Friday, November 1, 2013

It's November

It's November.

Since I am unable to take on the challenge of NaNaWriMo, I will attempt the challenge of NaBloPoMo (assuming it still exists).  So dusting off the cobwebs of this blog, here I make a return.  Are 30 days of blog posts in me?  Well, I honestly don't know...

In the past year since I've posted, I have to admit that I have gotten somewhat disillusioned with teaching.  A VERY rough spring brought me to the point where I seriously considered quitting teaching.  The harder I tried to succeed, the worse things seemed to get and after a lot of negativity, stress, and one of the scariest situations I've ever encountered as a teacher occurred, I was ready to give up.  I even started writing my resignation letter.  But then uncertainty for the future somehow managed to kick me back in.

Teaching isn't the same.  County policies have made the battle to teach exclusively through reading and writing workshop too much of a war zone to safely continue.  I have stepped back and attempted to lock step with my department which although a modified version of reading workshop has been able to be maintained in this unified plan, writing has taken a huge nosedive.   It's the beginning of November, and I write my first blog before my students have even begun drafting their first real piece of writing.

It's the end of the quarter and for the first time in many years I don't sit surrounded by piles of portfolios to grade.  There's a certain ease to this teaching style, but while part of me rejoices to have a moment of free time, the other part of me sobs for the fact that this is the kind of teacher I've been forced to become...

But you know, perhaps that struggle for balance is exactly the writing topic that will keep 30 days of posts coming.  Will every day become reading and writing workshop once again?  I'm doubtful, but here's to a month of trying to chronicle the journey nonetheless.  One now down, twenty-nine to go....

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Looking back on 2012

Tonight I'm sitting in a hotel room with the end of my vacation looming.  We're back to school on Wednesday.  The past week has been wonderful.  I feel relaxed and under no stress.  I've had time to enjoy beautiful weather, read a couple great books and even tonight am returning to writing a bit on this blog.

2012 has had its ups and downs.  There have been some great moments and then moments I'd like to forget.  It's been a year of increasing school pressure and a year of feeling increasingly unsettled.  As I return from vacation and look toward 2013, there are many things that are forming themselves into wishful resolutions.

From a school front, I want to live more of the life I ask my students to lead.  Too often in the past I've let other teacher tasks get in the way of the enjoyable reading, the work of a writer and even the blogging that I should be doing.  I'm tired of having to pretend; I need to make the time to do it.  Deep down I suspect it's one of the things that causing me to feel so unfulfilled about my workshops.  I know I can do better and even though planning for and responding to my students is important, I need to balance it—being a reader and a writer myself is equally as important.

I also need to open my eyes for new opportunities.  My heart tells me I'm working for an administration that is never going to take the time to understand what my students and I try to accomplish on a daily basis.  They have a vision and unfortunately I don't seem to fit the mold.  I care enough about what I do as a teacher that the whole situation has had me feeling extra stressed the past few months, and I need to change that.  What that new path is or when/how it will come, I don't know, but I need to keep my eyes open.

And in many ways, that connects with my last wish:  to stretch my personal boundaries.  I have fallen into a rut.  I used to expand my horizons, but I've gotten stuck.  My life has fallen back into being school focused.  I don't have much of an identity beyond "teacher".  The world is out there.  I'm quickly getting older.  I need to embrace life before it passes me by.  I need to spend more time with old friends.  Engage in more activities.  Find ways to meet new friends.  Take better care of myself.  Exercise.  Eat more healthy.  Ultimately (using a quote that's always been one of my favorites), I need to remember to seize each and every day.

In fact, found this on Facebook earlier this evening:

And I think that sums it up very well.  I need to stop making excuses.  I need to live my life...and I think that will be my resolution this coming year.  So bring on 2013!!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Soliciting help and advice....please!!

I'm sitting down to plan and I'm dreading the week.   And oddly enough it's not because break will be over, but instead it will be my first day back in the building since the "wonderful" meeting with the administration that sickened me on Tuesday.

Our school went through a complete change of administration this year and apparently our new principal has no trust in reading/writing workshops.  I got pulled into an hour meeting with both the principal and assistant principal on Tuesday afternoon and neither approved of my teaching.

If I'm not using the exact wording of each of our state standards, then apparently I'm not teaching them.  Best I could understand from the principal, her view is that the only way to teach is to take one standard, teach directly that, immediately assess, and then move onto the next.  Every day's lesson must be targeted to specific new learning that every student should have mastered by the end of the period.  Anything that I do that doesn't tie to that, should be dropped.

So in other words, students aren't really gaining anything from independent reading, because instead of asking specific targeted questions like, "What is a synonym?  Give me an example.  How are you using it to expand your vocabulary?"  (the way our standard is worded), I happen to normally open with "How's it going?" and let the student's response guide the direction of the conversation.

And her disapproval continued into other areas as well:  For instance, I grade my students' progress and performance in reading and writing workshop by asking each of them to compile a portfolio at the end of the quarter.  It's worked successfully for the past couple years, BUT it doesn't work for her.  Quote, "It's too late to wait until the end of quarter to assess."   For instance if, as I did for first quarter, I am evaluating how well my students draft, revise, edit, etc., I should grade them when they finish each step.  Even though I explained that there is constant monitoring, informal assessment and checklists being kept all through the quarter, those explanations were completely not trusted by her (i.e. "How do you really know??").

For most of the meeting I felt I was simply getting viewed as an untrusted, rookie teacher who wasn't really focusing on my students….which is sooo far from the truth.  I won't claim to be an expert at workshops — I'm always going to have new things to learn — but with parents who aren't complaining, students doing what is needed, and last year, good test scores achieved, I think I'm doing something right.

But apparently because not all my students currently have A's and B's, that represents failure.  Her repeated question, "If workshops aren't working for ALL your students, then what else have you tried?  There's so many other ways to teach…."  "What about the kids who don't like to read, how are you going to reach them? After all, there's always going to be kids who will never like reading, so what can you do to engage them?"

I left on Tuesday feeling hurt and upset.  The old administration was so supportive, and now I'm apparently back in a position where my teaching skills are no longer trusted.   I once again find myself hating being the only one in my building teaching through workshops because there's no one else to come to bat for me.

I was a given a formal letter with 3 things they want immediately put into place —
1) A rubric specific down to the last detail specifying how students are assessed (and where student participation isn't allowed to count for anything).
2) A portfolio grade taken for progress reports, as well as the end-of-the-quarter.
3) An objective in state standard terms posted on my board each day tied directly into the new learning for the day.

Teaching 105 students each day, I've already been at my near breaking point in terms of my current workload (I sadly live and breath school many hours of my day…both in AND out of the school building), and I feel like that these new pressures are just going to take me over the edge.  I firmly believe teaching through workshops is the best way for my students to grow as readers and writers, but how in the world do you deal when an administration simply doesn't get it???

Closing my door and ignoring the situation I don't think is going to work….


Saturday, August 25, 2012

101 Names

I get to meet my new batch of kids on Monday!

It's always kind of interesting beginning the year — you go to your school mailbox, pick up several pages of paper and are met with a whole bunch of names (currently 101 of them) that are complete strangers.  There's no faces that come to mind, no personalities discovered, no information yet of any kind…except for those names.

Some 180 days from now, I know these currently faceless students will be far from such.  I'll have many memories saved of their personalities, likes, dislikes, and stories.  However, right now, anticipation is all that's present.

I sit and wonder what this year will be like.  What kind of readers and writers will these names be?  Who among them will make discoveries about how much they like reading and/or writing (even if they aren't entering my classroom with those feelings)?

I'm excited, but also nervous.  Every year it seems the "battle" to teach the way these kids need is harder and harder.  In the face of new curriculum maps, pacing guides, administrators, and increasing test pressure, I'm gearing up for a potential fight this year.  Being the one who teaches differently, I know eyes are often on me.  The old administration had complete confidence in me and my teaching philosophy, but I have no read on the new administration's feelings yet and that current unknowingness is a bit scary.

Nonetheless, I know it's these unknown names on these lists that will see me through.  These are the kids who will bless me with the privilege to read their poems and stories, load me with book recommendations, and remind me every day why I undertake the battle I do.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tech Week for Teachers

I used to love working in the theatre — and really that shouldn't be past-tense — I still love it, I just don't have time for it anymore.

In college I spent many hours prepping for shows: constructing sets, painting, hanging lighting instruments and countless other jobs.  There were many late nights and many times, especially in the week before a show opened (i.e. "tech week"), I would spend more time working than with any other activity (including sleep!)  Tech week would drain me, but I still ultimately loved it! 

Of course, what's the point of this recollection?  Well, a number of months ago, I remember reading the following article:  10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success, and immediately thinking how true it was.  While I ended up 3 credit hours short of such a major, I learned much from my theatre days.  And two of the best things I learned that translate to this time of year were (1) how much can be accomplished in a short time and (2) how tech week is always survivable.

I remember beginning tech week on many shows where sets were still in basic construction, lighting wasn't yet hung, and to do lists went on for pages.  Nonetheless, we'd band together, put insane work hours in and by opening night somehow everything would come together.  And then once the end was reached, we'd crash for a day or two, and then turn around and repeat the craziness with the next show.  Yes, it was tiring, but the joy of opening night and the subsequent shows would always make up for it.

In many ways, it's very much like teaching.  I just completed 5 very tiring, seemingly endless days of work trying to get my classroom together while attending the many, many meetings the powers-that-be filled our schedule with too.  I'm short on sleep, exhausted from moving furniture, unpacking, stretching to hang and reach things far above my head, climbing up and down off countless chairs and the occasional desk (to reach such areas), sorting and organizing 800 books and…well, the list could go on and on and on!

BUT, just like tech week, the reward is soon to come.  We have orientation on Monday and our first full day comes on Wednesday — and then, all my hard work organizing and prepping our reading and writing space starts to pay off, and that part I'm already getting excited about. 

In fact, here's a first glance at 2012-2013's reading and writing space: 

Still a few little things to complete, but just about ready for a new batch of readers and writers! :)

Saturday, March 24, 2012


I firmly believe in reading and writing workshops, but there are some days when I feel like I'm the only one who does, so it's awesome when days like today come around. I spent today at the Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP) Conference, and oh, was it was fabulous!

I spend each day in my classroom committed to teaching through workshops, but teaching in a building where almost none of my coworkers share my beliefs (or at least no one is willing to fully jump in and try implementing them). I teach along side some wonderful language arts teachers, but in our content planning sessions I often feel like an outsider. But that was completely different today. I went into the conference not fully knowing what to expect and left with a great feeling of re-validation for how I teach.

The day started out with this great session presented by Mary Tedrow on reflective writing. I walked out with some great ways to build upon several of the things I already do — i.e. beginning of the year discussions on our reading territories, reading journals, general free-writing, portfolios, etc. She talked of her students' daybooks which I LOVED. Great new name for a writer's journal and something I already know I'm going to work into place next year.

Then from there it was off to a great session on using improvisation as a device for building writing ideas. I love theatre and up until several years ago used to love attending the Southeastern Theatre Conference (up until I switched districts and now can't get away). The workshops at SETC that dealt with general education and theatre were rare, but always so awesome and today's session at NVWP was the same. The presenter had us up and improving scenes and then using the scenes as inspiration to develop story plots. It was a blast!

Finally after lunch, came the keynote. Donalyn Miller was the speaker....and wow! How wonderful it was to sit for two hours and hear someone talk about all the great results that come from giving students the freedom to just read! There were so many great quotes, lines and thoughts and it was just inspiring to get re-validation for what I believe and try to do on a daily basis in my room. It was nice to hear her say that people even ask her, "How do you know they're really reading?" (It's a question I'm very used to in my building from my co-workers!) and actually I might just have to steal her response: something along the lines of "How do you know if they went to a birthday party on Saturday? They're going to tell you by how they talk about it."

In my school building, there's increasing pressure building from upcoming standardized tests in May, a new curriculum map coming next year and ultimately new regular benchmarks too, but for today it was wonderful to escape all that and be reminded of the wonderfulness of workshops. I'm definitely feeling re-inspired. I'm already excited to get back into my classroom with my kids on Tuesday and continue all the great conversations about reading and writing that I try to have with them each and every day.

Yes, we'll continue to celebrate reading freedom...and writing freedom too! :)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Good of the Job

I received an email this morning that included a section with several teachers responses to the question, "Why do you love to teach?"

It seemed to come at a very opportune time. During the past couple weeks I've been asked several times about why I stay in a job that I seem to complain so much about. And honestly their questions have made me do a lot of thinking about teaching....because, yes, there are many days where I do vent....but, at the same time, there are so many rewards too.

So why do I love to teach?

• Every day is different. There's no boring routine to my job! Every day there's new things happening, new topics being explored, and there are new challenges to face. In fact, in ten years of teaching, I doubt there's ever been two days exactly the same.

• I have the opportunity to watch kids grow. There's nothing better than seeing a student suddenly make a connection, grasp a new concept, or learn something new. I absolutely love, particularly with language arts, seeing a kid suddenly discover they actually love to read, or love to write. I've been blessed with having several parents come up to me and say things like, "She was never much of a reader, but she's reading all the time now" or "I was reading his story and wow, it's pretty good, isn't it?" -- those are fabulous moments! It's amazing to be able to stand by and know that with the right nudges and guidance, I have the opportunity to help students realize their power as writers or the wonderful escape a good book can be. It's those little moments that make everything worth it.

• Being around kids is also fun. They're constantly teaching me new things. I get to hear about great books and great authors. They, particularly through discussions in writing conferences, teach me lessons about topics I'm no expert about (For instance, just this week, I got to learn about all the parts to a skateboard!). They make me smile with some of their stories, comments, and actions. They at times make me laugh. Fundamentally: it's fun to teach.

So while, yes, there are the many challenges I have to face on top of all of that — complaining parents, sometimes demanding administration (who I know are primarily demanding because of what state standards demand), occasionally frustrating students, or heavy bags of schoolwork taken home each evening — the rewards still somehow outweigh the pain. If there ever comes a day when I stand in my classroom, look at the clock and wonder how many more minutes until I get to go home, I'll know that it is time to quit and look for a job elsewhere, but in the meantime, I get to spend 7 hours each day working in a job that for those 7 hours doesn't really feel like work. And that's why I love to teach!

Maybe I should talk about the joys more often, and vent about the frustrations less, but somehow it always seems like the frustrations are the parts I need to get rid of (i.e. talk about) and the joys are the parts that I treasure but that non-teachers don't always understand.