December 23, 2014

On the Possibility of a Perfect Learning Environment

The way I know I am still growing is this: I learn every day that I have no idea what I am doing.

And that's okay. The cycle of my learning life goes a little something like this:

I wonder how this works > I am so awesome at this! > I have absolutely no idea how this works > I wonder how to make this better > I am so awesome at this! > How did I ever think I understood this? > Okay, so how does this really work?

Ad infinitum.

Take for instance, my stance on learning environments. More specifically, departmentalized instruction versus self-contained classrooms. For years I attempted to convince my first principal to let me try departmentalized instruction. After four years of teaching 4th grade, I was convinced I knew a better way. And that, my friends, was to allow teachers to specialize in one content area so that students learned the material from teachers that knew and loved the content. My principal always refused the request, however, warning me that departmentalized classrooms suffer from a lack of teacher-student relationships. I assured her this wasn't the case -- I had research to prove my belief! Smart people with multiple degrees and eons more experience than me agreed that this was the way to go. She was not convinced, but I clung to my belief that departmentalizing instruction was best for students and teachers.

This belief eventually played a small part in my departure from that school and entry into a new campus where I taught reading, writing, and social studies to two classes of students. They would receive math and science instruction from my co-teacher across the hall. I went into this experience filled with optimism and eager to spend a year immersed in the subject I was most knowledgable and passionate about. And I was right, to a certain extent. Focusing on reading and writing helped me to spend more time honing my craft as a teacher in that area. My relationship with my students was solid -- stronger, perhaps, than it had been before. In part this was because of the need of the particular learners I worked with; struggling students in a low income area that craved learning and worked hard to grow. What I did not expect, but probably should have, was the immense time crunch that happens when you jump from having an entire day with students to only spending two hours a day with them. There is no time to shift subjects around, squeeze in extra learning, or spend an extra hour on something your learners are struggling with -- you have 600 minutes a week with students, the end. Every minute becomes crucial.

Just a couple years after that initial exposure to the departmentalized classroom, I've landed at a charter school with a focus on classical instruction. At this school, I still teach 4th grade, but instead of two sections of students, there are four. That's a little under 90 students I work with each day, teaching writing and social studies. I have sixty minutes with each class. We work on our writing craft, learn to be more efficient revisers and editors of our own work, and of course, tackle the history curriculum of the 4th grade Texas student. I love this new school, my students, and the teaching family I work with each day. I feel like I've found my new teaching home.

And in the first semester of my experience here, I've learned so much about why I was wrong all those times I tried to convince my old principal that departmentalized instruction was better for students.

I still believe my relationship with my students is solid. I know them as people. I can tell you all about their interests and their personalities. I know how to talk to each one to help them grow. And they know me; I share my life with them, both the successes and the struggles. It's not the relationship with them as people that suffers.

It's the relationship with the student as a complete learner that flounders. If I were only teaching math, I might not understand where the student is as a reader. Missing this detail could mean not seeing why a student is struggling in math. Sure, the reading teacher can share this information with me. I might have the background knowledge, but until I sit and read with this child, and walk side by side with him or her through the particular struggles, I won't truly experience the problem and work on the solution. I won't be a part of the process. And with only an hour to focus on my content area, the chances of ever having time to make this type of connection is slim, to say the least. Not for lack of want. There is only so much one human can do in 60 minutes in a room filled with different needs and learning styles.

So what now? Now that I accept that my original ideas were only half-formed, now that I know there is so much more to the story than focusing on the ability for a teacher to specialize? Well, I keep doing what I'm doing. Keep learning, keep trying to find a better way to reach all my learners. Some days the overwhelming amount of information I'm expected to share with students seems impossible. Other days it seems we're figuring it out, stumbling gracefully forward. I still believe relationship is everything, and will never stop focusing on building trust and community with each of my students. It all starts there.

Is there one best way to teach a group of students everything they need to learn within a year? Maybe. Maybe not. But what I am learning, what I see so much more clearly every year, is that there are infinite ways to reach our students. We won't always be in the best situation. We will rarely have all the resources we feel we need. But the most important factor in the classroom is not the curriculum or the technology available or even the physical space. The greatest asset a classroom has is the attitude of the teacher. There will be good and bad days, amazing lessons and total flops, days when every moment is like pulling a freight train along with you, and times when the entire room is alive as if filled with some otherworldly magic. The classroom is a living, breathing space. It is what we make it.

And as for me, I intend to keep on building my skill, honing in on my craft, and articulating my love for each of my students every day, regardless of whether we are self-contained or in the fast paced whirl of a departmentalized classroom. While no learning environment may ever be perfect for all learners, my attitude and compassion fill the gap. So I will continue learning and growing right alongside my students, and together we will create the space that is perfect for us. Every day a different classroom, week by week, until I send them off to their future and greet my new learners at the door and begin to build again.

After all, what is learning if not constantly building, tearing down, and rebuilding the things you thought you knew?

November 25, 2014

SOL: Hike Your Own Hike, an #NCTE14 reflection

Everyone has to hike their own hike.

I first heard this phrase when reading Jennifer Pharr Davis' Becoming Odyssa, a memoir of her first through-hike on the Appalachian Trail. If you've not heard it before, the context is simple: go at your own pace, don't compare yourself to others, and do what works for you so that you can make it to the end.

It's become a bit of a private mantra of mine in the nearly five years since first reading her book.

Hike your own hike.

It's permission to live my life according to my own beliefs and guidelines, without feeling less than or guilty because I am not in the same place as those around me.

Gae and some poor mismatched homeless chick...
Combined with my other heartsong, First Do No Harm, I'm often able to ride out storm-tossed waves while people around me are capsizing in miniature anxiety-boats. Not always. Not even with a whole lot of grace. But I'm learning, and that makes me happy.

My Teacher Twin and Co-Ninja!

It's empowering, knowing you're right where you're supposed to be -- that your place on the mountain is equally as important and meaningful as those both above and beneath you, and every traveler that has walked a thousand footsteps more than you or is only just now stepping foot onto their path has no more and no less worth. We're all just hiking along, doing our best as we go.

Best roommates ever! Had so much fun with these two!
These words swirled around my mind repeatedly in the last five days while walking the labyrinthian corridors of the NCTE Conference. It's packed with so many sessions, events, author signings, and get-togethers that attempting to try to do them all could make a person go a little loopy -- especially when factoring in a bunch of roomies all interested in different things. That's why the hiker's mantra is so powerful; do what you need to best sustain your own experience, and give others the space to do so as well.

Alan Sitomer literally changed the way I think about my writing.
I took it easy at this conference. Slept in a couple mornings. Hung out talking to old friends and made some new ones. Went to sessions by authors and gleaned meaningful and sometimes life-changing insights that I may not have experienced had I simply gone to the sessions everyone else was attending. I spent my evenings sightseeing and writing and relaxing. Perhaps for the first time at one of these huge mega-conferences, I felt like I was really experiencing each moment, not rushing and worrying over inconsequential things.

One of my favorite nights at #NCTE14!
When it comes to teaching (and learning), the same outlook holds true. Teaching is an art. Educators need room to find their own style and deserve the opportunity to spend time on professional development that matters to them. After all, how can we empower students to be their best personal self if we aren't given the opportunity to grow into the most enlightened version of our teaching selves? I think that's one reason I love the NCTE conference so much -- while my colleagues are at a session learning about using Shakespeare in the classroom, I am listening to authors discuss the importance of revision, and still others are sitting in round table discussions about how to change the way grammar is taught.

Light is my One Little Word for 2014. I love how it weaves through all I do...
We're all hiking our own hike, every day, and somehow we're doing it together. And I think that makes us all stronger. I'm so thankful to be a part of this vast network of brilliantly different and passionate educators.

See you on the trail, friends.

November 18, 2014

Slice of Life Tuesday: Did You Volunteer For This??

Call me crazy, but I sort of love arriving at school an hour before class begins. Not because I can get so much extra work done in those quiet hours before students are trouncing through every nook and cranny in the building. Nope. I love this extra time because I get to spend it with young writers every day.

NaNoWriMo is in full swing, and for me that means a month-long writing club that meets every morning to write, share, and grow our writing community. This is one of the biggest years for our little community so far -- right at 25 fourth and fifth grade students come to school early every day to work on novels they chose to write.

Honestly, it's pretty amazing. There isn't much that can touch this experience in the awesomeness factor for me for the rest of the school year. Even so, I always get many questions about why I do this. And how.

"Did you volunteer for this??"

"Every day?"

"You show up how early??"

"How do you get them to keep coming back?"

"They just ... write?"

"Wait. So they actually sit down and write?!"

"Wow, I bet you can't wait for November to end!"

The truth is actually simple, and maybe a little bit boring. (Though here is an easy-to-use wikispace we've been testing out this year, heaped with writing tips for the beginning novel writer!)

I don't make this happen. They do.

I invite them, give them a place to hang out, and talk to them about their story ideas. I give them space to do something they love. They show up. They do the work.

We all respect each other's writing. We celebrate every word that goes down on paper; whether it's word one or five thousand. They set their own word goal and write until their little hands cramp up to meet those goals. They write in their spare time. They write at lunch. They write over the weekend.

They do the thing that all writers must do: they write.

Beginning every morning surrounded by these energetic young writers that are having fun and cheering each other on? That's easy.

The hard part is getting used to not having their smiling faces and wondrous words filling up my space each morning when November ends. Thank goodness for December's Revision Club!

August 22, 2014


Ok - all these "ice bucket challenges" have gotten me thinking. They seem pretty successful in meeting their goals, right? So I offer a challenge to our governments, state and national, to any official who feels they should vote AGAINST school funding, whether it be a nay to increasing the education budget or a yay to further cutting. I challenge you to come work as a teacher in a classroom for a week. See if you're not wiped out physically &/or emotionally. Or don't find yourself thinking about at least one of your students, if you're not frustrated with all the expectations of others, if you don't stress about at least one parent issue (either because they're "too involved" or couldn't care less). Not to mention thinking or worrying about planning like you need to in order to be successful and as well as the higher ups think you should.  If none of those FEW things listed affect you, then I will listen to your reasoning for voting against our kids. But I'll still want to pour a bucket of icy water on you.

June 27, 2014

Who Would've Thought

I've undertaken a lot this summer.  The largest being a month long commitment to writing.  I was graciously asked to apply to, and then accepted, into North Star of Texas Writing Project's Summer Institute.  My co-ninja, Kelly, has been a part of NSTWP for years now and she has been after me for at least as long to accept writing as "good and not evil".  I was positive that it was just not part of who I was.  But it happened, she was finally able to brainwash me into feeling the need to go and become a part of this Writing Project.

I went.
Dragging my hypothetical feet like an insolent brat.
I complained most of the first week, or maybe it was two weeks.
So don't tell her that I am actually enjoying it.  I knew I would learn a lot, but I never in my wildest ideas thought I would end up thinking like a writer. I am the READING NINJA for Pete's sake!

But alas, I have been cursed with now having the brain of a writer.  I can't see something odd or unusual and not think "Oh! I should write this down!" or "That comment would make a great blog post." (I am looking forward to writing about my experience this morning while at the hair salon!) Most of those will end up on my personal blog, due to my "adult" sense of humor.  No matter; the fact is, it now seems that I must keep track of everything because I might want to write about it someday. I am constantly writing intros and hooks in my head, seeing how it sounds, for days or weeks before I get it on paper.

I've been listening to David Sedaris's newest book on my iPhone as I drive the hour and a half north to get to these classes.  He writes little personal vignettes about things he's seen or noticed.  Most of them are small, but then he connects them to another event in his childhood or to when he was a young adult. I think he's hilarious, and as I was writing the other day I noticed I was modeling my writing after his. My own mentor text.  Hmmm - who knew I'd someday think like a writer?  Ok - who besides Kelly.

June 22, 2014

Reading - It Really Works

About 3 years ago my co-ninja Kelly showed me this great book she was reading; The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. It forever changed how I "do reading" in my class.
If you're not familiar with Miller's work, you should be. This is not a program or a set of lesson plans. It is a way to get students reading, willingly.  Studies abound in the benefits of reading, so why are we still falling behind as a society in this area? I think it's partially due to the fact that we have convinced ourselves that if it seems "too easy", it must not be effective.  Compared to finding a "fun" activity to teach each and every TEKS, teaching students how to choose a book and read it on their own seems too easy.  Granted, I do feel it's easier than painfully cramming TEKS piece by piece down the students' throats, but it is definitely effective.  
I began teaching using Miller's idea of free choice four years ago.  All I had to do was guide students towards my larger than usual classroom library and help them get a book.  Then I kept notes to make sure they were reading.  I took page numbers every morning and before we left for the day to make sure they were making progress, I attempted to talk to students about their book choice and how they were enjoying it.  I still offered occasional mini-lessons, but not in so much detail and without the constant assessing.  That first year, I watched their QRI data move upwards; this has continued to be the trend in my class.  
As soon as testing rolled around I became extremely nervous.  Watching other teachers make huge packets of reading passages followed by questions, I wondered if I had done the right thing.  Just because their QRI levels were going up, were they still going to be able to be successful on the state test? Did I just waste an entire year of "fun" and "enjoyable" reading?! Fortunately for everyone the year was not at all a waste.  Our reading scores on the state test were great and have continued to be top in the district ever since.  
So does just reading actually help students enjoy books as well as learn enough to pass the test?  In our classroom, yes.  Is it "easier" than planning out detailed instructions for teaching point of view and character analysis?  Absolutely. Don't get me wrong, I didn't do it "perfect" from the get-go.  I have changed how I run my reading time every year, adding one-on-one reading for my less fluent readers and changing how I keep track of students' reading progress. These are just a few of the strategies I use in my class to help every student become a better reader, but the gist of it is, reading more makes better readers.  Harder is not always better.   

June 9, 2014

Why I Teach

"He went to bed and took his book with him! I just about fell out of my chair!"
"He had his nose in that book all weekend! I've never seen him so interested in a book!"
"She came home and said she was going to read the next 2 chapters because it was her favorite chapter book ever. She has NEVER offered to read a book on her own before!"
These are just a few of the comments I've received from parents in the last few weeks.  
I had to admonish one of my kids for reading while we were working on another subject the other day. This happen to be the same child who pretended to read the first 4 weeks of school and had the potential to be "that" student.  The one who makes you want to go work at Wal-mart (not that there's anything wrong with that.) The boy that wouldn't do anything but draw all over his papers and disrupt others. Getting onto him for reading? Best day ever.
So why were these parents in such awe? What made there kids want to read? Magic fairy reading dust. And maybe some other stuff I did in class.  Whatever it was, I hope it never runs out.