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 As I was horrified to learn, it is terribly outdated.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 Connie Colvin
I love books! For us as English teachers, books are probably a huge part of why we do what we do. This summer I tore through more than 20 books and enjoyed every page: everything from great thrillers like The Girl on the Train, YA books like 13 Reasons Why, fun mysteries like the Flavia de Luce series, and even a few professional books like Notice and Note. This summer my 11th-grade son tore through exactly one book and only because he was forced to for AP Summer Reading. I’m sure he isn’t alone. With school starting back for most of us any day, this is our chance to get good books back in the hands of our students, many of them reluctant readers. That’s where our classroom libraries come in.
Whether it’s just a small collection of high interest novels you’ve gathered for SSR or an entire wall filled with exciting fiction and non-fiction organized by genre, classroom libraries are so important for offering kids easy, instant, daily access to quality books. Yes, most of our schools have a library, but the school library can be intimidating, inconvenient, or inaccessible for kids for a multitude of reasons. We love to read. We want them to love to read. Share your love by sharing books!
When I started my job at the end of the 2014-15 school year, I inherited a tall tan bookshelf full of a very odd collection of male action hero novels and non-fiction coffee table books like The Making of Thriller. I took what I had and over the summer started building a collection that has become my favorite feature in my classroom. I love to add to it, I love to share what’s in it. These are some tips I’ve learned along the way.
I had this huge, ugly shelf to fill, only a few salvageable books, a few months, and a budget. How to find cheap and free books my kids would be interested in reading? The first thing I did was put a plea out on Facebook asking for donations from friends with teenage kids. I had two high school girls clean out their rooms and quickly scored two big boxes of books! One of those girls, now in college, recently contacted me and told me she’s bringing me another box! Once my students found out I will put a sticker inside the book telling them who donated it to my library, I had several current students donate as well. One student gave me a complete, barely touched set of the Chronicles of Narnia last year he didn’t want anymore!
Next I kept an eye out for church and library book sales, which happen several times a year in my town. Get there early for the best selection and enjoy! I do love book sales. Goodwill and the Salvation Army thrift stores sell books cheaply, as well. I hit my local Goodwill every couple of months and always find popular paper and hardbacks that are always wearing out like Harry Potter, the Twilight Series, The Hunger Games, Nicholas Sparks books and more. At $1.50 for hardbacks and $1 for paperbacks, it’s a goldmine. For SSR time during our homeroom advisory period, I like to have comic books on hand, as well. Our local comic shop will donate boxes of old comics to teachers for their classrooms, yours may well do the same or at least give them to you very cheaply.
Finally, when I know what I want to buy (and I’ve usually always got a list going!), I go to ThriftBooks.com. Thrift Books sells used paper and hardback books starting at $3.79. You get free shipping with a $10 purchase, and every $50 you spend earns you $5 off your next order. They carry such a volume of most books, my colleagues and I have bought classroom sets of used novels at a great price.
I quickly learned that 9th and 10th graders are hard on paperback books. They get dropped, shoved, crammed, and mauled in every which way. I’ve even had kids find them in the school bathroom. This is where putting your last name on the bottom edge of the book (and inside the front cover!) comes in great handy. I also found an online tutorial on how to cover paperbacks with clear contact paper, and I put my student assistant to work. If you want to save wear and tear on your books and not have to keep buying new copies, it’s definitely worth the effort. Read here how you can cover a book with clear plastic film, or if you prefer video, check this one out.
Now you’ve got some great books and you’ve got them protected. How do you keep track of them? I have been happy doing it the old-fashioned way using a checkout binder that sits in a magnetic file organizer stuck to the side of my shelf. When my students want to check out a book, they write down the title, their name, the date, and their class period. I give students three weeks or so before I start checking up on them. While students are working independently in class, I will go around and ask about their progress in their books and chat with them about it. It’s a great chance for one on one conversations and sharing the book love. As long as they’re making progress, I let them keep the book out. Checking in with them also helps remind them to bring books back when they’re done, when they just enter the date they brought it back. Because I’m not militant about my book checkout, I find I do lose some books at the end of the year, especially the most popular titles. But I’m okay with that. Many of my students have very little access to books at home. I will happily donate a cheap book or five and I like to think someone is out there enjoying them.
If you want to be more tech savvy, however, my colleague started using an online classroom library circulation app last year called Book Retriever and she has been very happy with it. She scanned all of her book barcodes in with her phone, then uses her phone during class to check out and receive returned books. The free app also allows her to track student reading habits and offers book leveling information. Because of the volume of books I have on my shelves and extras stashed in my closet, I haven’t taken the techno plunge yet. Something new I just discovered that I might add this year, however: color-coded genre stickers.
Once you’re ready to circulate your books, you need to get your students interested in checking them out. We talk about books a lot in my classroom. When kids hear what other kids are enjoying reading and the book is right in front of them, chances are good they are going to pick it up. I use book passes, book talks (both formal and informal), student-made book posters and interactive bulletin boards to drum up interest in my library. When I get new books, I show them off before I put them on the shelves. If we’re reading survival themed stories, I grab a stack of related novels and give impromptu book reviews. I’ll never forget the year-long argument one of my classes had over whether The Alchemist was a decent read or not. Every time a student finished it, those who had read it would ambush the newbie and demand answers. I’ve never had more book buzz than when I posted my 10th grade Honors students’ posters for the banned books they had chosen for their 3rd term independent reading novels. My 9th graders were fascinated with the concept of a banned book. It makes me excited just thinking about students getting excited about books!
As I get back to work next week, I know my reading rate is going to plummet, but I’m hoping the opposite will be true for my students. I’m hoping I can excite a new group this year and hear them ask each other “what are you reading?” However you choose to get (and keep) good books back in front of your kids this fall, remember how you feel about reading and remember to share the book love.
WVCTE is wondering what your classroom library looks like!
What tips do you have for teachers just beginning to build their libraries? Which books fly off your classroom library shelves? How does independent reading play a role in your classroom?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
After being a stay-at-home mom for 14 years, Connie Colvin finally fulfilled her dream of becoming a high school English teacher in 2015 at the age of 40. She is beginning her third full year of teaching 9th and 10th grade English at Parkersburg High School. When she’s not teaching, Connie can be found long distance walking (while listening to an audiobook!) or knitting, crocheting, or sewing. She is thrilled to say having her eldest son in class (or, as he called it, Mom World) last year was a wonderful experience for both of them, and she hopes to have her youngest in class in 2018. She is working to gather a Wood County group of WVCTE’ers this fall.
By TONI POLING
As the number of squares on the calendar between summer vacation and the first day of school dwindle, my back-to-school dreams have started. I’m sure you know the ones I’m talking about: dreams where my projector bulb blows in the middle of first period; dreams where I find myself in my Harry Potter t-shirt and ripped jeans instead of my more professional attire; dreams where my students walk in with their math book instead of the novel we’re discussing; dreams where I RUN OUT OF COFFEE! Every summer the dreams come and I know that it’s time to get serious about planning for the coming year.
For the coming school year, I will be taking over as department chair for the English department at my school. With retirements and turn over, I know that I will have at least three new or novice teachers in the department and I know the importance of making sure that new teachers have support and guidance to help them get through the first years in their own classrooms. As I was putting together a little back-to-school gift for the department, I decided to include something extra for each of the new teachers coming in: a box of pencils and a pencil sharpener.
It’s no surprise to any teaching veteran that classroom management can be a struggle, but if I could offer one piece of advice it would be this:
“Give the kid a pencil.”
Every year I see teachers and pre-service teachers devising complicated classroom management plans that involve everything from trading a shoe for a borrowed pencil to completing a discipline referral for unpreparedness. I am certainly not here to say that my method is the right method, but for me it’s certainly the kinder method.
The way I look at this is simple: I don’t know what that child has been through that morning. I can’t know if he’s simply irresponsible or if he doesn’t have pencils available at home. What I can know is that my simple act of providing a pencil when it’s needed tells my kids that I will always provide what they need when I can.
I will support them. I will help them. I will not criticize or belittle them. I will make sure they have what they need to learn. And I say it all with a pencil.
We know that students learn best and perform better in a student-centered psychologically safe environment where respect and trust have been both earned and reciprocated. How we as teachers respond to our students has everything to do with how they feel about themselves in our classrooms. In all situations, our students should be treated with the dignity and respect that we ourselves wish to be treated. Even when infractions take place and disciplinary action is needed, it should be handled with dignity, respect, and trust. We are the adults in the room and we must set the example. When I attend a meeting and forget a pen, someone always loans me one without shame or recriminations.
When a hand goes up in my classroom and a student asks if he can have a pencil, my response is, “Always.”
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you encourage compassion in your classroom?
by: Dustin Hixenbaugh
Once a father and mother took their son to a preacher with the hope that this man who had baptized their children with his own hands would provide a cure for their son’s unimaginable impulses—for his attraction to men. After hearing the parents out, the preacher replied that he had known the young man his entire life, that he had developed a great faith in his character, and that he could not condemn him for following his heart. In his view, it was the parents, not the son, who needed “curing,” for it was they who had allowed the fear of the unknown to come between them and one of their children.
This is a story that I read a long time ago in one of the issues of The Reader’s Digest or Guideposts that my own parents stacked in their bathroom. But I found myself retelling it a couple of weeks ago in front of a crowd of teachers in a presentation on “Supporting LGBTQIA+ Students” at the University of Houston. Of course, a lot has changed since I read the story in the late 1990s, and arguably gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are better represented today in popular culture and more accepted by family members, teachers, and peers, than they ever have been. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for teens who are, or who may be perceived as, transgender—a term that distinguishes people who claim a gender identity that does not correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans children, who are bullied at school and smeared on social media, are in desperate need of adults who will stand up for them the way the preacher stood up for that young member of his congregation.
At this point, I should clarify that my intention in this post is not to convince you that trans children exist or that you should “approve” of them. The former is a demonstrable fact—1.04% of West Virginians between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute—and the latter, your approval, is beside the point. As far as I’m concerned, a teacher’s job is not to tell students who they are, but rather to make space for students to discover who they are and to develop the skills and mindsets they need to be their best selves. Moreover, trans students’ unique needs require that teachers do more than turn a blind eye and wish them the best. Research suggests that trans students feel unsafe in schools and earn lower GPAs than their cisgender peers unless school personnel take deliberate steps to help them feel welcome and secure.
So, what can you do to foster a welcoming environment for the trans students you will almost certainly teach? Here are five fairly easy suggestions:
1. Let students introduce themselves. It’s the first day of school and you’re gazing upon a sea of unfamiliar faces. Do you take attendance by calling names off a roster? Or do you ask students to give their names to you? For many teachers, this is a six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other decision, but for students who are transitioning between genders and who may be using names that are different from the ones printed on their official school records, it can be a source of anxiety and embarrassment. My advice? Ask students to introduce themselves to the class using the names they prefer, and if you can’t match a student’s preferred name to the one that appears on your roster, ask them about it privately. Better to screw up attendance on the first day of school than set a student up for humiliation for the entire year.
2. Embrace gender-inclusive language. On the one hand, this means avoiding phrases like “you guys” and “ladies and gentlemen,” which assume that the people you’re addressing identify with the gender(s) implied in your words. I spent ten years in Texas and have grown to appreciate “y’all” as an inclusive alternative, but you may find another phrase (“folks,” “friends,” and so forth) that you like better.
On the other hand, embracing gender-inclusive language also means accepting “plural” pronouns (they, them, their) in the place of gender-specific “singular” pronouns (he, him, his; she, her, hers). If you’re a grammar stickler, you may be loathe to allow a student to write a sentence like, “My friend Mary invited me over to their house.” But English thrives as a world language because it is constantly evolving, and, if you think about it, the sentence is entirely accurate if your friend Mary is trans or gender non-conforming.
3. Educate yourself. Make an effort to learn about the lives trans teens lead in- and outside of the schoolhouse. You can start by tuning into the TLC reality series I Am Jazz, about a young trans woman who is navigating high school and looking forward to gender reassignment surgery. You can also track legislative efforts to protect/curtail trans rights. Lately, battles over trans rights have centered around state and local “bathroom bills” that would require individuals to use public bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates, disregarding the damage such policies inflict upon trans people. West Virginia does not offer any statewide protections for trans people, and although some cities have passed their own protections, others, like Parkersburg, have given in to opposition from anti-trans activists.
4. Educate your students. Even if you never teach a trans student, you will teach plenty of students who will interact with trans people in college, on the job, etc., and don’t you want them to handle those interactions well? Consider integrating into your curriculum and classroom library texts that affirm the humanity of trans people and give some context to the challenges they face. My favorite book is Susan Kuklin’s Lambda award-winning Beyond Magenta, which features the personal stories of a culturally diverse group of teens as well as a stunning collection of photos. But you have many options. Alex Gino’s George and Jacqueline Woodsen’s “Trev” (anthologized in How Beautiful the Ordinary) are appropriate for middle schoolers, while Julie Anne Peters’ Luna, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish, Cris Beam’s I Am J, David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, and Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl appeal to the YA crowd.
5. Have your trans students’ backs. Someday, you might find yourself sitting down at a table with parents who oppose their child’s desire to wear different clothes or adopt different pronouns. Even if you regret these parents’ circumstances, I beg you not to join an effort to redirect a child’s gender expression. Rather, please put yourself in the position of advocate, like the preacher I described at the top of this post.
“I can see that your family is under a lot of pressure right now,” you might say to these parents. “And while I cannot tell you how to parent your child, I can assure you that kids who identify as transgender do grow up to be great human beings and productive members of society. More importantly, I know your child well, have great faith in their character, and know that they would not do anything to hurt you. I encourage you to approach your child with an open heart and mind.”
In a world where 30% of trans kids attempt suicide, words such as these, spoken with love from a teacher, have the power to save lives.
WVCTE is wondering...
How does your school or district support LGBTQ+ students? What are some ways schools and teachers in West Virginia can provide better support for trans students? How can schools help teachers to better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ students?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with on Facebook!
By Shana Karnes
I love to spend big chunks of my summer planning ways to revise and improve my practice. The season is always so full of hope, with opportunities to reframe my thinking and help my students be more successful.
But when the school year actually begins, it can be overwhelming to attempt anything from a major overhaul of your teaching to a few key shifts in practice. Every year, I read books, take classes, and obsessively jot ideas that never see the light of day when I’m faced with the reality of a fall full of fresh faces, administrative initiatives, and new courses to teach.
This summer, though, I’m working with a group of amazing teachers in Pipestem, WV during a National Writing Project summer institute. As we read and write and think and plan about argument writing, we’ve come across two key changes we can make that will withstand the crush of the reality of our profession.
Embrace the Wobble
One of our central texts for the institute is Pose, Wobble, Flow by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. This text makes lots of wonderful arguments for teachers to inhabit “poses” as more thoughtful, authentic practitioners through the metaphor of yoga. The idea is that when we try new things as teachers, we are trying to get into a pose. We inevitably wobble as we try to master this new stance, but eventually attain the flow characterized by doing this pose without thinking.
GODA (as one of our teachers refers to Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen)’s key argument is that the wobble part of this process is not only a necessary part of becoming a better teacher, but a desirable one--we must live in the gray area, a zone of proximal development, disequilibrium, or whatever else we might call it. “The P/W/F model is not about an endpoint,” GODA vehemently asserts; “it is a framework to help acknowledge how one’s practice changes over time and requires constant adaptation” (4). It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.
What this looks like in terms of our current theme of teaching argument writing is revising the way we think about the writing process to start from an inquiry-based place of research, then claim development, then argument articulation. This new mindset is requiring all of us to “wobble” as we try to conceive of it, and we’re wobbling in even our understandings of its many moving parts--what revision is, or what an argument can look like, or how we can use argument as a genre for developing our opinionated writing voices. As we’re flooded with unconventional ideas, mentor texts, thought processes, and assessment measures, we’re all wobbling with the confidence we’ll eventually reach flow.
But once we do--some time during the school year when things are going smoothly and planning and teaching are underway--we’ll need to yank ourselves out of our newly-found comfort zones and get back into a new pose, embracing the wobble of new learning once more.
This constant revision of our teaching is a simple way we can always strive to be better teachers--just embrace the wobble of continuous improvement.
Become a Writer
The second simple way we’ve discovered to guarantee an improvement in our teaching is to help shift our identities from mere teachers to that of teacher-writers. GODA strongly advocate for the many student-centered benefits of writing beside our learners, but there are so many benefits beyond the classroom that become possible when we simply write.
Outside the classroom, GODA suggest that teachers might become more engaged in improvement by:
Taking one or more of these eminently doable steps can help teachers “enact agency and make an impact on the profession” (27). I highly encourage anyone reading this to write for WVCTE, join us for a region-specific #wvedchat on Twitter, comment on this or other blogs, or join us for local workshops like our state conference in April. These simple activities will not only expose you to ideas to keep you in the “wobble,” but they’ll let you meet and engage with like-minded colleagues as interested in improvement as you.
Within your classroom, becoming a writer is equally valuable. If you read nothing else of Pose Wobble Flow, I encourage you to read the chapter on “Embracing Your Inner Writer: What It Means to Teach as a Writer.” These pages are chock full of suggestions for not only reasons to write, but ways to do it. From a survey designed to help you find your identity as a writer, to practical methods for joining writing communities on Twitter, Facebook, and even NaNoWriMo, to the ways the act of writing beside our students changes our teaching, this chapter is awesome.
Because “the changes that come about within our classrooms and with our students start with ourselves,” (80), writing is a necessary first step to becoming a better teacher. I hope, like me, you’ll begin keeping a writer’s notebook, blogging regularly, and writing beside your students every time you see them in class. Beginning to inhabit the pose of a writer--although I experience wobble within this identity almost daily--is doubtless the most helpful thing I’ve done to improve my practice as a teacher.
Whether you start with wobbling or writing this school year, I wish you a wonderful end of the summer and all the joy and optimism the fall always brings as we work to become better teachers every day!
What simple ways have you improved your teaching? Please share with us in the comments, on our Facebook page, or via Twitter!
Shana Karnes 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 find more of her writing about secondary readers-writers workshop at Three Teachers Talk.
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
By Toni Poling
Most teachers are aware of the existence of the summer slide: the learning our students can lose over the summer without regular interventions, like reading. But, not all teachers realize that we, too, can suffer from the summer slide! The cure? Professional Development! Research tells us that teachers have the largest school-based impact on student achievement; if we aren’t current in our professional knowledge, how can we expect our students to continue to improve?
When I speak with new teachers about professional development, they sometimes are at a loss on where to go to find quality professional development. Below are just a few options that I can personally endorse that have enhanced my own professional practice.
West Virginia Center for Professional Development
We are fortunate to live in a state where we have been provided opportunities for excellent professional development through the West Virginia Center for Professional Development. Long before I was an AP teacher, I was attending AP trainings during the fall and summer that were provided by the WVCPD and the College Board. In the 13 years I have been a public school educator, I have attended 12 AP trainings by the WVCPD. Each and every session provided me with a wealth of materials that were adaptable to meet the needs of all my students, including those who were struggling below grade level. A wise mentor of mine once told me that if I set the bar high in my classroom in terms of expectations that all my students would strive to reach it and that has been my experience. The professional development I received through WVCPD helped me to do that!
National Board Certification
By far the most challenging and rewarding professional development I have completed, achieving my National Board Certification by and away had the most direct impact on my own instructional practices. The National Board Certification process forces a classroom teacher to become more reflective, data-driven, and thoughtful. There are reflective practices that I learned during my certification process that I have incorporated as organic pieces of my instruction. I truly believe I am a better teacher simply for having gone through this process. Through achieving National Board Certification, I developed my teacher autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
I cannot say enough about a good book study! Ideally, book studies work best when they are done in small groups or Professional Learning Communities where ideas can be shared and can grow through the input of fellow educators, but in the summer that can sometimes be difficult. I, personally, love to learn through reading (what English teacher doesn’t?!) and engaging in professional reading over the summer is both relaxing and stimulating to me! Below are a few professional texts I can personally endorse that changed my professional practice!
I was a little late to the party on the last two, but I’m so glad I added them to my summer reading list! I can’t stop jotting down ideas from those two books!
When I need a new professional title and I’ve exhausted my teacher-friend resources, I often peruse the books available from ASCD. ASCD’s motto is centered around learning, teaching, and leading and their professional publications are outstanding (i.e. Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind). Along with NCTE, ASCD is a go to source for me.
As teachers, we know our instructional strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else. Regardless of what professional development you choose to seek out to address your personal needs, your students will benefit! In the end, our learning leads to their learning.
WVCTE is wondering what your favorite professional development opportunities are? If you like book studies, what professional texts do you feel are musts in any teacher library?
by Jeni Gearhart
“I am not a teacher, but an awakener”—Robert Frost
What a beautiful description of the art of teaching. Teaching is the act of awakening our students to a new way of understanding their world. By sharing texts with our students and by teaching them how to analyze the world around them, we open their eyes to a deeper understanding of life.
Of course, that awakening isn’t easy. Sometimes the act of teaching feels more like shaking someone in a coma. Or, perhaps we are that angry buzzing alarm clock. Either way, the act of being an awakener is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult.
In a college humanities class, I was introduced to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I’ll give a brief summary for readers whose memory of Plato is a bit rusty. There is a man who has been imprisoned in a cave for his entire life. Behind him is a fire, so he has seen the shadows of objects such as “man” or “horse” on the wall. One day, the man is released from the cave by another man. He is taken outside where he is blinded by the sunlight. When his eyes adjust, he sees real men, real flowers, and real animals. He sees the world as it truly is, as opposed to his former (incomplete) knowledge when he was in the cave.
Do you see some connections to education? Does this make you think of any books or stories? Hopefully it does, because this archetype of awakening, or enlightenment, is everywhere.
A few years ago, I decided to share Plato’s story with my AP Language students when we read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Like most dystopias, Bradbury’s novel is an “awakening story”. Through his awakening, Guy Montag comes to a different (better) understanding of the world and makes the choice to leave the figurative cave of ignorance permanently.
After reading and discussing Fahrenheit 451, my students read a version of Plato’s allegory. I often give them a print text, but I also show them this video that visualizes the story (fair warning, it is badly animated, but it tells the story well). TED-ed also visualizes Plato’s allegory in this video, but it is not as thorough. As we read the text and watch the video, we discuss the following:
After the students feel comfortable with the allegory, we discuss how Plato’s allegory relates to Bradbury’s novel. Montag, too, is unknowingly imprisoned by his ignorance. He is awakened when he reads the banned texts that he is hired to burn. He is then given a “choice”, to return to his ignorance by continuing his work as a fireman, or to become a rebel. Characters such as Faber and Clarisse also help his awakening, functioning as his guides to a new reality.
After discussing these connections, I ask my students to recall other stories that follow this pattern. I often share a clip from The Matrix since this shows a fairly obvious retelling of the allegory. To solidify the connection, I ask them to identify the following in their allegory connections:
All of this generally takes 1.5-2 periods. Then, the fun part. Creative writing.
I do not often give my AP students time to write creatively, but this assignment is worth it:
Plato’s parable, “The Allegory of the Cave”, is a very well-known story in Western Culture. Is the story still transferable to the ideas of today’s society? How would Plato tell “The Allegory of the Cave” today?
Your task is to retell Plato’s story in a different context. Be creative in how you tell this story. You may make any changes that you choose, but you must make sure to include the following elements:
The stories that my students turn in for this assignment are phenomenal. Several have placed the allegory on other planets. Others have told stories of literally imprisoned characters coming to terms with their previous choices. Several have told stories of drug addicts becoming clean, or of people removing themselves from toxic relationships. One student wrote a story about a little girl who was abused as a child and thought it was “normal” until she met another family that showed her what real love was.
Many students told me later that this was one of their favorite assignments of the year, not only because they got to be creative, but also because it opened their eyes to this archetype that is present in so many stories.
Our goal in our classrooms should be to expand our students’ understanding of the world. We should challenge their understanding and help them to grow through the difficult process of authentic learning.
In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo, “All I’m offering is the truth, nothing more . . . I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.” As teachers, we do the same. We provide students with truth in the literature that we hand to them. It may be fiction, but it offers truth nonetheless.
We are awakeners.
What stories or experiences “woke you up”? Do you teach stories with this archetype? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all five years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. She a not a hipster, but adamantly proclaims that she liked coloring books before they were cool. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.
by MK Jarvis
Every good teacher reflects. We ask ourselves things such as what went right or wrong with a lesson, how could we tweak our classroom management, or could we possibly stop eating the donuts the 6th grade team insists on bringing in every Wednesday. I’ve just completed my second year of teaching, and this summer I’ve been thinking a lot about how I survived the last two years. A great administration and wonderful co-workers (with or without donuts) are definitely at the top of the list, but there have been a few master educators who have given me great advice.
My first year of teaching was phenomenal. I’m not bragging. I’m was as surprised as anyone that I made it through in one piece, believe me. I heard from so many other teachers how their first year was their worst year. They told horror stories from the trenches: crummy, unsupportive administrations, back-stabbing co-workers, and misbehaving students and all their shenanigans. At times during the year, I was embarrassed that all those things weren’t happening to me. I had landed in a middle school with a stellar admin, helpful, friendly co-workers, and misbehaving students and all their shenanigans. Hey, two out of three, right?
So how did I survive among those rotten little middle schoolers? I owe my survival largely to my principals and my team. They made life so much easier. They paid attention to me and any problems I had and supported me when things seemed to be going awry. However, I know there was something more to my survival.
When I was thinking through what I might want to write for this post, I kept coming back to the reasons I had had such a great first year. Certainly, the staff at my middle school were heroes, but what else had made it so? What experience had I brought to the table that made my maiden voyage into teaching so much different than other new teachers? I’m sure it was the master educators I met in the beginning of my journey. The wise words they imparted, whether it was off the cuff or in response to a crisis I was having, have stayed with me. On many days and in many situations, I have found myself remembering them or repeating them to others.
I read somewhere when I first started taking classes for my certification that teachers were the most generous people. They were willing and happy to share experience and wisdom they had collected along the way. I found this to be so when I met my first master teacher.
Mrs. Gillian (rhymes with chillin’ or villain depending on how you behaved in her class) had 30 plus years of public school teaching to her credit and was currently teaching struggling writers at a local university where I was working as a writing tutor. When I decided to finally take the plunge into teaching, she appeared like a guiding angel with all the advice a burgeoning teacher could want or need. I had thousands of questions and “what if” scenarios for her to address. She never seem to tire of my inquiries and often stayed awhile after her classes to help me with assignments and projects. One of the things I was most nervous about was actually being in front of a room full of students. I’m not a bashful person, but thinking of all eyes on me really freaked me out. Would I buckle under the pressure? How would they react to me as a teacher and a person? Would they be compliant? Would they boo me off the stage, throw spit wads at me, or ignore me completely? Her advice was simple: “Walk in like you own the place.” She was simply telling me to put my shoulders back and my chin up, but the words she used were so much more commanding. She told me I should act like I know what I’m doing, and if I’m convincing enough, the students will believe it and buy into it.
A few days before school started, “walk in like you own the place” became my mantra. I practiced how I would walk into the room, what I would say, and how I would say it. The first few weeks were difficult, but that technique helped immensely. My knees didn’t buckle. I kept my shoulders back and my chin up. I could have been nominated for an Oscar. At the end of the year, one of the students asked me how long I had been teaching. When I told her just a little over a year, she didn’t believe me. Perhaps my next career will be acting.
Similar to the famous athletic shoe slogan, “just teach it” means what it says. Take the bull by the horns, get on with it, jump in with both feet. I had to throw out timidity and pull up my big girl pants and teach. Again, I was lucky enough to meet up with a veteran teacher with years and years of experience. Mrs. Williams took me on as a student teacher, and while we sat in her immaculately clean portable classroom with rugs on the floor, curtains on the windows, and encouraging quotes stenciled around the top of the room discussing what I would be teaching during the next six weeks, I hinted at lesson plans she might have in mind. She took mercy on me and offered her plans for the week ahead and the materials that went with them. While I looked it over and asked question after question, she simply stated, “Just teach it. Get up there and teach it.” So I did. I swear I can still hear my steps to the front of that portable echoing off those clean, white-panelled walls. The kids were staring, waiting for me to speak. Mrs. Williams watching, but trying to look busy and unconcerned. The first part of the lesson was a rubric, so I handed it out and started going over it. Something happened. Something beautiful. I knew I was in the right place at the right time doing what I had always wanted to do. Magic. I folded the rubric in two and advised the students to only concern themselves with the 3s and 4s on the rubric because who would ever want anything less than an excellent mark. The students folded their rubric and relaxed a little, Mrs. Williams did concern herself with other things, and I just taught the lesson unafraid and with joy.
Mrs. Dow, master teacher and butterfly enthusiast, had a penchant for snazzy sneakers and velour track suits, had flawless classroom management and graded papers faster than any teacher I had ever observed before or since. I often think of her paper grading prowess when I am slogging through stack after stack of essays exhibiting deplorable writing skills and sloppy handwriting. How did she do it? At first glance her room seemed a bit messy and disorganized, but I quickly found out it was only an illusion. She was über organized and knew exactly where everything lived and belonged. Mrs. Dow had been my son’s ninth grade English teacher and the assignments he had been given in her class were both challenging and engaging. My son complained about how difficult the work was, so I knew she had to be an excellent teacher. I wanted to meet her. I wanted to student teach with her, so I went to the school and asked her if she would consider having a student teacher lurking around. She agreed.
By the end of the first day, I was mesmerized. Everything in her class ran smoothly. Students complied with requests, completed assignments and turned them in, students listened to instructions and went to work. What magical spells had she cast upon these children?
A couple of weeks into my stint with Mrs. Dow, I had given back papers that I had graded. A student approached me after class and said she hadn’t received her paper back, but she was sure she had turned it in. I assured her I’d have a look on my desk to see if her paper had accidentally been shuffled into another stack. At planning, I looked everywhere for the paper and did not find it. I asked Mrs. Dow what she did when she lost a paper. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: I think I lost so-n-so’s paper. It wasn’t in my stack when I returned the graded papers last period. What do you do when you lose a paper?
Mrs. Dow: (brows raised, chuckling) Don’t ever let them smell blood in the water.
Me: (growing fearful, beginning to sweat) What do you mean?
Mrs. Dow went on to admonish me about what I should and should not ever say to a student and one of those things is “I lost your paper.” She told me that most of the time the paper is still in the student’s binder and they would eventually find it. Did the student find her paper? Yes, she did. Have I found in the short time I’ve been teaching that more times than not the paper is in the binder or the locker or the backpack or perishing in the no name basket? Yes, I have.
On the surface, this advice seems to tell me I have to protect or defend myself against student treachery. In a way, it is, but more than that, it tells me I have to stay organized. I have to be careful with the trust the students have in me and do my darndest to do right by them. The advice tells me to stay on my toes and do what is required of me to the best of my ability.
These tidbits of advice are a little zany, I admit, but I’ve applied it all and it’s worked for me. I plan to always remember the words of the masters.
WVCTE is wondering do you have words of wisdom, no matter how crazy, that have carried you through the school year? Encourage us by leaving us a comment, Tweeting us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connecting with us on Facebook!