A few weeks ago, our instructional coach Val Hoose asked me to help her plan and run a professional development session on reading comprehension for teachers who teach math, science, social studies, and various electives, as well as for new and experienced English language arts teachers. I readily agreed.
Below, you’ll find all of the information from our professional development session, as well as links to various resources you may share with your colleagues. You may also participate in our professional development session from the comfort of your own home! Just follow the directions below! Continue reading →
It’s official: I’ll be using Interactive Student Notebooks (ISNs) next year. I’ve heard about ISNs through AVID for years, but I’ve never been brave enough to try using them with my students. It seems as if ISNs would completely change my daily routines, which is fine, but I’ve always been unwilling to put forth the time, energy, and resources necessary to implement those changes. I’m excited to try them next year though, mostly because I’ll be teaching freshmen for the first time so I need to adjust my practice anyway.
I stumbled across the ISN idea on Pinterest a few days ago. Since I have been trying to figure out how to teach Greek and Latin root words next year in order to address the ELA CCSS L.3 and L.6, I was drawn to a pin titled Greek and Latin Root Words for Interactive Notebooks. It was a link to Teachers Pay Teachers, which I’ve used only once before.
The bundle included forty-five root words with corresponding terms on cute black and white images screaming to be colored. I paid $12.50 for the 200 + page document (totally worth it), and my mind has been racing with ideas ever since:
Wow! These are great! How can I fit all forty-five root words and the corresponding terms into just one year?
Divide the roots into five five-week-long units with nine root words per unit.
Okay, so should I have just a few root words per quiz, or what?
No, quiz the kids on the corresponding terms every week. That way, they’ll be exposed to each root word five times through five different words, which will also give them five opportunities to demonstrate mastery of the roots.
Bam! Alright, so how does this tie into the interactive notebook idea? The cute pictures are too big and time consuming to include in every unit.
Cut them out, color them, and hang them on the windows or the wall. Create a new foldable for each unit so there are only five total vocabulary foldables throughout the year.
Ooh! Okay, I know how to do this…
I created this foldable in about three minutes. I added the words and pictures in another five.
It’s great because the flaps allow for easy studying, and the pictures inside the flaps help the kids to process the information and make connections. The kids can even color code their flaps if they wish!
There is space around the foldable as well, so the kids can add words to the margins.
I did this on plain printer paper, but I’ll print on cardstock for the kids because these flaps are see through. Not very useful for quizzing yourself!
Once I created the root word foldable, I realized the kids will also need a study guide for their weekly terms. To create this, I simply modified the vocabulary study guides I used this year, and I turned them into a foldable in order to make a tactile study guide:
I like components of this chart, but I feel as if lacks some important information, like actual data from vocabulary quizzes. I thought it would be helpful to have the students chart their comfort level for each root word, then compare that to the results of their vocabulary quizzes. The resulting table is below:
How will this all go into the interactive notebook? Easy!
At the beginning of each unit, the students will receive a new list of words and a new data chart. They will fill out the comfort level side of the chart before the mini-lesson.
I will then give a mini-lesson on the definitions of each root word, and the first group of corresponding terms.
Afterwards, the students will create the root word foldable and receive their first study guide. Every week after that, I will give them another study guide and review the root words and corresponding terms.
The students will fill out the comfort level tracking table again after the third and last quiz. Then, they will take their Vocabulary Unit Test and record the score. Hopefully, their grade on the test will correspond with the data on each chart!
At this point, it is all theory. I’m not sure what will and won’t work, and I can easily see myself forgetting to do the data tables or prioritizing other things instead. Also, I’ll have to design the quizzes to be easy to analyze so the students can see clearly which terms they did and didn’t understand.
This year has been a year of unofficial professional development. I’ve had to develop not one but three new curricula mostly from scratch. All of the things I took for granted in the past were suddenly challenges: what books should I teach? Well, crap. I haven’t read most of the books available in the book room. How do I teach advanced writing skills? What do I do when my seniors still don’t understand the difference between literary analysis and plot summary? Needless to say, I made a lot of mistakes.
But mistakes are good. They are humbling, and grounding, and extremely educational. I learned that I need to go back to the standards, something that I thought I was doing at my old school but, as I learned this year, I was lazy about it then. I kind of knew the standards, but I really knew what I wanted to teach my students. Then I wondered why they weren’t getting higher scores on their standardized assessments at the end of the year. And, I’ll admit that I didn’t look at the standards as closely as I should have this year either. I was overwhelmed, and I was in survival mode. But today, I am focusing on my learning, not on my mistakes.
I’m moving to the ninth grade next year. Officially, my job is to realign the ninth grade curriculum by bridging the communication gap between the freshman teachers and the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth-grade teachers. I’m expected to help the freshman teachers take the awesome things that they are already doing individually and channel their ideas into a collaboratively designed new curriculum that aligns with the new standards, the new PARCC assessment, and the English department goals.
After spending a considerable amount of time developing my English 11, English 12, and AP Literature curricula this year, and after developing the first two of units for my English 9 curriculum, I’ve realized that my original method for curriculum mapping was missing one key component: I didn’t fully understand the standards. I looked at the standards as separate entities requiring separate lessons instead of as connected skills. I treated the CCSS document as a checklist instead of as a roadmap. Once I “covered” a standard, check! I was done! No need to cover that again!
Any time students write anything, they should be expected to pull textual evidence, which means they should always be writing about a text. Every time students are expected to interact with a text, the specific tasks should target one of the five standards categorized as Key Ideas and Details and Craft and Structure. The two standards under Integration of Knowledge and Ideas are much more specific and would best be taught using specific lessons, but even these lessons require students to cite textual evidence (RL 1), and they can easily be connected to RL 2-6. Basically, everything the students do in class should target multiple standards.
In order to prepare for next year and become better acquainted with the 9th grade standards, I broke out my handy-dandy notebook and outlined the standards, intentionally moving parts of one standard to another to make connections and create a unit framework. Observe:
The CCSS Writing standards are on the top, and my simplified notes are on the bottom. As you can see, I’ve narrowed down the specific skills the students will need to learn. You will also notice that I’ve arranged the key skills to align with the specific text type. Simply by looking at my notes, I now know that I need to have my students write at least three large texts this year: one argumentative text, one expository text, and one narrative text. Suddenly, the standards seem much more manageable.
Woah! Light bulb alert! The standards list the most important skills first, and the least important skills last. Don’t believe me? Think about the PARCC assessment. Every question on the ELA PARCC assessment targets R.1: using textual evidence to support claims. Appendix A specifically states that Argumentative Writing (W.1) is the most important of all three types of writing (skip ahead to page 24 for Common Core’s explanation). As for Language, L.1 requires students to “demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English when writing or speaking,” and SL.1 focuses on the students’ ability to collaborate and communicate with any person in any situation.
So, when preparing students for high-stakes assessments (especially if they are expected to pass a standardized test to graduate), prioritize the standards listed first over the standards listed last.
It isn’t enough to simply break down the standards into manageable pieces, however. The next step is to connect the Writing standards to other parts of the curriculum. I did this by connecting each piece of writing to the texts my students will read next year: The Odyssey by Homer, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I know that I want to start the year with writing in order to establish good habits from day one, and I also know that the students will need something text-based to write about (this targets the RL 1 standard as soon as possible). From what I can remember about my high school experience with The Odyssey, the students will also need some prior knowledge about Greek gods and goddesses before tackling the text, so they’ll need to read some informational texts and conduct some research (Ooh! Reading Informational Texts, here we come!).
The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Teach writing habits and writing structure by writing an expository text on Greek gods and goddesses. Since this is the first expository text I will expect the students to write, the focus will be on basics such as sentence structure and purpose, paragraph structure (I use the eleven-sentence paragraph format for many reasons, which I plan to explain in a later post), and Standard English. If you refer back to the Common Core State Standards, you’ll see that lessons on paragraph structure target RL. 1, W.2a, W.2b, and W.2c, and lessons on sentence structure target L.1a, L.1b, L.2a, and L.2b. When trying to pound the nitpicky specifics of grammar and mechanics into students’ heads, I’ve found that it is best to teach the lessons after the students have realized that they need it, not before. By creating the need, you create relevance. And by creating relevance, you create engagement. Engagement leads to learning. Bam.
I’m going to pause for a minute to ask you a question, dear reader. Why do we teach literature? Seriously. Take a moment to ponder this question. Why do we insist on making kids read stories that were written however many years ago? Why read poetry, or drama, or any other works of fiction? If you don’t have an answer to these questions, you had better figure it out before you make the kids read a text, and that answer should go beyond “because the district makes me do it” or “because it is in the standards.” If you cannot articulate the purpose for reading a specific text, your unit will be unfocused and pointless.
Why am I going to read The Odyssey with my students? Several reasons: because it provides insight into the unchanging human condition across cultures and eras; because it is alluded to in many of the texts the students will be expected to read before graduation; because it is an excellent mentor text for students to use to analyze various narrative techniques; because it teaches the students valuable lessons about their own lives; because reading strong writing teaches students to become better writers; blah blah blah. I could go on and on.
While reading The Odyssey, we’re going to focus mostly on the Reading Literature standards – but I’ll assess my students’ progress on those standards mostly through writing, which means that in addition to teaching the Reading Literature standards, I’ll also have to teach Writing standards. Endlessly. How do I possibly do that in the little time available for this unit? By teaching reading through writing, and by assessing students’ analysis of craft and structure through writing.
Most of the big important Reading Literature standards require the students to analyze technique: How is the theme developed? How are characters developed? How does the diction impact the reader, the mood, the tone, the setting, etc.? How does the structure create suspense or surprise? How does the point of view relate to concepts outside of the text? These are excellent questions to ask the students because they are all standards-based, and they would make excellent exit tickets, discussion questions, one-pager topics, and bell-ringers. Notice how every question will require students to pull textual evidence to support their claims. Oh, and they need to avoid plot summary while answering these questions, because the standards require analysis, another skill that requires explicit instruction (check out my post on teaching analysis here).
So, as we’re reading The Odyssey, I need to provide lessons on:
Specific techniques used by writers
How to analyze texts for those techniques
How to write about the significance or impact of those techniques
How to avoid plot summary while writing a textual analysis
Writing strong sentence structure and paragraph structure (because let’s face it, kids need constant exposure to proper sentence structure and paragraph organization).
Oh, and I need to make sure I’m preparing the students for the summative assessment as well, which has been on my mind while planning the entire unit. Whew. That’s a lot.
Speaking of, on to the summative assessment. After carefully studying various techniques, the students need to put these techniques into practice by writing their own narrative poem. I will expect them to use the same techniques they found in The Odyssey, but requiring them to create something ups the ante, nudging some students to proficiency and others to mastery. Furthermore, it also targets the narrative Writing standard and reinforces the standards taught while reading.
Geez, and I haven’t even created my daily plans yet. That comes last.
When designing curriculum, you have to know where you’re going before you can possibly know how to get there. In fact, that is true for any type of leadership position. After all, isn’t that what good teachers do? Lead their students through a year’s worth of learning opportunities?
When planning curriculum, it is tempting to start with strategy. Teachers have to do something with their kids every day, so they are first tempted to ask themselves “what will I actually do with my students during this unit?” and “what will daily instruction look like?” instead of “what is the point of teaching this unit?”
I’ll say it again, you have to know where you’re going before you can possibly know how to get there.
Don’t plan the daily details until you know the structural details. You cannot fill a house with furniture before you’ve built it.
But once you have planned the structural details, you can use Marzano and AVID strategies to create daily plans. You can decide when to use technology, when to hold a Socratic Seminar, and how to balance individual, small group, and whole class activities. You can add time for routine lessons and tasks such as notebook checks and unit-based vocabulary quizzes.
Finally, you need to make sure the students are aware of the standards you’re teaching. I do this by writing unit objectives and daily learning objectives on the board and by listing the targeted standards on rubrics, project descriptions, and my class website. I even have the standards hanging in my classroom so I can point to them during lessons.
Basically, when planning curriculum at the beginning of the year, follow these seven steps:
Break down the Writing standards. I start with writing because most standardized assessments test students reading comprehension and analysis through writing.
Connect to anchor texts. Basically, your summative assessments for each literature unit should be one of the three types of writing, if not a combination of all three.
Break down the Reading standards. Make connections! How can the Reading standards support the Writing standards?
Use “smaller” Reading standards to create text-based writing tasks. Each task’s prompt should target one of Reading Literature standards 2-6. These could be bell ringers, one-pagers, discussions, exit-tickets, etc.
Design writing lessons connecting smaller Language and Writing standards to reading tasks. This is where you can create mini-lessons to tackle the tedious rules of Standard English, discuss diction, practice embedding quotes, or reinforce sentence structure and paragraph structure.
Create daily plans using technology, AVID Strategies, and Marzano Strategies. Make sure you’re communicating the learning goals to the students, preparing them for the summative assessment, and checking their progress for proficiency!
Fill in routine lessons and tasks. Design vocabulary quizzes to reinforce reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, plan time for notebook checks, etc.
Hot diggity, the Diction Door was a success! Here’s some proof:
Student A: “Geez, class is already over? It feels like it just started!”
Student B: “This was fun, Miss! Can we do it again?”
Student C: “Aw man! I wanted to define Aesthetics!”
Student D: “Miss, it says that bantam is a chicken! Are they saying that Kit Carson was a chicken?!”
Student E (in response to Student D): “Ooh! That’s a metaphor!”
Here’s how it all went down
When the students walked into class, their desks were already arranged into groups so they could work in their literature circles. Since we’ve been reading the first four pages of Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, I had each literature circle pick one difficult word from the text to contribute to the Diction Door. They were not allowed to choose a word that was already on the door.
Once they picked their word, I passed out the Diction Door Templates (one of each color per class), a black Crayola marker, and a pair of scissors. I told the students that they were to write down the definition and the original sentence that used the word, and that they needed to create a new sentence using the word. Finally, I gave each group four small pieces of paper that matched the color of their template, which they used for synonyms.
After that, I simply walked around the room and listened to the students work and talk to each other. Once they finished, I taped their word and synonyms onto the door.
But not all went as planned…in a good way
I’ll admit, I was a little stressed out about it during 1st period. Originally, I thought that it would take the students about 10-15 minutes. I was wrong. Like, WAY wrong. It ended up taking the entire class period, which surprised because I expected the students to just look up the word and then write down the definition. Instead, they looked up the word, didn’t understand the definition, looked up more words in the definition, and then rephrased the original definition so that it made sense to them!
The Diction Door also provided many teachable moments that I hadn’t originally anticipated. For example, one group of students realized that the word “deliberate” could be an adjective or a verb. Then they had to decide if it was being used as an adjective or a verb in the passage. Not only did this help them understand the word, but it also helped them understand the difference between verbs and adjectives!
With the word “Womanize,” the students found the dictionary.com synonyms first. They used words and phrases like “flirt,” “fool around,” “stud,” and “ladies man” as their synonyms. I explained that these words were too positive, and that womanizing isn’t a good thing. I told them that “objectify” would be a good synonym for womanize, but I couldn’t think of any others and the students were struggling to find appropriate synonyms online. I sent them across the hall to ask their social studies teacher. He started rattling off words like “chauvinistic” and “sexist.” Perhaps the feminist side of me kicked in during this exchange, but I’m totally okay with that.
Originally, I just wanted to have a Diction Door because I didn’t think I would have enough space for a word wall, but I actually ran out of space on the door. I had to extend it a bit and now the word wall is covering a white board that I don’t use very often. I made a sign for the word wall, and I still have a sign for the diction door up, but I decided to make a poster to maintain the diction door theme. It says: Deliberate diction unlocks the door to success!We navigate our whole lives using words. Change and improve the words and I believe we can change and improve life.
Overall, I am extremely pleased with my diction door/word wall. The students had a blast with it, and I added a word to the wall today: allusion. I also referred to a couple of the words on the wall while talking to the students about avoiding redundancies in their writing. Next year, I’ll have to rearrange my classroom so that the word wall has room to grow. I’m sure it’ll end up spilling out into the hall outside of my room like this teacher’s word wall.
Oh, and for the record, my diction door/word wall is very aesthetically pleasing! Too bad I’ll have to cover it up when we have NMSBA testing in a couple of weeks.
A couple of weeks ago the principal unexpectedly called me into her office. As I sat down at her desk, she pushed a data sheet towards me and said in an accusatory tone, “Can you explain this to me?”
I felt my face grow hot as I looked down at the sheet, praying it wasn’t bright red. I had never seen this data report before in my life, so I nervously said, “Um, I don’t know what I’m looking at. Can you explain this to me?” As it turns out, it was a simple report that gave a side-by-side comparison of the amount of seventh grade students with scores in each proficiency level on our first and second benchmark assessments. Apparently, we had more kids score in the beginning steps and nearing proficiency levels on the second test than we had on the first test, which is, as I like to say, bad-new-bears.
My principal wanted to know why the students weren’t showing growth. Well, that’s valid. I was asking myself the same question.
Now, I won’t go into detail describing my explanation to the principal. That’s boring and unimportant, particularly because I just pulled something out of my ass in an attempt to defend the scores.
The reason I’m writing about this interaction is because I believe it epitomizes exactly the wrong attitude about how to address and analyze data from standardized tests. As I drove home after the meeting, I came to several conclusions, which I’ve listed below:
My administrator had some valid concerns, but the way she aired those concerns was confrontational and immediately put me on the defensive, which was not at all productive. What she should have said was this:
“Harriet, I was looking at the department’s most recent data reports for the benchmark assessment, and I have some concerns. Here’s the report. Take some time to dive into the data, talk to the teachers in your department, and let’s schedule a meeting to discuss it in a few days.”
We’ve adopted a completely new benchmark assessment this year, so we don’t know what to expect in terms of student achievement trends. To put a teacher on the spot like that is unfair and unprofessional. Furthermore, this is just one way of looking at the data from the two assessments. There are dozens of different types of reports on this data. To make assumptions based on one report is equal parts ignorance and laziness.
I’m tired. My instruction has suffered because I have too much on my plate. I just want to eliminate the other responsibilities and focus on my teaching.
So, why am I writing about this? What’s the big deal?
I need to focus on my teaching.
I spent two days this past week at a Common Core Mentor Training put on by Solution Tree. I was sent to this training as the language arts department head, but instead of looking for things to bring back to my department, I mostly focused on how the training could inform my teaching. Luckily, I came across two awesome-possum strategies that I plan on using in my classroom as a way to spice up my instructional repertoire.
Strategy #1: Sock Toss
The workshop facilitator used this strategy as both an ice-breaker and as a demonstration on the importance of collaboration and creative problem solving.
Setup: Before you start, you will three clean socks for each group. The goofier the socks, the better.
Step 1: Project a word or short writing prompt on the board to get the students thinking about the target concept. The students will write a response in their notebooks, or discuss the word or prompt with an elbow partner. Our facilitator projected the word “Efficacy” on the board and had us discuss what that word means to us as educational leaders.
Step 2: Regroup students into circles of 8-10 (if being used as a way to learn each other’s names, do this as a whole class). Give only one student in each group a clean, balled up sock.
Step 3: Have the students introduce themselves. They will then create a “toss pattern” by saying the name of a person across the table and tossing the sock to them. They may only toss the sock to a person who has not already received it. While each group creates their toss pattern, the teacher should be loudly counting off the seconds. Once the sock is tossed back to the original person, the group will write down how long in seconds it took them to complete the pattern.
Step 4: Have the groups do it again, using the same pattern, but this time they will repeat the pattern twice. Once again, they will record their time in seconds when they complete the pattern.
Step 5: Tell the students to do it again (twice again), but this time they will try to beat their previous time.
Step 6: Give the students another sock. Tell them they are to repeat the pattern again, but they are still expected to beat their previous score.
Step 7: Continue with this process until the students start thinking outside the box and breaking the rules. At some point, give the students a third sock.
Step 8: Finally, have the students reflect on the process within their group. The focus of the discussion should be about how the groups adapted, what they learned, and what the experience suggests about collaboration. Finally, discuss how it might relate to learning.
When participating in this exercise during the workshop, my group decided to “bend” the rules first by reorganizing ourselves in the circle, so that the person I first tossed the sock to was standing right next to me. That way, we just had to pass the sock around the circle instead of tossing it around the circle. When a third sock was introduced, we tightened our circle so that we were standing shoulder to shoulder, and (after the facilitator said that every person needed to “touch” the socks) stuffed all of the socks in a cup so that they were all sticking out top. I held the cup in the center of the circle, and then each person just had to briefly tap their hand on top of the cup (thus quickly touching all three socks).
During the reflective discussion at the end of the activity, our group emphasized the point that efficacy is best obtained through collaboration and creative risk-taking.
This lesson could easily be adapted to target learning standards centered around cause and effect, or perhaps as a timeline or sequencing activity. For example: I might use it in my classroom as a review for plot structure by separating the students into groups of six, and then giving one student from each group a necklace sign (a piece of paper attached to a string so that a student can wear it around his neck). Each sign would have one of the terms from the plot structure diagram on it, and the students would then have to toss the sock to each other in the correct plot structure diagram order.
Strategy #2: World CaféConversations
Our facilitator used this activity to encourage discussion about Common Core instruction and assessment. What makes it effective is that for every discussion “round,” the students have to rearrange themselves into different groups at different tables. The image below is a visual representation of the World Café Conversations process. I’ve explained the process below as well.
Setup: Before you start, you will need to have the desks arranged into several groups of four. Eight groups of four would be ideal for a class of 32 students, because it’ll give the students plenty of opportunities to interact with new people during each round. Each group should have a sheet of large, sticky chart paper and plenty of colorful markers.
Step 1: Project the following image onto the board. Explain to the students that they can do any or all of the things in the image while participating in the discussion, but they should pick one specific thing to focus on during the discussion. I decided to focus on the play, draw, doodle option. Who doesn’t love doodling?
Step 2: Project the discussion questions for Round 1 onto the board. Give the students 10-15 minutes (or a different time limit appropriate to topic and grade level) to discuss the questions. Throughout the discussion, the students should be jotting down or doodling their key ideas, words, or phrases onto the chart paper.
Our facilitator used the questions below for round one of our discussion.
Round 1: Connect ideas and images with words and lines
How does instruction and assessment change with our Common Core implementation?
Describe what’s happening in the classroom with deep implementation.
How would you describe the current state of your instruction and assessment work?
Step 3: When the time is up, tell the students to move to a different table with different people for the second round. They will leave their chart paper and markers at the table. Encourage students to avoid staying with the same group from the first table. The point is to interact with as many different people as possible.
Step 4: Project the questions for the second round onto the board. The students will discuss the new questions, and they will continue to write or doodle their ideas onto the chart paper. Repeat this process at least four times.
Step 5: Have the students return to their original group. Then, project the directions for Round 5 onto the board:
Round 5 is for Reflection
Review the notes and drawings on your table.
As a group, write two sentences to sum it up.
What insights might inform your next steps?
Step 6: Once the students have finished writing their two sentences onto the chart paper (you may need to give them sticky notes if there is no more room to write on the chart paper), one representative from the group will bring their paper up to the front of the room to share their two sentences with the class.
I plan on using this lesson to facilitate discussion about a short story or novel we read in class. For example, one round could be on how the author uses characterization, another round could be on how the author uses theme, another round could be on the author’s use of language, and a fourth round might require the students to analyze significant quotes.
*Edit 3/2/14: At the end of the activity, have the students reflect on what they learned as a blog post. Not only will this document their learning and exercise metacognitive skills, but it will also give absent students a chance to catch up on what they missed by reading their peers’ blog posts. For more ideas on how to blog with students, check out this awesome post.
Turning Negative Experiences into Positive Outcomes
This post started with a negative experience in my principal’s office, but I’ve realized that sometimes negative experiences are necessary. Over the past few months, I’ve felt drained and disillusioned. I’ve been spending so much of my time and energy thinking about the big goals for the school, that I lost focus of why I decided to become a teacher in the first place.
Being called into the principal’s office to speak on behalf of the department served as a wake-up call. While I am not solely responsible for those scores, I am responsible for the department. How can I expect the department to amp up their instructional practices if I do not do it myself?
Since that interaction with my principal, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the professional development opportunities provided by our district. It’s true that our district offers many more seminars and workshops than other, larger districts in the state; but the focus of these workshops is on creating effective assessments and on analyzing data from those assessments. That’s fine and dandy, but teachers need to know what to do when the data demands that we reteach a standard. This brings me to…
Data-driven instruction cannot be effective without strong instruction, and strong instruction cannot exist without opportunities for teachers to discover and adopt new strategies.
The purpose of the Common Core Mentor Training workshop wasn’t to help teachers discover new instructional strategies; it was to help teachers develop rigorous assessments aligned to the PARCC assessment.
My small act of defiance against the constant state of assessment in education was this: ignore the intended purpose of the workshop, and focus instead on ways to improve the instruction taking place in my classroom prior to the assessment.
I don’t know who you are, where you live, or what you do for a living, but I do know that if you’re willing to spend your precious time reading my words, I like you. You, dear reader, will help me to remember and appreciate my craft as an educator. So, thank you.
I teach seventh grade language arts at a Title I school in central New Mexico. If you are unfamiliar with the lingo, Title I basically means that a large percentage of our students come from low-income families. Overall, I love my job and I love my students. Middle school students have a bad reputation for being obnoxious and directionless, but that’s what makes middle schoolers so much fun. They are at a stage in their lives where they are testing the boundaries to figure out who they are as individuals (this is what makes them obnoxious), and they are in this weird transitional period where they want to enjoy both the privileges of grown-ups and the freedoms of childhood (this is why they’re directionless).
But hey, don’t we all want that sometimes?
One of my favorite things about my job is designing and implementing lessons that are both challenging and engaging. It may sound cliché, but I love seeing a student’s face light up when they finally “get it.” My favorite sound is that long, drawn out “ooooohh,” that students make when they finally make the connection. I am addicted to the feeling that teachers get after a successful lesson; to those days that end with the uncontrollable urge to brag about your students to everyone you know, but you just can’t seem to communicate the magic of the situation, no matter how hard you try.
I’m sure that’s what it feels like to be a parent too, but I’m not quite ready to procreate yet.
When I first started teaching, I was that eager-beaver new teacher that couldn’t wait to change the world. I said yes to everything. EVERYTHING. Before I even knew all of my students’ names, I was a member of the Renaissance committee, the AVID site team, and I had taken on the stipend position of Gym Master. Yup. I was Master of the Gym. I felt important. I felt valued. And I had gate keys! I could access the school on the weekends! I was drunk with power.
I would happily arrive at school between 6:30 and 6:45 every morning, and I wouldn’t leave until 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening. I was honored when my principal asked me to go to a Solution Tree conference in Phoenix. I felt so grown-up and mature, going on my very first business trip.
I eagerly experimented with new technology tools and resources our district had just adopted, including My Big Campus, which is kind of like a cross between Facebook and Blackboard, and begged my principal to let me lead an hour-long workshop on how to use the program at our next staff meeting. They agreed. The staff humored me during the workshop, but they didn’t use the program in their own classrooms. I didn’t understand their resistance. I was naive.
At the very beginning of my second year, the Language Arts department head position became available, and nobody else in my department volunteered for the position. Naturally, I took on the position. I couldn’t believe my administrators allowed me, a second year teacher, to become head of the department.
I struggled with my role as leader that first semester. Even though I had learned about the PLC (professional learning community) process in college and at the Solution Tree training the year before, I wasn’t sure how to guide a team of teachers, more experienced than myself, through the process of identifying essential standards, aligning curriculum, giving common formative and summative assessments, comparing data, and sharing best practices, when they were accustomed to using PLC time as a social hour. I didn’t feel comfortable asking a woman who had been teaching fourteen years longer than I had to stay focused and stick to the agenda.
I finally adjusted to my role as department head after attending a leadership training in Phoenix with the social studies department head and my administrators. While there, I shared my feelings of inadequacy with them, and the social studies department head aired similar concerns about herself, even though she had many more years teaching than I had. I returned from that conference feeling refreshed and prepared for the challenges ahead.
The rest of that year and the following summer were very productive. As a department, we identified our essential Common Core State Standards, organized those standards into a new curriculum map, created standards based Z-Objectives for each unit, and created a handful of common formative assessments. We also created a new, standards based grade scale that would both expedite the grading process while also keeping the focus of the assessment to mastery of the standards instead of ability to follow directions or write legibly (while those things are important, they have nothing to do with whether a student is proficient or not).
This is my third year in the classroom. I started the year with positive expectations. Our old principal left to become the superintendent of another district, and our assistant principal was promoted to principal. I sat on the hiring committee for our new assistant principal, and was thrilled with the woman we decided to hire. This is the first year we are teaching to the Common Core State Standards, and in August I was confident that the work the department did over the summer would eliminate the discomfort of change.
I was wrong.
Moral at the school is at an all-time low. The focus of both district and school administrators is on data and test scores rather than on students and learning. With the new teacher-evaluation system, the pressure to show growth on the SBA is overwhelming.
I feel as if teaching has become a secondary responsibility. Between complying with the demands of the new evaluation system, analyzing data, and my department head responsibilities, I don’t have time to plan creative lessons or give meaningful grades.
I feel my passion for teaching crumbling under the pressure more and more every day. I look back on the eager-beaver new teacher I was two years ago, and I miss her.
I’ve started blogging again out of desperation. I need a place to reflect on what I see and experience in my classroom every day. I need to find a way to recharge and revive that fiery passion that energized my lessons my first year.
I will not blog to vent, but rather to reflect, learn, and grow. I may share lessons, theories, and experiences, but no matter how negative the experience, the takeaways will remain positive. I’ll do my best, at least.