Archive for the 'Alumni Voices' Category

March –  A Mission That is Not Impossible

sunrise-1634197_960_720By Peggy Wuenstel

You often read about an athlete, a performer, or a politician wanting to go out on top, at the height of their power, or the peak of their performance. I just don’t think that is how it works for teachers deciding to retire. We wait to leave the classroom until we feel that is time to go because we cannot perform as well as we have in the past. The knees give out, the memory fades a bit, the patience is shorter, and the reaction time is longer. This is a completely different feeling than leaving the profession because we are angry, frustrated or burned out. There is far too much of that going on in the profession now, and it is one direction I sincerely hope can be reversed.

I read somewhere that burnout comes, not from hard work or facing a daunting task, but from the lack of control that keeps us from doing our best work, the right thing, the best thing. There is plenty of that kind of angst in education today. Along with the financial insecurities that come with changing contracts, vanishing benefit packages and uncertain political realities. We leave before we are truly ready to protect pension earnings and insurance benefits. Some districts are happy to see their experienced teachers go, replacing them with younger teachers at lower salaries and without retirement programs that are being phased out at the district level.

Sometimes the universe sends you a sign. I attended the same school district from Kindergarten through high school graduation. That elementary school is being razed this year. I came to Marquette in the mid-seventies, greeted by the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run blaring from the windows of multiple floors of McCormick Hall. That venerable building is also being replaced this year. My school is also one of eight nominated by Dr. Tony Evers for this year’s Blue Ribbon designation. I got to play a large part in the writing of that application, a virtual love letter to my school, a chance to go out on top.

One of the things I realized in writing this profile of the school I am so proud of is the commitment to a “Mission Possible” makes us who we are and drives what we do for kids. Borrowing from TV producer Shonda Rimes’s “Yes to Play” philosophy, which turns the things we are in love with into the things we are good at, our school strives to love our students into being learners. It doesn’t diminish our desire for our students to do well academically. It multiplies it into knowing they can do well socially, physically, and emotionally as well.

That mission has taken some interesting turns for me this year. Wisconsin educators use new terminology in the educator effectiveness system to change to conversation about improving practice. We have professional progress goals, and this changing of the language we use gives us opportunity to focus on the way we interact vs. on the work that must be done. My practice goal was to increase the frequency and quality of my conversations about and around books. This is true with both colleagues and students. When learning about the word artifacts, students were asked to write about an artifact in their homes. One student discovered for the first time that her mother collected carnival glass, and another brought a preserved puffer fish to class, spikes carefully wrapped in several layers of old t-shirts. We’ve asked questions like, “What makes you special?” or “How did you step up for someone?” as a result of a shared reading experience. We address students’ emotional needs and development as well as their academic ones because we read together and talk about what we read. When our children – at home and at school- ask us to read with them, what they are really making is a request to come, sit, and be present with me, and help me understand the world. I’m still grateful when someone takes the time to do that with me, as my book club buddies will attest.

These are the things that must be learned but can’t be taught. They are not part of the Common Core or any curriculum, but essential for students for students to see demonstrated in their school experiences. It is the way that we become wise vs. remaining merely informed. It is our chance to weigh in on what matters and what does not. It is also learning in action, what I have seen described as both “the knowing and the going.” It is also the mission that public education makes itself absolutely indispensable to the kind of society that most of us want to live in, one where we not only profess concern for each other but put it into action.

I’ve also been cultivating the skill of “observant stillness” as a teacher. Now as I am preparing to leave, I am becoming aware of how much I have missed because I was talking instead of listening, doing instead of being, and teaching instead of learning. It seems to be true that kids who feel loved and safe at home come to school to learn. Those kids that don’t feel that way come to school to be loved. That is the ultimate mission possible and one I am so grateful to have accepted.

 

 

When Senioritis Hits

books-927394_960_720By Elizabeth Jorgensen

As the high school seniors in my classroom fall ill with senioritis, complete with their own symptoms of tardies, apathy and excessive bathroom breaks, I remind myself I can keep students engaged. Although Urban Dictionary says “the only known cure is a phenomenon known as graduation,” I disagree. After over a decade of working with seniors, I rely on these three principles to keep seniors engaged:

Provide choices and purposeful classroom work. Allowing students autonomy and choice brings engagement. I encourage students to submit their writing to writers’ markets. I often present three different writers’ markets and allow the students to complete and submit a piece to the one that most resonates with them. I also bring in guest speakers—professional writers, current college students or college professors—and I’ve found this also excites and engages students.

Relate to them. I’m honest with my students about how I felt as a senior. I validate and listen to my students’ frustrations, anxieties and eagerness. I greet disappointment and fatigue with, “We’re in this together,” and “What can I do to help?” and (probably most importantly) with patience and a smile. I also connect what we’re learning to college and career readiness.

Allow privileges. My students want to be prepared for what’s next. To prepare students for the college environment, some classes are offered as hybrid (which allow seniors to choose when they want to work online and when they want to meet face-to-face). During study halls and work time, Arrowhead seniors are allowed to gather, socialize and collaborate in the commons. Privileges also remind my seniors (at the cusp of adulthood) that we trust and believe in their abilities.

As my seniors continue to suffer from senioritis, I remain hopeful: they can cure themselves of this temporary illness. And at semester’s end, I’m confident they will appreciate their time in Creative Writing, knowing they improved their ability to write, communicate and collaborate.

 

Technology in the Classroom: Your Secret Weapon!

snBy Stephanie Nicoletti

I recently just finished a class on educational technology. We discussed, learned, and even implemented different ways to use technology in the classroom. Through these discussions and reflection among staff, many often see educational technology as “just one more thing to do.” I am here to argue that it should not be that stressful to implement technology into the classroom, try to change your mindset and see technology as your secret weapon! One of my favorite quotes states, “Technology does not work when the technology is basically just worksheets on steroids.”  You won’t use technology for every, single, lesson, but if you can incotporate it, it will provide:

  • More engagement with students
  • Efficency in your classroom
  • New experiences students could not get anywhere else

I am not here to say technology is all students should be on at school, but when they create when using technology the opportunities are endless! Next month I will show off some of the things my first graders did with iPads that support this very argument and maybe give you some inspiration. Let’s just say writer’s workshop got much more engaging!

Worry. Lose Sleep. Be Anxious.

By Claudia Felske

Worry.   Lose sleep.   Be anxious.  It means you’re doing something worthwhile. 

anxiety glassLately, I’ve been feeling anxious, I’ve been losing sleep, I’ve had daily, probably hourly misgivings. And yes I’m a teacher, so this is all a bit par for the course, but I’ve been a teacher for  24 years—I should be well past the nervous, sleepless, anxiety-ridden stage.

So, what’s going on? I’m trying something in my classroom that I’ve never tried before. Something uncertain, something risky, something unpredictable. And I’m in too deep to turn back.   

I am writing a “class-sourced” novel with my Freshmen English students. It’s a concept I ran across at a conference in last summer. Jay Rehak, writer and English teacher in Chicago Public Schools, has collaboratively written several novels with his high school students.  

“He did WHAT?!” I asked myself this past August, scrolling through the list of conference offerings.

After reading his session description, I gathered my laptop and my free Google swag (the second best thing about conferences) and headed for Mr. Rehak’s session, hoping to have my questions answered, namely: How in the world did he motivate his students to write a novel? How did he get a classroom full of teens to create an end product good enough to publish? How was all of this managed in the context of a teacher’s life (at school and home)? I headed to Room 309 of Whitney Young High School, seeking answers.

Fifteen minutes later, I found myself back on the conference agenda, scrolling for a different session. I still don’t know what happened to Jay Rehak that day. He didn’t make his first session (full disclosure, he had two more sessions scheduled, but as a presenter myself, I couldn’t attend them). He had, however, provided a link on the conference agenda to his presentation slides which was enough to get me hooked on his idea…a class-sourced novel…and enough to send me, five months later, into my current state of anxiety and sleeplessness: I am writing a “class-sourced” novel with my Freshmen English students.  

rehakSo how DOES one write a  class-sourced novel? In a nutshell, Jay Rehak’s method (generously shared and clearly explained in his How To Write a Class-Source Novel  book) begins with the teacher writing the first chapter of a narrative which teens can connect to. Then, each student writes a chapter which can stand on its own as a short story but also contributes to the growth of novel’s larger narrative. Finally, the teacher writes the concluding chapter. And then, the novel is published.

Easy, right? So where’s the anxiety?   

Let me count the places:

  • The Newness: Imagine trying something new. Now imagine this something is a very challenging something. Now imagine you’re trying this very challenging something in front of a class of 30 high school students.
  • The Writing: Writing fiction is itself anxiety-producing, as are many creative acts. Ask any writer about what it’s like to hand your new work over to your first reader.  Now, imagine that your first reader is a classroom full of teenagers.
  • The Release of Control: Writing fiction in English class requires a teacher to relinquish some control and grant a level of freedom that can be a bit unnerving. And then there’s the assessment of fiction:  How does one quantify creativity? How does one grade a work of fiction? It’s much easier to teach more concrete writing: the research paper or a persuasive essay.
  • The Uncertainty. Having students write is one thing; having them publish is another. Last week it was time to read all of the 1st drafts of the chapters. Doing so gave me some encouragement, but mainly anxiety. We have much work to do. The next day, I wrote on the board: “Author: a writer who hasn’t quit.” I shared my anxieties with them and gave them an anonymous survey. All but one student said they’re excited about the novel and they’ll do what it takes with their student editor and with me to get to the point of publication. I can work with that.
  • The ego. Publish a book with my Freshman English students and there they are, and there I am, for everyone to read and judge. 

eustress
That anxiety I’m feeling? I’m certain my students are feeling it too. Collective stress. But I believe it’s eustress, a term from the Greek prefix eu-meaning good, and stress, literally meaning good stress  This is not a new concept. Endocrinologist Hans Seyle coined the term in the 1930’s, convincing the scientific community that a manageable amount of stress elicits optimum performance and can lead to personal transformation. 

So that’s the story I’m sticking with. This anxiety, this stress, is precisely what will lead us to do our best and most meaningful work.

Rehak himself, in his 2016 TED Talk (yes he gave a TED Talk, how cool is that?) speaks of a similar end game: “I can’t promise you big dollars or a spot on the New York Times Best Seller List,” he asserts, “but what I will tell you that if you do write a book (with students) and you publish it…that the joy that you feel and the community that you create and the pride that you feel will bring joy to you for the rest of your life.”

So that sleeplessness? That anxiety? That stress?  These are trivial entrance fees into the land of the worthwhile. They are signs that I’m alive and that I’m doing things that matter. I’m not counting the days until retirement. I’m counting the days until my students see their names in print. I’m counting the days until our book signing event.  I’m counting the days until they see the connection between struggling with words and communicating worthy ideas with the larger world.

dessertSo, fellow teachers, whatever your grade level or content area, I implore you: go to conferences, read professional journals, and seek opportunities to go beyond your comfort zone, to lose sleep and feel anxious, for it means you’re alive, it means you have purpose, and that students likewise will feel alive and have purpose.

That’s worth losing sleep over.

 

Book Club Provides Reprieve, Relaxation, Rejuvenation

images (2)By Elizabeth Jorgensen

Four years ago, as we enjoyed dinner, my best friend clutched her sauvignon blanc and said, “Kathy and Rachel and I are talking about forming a book club. Are you interested?”

Thinking of all the novels I wanted to read, but pushed aside for grading college essays, poems and exams, I answered, “Yes.” And with that, our group of four set out the rules: two books every two months. A rotation allowed each of us to select novels and host the event, complete with questions and discussion prompts. Some years, we met our two-books-every-two-months quota; other years, life presented challenges and we fell short. But we always start book club the same way: with an update on our lives. Then, while sharing a home-cooked meal or takeout pizza, we dive into the books and start our discussion.

We are support for each other and for our love of reading. We challenge each other and learn more about our lives and the way we enjoy literature. As the women in my book club birthed children, often a baby squirmed or slept, cradled in my arms. To our original four members, we’ve added two. And now, we rotate through the six of us, each member bringing a different viewpoint, preference and voice.

Before my book club, I read a handful of books a year, and they remained in my comfort zone. And rarely would they lead to discussion or dissection. But my book club has reminded me of the joy of reading—of connecting with a story, of experiencing another reality and of discussing themes of literature with my peers.  And now, when students or colleagues ask for book recommendations, I reference my much fuller repertoire:

 

2016-2017

The Sellout: A Novel by Paul Beatty

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont

Fly Away by Kristin Hannah

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

 

2015-2016

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Every Fifteen Minutes by Lisa Scottoline.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

Cemetery Girl by David Bell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

After You by JoJo Moyes

 

2014-2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

This is Where I leave You by Jonathan Tropper

The Winner by David Baldacci

The Light Between Oceans: A Novel by ML Stedman

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Every Fifteen Minutes by Lisa Scottoline

 

2013-2014

…and When She Was Good by Laura Lippman

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Identical by Ellen Hopkins

Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Tenth of December Stories by George Saunders

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

 

Culture and How It Creates Us

cultureBy Sabrina Bartels

During one of my PBIS meetings, I was able to get a little insight into culturally responsive practices. These practices ask educators to examine their own culture and how it shapes their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. While this topic in general fascinates me, I was really intrigued by one of the activities that we did.

The facilitator of this discussion asked all of us to write down – in one minute – what our culture was. As everyone put pen to paper, I remember staring at the blank sheet in front of me. My culture? There were so many things that fit my culture. What exactly did he want? My nationality? The culture I most identify with?

For me, going through culturally responsive practices training is a little awkward. Part of it is because I am one of the few minorities on staff; part of it is because I view culturally responsive practices in a slightly different light. For me, my culture is a glaring obvious part of my life, and yet, it is also a huge question.

I was raised “American.” Or, to be really specific, I was raised to be a true Wisconsin girl. I say “bubbler” and think cheese curds should be a major food group. Every Sunday, it’s hot ham and rolls while watching the Packers take on their latest opponent. I know how to tailgate with the best of them, and I know that really good tailgates usually involve beer-boiled brats (and of course, it’s Miller beer that we use) cooked on a charcoal grill. It’s “soda,” not “pop.” I can say Milwaukee, Oconomowoc, and Ashwaubenon with minimal difficulty (and yes, I could spell all of those without looking them up.) I can whip up a brandy old-fashioned if anyone asks, I eat custard and cream puffs, and I’ve seen a cow in real life. Most importantly, I know how to polka and, in fact, requested that one be played at my wedding.

However, you could argue that I do not look like a Wisconsin girl. I am 100% Korean, and was adopted when I was a baby. I do not look like my German/Polish/French/Welsh parents, a fact that used to lead to a lot of embarrassing interactions between my friends and parents.

Friend: Who are those people?

Me: Um, those are my parents …

Friend: But you don’t look alike!

Me: Well …

My parents have always encouraged me to explore my Korean side, and in some ways, I have. I participated in both traditional Korean dance and Korean drumming from the time I was seven until I was well into high school. We would drive up to Minnesota in the summer for a Korean Culture Camp, which exposed me to the language and history of Korea, as well as take classes on self-esteem for Korean-American adoptees. My family has constantly worked to integrate my Korean side into my life: my mom has learned how to make traditional Korean food, my dad is a chopsticks champion, and both did their best to get me involved with learning the Korean language. While I embrace being Korean, I can honestly say it doesn’t guide my life the way my “Wisconsin” culture has.

So which culture should I identify with? Is it wrong of me to identify with just one? Both? None at all?

And I think about how it must be for our students. If I, as a 28-year-old adult, struggle to define what my culture is, I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for our 12, 13, 14-year-old students.

Let me give you an example. I have a student who does not believe that education is necessary. According to her, mom only finished high school, and dad never passed middle school. Both parents have jobs and can provide for my student. In their household, swearing is a part of normal conversation.

For my student, who has grown up believing that education is not as crucial, it is a struggle when she comes to school. She often sleeps through class and refuses to do her homework. Swear words have a habit of sneaking into her daily vocabulary, which irritates a few of her fellow students. When I talk to her about her attitude or behavior, she is confused as to why she is in trouble. She explained that mom and dad never went to college and are doing fine; she says that mom and dad swear often in the household, and that she, as a result, does too. And then I talk to her about why we are making her do her homework and stay awake in class. We talk about how some sort of higher education is important, maybe more important than it was back when her parents were in school. We talk about how swearing is not appropriate in school, whether it is casual or whether it’s provoked. And we find out how our cultures differ in this regard, because while she listens and asks questions, I can’t guarantee that she’s going to change. And, to be honest, she may not want to … and there isn’t anything wrong with it.

But here is this student who, every day, is forced to wrestle with the culture that she has grown up in versus the culture of the school she attends. They are drastically different. Which is right? Is one right? Is one wrong? And which one wins in the end?

I remember the movie “Freedom Writers,” where some of the students told their teacher that their goals for their future were drastically different than the ones she had. She imagined them graduating from high school, from higher education, of them doing something with their lives. For her students, their idea of “graduating” was living through each day, as they encountered gang-riddled neighborhoods and violence every day of their lives. That lesson wasn’t lost on me. For some of my students, getting an education is the ultimate goal. For some students, the ultimate goal is just surviving each day.

And this is why culturally responsive practices are so critical for everyone to engage in. Our culture makes us who we are. I may identify with two cultures, but both have influenced me to become the woman I am today. The same can be said for our students. How they view the world, how they view education, and how they view their futures may be different than what we imagine. But by engaging in culturally responsive practices, we are opening our eyes to the cultural conflict our students may be experiencing, and learning how we can engage our students with open minds … and open hearts.

Writing Opportunities for Your Students

iStock_000005182627XSmall-Chapter-One

By Elizabeth Jorgensen

 Story Monsters Ink

  • About the publication: “Story Monsters Ink is a free, subscription-based magazine that gives parents and educators the latest news about award-winning and debut books, profiles on both renowned and newly published authors, upcoming book events, author presentations and more.”
  • About the contest: If you have a special teacher you’d like them to know about, email a letter to “Cristy@FiveStarPublications.com explaining why your teacher is the best, and we may choose him/her as our Teacher of the Month! It could be a principal, librarian, paraprofessional, etc. If your teacher is chosen, we will send him or her a Story Monster t-shirt and they will also get to choose a free book from our Little Five Star Bookstore. We will also print your letter along with a photo of you and your teacher in Story Monsters Ink!”
  • To find out more, go here.

Autism Society of Wisconsin

  • About the society: The Autism Society Affiliates in Wisconsin are hosting the 12th Annual Autism Essay Contest, a program designed to assist all students in gaining a deeper understanding of autism and how their peers with autism experience the world.
  • About this contest: “This essay contest is a wonderful opportunity to create an open dialogue about autism, how it affects students in your school and why celebrating differences is important. We hope that you will welcome this opportunity to promote understanding and acceptance of differences in your school.”
    • Divisions: Division 1: K-2nd grade; Division 2: 3rd-5th grade; Division 3: 6th-8th grade; Division 4: 9th-12th grade
    • Prizes: 1st Place Winners in each division will receive a $100 Amazon gift card; 2nd Place Winners in each division will receive a $75 Amazon gift card; 3rd Place Winners in each division will receive a $50 Amazon gift card.
      • All 1st place winners will be honored at and invited to the Family Reception at the Autism Society of Wisconsin’s 28th Annual Conference in Wisconsin Dells on Friday, April 28, 2017.
  • To find out more, go here.

Girls Right the World

  • About the writers’ market: “Girls Right the World is an international literary journal advocating for you, female-identified writers. We believe in the power of young women, sisterhood, and creativity through writing. The editors of this journal are students at Miss Hall’s School in Massachusetts.”
  • About this contest: “Girls Right the World is a literary journal inviting young female-identified writers and artists, ages 14 and up, to submit their work for consideration for the first issue. We believe that girls’ voices can and do transform the world for the better. We want to help expand girls’ creative platforms so that female-identified people from all races, religions, and sexual orientations can express themselves freely. We currently seek poetry, prose, short-stories, and lyric essays of any style and theme. We like powerful, female driven writing and work inspired by beautiful things in life. Writers keep the rights to their pieces, but we ask to have the right to first publish your works in North America. After publication, the rights would return to you. We publish annually. Send your best writing, in English or English translation, to girlsrighttheworld@gmail.com by April 1, 2017.”

To find out more, go here.


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