Sunday, January 24, 2016

Blending Old School with New School

The last few weeks I have been looking for ways to make my assessments more effective and quicker to grade. As I reflected on the first semester of school, I found there was one area of my grading system with which I found myself growing frustrated   And no, the sheer amount of grading wasn't one of them. As an English teacher, it's par for the course. 

One area I was frustrated with was the quick beginning-of-the-class review I often give students.  I have done this in a number of ways. Sometimes I verbally ask students questions, but I find only a handful of students have the opportunity to respond. Other times, I have given a paper/pencil option where students respond to a short-answer question or multiple-choice questions. Often these were not quick as students took longer than expected in responding. Many times I would collect their responses with the intention of looking at their results during class, only to find that time has gotten away from me and students were long gone before I could view their responses. This delayed analysis prevented me from helping students who were struggling until the next class. 

These frustrations led me to analyze my purpose for this activity. It wasn't to give students another grade in the grade book, rather I want to know what they understand from the previous day's work. I need the assessments to be quick and to the point, but I also need students' to be engaged in the assessments.

This led me to Plickers, a tech tool that allows me to give quick, formative assessments. It's a quick polling tool. The advantage to Plickers is that students do not need a device to participate. I don't have to wait for students to log in to a computer, or download an app, or try to remember their passwords and log ins. Students use cards that I printed out on card stock. Each card has a multiple choice option on one of the four sides of the card. I display the questions through my LCD projector and students hold up the side of the card that displays their answer choice. I use my phone or iPad to scan the room. 

I have the results I need in minutes. My high school students like the old-school and new-school mix of technology. I like that they are all engaged. 

I don't use Plickers for every formative assessment, but I have found that it is perfect for those quick reviews and checks for understanding I often give at the beginning and end of every class. 

I would love to know what you do in your grading practices that you think are efficient and worthy of you and your students' time. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

New Year's Challenge: Update

On January 3rd, I wrote about my New Year's Challenge of leaving my bag at school. I know to some of my readers that goal seems silly, but it really was a challenge for me.

On January 4th, the first day of my challenge, I walked out of my classroom with only my lunch bag and purse. I actually felt a little anxious leaving the bag at school. There was plenty for me to do if I brought the bag home, which meant there would be plenty STILL to do if I left the bag.  I know the goal of the challenge was to see if I could be more productive during the school day, but that first day back I still had lots to do that evening. 

Still, I closed my classroom door and left the bag there. The next day it was a little easier, but I still felt anxious about leaving the bag at school. When Friday afternoon came and it was time for me to leave, I debated whether to take the bag home again. I decided I had prepped enough for Monday that I didn't need to take it home. And, I didn't. Over the course of the next two weeks, I continued to leave my little bag behind. 

I learned a lot about myself during this challenge. I learned I can relax in the evenings with my family. It felt good to be present with them in the evenings. There wasn't a bag of work looming that kept my attention divided. 

I learned that the school building won't fall in if I leave work undone overnight. Imagine that. 

I also learned that I was more relaxed during the school day despite not completing tasks the evening before. This sounds contradictory, but I think knowing that I was going to have a respite each night from work allowed me to focus more during the day. 

I hope to continue leaving the bag at school. I know there will be times when it is more difficult to do, like when my students' essays come rolling in next week, but I hope to figure out a way to leave the bag at school and rest in the evenings. 

Maybe this will be one challenge that becomes a habit. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

New Year's Challenge: Leave the Bag

It's the evening before school starts back after winter break, and I find myself reflecting on how I can do my job more effectively. How can I use my intellect, experience, and resources better? How can I use my time more wisely?   

Selfishly, I want to free up some personal time that I feel has been sorely lacking in my life. It's a sad fact that I have read very few books, written very few blogs, and have been too exhausted to help my own children with their homework in the evenings this past year. That has to change.

I know there are some routines that I could put into place to help me achieve a better balance. I just need to figure those out and start implementing them. As someone who loves my job and has a tendency to be obsessive about it, cutting back on my hours will be difficult. Yet, I know it is something I have to do. Somehow I need to find a way to do my job well without sacrificing my personal life. 

I spent a couple days over break researching ways to be more efficient in grading and organization. I had many virtual chats and  read several others' blogs about having a work-life balance. Many colleagues  mentioned the guilt of the school bag. If you are a teacher you know what I am talking about. It's the bag that we stuff full of work--unfinished lesson plans, papers to grade, or notes to write--and then drag home after we leave our classrooms at 5 p.m. We plan to get caught up in the evening, only to find that our family needs us to be present, so we lug the bag back to school and feel utterly exhausted and guilty. 

Several teachers mentioned that they stopped taking the bag home each night. They found that it forced them to be more productive during the day.  At the very least, they stopped feeling guilty when they brought the untouched bag of work back to school. 

I find the idea of leaving the bag at school intriguing. At the same time, this idea makes me a little squeamish. That is why I know I need to do it. I know it sounds ridiculous to some, but for me this will be a true New Year's challenge. Leaving the bag will force me to stop working when I leave the building. That is tough for a type A overachieving teacher, but I feel it is necessary. 

This first week back from break, I am going to leave my school bag at school. I'll check back next week and let you know how it went.

In the meantime, what do you do to set parameters on your work time? I would love to hear your tips. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Struggle

Every teacher has a similar struggle each day. The struggle starts with a question. How can I reach a particular student, group of students, or even that entire class?  Some people would label those students as the tough ones. They are disenfranchised at best. Often they are just plain angry.How am I supposed to get through to them and make them care about my class?  I don't care if it is your first year or your twenty-ninth year. We've all been there.

Many days, to quote my students, "the struggle is real". Those struggling students misbehave, try to sleep, ask to go to the restroom multiple times, or simply refuse to do the work. Sometimes they sit at their desks and glare at you when you ask them to pick up a pencil or reply to a question. Other times, they are downright unruly and do their best to get tossed out of your class. And yet, you keep trying. Failing. And trying again. Most days you walk out of the building exhausted. Some days you are ready to apply as a greeter at Wal-Mart because, clearly, teaching isn't your gift. Yet, you walk back in to your classroom the next day ready to try again. Why? Well, it turns out, teaching IS your gift.

And then one day, something magical happens. During a conference, the mother of one of your struggling students says that her child loves your class. In fact, she says you are one of the few teachers that "get him" and that you make reading a book seem easy. You quickly pick your jaw up off the table. You had no idea you were getting through to this student. Actually, you were certain he wasn't even listening to you during class. 

As you float out of the conference feeling good about the mother's comment and your teaching skills, you begin your analysis. What was it that made him cue into your class?  Maybe it was the fact that you always speak to him in the hall even though he rarely responds in return. Or maybe it was because you don't let him get away with saying "I don't understand", shoving his paper aside, and pulling out his phone to escape from doing work. Maybe it is the fact that you give him challenging work and believe he can do it. Or it could be the fact that you invited him back to class like nothing happened after he was suspended. 

You know if you could just figure out the formula that worked with this student, you could reach the others. Then maybe you could write that book that becomes required reading at every teacher prep program across the nation.  If only it worked that way. 

The reality is that we work with human beings. That means our work is unpredictable. Just because this student thinks you "get him" today doesn't guarantee that he won't glare at you tomorrow or tell you that you "expect too much". And, even if you have won this student over permanently, there are still others you need to reach.  

That's when the struggle starts all over again.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why I Became a NBCT

In 2011 I began my journey to become a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT). The process was demanding, thought-provoking, and exciting. I achieved certification in November 2013 along with 258 other Kentucky teachers.  Words can’t express the excitement I felt when I logged into the National Board site and saw the words “Congratulations”. Lately, I have been reflecting on my journey to become a NBCT. A few friends have asked me why I wanted to become a NBCT and I have tried to figure out exactly how to explain my desire for the certification.  I had lots of reasons for becoming a NBCT, but they all seem to fit into a few categories: challenge, control, company, and compensation.

Challenge: As a teacher who is always looking to improve, it made sense to try to attain a certification that is both recognized and respected nationally.  I liked that the process was voluntary and the portfolio entries focused on both content knowledge and teaching practice. The standards were high and focused on what teachers should know and be able to do. I knew the process would stretch me professionally, and I wanted that challenge. In fact, I needed it.

Control: It’s no surprise that this type-A, detail-oriented teacher likes to have some say in her professional growth. As a result, I often have 40 or more hours of PD credit each year because I self-select PD experiences above the required ones my school or district offers. So, it was only natural that the National Board Certification process, focused on my teaching practices and classroom, was attractive to me. Throughout the entire process, I had control over what I would teach, how I would teach it, and when I would teach it.

Company: One of the reasons that convinced me to pursue National Board Certification was the amazing teachers in my building who were NBCTs. These teachers were the leaders in our building. They were problem-solvers, learners, and creative thinkers. Most of them would tell you that they are “just doing their jobs”, but the truth is many of those teachers go beyond the general parameters of their job description. They are teachers who are committed to their students, learn from their experiences, and strive to grow professionally. As I listened to my colleagues talk about their National Board Certification experience, I realized that I wanted to earn that title as well.

Compensation: Since I already had a Master’s degree it seemed logical for me to pursue my National Board Certification as a way to achieve a Rank 1 status. Not only would this give me a bump up in pay, but National Board Certification would give me an additional bonus paid by my state. Further, I didn’t have the time, patience, desire, or money to spend on a traditional Rank 1. I suppose, if I am honest, the title was a sort of compensation, too.  I like having NBCT next to my name. It is a physical sign that hard work and talent in teaching are recognized.

Even a year after achieving National Board Certification, I still find myself reflecting on those two years of work. My growth as a teacher during that time definitely impacts my classroom today.  The journey to become an NBCT is one that I am glad I decided to take. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Use Your Voice: Go Vote

On Tuesday, November 4th I will make time to get to the polls and vote. I always do and I proudly wear the "I voted" sticker all day. I consider it a responsibility and a privilege.

The people we cast our vote for make choices for our community and country, so why wouldn't I want to have a say in that. As a high school teacher, I am invested in the lives of the 180 or so students I have in my classroom each year. I take what happens to them very personally. Again, why wouldn't I want a voice in what happens to them each year. I always scrutinize candidates platforms, voting records, and actions with an education lens.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are around 3.3 million K-12 working public school teachers in the United States. In Kentucky, where I live and teach, there are over 42,000 teachers. That's a lot of votes out there. Yet, teachers are often overlooked in elections. Why? 

This election season a group of pollsters came to my door and asked if I would participate in a survey. I agreed. The questions were fairly typical, asking me to choose which candidate I would vote for in the various races. At the end of the poll, I was asked to select from a list which issue I thought was the most important for this election cycle. There were seven issues listed, all important. Guess what category wasn't on the list? Education. I was stunned. How could Education not make the list of important issues for this election cycle?

Maybe teachers aren't the "squeaky wheel", so we don't warrant attention. Perhaps it is because we are too busy teaching to look up and see that decisions are being made without our input. Or, maybe because we haven't traditionally been involved in policy-making, we don't expect to be involved, and we miss opportunities to use our voice.

One of those opportunities is coming up on November 4th. You still have time to do some research and make your selections for this year's election. It's such a simple thing to do. Simple, but powerful.

Teachers, use your voice and vote.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Time for Change

A few days ago, a colleague and I were catching one another up on our lives. Since our children are close in age, the conversation inevitably turned toward how our children were doing in school. Eventually, we began to talk about how little money we both have been able to save for our children's college fund.

That's when my friend said something that stunned me. This friend said she would support her kids doing anything in college except becoming a teacher. If her kids wanted to become a teacher, then they were on their own financially. She went on to give very detailed reasons why she didn't want her children to become teachers. 

I understood her point of view. I agreed with many of her points: little professional development and resources, too little pay for too much work, ever-changing expectations, little personal time, and little opportunity for advancement (monetarily or position-wise). At the time, I couldn't offer much in the way of an argument. Even now, as I type this blog rather than grade the stack of papers sitting in my school bag, I feel guilty. And, I know that by not working on school work outside of regular school hours, I will continue to be behind in my work until Winter Break. You can read more about how I think we should rethink teacher time here.

This job is demanding and requires a specific skill set and a growth mindset. Contrary to public opinion, not everyone is qualified to be a teacher. Also, contrary to public opinion, there are many more caring, strong teachers than there are uncaring, weak ones. I know there are many improvements to be made in public education. I understand the cons of the job very well. 

Yet, I am excited that two of my own children wish to be teachers. I feel proud when I hear them say that they want their own classroom someday. I love my job, even on days when it is tough. I consider it a calling. I tell my children that, too. This isn't a job for the faint-hearted. Don't go into this profession if you don't love students. You won't stay very long if you aren't in it for the students.

It bothers me that parents might not encourage their children to choose teaching. Or worse yet, our best and brightest students will automatically pass over a teaching major because it isn't seen as a viable career.

That's why I try to be involved in changing the system. I join organizations like Hope Street Group, KEA, and NCTE.  I serve on advisory boards like the Bill and Melinda Gates Teacher Advisory Council.  I write letters and e-mails to my legislators. I tweet. I connect. I speak up. I volunteer for projects like Literacy Design Collaborative and Common Assignment Study. I got my National Board Certification.  I spend my Saturdays attending and presenting at conferences. I do all of these activities, so that I can be involved in shaping the profession. 

I am just stubborn and optimistic enough to think that the current system can be changed for the better. I want to be a part of that, especially if my own children will be working in the system in 10- 12 years.