What I Read This Week

Books:

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult.  This was a re-read for me.  I picked it up again after quite a few years when I overheard a teacher talking about it in the hallway. I remember how much this book created my love for all things Picoult and knew it would be a great way to pass the time over winter break.  It was as good as I remember – an interesting look at a school shooting and the elements at play.  One of the reasons I love this book is it makes you think about the shooter’s family, in a way that you might not have before.  When someone behaves monstrously, who is to blame?

I am Malala by Malala Yosafzai

I have finally started the memoir, and I am enjoying it so far.  It is an interesting look into a world that I know very little of and one that is often only highlighted in certain ways through the media.  I am taking this one slowly and just reading little by little.

Articles that I particularly enjoyed:

  • All Teachers Should be Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases” by Soraya Chemely – posted on time.com on February 12,2015.  This is a really interesting discussion of the dangers facing both boys and girls in school when teachers don’t stop to examine their hidden bias.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we actually took the time to video our lessons once in awhile and examined our own teaching for potential bias?  New Years Resolution, perhaps.

Some of my student blog posts this week:

 

 

 

What If Wednesday

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One of my goals is to blog more regularly.  To do so, I have decided to start a series called What If Wednesday as I frequently find myself asking questions related to the field of education that begin with that said question.  Sometimes they will be thematic, sometimes they won’t.  It’s just a series of questions that’s on my mind.  Feel free to answer or share your own.

What if…

  • Students were given a time limit on homework?
  • Homework only consisted of practice?
  • We gave students the homework to read or write whatever they want?
  • We told them that after school they were required to play?
  • Students created their own assignments?
  • Students had a series of assignments to choose from?
  • Students knew all their homework at the beginning of the week?
  • Students created the schedule to complete their homework?
  • The students’ homework was to reflect on what they learned and practiced in class and prepared questions and a plan for the future?
  • Homework wasn’t considered a requirement?

The Courage to Admit We’re Flawed

https://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/8527544884
Photo Credit: James Vaughan

In 2015, I spent a large amount of time devoted to learning more about equity and inclusion.  My work at the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA and the National Diversity Directors Institute in Potomac, Maryland transformed me and lit a fire within.  I truly am committed to making the school experience of my students a more equitable experience, but man, is it hard sometimes!  It’s hard for me and it’s hard for others.

Despite my dedication and knowledge, I make mistakes.  I don’t always realize when I am creating disadvantages or inflicting bias. I don’t like when people question my beliefs or behaviors.  I struggle with my own privilege and often still don’t see when I am advantaged. I get frustrated with other adults who don’t see the importance of these issues or cannot admit they may have a role.   In doing so, I may sometimes put them off instead of turning them on.  I worry.

The one thing I have taken away through all I have read, listened to, and communicated is how much this is a journey for me and everyone else.  And what I have to remind myself is though the destination may be the same, how we travel and the roads we take are very different.

I need to accept that I do not know everything yet and that I will learn more. I must remember that I may know more than others and be inspired by small growth.  I have to acknowledge that this journey is one of the most difficult I will face as an educator, that failure is inevitable, and forgiveness is sacred.

All these things take courage, which is why they are so difficult.  It takes courage to admit we may be prejudiced.  It takes courage to admit that we are in fact biased.  It takes courage to admit that not all students share the same experience and we may have a role in that.  It takes courage to look deep inside ourselves and admit we may have done things wrong in the past.  It takes courages to acknowledge that even when we try our best, we can still fail. It takes courage to admit we’re flawed.

But it also takes courage to not give up, to keep fighting when people are fighting you, to be willing to learn more, to be uncomfortable, to feel alone in the fight, to find solace in others, to admit you don’t know everything.  To ask for help.

This year, 2016, my intention is to be courageous.  Are you with me?

The Great 56: What I Read this Year

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I had set a goal of reading 75 books this year.  I did not make it – I blame the fact that I went on a close to two month reading hiatus where I just couldn’t get into reading.  Oh well!  I did manage to finish 56 books, listed and categorized below.  I provided some commentary for the ones I could actually remember!

I’m a bit heavy on the popular fiction and am going to try to branch out a bit more next year when 75 will be reached!

Thanks to OverDrive for letting me download books for free, thus enabling me not to go broke on books this year.  And thanks to Goodreads, for making it so easy to keep track of what I read!  I think I got them all.

My absolute favorite books this year. 

  • We Were Liars (E. Lockhart) – I adored this young adult suspense novel I read over the summer.  Kept me intrigued and surprised me in the end. Plus I loved the island setting close to Martha’s Vineyard – one of my favorite summer destinations.
  • The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah) – Great World War II read.  I am a sucker for this genre, and I have always liked Hannah’s work – though usually I find them more guilty pleasure readings and less thoughtful works.  This was both a bit of a guilty pleasure and a unique look at World War II.  Very well done.
  • Between Shades of Gray (Ruta Sepetys) – Another World War II read, this time by brilliant young adult author Sepetys, this book was recommended by a former student (with a note that it has nothing to do with 50 Shades of Grey).  It is a simply gorgeous book that I fell in love with.  Cannot wait for Sepetys’ new one this year.
  • Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Claude M. Steele) – This book changed the way I think about stereotyping and is a must-read for any teacher, or anyone really.  Fascinating look behind stereotype threat and the effect it has on various identities.  And I read this on the beach – that’s how interesting it is.  Please do yourself a favor, read this book, and grow.

Books that made me think.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) – This book was required summer reading for my 8th grade students’ Global Studies class.  LOVED it.  Laugh out loud funny while forcing you to think.  Gave me a whole different perspective to thinking about how to teach through a diverse lens.  This book also encouraged me to seek out other books that allow my students to see things from a different perspective.
  • Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology (Leah Remini) – I have loved Remini since Stacy Kerosi caroused on the Bayside Beach with Zach Morris.  I have also found scientology interesting but didn’t know much about it.  This book was fascinating, and though I know it is told from a single perspective, it made me question the practices of this so-called religion and whether or not Leah’s claims are truthful. I will be doing more reading on this subject, for sure.
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Patrick Lencioni) – Read this if you want to better understand how to work with others and what each team member brings to the table.  It’s short, funny, easy, and thought provoking.

Books that reminded me what it is like to be a young adult.

  • Out of the Easy (Ruta Sepetys) – an interesting look at life in New Orleans French Quarter in the 50s.
  • The Beginning of Everything (Robin Schneider)
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Meg Medina) – Fantastic book about the real threat of bullying in schools.  Piddy is a character everyone should read.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews) – Another young adult book about kids with cancer.  I enjoyed this so much more than The Fault in Our Stars – it just seemed more real and less melodramatic (though I do love that book too.
  • Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell) – It was good; for me it wasn’t great.  Maybe because I don’t really understand the Fangirl world, I couldn’t get it into it. I found myself skimming through the Simon Snow excerpts.  But I know many adore this book – maybe it’s for a younger crowd.
  • I Love You, Beth Cooper (Larry Doyle) – Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it.

Books I couldn’t stop reading.

  • The Vacationers (Emma Straub) – Thouroughly enjoyed this read about a dysfunctional family vacationing in Mallorca.  Beautiful scenery, well-written, at times laugh out loud funny, and a great depiction of true family life.
  • Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand) – I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book as usually I have a hard time with particularly gruesome war stories.  But this was masterfully written and such an amazing story, I couldn’t put it down.  Another World War II addition to my list and an inspiring look at the human spirit.
  • Where’d You Go Bernadette? (Maria Semple) – Fantastic, couldn’t put down book.  Her flaws make Bernadette easy to root for and identify with.  Original plot and superb characterization left me recommending this book to many.
  • Home Front (Kristin Hannah) – An interesting multi-perspective book about the relationship between a married US soldier deployed in Iraq and her stay at home husband.  Hard to put down.
  •  Defending Jacob (William Landay)  – I really loved this book.  So suspenseful and an ending I did not see coming.

Books I finally read. Continue reading

How to Procrastinate Part:2

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How to Procrastinate Part: 2

If you were able to successfully do what I said earlier, then you should be ready for the next step in the great world of procrastinating! But if not, keep on practicing the basics until you have mastered them. However if you have,  continue with these next steps. First make sure that you know what you need to do because if you have many things to do, you don’t want to give yourself too little time. I would recommend checking your planner, asking people or any other way that would tell you what you need to do. I would also see if your sources agree with each other because if they do, you know that they are probably true.

Check the time while you are procrastinating so you can fully experience the procrastinating and still be prepared. I would recommend having a clock or some…

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Re-thinking Grading: Reflection Part 2 – The Dangers of Grading Everything

My brother failed his first driver’s test.  I, to the shock of many, did not.  Although I spent a wonderful couple of months rubbing in the fact that I got my license on my first opportunity, he soon passed the test, and we were equal.  Yes, equal.  It didn’t matter that he failed once – his license looked just like mine.  There was no mark or limitation given because he had failed once.  His only restriction was the need to wear eyeglasses when driving. He could have actually failed several times before passing and nothing would have changed.  What mattered is that he was able to eventually pass the test, thus ensuring that I would have to share the car I liked to pretend was mine.

The above example is a great analogy for my problems with traditional grading.  Systems that grade the learning process – formative assessment – and average grades together actually penalize the learning process.  What should it matter if it took five tries to understand an assignment, problem, writing technique, etc.?  Shouldn’t the grade reflect the student’s learning at the end of all their work?  How does averaging a grade suffice if the student has mastered the concept by the end of the unit?

Formative assessment, in particular, should not be graded.  I am in complete agreement with Cathy Vatterott regarding this idea, which she eloquently argues in Re-thinking Grading.  The intent of formative assessment is to provide the feedback necessary for growth, to allow both the student and teacher to see where the student is and what needs to be altered in order to progress or master the learning target.  Why grade it?  If we want the student to take a risk in learning, to not be afraid to jump higher, to own the fact that learning is messy, wouldn’t putting a grade on formative assessment be counterproductive?

We need to stop sending kids mixed messages.  We need to stop telling them that we want them to value the art of learning itself but then evaluate every single piece of work they put forward.  We need to stop grading everything.  As Vatterott writes:

So although the dress rehearsal is not perfect, the only thing that “counts” is the final performance, and that is what receives the grade. The final achievement of learning is more important than the steps it took to get there.

– Cathy Vatterott, Rethinking Grading, 67

Maybe if we allowed our students to “mess-up,” if we truly gave them a low-stakes environment, they would actually be more open to taking risks in their learning and admitting when they do not know something.  Maybe, just maybe, our students would actually realize that it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you can eventually get there.

Rethinking Grading: My Thoughts (Part 1)

115001bMy Dean of Faculty recently gave me a copy of Cathy Vatterott’s Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning as I will be heading a group of faculty member examining whether our assessment practices actually support the style of teaching we are doing at my school.  Although I am only a few chapters into the book, I must say it is as if Ms. Vatterott reached into my head and pulled out exactly what I have been thinking for years.

As an English teacher, I have always had a particularly difficult time using the traditional grading system as a way to assess my students.  To me, putting a number grade on someone’s reading and writing ability is challenging and sometimes seems impossible.  Rubrics have helped, but I struggle with the idea of putting a final grade on a piece of writing.  Writing, I firmly, believe is a process.  How do you put a final grade on a process?  Even more difficult is evaluating creative and personal writing.  How do you put a grade on a piece of poetry?  On a personal narrative that a student poured her heart an soul into? How can I teach a love and passion for writing and reading through archaic evaluative systems?

More importantly, if we are out to foster a growth mindset in our students, traditional grading systems are not the way to do it.  As much as we can pretend that allowing the student to re-write the D paper doesn’t affect their attitude toward learning, we are kidding ourselves.  That D does nothing to tell the student how far he has come or what he has learned in the process – it is merely a reminder that they are not considered “good enough” no matter how much work and effort they placed.  And if we really sat and thought about it, how often does that D just go away?  Students are very quickly trapped into the grades they receive, or so it seems.  Vatterott writes:

The patterns of school failure in the traditional system tend to reinforce the fixed mindset as the same students fail over and over again.  As those students come to believe they’re just not smart, the mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Struggling students begin to avoid learning. “Given all this, why persist?” they say. For the struggling learner, failure feels like fait accompli – a permanent caste system for C students and below.

– Cathy Vatterott, Rethinking Grading, 31

I am eager to learn more about Vatterott’s thoughts regarding how standard-based grading can help create a shift in a student’s motivation and lead to what most of us teachers are after: working with students who value and appreciate learning and are not just there to get their name on the honor roll.

More to come!

Vatterott, Cathy. Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-based Learning. Aleandria: ACSD, 2015. Print.

Reflections on the Death of Robin Williams: When Our Students Are Sad

The death of Robin Williams this week has shocked the world, and for those of us Generation Y-ers, has left us mourning the man who filled our childhoods with laughter.  This tragedy, somewhat not surprisingly, has brought forth great discussion on the subject of suicide and mental illness.  Although it was known that Williams had a history of depression and addiction, it is still hard for many of us to believe that a man appearing to have so much fun could also be battling such demons.  The truth is, most of us do not understand depression and would not be able to easily identify or support someone who is battling the disease.  

As a teacher, I certainly do not have the ability or knowledge to assess or treat one’s mental health, and I feel blessed that I am fortunate to work with an amazing counseling staff who are able to support the needs of the students at my school.  I know that any concern I have about my students will be treated with great care and sensitivity, and that my students will get any help they need.  I was shocked (and clearly naive) when I was at a recent conference to hear that there were schools who just received their first counselor or employed one counselor for a population of thousands.  Upon further research, I was even more surprised to realize that nearly half of the states in this country do not mandate counselors in schools, and even those that do have extremely high counselor-student ratios.   Considering the high rates the CDC reports of students who have considered or attempted suicide, this needs to change and change fast.

Not only must we increase the number and importance of counselors in schools, but faculty, staff, and anyone working with the child need to be trained on the signs and symptoms of depression and the warning signs of suicide.  We need to talk about the difference between what might be considered “normal” behavior for a teenager and what needs to be reported.  We must encourage teachers to trust instinct and provide them with information on what to do when a student confides in them. We must constantly remind them that often the best way we can help a student having difficulty is to report the information, even when the student doesn’t want us to. 

Most importantly, as many people are pleading over social media right now, we must talk about depression and acknowledge the realness of the disease and the pain it often brings when left untreated, and even when treated.  We need to get rid of the stigma.  We need to talk openly about what it means to have mental illness and acknowledge that mental illness exists for kids.  We need to take our students’ emotions seriously. We need to let students see that a visit to the counselor’s office is not punishment.  We need to respect the role of our counselors and listen to their wisdom.  We need to stop eye rolling when we are told that a student is depressed, anxious, or going through a difficult time.  We need to remember that a student’s mental health has a significant impact on his ability to learn.  We need to treat our students with mental health issues with the same care, concern, and respect as we do to those suffering from physical health issues.  We need to continue the conversation even when the novelty of a celebrity death fades.  We need to face reality. 

I am a firm believer that with every tragedy, there is also hope.  My hope is that the tragic death of a man who brought smiles to so many faces will also serve to better the lives of those suffering from a similar disease, especially for our children dealing with sadness.

10 Learnings in a Decade of Teachings

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds

10 Years.  10 YEARS!  It’s amazing to think that I’ve been teaching for a decade.  When I think back to the naive 22 year old I was when I embarked on my teaching career, I chuckle.  10 years of working with middle schoolers certainly will give you some perspective.  It will also allow you the opportunity to learn a few things.

  1. Listen more; talk less.  At the beginning of my career, I was that teacher.  You know, the one fresh out of one of the best schools of ed in the country, who had four months experience as a practicum teacher, who knew absolutely everything about teaching and wanted to share that knowledge with all of her colleagues.  Yup, that one. Gosh, I must have been annoying.   Sure, I had a good background in “pedagogy,” but to think I knew everything was rather silly of me.  I quickly realized that people get very tired very quickly of hearing someone on a soapbox or worse – a know-it-all.  As I’ve grown as a teacher, I’ve worked hard to listen more – especially to experienced teachers – and talk less.  I have realized I don’t know everything about teaching and never will.  When I do speak, I rely on both my own knowledge and experience to guide me.  And what I’ve learned, people are often more likely to listen to your ideas when they don’t hear your voice all the time.
  2. Be wary of fads and companies trying to make a buck.  I’ll admit it.  This has happened to me a couple of times.  That amazing online writing program the publishing company is marketing?  Tried it.  Ended up hating it.  Apps that really have no educational merit but look really cool and are marketed at an edtech conference?  Yup, downloaded those too.  Through the years, I’ve learned there are a lot of people making a lot of money in the world of education. That does not mean that what they are trying to sell you is actually worthwhile.  My advice: always try something first before committing to it.  Really think about whether or not the tool or book or program will benefit your students and is not gimmicky.  Consider all the possible negatives or problems before latching on.  If it really is something that will make a difference for students, go for it.  Just be wary: many tools that look great on paper are quite ugly in the classroom.  And if you have doubts, trust them, or else it could be a very expensive mistake.
  3. Learn what works for you.  I’ll admit it – I am not a fan of the smart board; to me, it is an expensive overhead projector.  Yes, I know that it is a powerful tool for some educators, but it just doesn’t work for me.  I find it clunky and time consuming and have not found a lot of great uses for it in my classroom.  Although I have given it a try and still consider how it might be useful in my class and will use it if it makes sense, I’m okay with not being a smart board user.  I know some people might not agree with my approach, who believe if I have access to this expensive tool that I should transform my teaching to make it fit in – after all this is the 21st century! Expensive technology does not equal learning, however, something my experience has shown me. And I would much rather use techniques and strategies that I know will benefit my students than something flashy and expensive just because it is flashy and expensive.
  4. Sarcasm is not my friend. This is one I’m still working on.  My natural defense mechanism is to be sarcastic, always has been.  When my middle school students drive me a little batty (as middle school students are often prone to do), I have been known to respond in sarcastic, sometimes even biting ways.  This was especially true early on in my career when I didn’t really know how to handle the talking out or talking back.  I have since realized that firm looks, quiet re-directions, and talkings to about disappointment after class get the job done far better.  It’s not always easy to refrain from the sarcasm and it does slip in – sometimes the middlers really do bring it out in me – but I at least have learned that it isn’t going to get me very far.
  5. Risk failure. I want my students to take risks, to challenge themselves, to even fail from time to time.  As a teacher, I have learned that in order to get my students to do this, I have to model it for them.  I love to try new things and tell them why I am doing it.  Although I don’t love making mistakes in front of my students – who likes to be publicly reminded that they mixed up their and there on the board again! – I realize that by doing so, I am giving them the permission to do so as well.  When a lesson or idea I have fails, I’ll talk about it with them and together we can often find a way to improve it.  I am an educator who believes that I constantly need to be thinking about ways to better my teaching but doing so implies trying things that may not work.  And that’s ok.  Especially because those mistakes often lead to something even more amazing.
  6. Boston College was right to drive home reflection.  When I was an education student at BC, it seemed like all we did was reflect.  Written self-reflection was required after every lesson taught during our practicum.  As a student teacher, I really didn’t grasp the reasoning behind doing what we did, and honestly found it quite annoying.  Now that I’ve been teaching for awhile, I realize how important it is to self-assess what I am doing each day and each year.  Yes, failure is inevitable and mistakes will happen, but that doesn’t mean I want them to happen twice.  Taking the time to actually think about what is and isn’t working allows me to better my practice from day to day and year to year.  No one will ever get better if they don’t stop and take the time to think about what better might actually be.  So thanks BC, for teaching me that and for helping me become better each year.
  7. Respect is so much more important than being liked.  When I started my teaching career, I really wanted my students to like me.  I wanted to be that teacher – the stylish, hilarious, “cool” one that they would remember for the rest of their lives.  I wanted to be the teacher that everyone loved.  You know, the one from the movies! This didn’t get me very far.  Kids won’t always like you.  No matter what, there’s always that one or two students in the room who really don’t get you, who find you incredibly annoying, or worse nuts.  What I’ve realized in the past ten years however is that though it is great to be liked and it sure can help some in the classroom, being respected is far more important.  If my students don’t respect me, don’t see that I am there to challenge them, don’t value my role in the classroom, aren’t their best person in my room then their like for me means nothing.  When a student respects you regardless of their personal opinion of you, when they see that your role is to guide them and to never give up on them, that you are fair and hold everyone accountable and to high standards, they will work for you and they will grow.
  8. With that being said, be likable, be real, and get to know your students.  No, I’m not contradicting myself.  I would rather be respected than liked.  But, I also teach middle school students.  When they like you, life is MUCH easier.  I love to joke around with students and have a good time in class.  I also will talk to students (without oversharing) about my own life.  Kids need to see that you are a person who has good days and bad days and has a life outside of school.  They need to know that you are real.  I also want my students to see that I really, genuinely enjoy what I do and that, something bewildering to my elementary and high school colleagues, I love teaching middle school.  I work hard to get to know each one of my students, to know how many siblings they have, what their favorite activities are, who’s acting in the play, when their teams are playing after school.  Getting involved in the lives of your students helps build the respect I previously talked about and it ensures that students don’t just see you as someone who deals with them for fifty minutes a day but as someone who is invested in the persons they are to become.
  9. Plan, Plan, Plan. We’ve all been there.  You waited until the last minute to create the test, and it’s two minutes before class starts.  You head to the copy machine knowing you are going to be a few minutes late but thinking of it as an extra study gift to your students and then you see the sign.  “Copier will be down until Monday.” Yup, nothing better than Murphy’s Law coming through once again.  Whether it’s photocopying ahead of time, planning thorough lessons, or using templates to create units, one thing I’ve realized about teaching is that the more I am planned, the better the results.  Sure, I’ve had a couple of great off the cuff lessons and being willing to change things up at the drop of a hat is also an essential skill, but solid planning leads to more successful teaching.  Most importantly, being pro-active is a must.  Thinking about what could possibly go wrong and actively trying to prevent it saves time, aggravation, and energy – three essentials for a middle school teacher.
  10. Teaching is hard and exhausting. I won’t pretend I didn’t know this as a new graduate, but I guess I thought it would at some point get easier and less tiring.  Truth is though, teaching will always be hard work. Sure certain things have gotten easier –  I am more control of what I am doing in the classroom, and I have a better sense of what things will work and what won’t –  but it’s still hard.  Every day is a different day.  Every week brings a different challenge.  Every year brings a different way for middle school students to get in trouble.  It’s exhausting, it’s trying, it’s emotional, it’s sometimes even heartbreaking.  And I wouldn’t change it for a bit.

Here’s to the next decade!