat class at the gym and punch into wild oblivion just for the fun of it? Or what about how fantastic summer salads are? I mean seriously, have you tried the watermelon-and-feta orzo salad? You haven’t? Well what are you waiting for?!
You know this whole chill-vibe thing will end, right? You know it’s going to run out of gas pretty soon?
Because, you know that small pit of dread and little twinge of excitement upon seeing the first school supplies lining the shelves of Target? Are you, like me, like, “I should totally buy that adorable sign that says SLAY THE DAY for my classroom, but it’s only July and I’m not thinking about school until August!”? Or are you more, “WOW 50 cent composition books, SCORE!”?
Or are you a parent who’s all, “Why have I cleaned up this kitchen 15 times today? Why do we have only one lonely slice of bread when we just bought this loaf this morning? This morning! Why is my child pausing the song on this laptop with her actual butt? Why would she think that’s a good idea? Why, oh, why isn’t it time for school yet, oh em gee?”?
Ever felt this way?
And why am I asking you this? Why am I asking me this?
Because I’m thinking a lot about…What do I want to do with School Year 2017-2018?
How will I build a community of learners who feel safe, valued, and heard? How will I show my students that without them, there is only a shelf full of books and a few ideas, that there is no “me” in my classroom -- there’s only been and will forever be “we”? How will I impress upon them that I am not the keeper of the literary gate nor am I the only one responsible for their learning? How will we traverse the land of great literature this year and explore it together — explore the masterfully written novel, essay, poem, short story because it is the work of the course and of the heart?
How will I connect my students to their communities and inspire more ownership in them? How will I help students challenge their opinions, deepen their curiosities, and expand their worldview? Why should it matter that they do all of this — that they develop empathy, that they problem solve and innovate, that they discover knowledge, that they consider their responsibility to one another? Will I help my students become better people?
And how will I bring balance and focus to my classroom and life next year? How will I continue to explore the essential and the “definite yeses” of teaching and parenting and just being a person in general? How will I make it to the gym? How will I get my kids to dance on Wednesday at 4:00? How can I find my grading Zen?
And what’s my bigger responsibility? How do I advocate for kids? How do I stand up to the face of injustice, bigotry, prejudice, and hate? How do I teach my students and my own children there’s more than one way of being a human? How do we love those who are toughest to love? How do I fight for all students?
So, why am I asking?
To borrow a line from one of my favorite novels to teach, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” By the end of School Year 2017-2018, I hope along the way to discover a few new answers.
WVCTE is wondering...
What questions are you asking this summer as you consider a fresh school year? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
I'd love to hear from you! -- Karla
An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves. ~Bill Vaughan (1915–1977), in The Kansas City Star
If you’ve been anywhere near social media, then you know the vast majority of the world was ready for 2016 to come to an end. And I’ll admit, part of me was right there with them. This year saw the horrific violence of Syria, we lost Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie and Princess Leia, and let’s not even talk about the chaotic, weird, divisive United States election.
Yeah, 2016 was a doosey. For a hilarious recap, check out this parody of a man who slept through 2016.
Like most folks, when New Year’s Eve approached this week, my knee-jerk reaction was “good riddance 2016.” But then, I sat down to draft this blog post and realized that for all the awful things that happened in the past year, there was also an extraordinary amount of awesome, specifically for our WVCTE community.
For starters, WVCTE received its official NCTE affiliate status, our membership has grown, we’ve connected educators across the state, and we’ve begun planning our first state-wide conference for March 2018. Our little organization hosted its first professional development session in September with the authors of Writing with Mentors, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, and it was attended by over 40 teachers from West Virginia and Maryland. Our Best Practices blog has been reaching teachers all over the state, country, and world, and we’ve given West Virginia ELA teachers a platform to share their stories, success, and strategies. (And we designed these really great t-shirts...)
So no, I can’t say the 2016 was a bad year. In fact it was an incredible year, and 2017 has some pretty big shoes to fill. I look forward to the next year with hope and optimism.
And like most hopeful, optimistic people I have made qutie a few New Year Resolutions. Most of them are pretty standard proclamations like "get fit," "get more sleep," and "drink more water," but I've also made a few Teacher resolutions, and I would like to share two of them here:
Teacher Resolution Number 1