Today I cried.
At 8 am.
In my classroom.
For so many reasons.
And I’m not a cryer.
There’s a young teacher that I sort of mentor. She’s like my little sister, my mentee, my friend- all wrapped into one witty, bright, and talented package.
Our paths have woven and intersected in so many ways it’s hard to nail down what makes this person special to me. But I’ll say this: if I could hand-pick a teacher for my children. It would be her. She’s the type of role model I want for my daughter; smart, kind, strong, and driven.
We first met when she was a student in my class. It was my first teaching job, middle school English. Even then, I knew she was special, smiling her smile, and reminding me which bells I actually needed to pay attention to (middle school bell schedules can be confusing, right?). Over the years our paths crossed time and again, until one day she found herself landing her own teaching position, middle school English, in the same place where she helped me master the bell schedule years before.
Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of watching her grow. I’ve watched her inspire writers and coach players. I’ve witnessed her strength after losing everything in a fire, and had the honor of being a guest as she walked down the aisle.
We’ve been talking a lot lately, she and I. About how the job has changed. How teaching now allows us to do less and less of what we love, and how hard it is to reach a child who is a thousand worlds (or at least a thousand tabs) away. And I watched her love of teaching, her fire, slowly burn out.
So when she came to me for honesty. I had to be honest. She’s young, newly married, and has her whole life in front of her. She is eager to follow her heart, to explore what she loves.
I KNOW she is a great teacher. But the job is different now.
I know she is a wonderful role model who believes in kids and helps them believe in themselves. But the job is different now.
She’s got so much to give. But the job is different now.
Let’s be honest, shall we? When you hear teachers talk about how “things have changed” you often hear the alphabet soup of acronyms we are up against: PARCC, SGO, McRel, and the list goes on. Is it exhausting? Yes. Is it taking up time that we should be using for creating meaningful lessons? Heck yes!
But that’s not all that’s changed.
Kids have changed. We have changed them.
We are teaching a generation of students who are wired differently. We compete for their attention with the 1,000,000,000 tabs on their devices. It is almost impossible for them to focus on one task fully, for any meaningful amount of time, before they instinctively switch to another tab (weird how human instincts evolve, right?). We expect them to problem solve, but in their world, Google has always had the answer. So we create artificial problem-solving situations (looking at you, Makerspace). Since when do kids need designated time to build and create, when that’s what they are naturally inclined (instinctively!) to do.
So let’s start having an honest conversation about what’s really changing. And let’s also be honest about this: not all progress is good. Not if you don’t have balance.
So back to our talks. Here’s the crux of it:
You shouldn’t have a job where you wish away the days. If that is what’s happening, something has to change.
You should have a job that excites you when you wake up in the morning. If that’s not happening, something has to change.
(Now clearly for many of us “older” teachers, we may feel that way now, but we didn’t in the beginning. If you’re young and you feel that way now, that’s another story.)
You can’t be afraid to take a risk. You can’t be afraid to fail. Sometimes failure leads you to the most amazing places you never dreamed you be. See what’s out there. Wake up in the morning and say Yes! I get to do this today!
And today, she resigned.
And I cried.
Because I’ll miss her.
Because I feel the school will be far less bright without her.
Because her leaving represents so much of what’s wrong in education.
Because she is a great teacher.
Because she’s brave.
Because I’m proud of her.
And because, selfishly, something about her decision made me feel like a teacher again.
Trapper Keepers. They answered the prayers of the ‘80s most disorganized students. Style. Organization. Velcro. Trapper Keepers had it all. Let’s be honest, there was a time not so long ago when you couldn’t walk down a school hallway without seeing these colorful three-ring binders and their super-stylish plastic flaps. Add to that the personal stylings of a pegasus, a Lamborghini, or a Care Bear. It was enough to make a kid stand up and shout, “Yea, see that Care Bear sliding down that rainbow? Yea, that’s my stuff.”
Never before was a school supply considered this cool.
Now a lot can be said about the advances of modern technology. Even more about the 1:1 initiative that’s taking most schools by storm. You can’t argue the benefits of technology in the classroom. You just can’t. And while we love (with devotion) all that Google Classroom has to offer, searching through Google Drive just leaves us wanting more. Color-coded folders? Sure, that’s a help… but still everything seems so… same. It’s hard to harness the excitement and hype of 1980’s school supplies when there is no individuality. No personality. No fun.
When we think about student achievement in the classroom, and compare it to what the digital generation students “get” to the students of years past, again, it leaves us wanting more. The content is the same. The kids’ desire to achieve, also the same. The things is, it’s become difficult for kids to stay organized, to easily locate important notes and documents. Here’s why: Google Classroom has allowed the teacher the control to organize their drives for them, to literally label every document for them, to push it into their drive for them. And that’s the problem: for them. They have little ownership. And when you don’t create it, everything just looks, well, the same.
Now, imagine the ability to take all that modern technology (eh-hem, Google) has to offer, but add to it individuality, ownership, and personality. Imagine taking the best of the Trapper Keeper and bringing it into 2017. Imagine adding fun.
Enter the DigiKeeper.
The best part(s)?
DigiKeeper. The best of 1980’s school supplies. Without the velcro.
Goals. Resolutions. It seems every time I set one the same thing happens (with very few exceptions). I fail.
Take, for example, my brother's wedding. If ever you needed motivation to get in shape it should be this: You are about to be a 40-year-old bridesmaid. In a wedding party of mid-20-somethings. Oh, and the bride? Yea, she's a yoga instructor. Man, I was going to be healthy and thin and gorgeous at that wedding! I mean, how could I fail... I had a year to get ready.
Except a year later, there I was looking exactly as I did a year before. Maybe worse (with the exception of my hair and makeup, which a was, if I do say so myself, G.O.R.G.E.O.U.S. The result of being literally spray painted). So what went wrong?
When I returned to my classroom after Christmas break, eager to welcome in 2017 with my students, we created a Jar of Goals and Blessings. We would write our goals on white paper, blessings that happened along the way on pink, and in June we would open the jar, take out the papers and see how we'd done. The kids were excited and we got right to work setting goals. The conversation naturally turned to what we would do to actually reach those goals, It turned to making plans.
Looking back on my own past goals, the ones I reached and the ones I didn't, the true determining factor, the thing that made the difference, was always the same: Did I have a plan? Without a plan, you don't have a goal at all. You have a fleeting hope. Things don't just happen. I didn't magically turn into a super model, even though that was my hope. But I did reach my goal of running a few half-marathons, after loyally following a training plan.
Every good English teacher knows the value of the plan. Heck, forests have been sacrificed for the greater good of the graphic organizer! Enter the plan and blue paper: what we do along the way to work towards that goal.
Now when I glance across the room at the Jar, I see blue. And after completing this post I'll get to add another blue of my own to the jar. My goal: To Continue. To Share. To Write. My plan: At least twice a month... or when the feeling moves me.
Which teaching tools are you loving right now?
EASY! I can make an almost infinite list: blogs, digital portfolios, Storybird, Storyboard That, Dotstorming, hyperdocs, digital book clubs. The list goes on and on. I can even make a pretty (very) good argument for how these tools are improving student interest and engagement. Yay!
The Tough Question:
Which tools are improving student understanding and achievement?
I'm not sure.
More Honest Answer.
I am so very in the thick of it all, that it's become hard to step back and look at the big picture I'm creating.
As far as English teachers go, I'm about as skills-based, old-school as they come. I know that the literacy skills I taught years ago are the same that I'm teaching today. Granted, the platform has changed, but I have stayed fiercely loyal to the content.
Why, then, has the level of understanding gone down?
Is it the bells? The whistles? Or just a different generation of kids?
I'm not sure. Lately, my students are proving that, while they seem engaged, they are just not "getting it". So I need to reassess. I need to figure out what's changed.
Flashback to 2013.
I was happliy and loyaly married to the Interactive Notebook. In fact, you could spot a "Crowley Kid" in any crowd a mile away. They were the ones hauling thick, used, heavily decorated marble notebooks (often more than one, duct-taped together because, yes, we will need this information again!). Those kids "got it".
My divorce from the interactive notebook was messy. I had a hard time letting go. Still do. When challenged with navigating all the shiny-new-things of the Google world, I faltered. I wanted to try everything new. Now. At the expense of organization and routine. And I'm afraid that, at least in part, student understanding paid the price.
I'm working to reunite with the interactive notebook, but this time in a digital world. More of an interactive website/portfolio/work-in-progress. What used to be pages and pages of notes, practice, risk-taking, and acheivement housed in a marble notebook is now taking new form, becoming pages and pages of notes, practice, risk-taking, and acheivement house in a student-created website.
I'm not sure yet if this is the answer I'm looking for. The thing I'm most loving that is also improving student achievement. But stay tuned, I'm still in the thick of it.
I'm feeling sort of... proud.
I look around and see other teachers jumping into Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects. Again I think: I can do that? Should I try that?
But here's the thing... if I'm being honest. I don't want to give up 20% of my instructional time on a project that might or might not be meaningful. How do I reconcile that use of time when there is so much to be done? A curriculum to cover. The ever-looming PARCC for which to prep. I just couldn't do it.
It's not that I love the standardized tests that are rammed down the throats of our students and teachers. I do not. It's just that we live in a culture that values success. The kids don't want to take the test, but they DO want to perform well on it. Part of my job is to make sure that on that day (or days it seems), when they sit down at those rows and rows of computers, they feel prepared. They feel I did right by them.
Preparing for a standardized test is not where writers are born. No child ever exclaimed, "I want to be a writer!" after cranking out a five-paragraph formulaic essay. What are we creating here? A society of test-takers. But where are the writers? Where are the writers born, if not in our classrooms.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop with Ralph Fletcher. The day's topic was using mentor texts in the writing classroom. If ever you find yourself with an opportunity to be in the presence of Ralph and soak up some of his wisdom and wit, I suggest you do so! On that day, Ralph kept circling back to the struggle between teaching writings and teaching test-taking. This is a struggle that has really shook me to the core of my writing-teacher soul.
I returned to my classroom the next day filled with ideas, knowledge, and excitement.
Then I read my lesson plan: Literary Analysis. Does. It. Get. More. Boring? No.
So I made a decision. I decided that I have to be the one. The one that opens the door and lets the writers in. Enter Free Form Friday, or Write What You Love Wednesday, or whatever I end up calling it when a stroke a genius finally hits (because if it doesn't have a catchy name, what's the point, right).
A few weeks in and we have a 20%-Geniusy-Passion-Project-Honest-to-Goodness-Writers-Workshop! Time each week for the writers to write, for the bloggers to blog, for the students to explore their interestes, follow their passions. And the beauty part, I can rest easy knowing this: It. Is. Meaningful.
So what are we creating here?
A writing class.
A place where writers are born.
And I'm proud.
I'll admit it, I have blog envy. I've followed a lot of blogs. Mommy blogs. Teacher blogs. Exercise blogs. Cooking blogs. You name it. And I've thought, hey-I think I have something to say. I want to do that. Can I do that? So here it is… my shot at That.
I recently attended a workshop about bringing blogs into the classroom. As an English teacher, it’s sort of what we do. Except, I wasn’t. I always wanted to enter the blogosphere, but wasn’t sure I had anything much to add. And anyway, who would read it?
But here's the thing: when it comes to setting expectations for and challenging my students, I have one rule. I can't ask them to do ANYTHING that I haven’t tried myself. Sometimes that means jumping in feet first with them on a new adventure. Oftentimes, it means leading them down a road I’ve been down.
Enter the student blog. For their blogs to be meaningful, they have to be authentic. An interest blog where they explore what engages them outside of our classroom. So then must mine.
Here's my attempt at going first.
We talked, the kids and I, about what we want our blogs to be. Who is our audience? What is our focus? I still don't think I have those answers. Will this be about teaching the kids in the middle - the ones who enter as babies and leave as young adults? Will it be about life as a working mommy searching for balance? Or about being the daughter to parents who are getting older?
I am at a place that can only be defined as The Middle. Middle child. Middle school teacher. Mid-career. Mid-life. Middle Class. I even live in Middletown, New Jersey.
Being in the middle of it all is who I am. It's what defines me. Focus? Separating the layers of me? I can't do that. (In fact, I can barely focus on this post with my almost-four-year-old trying to explain why he filled a hole in the wall with all 20+ pieces from Connect4. Husband is (unsuccessfully) trying to fish them out with a tweezer and a kabob stick. Why is there a hole in the wall? More on that later. Back to what I was saying...) I teach the way I teach because I’m a mommy. I mommy the way I mommy because I’m a teacher… As for the rest: daughter, sister, friend, well, I’m sort of in the middle of it all. It all bleeds over and into. So I write it all.
And here’s the thing about being in the middle… the view. You really do see it all.
(Well, everything except those last few Connect4 pieces.)