Priorities

It is the time of year for the New England teacher when our moods and those of our students coincide with the natural contrasts of light and dark, and warm and cold.  We wake to darkness and provide our own light to prepare for the day.  Likewise, we dress to accommodate for the storms that rage within and without.  The physical mirrors the psychological.

As caring teachers we have to be doubly prepared to face the elements of the season – students and co-workers in need of a helping hand, the demands of our families, and the pressures unique to our own circumstances.  Near the holidays, the light we carry and the warmth we provide may be all that separates someone among us from tears or anger.  We will feel some degree of seasonal stress, either our own or that of someone else.  Yes, we will keep our students challenged, and yes, we will continue to race the clock with our various projects and responsibilities.  But there is one more critical thing than Common Core, common assessments, competency writing, rubrics, and all other tasks at hand, and that is our collective responsibility to look out for the emotional well being of our students and each other.

Too often as teachers we underestimate the power of a touch, a kind word, or the smallest act of caring – all of which have the power to turn a life around.  Unleash a tidal wave of courage this season and be the light in your classroom and school.  Draw smiles on faces with your eyes until you don’t have to anymore.  Believe that through caring, compassion, and commitment you can make a difference that will last long beyond your lifespan.

That is truly extraordinary.

~ Sean

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Teach Students, Not Content

When I pick up my 2-year-old Colette from daycare, she usually asks what I “taught the kids today.” For my own amusement I always tell her exactly what we did: “We read some Ralph Waldo Emerson and Daddy asked the kids what they thought about it; We discussed the nature of ‘coming-of-age’ as defined in an essay by Pico Iyer; We explored the cyberpunk sub-genre of Science Fiction in both print and film.” I just like to hear what she says, how she processes, what she picks up. And one day she picked up on something that reminded me of a recurring conversation I used to have as a first year teacher. When I told her, “We wrote about Walden by Henry David Thoreau and shared our responses,” she replied, “No, Daddy. What did you teach?”

My first teaching job was in Brooklyn, NY. The mentor I was assigned was plucked right out of central casting: thick Brooklyn accent; coffee and cigarette stained teeth; equally at home on a street corner as he was in the teacher’s lounge where our weekly meetings took place. His first question was always the same: “Whaddja teach dees kids taday?” If I replied then as I do now with Colette, his response was hers exactly, only with somewhat more bite: “Nah, kid. I mean, whaddja teach dem?”

With Colette, I turned it back on her and asked what she thought I should teach the kids. She looked around the car and out the window, and then recited everything she saw. If my curriculum reflected her response, my students would be learning about apples, houses, her little brother Cooper, trees, and trucks. My mentor in Brooklyn would have loved this response. “Eggsactly kid! It don’t madda what you teach dem, I mean content-wise. I’m askin’ ya what skills ya taught dem. What can dose kids do taday a little bedda den dey could do yessaday? You teach students, kid, not content.” He used to spit the word content out like it had soured or gone stale, while I would scramble to think of the actual skill or ability that was at the heart of my lesson.

So here I am thinking about all this again: a parent talking to the sponge in the car seat behind me, a teacher reflecting on my practice as the language of education becomes Common Core. And I think there’s something in Colette’s advice about how to decide what to teach. What is in the car with you is what is most important to you, and what passes by the car window driving through town are the concerns of the community. That is to say, in terms of content, consider whatever is within reach, or maybe just out of reach, and teach students the skills to actually grasp it for themselves.

~ Dan P.

Reading Poetry in the Classroom

Poetry is an elusive thing. When I ask students to read poetry I often find they end up on the verge of pulling their hair out, especially when I ask them questions like what does this poem mean, or how is this poetic device being used to effect by the poet in the poem? Students often view poetry as a mystery. Just ask them to write their own poem and they’ll say things about their poetry like I want my poem to be confusing here. I want the reader to have to figure things out for herself. The idea that the reader of poetry should be confused isn’t developed out of thin air. Students believe the reader of poetry should feel confounded and they emulate their own reading experiences when they write poetry.

So the question is how do we get students to appreciate and understand reading poetry in the same way that they might a good short story or novel? Here are a few suggestions for reading poems, any and every poem, that have worked for me:

  1. Your first question, or even your last, should not be what does this poem mean or what is the poet trying to convey? Instead, ask students about what they like. It’s as simple as that. The doorway to a class discussion about any poem is opened by asking students what they like about the poem. It takes students off their guard. It is less daunting to be asked this question than having to decode the entire poem and take a chance in class to say what it means. When they begin by talking about what they like in the poem they naturally begin talking about what the poem is about and begin trading ideas about the poem’s meaning. Don’t be afraid to talk about what they don’t like as well.

  2. Have some fun with the poem. Cut it up. White it out. Glue it. Circle and underline. Draw. Have students begin finding favorite words or lines in this way. This can be fun, but it is not just child’s play. Many contemporary poets are applying various elision techniques to full length books of poems. See Jen Bervin’s work with Shakespeare’s sonnets in her book, Nets, as an example.

  3. Read and re-read a single poem over the course of one week. Unlike the plot driven novel that wants us to read-read-read until the last page, a poem wants us to read, stop, consider and reread. Give students this experience with a poem by building upon the discussion over the week.

  4. Emulate. Have students write their own poem based on the poem they’re reading. Some of the best poetry I’ve seen students produce comes from emulating the works of other poets. If the poem has four stanzas, a rhyme scheme, or is driven by metaphor students can challenge themselves to develop their poems in the same way. (Notice how those poetic terms are popping up here? Now, instead of explaining how they work in someone else’s poem students have to decide how they will work in their own poems.)

Number four points a finger at another side of poetry, writing it, that deserves a post of its own. But for now, try approaching poetry in the classroom with one simple question – what do you like? – and see where it leads you and your students.

~ Dennis

Suggested poems that lend themselves to discussion and writing prompts, all available on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

“The Pull Toy” by A.E. Stallings

“Fifty-Fifty” by Patricia Clark

“Dog in Bed” by Joyce Sidman

Life in a New Classroom

Click.  The door shuts behind me and I stand in the corner of my new classroom.  Bare, whitewashed walls, band-aid colored desks, and a stretch of empty wooden bookshelves frame the space.  I let ownership wash over me and settle in the pit of my stomach in a knot of nervous energy, potential, and excitement.  There is no feeling like that of being in a new space—my space—for the first time.  The bareness and sterility sink in when I realize that not only do I have to resuscitate my incoming classes of freshmen, juniors, and seniors, but I also must breathe life into this classroom.  After all, reviving this empty shell is the first step to creating a strong learning environment for my students, one in which they feel ownership over their learning process.

In elementary school, teachers spend entire summers developing themed rooms that make learning magical.  In first grade I remember reading in an old claw foot bathtub filled with vibrant throw pillows, yet as I matured so did my classrooms until the vibrancy of elementary school gave way to the starkness of high school.  In the upper grades, it was assumed that English, math, science, and social studies didn’t need to be coated in glitter to excite students—the complexity of the subjects could carry themselves.

As I approached my classroom this summer, I designed it around my students.  My goal was to create a space that not only excited students about reading and writing but also served as a flexible area to differentiate instruction based on the individual needs of my classes.  Each detail was tailored to develop an ideal learning environment.Reading Area in Ms. Catcher's Room

My first step was in picking a color scheme.  English is oftentimes seen as a “female subject” as compared to math or science.  In turn, I picked a gender-neutral color scheme with red and blue as my main palette.  Was I overthinking it? Potentially, but studies have shown that the color red is linked to high performance on detail-oriented tasks while blue is linked to higher performance on creative tasks.  Color coordinating for efficiency certainly couldn’t hurt—and as a first year teacher, I’ll take all the help I can get.

In my classes I use a workshop model to guide my reading and writing curriculum.  In turn, students share their work with one another to create a strong collaborative environment.  This method requires a flexible classroom that can easily transition to the needs of individual students as well as into working groups.  I focused on developing individual spaces from a reading corner to a one-on-one conference table at the back of the room and grouped desks for collaborative work.

Paper TreeFinally, the centerpiece of my classroom is a bulletin board that stretches the length of one wall.  Divided into separate sections, this interactive board not only displays student work, it also encourages reading and writing by putting students’ achievements on display.  In the center of the wall a knobby paper tree with four large branches (one for each freshman class) stands tall decorated with paper leaves.  Each leaf represents one book a student has completed.  Not only does this simple display mark communal class achievement, it also serves as friendly competition between classes.  To the left of the tree is a large, three-dimensional writer’s notebook.  Page protectors allow me to easily slip in and highlight examples of work from my students’ writer’s notebooks.  Finally, to the far right is a graffiti wall where students can post model sentences from their books as well as their own writing.Student Example Writer's Notebook

Everything has a place and function in my classroom.  From grouped desks to my young adult library, I aim to create a place for teenagers to find common ground with each other through reading and writing.  My creation is not perfect and it will continue to grow as my career does, yet for right now, this space has brought my students together, allowing me to spark my own magic.

~ Jackie

Test What You Teach

I often ask students to create a visual representation of an idea we have been tracking in class. Imagine, I might say, you could take a snapshot of Huck and Jim at three different stages in the novel as a way of illustrating the nature of their relationship. The skill that I want to assess with an assignment like this is the ability to identify defining moments in a novel—moments where something changed, developed, manifested, etc. I am assessing how closely a student has read, but since identifying and discussing defining moments in a text is a focus of many of our classroom conversations, I am also assessing how closely a student has paid attention. If you are paying attention in the novel, you notice when things change; if you are paying attention in class, you recognize the types of changes. But here is what inevitably happens: the students who take good notes and are artistically gifted get A’s.

The problem with this scenario is that I don’t teach students how to take notes, at least not explicitly, and I certainly don’t provide instruction in the visual arts. In other words, I am assessing skills that I don’t teach. I have never developed and presented a lesson on how to represent something visually, I just take it for granted that kids can make posters—as if they are ready to step right out of my classroom and into the art department at a Madison Avenue ad agency.

While this discordance between instruction and assessment is pretty obvious on the “poster projects,” it is more subtly, and more significantly, an issue at stake when it comes to assessing student writing. Assessing student writing can be a little like listening to the radio: we know right away what we like or don’t like, but it can be hard to define that quantitatively. So much of what is on the radio is formulaic and boring, yet familiar and catchy enough to entice the listener to nod along without paying too close attention. Clever students figure this out as quickly as pop-rock bands, and what they produce is equally as inoffensive and shallow. Nice hook, no glaring missteps, predictable transitions, wrapped-up neatly in 300-500 words (or 3-5 minutes for the radio).

It’s easy to reward clever students for doing things well that they can pretty much do on their own. But that isn’t teaching. I remind myself of this when I encounter a student frustrated by a given assignment. What I like to tell that student is that this is supposed to be hard—if it you could do it on your own I wouldn’t bother teaching it. Last year I challenged myself not to assess a given skill until I had demonstrated it myself. This slowed things down, but in all the right ways. It also forced me to reconsider the skills I valued most—since I would have to demonstrate them, I didn’t want to end up giving myself a bunch of busy work.

The skills that emerged as the most valuable transcended the specific text and center around the idea of “joining the conversation.” I stressed that there are conversations going on all around us, conversations about heavy issues like race and gender, and less heavy (but no less contentious) issues like sports and music, and we join these conversations responsibly when we exhibit an awareness of occasion, the speakers involved, their audience and purposes, and the crucial tension of the issue at stake. Authors and artists and musicians and talk radio hosts join these conversations through their respective mediums. Each medium has its own form-governed rules. What is boring and predictable adds nothing to the conversation. The challenge for this year is to teach teenagers how not to be boring and predictable. It’s the same lesson I expect them to teach me.

~Dan P.

First waves…

After the school principal wrote about our blog on his own school blog, we caught the attention of a local news writer! Here’s a link to the article in Exeter News-Letter: http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20130806-NEWS-308060355

Teaching with Intent

I love TED talks.

I often find myself consumed by the wonders of TED. Technology. Entertainment. Design. In fact, before sitting down to write this blog, I logged onto TED and watched an hour’s worth of videos. TED truly is a teacher’s paradise. I mean, when you think about it – isn’t that what we do? We teach with technology, we entertain for engagement and we design our own lessons / units / projects. Teachers are, in a sense, artists.

Do we all see ourselves that way?

I certainly didn’t. In fact, when I first began teaching I simply intended to keep my head above water. I never really thought about why I was teaching a certain novel, poem, theme or literary term. I did it because others in my department did and since they had been teaching for a lot longer than me, I figured I should.

Do me a favor here and type the word “intention” into the search bar on TED.com. One of the first talks to pop up is John Hockenberry’s talk “We are all designers.” Here, Hockenberry gives a very enlightening talk on how one’s intentions matter. About 16 minutes into the talk, Hockenberry states “An object imbued with intent — it has power, it’s treasure, we’re drawn to it. An object devoid of intent — it’s random, it’s imitative, it repels us. It’s like a piece of junk mail to be thrown away. This is what we must demand of our lives, of our objects, of our things, of our circumstances: living with intent.”

I’d like to steal Hockenberry’s idea here and say this: intent is an essential component for teaching. It’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to teach with intent. Teaching is a craft. Teachers design lessons / units / assignments. We determine what we want our students to know and we begin to craft a road map to that outcome. If our road map starts to falter, we change things up. We reteach, we redesign, we review, we rewrite and many of us do this unconsciously. Like artists. Because teaching is an art form.

I have different intentions each year. My first year of teaching, I intended to survive. My second and third year, I wanted my students to pass the “test.” And then a funny thing happened. I took a step back and I realized teaching is not about the content. It’s about the kids. My intentions in becoming a teacher were never to make all kids realize what a powerful novel To Kill a Mockingbird is. I now realize my intention is to make my kids understand how powerful their own voices are, perhaps with Harper Lee’s help.

My takeaway from Hockenberry’s talk is twofold: first, it goes without saying that it’s really difficult to stay focused on craft with everything else going on in the test-crazed world of education. And while many of us don’t have a choice in what we teach, we can decide how we teach it. Second, fear is a roadblock we all have to overcome to get to the root of our intentions. Teachers are a fearful bunch and many of us lack intention because of fear. We’re afraid of the Common Core, parents, large classes, bad classes, administrators, observations, and afraid of someone showing us that there could be a different way to teach. I’ll be the first to admit that I was (still am) afraid of many of these things. And when I get fearful I remember what Kim Stafford said in his book Muses Among Us: “teaching is an art. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

We are artists. Our student are our audience. Our content is the colors we use to craft our masterpiece.

What will your masterpiece be?

~Kristina

Education, Leadership, and the Art of Dancing

There is a Youtube video (First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy) of a young man dancing with his shirt off at a concert who appears to be entirely on his own and looks more like a crazy person than a leader. That is until another person slips into view and begins dancing with him. Before long, another person joins in with the first follower and then another… and yet another until an entire crowd is dancing with the shirtless boy who moments ago looked like one crazy person in the company of the sane.

In education leaders can cause change on many levels, big and small, but it is not by mistake that change occurs. If positive change is going to occur, schools need leaders and first followers who are willing to join forces and share ideas. During my time as a teacher I have found inspiration from my colleagues that has led to very positive and sometimes radical changes in my classroom environment, and has even led to positive changes in our department and school, as well.

This past year I walked through the door of a colleague and began a discussion about a coming Research Paper. She told me she was thinking about changing her approach to the paper and shared an article with me that told a story from the point of view of an informed inanimate object. I was intrigued and excited, and the two of us began working on an idea that would transform our approach to the research paper. By the end of the assignment we had heard stories from the planet earth about the greed of mankind throughout history, a soup kitchen told the story of poverty in America, and a microphone delivered its opinion on important political speeches of the past. Students were inspired to use their research in a creative way and other teachers on our team saw the value of the paper and joined in.

In another instance, a lead teacher inspired others to join her in what she referred to as a Reading Initiative. She had piloted a program in her classroom based on Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide where student choice in reading became the central focus of the classroom. Together, we solicited the principal for money to buy classroom libraries of high interest books for young readers. The outcome: over the course of the year student response was overwhelmingly positive, and hundreds of our students discovered a newfound love for reading.

On an even larger scale, another group of teachers got together this year to discuss ways to positively affect our students as writers. One teacher recommended that we invite “real writers” into the school and conduct interviews and workshops with them throughout the day. Writers on an EHS Stage produced four events throughout the year where students had a chance to listen to and meet with people who write for a living. Our last guest was Stephen King, the famed writer and novelist! The entire school community was affected by this single idea and hundreds of students had the opportunity to meet and work with writers.

Whether we analyze leaders and their followers in videos such as “Dancing Guy” or our schools, there is a basic recipe for change. Someone has to be willing to share his or her good idea and a first follower has to be willing to support it. If the idea is as good as its supporters believe, it will build momentum and flourish. We grow towards a community of change when a leaders and their first followers start with an idea and willingly share it with others. This is a basic tenant of education, isn’t it? We are here to lead our students to work together as a community of interested learners. If we are going to lead our classrooms towards positive change we must learn to practice the fine art of the leadership dance ourselves.

~Dennis

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