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Tales of a First-Year Teacher in Alaska: What Happens Next

A 2017 graduate of the College of Education, Michelle Fedran made an unusual choice for her first teaching position: she moved to a remote part of Alaska to begin her career. Reflecting upon the changes that have occurred in her life since last May, Michelle shared some of her story. This is the third of her three-part series on The Marquette Educator.

image 1By Michelle Fedran

The name of the village I am in is Tununak (sounds like two-new-nik). If I had the money and control over nature (nature is a HUGE factor out here and I’ll never stop mentioning that haha) I would pay for anyone who held an interest to fly out here to take a look for him or herself. It’s one thing to hear about it and another to experience it upfront. We are an hour flight out from Bethel and are right on the coast of the sea, surrounded by some mountains and cliffs so the views are breathtaking. A fun thing with being on the coast, I can still say Wisconsin still wins as one of the worst places I’ve been in when winter hits! Although besides the slightly warmer temperatures, the winds up here get pretty rough sometimes, but Wisconsin Avenue definitely help put in some good training for walking against the wind. It’s especially fun when the wind picks up to 50 mph, picking up and blowing snow, and I have to climb a hill up to school because the stairs have already been covered with snow. Some people would think I’m getting ready to climb a mountain if they saw the gear I sometimes have to put on before going outside! The closest village to us is about seven miles away through the tundra, and people normally travel back and forth by snowmachine, honda (ATV), or walking. There are other surrounding villages but when I travel to them it’s usually by bush plane. Something I have found out interesting by traveling to different villages is that it almost seems like everyone knows well, everyone!

image 4.jpgBesides physical characteristics, something I really love about it out here is the simplicity of how things seem to be. Especially coming from a bustling city with a booming market of the next generation car and little devices that control things around your house, it is refreshing to experience simple living. I have met some of the nicest people out here and have been able to experience, as well as witness, genuine happiness. I often feel that people get so caught up with work or media that personal relationships sometimes fall on the back burner, but that isn’t what I see. Up here, the people I have met so far exhibit tremendous respect and care for their loved ones, and it is really refreshing to see the happiness that good company can bring. Coming out here made me realize what I need to be truly happy and that doesn’t involve the latest high-brand purse, hottest sunglasses, or super cool kicks that just came out. I have realized it’s the little, simple things that really count and that loving friends and family are all that I—and anyone—really needs to lead a happy life.

If any of you are considering making a move to teach in a remote location such as Alaska, I would suggest that if the thought is lingering in your mind, take a chance and do it. Even if it terrifies you, that’s a greater reason to do it! I remember it was about a week before I was supposed to leave my home and fly out to basically the edge of the country (no really, look up my location on Google Maps), and I began to panic. Thoughts began racing through my head and my anxiety was about to burst through the roof! However, my friends and family told me if my dreams didn’t scare me, they weren’t big enough. So, I took those words, held them close, and now I’m truly experiencing some of the happiest moments of my life. I’ve created memories and friendships I know will last a lifetime and beyond that I will forever cherish.

Nothing is forever, things can always change, and so now is the chance to take control of your life!

sunset 1

Thinking about my future and looking five years down the road from now, I see a blur. Anything is possible! I could still be up here in Alaska, or I could be in a new location whether it be state, country, who knows! I have been asked this question quite a few times and every time I like to remind people that I’m just taking life one day at a time. You never know what can happen within 24 hours. One day you could be just fine and the next your world could be flipped upside down (good or bad). So for now, I try to focus on what I have in the moment. Although right now I am truly enjoying my time up here and am excited to say I’ll be returning next year!

Moving Forward

Reflection_in_a_soap_bubble_editBy Elias Vareldzis

As the semester winds down, I feel grateful that we’ve been given an opportunity to put our own teaching practices and development in the profession into perspective. With the end of the semester fast approaching, it feels good to take a minute to look back at my growth as a teacher over the course of the semester and to reflect on how I need to improve my practice going forward into my student teaching experience.

Over the course of the semester, I’ve learned a lot through gaining teaching experience in the field about what my own teaching practices and tendencies are. The process has provided me with opportunities to develop new skills, receive invaluable feedback from my peers, professor, and supervisor, and critique my own strengths and weaknesses in order to continue to better myself as an educator.

I feel that among my strengths as a teacher, foremost is my ability to develop an inclusive class culture and a positive learning environment based on a tangible respect between all of the members of the class and myself. I feel very good about my ability to create a good classroom environment that welcomes and encourages all students to participate and share. While I still have many ways I can continue to develop in this manner, I think it stands out as one of my early strengths as a teacher. I feel confident in my ability to truly connect and build relationships with my students as people, even given the limited time that I spend in the classroom on a weekly basis. My supervisor has told me that there is a clearly defined presence that I bring to the learning environment that has stood out as a positive aspect of my practice during each of our observations.

I feel confident in my ability to critique dominant narratives, as it is an incredibly important part of teaching history with social justice and the uncovering of the entire historical narrative in mind to provide a more accurate portrayal of historical events. I haven’t been able to exhibit my ability to address non-dominant narratives in our civics class aside from bringing to student attention ways in which the political system has and can exclude people of low socioeconomic status. I look forward to incorporating more dominant narrative critique in the sections of US history I will be teaching next semester.

I also think that I have done well to plan my lessons in a detailed manner in order to best meet student needs by providing varied forms of communication. I’ve implemented varied ways of presenting and engaging in content for my students ranging from think-pair-share activities, to drawing diagrams on the board, to providing students with the opportunity to participate in group work, whole group discussion, written argument development, and a simulation of a caucus. I do think that I need to work on making specific changes/modifications to lesson content to help better engage students of varied abilities engage in class material at a grade level that is the most appropriately challenging for them. This is something that I think I will become more practiced in doing once I am much more familiar with my own students that I will be able to get to know on a much more personal level than I am able to coming in just twice a week for a few hours.

In reflecting on these strengths, it is apparent that they are primarily the more basic skills associated with successfully teaching the social studies. I understand that Roman wasn’t built in a day, and that these are the basic building blocks that need to be developed to build a strong foundational teaching practice, but it still makes me have a “reality check” moment that makes me realize how much I have still to develop as a teacher before I feel genuinely confident in my ability to provide a truly quality educational experience.

In my time in the classroom this semester, I felt like I had a solid grasp on creating essential questions and concepts for ensuring enduring understanding, but once actually implemented during teaching, my questions seemed to often fall flat in terms of actually engaging the class and making them curious, questioning the prompt. We developed a very good essential question during our in-class mini teaching lesson, which felt good. But overall, I think I have a solid understanding of how they work and what their value is, but I just need to work on translating the knowledge I have on how to implement them into real life situations in different classes and subjects in the real world, a process that will take time and practice, but that I feel confident I can further successfully develop.

I feel that I have done a decent job of connecting content to students’ cultural and community assets, but I definitely have a lot of work to do in terms of developing a knowledge base deep enough (in terms of cultural and community relevance in a civics classroom) to be able to provide very good connections between the things we are learning about the government system and local politics and examples from our own community. At the end of the day, I think I could do more in my planning process to come up with specific examples regardless of lesson topic/content that relate the class material to the lives of the students. This is probably my biggest area of improvement to me at the moment. If I can’t connect class concepts effectively to student’s lives so that they can see how content is relevant to them, I’m going to have a problem. So this is one of my main areas of concern in terms of what I need to immediately work on improving.

In my teaching in during my observed lessons, I also didn’t incorporate as much authentic social scientific thinking and historical thinking into my lessons as I should have. I again think that this will change as I begin teaching groups of students every day. As I had mentioned above, two of my lessons introduced new concepts and vocabulary, and because of this I didn’t engage the classes in very rigorous activities that required intensive social scientific/historical thinking. My lessons incorporated these practices in smaller ways or in smaller portions of each lesson, but I think I need to work on improving my lesson design so that I can incorporate these types of discipline-based thinking activities as more central and continuous throughout all of my lessons.

All in all, I have a long way to go towards developing my skill set as an educator, but I’ve been provided with a solid basis and understanding of how to incorporate the core social studies practices into my teaching further. From here, I think that having more consistent practice teaching in the field will help me better develop and hone my skills through more experience.

Lower the Stakes and Commit

This post originally appeared on Jake Dagget’s (Ed ’15) blog Prime Time Ponderings.

daggetBy Jake Dagget

A dear friend once reminded me that we can’t scratch every itch. Well, at the same time, anyway. It was in response to a struggle that I’m certain almost every human faces: We always want to be doing what we aren’t currently doing. The Uber driver who really produces a web series, the barista who actually has an album on Spotify that took years to produce, the teacher who is studying for law school. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the President who actually dreams of working for a Neilsen TV Ratings analysis team. It’s not that we want what we can’t have. In fact, I no longer believe in that saying. Instead, it’s that we want what we tell ourselves is not possible. We want what we think would seem ridiculous or out of reach. We worry how it might seem. We want more, but don’t commit.

10 months ago, I dropped everything I ever worked for in a matter of 9 days. Beautiful and loyal friends, a dream job, a quaint and endearing town. In the true Shonda Rhimes “Year of Yes” spirit, I hauled everything I’ve ever owned and left a little room in the suitcase for ambition and celebrated fear. This is not the point of this post, however, so I’m going to quickly move along. It takes a lot for us to do what our idols and role models tell us as they give their acceptance speech or accept their Olympic medal: “Follow your dreams. Don’t let anyone tear them away.” You see, this is all good advice. However, what happens when we aren’t sure it is our dream? What happens when we really think it is, but other itches, other desires, make us overthink? What happens when we have multiple dreams?

And here is where I make my point — where I “land the plane”, as my good friend likes to say. We have to lower the stakes. Because at the end of the day, it is your journey. YOU are the one impacted by these risks, these desires, these failures, and these lessons. I remember always wondering: How will it look, running across the country to try this? What will people think? I’m taking all my things, is that silly? Should I just sublet and try it out for 5 months? All of this went through my head. For some reason, it became this huge situation. But I knew I couldn’t sublet. I was not going to scratch an itch HALF-WAY. I was going to go, commit, and realize that everyone else would continue living their own lives, worrying about their own worries. Thus, I lowered the stakes.

Once you the lower the stakes, you can commit to scratching one of your itches. Now you have reminded yourself that it truly matters not if things do not happen as planned. You come to understand that the only negative feedback you might receive will come from people you aren’t actually keen to impress. In that case, DECIDE. Decide, lower the stakes, and commit. No one else is influenced by these risks but yourself. What will people say? What will people think? The fact of that matter is that life will go on for those people in your life. They will continue to go to work, come home, heat up a frozen lasagna, and continue Season 2 of Stranger Things. They will continue to remodel their backyard, visit Grandma on Saturdays, or go on weekend hikes and take selfies while wearing sunglasses. The stakes are NOT HIGH.

In August of this year, I will make a return to the school at which I found a home only 15 months ago. A school run and staffed with beautifully dedicated teachers, some of my dearest friends, and filled with families that want a future for their children. I have accepted a position on an amazing First Grade team, and better yet, I’ll be teaching Theatre (cue the puppet voices, stat!). Is this what I thought would happen a year ago? Not at all, but I scratched the itch. I lowered the stakes again. I’m moving back so soon, what will people say? They always say to give it a year…what will people say at 10 months? I don’t have to worry, however, because this is an individual journey. And itch I will continue to scratch, but on my own terms.

Julia Child once said: “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” For me, that is teaching young people how to read. Did I need to scratch a few itches to discover that? Absolutely. Has anyone’s life really been affected but my own? Nope. Therefore, I commit. I decide, and I open another door.

So, trust yourself. Try things. Find clarity. Sometimes we follow dreams that no longer become dreams. And in that moment, in the present, we find an infinite gamut of choices.

 

Tales of a First-Year Teacher in Alaska: Preparation vs. Reality

A 2017 graduate of the College of Education, Michelle Fedran made an unusual choice for her first teaching position: she moved to a remote part of Alaska to begin her career. Reflecting upon the changes that have occurred in her life since last May, Michelle shared some of her story. This is the second of her three-part series on The Marquette Educator.

flyingBy Michelle Fedran

I feel that my time at Marquette did a good job on preparing me for what I’m going through now in terms of teaching. I honestly see myself using pieces I have learned from all the different classes I took. So current students who might be reading this, you may be frustrated over taking a class that “means nothing to you or your major” and I totally understand that; I was a student too. Listen and trust me when I say this, you need every tool, idea, ounce of imagination possible ready and equipped when you walk into that classroom. So hold your chin up, turn your phone off (even on your Mac), that class you may be silently meal-prepping in will give you a skill you will one day use that will save your classroom from turning inside out.

Of course, with this being my first year (and I’m sure many can relate no matter what field they are in) adjusting to a new job is going to be tough. You’re going to be asking yourself if you’ve made the right decision, and I definitely do from time to time. However, something Marquette also prepared me for is how to handle that first-year mentality many people seem to adopt. It’s easy to throw your hands up and quit, but something I felt that I learned from Marquette is to never give up and to keep pushing forward when things get tough. From day one of my freshman year, Marquette told us to “Be the Difference” and that’s what I aim to be and live up to. Blending into the background and falling victim to society norms will only pull you backwards rather than pushing you forward into succeeding in a new position.

image 3I would say my biggest challenge was getting the year started, setting a rhythm for my classroom, and deciding how I want it to play out for the year. Speaking as a first-year teacher—and some may disagree—this can be pretty challenging. I feel something that may have contributed to this minor struggle would be that I, along with many classmates, completed the student teaching rotation in the springtime. I remember talking with others about how we didn’t really get to experience and observe the initiation of the classroom atmosphere that happens at the beginning of the school year.  In spite of that, one of the beauties of being a first-year teacher is the amount of support you get. This year I’ve been to several professional development trainings and have been offered help from instructional coaches, state mentors, and coworkers who understood things I may be facing my first year. I am forever grateful to them for helping this year go smoother than I would have imagined. Something I have mentioned before and tell my students is that mistakes happen but are good because they help us learn.

In light of that, I would say my biggest success would be finally finding that groove I was looking for in my classroom. After the first full week when things seem to go right and students start adopting routines and strategies you have been trying so hard to implement through countless practices… that feeling is GREAT!  Another success I see as I write this (we are beginning our final quarter of the school year) is realizing I survived and I’m really beginning to see the growth my students have made. During the year, things can get crazy, and I mean CRAZY. It’s so easy to lose yourself, visions, and the goals you had at the beginning of the year. Overall, things get tough but when that final lap of the school year rolls around and you are able to take a breath and reflect on the year, realizing the gains your students have made thus far in their learning is a winning feeling.

Read the rest of Michelle’s three-part series on her first year teaching!

 

Combating the Scantron Test: Engaging Students in Authentic Learning

This post originally appeared on Elias Vareldzis’ blog for Education 4337: Teaching Elementary Social Studies in Fall 2017

17314687602_76dfaea22b_bBy Elias Vareldzis

Many students often seem to receive content in social studies classes — and history in particular — as dead on arrival. A lot of people hold the misguided belief that the events of the past are just that: old facts and dates to be memorized that have little to no relevance to modern life or to their own lives. This kind of narrow view of history is dangerous, for it trivializes the story of mankind, of human inter-relations, and it shuts a door to a better understanding of the complex world we live in along with the actions and events that take place each and every day both in one’s local community and across the whole world.

In many instances, students hold this view because their teachers aren’t engaging them in lessons that are based around authentic assessments. Oftentimes, teachers stick to teaching content and then assessing their classes using homework packets and standard tests that require factual recall, comprehension of key events and concepts, and written prompts that assess students’ understanding of the concepts. While these kinds of basic assessments have benefits, allowing the teacher to assess whether or not students are engaging with material and understanding historical events and periods of time, it is not often enough that teachers design assessments that connect and apply knowledge learned about the past to the modern world where students live. In order for students to truly engage, they must be given opportunities through authentic assessments to apply their learning to real-world applications such as genuine and interesting performance tasks or projects that require community and civic action.

Real authentic assessment can appear in the classroom as any number of activities that double as activities and jobs that students could be asked to complete in the real world. An authentic assessment must combine activities and skills that students can use in the real world to classroom content. This can look like the composing of a letter to a local or state policy leader about a certain issue, conducting a mock trial, living classroom museum, conducting interviews, teaching others, role playing, performing, giving speeches, simulating the legislative process, debating, researching and presenting information, creating media, attending civic events, creating art or models, diagrams, or maps, going to museums, writing a report or newspaper article, creating a documentary or podcast, relaying an oral history, curating an exhibit, telling a graphic story, creating political cartoons, writing book and film reviews, writing fictional material or songs, or writing essays or current event analyses. The possibilities are nearly endless.

By engaging students in activities and projects that promote real life skills and have clear meaning, goals, outcomes, and relevance to student’s lives and 21st century life in general, teachers can more effectively teach important academic skills, curriculum content, and state standards. Students are much more willing to engage with and be invested in authentic assessment activities compared to pencil-and-paper tests that require them to simply recall knowledge about a subject. A well-designed authentic assessment will engage students in higher level thinking about class content and will be genuinely more interesting, requiring that they take learning and their knowledge about a subject into their own hands. Through the active engagement in projects and activities with real-world relevance, students are more likely to develop important skills and retain standards and curriculum-based knowledge and objectives.

Just as valuable for their ability to actively engage students in meaningful curriculum-based assignments that develop important skills, the results and feedback from authentic assessments can serve as a teaching tool to greatly help educators most effectively reach their students. Providing feedback on authentic assessments can allow a teacher to identify areas for students to focus on developing their talents, skills, and content knowledge even further, and can help the teacher determine what skills or content they need to reteach based on the class’s overall performance. In the same way that the teacher can direct the continued learning of their students through authentic assessment feedback, so too can students. Because an authentic assessment requires students to utilize real-life skills to complete activities that connect the past to the present, students can utilize the feedback on their projects and assessments to determine how they should prioritize working on the personal development of the life and academic skills that each assessment requires them to build and practice.

 

Students Practice Gratitude, Write Letters to Veterans

Thank_you_001By Elizabeth Jorgensen

Every week, my principal emails Arrowhead staff members a “Week In Review” where he highlights the week’s notables. He often includes an article for the staff. Last week, he recommended “Encouraging a Sense of Gratitude in Students” from Edutopia. In it, Marissa King suggested students write letters: “Letter writing is an academic skill—requiring students to focus on a specific purpose and an authentic audience—but it’s also a perfect opportunity to get students thinking about who and what they should be thankful for.”

King’s recommendation aligned with my creative writing project: a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel collaboration with the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. This project asks readers to “write and show your appreciation to a Wisconsin veteran…All letters will be delivered to Stars and Stripes and will be distributed on future Honor Flights. For every letter received, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will make a $10 donation to the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, up to $35,000.” In addition, the MJS publishes one letter per week.

To introduce the unit, I showed my students the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight movie. Students then read previously published Arrowhead student letters and analyzed them for quality and content. My students read Lauren’s letter, Maddie’s letter and Josh’s letter.

One of my colleagues asked a family member and veteran to create a video message. Students watched his short video and then a Ted Talk about how to talk to veterans. After each, students and I discussed what we noticed and learned.

In our discussions, students referenced a social studies teacher who collects donations for the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, our school’s Rho Kappa Club that hosts a Veteran’s breakfast and the Arrowhead SAVE Team (Survivor and Veteran Experience) that “conducts and records interviews with WWII and Holocaust survivors and saves their stories for posterity.” And then, students wrote.

They addressed letters to either a WWII, Korean War or Vietnam War veteran. Varying in length from 300 to 500 words, students reflected on their freedom, patriotism, gratitude and American opportunities.

When the project was complete, I sent the letters to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and asked my students what they thought. Here’s what they said:

“I have never thanked a veteran before, but I’ve always wanted to. I liked how personal this project gets. It was nice to be able to thank a veteran because it truly means something to them and if I could make a part of their day just a little bit better even, it’s all worth it.”

“I enjoyed this project because I think we often take what the veterans have gone through and done for us for granted. So I liked that we took time out of our day and had everyone thank them for their service.”

“I liked the planning portion of the project so we got some ideas on what to include in our letter. I appreciate writing a letter to a veteran because I admire their bravery and sacrifices. It means a lot to them to get letters, even from people they don’t know.”

“I like that this project is something where we are recognizing and giving back to something outside of our sheltered worlds. I think this project is very meaningful and important. It gave me a chance to tell a veteran something other than ‘thank you for your service.’ It gave me a chance to direct my gratitude toward someone that truly deserves it.”

My school posted about this project on their social media pages:

Arrowhead.png

 

 

#ArmMeWith: A Counselor’s Requests

pexels-photo-460087By Sabrina Bartels

Following the tragic shooting in Parkland, there has been a lot of discussion revolving around gun control laws. And among that discussion is the thought that maybe, just maybe, teachers should be armed. It has caused an uproar around the country, and educators have taken to social media to express their concerns on this topic.

One particular movement that has caught my eye is the hashtag #ArmMeWith. People have held up signs saying “Arm Me With …” and then inserting what it is they feel they need to have in their school buildings. The requests have varied from smaller class sizes, books and pencils, and more school counselors and school psychologists to help students with their social/emotional and mental health concerns.

I was really proud to see school counselors and psychologists on many of these signs. Ever since I joined the profession, I’ve really come to understand just how important it is for students to be aware of their own mental health. A lot of students come to school every morning with a lot of emotional baggage: absent parents, struggling siblings, financial issues, and housing problems to name a few. This means that students are trying to comprehend some very adult problems in the world, even though they are only 12, 13, or 14 years of age. And while they are struggling to understand how and why their lives and families are the way they are, they lose sight of why they come to school in the first place: to get an education. By having school counselors and psychologists in the building, students are able to have someone to process through their thoughts, feelings, and emotions, which then gives them the “brain space” to learn.

But I know that school counselors and psychologists are not the only solution to helping students stay safe and enjoying school. There are so many things that I can think of to “arm” myself with, or things that I hope for every educator. For me, personally, here is my list of both physical and abstract things:

#ArmMeWith resources to ensure that students’ essentials are covered. Just recently, I had a conversation with one of my students who told me that every day she comes to school, she is guaranteed two meals. The weekends are harder; she doesn’t always know how many meals, if any, she will get. The term “resources” also applies to school supplies. There are several students at my school who cannot afford school supplies. When bills need to be paid, and a child needs a new winter jacket because he or she has outgrown their current one, it’s hard to find money to pay for pens, pencils, binders, and notebooks. At my school, we added a community closet, which has been incredibly helpful with our students and families. I wish more schools had this option.

#ArmMeWith patience when working with my students, because sometimes I forget what is important when you are in middle school.

#ArmMeWith compassion. I can never have too much of it. Sometimes, it’s the love for my students that keeps me invested in my job, even on the really difficult days.

#ArmMeWith the right words to talk to my students. Some days, it’s really hard to explain why they need to deal with so much in life. A lot of times, I am at a loss for what to say. It’s hard to reassure them that everything will be okay when they feel as though everyone – and everything – is against them.

#ArmMeWith perseverance to ensure that I never give up on one of my students.

And lastly …

#ArmMeWith love. Some of my toughest students – the kids who scream, swear, and act out all the time – are the students who need the most love. There are students who come to school just to have that meaningful connection with an adult. If there is one thing that all of us as educators need, it is an abundance of love to give and share.

 


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