Archive for the 'Teaching – Reflections From the Field' 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.

 

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.

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.


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