Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Learning Communities are Built on Relationships

I don't yell.

Okay, if you ask my own children, they might tell you something different, but when it comes to my classroom, you'll find me most days guffawing and giggling more than anything else. I've been known to cackle so loudly that they can hear my laughter echo down the hallway.

But today, I yelled.

Over my years of teaching, I have come to realize that my philosophy of classroom management starts with building relationships. We start that very first week of school by constructing a social contract for our learning community. I ask for student input on what our learning and behavior expectations should be. We have candid conversations about what respect looks like, both from the teacher and from students. When I talk about the classroom, it is our classroom and our learning community. We work together.  It is not mine or yours. And it doesn't take long before students are using those same plural pronouns to talk about our class.  We reserve the opening moments of every class period to share out what things are happening in our lives. We share our highs and our lows. I know my students. I listen to their struggles. I try to provide a space that is flexible, comfortable, and safe.

And so when conflict happens, I rely on the strength of those relationships to lift us up.  If a student is off-task, I just need to quietly come stand beside her and ask how things are going. That's usually enough to help redirect her back on task.  On the rare occasion when anger fills our classroom, when someone uses profane language, or calls someone a name, I can usually get the situation under control quickly by pulling the student aside and trying to understand what is at the root of the issue and help the student see another's point of view. I point out the tenets of our social contract. This is what respect looks like in our classroom. This is what empathy looks like in our classroom.

But today I yelled.

Not at first.  At first I tried to calm down an irate student by pulling her aside. I tried redirecting. I tried separating. I tried getting the class back on task.

And then I yelled.

It is not how I like getting control of my classroom. It feels like a broken trust.

But I know that it will work out.  And I know that because as students walked out of class, I heard apologies. Students apologizing to one another. Students apologizing to me. I saw students offering to help others.  After school a student stopped by to see if I was okay. He was checking on me. It will work out because our relationships still build the foundation of our learning community.  Our walls may have shook this afternoon, but our relationships remain strong.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Time to Unplug

OMG! How did I end up on the Daily Beast?!

Okay, not really. My hair is longer. But those glasses are spot on.

Seriously though, when the sun goes down this evening, it will mark the start of the National Day of Unplugging. And for much as I love technology's ability to connect my students and me with authors, writers, and experts of all varying kinds, an over-reliance on our smartphones, tablets, and all manner of digital devices can have a detrimental effect on our ability to connect in real time.

Dr. Kowal meets with my Public Speaking students in February 2017.
My friend and communications expert Dr. Chris Kowal has done quite a bit of research on this matter. A nonverbal communications scholar, Chris studied people's body positions as they engaged in using their smartphones. The study, conducted at Purdue University, concluded that our curled-up body position when using smartphones leads to stress. In a 2016 article in The Exponent, Chris stated, "...we need to be aware of how we use our smartphones."

And he's not alone in this call for moderation. About this time last year, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a report about American's use of digital technologies and their increasing rates of stress.  According to the report, nearly one-fifth of those surveyed reported that digital technologies were the source of "very or somewhat significant" stress in their daily lives.  Similar surveys have been conducted by Gallup, the Milken Institute, and the Pew Research Center. And there's a growing body of research on cell phone addiction.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love my technology. To be quite honest, I would not be the educator that I am today without the connections that I have fostered in digital spaces like Twitter and Facebook.  Or what about all those fantastic donors who have provided my classroom with books and Chromebooks and cameras through online networks like DonorsChoose and PledgeCents.  And Skype and Google Hangouts/Meet have connected my students with editors, authors, biologists, poets, and fellow students from all around the globe. Technology has transformed my classroom in amazing ways.  However, that said, we all could use a break from that constant connection.

I'm old enough to remember a world prior to cell phones, prior to people being to get in touch with you whenever or wherever you happened to be. In college, I would hop in my car, windows rolled all the way down, radio blaring, and make the hour drive to the Lake Michigan shore. Alone.  If someone needed me, it had to wait until I was back in my dorm room. In a similar sort of way, this is why I have always loved camping, being in the great wide open.  No need for televisions or phones or tablets or laptops when there are so many open spaces to explore. In a world where digital connections are ubiquitous, it is refreshing to be reminded of the real-life connections that we might be missing out when we walk through the world with earbuds in and our faces looking down at little glowing blue screens.

So, take the 24-hour challenge with me. Unplug from your devices for one day. Who knows, maybe you'll find more powerful connections in real-life.  At the very least, unplugging might help us to find a bit of balance in how we are using technology in our daily lives.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Gift of the Unexpected Snow Day

view from my window this morning
Ordinarily, if there's even a whiff of snow in the forecast, my boys and I have spoons nestled under our pillows, our pajamas on backwards, and ice cubes floating in all the toilets in our house. But this morning, as I was trying to convince myself that I didn't need to get up early, that 10 more minutes snuggled in my flannel sheets was worth the rush I would face later, my phone made the familiar buzzt, buzzt of an incoming text message. My fellow tenth grade honors English teacher shot out a quick text about how we could post a part of our plans on our Google Classroom pages. "This shouldn't put us too far behind schedule," she texted.

Wait!  What? We have a snow day!

Sure enough, school was closed today because of dangerously icy road conditions. I didn't see that coming. I certainly could use a day off to catch up on some grading that has been lingering in my book bag untouched for a few days. But, there will always be papers to grade and lessons to plan, snow day or not.  So today, I made the decision to simply enjoy this unexpected gift of a snow day.

I spent the morning watching the sun come up over our snow-covered yard, watching fat flakes float from the tree limbs outside my kitchen window as I made pancakes and eggs for my boys and husband. We got ready slowly this morning, chatting, goofing around, connecting. And then after my boys boarded their bus, two hours later than they usually start school, I hit the treadmill. Time to get those steps in. I read a book that has been sitting untouched since January. At the moment, I'm sitting in front of my fireplace crafting this blog.  And you know what? I'm relaxed. On a Wednesday afternoon.

I'm not worried about what has been left undone, about how much still needs to be planned, organized, graded, what emails I have yet to return, what paperwork I need to turn in. These things seem to consume my daily life. I rush from class to class, activity to activity.  Don't forget to... Be sure to...  Make certain you... I have to-do notes on my phone, in my planner, oftentimes even written in ink on the palm of my hand, always so much to accomplish in the span of a day. There never seems to be enough time.  And yet, there always is.

Things that must get done usually do. Those that don't quite get done on time tend to work themselves out.  And what seemed so important in the moment is forgotten by the close of the month. Will this matter in a year? Things move so quickly in our classrooms, and it is easy to get overwhelmed, both for teachers and for students. We are all so rushed. As educator John Spenser has said, we are wearing busy like a badge of honor. But it's not.  It does not make us better teachers, better students, better partners, friends, or parents to take pride in how busy we are. It does no good to repeat that trite claim that there just isn't enough time.

It took me many years as an educator to learn that I needed to let somethings go.  So today, I'm letting go of my to-do lists, if just for a little while, to enjoy this unexpected gift of time.

I find comfort in the poetry of Whitman:

I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Why is This Working?

This is not the first time that I have taught students how to blog.

For many years, I had my tenth-grade students create blogs for their project-based research projects. We connected with writers and with experts on their topics.  Some students spent hours exploring other blogs, using them as mentors for their own writing, making sure their posts were loaded with images and links to entice readers.  But inevitably, this would be the exception and not the rule. Most of their blogs read like mini-essays, each post written in a typical five-paragraph format.

This semester, something has changed.  But I'm not quite sure how or why.

My seniors have started blogging to reflect on their reading of a "banned book." They selected a book of their choice from the American Library Association's list of challenged books. We will spend the month of March digging into issues of censorship and reader's rights. My students are reading everything from Huckleberry Finn to Looking for Alaska, and although they have only just started their blogging adventures, I'm noticing a difference in the depth and the quality of their reflections.
Take for example this morning.  Cheyenne is reading American Psycho.  She came up to my desk and asked, "I want to include lines from my book in my post, but I'm not really sure how.  The writing is much more dense and dark than I expected."  We got to have a conversation about what she thinks might most benefit her readers, and think through the best approach for including lines.  Should she type up a paragraph from the text, blocking out particular words so as not to offend some readers? Or, should she take a picture of a page in the book and simply post it along with her annotations written on the page?

Madeline just asked, "How should I cite this?"  We've been talking about ensuring that we give credit to the original writers and artists.  Students are including specific passages, evidence, images, and links to other news articles and writers.

So why is this blogging experience working out so much better than earlier years? I need to spend more time reflecting on this question, but my initial thought is that this time around I spent much less time instructing students how to set-up our blogs and much more time pointing out what good bloggers do.  We looked at more examples than I had in year's past, and I started the first week by having my students comment on one another's first posts.  In doing so, not only did they receive feedback on their writing, but they also had an opportunity to explore how their peers had designed their online spaces.

In short, I spent less time on instructions and more time on having students get hands-on with writing.

And here's how their looking so far.  We would love your feedback on their blogs!  Simply hover over the images below to access links to my students' blogs.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Whatcha Reading?

It's quiet.  Occasionally I hear the plastic crinkle of a plastic-encased library book as a student flips the page.  Brad is engrossed in Looking for Alaska. Alex, sitting next to him, is just starting to dig into The Handmaid's Tale.  Alyssa picked up The Perks of Being a Wallflower just yesterday, and it already looks as if she is halfway through the book. I can tell from the expression on her face that she is deep into this story, empathizing with Charlie. My Independent Novel Studies students have just started our study of banned and challenged books, and our room is silent.  If I break in now with some instructions, I know that I will get pushback. "This is a reading day, Ward." Let's read!

And this is why I love March.

March brings with it our March Book Madness bracket, with students voting each day for their favorite books, pitting classics against contemporary YA novels, until one book reigns victorious just before our spring break begins at the close of March. For students that vote, we are giving away signed copies of books each school day in March. The number of students that voted yesterday compared to today has already doubled, and it's only lunchtime.  The school is buzzing with talk of books.  Who will win today? To Kill A Mockingbird or Where the Red Fern Grows?

Teachers have hung signs outside their doors declaring their current reading choices.  Students, high school students, are excited to share today their favorite titles for Read Across America Day.  "My mom would always read that story about the nutbrown hair to me right before bed. What was the title again, Ms. Ward?" Guess How Much I Love You. "Yeah, I loved it. I memorized the words before I could read it."

My students are readers.  In part this is because our district has placed an emphasis on independent reading and choice, from kindergarten all the way through senior year.  My students, whether AP-bound honors sophomores or struggling junior students, know that reading is a priority.  They have grown up with books always at the ready. They have their regular reading days each week, when they are encouraged to dig in to a novel of their choice. And don't you dare try to take that time away from them.  It is quiet now, not because they are bored or sleeping.  It is quiet because we are all immersed in the pages of a good book.

This is how you build a culture of reading. This is why I love March. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to my book.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Let the Blogging Begin

The only sound in my room at the moment is the crisp clicky-clack of 224 fingertips typing.  And then Cheyenne can't contain herself any longer. She turns and whispers excitedly to Madison, "I can't tell if this is supposed to be dark funny, or if I'm misunderstanding this. So, there's this guy..." And she goes on to explain in a whisper that grows into a conversation why it is that she has gotten sucked into her book. Her banned book.

Image by Emily Podsiadlik
My Independent Novel Studies students, mainly seniors, just started our unit on banned and challenged books.  We've explored the ALA website of banned books and discussed their Bill of Rights.  We've combed the library shelves for challenged books that pique our interest. This morning, my students are blogging, many for the first time, on their reading of a self-selected "banned" book.  Cheyenne is hoping to get some feedback on her reading of American PsychoEmily calls me over. "Ms. Ward, you gotta read my last paragraph. I created a hashtag!" #blogon.  She's also posted a picture she snapped of her and a friend engaged in a staged conversation over a book.  They are loving this.  I am loving this.  The excitement is palatable.

So let the blogging begin!

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.

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