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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.

 

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

 

Writing Opportunities for Your Students

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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.

Gazing in the Affirmation Mirror

SONY DSCBy Peggy Wuenstel

As a working mom in the early 90’s I usually managed to stay up late enough on a Saturday night to catch the musings of Stuart Smalley as played by Minnesota Senator Al Franken. As he gazed into a cheval mirror, his daily affirmations famously included the phrase, “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you”. His reinvention from comedy on Saturday Night Live to the unfortunate comedy on the floor of the U.S. Senate inspires me for the future. What you have been is not all that you can be. Just because something is ending in one incarnation does not mean that it is over forever and for all locations. One of the things that I know I will miss is the regular affirmations that I have received as a teacher over the course of my career. But even more importantly, I will miss the opportunity to offer these encouragements to others.

This “cheerleader” role is one of the best for teachers to take on, and the one in which impact can often be most directly observed. The child who’ll try a little harder, the learner who can celebrate what he has accomplished while reaching for more, is often the result of our explicit and implied encouragement.  There has been a lot of recent research about the value of relationship between educator and learner in increasing positive educational outcomes. Our district initiative to become more trauma informed in our teaching practice requires that we consider the role of our positive input for those students who receive little of this in their home environments. It often comes down to this, students work harder for people they like. When they matter to us, their work tends to matter more to them.

One of the most flagrant errors made in the ongoing debate about teacher compensation, union bargaining rights, and the cost of teacher salaries and benefits was that those bottom line things were the most important to Wisconsin teachers. For most of my colleagues, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. If we wanted to make more money, there were other options. The other affirmations were far more important. The biggest loss for me personally has been the loss of the other affirmations that used to be part of a teaching career. The thanks of a community for your service to children, the respect of parents who acknowledge how well you know their children, the love from our students and their willingness to try again. The last one remains in abundance, the first two, not so much, and that makes it far easier for veteran teachers to walk away from the classroom than in years past.

I chose to be a teacher because of the opportunities it offered to be of service. My faith life requires that I find work to do on this earth to make the world a better place. I have always felt fortunate that I could do that without taking off my teacher hat. We can always do more than the job requires, go beyond the expectations, love a little more, provide what is needed, and advocate for what we cannot personally offer. Now we must often do this without discussing it in the general public because of the preconceived ideas and misconceptions that the public has about the kinds of affirmations that teachers need.

I was invited to blog in this forum as a result of winning a teaching award back in 2010. It is telling that the reason this occurred is paradoxically because I was not unique that year. Three of the four honorees that year had Marquette ties. (Please follow Claudia Felske a fellow Wisconsin Teacher of the Year and fellow blogger). One of my overriding emotions about this process and the opportunities that have been subsequently afforded to me is the wish that many other deserving teachers could receive that same type of affirmation. I had never really been able to characterize my feelings about this until I read TV producer Shonda Rimes talk about “award as encouragement instead of as accomplishment”  in her book Year of Yes. Awards are not really about what you have already done, they are about what you still have the power to do. They are not an ending, but a beginning. Hopefully we can engage students in their own learning to create that same kind of forward momentum.

I have warned my husband that in retirement he is going to have to take up the slack in my affirmation mirror. I have been blessed to work in a place that has provided me with the kind of positive reinforcement that makes coming to work a joy. Students, coworkers and parents have always been quick to offer smiles, compliments and encouragement. I can honestly say that I have laughed aloud nearly every day of my 15 year tenure here. Coworkers have been encouraging, parents grateful and students genuinely loving. I have rarely had to look into a mirror to find affirmation. I was able to look into their eyes and find it there.

 

Using an Exemplar to Develop Student Creativity and Voice

6342247835_688a9c2fcd_bBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

I frequently use professional exemplars in Creative Writing. One of my favorite authors is Sandra Cisneros. Her novel, House on Mango Street, is particularly effective in inspiring my students to write specifically, creatively and with a variety of stylistic devices.

In one assignment, students read the chapter “Hairs.” Then, I ask students to identify when Cisneros uses the following stylistic devices: metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, repetition and sensory details. In the 158 word chapter, students identify 32 stylistic devices.

After, students discuss the effect of each stylistic device and the chapter’s content. Students explain how Cisneros reveals information about the narrator’s family through a discussion of one physical trait: hair. Students note in her first paragraph, she describes the hair of the narrator’s father and the hair of her siblings, using descriptions to give the reader insight into each of their personalities. Students also recognize that Cisneros reveals the narrator’s feelings towards her mother in the passage, using a variety of stylistic devices to achieve this effect.

Then, I ask my students to think about the people in their lives—their family, friends, co-workers, teammates. I ask them to think about the characteristics they share with the people in their lives and those that make them distinctive. Although Cisneros chose to write about hair, I tell my students they could write about any physical or personality trait. I prompt students with suggestions: eye color, height, personality, sense of humor, cooking ability, athleticism, hands. I ask my students: Is the trait you want to write about one you share with your family/friends/teammates or yours alone? How might you present your piece like Cisneros did with metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, repetition and sensory details?

Using “Hairs” as a model, students then write a vignette about their own life, discussing an important trait and how it reveals something about the person who possesses it and their relationship to him/her. Although Cisneros used six stylistic devices for a total of 32 times, I require 12 in each student’s vignette. Students share the vignettes and then we submit them to Teen Ink, a national teen publication. Here are two students who had their vignettes published: 1 and 2.

What students tell me they enjoy about the exercise is that they practice skills in a creative way. Students also say they enjoy writing about their own lives. What I most appreciate is how specific, poetic and interesting the pieces turn out—and how students are able to effectively implement stylistic devices and creativity in a vignette about their own lives.

Public Education- An Endangered Endeavor?

save our tudentsBy Dhanya Nair

Education, one of the most basic services that should be made available to children and youth by society, is often the cause of much debate and controversy. Providing quality public education is challenging, even in developed nations like the United States. However, the benefits of free k-12 education are immense and are often reflected in the quality-of-life of a nation’s citizenry. Political leadership has a direct influence on public education through funding and curricula. Having grown up in a nation where public schools lack funds and quality teachers, and where warring political parties propagate their viewpoints by altering textbooks, I feel strongly about the need for citizen-participation in matters of education.

Public education is meant to provide a level-playing field for children from different racial, socioeconomic and social class backgrounds. Education should be an equalizer, not the fiefdom of a select few. If the people making decisions about public education in this country or any other are not committed to achieving its actual goals, there is cause for concern. As a mental health professional, I interact to some extent with the urban school system in this city and within the scope of my limited interaction, the disparities between urban and suburban schools are clear to me. Inequalities are meted out regularly to those children who come from minority, low socioeconomic and low social class backgrounds. Common sense dictates that the achievement gap can be narrowed largely by affording equal opportunities to children cross this nation. However, it remains to be seen if new educational policies will bow to political ideologies or the best interests of students.


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