Friday, January 5, 2018

One Word for 2018: Listen

For the past couple of years, I have taken time at the beginning of the new year to reflect on the past and set some goals for the coming year. It's time to come up with my #oneword for 2018. I'm not one for resolutions.  They sound so...well, resolute. So final.

Instead, I focus on finding a touchstone word, a word that serves as an inspiration and call to action for what I want to accomplish and who I hope to be in the coming year.  Last year, my word - resonate - kept me focused.  My word - resonate - helped me connect with the texts, the ideas, the people, the actions that resonated with my beliefs, values, and priorities. If it didn't resonate, it was time to let them go.  This was not always easy.  It meant letting go of some negative thinking about myself, about my physical appearance, letting go of projects and idea that I had been working on for years.  And while that sounds easy to do, when you've latched onto an idea or thought for so long, it is difficult first to recognize it as a habit, and second to release it.

This coming year, I hope to build on what I have learned from my focus on what resonates. To do this, I have to get better at listening.  This includes listening to myself, listening to my loved ones, and listening to the voices of others.  Listening does not mean that I need to agree or accept.  Instead, listening is the act of acknowledging.  And while I hear my voice, the voices of my loved ones, and those of others, I am not always so good at honoring and acknowledging those voices.  I hear up until the point that I have thought about how to respond.  This is not listening. This is waiting for my turn to talk. Listening, really listening, is an act of compassion and empathy.  This is what I hope to cultivate in 2018.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Evolving Space

My classroom space is in a constant state of revision.  I make changes to my space, my layout and design, based on the learners sitting in my room.

When I first started teaching, my student desks were grouped as pods, my teacher's desk angled to face the door at the front of the room.  And this worked. Until it didn't.

A number of years ago, I had a tenth grade student suffering from debilitating migraines.  Her doctor and later her neurologist struggled to make sense of the severity of her migraines.  But what my student knew was that overhead florescent lights seemed to trigger the onset of her blinding headaches.  She struggled to make it to class. School is filled with blinding bright white lights.  I wanted to find a way for our classroom space to be a safe haven. And me, not that far out of college at the time, had a plethora of cheap floor lamps cluttering my one bedroom apartment. So rather than clicking on those big industrial lights, I lugged those lamps into my classroom and purchased inexpensive table lamps from my local thrift store. I hung white string lights around my bulletin boards and dangled them from the ceiling.  And not only did the change in lighting seem to help my student suffering from migraines, but other students seemed to appreciate the less institutional feeling of our classroom space.  Murmurs of adding a reading nook with a rug and couch - "you know, like the ones we had in elementary school" - started to come up in conversation.  And so my classroom evolution began.

Over the years, I have added new pieces to my classroom space - a bench here, some pillows, a stool, a couch there - to accommodate the needs of my learners. My classroom now features a variety of different spaces.  There is a reading nook with a couple of couches, pillows, a rug, and chair situated next to my bookshelves for a comfortable place to read.  There are two desks facing one another near my back window, a perfect spot for a one-on-one conference.  My teacher's desk, a hacked Ikea bookcase on casters, is at the back of the room without a chair.  It is a counter to hold my computer and teaching materials and to host informal conversations, but I don't spend much time there, so there is no need for a chair.  I have a combination of tables and chairs, traditional desks, comfortable benches, and pillows around the room which my students move between throughout our class period depending upon what task we are focused on.  My classroom set-up has evolved over the last few years.  In changing from traditional rows of desks which I started with,  I honor the needs and stories of the students in my learning community, but my classroom also reflects my evolution in thinking about teaching.  My teaching is less about me being at the front of the room and more focused on space for my students to collaborate. My room reflects that change.

The classroom environment is sometimes referred to as the "third teacher," influencing the ways in which students engage in the learning that happens in our spaces. The environment reflects the priorities of that class.  I need my classroom to support active learners.  Chickering and Erhmann write about the need for students to get hands-on with their learning. A learning space should reflect that idea. "Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers.  They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves."

A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to put this idea into practice when I redesigned my learning space to reflect some of the brain research coming out. Students need flexible learning spaces to encourage active learning.  Educators Erin Klein, AJ Juliani, Ben Gilpin, and Robert Dillion hosted a classroom redesign contest on their site Classroom Cribs, selecting my classroom as one of the grand finalists. “Redesigning spaces to maximize learning is primarily a shift in culture and mindset,” they write in their book Redesigning Learning Spaces. It was at this time that I moved my teacher's desk and podium away from the front of the room, and spent more time creating spaces where students could collaborate and share.

These days, my room is loud.  And I need it to be.  I see my students for only 55 minutes each day.  I need my students to use this time to collaborate, to connect, and to create.  Teaching in a rural district means that many of my students don't have the means or time to travel after school to meet with a classmate to work on a project. Some of my students drive as much as 30 minutes to get to school each morning. Many of my students work after school jobs. Some work more than one. The classroom is the place where my students have time to connect.  I view my classroom as a workshop. This is my students time and space to "make what they learn part of themselves."

And that can look very different for each student.  George needs to move.  He's one of the EI students in my classroom. He knows that he sometimes needs to remove himself from a conversation. Sometimes he needs to move into a conversation.  He needs a chair he can pick up and move.  Michael doesn't.  Michael needs a corner, maybe a pillow to lean on, so that he can put on his noise-cancelling earbuds and write his blog post.  Hannah and Abby need chairs right next to each other, not across from one another, so that they can share a computer screen while they craft an email together to gather information for their research. I need a flexible space to reflect all the various ways in which my students learn.

Saturday, August 5, 2017


I had an opportunity to participate in a panel discussion about the impact of social media in education this morning on the campus of the University of Michigan at Flint. Students in their graduate program for Educational Leadership met this morning to discuss how social media has changed professional development for educators.  And, Saturday mornings are the perfect morning to discuss this!  I got to mention how awesome #satchat has been for growing my PLN and exposing me to new and innovative ideas in education.

I also was excited to share how I use social media to amplify my students' voices and connect them to other thinkers around the world. Our world has been flattened by technology.

But this is old news.

Instead, I was surprised to hear about the level of push-back that these future administrators faced. Many of the educators in the room spoke about their districts having strict policies against connecting with parents online.  Connecting with students online was out of the question, as the districts they currently worked in had clear board policies against using social media in the classroom even at the secondary level.

Perhaps it is because I have immersed myself in technology and love sharing how social media has connected my learners with authors, experts, real readers, and classrooms around the globe that I forget that there still exists fear about how young people are using connective technologies.  I am not naive. I know that students need to be taught digital responsibility and that irresponsible behavior online can have dire real-life consequences, but locking the box on social media is not doing anyone any good.  How can we teach digital responsibility if we do not allow our educators and students to access it?

I hope that I was able to share today ways in which social media has helped make the walls of our classroom more transparent. I loved sharing some of what I have learned from Joe Sanfelippo (he's actually in town on Monday for MACUL's Mindshare!) and Tony Sinanis's work: "As lead learners, administrators, and educators, it is our responsibility to transform the thick brick barriers surrounding our school buildings into clear, transparent walls of glass." Social media helps teachers and administrators connect with our most important stakeholders.  It also helps us clearly articulate our story. The story of our schools.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Speed Dating to Find Your {Book} Match

I've got books on the brain.

During the second week of class, when not everyone in our tenth grade English class knows each other well, I surprise students with speed dating. Speed dating books, that is.  The students walk into our classroom to find the desks grouped into tables, covered with tablecloths, and decorated with centerpieces featuring flowers, candles (LED candles), "menus," and a large stack of books. This is our speed-dating day to find our {book} match. Not only do students get to know one another better through this activity, but they also learn more about specific genres found in our classroom library and select their first independent reading texts. At the close of the semester, this activity was rated by students as one of their favorites, so I thought I would share how I set up this activity with my high school students in case others want to give it a try with their students this fall.

One of the first questions that I've got from other teachers about this activity has to do with the books themselves. How did I select my genres? Where did I get all my books?  So let's start with the most important aspect of this whole activity - the books. Looking at my classroom library and what my students have been gravitating toward the past few years, I established "menus" for each table featuring a different genre.  I have seven tables around my room, each featuring a different genre - realistic fiction, historical fiction, dystopian novels, poetry, graphic novels, self-help, and creative nonfiction. The "menu" gives a brief description of the genre, which the students will record on their handout in addition to taking their own notes about the genre based on what they notice about the commonalities found in the books at their selected table. But where did I get all these books in the first place?

It can be difficult and extremely expensive to stock your classroom library with high-interest YA novels. New books are expensive.  So, here's where I've picked up many of mine.  First, hit your thrift stores.  During August, the local thrift store near my home used to have $1 bag days.  You pay $1 for a paper bag and stuff it with as much as you could. I would show up the first day of the sale and pick through all their books. During the summer months, it is easy to pick up inexpensive books at thrift stores, yard sales, and block sales. This was how my library got its start.

Later, one of my former students became the teen librarian at our township library. And Shelly hooked me up!  Librarians go through their collections two or more times a year, and if a book hasn't been checked out for an extensive period of time, that book needs to go in order to make room for new titles.  Shelly, my local hook-up, would call me up any time she had collected five or more boxes of books.  She'd let me pull any titles I wanted and the rest the library would sell.  Your local librarian is not only a fantastic resource for helping you learn about emerging authors and new titles, your librarian might also be able to help you stock your library! Invite them into your classroom to give a book talk to your students. Get to know your local librarians!

My most recent discovery is FirstBooks. If you are a teacher or librarian in a high poverty district as I am, you likely qualify for deep discounts on books through FirstBooks. It will take you between 10-15 minutes to complete your application, and if you qualify, you can order individual titles or titles in bulk. My first order is arriving this week. I ordered 13 books - everything from The Book Thief to I'll Give You the Sun, Lily and Duncan to An Ember in the Ashes - for just under $60.  And through their bulk book program, you can get a bulk order of one title for FREE!  You just pay for shipping.   Right now you can get a carton of 24 copies or The Maze Runner for $8.40!  

So, now that you've got all sorts of books and genres in your classroom library, what else are you going to need to set-up your Speed Dating Books activity?  I purchased a few rotating picture frames from Ikea to use on each table as the "menu" holder to display the genre found at that table.  If you are near an Ikea, the Tolsby picture frames comes in packs of 2 for just $.99. Then, I created a "menu" (I print out two so that I can display them on each side of the frame) for each genre using Canva.  Here are my menu cards.

Then, to add ambiance, I picked up a pack plastic table clothes, some small LED candles, pulled a few candle holders from around my house, used a JoAnn Fabrics coupon (and my teacher discount) to get a bunch of fake flowers, some Hershey Kisses sprinkled on each table (get it? Kisses? Dating?) and viola! You have a restaurant-style setting for your classroom, perfect for your speed daters!

The room is set up, your books are carefully displayed, now what?  As students walked into my room, I handed them a Speed Dating Scorecard. I let my students self select the tables they moved to first, but you could easily copy the scorecard sheet on different colors of paper to establish groups. If you need six groups, copy the scorecard onto six different colors of paper. Students find those with the same colored sheets to become a group.  I let my students self-select their first table, and then they moved as a group to the next table.

On my projection screen, I show a classroom timer.  Students have about five minutes to record notes about the genre at their table by looking at the "menu" cards and by perusing through the books and talking with their group members.  In that time, they need to select one book on the table to "date."  Then, I start the timer.  Students have five minutes to flip through and read some sections of the book to figure out if they would like to "date" it further.  At the close of five minutes when the timer goes off, students complete the ranking section and notes for their "date."

By the close of class, students will have delved into five genres and "dated" five books. In the following class days, I go over our independent book reading, how we log our pages, and how we will be completing book talks, all inspired by Penny Kittle's book Book Love. We return to our Speed Dating handout throughout the semester when we are looking for our next book to read.

If you do a similar activity with your students, I would love to learn from you! What works for you? How do you inspire independent reading in your classroom?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Amplifying Student Voices

For a few weeks now, Karter has been getting up earlier and earlier.  He'll wake at 3 AM and drive 40 minutes to the farm. He's helping to transition the dairy cows to a different milking time.  Every few days, they're moving the milking time back just a little more in order to transport the cows later in the month to a new farm. Dairy cows are very particular about when they are milked, and so a delicate, well-timed transition in milking times makes this move possible. Once the cows are moved, Karter's job on the farm will be over, and he'll have to look for a new job. He comes to journalism class after working a full morning on the farm.

Allen has been living on his own for the past two years.  He's an emancipated minor. In Public Speaking class last week, he gave a moving speech about what it is like living on your own at seventeen. Contrary to how much his peers complain about their parents, he described the alternative as a lonely, sometimes dark place.

Sara has a one year old daughter who's blood recently tested high for lead contamination. They can't figure out where her daughter would have been exposed to lead. She's just received her third doctor's opinion and has missed 29 days of our journalism class.

I cannot count the number of students that I have sitting in my classroom who at one point in time have been in "the system" with Child Protective Services.  "After you've been in 'the system'," Bethany says, "CPS follows you. They track you until you are 18, sometimes showing up at school to ask the same questions they did 10 years ago."

I have students working two or more jobs in order to help with their family's expenses.  I have homeless students, orphaned students, sick students, students teetering on so many different precipices. I work in a Title 1 school with over 50 percent of my students receiving free and reduced lunch.

I work in a rural school.

In some ways, the students that I work with are no different than those that I worked with earlier in my career in a more affluent area outside of Philadelphia. Students want to be heard, valued, and understood. They all are struggling to understand their roles, identities, and purpose. Rural or urban, suburban or somewhere in between, adolescents everywhere want to know that their voice matters.

It is the particulars of their experiences that have power. But my students are so in the thick of their own stories that it is hard to see outside of them.  They don't see themselves as unique, as having stories to tell. My students can tell you in great detail how to field dress a deer, how to restore a '57 Chevy truck, the best places to find refurbished auto parts, how to clip a goat's hooves, the best rivers to kayak, how to catch air snowboarding. But this is just what they do. "These are not stories," they tell me.

Until we start to unpack these experiences.  Why did you chose to restore that old Chevy? Isaac tells us that it was sitting in the yard after his grandfather passed away.  Together Isaac and his dad worked to bring it back to its former glory. Isaac tells us stories about what it is like to work side-by-side with his dad.  He has these memories that tie him with the men in his family. His grandfather, his dad, and now Isaac have all worked on this machine; their histories are tied to this truck. It is by far, the most memorable vehicle in our student parking lot, shiny robin's egg blue with wooden rails lining the back bed. "It's road ready, but I wouldn't say it's road safe. Kinda like my grandfather," Isaac says.  There's another story there just waiting to be shared, and you can hear it in his voice.

Opening up space for stories in our classrooms is powerful not only for the authors but for the community of learners in our classes.  Stories are powerful when they are shared. I have watched stories transform my classroom community, whether we are telling fictional stories or sharing our personal truths.  Yet by the time I see them in my high school English classroom, so many of my students do not see the value of their stories. "I have nothing," is a chorus I often hear at the beginning of the semester after introducing the first writing prompt.  My student writers shut down for so many different reasons. They have been told or shown that their stories do not matter, that their experiences are not valued. They do not readily trust my voice coaxing them to share.  They do not see their words as having any power.

Until they do.

It takes a few weeks, sometimes longer, until the stories start of pour out. And then they flood our classroom. They change our classroom. They connect us. About a year ago, I started to look for resources outside of my school that might help to amplify my students' voices. I want my students to not only see the value of their words inside our classroom but how powerful they can be for a much wider audience outside the walls of our school.  We work to publish our words on large platforms like TeenInk and Figment, both fantastic resources for students interested in publication.  However, they are large sites, featuring hundreds of new submissions daily. Stories change over quickly and can easily become lost.  So, we started our own space.

After connecting virtually with an editor at TeenInk in December of 2016, a group of students and I started MIteen Writers, an online and print literary magazine for teen writers in Michigan. We wanted to have a space to showcase the unique stories of writers from this state, to amplify the voices of mitten state teens.

The amazing MIteen Writers editorial board
So, the editorial team sat down and brainstormed what we wanted to publish, how our site should look, and who we hoped would access our online space. Our conversation with the editor at TeenInk helped us think through how we should design our submission guidelines, how many pieces we should post, and how we select pieces for publication. We launched our website in December of 2016 and shared it with the directors of most of National Writing Project sites in Michigan.  Within the first week, we had poetry submissions from Grand Rapids, Cheboygan, Portage, Kingsley, and more.  In fact, we were a bit unprepared for the number and quality of submissions that we received.  As we started to get off the ground, we had to meet regularly and figure out a system for who would review which pieces and how quickly we could respond to submissions. Our biggest challenge was not in getting the site started or getting the word out, it was in answering each of the submissions. To be honest, we are still struggling to keep up with the number of submissions that we've received but this is a great challenge to have.  It speaks to the need for such a space.  Over the past two months, we've received so many fantastic stories, essays, photographs, and of course, poems, which makes up the bulk of our submissions.

We've heard from students in small schools in northern Michigan, schools with graduating classes of under 100 students.  We've heard from students in the suburbs of Grand Rapids and from schools just outside of Detroit.  Students write about their experiences, their particulars, about what connects us as Michigan writers.  This great peninsula has so many stories to tell, stories of heartbreak and of joy, of harsh winters and sandy summers. Our stories matter. We're excited to have created a space to amplify the stories of our unique peninsula.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Having Presence

I'm bummed. The last couple of mornings I have rolled out of bed with a headache and sinus pressure, my second big cold of the winter season.  But this morning marks the first time that I've had to pass on what has become a Saturday morning ritual - community yoga.

Over the last six months or so I've been practicing yoga two, three, sometimes four times a week.  I have my regular teachers at the local YMCA that I love, but I have also enjoyed community yoga, dropping in to take a class with a different studio nearly every Saturday. And here in Grand Rapids, also known as Beer City USA, I have fun attending yoga at different breweries.  Last weekend, 104 of us took to our mats at Perrin Brewery.  And this morning, I was planning to attend one of my monthly favorites, a yoga session at Founders Brewery with one of my favorite studios.  I have the tickets. I was ready to go. But I woke up this morning feeling knocked down by this lingering cold.

I am someone who pushes myself, always looking ahead, planning for the next lesson, next unit, next event.  Yoga has taught me to slow down, to be present for the present, attend to how I am feeling in the moment. So although I am bummed about not attending one of my favorite yoga sessions this morning, I also grateful and aware of just how practicing yoga has changed me.

Six months ago, I would have pushed myself and attended this morning's sweaty session, coughing and sputtering my way through, coming home tired, drained, and likely worse for wear.  Instead, I recognized this morning that I needed to slow down, take an easy morning at home with my family to nurse my cold.  And I am so glad I did.

This morning, my boys decided to dress in their suits for no particular reason.  My eldest grabbed his recent library find and curled into a corner to read.  My youngest announced proudly that he was dressing up in order to play a special session of Dungeons and Dragons with their dad. My eldest quickly agreed that this was the best idea his younger brother had ever had. The game is still going on. My boys are sprawled on the living room floor in front of the fireplace rolling die and talking about cobalts and hobgobblins. I love listening in on their conversations. They are building a world together, crafting stories.  My youngest is drawing a map. My eldest is contemplating strategies.  And I am grateful for this moment, for being present.

So often I find that I am rushing.  Rushing to get to work, to pick up my children from school, to get to practice, or the store, or the bank, or the... But this rushing around creates so much tension, so much stress both for me and for those around me, my family and my students.  I have learned through yoga to slow down, breath, and let the present be a present, a gift. Rushing around, being busy all the time, does so much more harm than good. Being present, having the presence of mind to slow down and be grateful for the moment I am in, takes practice.

I am reminded of a powerful video that John Spencer animated about a year ago asking teachers, really asking all of us, to stop wearing busy like a badge of honor.

This morning I am grateful to have the presence of mind to be present.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lucky to Love School

Wild winds whipped across the mitten state on Wednesday.  By 10:30 in the morning, I had received a text message and email that my sons' elementary school was without power, but not to worry, everyone was safe. A few minutes later, my high school's lights flickered, and we were suddenly without power as well.  A student handed me his cell phone. "My mom just texted me this. Apparently there's a portion of someone's roof in our front yard." The winds took off the roof of an elementary school in a neighboring county and left nearly a million people in Michigan without power, over 350,000 people in our area of West Michigan. Schools across our area were closed on Thursday due to the power outages, both mine and my sons' schools included.

By Thursday afternoon, many in the area had their power restored, including my home and my high school.  However, Thursday evening a friend texted me that he didn't think our kids would be going to school on Friday either because the elementary school still did not have power. Friday morning, it turned out he was right when I received a text that once again the elementary school was closed. Time to make alternative childcare plans.

So my two young sons packed up their backpacks and headed to school with me this morning. My first grader and second grader have been to my classroom many times when the big kids were not there. They have helped me set up my room in the summer and lug books up to my room on breaks, but today was the first time that they were in my class when it was filled with high school students.

My student teacher and I start each one of our classes the same way with a daily check-in that we call Lo-Hi's, an opportunity to share a low that has been impacting us or a high that we want to celebrate.  It is our way of learning more about what is happening in our students' lives outside the classroom as well as a way to build connections in our learning community. Students hear who needs support and who would like affirmations. Today, I shared that I was excited to have my two helpers in the class with me, and when students asked why my sons were in our classroom, my eldest would pipe up with an explanation of why their elementary school was closed.  "Lucky!" my first period chorused.  "Lucky!" my second period class murmured.  "Luck..." my third period class started to say when my eight year old broke in.

"Why does everyone say that we're 'lucky' because our school is closed.  It's not lucky. I like my school."

My third period class went quiet.

Flickr image by Matthew Hutchinson
The same thing happened in my other classes throughout the day, and I could tell that both my sons were getting frustrated each time that my students said they were lucky to be out of school. In later classes, my youngest son joined in. "We missed book fair today and library time."

My boys love school.  They love learning.  They love their teachers and talk about all the funny and amazing things their teachers share with them. At one point during the afternoon, my boys were starting to get a little antsy and asked me to print out some "homework" for them.  They wanted to be working on something like the high school students.  They came home today excited. Over dinner, my eldest told me that he can't wait to be a high school student because it looks like fun.

Today reminded me of a quote by Sir Ken Robinson (who coincidentally will be in Michigan next week!): "All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think." At what point in their academic careers do we educated students out this? Why do students start to say that they hate school.

I know that many of the students in my classes do not hate school.  Some do.  But I also know that for some of my students, school is the only place they can count on regular meals. School is where some of my students will find a supportive friend or teacher to comfort them through a difficult time. School is where some of my students will be challenged and told that they are capable of more than they give themselves credit. School is where some of my students are excited to be earning college credit or job training towards a career they are passionate about. For some of my students, school is the stable center of their lives. And yet, even these students chime in with "lucky." It has become part of our culture to hate school, specifically high school.

So how do we change this? How do we change the dominate narrative that school is a place we are lucky to get out of, lucky to have an unexpected day away from, lucky to leave behind? I know there are no easy answers.  My students' responses today are developmentally appropriate. By the time they are seniors, we want our students to think of themselves as confident, self-sufficient members of our community. They are ready to move on. They want to move on. This is what teachers want to hear. But I also heard in my students' chorus of "lucky!" that school is not a place they value. This breaks my heart.  I don't want my students to hate school. I don't want my sons to learn that school is something to be hated.  How do I create a classroom culture where students feel lucky to love school?

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