The struggle to reach them all

My battle to effectively facilitate the learning of a second (or third for some of my students) language is waged each and every day in my classroom.  But the battle always starts with a greeting and a smile.  It is so important for students to feel safe and welcomed in my learning environment, so I wait at the door for each of them, greet them by name and try to make them feel at home.  This greeting always seems to give me an insight into their day thus far.  They communicate so much to me in the way they respond and their body language.  Every piece of information helps as I figure out how to proceed with the next 45 minute class period.  A sincere greeting also communicates to my students that the battle to learn is shared amongst us, not something that divides us.  

We do a variety of different activities in class, but more important than what we do is why we do it.  I need to plan for and think about each of my classes a little differently.  Even though I teach several sections of the same class, so many things can change my instruction.  Class size, learning preferences, interests, time of day, etc. all affect our students and our ability to connect with them and facilitate learning.  I need to be able to explain why I chose each activity we did in class to my students, my parents, and my administration.  And because it is an activity mandated by a curriculum guide, or it was fun last year, or it is in the textbook are not acceptable answers.  This experience is about learning and the kids.  It is not about me.  It is not about what I like or what is easy.  It is not about making sure each kid gets the exact same thing.  It is about getting each individual what they need.

This is a battle that I never fully feel I win, but that is fine with me.  If I ever feel like there is nothing more to pursue and find out about my students to better their learning, I have lost.  It is about the struggle to learn after all, not about winning or losing.  At times this struggle is very tiresome, messy, and unnerving but when you connect with a student, elicit a smile when they are having a bad day, or watch the light bulb turn on at last, you know it was worth it.

My journey of change

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi
When I started teaching, I was taught that you do a bell ringer, check in homework, take attendance, go over the homework, teach the lesson via a lecture, do a whole class guided practice, and then assign homework for the next day. Repeat 170ish times (to account for exams and such) and that equalled successful teaching.  This way all students stayed in their seats (in nice clean rows of course), kept quiet, stayed at the exact right point in the curriculum (which was basically prescribed per day), etc.  The textbook dictated the curriculum, so that we could all teach the exact same vocabulary and grammatical constructions and turn out little Spanish language robots.
Robots for so many reasons.  I didn’t know who these kids were.  I never fully found out, either.  I knew little about their previous experiences.  I didn’t know much about what they were involved with at school or outside of those walls.  I didn’t know them as learners.  And quite frankly, I was never taught or shown that this was important information whatsoever.  It was safe…much safer than getting to know those 150 kids who graced my presence.  Much safer than discovering the hardships that so many of them bring to school each day.  Much safer than knowing how my kids were truly gifted and when they needed more from me as their instructor.  Robots because the curriculum was predetermined and I never challenged it.  Everything was set, easy (although beginning teaching is never really easy), and safe.  
I did this and received good, even great evaluations of my teaching.  Things were going swimmingly!  Or so I thought…
About 5 years ago, my teaching world was turned upside down.  I had been feeling restless lately, why?  I was a tenured teacher, doing what I was supposed to be doing, following all the preset plans and assessments, and getting good results on them.  I had been evaluated time and time again with the same stellar results.  What could be wrong?
I felt like there was a huge hole in my teaching.  There were so many reasons that I chose teaching as my profession, but what were they again?  Oh yeah, I wanted kids to become lifelong learners.  I wanted kids to go out and be productive citizens.  I wanted the kids that moved on to post secondary education to be prepared and succeed in their endeavors.  Was I doing any of this anymore?  Was presenting the prescribed teacher centered lessons on the right day and keeping my kids in strict seating assignments teaching them anything about the real world or encouraging sustained lifelong learning?  Nope.  I was missing it in a big way.  It was my midlife teaching crisis, time for a change.
Luckily for me, I had an administrator in my district that was always looking for what we could be doing better, a true instructional leader.  He gave me the opportunity of my educational lifetime, even if I didn’t recognize it at the moment.
I am not going to say that the workshop I attended was so mind blowing or wonderful, it was good.  What was life changing was the fact that it challenged the way I was doing things, the way that had been previously celebrated and promoted.  It made me think.  It was a spark in my teaching world.
I was challenged to get to know my students on all levels.  To plan my lessons for them instead of the curriculum pacing guides and quarterly assessments.  To RESPECT them.  That was my biggest revelation.  Over the first few years of my teaching career I had unknowingly disrespected my students.  I had disrespected their individuality, their interests, their backgrounds, and most importantly their ability to contribute to my classroom.
From that point on, I vowed to make changes in my teaching.  I knew it would be difficult, chaotic, and that I would make many mistakes along the way.  However, I also knew that my students deserved better.  Here began my adventures into differentiated instruction, formative and summative assessments, a student centered classroom, standards based learning and grading, and technology integration.  It has been a crazy ride so far, but if I could go back I wouldn’t change a thing…well, I wouldn’t change much.
It has been (thus far) a journey of extreme highs and lows, of success and failure, of support and collaboration along with distrust and solitude.  I have taken this journey with my students, their parents, my administration, my colleagues, and even my family at home.  But to this day it has been worth it, and I will continue to look for new, better ways to reach my students.  I will be the lead learner in my classroom, constantly growing with my students.

A true professional learning experience

Mind blown…period.  I have just experienced what professional learning is all about.  I am motivated, inspired, and excited to try something new in my classroom.

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a #patue (Pedagogy and Technology) chat about something called augmented reality.  I had no idea what it was, had only heard about it sporadically via Twitter.  But, I wanted to figure out what it was so I joined the conversation.  From that chat, I made some connections, found some resources, and set out on my journey.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the idea of augmented reality, the easiest way for me to understand the idea is the yellow line on the football field during television broadcasts.  Obviously, the field is real, but the line is not.  Augmented reality allows us to overlay a video on an image of an object using an app.
I spent some time over the next few days reading more about augmented reality and watching some videos.  I downloaded an app, Aurasma, and tried to look at some auras that were already made.  I tried to make my first one, but I wasn’t ready yet…it failed.
So, back to reading a little bit more and thinking a bit more about classroom application.  Then, I tried again, and guess what? IT WORKED! It was very cool to run the camera over my computer and then my face popped up and gave the Spanish equivalent, la computadora.  This is the most basic of uses for augmented reality, but at this point, I just wanted it to work!
I then went to my kids, age 7 and 9, and showed them.  They of course wanted to make one.  So, they shot a quick video of one of them saying this is my iPod, and then did the overlay with the image…and presto!  My kids were so enthused, I can only imagine how my high schoolers will react.
So, we come up on the present day…yet another #patue chat with wonderful gurus on the topic of augmented reality.  This time, I had formed some ideas and was ready to share.  I actively participated in the discussion and got even more wonderful examples about how to use augmented reality in my classroom next year.  What I would really like to do is have my students write about themselves in Spanish and then record themselves in English for the video.  Their parents could use the app to see the video of their child at curriculum night.
Research, attempts, failure, more research, more attempts, success…I am definitely going to share this experience with my students in the fall to show them that I am always learning along with them, trying, failing, trying again, and eventually succeeding.

This is the learning process, and it is wonderful.

Learning to grow…

I am participating in a twitter book study on Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.  The first chat spurred some reflection and thinking on the idea of growth mindset.  By the time the students arrive to my classroom (ninth grade), many of their mindsets are fixed and I must do something about it.

My students must learn to grow.  Too many of them get to high school thinking things like “I’m not good at math” or “English is easy for me.” Both of these opinions must be changed for true growth to occur.  A student who thinks they are not good at something will give up immediately, leaning on the crutch that they just aren’t able to improve.  The other student assumes they will find success simply based on prior experience with the subject.
But how do we take the two extremes and teach them to grow?  I believe this is a multifaceted process.  It begins with me.  I must maintain a growth mindset for myself and others and it must be obviously present in my classroom.  The kids must see failure as an opportunity for learning, and I must model it.  I need to open myself up to my students, swallow my pride and let them know that I fail, I get up, and I try again.  I must share that I am always learning, changing, and growing with them and that learning never ends.
We as teachers must encourage growth at every level by giving meaningful feedback on student work, not necessarily grades.  Too many students see a grade (letters or numbers) as an endpoint instead of an opportunity for learning. There is no ceiling, the possibilities are endless when we take a risk and try something new.
Moving students from a fixed to a growth mindset is not easy work, but it is essential. Young minds must be opened to the realm of possibilities before them. There is no time to rest on our laurels or hide behind our fears – believe in every kid, they are all amazing!

feedback…the ultimate learning tool

“Students can learn without grades, but cannot learn without feedback.” – Rick Wormeli

Over this past school year, I started to uncover the value of feedback over grades.  The truth is, feedback is everywhere in our lives if we would just look around. It is essential for our growth and improvement, but too many times it is missing or at the very best lacking in our classrooms.

There are many ways for everyone in the learning community to garner feedback. Teachers provide it for students and vice-versa.  Students give feedback to each other, and there is much to be said for teaching kids how to self evaluate and improve their learning on their own.

The book I am currently reading, Role Reversal by Mark Barnes, has wonderful information and insight on this topic.  I find myself agreeing with so much of what he says about feedback and grading.  Grades are competitive in nature, but feedback elicits growth.  Isn’t that what we are looking for?  Student growth and learning must be at the heart of what we do.  Barnes recommends using the SE2R method which is as follows:

Summarize and Explain what the student has done according to the guidelines or standards
Redirect the student to previous learning, additional information, or further practice
Resubmit tell the student how to resubmit the work for further evaluation and feedback
Feedback should fuel the fire to learn, unlike grades which in my opinion most times stop the process cold.  Once there is a letter or number on the paper, a student figures that the learning about the concept has stopped, no matter how high or low the grade.
Improving feedback in my classroom is a goal of mine for next year. I incorporate a standards based grading system in my classroom that eliminates the grading of formative assessments.  Rather than a grade, students are simply given feedback to improve.   I gave many less grades last year and my students definitely benefited from it.  I would like to use the SE2R method from the book to improve my skills and in turn be a better model for my students!  Hopefully they will start to give better feedback to me, each other, and to themselves.
Learn On!

Respect and caring

When I started teaching, no one told me how important relationships are.  We were encouraged to separate ourselves from the students and make sure that they knew I was the teacher and they were my subordinates…
Thank goodness I have learned and completely disregarded this advice over the years, I just wish I had done it sooner!  Students must be respected as the individuals they are.  They are learners just as everyone in the school community must be.  We can learn so much from them if we are willing as teachers to take a step back, swallow our pride, and admit that we don’t know everything.
Students and teachers must get to know each other quickly and respectfully.  I had a student in my summer bridge program start acting up last week, but the first thing I did was show him respect.  I introduced myself, and let him know that I wanted to make this program the best experience possible for him.  Then I asked him how I could help.  He was dumbstruck…and wouldn’t you know?  The behavior improved.  Kids need somebody to care about them, and I care.  Will his behavior be great all school year?  Most likely not, but now that I have a relationship with him, we have a mutual respect.
Mutual respect goes a long way in the classroom.  It is understanding that we all have bad days, teachers and students alike.  It is helping everyone through those bad days and lifting them up on the good days.  It is developing a learning community in the classroom rather than a teacher-centered lecture hall.  It is making all feel home so we can take risks, fail, try again, and succeed.
I always have my students fill out an end of the year evaluation of sorts, and my favorite comment of all time came this past year.  
“I liked the people in this class because they made it fun, but I also liked you because it seemed like you were always working with us instead of against us like some teachers.”
Pull up your sleeves and I will do the same…we are in this together!

getting started

I finally made it! After putting off starting this blog for a few months I felt I could ignore it no longer.  I am not only getting started with my blog this week, but also getting started with a new group of students tomorrow morning. I run the bridge program our high school offers to the incoming freshman class and I couldn’t be more excited to greet 275 members of the class of 2017 as they enter our doors tomorrow morning!

With this excitement comes a heavy load of responsibility.  I have thought long and hard about what I should say to them to make that first impression just right.  Here are a few ideas that I have come up with:

  • High school will be what you make of it, period.  Make it awesome!
  • Keep an open mind, learning is everywhere.
  • Your teachers, administrators and classmates are here to challenge your thinking and help you grow.  They need you to challenge them as well, we are in this together!
  • Pursue what you are passionate about.  Then share it and we will all learn.
  • Connect with someone new, relationships are key.
If on the first day I can let the kids know that I care and I am in this with them, I will feel successful.  Relationships take time, but there is no time like the present to get started.  We begin this journey working together in the spirit of growth and improvement.
If you are wondering about the blog title, I am usually one of those teachers that is seen as thinking “outside the box.”  Many times the easy answer is not the best one for our students, and I refuse to give them anything less than my best each day.  Sometimes, when there is a fork in the road you have to grab a spoon!