Sunday, July 27, 2014

Let's make it a great one.

There is a subtle shift in the weather that always makes me think of school.  It's not really the heat.  It's always hot in August in Tennessee. Sometimes it's oppressively hot. But there is a whisper of fall, days just a bit shorter, glimpses of cool evenings, football socks in the laundry.  These are the things that signify a new year.

Right now I have my hands on many projects that I wanted to accomplish this summer. I have a quote to put on the wall -- "Believe in Yourself" with an emphasis on the "Be You" portion.  I've found new quotes that I hope will inspire students to persevere through difficulties. I've searched for inspiration to put on their desks to give them something to think about during transitions.  I've purchased glue sticks and cement nails to put new photos on the wall -- gifts from last year. 

My library holds the books that I added this summer. I'm excited to share new titles.  I've been tweeting about them all summer.  It's time to start interacting with kids directly.  There is a sense of expectation -- potential stuffed in every corner of the room.

I have my initial class list.  It's still shifting, but it's a step in the right direction.  Those names are already becoming important to me.  I linger as I see possibilities in every black letter that marches across the page.  I wonder about them.  What will they be like? What are their hobbies? interests? passions?  The mysteries and complexities of each child is already winding its way around my heart.

Yes.  It's time to start thinking about my goals for the year.

1.  I believe in the power of relationships.  Therefore my first goal is to develop rapport with each student.  On the first day I will take pictures to help me learn names (an area of weakness of mine - I always have to study them before every class).  On the backs of those pictures I will take notes about each child - interests, learning styles, confidence.  A separate copy of each picture will be kept for substitutes, guests, and other teachers.  I will reinforce this by having an intentional conversation with every student several times a week.  It will also drive choices offered in the curriculum I present.

2.  I will offer a reading group in my classroom over lunch.  I did this informally last year, but this year I'd really like to get a group together.  Every time we put a book in the hand of a reader, it has the potential to change his/her perspective forever.  Since I have a finite amount of time, I want to utilize it as much as possible.  Reading fiction is important -- it encourages us to be more, to experience more, and affects how students achieve.  I love the idea of sharing this with my students.

3.  I would like to do a school read on the same novel.  After having the fortune of reading the ARC of Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (thank you again to the lovely person who shared it with me), this may be an option our school chooses.  I plan to share it with other teachers this year and put a plan in place.  Hopefully this will put a shift to focus on building empathy, looking at different perspectives, and building a community that values all of its members.  The potential of learning through a common experience is exciting.

4.  I have been blessed to show strong growth among all of my students, but this year I would like to focus on developing a culture that treasures learning.  Often students  have learned to "play the game" of school, but I think it's important to look at each one to determine what is it that inspires.  What makes them read critically, question, challenge?  What choices do they make? How do they support those choices?  The measurement for this goal is a little harder, but I have some hard data from assessments from last year that will help.  In addition, I've been working on different ways of grouping kids to foster this type of environment.

5.  I want to incorporate writing even more into my classroom.  It today's world it's more important than ever to graduate students who can communicate clearly.  It's has always been my pattern to define what good writing looks like "the box" so in time students can climb out of it with their unique style.  This becomes an intimate conversation between the writer and reader, one that we can learn from together.

6.  I want to continue to grow as a learner myself.  Through blogging, communicating, reading, and writing, I will show growth in this area.  This summer I've played around with a novel.  If it continues to work, I want to work toward publishing it.

I know that some of these goals may seem hard to measure, but I think when we're dealing with humans, things get sticky.  Simply putting them down helps me to focus on what I want to accomplish.  There will be additions like using Google docs, blogs, Twitter that help me to connect with the kids that I am entrusted with this year; however, the foundation of the path is starting to grow.

The potential is huge. It's important - at times it's daunting, but each moment is a step forward. It's a step toward the future.

This excites me. It's humbling. It's terrifying. It's daunting. However, at the end of the day, excitement wins.  Together we will be more.

Next week on my board will be the following message, "Today is the only  August 8, 2014 you will experience.  Let's make it great!"

Thursday, July 24, 2014

For Nothing will be Impossible --

It's #spiritualjourney time yet again.  Every Thursday, my goal is to take some time to reflect on my spiritual journal joining several bloggers who want to examine a biblical concept from the viewpoint of several different lenses.

This week is discussing the concept of following - more specifically following His will.

"For nothing will be impossible with God." Luke 1:37.

I love these words.  The hope they impart -- a perfect hope.

I tell my students to be careful when using absolutes -- nothing is a very powerful word. Yet it's absolutely perfect for this verse.  He is denied nothing. 

I looked at my initial class list this year.  Right now they are just names on paper -- a few I know from writing club, yearbook, plays,  older siblings . . . but for the most part they are names.  Searching through them, I find that I've already started my journey with them.  I've already started praying for them - that they will recognize in themselves the beauty they possess.  I've started caring.

What do I see?
Names with so much potential. 

I found myself humbled.  At this exact moment in my life, God has given me an opportunity to help these kids realize their potential.  He brought us together (some from close, others from far away) to sit together in a room and learn.  I began my habit of looking over the names.

Of breathing, "God, let me be what they need.  Let me be what You need."

Last year I got into the habit of starting every day with these words.  During our moment of silence, I reflect on my own biological children, those who have been in my classrooms across the years, and those who will feel my direct impact that day. 

Then I rely on Him to give me the words and tools that I will need. 

It results were amazing.  The change in perspective brought all of us a lot of happiness.

Don't get me wrong. I spend hours searching for, writing, discussing, and planning lessons that will help my students.  I work hard to accomplish what I do -- to foster a love of learning, strengthen writing skills, develop a critical eye toward reading and intention.    However, all of that means little if the child doesn't see his potential -- his unique beauty -- and start to focus on  how his presence will impact the world. 

Therefore, I give the credit to Him.  I follow. I trust.

He will NEVER fail me.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Beauty, it's deeper than you think

One of the things I like most about blogging is a chance to reflect on different aspects of my life.  It's from that reflection that I see evidence of growth, change, and hopefully finding a  clearer view of my purpose in life.

A purpose that I cannot take credit for because it was a gift from God.  Hopefully I'm using it to please Him.

I join several bloggers in a spiritual Thursday blog challenge -- a challenge from Holly Mueller.  This week she asks us to define beauty, and how can we use beauty to glorify God? 

Here is her response:

Of course I wouldn't have known about the challenge but through the writings of Greg Armamentos.  His unique viewpoints always gives me a different lens to contemplate and consider.  Thank you, Greg:

So how do I define beauty? 

I know what commercials say -- skinnier, smarter, more expensive, perfection.  These are all concepts that apply to the humanness in our hearts.  They are materialistic nuggets that dig deep into the soul designed to make us question, "Am I enough?"  Inevitably the answer is always no.  There will always be someone with something you do not have. 

Or at least you will perceive that is the truth.

The good news is that it's not.

The very act of being human makes us imperfect.  Though the devil does delight in hearing us question ourselves.  Sometimes he turns up the volume quite loud so that the sound of doubt lingers in our heads.  Evil little bugger.

See, the truth is that by nature we are all beautiful. We are enough.  In a snowstorm, a flake may resemble those falling around it, but each one has a unique path, a unique perspective, a unique impact on the world.  Depending on the conditions, they may consist of ice pelting relentlessly, or lazy enjoying a descent worthy of stage -- but they are all unique and wondrously made.  Every single one has an exclusive beauty.  Every flake leaves an impact on the world.

If God cares enough about snowflakes . . . imagine how He feels about us.

He loves us.  Humbling, isn't it?

True beauty is when you let God's love shine through you.  Listen to Him.  Take the gifts He has bestowed upon you - your distinctive perspective that no one else has - and use them to delight God.  I have a saying on my refrigerator, "What I am is God's gift to me, what I become is my gift to Him."  In my mind, these gifts define beauty. 

I'm not saying that I never succumb to the human voice of doubt.  I do.

But I'm happiest when I focus instead on Him.  It opens my eyes in ways I never expected.  It fills my heart in ways that material good could never fill.  It soothes my soul.  It gives me such a rich life indeed. 

Beauty can be found in many places - a tiny flower, a child's eye, a powerful storm, love, sunlight filtering through the leaves, October skies, an ocean, a puddle.

Take time to look at these gifts.  Try on a new perspective.  Turn down the volume of humanity.  Listen.  Love.

It makes life exceptional.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Express mailing chicks and other ramblings

Thank you to  Greg Armamentos and Jennifer Houlette for your constant affirmations on my blog.  At your invitation, I'm excited to share in the challenge of sharing my spiritual journey this Thursday (the call to action inspired by Holly Mueller).

Did you know that you can express mail chicks?  That's right.  Due to the nourishment in the yoke, they don't require food or water for the first few days of life.

Taken from the frequently asked questions at

How come hatcheries only ship chicks when they're 1 day old?

    For up to 72 hours after they hatch, baby chicks are still ingesting their yolk sacs. This provides them all the nourishment they need, which allows us the narrow window we need to ship them out. After 72 hours, their yolk sacs are gone and they need immediate access to food and water. Without it, they'll die. If we were to ship chicks at 3 days old or a week old, they surely wouldn't survive the trip.

Okay, so what does that have to do with my spiritual journey?  Well, if a mother hen had to leave her eggs to care for the ones that hatched first, it would allow the rest to be vulnerable.  So God provides exactly what they need to survive until the entire flock has an opportunity to thrive.

Ahh.  The point.  In every situation, God provides exactly what we need.  Every. single. time.  His timing is perfect.

See, I ran across this information on a Facebook post. Yes, occasionally God uses Facebook to give us a new perspective.  My first thought was, "That's cool." 

Then I saw it again.  I thought about it.  I realized how perfect it is.

God works that way.  He works in perfection.

I remember the day I decided to "go back" to teaching after a ten year hiatus.  Having four children in a five year span can change your career path drastically.  I missed teaching. Every year I found myself looking at openings and making excuses.  Graduating college, I had a B.S.E. in Middle/Secondary English and a minor in theater.  I decided to finish my M.S.E. in Curriculum and Instruction over the next few years.  I didn't realize how important that detail was ten years later in life when it allowed me a freer path to get a teaching license in Tennessee.  If I hadn't, I wouldn't be exactly where I am today. 

I was working as an office manager of a small private school, when I made the decision to apply to a prestigious private school as an English teacher.  I didn't have my Tennessee license yet, and this could be a fantastic opportunity for my daughter.  Through multiple phone interviews, they asked me to come in and interview in person as well as teach an 8th grade class.  Though I ended up being the second choice in that situation, it was exactly the professional nourishment I needed to be more intentional in my quest to get back in the classroom.  It gave me confidence to move forward exactly when I did.

I sent off the paperwork to the state in March.  It's a crazy time of year to expect a state agency to work quickly, so I followed it up with a phone call to find out exactly what tests/courses I'd need to get a license.  I figured I would be subbing for a year while I earned my license.  It turns out that my eight years of experience and Master's degree allowed me an opportunity for an apprentice license.

(I didn't believe her -- I actually started studying for the ELA Praxis; however, my 38 hours of college English hours highly qualified me K-12 ELA.  Once again -- choices from years before opened a door that I assumed was closed.  This was an important lesson in trusting God and not my own understanding.)

Excitedly, I sent out my resume, cover letters, and took the screening test in my county.  There were two openings posted, but I sent it to every middle school.  (See previous posts about why I love middle school so much.) 

The first call came a few days later.  The principal wanted to meet me to discuss an 8th grade English/Science position.  I remember thinking, Science?  Me? Gulp. 

See, I love what I do. I love writing.  I love reading.  I love acting.  I love engaging in all forms of communication.  I'm good at it.  I have passion for it.  I had to do a lot of soul searching to answer the question, can a good teacher teach any subject or is the subject part of what makes you a good teacher?  The principal and I had a great conversation.  She told me that day that I was at the top of her list, but she had a few more people to talk with.  While she found someone who was actually qualified in science and ELA, I knew a little more about me through the process.  I remember her telling me that she felt I would be a strength to the district and that she would call anyone looking for an ELA teacher on my behalf. 

Meanwhile, the same week, my license was approved.  I sent a copy to all of the administrators who had openings to let them know that I was official.  That afternoon my phone rang.  Could I come interview for a science position?  I gulped.  Yes.  See, I would never turn down an opportunity to talk about something I loved.  I love teaching.  In the interview, the principal said, you're obviously an English teacher.  I haven't posted it yet, but I will probably have an opening in a few weeks.  Ahh - an open door.  This school was just down the street from me.  I wondered at the possibilities.

Later that afternoon I received an e-mail asking for an interview the next day.  It was a new school in the southern part of my county..  It was also for 8th grade English.  Could I come in the next day?  Sure!

I remember praying a lot that day.  I wanted to be where God wanted me to be.  I wanted to do what He wanted me to do.  If this was right, please open the door.  If not, close it tightly.

That was the job I got.

Later I learned the following:
1.  They never would have interviewed me without the license in hand. I had it for 24 hours prior to the interview.
2.  I was actually in the second group of potential teachers. They didn't find the right fit in the first group. 
3.  The job at the second school where I interviewed never materialized due to numbers.

See, I asked, and it aligned perfectly.  It wasn't a traditional path.  It was one where actions years before allowed it to happen. 

And I feel like I am exactly where He wants me to be.  I am blessed by colleagues who bless me, encourage me, and challenge me to have a growth mindset.  I have incredible students who share their successes with me.  Despite the crazy hours and hard work, I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

The whole conversation started with a little meditation on shipping a chick.  The lesson of His perfect plan for me is where I'll end it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Just a minute

A few weeks ago my pastor preached about the phrase, just a minute.

How often do you say it? 

Often it's mundane.  It's a momentary distraction from something you're doing.  Perhaps it's a guilty minute of wanting to finish a chapter in a book before facing reality.  Maybe it's the snooze button on the alarm clock giving you a minute, or two of continued oblivion.

Other times it can shake your world.

The other day I was having the best day. I spent the majority of the day doing my favorite activities -- reading, writing a blog entry, working on a craft for my room at school.  I had no where I needed to be, the kids were all happily entertained, and I had no restrictions on my time.  (I admit it, I even did a happy dance!)

Then the phone rang.

The phone often rings, but this time it was with devastating news.

Immediately life changed.  Tears, talks, spending the evening trying to make sense of things.  Helping my kids understand, giving them a safe place to share.

But this post isn't about the phone call.  It's about how minutes count in life.

A moment can change the world in the life of a child.  Going out of your way to notice them.  Ask them about something they care about.  Show them you care in tangible ways.

I think in life we often get entangled in distractions and obligations.  Our calendars are full, our pile of work is towering, and we are out to change the world.  We expect our children to know that we care because we work hard.

And we forget that the most important thing we do is simple.  It's relationships.  It's taking the moment to change the world for someone else, shift his point of view, provide a new perspective.

Every moment we're given is a gift. Embrace it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Today the world is a little less bright

I know I feel inadequate to the task that has tumbled around in my brain, but I also feel compelled to write about it.

You see, today the world is a little less bright.

Everyone has a unique fingerprint, footprint, even tongue print. I tell my students that no one person in the world will see things exactly as they do.  Their viewpoints are unique and special. Every single one of them provides the world with something that no one else can.

Every single person matters.

And today the world lost one. His pain was too big, so he took it away. My heart shatters every time I think of the phone call I received last night.  It shatters again when I think of having to tell my boys about the loss of a teammate.  The pain cuts deep.  The phone call changed the lives of everyone on that team - everyone who knew him.

My heart goes out to his parents, his family. I've spent the night praying for them -- for grace, for peace, for love, for light to shine again.  It won't be an easy process.

I know I was plagued with the demons of guilt and doubt last night. What more could I have done? What more could I have seen?  That's a human reaction to try and fix a horrible, horrible situation.  The fact is, I simply cannot change what has happened.

So I need to focus on what can happen. The potential for growing from a hard lesson.  What can I do for the people who are here?  The kids who live in my house, the kids who sit in my church, the kids who sit in my class, the kids who were on his team.  Notice them. Love them. Show them that yes, they matter.

Listen to them.

Kids struggle with the same guilt that plagued me,.  Was an off-hand comment a little too biting?  Why didn't they reach out just a little more?  How was their teammate internalizing his pain?  How can they fix it?  Unfortunately they can't.  Instead they have to grow.  Adults can step in and help the growth become a positive.  The lesson is that as humans we need to be a little kinder because you never know what someone is dealing with.

I wish we all understood this perspective.  Be a little kinder.  Smile.  Celebrate the fact that we are in the struggle of life together.  Design a life where we build each other up instead of tear each other down - the people you know, and the people you don't.

The world is forever changed when it loses a perspective - a child, a future generation. So for today, the world is a little less bright.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Why do I read? Authors are heroes.

Today has been a wonderful day.  I've spent the afternoon engaged in one of my favorite hobbies -- reading.

I've always loved to read. Through reading I've gained experience, perspective, and joy.  I believe that reading helps promote empathy, caring, and has made me a better teacher on every level.

One of my favorite quotes from The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller is on page 106.  "I do not promote reading to my students because it is good for them or because it is required for school success.  I advocate reading because it is enjoyable and enriching." (Off topic, but I love everything about The Book Whisperer - it gives me a reason to engage freely in what I love.  I am definitely an enthusiastic reader - in our budget, my "fun" money almost exclusively goes to books.)

I read because it makes me a better human being.

Last summer I won a signed copy of One for the Murphy's by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  I walked around on a cloud for the rest of the week.  She included a bracelet with the title of the book and the slogan, "Be Someone's Hero" on it.  It's a little faded because I haven't taken it off since that day.  I use it as a reminder . . . that every day I need to be a hero to a child.  It was a lesson that I learned through her story.  It was a lesson that I was able to share with several in my class this year.  Ms. Hunt provided the tool to thrill and engage a child.  Her name signed across the cover made it even better.

Authors have always been heroes to me.  Through stories, I learned more about others which gave me more respect and a different perspective.  Authors have the power to change lives.

I can pinpoint when it started - Chris Crutcher, my junior year of high school.  Mike Printz (you might know him as the inspiration for the Printz Award - it always thrills me to see his name on books at bookstores proudly displaying the golden "P".  Yes, it always makes me pick the book up to read more) was our librarian.  He invited Chris Crutcher to do a week-long writing workshop with a group of 20 students.

To this day, I don't know how I was lucky enough to be a part of that group.  However, I do know it changed my life forever.

He was writing Crazy Horse Electric Game during his visit.  I remember doing workshops with him and having him share parts of his rough manuscript.  I remember marvelling at how this man was humbly asking my opinion -- a man who literally would have his words read by millions of people more qualified than I was.  Through him, and his stories, I learned that people often aren't what they show on the outside.  You never really know what's happening inside.  I learned to be kind because you really don't know what a person is experiencing.

I cried. I memorized passages. It helped to craft the person I am today.  His literature will always be important to me.

Stories are powerful.  Everything we learn is through story - or the creation of it.  Opening ourselves to the stories of others are important.  The pen has the power to change the world

My students know my passion for reading.  Often on Monday they ask what I read over the weekend.  Often I share part of it . . . and end up putting a story in the hands of a child.  Through that gift, I was able to open his/her eyes to possibilities.

So I'll keep my book budget.  I'll keep reading.  I'll keep sharing. 

Because in my eyes, authors are true heroes.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

My Mount Teachmore

The post that inspired this one:

Mount Teachmore

I think it’s only fitting that my tenth summer blog be about teachers who inspired me along the way, so when I saw Deb's blog on Mount Teachmore, I was intrigued.

Who would be on my Mount Teachmore?

There are many.  Would it be Mrs. Sheets (home ec – middle school – who taught me to sew, cook, and had the lovely job of teaching middle school hygiene), a passionate educator who really loved her students?  Mr. Henderson (speech – middle school) who taught drama and recognized a performer in the wrapped up in the inner turmoil of my awkward shyness?  Mrs. Albers (4th grade) who was strict, but taught incredible organizational skills?  Mrs. Parmley (3rd grade) who read the most wonderful stories after lunch? I can still hear her today read Shel Silverstein’s poem about a peanut butter sandwich.  Mr. Poort who inspired a love of learning about biology; I was amazed that I loved dissecting frogs, fish, and pigs to learn more about how humans work. Stories and memories have swirled through my head as I tried to figure out the four most influential.

Funny how they’re all English teachers.

I think I drove my math teachers crazy.

But the men who are carved into Mount Rushmore are the men who were significant in building the character of the nation.  The teachers I mention were significant in helping to mold the character of me and who I am today.  Their impact gave me the desire to believe in myself, stretch to reach goals, add to the human race, and be more.  Their gifts humble me.

The first face I would carve is Mr. Doug Goheen (Sophomore English, Theater 1, and TWHS Players).  Entering his class I was an awkward, unsure, somewhat shy mess. I had a desire to perform, and a creative streak that was hidden by my insecurity.  I loved stories. I loved writing. I loved acting.  These things gave me the opportunity to be someone I wasn’t.  I needed a lot of refining in all of those areas, and he gave me the opportunity to do so. He challenged me, frustrated me, encouraged me and allowed me to learn through failure and embracing hard work.  Sound familiar?  Good teaching practices are good teaching practices.  Period.  Thank you, Mr. Goheen.

My next face would be Mrs. Ann McDonald (Junior English, Creative Writing). Mrs. McDonald was my spark.  It was in her class that I learned about the power of journaling.  She helped me find my voice.  I remember my surprise when she thought something I wrote was really good – good enough to publish.  I still have that assignment.  It was a dialogue of my right brain and left brain discussing a swim meet.  The power of showing someone you believe in her and what she creates is life altering.  Mrs. McDonald extended grace and taught me that writing is a process where only the writer will truly know when the piece is done.  She fed my creative soul.  Thank you, Mrs. McDonald.

Mr. Duane Shufleberger (Journalism 1, Photography, Newspaper) is the third carving.   His was the gift of critical thinking.  What was the motivation behind this news article?  How do you listen to the stories of others? How do you find the truth?  I still remember his weekly news quizzes.  Sigh, what I lacked in knowledge, I usually made up for in creativity.  Under his leadership, we had an amazing paper. Through a lot of trust on his part, he allowed us to tackle controversial topics, and he encouraged us to always push the bar in a professional manner.  He taught me a lot about being professional, handling responsibility, and integrity in writing.  Thank you, Shuf.  (He is also the root of my high school nickname --  Aimless, but that is a story for another time.)

Finally I put my last hero on the mount,  Mrs. Marge Bakalar (Humanities, APE).  After all of these years, it’s hard to think of all she did for me without a lump in my throat.  She really saw each child in the room.  She loved them, and believe me, she challenged them.  I’ve never worked harder in my life – not even in college.  She gave me passion.  Passion to know more, be more, work harder.  She knew exactly when to push to take you to the next level in learning.  I learned through her exactly how much I didn’t know, but she laid the foundation to help me find my way.  Thank you, Mrs. Bakalar, the world misses you.

Seeing the potential, embracing creativity, challenging critical thinking, passion, these are the true gifts that an educator can give a child.  These are the gifts that help frame who I am today.

I thank all of the people who walked with me as a child.  I can only hope that I’ll mean the same to my students – that they can see the beauty of the future I see when I look in their eyes.
Mount Teachmore.  It's a beautiful thought.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014



Every morning when I power on my work computer I see it -- relevance, relationships, relentlessness and rigor.  Alliterative reminders of the focus of my district.

It's usually the one I need to define for kids.  When they look it up in the dictionary, it means unflexible or unyeilding; however, in the beauty of the English languge, the word has evolved into an educational buzzword that means an expectation that is academically, intellectually, or personally challenging.

I like that definition better. 

Notice and Note has helped me put this in perspective.  They explain that it's not the text that is rigorous, but it should be our examination of that text.  Think about their analogy on page 21, "A professional football player lifting a 100-pound weight ten times owuld not be justified in calling that a rigorous workout; an eighth grader trying to get into shape for the football team probably would.  And the fourth grader, who could not lift the weight at all, would, like the professional football player, be hard-pressed (pun intended) to have said his workout was rigorous.  The quality, rigor, does not reside in the barbell but in the interaction with it."

This was an "A-ha!" moment for me.  Rigorous training does not reside in the equipment, but in how we use it.

This makes sense.  It actually makes a lot of sense.

Therefore, rigorous reading of a text does not mean we need to choose more difficult pieces of text, but rather we need to react more intentionally with the text that we're using.  What is the focus of the task? What questions does the reading stimulate? What problem needs to be solved? What lesson needs to be learned? What unique viewpoint of the world is this text providing?

They all lead to one of my favorite questions, "Why is it important?"

This conversation is freeing to me.  This conversation allows me to scaffold how my students interact with text to build them to ones that require more complex thinking without questioning how rigorous they are.  When planned correctly, engagement and commitment to reading along the way are a rigorous activity - pushing the bar, walking with the student to think more, leaving a desire for more.

As I reflect over our reading list for this year, this approach will flavor how I approach our texts.  My original checklist for rigorous interaction with the text would include some of the following areas:

*  Students develop a deeper understanding of the topic.
*  Students use this understanding to develop personal claims about the text.
*  Student claims can be supported across multiple texts.
*  Evidence is used to support these claims through paraphrasing/summarizing/quoting.
*  Students elaborate on that that evidence supports the original claim.
*  Students practice using academic vocabulary as appropriate.
*  Students build upon other's contributions to the conversation.

When writing, I'd add
*  Students present knowledge using a logical format.

As the year progresses, I would probably add/subtract from this list, individualizing it more to the needs of the group/child. 

Regardless of the traditional definition of the word, educational rigor should embrace and advance the learning of each child.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Case for Fiction

What is the role of fiction?  (Inspired by Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst)

Some of my earliest memories involve books.  When I was little I wanted to be Laura Ingalls.  I had passages of her books memorized because her struggles intrigued me. Judy Blume was another one who opened my eyes. She gave me words to help understand when something difficult or challenging was happening.  My heart still aches for Blubber. Other books helped me process social clues, helped me figure out the whys of things that were happening in my world.  They gave me words to discuss things I wasn't sure about.  They let me know that I wasn't alone in my struggle.  I loved seeing the dates and events of history come alive, to better understand the significance of an event, personal attitudes and signatures of the culture/time.

I've always loved books.

This quote pretty much sums it up, "Nonfiction lets us learn more; fiction lets us be more." (pg. 17)

There are some emotions that involve all of humanity -- love, hope, fear, hatred, etc.  How do you process them?  Literature provides a safe way to examine issues away from a personal platform.  Sometimes personal events are too close to home to view objectively.  I was participating in a Twitter chat last night with Laurie Halse Anderson. Doesn't she write great books? I've been thinking about something she said, "Literature is the traditional, safe way that one generation passes wisdom to the next generation. Stories save lives."  Her words give power to those who struggle to find their voices to speak.  All fiction does this. It shows that you're not alone. Others have been there.

And it doesn't mean that you've had to experience it personally to learn from it. Fiction allowed me to experience things that were beyond my scope of "growing up in Kansas."  It gave me an opportunity to explore poverty, wealth, travel, culture on a personal level. It gave me a platform to experience loss, embrace joy, celebrate love.  It opened the door to possibilities. 

The New York Times published an opinion piece on March 17, 2012 where it discusses what happens in your brain when you read fiction.  "The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings." (Anne Paul Murphy)

Reading fiction builds empathy for the human experience. It gives us an opportunity to examine an event and decide how we would deal with it from an objective stance. Ultimately this has the power to change us, allow us to develop a new perspective, and ultimately "be" more.

My note in the margin today?  "Fiction builds empathy and connection to other humans."  I believe this is an essential skill.  After all, in general it's hard to hate when you know someone's story.  It gives you a new perspective, a glimpse beyond the fa├žade. It allows you to look into the mirror of humanity.

As a teacher, a parent, a community member, I want a society where kids develop these skills.  I believe that building relationships is one of the most important things I do as an educator (and I do a lot of important things). Giving my students a chance to explore humanity through fiction/stories is one way to help build these relationships.

Yes, non-fiction is important. I read it every day. I use it to learn more, think, engage, share, etc.  Fiction, however, allows me to BE more - to build better relationships, to grow empathy, and to embrace new perspectives.

After all, "The humanities, it turns out, do tend to humanize." (pg. 18)