Category Archives: teaching

My 5 words

If you had to choose five words to describe your class, what would they be? -Dave Burgess

This question was posed the other evening during planning for our World Languages Teach Like a Pirate chat, and it intrigued me.  How could I possibly narrow down my class to five words?  It was not easy, but I focused on what I would like my students to take away at the end of the year.  Here we go…

Respectful
I respect the learners in my classroom for who they are.  I get to know them, meet them where they are, and show them how to improve.  Respectful tasks, honest feedback, and reflection will be a part of each day.  Everyone will have a voice in the classroom.

Student-owned
Everyone is in charge of their learning.  When I give the ownership of learning to the students, they exceed my expectations.  I have to set the stage for learning, and let them go!   Students must learn to make decisions, even if it means making a few poor ones (opportunities to learn) along the way.  I will model learning, but not dictate the process.
Passionate
We will express our passions this year through genius hour.  I am passionate about Spanish and student centered learning.  I will help my students find their passion, look at it through the lens of Spanish, and then figure out how their passion can change the world. 
Positive
As Starr Sackstein wrote in her blog, we must manifest positivity.  There is too much negativity in our world, especially concerning schools and education.  I will be a positive influence everyday for my students.  I will show them what happens when your life’s work is not just a job, but a passionate profession.  Enthusiasm is contagious, and I am ready to share it.
Shared
My students must know that we share the experience.  We are all learners, traveling together.  I like to see it as a messy trip with lots of stops, and frequent questions that lead us all to new learning. There is no guided tour with a prescribed script, just some destinations with multiple ways to arrive.

What are your five words?

Get out of the pressure cooker!

“It hurts students to accept sloppy or incomplete work, so give it back and release yourself from the pressure of deadlines.” Power of ICU – Dr. Jayson Nave and Danny Hill

Guadalupe’s story

On the first day of school last year I had a quiet, shy girl approach me.  Guadalupe (her chosen Spanish name) was in one of my sections of Spanish 2 and she asked if we could talk.  She let me know that she didn’t feel she could ‘hack it’ at level 2 and wanted to move down.  This is a frequent occurrence during the first week of school as I have high school freshmen and many get overwhelmed rapidly.  As I normally do, I asked her to stay for two weeks, let me really see where her readiness level was, and to relax!  Beginning high school is a daunting task, and many times after a few weeks things calm down.

Over the next two weeks, I informally assessed her level of proficiency with the activities we did in class.  She was appropriately placed, but definitely lacked confidence.  I spoke with her and let her know I felt she could do the work and that she should stay.  By that time, Guadalupe had made a few friends in the class and reluctantly agreed.

Things got better for Guadalupe, she was practicing her skills in Spanish and found that her readiness was very similar to other students in the class.  She was growing, improving, and gaining confidence.

BUT THEN

We had an assessment to complete – students had to record themselves speaking in Spanish, an assignment that generally evokes fear in the language classroom.  She had practiced in class, so I gave her the iPod to record herself and off she went.  I was roaming the classroom while she recorded, helping other students and giving feedback…when I saw it.  Guadalupe was staring down at her palm where obviously she had written what she wanted to say.

I had a decision to make – do I react to this, get upset with her, and dole out some harsh consequence, or do I take a deep breath, walk over there, and talk with her about it.  It may sound like an easy decision, but if you teach you know how hard it is not to be upset when you see a student cheating.  You are disappointed, angry, and hurt.  You feel like the trust between you and that student is broken.  I had to decide who was going to be in the pressure cooker, me or her.  Was it I or she who needed to learn from this?  Turns out it was both.

I took a deep breath and walked over to her.  I got down on her level and spoke quietly.  I asked her what she had done to practice and why she didn’t come talk with me about feeling unprepared.  I reminded her that learning was more important than a due date.  She was embarrassed, sad, and expecting punishment.  I am sure by her reaction to me that behavior similar to this was punished with zeroes in the past.  I told her to go home, practice, and let me know when she was ready to reassess.  I explained I didn’t have any evidence of learning until she did this.  She was shocked, thanked me, and left for the day.  I exhaled.

The next week, Guadalupe came in and recorded her speaking.  I eagerly listened to it and discovered she had really worked hard to improve and feel ready.  We had done it!  We had taken a bad situation and turned it into a learning experience.  This was pivotal for me as a teacher and for her as a student.  Over the rest of the year she worked very diligently in my classroom in part because of the relationship we had built.

I learned so much from this experience… I will never put myself in the pressure cooker again about accepting inadequate or incomplete student work.  It is their responsibility to show me proficiency, and mine to seek the evidence.

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.

Sharing is caring

Around six months ago, I jumped into the sometimes crazy, truly educational, definitely addictive, wonderful learning community that is Twitter.  I had opened an account a few months prior, but didn’t do much with it at first.  I am forever grateful to the everyone I have met, for they have challenged my thinking and helped me grow in countless ways.  Here are a few things that I have learned more about thanks to Twitter:

  • genius hour
  • flipped learning
  • technology integration
  • edcamp
  • augmented reality
  • standards based grading
  • motivation
  • engagement
  • blogging
  • great books to read
and the list goes on…
But one of the biggest lessons that Twitter has taught me is the importance of sharing.  All of these people that I follow selflessly share everyday.  They share their thoughts, ideas, successes, and inspirations.  They share their frustrations, problems, and failures.  At first, I was not eager to be so open about my world.  I was not confident that my ideas could possibly help anyone else.
Then it happened and my world changed.  I had been lurking in several edchats and finally (with a nudge from my husband) jumped into the conversation.  I not only realized that I could learn more from being part of the conversation but also that I could contribute in a positive way.  There are times that I feel underwater because the conversations are flying so quickly, and times that I am uncomfortable because the topic is something new to me.  But the discomfort is paired with an excitement that cannot be matched.  It is the excitement of expanding my world, learning something new, and the prospect of using it in my classroom.  And then there is a calm…because I know if I need any support, my PLN will be there with answers, examples, and a helping hand.  The more I give, the more I get back.
Sharing is caring about others, your students, your school, and your personal learning!  I can’t wait to look back at the list I created above a year from now and see what new wonderful things are on the horizon.  Here’s to new adventures, trial and error, and sharing about it so we can grow!

What’s on your list of new learning?  Share and we will all learn!

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!

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!