Saturday, January 19, 2019

5 Simple Ways to Offer Student Choice

I think a lot of teachers who aren't familiar with the concept believe that offering student choice is a recipe for disaster. It might seem like "lazy teaching." I would expect that teachers who subscribe to this idea would be less than impressed when they walk into my classroom on a typical day. They might see stations activities set up, with kids sitting in groups, and they are talking to each other, AND the teacher is just walking around chit-chatting with them! Or they may see all of the students sitting in a big circle having a heated discussion (albeit a civil one) without raising their hands, and all the teacher is doing is just fueling the fire by asking incendiary questions! Or even worse than all that (because at least there's the appearance of some sort of structure there), it might be a workshop day, where students are scattered all over the room (umm are those kids sitting on the floor?!) and some are whispering in groups while others are alone, some are plugged into their Chromebooks while others write feverishly on sticky notes, and then there are kids (7th graders!) who literally have crayons and are drawing pictures while reading a novel. And there's music playing (probably 80s cardio, classic rock, or Lindsey Stirling). And the teacher? She's sitting at a bar-height table with three kids, talking to them.

On a typical day, you won't see me lecturing from a PowerPoint. Not anymore... those days are gone (or at least very rare). You won't see everyone doing exactly the same thing. My students used to do that, especially in my early years in the classroom, but to be honest it got really boring grading the exact same paper 170 times. You won't see rows of desks either. I got rid of those this year, and I'll never go back as long as I have a say in it. You won't see me doing binder checks. You won't see packets. You probably won't even see homework (unless it is reading or working on a long-term project).

What is happening in this classroom? Where is the teaching? Where is the learning?

One of the best methods to increase student engagement in the classroom is to give the students choice in their learning. The simple act of allowing students to make choices about their learning can have a tremendous positive impact on engagement, behavior, and classroom culture. I have a student-centered teaching approach. I always have, though it hasn't always looked the way it does now. I will never forget how mortified my mentor teacher was during my student-teaching experience when I had students choose which character they liked best from A Midsummer Night's Dream for the purpose of character analysis. She couldn't believe I wouldn't have them all analyze the same character. I remember telling my sophomores they would get to choose an urban legend or conspiracy theory for their argumentative papers, and they would choose whether to prove or disprove it. Some of them were absolutely giddy with the freedom of choice, while others were at a total loss because they were so used to having limited decision-making in the classroom. There were a few students who were actually incredibly annoyed that I wouldn't just give them a topic to write about, because doing the early research and finding a topic that would actually meet the requirements of the paper was a lot of work on their part! When it was all said and done, though, every student analyzed a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I would say almost every student turned in an argumentative essay that they actually enjoyed writing.

Giving students agency in the classroom is so powerful, but it can be a daunting task. There are lots of "reasons" why a teacher might choose not to offer choices in their classroom.

Doesn't that make your workload so much heavier?

How do you objectively grade completely different work?

There's no way my kids could handle that.

They won't make good choices.

You guys, I get it. I really do. I've said these things before myself! (I'm particularly guilty of that third one.) But offering choice in your classroom does not have to make you work harder. In fact, once you have shifted your mindset, I believe that student choice will lessen your workload. Alice Keeler often says, "Whoever is doing the work is doing the learning." Why are we killing ourselves doing all of the work for our students? They should be doing the work! You can objectively grade these assignments, and your kids can handle choice if you teach them how to make good choices. Allowing students the opportunity to make choices in the classroom transfers the workload and the responsibility, lessening the weight on our shoulders and putting more on theirs. This is a good thing. It is a good thing for selfish reasons (maybe we'll have a little more energy at the end of the day?), but it is a better thing for these people in our classrooms who will be going into the real world one day and will have to make good choices without us there to catch them when they fall.

Now, here's what I would never do. If you are ready to dip your toes into the water of student agency for the first time, I would never suggest that you start with choice seating. I would never suggest that you alter all of your assessments to be free choice. I would never suggest that you dive straight into a Genius Hour or 20% Time or Project-Based Learning format. I would never suggest you make enormous changes all at once, and I would definitely never suggest you model your classroom after someone else's.

Much like we scaffold our students' learning, I think we must also scaffold student choice. We must progressively teach our students how to make good choices and learn in a more independent manner, and we must allow ourselves the grace to progressively let go of that death grip we are holding on our traditional classroom structures.

Must your classroom look like mine? Absolutely not. Your classroom structure needs to suit you and your personality and your tastes, but it also needs to benefit your students. I think even the most traditional classroom can still give students agency.

Are you ready to begin? Here are five simple ways to get started with student choice in the classroom.

1. Topics

The easiest way to allow student choice is to simply allow them to choose their own topics. Are you teaching them how to write an argumentative essay? Choose an umbrella (ex: conspiracy theories, school rules, controversies, political platforms, etc.) and then let them choose from under the umbrella. Are the students studying medieval times (or any historical time period)? Let them choose to focus their studies on one element of the times (the food, the clothing, the religion, the government, etc.). Teach students how to choose a solid topics of study by showing them how to do early research, write focused research questions, and meet the requirements you have set forth.

2. Notes Style

I think one of the best things we can teach our students (at any grade level and in any subject) is how to take notes. This is a life skill. Not all notes are created equal, and it is a powerful thing to arm our students with a variety of note-taking skills so they can choose the style that best suits their needs. I recently did note-taking stations with my students so they could try out five different types of note-taking methods. Earlier in the year, I modeled some note-taking methods. Instead of having students copy down every single thing you have written on the board exactly as you've written it, try allowing them some freedom in how they take notes. Let them do Sketchnotes, Cornell notes, webs, outline notes, scaffolded notes... Allow students to choose whatever style most suits them, as long as they get the needed information written down in a format that works best for them.

3. Discussion Topics

I went on about this at length in my previous post, but an easy way to increase engagement in classroom discussion is to let the students lead the discussion. Start by asking them for their questions, but instead of answering them right away, record them on the board. After the first few brave souls ask a question, the others will get warmed up and you will soon have a really excellent list of things your students want to know! Once you've exhausted this activity, figure out which questions are mere comprehension questions and tackle those first. Let the students answer. Then use the rest to develop essential questions for whole-group discussion. Most of the time, this method will still allow you to get around to the questions you wanted to ask anyway, but the students are going to be more engaged because these are their questions, not yours.

4. Task Lists

It's amazing what you can accomplish by simply letting students decide in what order they want to accomplish something. If there are several tasks that students need to complete, but it doesn't matter in what order they are completed, let the kids decide! My students love task list days. I just give them a list and say, "Hey guys. These are the things you will be working on the next two days. You can do these items in whatever order you like, as long as the entire list is complete by the end of the day tomorrow. Have at it." The students are all doing the same thing, but allowing them to choose the order in which they do it makes it go down better and you are teaching them about prioritizing tasks!

5. Format

If offering choices on topics worked really well, you can kick it up a notch by offering students choices in format. Obviously there is a time and place to teach a specific format (teaching MLA for an essay, for example), but there may be times where you could tell students "Okay, you may choose to write an essay, create a Google Slides presentation, or design an infographic." For example, last semester my students did a mini research project. They had to choose a product and learn how it came into existence (how it was made, who created it, etc.). Students selected a wide variety of topics, from fireworks to chocolate chip cookies to Snapchat. Students were tasked with informing others about their topic, and they were allowed to choose the format. Many chose Google Slides, a few wrote essays, and a couple made web pages. You may be wondering about grading this project when there were so many formats. The fact is, I didn't actually care which format they used. I wasn't grading the format. I was assessing them on research and informative writing standards. I was looking for things like clear introduction of topic, organization of ideas, the use of facts from various sources, and their ability to follow the research process. They could do all of these things no matter what format they used. In fact, our state standards require that students use a variety of formats in their writing, so if I only assign essays, I'm actually not meeting all of the standards.

Pin the infographic for quick reference!

In what ways do you allow students to have agency in your classroom? Is there some small change you could make that could have a major impact?

Happy Teaching!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Simplifying Class Novel Study

This past fall, my 7th graders "participated" in the 2018 Global Read-Aloud. I use the word "participated" very loosely, because due to many factors out of my control, we did not keep up with the schedule and did not take part in any meaningful discussions with other classes. What we did do, however, was read Refugee by Alan Gratz, using the absolutely lovely Audible audiobook to guide our reading.

There were some amazing things that happened during this novel study, and there were some things that didn't go as expected. One of the downsides of our study of Refugee was that it took FOR.EV.ER. It is a long book for middle school, but it took so much longer than the allotted six weeks on the Global Read-Aloud schedule. Another downside was the fact that my students didn't have access to the book at all times. I bought a single class set of twenty-eight novels. If I could have gotten ninety copies so each kid could have one, I would have, but I decided very last minute to do this novel study, so those twenty-eight books came out of my own pocket. That meant that students only had access to the novel during class time (with the exception of one or two who snagged a copy from the library). A third downside was one that has always happened with novel studies in class: when I, the teacher, know things about the book that my students do not know, it often means I too quickly try to get them to dig in and analyze the piece of literature. I started attempting deep and meaningful discussion far too soon, long before they were ready and knew the characters and truly understood the story. Newsflash: we don't do this when we read "in the wild." Rarely do we aim for deep, philosophical thinking every few chapters or so. Instead, real readers take in a novel, doing some processing along the way, but ultimately the critical thinking and analysis happens late in the book, if not after the book is entirely finished. We process the events of the story as they happen; we process the theme and the purpose as the book comes to its conclusion. Sometimes we do this whole-class novel business in a funny way. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let me tell you about the AMAZING things that happened when we read Refugee. For starters, I hooked the kids early, before they ever had the book in their hands. I teach in a rural middle school. We are not ethnically diverse. My biggest concern before starting Refugee was getting my white students, many of whom come from Christian families, to be invested in these characters (a Jewish boy from Germany, a Cuban girl with no religious upbringing, and a Muslim boy from Syria). I knew that a lot of the things my students grow up hearing about immigrants, refugees, "Mexicans" (because all people of Hispanic descent are often labeled as such in this little corner of the world), and Muslims could be detrimental to their ability to connect with the kids in the story. I started the unit by giving them a list of statements, and they had to place a check mark beside the statements that applied to themselves. Some of the statements were light-hearted, and some were very serious. It is important to note these checklists were completed anonymously due to the nature of some of the statements. Here are some example statements:

  • I have a little sister.
  • I have a little brother.
  • I play a musical instrument.
  • I live with both of my parents.
  • I have an Xbox.
  • I like cats.
  • I practice a religion.
  • I have gone to bed hungry.
  • One of my parents has an iPhone.
  • Someone I love has been/is currently in jail.
  • I have had to move away from home.
  • I like playing pranks.
  • I have used Google Maps.
  • I have been on a cruise ship.
  • I have been to a different country.
  • I have been made fun of or bullied because of my religion.
After my students completed their checklists, I asked them why they thought I had them do this reflection before reading the novel. Many students said something about how I wanted them to see how different their lives are from the lives of the characters in the story. Others said I wanted them to recognize how fortunate they were compared to the kids in the story. These answers couldn't have been further from the truth. When I told them that every item on the list was something that they had in common with at least one of the three refugees in the story, their jaws dropped. They couldn't believe that a Muslim kid in Syria would play an Xbox or that a Jewish kid living in 1939 could have been on a cruise ship. This moment was huge, and all of a sudden the characters became real people they could connect to. After this discussion, and once they were introduced to Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud, most of them became very attached to at least one character and his/her story.

Another amazing thing that happened with this novel study was something I listed earlier as a downside: the conversation. The conversations during the first half of the novel were uncomfortable, stilted, and filled with silence, because the kids didn't know what I wanted from them. They had not yet been able to get their heads around deep topics like why Alan Gratz wrote this novel. Once we got about three quarters of the way through, though, as themes truly started to emerge, my students deeply impressed me with their insight and the wonderful conversations they had using the Shared Inquiry method.

Over the last eight years, but especially after doing a novel study with middle school kids for the first time, I've come to figure out some things that work and some things that don't with whole class novels

What Does Not Work:

  • Written response reading comprehension questions/quizzes after every chapter - It kills momentum and makes reading a chore.
  • All students must read the novel silently, independently, and on their own time outside of class - It is not going to happen for unmotivated readers. Period. And we are doing a terrible disservice to our students when we say, "Well, they should have just read the book. I guess they can't participate today." We are setting them up for failure.
  • Talking over every. single. thing that we, the teachers, deem important in the novel - Fellow English teachers, it is likely that you are an English teacher in part because you love to read and you love to share that reading. We cannot, however, force feed our students our understanding and interpretation of a novel. We must present them the literature and then let them tell us what is important and what they want to talk about. That's how we get buy-in.

What Does Work:

  • Getting them hooked on the story before the story begins - We must make every effort to get as many kids as possible hooked on the story before we ever crack the spine of the book. We cannot always count on the book doing the job itself. Often our reluctant readers need help being motivated to get past the cover. As far as your kids who want to read, you will have them literally trembling with anticipation if you build up the novel before you begin in.
  • Once we start a book, we need to let the readers devour the book - Why, oh why, are we punishing our readers by subjecting them to deadlines and saying "STOP. You may not go beyond this point"? Can you imagine how it would feel if you picked up your current favorite read and there was a big stop sign after every cliff-hanging chapter ending and it said you could not go on until someone else said so? We must let the readers read! (And perhaps have them take an oath during which they solemnly swear they will not spoil the story for others.)
  • Access to the book in more than one way - I have a controversial opinion. I do not think that every person is a reader and that they maybe just haven't found "the book." I think there are people in this world who just are never going to be book readers. And I think that's okay because I think it takes all kinds to make this world turn. And besides, if I'm doing a whole-class novel study, there is a chance that this novel will not be a page-turner even for a kid who likes to read. It just might not be to their taste. But I still want every kid to experience this novel, right? I've selected it for a reason! In some way, this novel must be important, or I would not have chosen it. We must make this book as accessible as possible, and we should be giving students choice in how they access the book. I know, I know, THE STUDENTS WON'T HAVE ACCESS TO THE AUDIOBOOK ON THE STANDARDIZED TEST SO THEY MUST BE ABLE TO SIT STILL AND READ SOMETHING EVEN IF THEY DON'T LIKE IT AND WHY ARE WE CODDLING THESE CHILDREN WE ARE MAKING A NATION FULL OF ILLITERATE SISSIES! Okay, yeah, I get it. The Test. But I also understand that in order for a student to even bother to read the selections on The Test, I've got to do everything I can to help them at the very least tolerate any form of reading. Getting a non-reader to read independently is like feeding my 8-month-old son green vegetables. The kid hates green vegetables, but he needs to learn to at least tolerate them. So I keep offering him green vegetables at pretty much every meal, but I offer them with something he likes. Green beans go down much better when you disguise their flavor with just a wee bit of peach puree. The flavor of banana is so strong and delightful that my child doesn't even realize he is eating peas with some banana added in. And as time goes on, I remove the fruit, little by little, until my child is perfectly tolerant of green veggies. Does he love eating them? No, but he'll do it. I have to train my kid to eat things he doesn't want to eat by offering it time and time again, and by doing it in a way that I can convince him to like them. Sometimes we have to add bananas and peaches to the green veggies in our English classes, and then slowly remove the bananas and peaches until we have a kid who can tolerate the veggies, even if he doesn't love them. *steps off soapbox*
  • Student-driven conversation - I had training on Shared Inquiry earlier in the school year, and I cannot more highly recommend this form of student-driven conversation. Not only do the kids get really into it, it actually saves me a load of time! I do not have to generate discussion questions! The kids do all the hard work and brain power. All I do is facilitate. Let the students decide what is worth talking about. Every time I have done this, the students have always surprised me by leading into the topics I would have wanted to discuss anyway, and they've always impressed me by their ability to have civilized, intelligent discourse about literature at the age of 12.
So... here's the path I'm heading down today (it's been a long one, so kudos if you're still here).

I am starting my next novel unit. All of my 7th graders (high ability, general, and co-taught) will be reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Using the learning I have detailed above, I am breaking this unit into three phases.

Phase 1: Get Them So Wildly Invested in This Novel Study That They Can't Sleep
This right here is where I am pulling out all the stops, ya'll. I am doing this through a combination of context study and hype. I am providing them necessary context so they go into The Hunger Games with all of these new ideas about equality, fairness, oppression, wealth, poverty, utopias, dystopias, and the relationship between the government and its citizens just swirling around in their brains. I'm planting all of this contextual information through scenarios and activities rather than traditional lecture info dumping. This week, we did an amazing lesson full of scenarios on equality and fairness that had their brains kicked into overdrive. To freshen up their note-taking skills, students did note-taking stations (an idea I took from this episode of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast), and each of the five stations had content related to The Hunger Games (an article on Panem from the The Hunger Games Wiki, a Newsela article about historical utopias, a CommonLit article on the features of dystopian literature, a filmed interview with Suzanne Collins on her inspiration for The Hunger Games, and the first chapter of the novel itself). The students also did a jigsaw, where each student on a team was responsible for going to a research station in the room to learn about a historical utopia, a modern utopia, or the characteristics of a utopia, and then rejoined the group to share their knowledge. They used their newfound knowledge to develop a plan for a utopian school.

While all of this great context study is happening, I'm hyping them up. I built a website (I love building sites) and casually put it in Google Classroom over winter break. The homepage features an ominous cloudy background, the seal of the Capitol, and a countdown clock with the title "Countdown to [School Name] Hunger Games." There is a page with information about districts, a page with information about the roles in the Games, and a terrifyingly empty page labeled "Tributes" that simply says, "The Reaping has not taken place yet." As soon as kids discovered the page, they came running to me with huge eyes and a million excited questions. The bulletin board in my classroom is currently empty except for thirteen laminated pieces of paper, each one with a district seal or the seal of the Capitol at the top. The kids who already know the story are asking about joining districts and how the Games will work, and the kids who haven't read the book or seen the movie are like "What the French toast is happening?" and all of a sudden I have kids talking to each other about this book before we've even cracked the spine.

Source for Capitol seal image
Phase 2: Read the Whole Book.
Once they are so ready to read this book they absolutely cannot stand it, I will give the students their materials and the book. I am relying heavily on Ariel Sacks's Whole Novel approach for this novel study. I am even doing a variation of her ritual for launching the novel study. Each student will receive a letter from me introducing the novel and my expectations for this novel study. They will also receive a reading schedule and the book. In keeping up the hype, I will likely theme my letter to them as a formal letter from the Capitol or something along those lines. They will be given access to the book in three formats. One will be the hard copies of the novel that will stay in the classroom (again, I only have enough for a single class set, so the books will stay in the room). The second will be an eBook format that they can access on their Chromebooks anytime. The third will be the audiobook, which they will be able to access anytime they have internet connection.

And then... they will read. I will read the first chapter aloud in class to draw them in. After that, students are responsible for reading. They may read at their own pace, but no slower than the schedule allows. They will be provided reading time in class as often as possible, during which they may choose to read silently and independently, read along with the audiobook, read with a partner, or do small-group read-aloud (Pernille Ripp advocates for these different pathways of accessing the text). I will be holding them accountable primarily through informal whole-group chats, one-on-one reading conferences, and their reading notes. The Hunger Games is broken into three parts, so after each part, we will do a combination of abbreviated shared inquiry and a mini research project. One half of the students will discuss the novel while the other half does the project, and then they will switch. We will continue doing mini-lessons (we are focusing on the new skills of inference, context clues, literary symbolism, and author's purpose as we continue to support all of the skills students have already learned so far this year), and we will apply our mini-lessons work to the novel.

And it is super important to mention that as we read, I will continue to fuel the hype fire. Before we read, students will be "born" into districts (or even the Capitol) by random selection (you don't get to pick the life you're born into, right?). After we read about the Reaping in Chapters 1 and 2, we will have our own reaping, where a boy and a girl will be selected from each district (besides the Capitol, of course) to participate in our Hunger Games. These sorts of activities will continue throughout the duration of our study.

Phase 3: Analyze, Discuss, and Enjoy.
Only after we have finished reading the whole novel will begin to tackle in-depth analysis and book discussion. I like Ariel's three-day approach to this, and may follow a similar plan. I'm particularly looking forward to connecting Phase 3 back to Phase 1 and all the context work we did to prepare for the novel. I'm certain I will have some sort of major assessment piece after we're done reading, but I don't think it will take the form of a DOK Level 1/Level 2 content test. Ultimately, I'm not actually too worried about the students remembering the specific details of a novel. I want them to practice literary analysis and speaking and listening skills. I also want to see them drawing connections between the novel and nonfiction pieces that we will read throughout the unit as well. I want to see evidence of higher level thinking!

How is this approach "simplified"?

Do you notice what is missing from the Whole Novel approach? There are no reading comprehension questions broken down by chapter. No "gotcha quizzes" to see if the student read last night. No chapter vocab lists that require students to write out the definition of a new word. We aren't killing the novel, the momentum, or the love of reading. We'll be reading like real people read in the real world. The practices that are part of this approach are all high-quality, effective, and efficient. I won't have to spend an absurd amount of my precious time standing at a copy machine or marking low-level assignments. My time can be spent curating high-quality resources, practicing essential skills with students, helping students build reading stamina, and having real conversation about the text. To me, this is much simpler than dealing with loads of paperwork and a packet full of tedium.

I feel it's worth reiterating that I'm just now getting started on this unit. We will begin Phase 2 this week. I plan to write a reflection after the unit is over, so I'll let you know how this goes!

Happy Teaching!

Saturday, January 5, 2019

4 Things I'm Doing to Minimize Decision Fatigue

Like most teachers, I rolled into the Winter Break 2018 station with an empty tank. I had to get out and push the car the last half block, if you know what I mean. Let me be clear, it wasn't my teacher soul that was tired. My move to a new school has done a world of good for my teacher soul and I've been riding that RCA high since the end of November! But I was physically and mentally drained. In fact, this semester has reminded me quite a bit of being a first-year teacher all over again. My heart is still all in and I love what I do, but there is a certain type of exhaustion that comes along with starting in a new classroom. It has taken me a long time to get the hang of middle school, and I'm still not there. They are just a different breed of student! I expected the drama and the immaturity. I did not anticipate how much more structure, hand-holding, and time they would need! Bless their hearts, they move like cold molasses. I think I threw my pacing guide out the window about Week #2. I had paced my year like I would pace a high school class, and that was a mistake. Since September, I feel like I've been flying by the seat of my pants, which is not the way I like to roll! I like structure and organization. I like to feel prepared and in control. I like having decisions made in advance. I wouldn't say that I'm rigid, but rolling with the punches is not my favorite thing. I feel like I'm shifting gears entirely every day, every hour! The needs of seventh graders just seem so much more diverse than the needs of high schoolers. This has led to some serious decision fatigue. I need to get a handle on the second semester, before the Eternal Darkness of February, March, and April sets in.

Enter: Angela Watson. She's one of those internet teachers I fangirl over. This woman is a powerhouse of amazing time management ideas for teachers. She blogs at The Cornerstone for Teachers and is the creator of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club (side note: really want to join the Club. Maybe this summer?). I was introduced to Angela's corner of the internet via the Cult of Pedagogy podcast (thank you, Jennifer Gonzalez!). When I discovered that Angela was hosting a free challenge, I was all-in. The Goodbye, "Teacher Tired" challenge comes along with the tagline "5 days of doing fewer things, better." That's what I'm talking about! I spent some time during my Winter Break working my way through the materials in this challenge, and I gotta say that I'm feeling more confident going into Semester #2. I'm not going to detail out everything I've done because you really need to check out this challenge for yourself. I will, however, share with you 4 things I am doing to stave off decision fatigue during the next half of the school year.

1. I'm using Angela's to-do list format in my planner. I got an Ink+Volt Planner for Christmas. The Ink+Volt weekly spread is broken into time blocks: morning, noon, and night. I'm turning my weekly spread into little daily to-do lists. The morning block will be for my "before school" and "during school a.m." lists, the middle block will be for my "during school p.m." list, and the bottom block will be my "after school" and "home" lists. Couple this system with the bullet journal system for migrating tasks and events and the Ink+Volt system of tracking weekly, monthly, and yearly goals, and I think I have a planning system that will help me stay a little more sane.

With it being the first week of the New Year, my to-do lists look a little different than typical, but you get the idea.

2. I'm being more purposeful about batching tasks.
 I've always sort of done this, but not in such a formal way. Now, I am blocking off times of the week for batched tasks. So far, I have batched Cleaning, School Paperwork, Lesson Planning, Meal Prep, and Weekly Prep. What I really like about this idea is that I've basically taken all of these little similar tasks and thrown them in a box. Then, when I'm ready/at the scheduled time, I will open the box, unpack these tasks, and take care of them.

3. I am purposefully planning my home life and my school life as separate entities. Part of my Simple Teaching Movement is balancing my work life and my home life. Angela is a powerful voice for this. She seems very insistent that we must have a healthy personal life in order to be our best teacher selves. So, at least at this point in the game, the only "crossover" activity I have is lesson planning. Most of the time, I am able to get all of my school stuff done at school (grading included!). Eight years of directing theatre forced me to learn quality over quantity early on. This tough lesson has been an absolute blessing this year, because I no longer have theatre on my plate but I still know how to usually keep work at work. That being said, I must do better with my long-term lesson planning, and long-term planning is not something I can do at school. I don't know about your day, but mine usually has brief bursts of productivity sprinkled in with the demands of teaching students. I need a quiet place, a long stretch of time, and a cup of coffee (or two) to get my long-term unit planning done, and this is not a luxury I have during the school day. So right now, my lesson planning batch is scheduled for Friday afternoons during school hours, but I also know that I will be dedicating part of my Sundays to this in order to stay ahead.

4. I developed a master task list to reference at school. Sometimes I have so much going on that when my prep period rolls around 6th period, I just sit in a stupor. There are so many things to do that I don't know where to begin. This is a cause of decision fatigue! I need to cut back on the number of decisions I have to make during the school day. Angela suggests seeking out those energy-draining decisions we must regularly make and figuring out a way to simplify it, automate it, or even eliminate it entirely. I've done this with many other aspects of my life. I meal plan, I have my morning, afternoon, and evening routines posted on my refrigerator at home, I've simplified my closet. Now, I need to do this for those "bonus minutes" at school, the time where I can get something accomplished. I waste precious time deciding what to work on, which is just silly. Instead of working my way through a crazy mental to-do list, I am posting a master task list in my classroom, right beside my desktop computer. These are tasks that must be done with some frequency, (should) take very little time, and are important to making my teaching life run smoothly. Now I can pick a task and get started immediately.  I may even laminate it so I can use a dry-erase marker to mark items off the list. Want an editable copy of your own? Grab the freebie here!

Hopefully you can use one of these tricks to help you with your own Teacher Tired. Again, I can't more highly recommend Angela Watson's Goodbye, "Teacher Tired" challenge! I think it can make a big difference in how you feel this semester.

Happy Teaching!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Goal for 2019: Simpler Teaching

The teaching profession is in a dark place right now. Teachers across the United States often use terms such as "stifling," "overwhelming," "panic-inducing," and even "soul-crushing" to describe the teaching life. I, too, have had my fair share of negative feelings from time to time. At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, I decided my teaching life had gotten completely out of control and it was time to do something about that. I made a career choice that I never thought I would make in the hopes that this move would bring my teaching life and my personal life into balance. Since then, I have been actively working at simplifying my teaching life so that I have time to truly enjoy all of the other aspects of my life. I'm calling this series of purposeful actions my Simple Teaching Movement.

When I reflect on the last eight years of my teaching career, it is a busy black-and-white blur with some standout memories, moments that are completely clear, in technicolor, and tightly focused. Those memories are the most meaningful in my career, and they stand apart from the rest for one reason: those moments were simplified. The times in our teaching careers that come into perfect clarity, the times when we can catch our breaths and bask in the power of being in the moment, of simply enjoying our teaching lives... that's what I'm after. I want more of those snapshots in 2019.

I think that there are two key things we must internalize before we embark on the journey of simplifying our teaching lives.

1. Simple is subjective.

Simple may be defined as "easy to understand, deal with, use; not elaborate or artificial." Using this definition, it seems to me that "simple" will be different for everyone. A cool tech tool that is easy for you to understand may not be easy for me to understand. A lesson that might seem very elaborate and overly complicated to you may not be that way in my eyes. The notion that simplicity is subjective frees us to realize our own vision for a simplified teaching life. My simple may not look simple to you, and your simple may not look simple to me.

2. Simple ≠ Easy

While the two terms are often used synonymously, simple is not always the same thing as easy. When I write about my vision for a simplified teaching life, I'm not necessarily saying I want it easy. Simplifying is difficult work. It requires making hard decisions and living a proactive life. While I do believe that, with time, simplifying my teaching life will make things easier, I think it would be naive to say that "simplifying" is easy.

What will Simple Teaching look like for me?

When I began envisioning a simpler teaching life, a life where I give up the excess in favor of the essential (thanks to The Minimalists for the phrase), these were the ideas that came to mind.
A simplified teaching life must...
  • allow me to leave work at work the majority of the time
  • allow me to leave work within an hour of the contracted school day ending
  • allow me to arrive to work within fifteen minutes of my official start time
  • eliminate the extra "stuff" that clogs up my day in the classroom (mental stuff, physical stuff, and emotional stuff)
  • focus on creating a meaningful classroom experience for my students
  • focus on creating a meaningful classroom experience for myself
  • have no "unitasker gadgets"
  • allow me to carry everything I need for work in one satchel
  • focus on a small number of quality assignments rather than a large quantity of ineffective assignments
  • take the slow-and-steady approach to progress
  • energize me rather than drain me
  • be a life I look forward to living every day

My Teaching Manifesto for 2019

In the spirit of being Totally Extra, I wrote a manifesto!

What is your teaching goal for 2019? Will you be joining me in my journey to simplify my teaching life?

Happy Teaching!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Letter to Experienced Teachers

Nearly six years ago, I wrote a letter to first-year teachers. At the time, I was two-and-a-half years into my teaching career, so the pains of being a new teacher were still quite fresh in my mind. I also had come up against enough challenges to offer some survival advice. You can read that letter here.

Now, I am enjoying the winter break of my ninth year of teaching. A lot has changed since those early years, and I feel confident enough in what I know to be true in the life of a teacher that I am going to attempt to help out the group of teachers who may need it most this time of year - the experienced teachers. While I absolutely hope that anyone who runs across this letter will be able to take something away from it, today I am writing specifically to those teachers who've been in the game for a while now but who are not yet sure enough of themselves to say they are "impactful teachers."


Dear Experienced Teacher,

You are wonderful. You are amazing. You are a saint. Thank you for what you do.

You won't hear those words enough, so I thought I'd start out with that.

Have you read The First Days of School by Harry* and Rosemary Wong? I expect you probably have, or you've at the very least skimmed the chapters during your education training in college. Guys, I've had my hands on a lot of books for educators (some by force thank you very much college, but also many by choice thank you very much teacher nerd brain), but this one and Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess are my go-to books. Seriously, if you've never given First Days more than a cursory glance, do yourself a favor and find a copy of this book (the more used, loved, dog-eared and annotated, the better). Read it cover to cover. Process. Do it again.

There are so many highlights to this book, but the part I come back to time and again is from the first chapter. The Wongs describe the four stages that any teacher goes through in their career. I'll paraphrase.

  1. Fantasy a.k.a. If You Love Them Enough Then Everything Will be AMAZING - the belief that, in order to be a successful teacher, all you have to do is be your students' friend and entertain them. If you cover your lessons in enough glitter and the kids bask in the loving glow of your presence, you have done your job. If you are at this stage, your teaching life is like a unicorn fart. It's a lovely puff of color and smells like candy, but is unsubstantial and will dissipate quickly. Also, it's not real.
  2. Survival a.k.a. Keep Your Head Down and Pretend Everything is Fine - after the reality of teaching punches you in the face (repeatedly), you figure the best way to handle this career choice (I mean, seriously, what were you thinking??) is to keep the students busy and quiet. Worksheets and Frickin' Packets and Videos For Days and Silent Seatwork... you feed your students the educational equivalent of Kraft Easy Mac and Ramen Noodles because it is easy, prepackaged, and keeps them quiet.
  3. Mastery a.k.a. This is the Part of the Movie Where the Hero Realizes She's Got to Get Her Shit Together so Cue the Pumped-Up Inspirational Soundtrack - I think that Mastery happens after some sort of Educator Epiphany. The Epiphany will vary from teacher to teacher, but the outcome is that teachers realize they need to have the all the love and ooey-gooey feelings from Fantasy stage combined with the effective practices that make real learning happen. Now you're turning up the heat on your classroom management, feeding your students the whole foods version of educational material instead of the processed stuff, and the goal is student learning, come Hell or high water.
  4. Impact a.k.a. The Mr. Feeny Effect - This, right here, is #teachergoals. If most of us go into this field to make a difference, then this stage is what you've been after all along. This is when your teaching is so, so good that students will come back to you years later and thank you for affecting their lives. Do not be fooled, though. Like our idol George Feeny, you will still have some rough days. Your impact may not been seen until years later. You may even find yourself occasionally dipping your toes into the stagnant waters of Stage 2. However, once you hit the Impact stage, the ebb and flow between the other stages will be temporary. A bad week, a bad semester, or even a bad year may cause you to wallow in the muck briefly, but an Educator Epiphany will drag you out, dust you off, and put you back on your feet. As a teacher of impact, you know it's going to be okay. You have combined the enthusiasm and sparkles of stage 1 and the kicking-ass-and-taking-names of stage 3 and, like a beautiful Pok√©mon, you have evolved into something extraordinary that would be difficult to defeat.
You, dear experienced teacher, could be at any of these four stages in your career. Every teacher's path will vary, but it is a guarantee that all of us will at least hit Stages 1 and 2. The problem arises if we decide to set up camp and stay in Survival stage. If we do this, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We are dooming ourselves to a miserable teaching experience that will lead to burning out and leaving the profession, or worse, burning out and staying in the profession. Stage 2 teachers - and I'm not talking about dabbling in Stage 2 for a short-time, but the long-term Stage 2 teachers - are toxic. Survival-mode teachers who have been in this stage for years are like carbon monoxide - you won't notice them seeping into your classroom, your building, your school culture, but a high concentration of this poisonous gas is deadly.

My dear experienced teacher friend, if I could offer you only a single piece of advice, it would be this: reflect. Reflect on your practice all the time. Do it every single day. You can do this informally - a stream-of-consciousness deep think during your commute, talking shop with a Stage 3 or Stage 4 colleague - or you can do this formally - write in a reflection journal, keep a blog. You need to take your own temperature regularly and figure out which stage you are in. Ask yourself these questions:
  • (Before school) How do I feel about going to school today?
  • (At lunch) How do I feel about this day?
  • (After school) How do I feel about how the day went?
  • What good things happened in my classroom today?
  • If I used that pain scale hanging in the doctor's office to rate my teaching life, what pain level am I at right now?
  • If I was a student in my class, how would I feel about class today?
Reflection leads to growth. We ask our students to show what they know and to reflect on their learning. We should do what we ask our students to do.

So here's a question: what do we do if we are not in the stage we want to be in?

One of the best things about teaching is that it is never too late. To quote another teacher who is quoted in First Days, "Teaching, unlike most professions, gives us the opportunity to start fresh each and every day, each and ever year" (The First Days of School 8). If you need a fresh start, I'd like to share some advice I've picked up along the way.

If you are in Fantasy mode...
  • Keep your joy! Find all the things you love about teaching and cling to them! I so frequently look back on the joys on my day or week and think, I actually get paid to do this?! You must zealously guard your happiness and do not let toxicity steal it from you!
  • That being said, you've got to add some substance. You are living in a shimmering cloud of unicorn fart. That cloud will eventually be replaced by the repugnant smell of Reality. How are your lessons? Are they all superficial awesomeness with no real learning happening? There are some core questions teachers can ask themselves as they lesson plan. I'm a big fan of "What do we want students to know and be able to do?" I find this question (especially the "be able to do" bit) to be very useful in focusing my lessons.
  • Check yo self before you wreck yo self. How's your classroom management? No, really. How is your classroom management? There is an Official List of Top 5 Teacher Mistakes Of All Time and Crappy Classroom Management fills all five slots. You may be thinking, "Well golly, my classroom is such a paradise I don't really need a management plan," to which I say, "Oh, that's so nice, but remind me again what you will do when Tommy Terrorist Who Has Been Expelled From Four Different Schools comes in on the first day at his new school and draws a phallic likeness on your whiteboard."
If you are in Survival mode...
  • Unpopular Opinion #1: Pinterest might be enabling your Survival mode. Get off of Pinterest. Pinterest is not a good place for Survival mode teachers to go because so many teachers are posting their very best survival gear! "My students spent six weeks on this 107 page Frickin' Packet!" "This stations activity consisted of five different busysheets! Students rotated from one station to the next every eight minutes and silently completed the paper. They did so much today!" You guys, over the course of the last year I have come to hate the word "busy." Being "busy" does not equal being productive! Ever heard of the guy who walks around very purposefully with a wrench or a hammer in his hand? No one will stop him to ask for help, because clearly he's "busy" with something else, when in fact he is doing nothing productive at all. He just "looks busy." Take a break from Pinterest and start finding quality sources to help you out instead of wading through the internet's equivalent of a junk drawer because, to be honest, if you are in Survival mode, you don't know what tools to look for in that junk drawer! Go to the really excellent resources, like The Cornerstone for Teachers, Ditch That Textbook, Cult of Pedagogy, Shake Up Learning, and Alice Keeler. You can also check out the (sorely outdated) More Ed Blogs tab at the top of the page.
  • Unpopular Opinion #2: Fancy font does not equal quality resources. Be very choosy about your Teachers Pay Teachers purchases. There are some truly wonderful resources on Teachers Pay Teachers. But, real talk again, there are some truly awful resources with little depth that are just so, so pretty. You know what else is pretty? All the pretty labels on all the pre-packaged food at the grocery store! I cannot more highly recommend following the Classroom Chef approach to structuring your lessons. These guys are math teachers, but this can apply to any content area. (John and Matt's book is on my to read list.)
  • Add joy to your day. You guys, I've already passed through the Survival mode stage, and it sucks. It is sad and scary and completely debilitating. It can be hard to feel happy when you are drowning. You must find ways to add joy to your day. Sit down and make a list of everything that brings you joy, and be specific. It does not have to be related to the classroom. Some of my joys include GIF wars with my husband, watching my two boys play together, my Pandora stations and Spotify playlists, eating, art, Googley stuff, and solitude. Once you have your list of joys, make a list of the things about teaching that are sucking the life out of you. For me, the worst parts of teaching are tedious tasks and chaos. Guys, I'm an INFJ. I don't like routine maintenance or paperwork, which are two things we must do as teachers. It's part of the job. So, when I must do something I find boring, I add one (or more!) of my joys to it. Know what I hate to teach? Active reading strategies, because active reading comes very naturally to me and I find the process of teaching "how" to read incredibly tiresome. Know what I love? Cookies and Jolly Ranchers and intriguing photography. So my lessons on active reading strategies include these things because it brings me joy, and when I'm a joyful teacher, my joy rubs off on my students. Know what I hate to spend my prep period doing? Filling out forms of any type. Know what I love? The 80s Cardio station on Pandora and the Songs to Sing in the Shower playlist on Spotify. And Flair pens. I love Flair pens. So if I'm going to spend my prep period doing paperwork that feels completely pointless to me but is mandatory, you better believe I'm going to be screeching "Video Killed the Radio Star" while wielding a Flair pen.
If you are in Mastery mode...
  • Order yourself your favorite beverage and congratulate yourself! You have come out the other side of Survival mode and you are now actively working on being the best teacher you can be. #killingit
  • After you finish that beverage, it's time to do some digging and some serious reflection. What will move you from Mastery mode to Impact mode? By now, you likely have gotten very good at finding all of the pedagogical resources you need. What needs to be done to make your ripple effect bigger? My advice: stay in Stage 3 pedagogically, but it's time to revisit Stage 1 when it comes to building relationships with your students. If you read my last post about my visit to The Ron Clark Academy, you'll recall that RCA strongly believes in balancing the serious stuff with the fun stuff. You absolutely must master the serious stuff - the discipline, the structure, the standards, the academia. But in order to move from Mastery to Impact, you must balance that out with the fun stuff - the creativity, the passion, the joy, the love of students and teaching. Some things to consider doing:
    • Add joy! (See the above section on Survival mode)
    • Be your students' #1 fan, especially for "that kid." Cheer them on, support them, congratulate them, love them even when they are super unlovable. (Real talk: this is so difficult to do, and I'm no master at it. But when I do this right, the impact is immediate.)
    • Conversely to the above point, don't celebrate when students meet expectations. An expectation is, by definition, something that you believe will happen. We are expected to pay our electric bill, and no one gives me a trophy for that. To quote Ron Clark, "Not everybody gets a cookie." We should be celebrated when we go above and beyond expectation.  I expect my students to master the content (80%) on a summative assessment. It goes beyond my expectations when they get a 90% or higher, so we celebrate those As. I expect my students to follow classroom expectations. It goes beyond my expectations when students go out of the way to help each other, so we celebrate that. 
    • Make one-on-one connections with your students. Eat lunch with them sometimes, not out of obligation, but out of interest in their lives. Write them positive notes and emails. Go to their ballgames, concerts, and competitions if you get the chance.
    • Offer them comfort. Work to create an inviting classroom atmosphere (it does not need to look like the world's most expensive bag of Skittles vomited in your room, but that's a blog post for another day).
    • Respect them as people. When possible, let them use the restroom as needed. Allow them to have water. Take a few moments to talk to them about non-school stuff. Remember, you are in the business of making people, not products.
If you are in Impact mode...
  • Can you extend your reach beyond your students? Find another group that you can positively impact! Would one of these roles be appropriate for you?
    • Become an ambassador of sorts between your school and your community, bridging a divide or supporting an already strong connection between the two. 
    • Take a Stage 1 or Stage 2 teacher under your wing and guide them in the right direction.
    • Mentor student teachers and first-year teachers.
    • Assist in coaching teachers by leading meaningful PD. Use my principal's guiding philosophy: feed the hungry.
    • Reach out to students that aren't in your own classroom by leading an organization, starting a new club, or coaching a sport.
    • Be a positive teaching voice online! Spread your impact by joining educator groups in social media, starting a YouTube channel, or keeping a blog (no matter how sporadically you post!).
    • Share the wealth. While I agree that teachers should be compensated for the time and effort they put into quality materials, sometimes the best thing you can offer struggling teachers is a free resource.
My dear friend, I hope this letter finds you in an amazing season of your teaching career. But even if this is not your best season, even if you realize that you are in Survival mode, I implore you to remember this:

It is never too late to make a change.

I made the biggest change of my career (thus far) this year. I have come out the other side a much better teacher and a much happier person. It is never too late.

Happy Teaching!

*Harry Wong. Still funny.