Tag Archives: Problems of Practice

Advice I am HORRIBLE at following, or, how my lack of tennis skills saved me from myself

To teach at your best, you have to take care of YOU! This means you have to say no to some things. This means you need to become slightly less susceptible to guilt trips. And, this probably means that you need to hide some dark chocolate in your desk drawer.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to vent – that’s why I have roommates.  I do want to share, however, a lesson I am trying hard to learn, even if I am not always successful.  I do not believe I am alone in my perception that becoming over-committed is the plight of the English teacher.  We are passionate people who tend to channel that passion through – action.  Lots and lots of actions and activities and commitments.

My friends sometimes describe me as a compulsive hand-raiser.  Someone is asking a question or making a request and my hand is up before I am fully sure what I am being asked.  I also possess this strange magnetisms toward clipboards.  If I see particle board sirens with a pen hanging temptingly from it by a dingy piece of string, I absolutely must check to see if it is a sign-up sheet.  Embarrassingly enough, I have had to be dragged away before when almost becoming consumed by a sign-up table covered in clipboards all requesting my especial assistance.

Just recently, my lack of tennis skills saved me from myself.  I overheard the athletic director bemoaning a lack of assistant coaches on the tennis team.  I of course volunteered.  However, it seems that I would be expected to possess some semblance of tennis skills (shocking!) which I don’t (not so shocking) and thus I will be staying home this season.

Enough about me and my idiosyncrasies, though, and back to the main idea.

The advice dispensing portion of this blog: (Self, listen up!)

A Difficult Truth:  As teachers, sometimes, we just have to learn to say no.  I still am not good at saying … that word, what is it again?  Contrary to popular belief, the school will not collapse if I do not add Saturday yearbook meetings and the students will not retrograde into illiteracy if I do not host weekly girl scout meetings.  It’s a humbling thought, but true.

A Gentle Reminder: The students and their learning must come first.  One of the dangers of becoming over committed is that something is going to fall through the cracks.  If your time in the classroom nears the precipice, back away from the clipboards!

And, because I have not learned to say no yet, A Coping Strategy: Keep dark chocolate in your desk drawer and carve out some undeniable, unmovable you time each day.  For me, I can’t say that I take 30 minutes for myself at 4:00 each day.  I can, however, say that the first thirty minutes I spend at home (no matter what time that might be) are mine.  You decide what to do with that time.  I like to read something totally unrelated to work.  As much as I truly and sincerely enjoy and derive pleasure from professional articles/books and the books I am reading with my students.  Spending my 30 minutes with those types of items would suck me back into the school cyclone.  I’m going back into it soon enough anyway, but for the 30 minutes in the eye, I like to completely remove myself.  I can then come back with renewed energy and fresh perspectives.

How do you create time for yourself?  How do you use the you time you find?  As teachers, these are important questions because the teacher we are in the classroom is affected by the moments spent outside those four walls just as much as the time spent within them.


Collaboration – It’s Not Just for Teachers

A lot of research and conversation has been going around recently on teacher collaboration. For sure, this is an important topic. For many of us, the idea of collaboration is intimidating. It means putting our practice out there in front of our peers and potentially changing the way we are used to doing things. Others of us are very excited about the idea of collaboration; we are social learners, but we may not always find ourselves in a condusive environment. Either way, the research points towards enormous growth and learning potential for educators who engage collaboratively with their colleagues.

Collaborate! Succeed! Hooray!

Regardless of how you may personally feel about the topic, the recent focus on collaboration should highlight for all educators the fact that it is a skill we need to be instilling in our students. If we are, as Jeff Wilhelm suggests, teaching our students what the experts do, we need to teach them to collaborate! Members of the coporate community with whom I have spoken confess repeatedly that their biggest frustrations is having to work in groups with individuals who do not understand how group dynamics work or how to interact in a productive and efficient manner.

In the hotbed of hyper social awareness and unrest that frequently imbues middle schools, the waters are prime for highlighting and teaching interpersonal and group work skills. I would like to use this space to share my own recent student group work efforts and reflect on the process.

Things you should know when using collaborative group learning with your students:

  • It must be intentional.  Group work that is haphazardly or randomly instituted will likely bring haphzard or random results.
  • Student group work is not, as some misconcieve it, hands-off for teachers.  It is not a time for them to sit at their desks or simply watch.
  • This practices is Student-centered learning, but it is by no means teacher-absent learning.
  • Give it purpose; allow it to be personally and inquiry-based.

Our projects:

At the end of our 7th grade unit on American Literature, we are writing collaborative folk tales, inspired by the Uncle Remus tales we most recently read. 

Purposes/objectives:  Improve students interpersonal working skills; demonstrate understanding of the folk tale genre and its relationship to its given society; improve fluidity, organization, and content of writing in a creative, fictional manner; gain a better understanding of our own society’s values and reimagine them through a fictional story lens; learn how to write with the purpose of teaching a lesson.

Wow!  We’re doing all of that in just two weeks?!?

Product: Collaboratively written folktales to be bound together as a class anthology

Questions guiding inquiry: “How can we use our writing to reflect our ideas about our communities?”  “How could our writing possible affect our community?”  “How can we learn more about a culture through its literature, even if that literature is fictional?” (Check out this post, for my reflections on an inquiry based classroom.)

Process:  For the first week, students will plan out their stories.  We are using Scholastic graphic organizers, found here, to chart and plan our stories.  These organizers are typically used to gather information about a text being read, but we are “working backwards” to make sure we are including all that we need to include in our stories.

Each day, group members will rotate through the roles of : Scribe, Discussion Leader, and Official Vote Master as they plan the following story elements (1 for each day of class):

  • The five W’s : Who, What, When, Where, Why
  • Character Sketches: at least one main character and two supporting charcters. (I created my ownCharacter Planning graphic organizer for this day.)
  • Setting (and how it may affect language use, characterization, and plot)
  • The moral – what are we supposed to be learning?
  • Plot Line – Making sure our ideas are fitting within the folk tale story arc we have been studying.

Week Two is for writing.  I set up documents on Sync-In, a website I saw highlighted, here, in Free Technology for Teachers.  Through this online collaborative forum, I can tell just who contributed what to their online stories.

Throughout the process, I am including this Group Accountability Form, which you are free to adapt to your own needs.

We are currently just half way through the first week of this process, but I will certainly let you know how it goes!

Attendance Atrocities + Make-up Work Mayhem = My New Empty-Seat Endeavors

For starters, as an English teacher, I get a tiny thrill from alliterations.  It is similar to the feeling I get when I surprise myself with a really good couplet while speaking.  I thought of another one … deserted desk diligence … but refrained from including it should my ridiculous title slip from slightly bombastic into inanely annoying.

That being said, and if you are still reading, on to the main event.

I have NEVER been good at keeping up with make-up work … ever.  Frankly, I’m not even that good at taking attendance.  I teach bell-to-bell.  I’m talking with them as they come in the room and the interactions continue continuously until its time to go.  Who has time to spend on their computer taking attendance when class is in session?When students are absent, my desk slips slowly into chaos.  Plus, teaching 6 different preps, I end up giving a few pretty solid blank stares when they return as I try to recount exactly what it was they missed, what I need to give them, and where those things might be.  Then, there is also the fact that they missed discussions which can’t really be recreated, so some of my assignments no longer make sense. 

The past two weeks or so have been simply inundated with long lists of absentees.  As my grasp on this time-lapse sense of reality slowly slipped further and further away from me, I realized that I needed to follow my own advice and pull myself together. 

Many of you, I’m sure, already have some all-star systems in place for dealing with make-up work.  A majority of teachers, it seems, have been born with an organizational gene that I overtly lack.  Hopefully presenting my new plan in this public form will help keep me accountable to it.  Maybe it will even prove helpful to the few of you who, like me, exist in state of ordered-chaos.

Solving the attendance problem:  Keep a legal pad on my podium for this explicit purpose and record it at the end of the day.  No fancy form needed.  The open space will leave me plenty of room for notes should I need them.

Remembering what we did in class beyond handouts:  Have a student write it down.  How perfect! Students practice their note-taking and responsibility, I am now only doing 50 things at once instead of 51.  Here is a form I created to help the student helper out: Make-up Work Notes.

The Paper Work:  The same student mentioned above will collect two of everything handed out and staple the absentees copy to the back of the agenda he or she is filling out for him or her.

Getting it to the absentee:  They will pick it up from the bin upon their return.  The student helper will make sure it gets into the correct folder, they simply need to come and pick it up.  That way, if they have questions for me, the basics are already there for us.  Here is a glance at what it looks like in the classroom:

New Make-up Work Files                     New Make up Work Files

Alright, fingers crossed everyone!  Let’s hope this is a plan that sticks!

This Thing Called Twitter…

So … for a long time I thought twitter sounded like the most ridiculous thing in the world. Who cares that I had soup for dinner? In everything I had heard about the website, not once did using it for professional development enter the mind. However, as I explore and reflect on my own practice and my ideas about professional development, I keep running into references to twitter. My classroom is largely (not entirely, but significantly) structured around social constructivist and socio-cultural theories of learning. If I believed that individuals learn best from peers and mentors who can equip them with the social cognitive tools they need in a personal context, shouldn’t I apply a similar perspective to my own learning? Isn’t that why I pound out my ideas here on occasion (and hopefully with growing frequency) and frequent the English Companion Ning? To grow my practice along with a sense of community?

The most recent two pushes encouraging me to join the micro-blogging site was an EdWeek article by Michelle Davis, Social Networking Goes to School, and blog post on one of my regular reads, Free Technology for Teachers.  You can find the twitter specific post here.

Do you use Twitter for part of your personal learning network?  How do you put it to good use?  Any advice for a newbie like me?

I feel kind of like I’m feeling a “Check Yes or No” letter across cyberspace … but we can follow each other if you want.

I promise to never tell you what I ate for breakfast. I am: TeacherNextDoor.

The Competition, or How the Grinch Stole the New Literacies

My brother shared the video below with me recently.  I think that it is a great visual for what many teachers view as their classrooms’ “competition.”  In reality, though, technology is not a competitor to be beaten.  Instead, we have before us the challenge of expanding our ideas about literacy to include these new forms.  This challenge may, indeed, be the more difficult of the two.

I laugh when my 7th grade students refer to their note-taking shorthand as “text speak,”  but what am I doing in my classroom to equip my students to communicate and interact within a more digital world without sacrificing the more classic modes of literacy?  Perhaps it is because it is close to Christmas, but I am reminded a little bit of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I know you all already know the story, but humor me for a moment while I draw the connection.  Christmas was coming no matter what the Grinch did to try to ignore it or stop it.  In the end, he grew to embrace the holiday and his heart grew (three sizes!) to make room for it.  There can be a temptation, especially in the ELA classroom to be a bit of a grinch when it comes to teaching these 21st century skills.  You may want to ignore them, or pretend they don’t exist within the walls of your classroom.  Perhaps you try to banish them , or override them with more classics.  In reality, one area of literacy does not have to concede to the other.  Our classrooms need to expand to make room for both.  One way that I’ve started working on this challenge is through setting up a classroom blog during book studies.  I like using KidBlogs with my middle school students because they do not need their own email address and I can organize their pages into “classes.” Added bonuses:  There are no advertisements, and its free!  What ways are you incorporating new literacies into your classrooms?

Also:  a quick thank you to my proof-reader somewhere out there!

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