Archive for the 'Lessons I've learned' Category

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.

 

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.

 

Feedback as a Learning Experience

feedbackBy Stephanie Nicoletti

As teachers we are always trying to teach our students that receiving feedback is a learning process. We work to make feedback meaningful for students and therefore we expect the feedback we receive as educators to be meaningful as well.

We tell students that every piece of feedback is to help them further their learning and that they should take this feedback as something to grow from. Educator receive feedback continuously, whether through students, co-teachers, and evaluators. In just a short time teaching I have found that we are often the most hard on ourselves and when we receive feedback, we do not use it as a growing tool like we tell our students. A lot of times educators shut down when they receive feedback that is maybe not exactly what they hoped or wanted to hear.

With that being said, one of my goals for 2017 and the rest of this school year especially, is to take feedback and learn from it. Don’t let feedback “freak you out” use it as a tool to learn, grow, and better your practices, I know I will!

A Co-Teaching Model

296-1246152442owjrBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

Because creative writing accommodates students with a variety of special needs, administrators assigned a special education teacher to one of my sections. But what did this mean?

At a summer, morning-long meeting, my co-teacher Heidi and I learned about co-teaching models. School administrators said, “Co-teaching is when one classroom has two teachers: one general education teacher and one special education teacher. Both are in a single classroom and both provide inclusive instruction to students of all needs.”

At the meeting, Heidi and I defined our roles and discussed our classroom goals. We read articles and gained tips for effective co-teaching. We discussed our experiences and our students. Then, we reviewed what we learned and created lesson plans and a strategy for the year.

Throughout the next three years, Heidi and I collaborated and instructed (and laughed and met for breakfast and attended athletic events together). Administrators have told us we are a model for successful co-teaching. But why? What do we do?

  • We developed a relationship with each other. Heidi and I talked about our significant others, about our weekend plans, about our goals for our students and about our successes and failures. Heidi and I developed trust and rapport—and this made collaborating easy.
  • We communicated and collaborated. Once every two weeks, we spent an afternoon creating lesson plans. (Our administrators provided substitutes for this planning time.) We collaborated on activities, worksheets, assignments and assessments. We analyzed previous assignments and activities and made modifications for future semesters. We discussed our roles and our classroom timeline. And we created and shared a Google spreadsheet. This kept us organized and on-task and allowed for constant communication.
  • We provided support for all students. We discussed particular students, their needs and potential solutions. We made plans for interventions and assistance. We contacted parents and provided accommodations and commendations. In the classroom, Heidi and I supported all students regardless of their special needs.
  • We were equals. Heidi and I shared duties equally, instructing, assessing and grading assignments. We didn’t want the students to identify the “English teacher” or the “special education teacher.” And we learned from each other (Heidi taught me more about differentiation and how to insert movement in my classroom; she also provided innovation and encouragement).

Heidi and I are not perfect, but we are open to discussing our mistakes and making improvements. We have fun and we aim to engage all students and to make our classroom better every day.

This semester, I didn’t have enough students with special needs to warrant a co-teacher, but I’m already looking forward to next semester when Heidi re-joins creative writing.

Looking for more resources?

Brown, N.B., Howerter, C.S., & Morgan, J. J. (2013). Tools and strategies for making co-teaching work.

Intervention in School and Clinic, 49(2), 84-91.

Graziano, K.J., & Navarrete, L. A. (2012). Coteaching in a teacher education classroom: Collaboration,

compromise, and creativity. Issues in Teacher Education, 21(1), 109-126.

Mastropieri, M.A., & Scruggs, T.E., (2006). The inclusive classroom: Strategies for effective instruction (3rd

ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Murawski, W. W., & Dieker, L. (2008). 50 ways to keep your co-teacher: Strategies for before, during, and after

co-teaching. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(4), 40-48.

Do you want to see Heidi and me co-teaching? Here are two videos from one lesson: 1 and 2.

 

 Building A Better Bulletin Board

language_bulletin_board_ksuBy Peggy Wuenstel

In these days of Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, none of which I am very proficient in using, the old-fashioned bulletin board seems like a dated if not obsolete concept. Users today seem to feel a need to record every aspect of their life, meals, fun with friends, and exotic vacations, all carefully edited for public consumption. I would argue against the retirement of the traditional bulletin board. There are two distinct camps in the bulletin board debate. There are those who love to create, display and use them. There is a team in my building who create amazing art that makes students, teachers, and families feel valued and welcome. There are also those who hate them and think of them as a waste of time better used for direct instructional activities.

There is also the demarcation between the pre-fab vs. the personally created. Our favorite teacher resource books and websites offer lots of choices for those short on time, talent or inspiration. Some educators see the bulletin board as a chance to display student work, create a gallery, track progress, and provide cues for schedules, expectations or timing in their classrooms. Things posted on a board rather than delivered verbally can help build independence and responsibility in students.

This month I am celebrating a different type of corkboard, the kind that we use to attach new thinking, to record experiences, opinions, visual memories, graphic organizers, and memory aids. The larger the board we create for our children, the more new knowledge that they each can attach. With the right kind of encouragement we can help transform them into vision boards, those images that move us, inform us, inspire us to reflect and create.

Every teacher has at least one bulletin board. It might be cork, fabric, magnetic, or digital. It is also always mental. It’s that place where we keep all those things that we can’t afford to or don’t want to forget. You might have caught on to the fact that I am no longer talking about the classroom version that includes the lunch menu and tomorrow’s homework. I’m talking about the personal one.

I am appreciating my bulletin board before it is gone. I have begun the winnowing process, but there are a few things that will always remain pinned there until the very last days. My calendar, a paper version that allows me to smile at puppies every day sits at the center. Just like an analog clock, a paper calendar with its rows and columns is essential to teach kids about the systematic passing of time in ways that our digital tools cannot.

There are the assorted “love notes”, pictures, valentines, and other student created mementos tucked into the frame, expressions of affection that everyone needs to see now and then. There are pictures of my grandchildren, my niece in full combat gear, a vacation snapshot to remind me that not everything I love is here in this building. There are the magazine photos of sea otters that remind my students that I have favorite foods, colors, songs, and animals just like they do and the fact that we know that about each other makes us better at working together.

There are the utilitarian pieces, the contact lists, phone numbers, important dates, and meeting reminders. These change with the seasons, and the reasons for teaching. There are a few inspirational quotes, and always, my theme quote for the year front and center. This year’s version is “Live as if you will die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever” from Mahatma Gandhi.

There are the things I need help to remember, along with those that I know I will never forget. The handmade library card holder made of foam and duct tape, fashioned by a student who knows how often I go to the library, the photo of colleagues sharing a laugh, a cherished thank you note. There are also things that are not there, because they are private and would be hard to explain to students and parents. Things that make me laugh, and things that make me cry, including funeral cards for students who left us too soon. There are the cartoons meant for adult eyes, evidences of my political leanings, the talismans of the faith that guides my steps and my educational practice. And because I want no one to think I am anxious to leave here, there are no vision board pieces on this school board, no New England fall foliage or cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. No baby turtles struggling to get to the Atlantic Ocean or tombstones on the fields of Gettysburg because these are the things I hope to see in the first year of retirement. I have a vision board at home that includes these images as well as a tentative itinerary for a year of travel in an RV following the last days of school.

I have plans to send progress reports back to school, possibly labeled “Where in America are the Wuenstels?” but those reports will be on someone else’s bulletin board. I’ll likely post more often on Facebook, but not much more. There won’t be nearly as much that I need to remember, except maybe where we parked the RV.

 

 

‘Tis the Season

christmas-xmas-christmas-tree-decorationBy Stephanie Nicoletti

I am not sure about you but my classroom is buzzing with joyful and Christmas filled six-year-olds! December 1st, our Elf on the Shelf arrived. “Twinkle” has been with us over a week now, and she is still the first thing my first graders look for when they walk into the classroom. The kids are excited and FULL of energy (to say the least) and teachers are ready for a break to spend relaxing with family and friends.

Even though you may be ready for a break and counting the days…try to enjoy the innocence, joy, and pure excitement of your kids around this time of year. Make it special for them, for some the celebrations at school are the most they will celebrate this holiday season. Breaks usually mean relaxation and refreshing times for teachers. But keep in mind that as your children leave your classroom, some are already wanting to come back to the place where they have safety, routine, and structure.

A White Teacher Has No License to Use the N-Word

2906486794_80400b009e_bBy Nick McDaniels

Within the last two weeks, a Baltimore City Schools teacher, a young, white woman, was publicly terminated from Baltimore City Schools as a cell phone video surfaced showing her using the n-word in class.

To be clear, I am not posting this to criticize this teacher. I am not posting this to analyze the context of her use of the word. I am not posting this to attempt to interpret her intent. I am not posting to attack her. I am not posting to defend her. In fact, I am not posting about her at all, or her use of the word.

I am posting to state one simple principle.

A white teacher has no license to use the n-word. Ever. It matters not the context in which you teach. It matters not how many times you have heard the n-word, nor in how many different contexts, nor with how many different meanings. It matters not how strong your relationships are with your students. It matters not how many years of teaching experience you have had. It matters not whether you are in front of students, or colleagues, or your friends from college. A white teacher has no license to use the n-word.

It is a problem, to be sure, if the word is already in the vocabulary, already in the heart and soul, of a white teacher. It is a problem added thereto if a white teacher feels compelled to use the word. These problems can be mitigated, however, if this rule is placed in the minds of future teachers as soon as possible and reminded to veteran teachers as often as possible.

A white teacher has no license to use the n-word.

 


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