Thursday, September 25, 2014

Giving kids a voice.

Amid the fun of Spirit Week, I've had student presenting "Trash to Treasure" narrative essays this week.  I believe sharing these stories are one of the most important things I've done this year. 

I've laughed. I've cried. I felt like we've moved mountains as a class.

It starts with having students write a narrative essay about an object they hold dear.  It's the one thing that brings them happiness, comfort, the physical representation of memories. Students choose all types of objects, but the heart of the assignment remains the same - that everyone has a story to tell.

It changes the atmosphere in a room when you allow this to happen.

Some of the stories are funny.  One wrote about how he treasured his pants and gave insightful reasons behind them.  Interwoven in his story was how the microwave was invented because of a chocolate bar in a pair of pants.  He insists it's true.  I haven't looked yet; however, the story was compelling.  Another demonstrated riding on a clown bike as she described how she rescued it from the garage where it had been hiding for many years.  She and her sister have many memories about those bike.

Others are tasty.  Stories of recipes such as cookies or cheesecake can actually cause your mouth to water.  Beautiful tales are shared of family gatherings or traditions that take place in the kitchen. 

There are many who discuss difficult topics.  Death of family members is particularly difficult.  Holding the healing stone of a child's departed grandparent will tug at your heart.  Medals, hats, even memories that echo throughout houses and communities were all shared. 

All of this serves to weave a sense of community throughout the room.

"We've been friends for years, I never knew why this was so important to you."

"Her story was so beautiful.  I never knew . . . "

Stories humanize.  They give an opportunity to share insight, vulnerability, and build trust. 

There has been a shift in my classroom.  I notice people talking who don't always.  I see smiles that aren't always there.  I see concern for others.

This is a valuable lesson for our students.  As teachers we need to carefully plan the way.

First -- Share your story with the class.  Not only can students relate to you, but they have the opportunity to benefit from a mentor text.  It also gives you an opportunity to see what struggles they will face.

Second -- Allow for time for practice.  Model what you expect of students. 

Third -- When they get to the podium, leave them a note.  Tell them that their words are important.  This may seem silly, but it puts the child at ease.  Remind them to read it.  This gives them a chance to get comfortable in front of the class. 

Fourth -- Have the class share the positive.  I model this first with the students.  We listen to the presentation, and I point out things the child did well through his presentation and writing.  I mention specific words that drew me in, details that were exceptional.  I have each student write a post-it note to the speaker telling him of the things that he did right.  After a few speeches, I have them distribute them and shower the speaker in compliments.

This part is important.  We need to train our students to look for the positive and listen to the good.  For some, these pieces of paper don't mean a lot, but for others, they become treasure within themselves.  I watch kids carefully stack them and keep them in their notebook.

The goals for speaking are things that I will address privately.  I allow kids to practice during my plan - to see what it feels like in front of the room.  If they stumble, I tell them it's okay.  We brainstorm the WORST thing that can happen and dismiss it as impossible.  After all, if it really came true, our presentation would be the least of our worries. :)

Stories are important.  Kids need to find their voice to share their stories.  It can change life for them.

I'll close with one of my amazing stories . . .

I have a student who struggles with social situations.  He is disturbed by noise, and doesn't like sharing in front of the class; however, he also has a desire to do well and complete tasks that are asked of him.  Getting up in front of the classroom with his treasure, he told me that he really didn't want to do this.  I told him that it was okay.  He didn't have to want to, but that I had confidence that he could do it.  The class then joined in with comments of encouragement as well as an appreciation of having him as a member of the class.

So he started speaking.  As he went on, his excitement for his treasure grew.  He had the opportunity to share a special love of his -- a passion for bats.  I knew that he had carefully selected details to put into his paper that painted bats in a positive light for he couldn't bear for anyone to think badly of them.  When he reached the end of his paper, he started to ad-lib.  His natural humor emerged and he kept the class engaged for several minutes longer than the initial assignment.

I was able to sit at watch him shine.  At the end of the day, kids were still talking to him about it.  The last few days he's had an additional pep in his step and smile on his face.

He still tells me he didn't like presenting.  However, what he learned . . . oh what he learned . . . and the gift he shared . . . well, that will live on for a long time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Communion #spiritualjourney

Thank you Holly (@muellerholly) for a thought-provoking topic.  I look forward to multiple perspectives every week as we walk together.

"Communion is a symbol."

We started our church service this week with these wise words.  Communion is a symbol of God's ultimate gift to us.  The gift of a re-do, reset, wiped clean scorecard.  I know I need it.  I don't deserve it, but I need it.

Isn't that what grace is?  Extending forgiveness when it's not deserved?  Forgiveness for the sins I know about, and forgiveness for the sins I'm unaware of.  Accepting that my human body will never be enough by itself, yet with God it is perfection.

Honestly it's one of my favorite time of the week.  I don't often complete it without a tear trembling, throat choking, humble acceptance of what is being offered.  It is a moment I need - a reminder of what God was willing to do for me. 

It just puts things in perspective. 

It resets my focus - what is important? pressing? overwhelming?  It resets my attitude - choosing love and forgiveness.  It resets my destination - for what he wants for me is so much better than I could ever imagine. 

Sometimes I wonder at my inability to keep a focus on what God wants instead of my own needs.  Like a child, I forget His perfect plan and allow myself to become mired in earthly concerns.  Therefore I'm grateful for this weekly reminder.  I'm grateful for the constant conversation. 

When it's dark - he is with me.  He reminds me of this weekly.  He brings the light to my heart.  As a human, I don't think I'm supposed to understand the dark.  He calls me to the light -- his love. 

A perfect love.

So I need that weekly wash, a gentle nudge, a reminder of Him. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Forgiveness #spiritualjourney

Some days I wonder how to do it.


Many things are easy -- small things . . . easily dismissed with a smile and a kind word.

Others are much harder.

Much, much harder.

Usually it involves my children -- one in particular, my child --  mean words, hurled insults, taunting laugher, group gang mentality.  Quite honestly, it's why I became a middle school teacher.  I want to change this behavior -- create situations where kids see the humanness behind the fa├žade they all wear.

Then I remind myself that we are human.  We make mistakes. 

I forgive; I feel better.

Then I fail again.  I see the perpetrators, unrepentant; I allow stirrings in my soul to feel negative. 

You see forgiveness is not an easy step.

Alone I will fail.  Alone I would harbor negative feelings. I would challenge the injustice of the situation.

I thank God daily that I'm not alone.  I'm grateful that he shares perspective with me.  I'm grateful that he doesn't give up on me. 

That alone brings me back to my knees to ask for His forgiveness.  After all He forgave me for so much more.  He forgives me when I fail.  He forgives me when I fumble.  He forgives me when I am foul. 

He extends grace over and over and over. 

That is a lesson worth learning.  I marvel at the sadness He must have felt when we turned our backs on him and His son.  If He can forgive that, then who am I to attempt anything less?

Finding inspiration #compelledtribe

I always love the interview question, "Where do you find your materials for a quality class?"

I'm sure the appropriate answer is to look at state standards, the scope and sequence, the text . . . but it's not my answer.  My answer is that inspiration can be found anywhere.  If I think it will enhance the curriculum, engage students, or breathe life into the learner, I use it.

I'm fortunate to work with like minded individuals.  As an 8th grade ELA team, we meet often to discuss our plans.  We work to find lessons that bring to life the lessons we teach.  Yes, we make sure the standards and sequence of events are covered in a thorough manner as outlined and expected in our district; however, we make the choice to approach it in a creative manner.

Because inspiration can strike at any moment.

Guess what . . . it works!

Three years ago we were looking at our newly adopted textbooks.  We met several times during the summer before school to divide tasks, and develop interesting lessons.  I was looking at a series of short stories throughout the book, with the goal of finding two with a similar theme to give our students an opportunity to discover theme across texts.

I found two that did this - they weren't put together in a traditional format.  They weren't even in the same section of the book.  However, the magic began when I put the titles in front of the team.

The stories "Clean Sweep" by Joan Bauer and "The Treasure of Lemon Brown" by Walter Dean Myers both had a similar theme of finding treasure in what others may consider not important.  We all have things we treasure beyond the monetary value of the item.  Usually they are attached to our memories, which creates the perfect opportunity to write a personal narrative about the item.

Suddenly the pairing got more meat.  However, it wasn't time to stop yet.  We continued to think about the theme that we call "Trash to Treasure."  Popular television shows were mentioned -- American Pickers, Storage Wars, Antique Roadshow were a few.  Non-fiction articles about Mike Wolfe (he has a house down the street -- about 15 minutes from our school) were found as he was expanding his retail location to Nashville.

Inspiration can be found anywhere.

We created a clip of the three TV shows to introduce the theme to our students.  It's only 7 minutes long, but it excites the kids to the point where they can hardly wait to share their favorite episodes. It opens up great discussions about choices that directors need to make in order to have a show work and what really goes on behind the scenes.  Next we look at the informational text pieces about Mike Wolfe and practice annotating the article.  Last year Mr. Wolfe was actually in town while we were doing this unit.  The English teachers took a Saturday field trip to see him in action in Leiper's Fork - several students did as well.  After hearing about our project, he donated his book for kids to our department, signed of course.

Next we look at the short stories to determine theme.  In "Clean Sweep" we discovered the theme of finding treasure amid the trash in attics.  Students wrote paragraphs describing how the author developed this theme citing evidence from the article.  (We used Google Classroom this year - this is an amazing tool for writing.)  Students then came in to find us dressed as Lemon Brown, a homeless man who was down on his luck in Harlem.  Harmonica music and the blues sang from our speakers as he shared his story and his treasure.  Again, the discussion of what makes something important was discussed.  We reinforced the ideas that when you learn why someone treasures something, it makes you view them differently.  You begin to see beyond the facade and delve into the character of a person.  Most of us aren't all that different beyond the facade.

Hearing the stories of others is important.

This leads us to the personal narrative.  Each teacher writes one first and shares it with the class. Then she challenges her students to do the same.  We have three basic questions our students need to answer -- what does the item look like (sensory details), what is the story behind the item, and why do you treasure it?  The requirement is a minimum of 500 words.  (This is rarely a problem.)

Kids have shared stories about baseball cards, broken iPods, cheesecake recipes, long boards, and instruments.  We've laughed as memories were shared, and as a group we've cried together.  Each child presents their treasure to the class while students write positive comments on post-it notes. Those notes are then shared with the speakers a the end of class (we shower them with notes).  It's fun to see them carefully store their notes and take them home.  Often those slips of paper become a treasure.

It's fun to see the shift in value in the class.  This assignment gives everyone a voice.  They are heard, and it is powerful.

So don't dismiss inspiration -- it can strike at any moment . . . in the closet, at a garage sale, in a flea-market, even in front of the TV.

What inspires your lessons?  Please share --

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Thank you for the inspiration for today's #spiritualjourney blog from Holly Mueller (@MuellerHolly).  I also appreciate the others who are willing to share their journey through a blogging platform.  Your words both influence and inspire.

This week's topic is truth.

I've been thinking about it for a week now.  In fact, the blog was actually due on Thursday, but I was still unclear as to what to say.  Every time I felt a nudge toward my blog, I'd sit.

And the words wouldn't come.


So I'd pray.  What is it God?  What do I need to learn here?

Obviously I need to learn a lot.  However, I wasn't hearing the answer. 

As I walked into church this morning, I was looking forward to our sermon.  We have a lead pastor who has a way with words.  He brings drama, excitement, and strong biblical teachings every week in a way that resonates in my heart.  My kids and I have the best discussions afterwards, and it keeps us coming back for more.

Today was no exception.  He was preaching on the book of Esther.  As I heard the story again, a strange peace settled over me.  I know what I want to write about.


You see, as humans we have many different perceptions of truth.  The themes that we read in stories, the lessons we take away from books, fiction are author's perspectives of truth.  Stories we hear on the news, speeches, even acts of war all provide evidence that announces an air of superiority over another side.  As a human we are bombarded with compelling arguments on this topic every single day.  No one wants to be wrong.  Oftentimes the two sides on any argument are too busy pointing fingers than to really listen.

However, the whisper I heard today came through Esther.  She was worried about approaching her husband with a request.  It was legitimate.  As king he had the right to kill her for doing this.  Therefore her plan was to pray - to listen for God's truth. 

And God had prepared the way.  He used her to offer the world a small glimpse of His provision. Her faithfulness was rewarded greatly. 

That is what I need.  As a human, I don't profess to have all of the answers.  I don't always know what's right.  What I do know that that if I ask, He will give me the answer. My truth comes from Him.  He understands far more than I do, and I have to trust in that.  Completely and even when it's hard.  He uses it.

Which is why I start the day with the prayer, "Lord, set aside my needs today so I can be what You need."  He is my truth.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Google Classroom -- a glimpse into the learning of tomorrow, today.

As a part of the #compelledtribe, our challenge was to blog about how we were using technology in a new way this year.  I thought about all of the things I do -- from using cameras to capture notes, search engines for enrichment, QR codes, augmented reality, to daily programs such as Twitter or KidBlog.  It has been my goal the last four years to embrace technology for educational purposes in the classroom.  I am blessed to have colleagues who push me to try new programs, as well as encourage me to take risks.  However, the piece that has excited me most this year began with a summer surprise -- 

The start of the school year always brings some technical shockers with it, and this year was no different.  In the past our school has always provided a U: drive for all students.

(Side note -- I remember when I started four years ago and and no idea what a U: drive was.  It's simply a personalized drive for each student in our county.  Students could save papers across years and schools by accessing their drive in any school in our district.)

I've always relied on the U: drive.  Students would be able to write papers from any computer in the district and pick up where they landed in the next class.  We could pull up papers from years past to revise, revisit, and reflect.  It had a lot of value.

I knew they were wiping all student U: drives clean this summer.  As you can imagine the storage for 20,000+ students was enormous.  Last year students saved beloved work to flash drives and e-mailed documents home for saving.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that U: drives were eliminated.


No more.

Each student would have internal district access to Google Docs instead.  Through student G-mail accounts, they would be able to communicate and share with anyone within our district.

Now, I've dabbled in Google docs, shared platforms, Google forms (thank goodness for Flubaroo), and the school G-mail accounts.  I've worked with students across these programs, but most of my students were determined to stubbornly cling to personal e-mail.  Despite showing the benefits of Google docs (automatically saves, works across platforms, allows you to conference directly), at the end of the year someone still hadn't activated their account.  I think it's time to challenge them for a little technological growth, don't you?

My dabbling is about to become more serious.

Fortunately I participated in a four hour PD this summer where I learned how one high school teacher runs a paperless classroom via Google docs.  He had a system of folders that required specific names, specific locations, etc.  It worked, but it involved a lot of detail.  I was excited by the possibilities.

I was really excited when I thought about how this could show the digital path of a paper.

However, it was a lot to remember.  He was willing to share, but you know what it's like during the first month of school -- awake at 4:30, home at 8:30, grading, new names, preparing, personal family time.  My team sat down today to revisit his thoughts so we could get our students on board next week.

And in walked a science teacher -- @bsbailey -- someone who is willing to always challenge himself and his students to take risks with technology.  (Seriously, you should follow him on Twitter -- he is amazing.)  Above that, he's always willing to help out a fellow teacher or present new solutions.

Today's was amazing -- Google classroom.  Google it.  I had my classes set up in about five minutes.  Each one will get a unique code that allows them to sort into the correct class.  All you need to do is share the code.  Then each student will have access to all of his classes in the same space.

THIS is the key to the magic.  Documents are automatically shared with teachers, they can have writing groups to peer edit with color coded responses, you can attach mentor texts, videos, slide shows, pretty much anything you need to give your students the tools to be successful.  It keeps a trail on when each paper was submitted, how it was revised, suggestions that peers made, the teacher's comments/grade, and allows the student to resubmit after additional editing.

As a teacher of writing, I can only imagine how this will help my students when reflecting on the process.  I'm excited for our first submission next week.  I'm excited they will be able to work across limits like walls and cables.  I'm excited to take learning to the next level by creating a digital path to demonstrate learning.  I'm excited to literally walk the path with them through reflection.

To put it simply, I'm excited. (Can you tell?)

Yep, some days you'll get a glimpse into the future.  Today I felt it.   It feels great.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

All for the Glory of God

Four years ago I remember struggling with what I wanted to do when I grew up -- again.  You see, I spent the prior decade being a stay at home mom to four children.  I wasn't sure where God wanted me to plant roots.

As a young adult, I'd had my life figured out.  I was going to teach for ten years, begin a doctorate program, earn my Ph.D. and teach future middle school educators at my alma mater.   I was going to write books and fit a family in to the corners of my life.  I had my future planned.

Which is probably why I fell on my face.  When the twins were two, I was caught in the quandary of wearing too many labels -- Super Teacher, Super Mom, Super Wife, Super Friend, Super flop.  One cannot survive on three hours of sleep a night for months upon end.  Eventually even the weekends were not long enough to keep up with what I was doing to myself.

God was telling me to slow down.

He was telling me to let go of my reigns and pass them back to him.

He was teaching me to listen, and He would provide.

Did I mention that I'm a little stubborn?  I was devastated when I stopped teaching.  We moved across the country for my husband's job, and I went from knowing my role, being respected by many, having a reputation for extracting excellent to just another neighbor, just another mom, just another member of the masses.

Now, I'm glad that it happened.

During that decade, I had a shift in focus.  It became so much less about me and so much more what God intended.  I learned to see the beauty in life, celebrate relationships, focus on my own children.  I had many experiences on the other side of the school relationship.  I got involved in the PTA, I sat through IEPs, I felt the unique pain that parents feel during a student conference that doesn't go well.  I learned that the most important thing I could do was focus on the life that God intended for me.

You see, he was prepping me to return to what I loved doing.  He just needed me to do it with Him at the center instead of me.  It was a long process.  I was concerned that I'd return to my workaholic ways.  I was concerned that I had been out of the classroom too long.  I was concerned that I wouldn't be seen as strong as I was before.

Thankfully he didn't give up on me.  He nudged me.  Again. Again.  Occasionally he had to give me a few hurdles to lead me in the right way.  Like a bumbling sheep I followed.  I prayed.  I put Him at the center.

And I'm grateful to call myself a teacher again.  This time my focus is a little different.  I've always cared about kids and cared about their future, but this time I was a servant of His giving them what He needs me to give. 

Guess what?  I am enough. 

Though it's not because of me.

What did I learn?  To listen.  To trust.  To love.  To be faithful.

All for the glory of God.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Be Nice.

Our district has rolled out a county-wide campaign this year.  The slogan is simple.

Be Nice.

The words are important.  Let's take a moment to reflect on what they mean.  Nice is a word that we often use, but do we take the time to reflect on what it looks like on a daily basis?  Are they just words we mutter, or do we intentionally think about the meaning and act upon them? Sometimes I think the world could use a healthy does of perspective. It would solve a lot of issues that we face personally, professionally, as a community, as a nation, and as a world if we simply act upon this simple concept. Be nice.

So how does "be nice" look?  What are we asking to have our students do?

I think it begins with noticing others.  A focus on what others need is essential.  For example, I have a student who is struggling to recover from a concussion right now.  He looked tired, so I asked him how he was feeling.  He smiled and said his head was hurting some, that reading and bright lights really were affecting him.  It was easy to turn off the overhead lights to provide him some relief.  That small act took me 30 seconds though I hope it's acts like this that will live a lifetime in his head.  Perhaps it seeing someone struggle in the hallway.  Instead of walking by, can I help with a locker, a dropped book, a lonely face?  It can be as simple as a smile, a compliment, an invitation.  Maybe I notice a new haircut, start a discussion about graphic on a t-shirt, or follow up with a conversation. As a teacher, I take many opportunities to look at my class.  Internally, I ask the following questions:  What do I see happening?  Is someone isolated?  Is someone taking a group off task?  What is another group doing well?  How can I give a shout out for the ideas of another?  Where can I support my students?  What changes do I see?

After you've taken note of the needs of others, ask yourself if you can discern the possible motivations behind certain actions.  For example, is the isolated child there by choice, or perhaps she is new to the district.  How can I provide opportunities for her to develop friendships with others?  Are there others in the class with similar interests? Until then, I make sure I take a moment to seek her out and ask how her day is going.  Perhaps I stop by the table at lunch and say hello.  To do this it's important to intentionally listen.  If a child is acting out, experiment with ways to use his strengths to create a positive relationship.  Try different methods to get to know him in a positive way and use that to hook him into class activities.  Continue to try different methods to open his ideas to different possibilities and different outcomes.  Additionally, choose to complement those (students and adults) who are doing well with specific praise.  In the hallway, grab a co-worker to tell her what your student is doing well in front of the child.  Let each child hear the singing of his praises.   E-mail or call home with good news.  Smile.  Ask how others are doing.  Yes, this takes moments away from what I need to accomplish, but it impacts the future in ways that my needs alone never could. 

An important aspect of being nice is that it requires grace.  I extend grace often in life as I hope I will be given the same opportunity when I make a mistake.  When students make bad choices, I do my best to bite my tongue.  Occasionally I step away to let the heat of the situation calm down,  I tell them that I will miss them.  (I actually do - each child provides a voice that is valuable in the room.)  I remind them that there is a new opportunity tomorrow to make different choices.  We discuss ways to grow to the type of person they want others to see them as and how to become that person.  The next day I greet them at the door with a smile.  People make mistakes; the important part is how we learn and grow from them.

Finally, being nice requires making the choice to do so.  To notice the needs of others, to develop  relationships,  and to offer grace are all intentional choices.  They are choices designed to help me be what my students need to move forward in becoming the person they want to become.  They are choices that tell kids that they matter in the world.  They are choices that I hope will live long after the 2014-2015 school year.