Sunday, September 15, 2013

Being positive - a choice that matters.

I started the weekend in a funk.  I'm not really sure why - though it was probably due to exhaustion.  I ended up arriving home at 6:15 and asleep by 6:30 p.m.  Crazy.

I woke up and went to my "fill up the spirit" place - my PLN on Twitter.  Then a read an article written by a parent about homework.  I know the spirit of the share was to point out that kids have activities outside of school that are just as important to their overall development as school.  I admit it, I left Twitter on Saturday grumbling.

It was just written as a dig to teachers.  Once again putting more pressure to do more, be more within very serious time constraints.  It was like another door closing as a possible venue of giving kids time to reflect and produce outside of the (usually) 55 minutes I see them a day.  It's hard to write in 55 minutes - especially with 30 other kids in the room, the phone ringing, teacher conferencing, schedule interruptions, etc.

I get the homework thing - I have four kids - busy, active kids.  None of them drive yet.  Daily I spend a minimum of two hours taking them from one place to another - I sit and work through choir practice, football practice, baseball practice, and physical therapy.  I cheer them on at games, performances, and productions.  I make time to eat with them, celebrate them, and help them with homework.  In addition, we work on time management.  My husband is great, but he's usually gone from Monday - Friday working hard at various assignments around the country.

However, that schedule isn't the teacher's fault.  She has requirements, pressures, and is working hard to make sure my child is prepared for life. 

I thought about it a lot throughout the weekend.  After taking a step back, I asked myself what was really bothering me?  Was it the fact that she insinuated that I did nothing at night?  Was it the fact that she didn't realize I work hours every vacation and weekend?  Was it the fact that there is constant pressure from all sides to be more, do more, and require less?  Was it simply the fact that I was tired?

Honestly?  It was probably a little of each. 

So I woke up Sunday with a new attitude.  A deep breath, a long walk with the dog, and some time to reflect.  What can I do to change the author's mind?  Probably nothing.  I don't know her.  I doubt she'll ever read this.  What can I do to change MY perspective?   Everything. 

First of all, as a teacher who is also a parent, I always try to allow for TIME to accompany assignments that will happen outside of school.  We have conversations in class about looking at the calendar and not waiting until the last moment.  For example, my students are writing a 500 word + paper over the next two weeks.  I informed parents last weekend, then we began previewing and brainstorming this week.  I gave them a sample paper - a rough draft that I wrote (see previous blog).  I had them assess the rough draft using the rubric - getting familiar with what skills I was looking for.  Then I assigned the rough draft due next Wednesday.  That gives them the choice to do it over the weekend, or during the first few days next week. 

Guess what?  The kids are excited about this assignment.  They keep stopping me in the hallways to tell me exactly what they're going to write about.  They WANT to share their stories and their treasures.  I've even gotten a few e-mails this weekend with them wanting to share ideas with me.

Yes, this will require valuable work outside of my class.  In my class we will be busy reading short stories, evaluating theme, looking for evidence.   We will look at our overarching question of "What makes something treasure instead of trash?"  We will practice thesis statements and how they drive the paper.  Outside of class they'll use what we're discussing to write their personal narrative.  On Wednesday we'll meet to discuss the paper, evaluate the rough draft, conference with small groups and peers, identify areas of strength as well as weakness.  The final copy will be due the following Monday.

The excitement is what finally got through my thick skull this morning.  (Well, and an awesome #sunchat conversation.)  Would this parent have been upset if the kids were excited about doing the work?  What if she was included in the rationale behind the work?  What if her kids were allowed to budget their time between work at home and work from school over a few days?

Would being positive have impacted this situation?  Would it be less of an "us" vs. "them"?  Would it be more of a team?

Being positive is important.  Relationships are important.  How you approach people is important.  Setting it up takes time, but the payoff is invaluable. 

Start with a smile.  Take a moment to get to know the people you surround yourself with.  Figure out what makes them feel valuable - with some it's a kind word, a quick note, a special reward, a good deed, others may feel value in other ways.  In doing this, you'll often make a difference that will be felt for years to come. 

I face the new week with my spirit renewed.  I look forward to Monday with a smile on my face.  I'm excited to hear from students this week. 

I choose to look at every challenge as an opportunity.

I encourage you to do the same.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Writing with kids -- trash to treasure

My students are going to embark on a journey this week where they find things that they (or their family) treasure which another person probably wouldn't appreciate.

We call it "Trash to Treasure."   It's a theme from our literature book to go with the short stories "Clean Sweep" by Joan Bauer and "The Treasure of Lemon Brown" by Walter Dean Myers. After seeing the treasures found in these stories, kids examine their own lives to write personal narratives regarding items of interest.

The stories they share are powerful, amazing, and empowering.  It provides a glimpse into lives and takes a child from being a classmate to someone with a rich history.  I'm so excited.

However, that's not why I'm sharing.  Since this is our first major writing piece of the year, I make sure I write with them.  It's a rough draft.  I haven't proofread, found areas that need clarity, made sure I hit all areas on our rubric.  Instead, I have the kids "peer" edit my work in groups.

Yes.  They grade me in all my glory.  They find my mistakes, give suggestions, AND will see their work rewarded in my final copy.  Not only do they get to work with the rubric, understand what's being assessed, and get a model of what is expected, but it helps to demonstrate that EVERYONE has to go through a process to achieve great writing.  Sometimes it's a long, painful process, but it's worth it.

Here is my rough draft.  I wrote it today about a family book (see photo in my Twitter acct).  I hope you like it.  More importantly, I hope it inspires you to write!

Amy Smith



8 September 2013

My Treasure: The Santa Claus Book

            The anticipation of the event was almost palpable.  Sitting around the fireplace, sated from the glorious meal, smelling the scent of spicy pumpkin pie wafting in from the kitchen, we would gather.  From oldest to youngest, this was the kickoff to the tradition that would last all month.  My grandmother would be seated in the chair of honor, in her calm hands was our treasure.  Smiling, we took turns begging for our favorite story to kick off the Christmas season.  My brother wanted to hear her read, “The Thirty-Nine Letters,” my cousins would choose “The Speedy Little Train.”  I even remember my uncle asking for “The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy.”  Memories abound with these stories.  Every night we would end with “The First Christmas Eve” as a reminder of the gift of the season upon us.

Everyone has special holiday memories they cherish.  After all, year after year we gather together to celebrate beliefs, families, and traditions that are important to use as humans.  In my family, Christmas-time is the most celebrated season of the year, starting with Thanksgiving evening.   There are many customs from which to choose, but the one that I remember bringing all of us together was a well-loved turquoise Big Golden Book entitled The Santa Claus Book.   This book is so much more than memories on a page; it is a celebration of faith, a reminder of what is important, and a thread that keeps those memories burning long after family members are no longer there to celebrate with us.

It’s an old book now.  The once shiny cover is dulled.  The binding is taped together.  There is the page when I wrote my name in on in purple ink when I was five.  The pages are yellowed and musty.  Yet held between these two pieces of cardboard were stories that bring back the memories of my childhood.  Memories that I hope to pass on to my children. The copyright claims that it was published in 1952, when my mom was 7.  She loves to tell the story of the Christmas when her mom bought it for her; the same year she bought a wind-up Santa for my uncle.  Christmas that year was pretty tight for them financially.  My grandfather was back from fighting in World War II, and he was working his way up the ranks at the Hutchinson National Bank.  My grandmother was a 7th grade English teacher.  They worked hard to provide for their little family, and taught them the love of a good story.  Every year they would add a Christmas tale to their holiday shelf.  With these stories, they would create memories. Over the years, many accumulated; however, this one was a favorite from the start. The jolly red Santa on the cover of the book pulled my mom’s eye at the bookstore.  Opening the cover, she was enticed by the 43 Christmas stories and poems included.  This was exactly what she wanted.

“Momma, look!” her voice quavered with excitement at her treasure.

“Oh honey, I don’t know if it’s in the budget this year,” my grandmother smiled kindly at the hopeful face peering up at them.

Saddened, my mother replaced the book.  It was hard, yet she knew that money was tight.  She was grateful for food and clothing.

Secretly my grandmother slid the book on the counter.  She knew this would be something her children would enjoy for years.  It brought her pleasure to be able to share a love of reading with her children.

On Christmas Eve, my mom and uncle were each able to open one gift.  Carefully unwrapping the gift, my mom’s eyes shown as the book emerged.  Together they read all 43 short stories and poems within a few days. 

The purchase of the book provided a legacy for our family.  As my mom grew, she still enjoyed revisiting the stories every year.  Eventually I was born, and she began sharing them with me.  Every year on Thanksgiving night our journey began.  We walked through the “The Penny Walk” by Anne Molloy where two girls were searching for the perfect gift for a younger brother with the aid of a penny.  “The Exactly Right Present” illustrated that the thought and love of a child is what a mother wants.  “Susie’s Christmas Star” exemplified the thought that giving to others can be so rewarding.  We all have our favorites, and each one brings me back to the room with the people who mean the most to me.

Eventually I grew old enough to have a family of my own.  The one thing I wanted for Christmas was my own copy of The Santa Claus Book to share with my children.  It had been out of print for over fifty years.  I couldn’t find it anywhere.  I spent two years searching in old bookstores, on-line, and at garage sales.  That year, under the tree, there was a special gift for me from my mom.  Inside was inscribed, “To Amy, May you enjoy reading this to your children as much as I did.  It has been fun trying to find this for you! Love Mom.  December 25, 2000.”

Holding the book in my hands, I tears of joy ran down my face.  It was like giving my grandmother a hug.  It was hearing my grandfather read a favorite tale again. It was connecting me back to what is most important in the world.  Now I had an opportunity to share the gift with my children; a gift of family, faith, and love.  While many wouldn’t see beyond the old pages and musty smell, this treasure is worth more than gold to me.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Making today count

I've had one of the best starts to the school year ever.  Why?  Well, I credit my PLN, but if you're reading this, you're probably part of it, so you get it.  #twitterisawesome

Seriously, I have always been a good teacher.  I love kids, connect to them, am willing to be goofy with them, and I learn along the way.

However, this summer there was a shift.  It started with Dave Burgess's book Teach Like A Pirate.  I loved the inspiration, passion, creative spirit he brings to each engagement - for kids and adults.  That being said (read the book if you haven't), what made me stop was his perspective that each day counts - in fact each HOUR counts.  After all, it's the only chance the kids sitting in your room will have an opportunity to experience it.  Woah! It is the ONLY opportunity for that CHILD.  Since I want each one to experience success, the articulation of this concept stopped me.  Have I always given my best EVERY hour?  Can I really say that I bring it to the table EVERY time the bell rings?

It's not a new concept, but EACH day is the only time you will be given the gift of that day.  Ever.  I used to think of days like that at Christmas, Thanksgiving, The Fourth of July, even birthdays - but any normal day?  They can blend together.  Sometimes it's a wish to hurry through to get to Friday, or a holiday, or a big event.  Hold the phone - don't wish that time away.  It goes too quickly as is.

Don't let the "normal" days get away - CHOOSE to make them great. special. important.

We had a Pep Talk this week by Kid President.  It referenced one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost,  "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled . . . and it HURT!  Thorns!  Broken glass!" (KP's quote)  This led to a great conversation about what being GREAT looks like - how sometimes great means you do your homework instead of a video game, how it means trusting the process and growing, how it allows you to be surprised along the way, and grow when it's difficult.  Choose to make your learning a priority, and success is inevitable.

Someone was listening. 

On the heading of their paper --
"Today is the sixth of September 2013 -- it's the only one you get, so make it count."

Love it.

He did.  He made it count.  He made a decision to make it count.

So this is my challenge to myself, MAKE IT GREAT.

After all, this is the only seventh of September in the year 2013, how will I make it GREAT?

How will you?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Initial thoughts on Common Core

I have a lot of people asking me my thoughts on Common Core.

I have to say, my initial thoughts are, for the most part, positive.

The most important piece to remember is that Common Core is NOT a curriculum, but a set of standards.  It's a set of standards that are designed to have students think critically of material set before them.

I may have a problem if I don't have choice with my curriculum.  I work hard every day to find things that will engage and challenge my students.  I want to prick their curiosity, engage them through interesting ideas and concepts, and help them develop a skill set to be successful in my class, throughout high school, and in life.  This is different for every child because every child has different needs.  Therefore, flexibility in curriculum is essential.

BUT the standards, the tools, may be more similar.  I took a three day training this summer put on by the State of Tennessee.  It was hard work, draining, and completely necessary.  Over those days we went through around 300 pages of material.  We took a sample PARCC assessment, developed scaffolded questions using close reading passages, practiced and engaged in accountable talk sessions, and created a team to head back to the schools to teach others.  It was valuable to self-assess.  I saw in myself areas of strength as well as areas that needed change.  I feel I have a better grasp on the shift facing our students.

Most importantly, I am blessed to work with an incredible team of educators.  It's always been true that together we are stronger.  In talking through these shifts, we've designed lessons that will meet both Tennessee State Standards as well as CCSS.  One of the first was this week as we approached William Sleator's short story "The Elevator."

Often when you ask kids to read something for the second, or third time, their eyes will roll.  It's more important to be finished instead of read critically.  Therefore we started the week by showing I Love Lucy's famous "Job Switch" episode.  With just a brief introduction, explaining that the show was shot live and broadcast, the kids engaged in the fun.  During commercial breaks (I'm too cheap to buy the DVD), we discussed plot elements and possible flubs in lines.  They fell in love with the story and compared it to the sushi episode in Drake and Josh, the fortune cookie episode in iCarly, and a My Little Pony remake.  It was a great way to review allusion.  Furthermore, it allowed a few of us to become experts (those in my study focus class who saw it twice).  They noticed new things when something was re-read.

Hold the phone.  They noticed something NEW the second time they viewed it?  Imagine if you saw it, gasp, five times?  (Hello, that's me . . . ).  This was a brilliant way to lead into the WHY of re-reading. (Million dollar smile inserted here).

So we headed toward our text books.  We discussed learning modalities - how some of us are visual, kinesthetic, or auditory.  We all learn something through engaging in literature through different modalities.  Guess what, the on-line Holt text book will READ the story to you while you read along.  This was our first passage through.  Each child had four sticky notes to write words that highlight the MOOD of the piece, and describe the CHARACTER of Martin, the lady, and the father  (engaging a somewhat kinesthetic activity), and to read (for our visual learners) along.  At the end of that pass, we shared the words with the class and added to our list as necessary.  We discussed the vocabulary, engaged in initial discussion about motivation, and how the author built suspense.  (We also had a great discussion on how the author was able to manipulate how they were feeling at the end of the piece - they were so on edge as the elevator door closed.)

That night they were assigned to read the story on their own and answer the 11 questions in the book about the plot of the piece.  A lot of the detail work was done through the notes we took in class.  Each child was challenged to find evidence to support their answer, and elaborate on how the evidence was important.  This required them to read the piece for the second time.  It required a deeper level into the how and why of the conflict presented in the story.  It also required them to take a side on if the lady was real or imagined.

The next day I had the pleasure of reading the story to them.  Now, I LOVE to read out loud, so I got into it.  I was told I was MUCH creepier than the person on the book.  (This allowed for a side discussion of how a speaker can add to an atmosphere of a piece.)  When the elevator closed, and the fat lady smiled and said, "Hello Martin," I put them into groups of three to take the ambiguity of the end of the story to resolution.  They had the tools to attack this with vigor.  Using evidence that they had culled from earlier sessions, we saw many possible solutions.  Most of my classes were divided on if the lady was real or not, so meaningful discussions went into the group work on how to make everyone feel validated.  I was impressed by the level of maturity shown in the discussion - often this type of ending would be gruesome to read and painful to hear about upon sharing, but the students really took the details of the story to make it more true to the original piece. 

After sharing, we debriefed with a few questions.  I was blown away with the deep, rich levels of engagement the kids had from this brief piece of writing.  One 8th grade boy began his explanation with, "I believe that the fat lady was a metaphor representing the manifestation of Martin's fears."  Another added, "I believe that the conflict in this story wasn't person vs. person, but rather an internal one where Martin was afraid that the weaknesses others teased him about were actually true.  He was fighting with himself not to be what he considered a coward."  Across the room, a young lady added, "I understand what your're saying, but I think the lady was real.  After all, there was the sensation of her coat scratching him, and the fact that she pushed buttons on the elevator."  One young lady was so excited when she came to the conclusion that the lady wasn't real.  She couldn't believe her idea was valuable (it was the first time it was mentioned in that class).  After I had her share her evidence to support this claim, her classmates were reinforcing the value of what she was saying.

Yes, you read that right.  They were listening, respecting, and responding.  They were supporting classmates and respectfully disagreeing.  It was the initial phase of accountable talk.  They could articulate their ideas, and bring them to the table.  This was happening in all of my classes (some with more leading from me, others with me stepping back to let them lead). 

That is how I can best explain common core.  It's thinking about concepts critically, finding evidence to support your ideas, and articulating why that evidence is important.  It's teaching kids to work together, build on each other's ideas, and bring a new understanding.  It's encouraging them to listen, argue respectfully, and find resolution.  It's knowing that we all have a unique viewpoint, so we all might come to a different conclusion - which is okay when we can support it.

It's giving kids the tools to think critically, so others don't do their thinking for them.

Next week we'll have the opportunity to meet Edgar Allan Poe.  I can't wait.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thoughts from a mom - every child matters

I still remember the first time I heard it. 

"We think your daughter may have arthrogryposis."

I was 20 weeks pregnant.  Scared. 

The world isn't always nice to people with disabilities.

At that point I knew this child would have a different walk in life.  I devoured stories on arthrogryposis, interviewed doctors, created a plan of attack for when she was born to give her the best possible physical outcome in life.  At three days old, she was already doing physical therapy and occupational therapy.  We spent hours stretching her limbs, drove weekly to Iowa City to get her legs casted, engaged in play that would encourage movement.

At a year we added water therapy to the mix, this is where she learned the motion of walking.  Next was horse therapy (hippotherapy) which helped to strengthen her muscles. 

Adults usually fell in love with her.  They appreciated her determination, strength, funny stories, and songs.

Unfortunately, the kids at school were not as kind.

This broke my heart.  Shattered it.

Honestly, this is a hard post to write.  It's hard to hear that kids make fun of your child - how she moves, how she eats, how she can/can't do certain things that come easily to them.  It's hard to see her sitting isolated at lunch where people talk over her. It's hard to know that people have parties and invite the entire class, but not her. It's worse when they do invite her and uninvite her when other kids make fun of them for asking her.

Especially when she is an incredible kid. 

However, this pain has made me a better teacher.  Every single child who sits in a classroom matters.  It is my job to show them HOW they matter.  They are valuable, bring gifts, and have a unique perspective that no other person in the world has. 

Take a moment and think about those words -- no other person has your perspective. No one has your gifts. No one will filter information exactly the way you do. THAT makes you valuable.  You will leave your fingerprints on the world because you are unique.

See that.  As a mother, I beg all teachers to see that.  I mean, REALLY see that. Find ways to encourage your students to see this in each other.   Allow your students to shine.  Find connections that engage them and connect them.  Always let them know that they are important.  They matter!  When it's difficult, walk with them.  That's the way to let them learn to walk on their own.   Sometimes this is messy, but the mess is worth it.  The clean-up process is valuable.

Fortunately for my daughter, she has learned from her experiences as well.  We are now in a new school, and she is loving it.  Her talent for leading is bubbling up.  Her confidence is growing.  Repairs are being made, and she is emerging as a compassionate friend along the way.

But she's not the only one. There are kids in the world who feel alone, unvalued, unloved. 

Choose to be the one who changes that for them.

I have many goals this year - they include growth in reading, writing, grammar, speaking, listening, and compassion.  Why?  Because every child matters, and when they move on, I want them to know that I care.  That they are important.  Their thoughts matter.  Greatness is attainable.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Augmented Reality -- the lessons it taught me

I have had the most amazing start to a school year - wild, crazy student engagement as they realize they CAN do something they've never created before. It all started with an intriguing post on Twitter, a conversation between colleagues, and a willingness to step out of our comfort zone.

We embraced augmented reality.

To prepare, I created my own personal account on  I linked crazy quick videos of my kids to random objects around my house.  I shared with anyone who was willing to try it on Facebook (a safe place with friends).  I had my kids use it to create birthday cards, welcome to school cards, etc.  I walked them through the process of following a channel and creating magic.  (I'm sure my friends were wondering about my sanity spouting off about augmented reality and Twitter - for my PLN, you'll get it.)

My colleagues were doing the same thing; we were walking through the process together. (Thanks to @melindaleake's patience as she was ahead of me.)  Our first experience was a conversation with Drew Minock and Brad Wade through Skype.  They've used this technology with 3rd graders, so we knew 8th graders would be successful.  Then we created triggers to use for "Mustang Night" before school started; we wanted parents to be on board.  We added triggers around the room.  We linked books to book trailers, challenged kids to be creative by linking to speeches and videos on (thank you for allowing us to download those videos).  We discovered that mp4 was a good file format.  I found "Super Auras" on (The $20 bill has been a real hit, but they also enjoyed the Rolling Stones album, One Direction with Nabisco, etc.). 

And we had our students write.

They wrote an "I Am" poem. It was simple, gave us insight into their desires and dreams, and provides a good hook.  Then they had to REWRITE the "I Am" poem having the same context in each line without using the same words. :)  It's a good struggle.  They use the thesaurus, dictionary, and figurative language to accomplish this.  It engages thinking on a very high level.

For example, "I am a creative teacher" became "I am an ingenious educator"  (I allowed articles and "to be" verbs to remain the same.).  It's magic to watch them come up with examples like, "I am an awesome soccer player" that grows to "I am a power forward who engages in scoring goals around the other team."  Sometimes we have to stretch, but it's a good kind of stretch.  It's allowing them to see that there IS more than one way to say something.  They learn that you should evaluate EACH word so that it makes you feel exactly how you want the reader to feel.  Sometimes the first line is better; sometimes the second is.  It's all a part of the writing process.

This second poem became their video.  I admit that I envisioned kids wearing costumes, filming on location, "knowing" their I Am.  Some did.  Most didn't.  It's okay this time.  I'd change it next time.  We also struggled with the size of the videos.  (Any advice here is great.)  My phone would take a 2 minute video at around 5 MG.  My student's phone would shoot the same video at 190 MG.  There is a setting I'm missing.  Aurasma supports videos up to 100 MG, so the second wouldn't work.  We tried file conversion at; however, some of them simply were not small enough.  I learned which way to hold my phone, or my students were sideways or upside down.  They assured me they could flip it; however, they soon discovered that it's harder than you think.  Believe me, I tried.  Fortunately if you double tap the screen, it righted itself on our phone.  By our deadline on Friday, I had 87 of the 97 videos on - a few will be added over the weekend or on Monday.

I created a account simply for this assignment.  I shared the password with the kids, and we all used it to create.  The kids uploaded images that I took the first day of school.  We discovered there was a "masking image issue".  I tried to learn what that meant, and how to fix it, but I ended up retaking a lot of photos.  I'm hoping for Twitter advice on this area.  Some of them used pictures from home which was fine given the issues we were having at school.  A lot of them were excited to get involved.  I had a few tell me that they created their own account at home and were creating there. 

While some were working with, others were typing the original "I Am" poem and uploading their trigger picture.  It's vital that they DO NOT stretch or widen the trigger picture from the original image.  I showed them how to alter the size from the corners of the picture only.  This keeps the integrity of the trigger.  Some didn't believe me.  They had to redo that portion.  It was a good lesson to learn.

As students were finishing projects and helping others, I put out a set of articles on augmented reality.  The kids read about how augmented reality will change the landscape of business, be used to entice people to buy items (such as the Oreo - One Direction link), and develop relationships with consumers (Haagen Dazs added a timer to their ice cream so you eat it at the optimum time after removing it from the freezer.).  They found evidence in the articles to support different theories and brainstormed on how it could be used in the future.  I had conversations with several of them on how video games also embrace this technology.  We will discuss this on Monday.

At the end of the week I was exhausted - in a good way.  My students learned a lot, but so did I.  I created community by assigning "experts" to help others.  I discovered different learning styles and how my students face a challenging/new task.  I was able to work one-on-one creating relationships with kids.  I reinforced my knowledge that technology with a group WILL involve brainstorming, troubleshooting, and some messy learning along the way.  I will be spending my afternoon at school posting our poems in the hallway, and problem solving the ones that aren't working quite right.   I embraced my colleagues - they are AMAZING.  I am so lucky to be teaching with such an innovative team (@melindaleake @lisaannTN @mbruchman - we're all learning together.)

Most importantly, I learned that it was worth it to see the look in a child's eye when it worked.  The soft whisper of, "That's cool, Mrs. Smith."  The feeling of accomplishment he felt as he walked away.  I smiled knowing the invitation was accepted - tomorrow he would come ready to learn.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Communication is key!

I consider my job a blessing.  Daily.  Over the years I've been lucky enough to teach in Kansas, Minnesota, and Tennessee.  I've had opportunities to teach high school and middle school.  Right now I'm living the dream -- 8th grade.  I love this age.

Along the way I've had many personal blessings as well.  In addition to a supportive husband, I have four beautiful, unique children.  They are a joy.  God used these blessings to open my "teaching" eyes along the way.  I took ten years off of my career to stay home with them, so I was able to participate in the educational system on the other side.

This as made me a better teacher.

I've participated in parent-teacher conferences, organized PTA projects, spent hours volunteering, joined in on the IEP team for my child, and spent hours supporting homework projects.  Throughout these years, I've experienced the full spectrum of parent emotions at school.  Most of the time I agreed with what has happening, occasionally I felt there were better approaches, but every day I thought, "What would I do in this situation?" 

You see, parents are important.  As educators, we get to see their child for the majority of the day.  We see them interact with peers, watch them perform, and evaluate their completion of learning targets. However, parents hold vital information about their child.  Connection to that piece is beyond valuable.

How do you do that?  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Invite parents to be a part of the conversation.  I do this in several ways.  First, I try to share important dates, information, projects, and celebrations via group e-mails.  Parents are always given the opportunity to opt out, but they rarely do.  In no way do I think every parent reads every e-mail, but it's there for those who do! 

Wait!  I teach middle school.  I just said I send out mass emails every week or so?  YES!  Students are never too old for communication with the school.  This changes the conversation at the dinner table from "How was school today?" to "What did you think about ____________ that you're reading?"  (Sometimes parents actually read the book with the kids -- and LOVE it.)  E-mail can open the door to communication without filtering through the child. 

What else do I do?  I take pictures.  I love pictures.  I share pictures with parents.  (First I always know what children don't have signed releases and make sure I comply with parent wishes.)  Parents LOVE this.  I see their child in a different setting, and once again it allows for more conversations.  The kids love it, too.  I always tell them that I share through parents -- not directly.  Taking a picture allows the child to see that he/she matters.  Each child is essential to the classroom and has value.  A simple picture validates this knowledge.

Twitter is another great tool.  To be honest, I am just starting to realize the full potential there.  I have a school account which I use for parents and students.  Sometimes it's just a quick picture of books we're reading, a project we're doing in class, a shout-out to a great idea. I also use it for homework reminders and assignments.  (What a great way to teach digital citizenship.)  Finally, it's used to make personal connections with kids.  Just because it's the end of the year doesn't mean I turn off my heart for each child. 

Our district utilizes SharePoint as a communication tool.  I do my best to keep this updated with learning targets for the day, copies of handouts (if available), and PowerPoints used to review major concepts.  I show each child how to access this information in class.  I believe this is important because it empowers the students to not make excuses for "forgetting" things at school and allows them the opportunity to process information again.  I do my best to be available for questions via e-mail and Twitter from students, and many of them take advantage of this. 

In closing, laying the groundwork through communication allows for a stronger educational connection through school and home.  It breaks down the barriers of "us" vs. "them" and helps create an environment where the child feels secure to explore, make mistakes, and learn. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why middle school?

I've always know what I wanted to be when I "grew up."  There was something about the lure of the classroom that imprinted itself upon me early in life.  Of course it may be in my genes -- three grandparents and a mom who were all teachers MAY have influenced me.  I simply don't remember a time when I didn't want to teach.

As my talents grew, it became evident that I love language arts.  Creating, playing with words, enjoying their rhythm, combining them in ways that have never been done before.  I loved reading the stories of others, learning from them, seeing how they used words to evoke passion in people, give new perspective, and engage in life.  My grandmother was an English teacher; she warned me -- many hours would be spent grading, planning, preparing; however, this was what I was destined to do.

Specifically, I was going to be a high school English teacher.  You know the one -- the one who inspires you, motivates you to be MORE, the one who you groan when you hear her name (but you secretly love because she WILL stretch you).  I soared through college "knowing" this.

Then I got a job teaching middle school.

Remember that time?  Most people say, "I hated middle school."  I agree.  I did, too.  Kids were awful.  Mean.  Really mean.  Horribly mean.  I was awkward.  Even though I didn't realize it at the time, everyone was awkward.  How do we fit in?  Do we want to stand out?  What if they laugh at me?  What if they make me feel less than I am?  Then the doubt sets in -- what if I am less than I imagined?

But -- what if I had a teacher who made that just a little bit better?

Could I do it?  Could I possibly be the one to help navigate those waters?  Could I help kids see their potential?  What can one person do?

It turns out that one person can do a lot. 

I strive to make my classroom a place to feel safe because feeling safe allows the child to take risks.  Ultimately those risks lead to success.  See, I believe that every single child in that room CAN be successful.  It's helping to create a climate where they CHOOSE to be successful that's important.  It's finding what works for them.  It's showing them that YOU BELIEVE they can be successful.  Am I perfect?  Never.  Do I love them?  Always. 

That is why I choose middle school.  Every. single. time.

My students bless me.  Every. single. day.