Sunday, February 12, 2017

Competition


I think I've started this blog one hundred times -- examined one hundred different perspectives -- considered one hundred different approaches, and it basically comes down to this.

How can we effectively use competition in a classroom to encourage student learning without leaving some behind?

Let's face it, we live in a competitive society.  We place value on sporting events, ACT scores, music competitions and those with high performance get recognition.  Children are encouraged earlier and earlier to make commitments to areas of specialty.  It's not unusual to hear comments similar to "You can't make the baseball team unless you've played travel ball," or "We've got a special voice coach to help her train for these auditions."

This doesn't mean that a voice coach or travel program isn't appropriate, but what about those who don't have the natural ability or means to make those choices.  Is the door closed?  What about the later bloomers who choose a path on a different timetable?

And how does this look in a classroom?

As an educator, I have a lot of "tricks in my bag."  I am constantly experimenting, writing, tweaking, and working to figure out ways to allow all students to find success and grow as learners.  I work hours daily to figure out what motivates teenage humans and ignites a desire to learn.

And competition plays a part in it.

Though it doesn't really look like a typical competition.

You see, it's rarely about getting the right answer.  It's always about the learning that goes into the answer.  In a language arts classroom it's about the ability to think, evaluate, create, articulate, and share.  It's about teaching ourselves, teaching each other, and learning from different perspectives. It's about growing -- and we all start at different points.

So what does competition look like in this situation?

A lot of times it's about setting goals and reaching them.  For example, I have several students who excel at grammar in a certain class.  As a teacher I target different grammatical aspects that are important when it comes to student writing.  I know that these students are weak in sentence structure, these students need help with transitions, others need assistance with capitalization.  All of these concepts will help them grow in communication through the written word.  Other students have mastered these concepts and are learning about more complex construction when writing.  It starts with setting a goal with each student.

The goal setting can be easy -- it begins with a handwritten note card or a click on a Google form explaining areas of strength and weakness.  It continues with a glance at performance.  Who has shown mastery (in class activities and writing) with these topics?  How can they help others and still be challenged?  Finally, groups are set and a challenge is issued.

Those who are working are not alone.  They are working as a group to improve in an area.  There are "masters" in the class who are available to help direct beyond the teacher.  As a community we are all working to help each other be successful.

The conversations you hear as an educator are rich when this type of learning happens.  You hear kids explaining, drawing on resources, and encouraging each other.  You hear answers to the WHY this is a better answer, debates, and strong connections.  You see a community that is working together to grow.

As I listen, I hear things like, "What is this question really asking you to do?"  "Why is this evidence important?  How does it prove your point?"  "Can you read my paper aloud to me so I can hear the transition from your voice?"

Wow.

Of course I like to treat students along the way.  We have "checks" where students (working on their set goal level) who are showing mastery get their name in a drawing.  It becomes a fun conversation about potential.  "Look at all of these names.  Wow.  Every one of them represents finding success.  Pat yourself on the back."  Then the name comes out, and I don't look at it.  We relish the anticipation knowing that someone will win a bag of gummy bears or a full-sized chocolate bar.

Or there are the days when everyone is a winner -- and they all get something fun.  I like to mix it up.

The key is in the scaffolding.  Working on individual goals, setting up students for success, recognizing that everyone has a strength somewhere gives kids confidence.  It helps them learn about learning together, finding success, and growing.

The reluctant learners get caught up in the enthusiasm.  Often this is enough to help them want to find success.  Occasionally it means that I have time to work individually with them to help meet goals (since we've identified and trained other "masters" of subjects to help while I'm working individually).  Building those relationships can really affect student performance in a positive way.

So that's how I use competition in the classroom.  I'd love to hear your thoughts, stories or successes in this area.  I believe that sharing is an essential part of learning.




Friday, January 6, 2017

A word for 2017 -- authentic

That's my word for 2017.

I've tried out a few -- and this one fits.  Therefore, it's the word I chose to concentrate on this year.

It's not a new concept.  Being genuine is important to me.  I see myself as someone you can count on, someone who tells the truth, someone who believes what I say and puts those words into practice.  My goal is to be intentional and know the words I share are important - especially in my line of work. 

Therefore I choose to be authentic -- true to my own personality, spirit, and character (definition from Merriam-Webster).

You might notice that it's been awhile since I've blogged.  It was a hard year for me last year.  Obstacles kept me away from my passions and forced me to look at things from different perspectives.  I became more introspective and faced battles from within.

If I'm honest, I'm not sure I was the best "me" I could have been.  Everything I had within me when to being the best teacher I could be (because it was my students only opportunity in their lives to have 8th grade English), being the best mom I could be (because I'm it for my own kids), and being a good wife (my husband deserves it).  However, I'm not sure I was the best "me" for me.  In many ways I just felt like I was surviving. 

It was kind of like wearing a mask that covered me.  On the outside I didn't look so different, but I was struggling on the inside facing "the beasts" that plagued me.

I don't regret last year.  I don't lament my health issues.  I don't wish it didn't happen.  I don't think the obstacles were something to curse. 

I see it as a time of growth.  It was a time of honesty and reassessment.  It was a time to look at what I was doing and decide if it was authentic - if it was genuine.  Most importantly, I had to decide if it was true to me.  Every experience helps to define the person you are.

Therefore 2017 is a year of being authentic.

I'm a better person for what I experienced in 2016. 

I spent so much time convincing others that their words were valuable, that I forgot to see the value in my words.  This year I pledge to find my way back to supporting that value. 

My hope is that in 2018 I will say that I've accomplished some of the following:

*  Finished writing my young adult novel (even if no one ever reads it, the story needs to be told).
*  Inspired students to believe in themselves and prepare them for high school.
*  Help my two oldest transition from high school to college.
*  Reawaken my love of exploration.

I hope that I'm seen as authentic - the good and the bad - and someone who is worthy of trust. 

Wishing you all a good new year.  You'll be hearing from me.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The start of a new year - breaking the ice.

Tomorrow is the official start of the 2015-2016 school year.  Right now, at this unique moment, anything is possible this year -- all goals are within our grasp.  With the right mindset, the potential is astounding.


There are many small things that I do during the first week of school that pave the way to our struggles and successes along the way.  First, I believe that every child is important.  Every opportunity is one from which we can learn.  Second, I have to teach my students to believe in the same ideas.


Below is a quick snapshot of some of the things I do:


Pictures
I always begin the year with pictures.  I bring my digital camera, and work quickly through the room on one of the first three days to capture every student.  I usually have them approve quickly and move on -- there are several ways I use these photos.
     1.  A copy goes up on the bulletin board in the front of the room.  After all, in our homes we keep pictures of our family, my school family deserve the same respect.  Being a member of the class earns you family status.  I add additional photos throughout the year, but kids are drawn to their pictures all year long.  I love the conversations we have centered around the photos.
     2.  The pictures are used to create flashcards for me.  This helps me learn the name of each child and 1-2 important facts that I learn about them from the first three days.  Not only does it build rapport when students realize that I care about the things they think are important, but it helps later in the year when I have a guest teacher.  It gives the guest teacher an immediate visual.  Most of them really appreciate it.
     3.  A copy of the picture goes on our first project.  All 8th grade ELA teachers have the students write an "I Am" poem about themselves.  After instruction, they write an "Eloquent I Am" poem which has the same meaning, but none of the same words.


"I Am" Poem
As mentioned in the picture section, students are asked to write an "I Am" poem.  Not only does this give me insight into who they are, but I get to see how they attack a challenge in the process.  The students write their "Eloquent I Am" poems using the same ideas, but none of the same words.  The use of creativity and a thesaurus really are important.  Instead of a basketball player, one becomes a hoop loving athlete, a cheerleader becomes a spirit inducing crowd instigator, an avid video gamer becomes a world saving super hero.  The key is to get them to have fun with words and to encourage kids to dig deeply.


*"I Am" Poems can also be used from a literary perspective later.  Have students write them from different points of view in a piece and share with the class.  It's simple but powerful.


"Spheres of Significance" (*modified from Creative Confidence by the Kelley Brothers)
*First day activity
Students are given a sheet of paper with 30 circles on it.  They have 3-5 (up to you) minutes to come up with as many symbols as they can in the circles; however, each object must represent them.  Minimal instructions are given, as this is just a way to garner ideas, get kids sharing, and learn about their personal approach to class assignments.


Post-it notes
There is something special about a handwritten note to a student.  I send them via snail mail as well as in class.  For many, it becomes a treasure because it's proof that you SEE them and what they are doing well.  It is important because kids need to know that they matter.  In a middle school classroom, there are many times when a child feels invisible.  This is one way to counter that.


Meeting them at the door
It's important to greet every student every day.  Again, I refer to the pictures the first few weeks of school and keep general notes to be intentional in my greeting.  I note things like sports, books, siblings, being new to the area, etc.  Sometimes it's a random connection, but those connections are important.  Kids need to know that you see them, that they matter.


Differentiation Activity
Along the lines of 4 corners, I put up Expert, Pretty Solid, Intermediate, Novice signs in the corners. (I change the wording a little.)  I have kids move around the room with different topics to allow them to get to know each other for their strengths (after all, everyone is an expert in something).  Topics may include things like baking, video games, theater, individual sports, etc.  The conversation we then have is that everyone in the room has strengths, and everyone (including me) has areas where we turn to others for help.  This gives students who struggle in traditional academic subjects a chance to shine as an expert.  Furthermore, what every child needs in the class is not equal.  Therefore, sometimes it will look different.  (For example, an expert football player would need different lessons to move forward than someone who doesn't know anything beyond the fact that football is a sport.) I take pictures to remind myself of the groups for future assignments. It helps me call on experts throughout the year. 


Lunch
We have a duty-free lunch period of 25 (or so) minutes.  During the first few weeks of school, I join students that I have in class in the cafeteria.  We can talk about many things - and they start to understand that they are more important than a person sitting in a chair in my classroom.


Three Sentence Life Stories
Today I decided that I want to try a suggestion from #sunchat (specifically @mssackstein) of having them write a three sentence life story.  Not only will it give me perspective on what is important to them, it will give us common ground to move forward in building relationships.  Additionally, it will give a glimpse into writing ability.  The potential here excites me as an educator.


I Smile . . . a lot.  I laugh. I'm serious. I let kids see what is important to me.  I let them see when I make mistakes.  I listen.  I correct quietly.  Sometimes I dress up. I get dramatic. I tell students that they are important. I try to see different perspectives of each child sitting in the room.  When one is struggling, I try to figure out what is motivating that struggle. 


My goal at the end of every year to make every single student feel like he/she is my favorite.   The truth is -- every one of them is.  I will care -- forever.


I'd love for you to share your opening ideas and activities in the comments.  Together we are stronger!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Laughter

Thank you to @MuellerHolly for opening up her blog every Thursday to link up our #spiritualjourney posts.  I appreciate the offerings of everyone as it provides me a much needed dose of perspective.  I'm grateful for all who link, write, read, and comment.  It is from you that I learn and grow.  http://www.hollymueller.blogspot.com/


Laughter. 


I love the idea behind this simple topic.  Laughter.  The act of finding joy that bubbles inside you until it escapes for the world to see your pleasure.  It is a sign of pure and moving emotion. 


In Ecclesiastes 3, God reminds us that there is a season for laughter. 
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.


It's a verse that is probably familiar to all of us.  There is a time for all things.  The good and the bad.  After all, if we don't have bad, how do we know when it's good?  Without each other, it's not possible to define or understand either.  They require knowledge to know they exist.


I've grappled with the idea of bad things happening to good people a lot lately.  Why does this happen?  Why is faith challenged?  Why does laughter seem to come to others so easily when people who work hard and are faithful are filled with trials.


It's not fair, but it's in this basic challenge that it's answered.  Your faith will be tested.  Bad things will happen.  There will be mountains upon which you'll climb, fall, stumble, get lost, go forward, grow, and eventually conquer only to find that you're in the middle of the range. 


BUT God is good.  He is walking beside us, encouraging, teaching, guiding.  He teaches us that there is a time for all purposes.  There is a time to grieve.  There is a time to release.  There is a time to surrender.  There is a time for laughter.


It's through the choice.  To choose God.  To choose faith.  To choose life.


It's worth it.


Hoping you find much today that brings you laughter --

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Leaving a Legacy

Thanks to @MuellerHolly for creating a space for reflection on our spiritual journey each week.  This week's topic came from @dashthebook about leaving a legacy.  Feel free to read and enjoy our musings on Holly's blog (http://www.hollymueller.blogspot.com/) - or join in on the fun. I'd love to read your reflections as well.


Leaving a legacy - a gift left for generations to come.  A story to be shared . . . such a neat concept.  We all have our story, our gift to the future, but not all know exactly how it plays out.


For example, you have authors.  We know the legacy of the heroes, villains, and ordinary people who walked the face of the Earth in biblical times.  The fact that we know it thousands of years later makes me question my choice of the word "ordinary" at all.  To me it's extraordinary that I have these stories that shape my life today to help me become the person I want to be.


Then there are musicians.  Music feeds the soul in so many ways.  The legacy they leave, their mark on the world, can impact for centuries to come.  The memories become instant, almost a direct line to the heart.  "Canon in D" -- my wedding; "I Will Survive" -- a friend's triumphant war cry in the face of cancer; "What Child is This?" -- my grandmother's church as a child with glorious trees and loving hands. 


I could go on -- the artists, the athletes, the people who fought against evil.  Their legacies are celebrated, beautiful, sometimes haunting. 


But I'm just an ordinary person.  I haven't finished a book (yet).  I haven't composed a masterpiece (probably not in my skill set).  I haven't painting anything that someone beyond my parents would appreciate.  I'm just me.  A believer.  A wife.  A mom. A friend. A teacher. Someone who can fade into the woodwork of life. 


However, God doesn't let that happen.  He is good.  He provides.  He answers prayers.


So when I start my day with, "God, let me be what You need today.  Help me to do Your work." He answers.  He moves in ways that I will never know - and when I start to doubt.  When I question, "Is this what You want?", he nudges me.


As a teacher, I'm probably seen as an idealistic person.  I believe that relationships with kids will move mountains.  When those relationships are forged, kids begin to believe in the power of "What if . . . ".  They begin to see possibilities that they never knew existed.  They begin to trust.  That trust is a powerful tool to help them engage in learning, though it's often not a quick process.  I fall on my face at times, but I believe if I exhibit grace, grace will be given in return.


I was blessed by a former colleague (1993 - 1996) this week.  We taught together in my hometown.  I was green then -- just out of college and full of ideas.  I really wasn't much older than my students -- 10  or 11 years.  (In fact I'd taught many of them swim lessons, babysat, and knew their families socially from my elementary, middle, high school, and college years.)  But I loved those kids.


I can still see them.  Once a student enters the room, he/she enters my heart.  It's kind of a messy thing -- caring -- it allows for failures, follies, and a million powerful moments.  It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.  It was also one of the most rewarding.


I'm friends with a few on Facebook.  I treasure seeing what they've done with their lives.  I love seeing them embrace life as adults -- they are now teachers, professors, professional actors, bakers, designers, architects, parents, etc.  They are doing things that were only dreams when they were in 7th grade.


Anyway, this week, my colleague shared a story with me:
Hi Amy. I had surgery on my Achilles' tendon Wednesday and saw several former WRMS students during the process. My post op nurse was a former student of yours named Kelly A......... She credits you with turning her life around. She was hanging with the wrong crowd. She stated that you cared more about her than she cared about her self. She and her mother are so grateful to you. Today she is a delightful, professional who took good care on me. I had to pass it on to you.

I cried.  Of course I remember her.  I can still see her as a 7th grader . . . and a lump of happiness sits in my throat.  I'm honored by the gift of these words.  A gift of the power of relationship in the classroom.


You see -- this is the legacy that I want to leave.  It isn't really about me at all -- it's that I want to be open to Him and how He needs to use me as a person. 


So my challenge to myself this year is to listen -- to continue to focus on the person He needs me to be. 


That may be the greatest legacy of all --



Thursday, May 28, 2015

A moment of silence.

One of my favorite ways to start the day is with a moment of silence.  I'm blessed that the state of Tennessee requires this, and I'm blessed by administrators who give the full minute every day.


I try to use the time wisely - to put aside all that needs to happen first thing in the morning - attendance, notes, reminders, greeting students - and to focus on having His blessing for the day.  I pray for the students who walk the halls at the high school next door.  I pray for the students who will sit in the chairs in my room throughout the day.  I pray for the students who will sit there in years to come.  I pray that He uses me as He needs me to help prepare my students for the lives they face.


It means a lot to me.  They never know, but it always makes a difference.  It makes my day, well, more.  It gives me perspective, patience, and a sense of calm.


I can always tell when I allow the morning cacophony to crash throughout my brain.  It's easy to be distracted by the world and its demands.  But that time needs to remain focused.  It needs to be an intentional training of the brain.


Silence.  A time to focus on what I hold to be most important.  Those things worth doing should be done well.


I begin the year in silence.  Several weeks prior to school starting, I begin sitting and praying for the students who will occupy those seats for the next 200 days.  I pray that I follow His lead in providing what the student needs.  Whatever it may be -- that I help them on his/her path.


That doesn't mean I will always agree with that path . . . what is important is that He knows what that child needs far more than I do.  It requires faith, trust, and a willingness to take turns leading, walking alongside, and following.  He knows far more than I do; I am simply an instrument.


There are times throughout a year when a class needs refocusing.  Again, the moment of silence . . . the moment of surrender to a greater purpose . . . the moment of letting go helps every single time. 


I don't shout it from the mountain tops, though the conversation definitely lifts my mood.  It doesn't need to be announced.  Most never know how vital that moment is to me every day.  After all, my job really shouldn't be focused on me.  It should be focused on my students and their needs.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

End of the year musings

Well, another end of the school year has come and gone . . .


The room is packed up tight, desks stacked in the corner, chairs tower over them.  My workspace is wiped clean - no papers, no clips, no books scattered about.  The plants are gone, the printer sits quietly in the corner.  The cords are unplugged, the colorful messages packed away.




I dislike the end of the year. 




It's not that I don't enjoy summer - I do.  I love lazy mornings, having time to write, being with my kids.  I love the pool, spur of the moment activities, seeing family.  I love reading, thinking, dreaming, getting organized.  I embrace this time every year.  It's a time to see things with fresh eyes.




But I miss my students.




I was laughing the other day -- being a little dramatic as usual.  In the office I was saying, "You give them to me for 200 days, tell me to care about them, encourage them, make them love reading, writing, and engaging in their learning; then you rip them from me and send them off to find their life."  It was dramatic - done for effect - but in my heart, I miss them. 


Sometimes I think a teacher may be the only person who really understands.  Now I celebrate from afar - most are at the high school across the football fields and parking lots.  I look at it every morning during our moment of silence and think of them before during back to the new ones in my charge.  I hope that they will find successes through challenges; that they will love and engage in what they are learning; that they will carve out a unique life path that will fit.




I still miss them.




So the end of the year brings some sadness with it.  It's a time of letting go and trusting.  Trusting that the seeds were planted in fertile minds, trusting that lessons will echo, trusting that it's really not about what I did anyway.  I was there to help, encourage, and care . . . but the hard work was done by the student. 


So I step back.  I smile.  I face a new group and care - knowing that the end of the year will come again.  It's worth it.