Friday, December 13, 2013

It's Personal

While I'm just drafting this blog post now, I've written it about one hundred and fifty times in my head over the course of the last year, and more specifically, week.  Maybe it's because Newtown is
right next door, or maybe it's because my sister is a teacher at Sandy Hook that I feel so connected to what happened on December 14th last year.  I get chills when I think about the moments leading up to the phone call that changed our lives forever.   Over the past year, I've run the gammet of emotions:  sadness, more sadness, and grief; powerlessness; anger, lots of that; fear; frustration; and of course... in my case, relief, which has, at times, also led to guilt.

I've never really wanted this blog to be personal, because that's not its purpose.  I created this blog a little over a year ago in order to continue my own learning, share new learning, and stay connected to the wonderful educational blogging and Twitter community that I so admire.  For example, one of my favorite blog posts is by Kate Roberts (TCRWP staff developer extraordinaire, co-author of the fabulous blog Indent,  and most recently, co author of the amazing book:  Fall in Love with Close Reading) and it is about how we can (and should) "close read" our lives around us.  I think of her words often as I pay close attention to the happenings of my day and how they impact my feelings or perspective.  This morning was no exception, and while I finally pen this post that I've been writing in my head over and over this past week, I realize more than ever that I have to make this blog post personal, because teaching is personal.  I can't separate the two.  

I pulled into Dunkin Donuts this morning, my usual stop on my way to school.  There were nine cars in the parking lot and eight of them had a green ribbon sticker, or perhaps magnet, on the back of their cars.  Eight.  It made me pause to realize how many people, particularly in this area I think, but all over the world, too, publicly support the teachers, staff, and families of Sandy Hook.  Two cars had stick figure families on the back of their windows too, but the rest of them were empty;  just the green ribbon decorated the back of the cars.  Sporting my green nail polish and wearing my green shirt,  I hustled inside with the cold December air nipping my nose.  The same crew was working behind the counter, and the same retired guys were sitting at the tables sipping their (probably cold by now) drinks.  To them, this was probably just another day.  The back of their car showed a symbol of support, but their days would probably go on just like they would any other Friday.   They might talk about Sandy Hook today and tomorrow as it is splashed all across the television and radio stations again, or maybe they'll reflect silently about the sadness that they feel or the friend that they knew who knew a family member.  And then they'll go on with their day.  I found myself feeling jealous of their carefree morning. 

Ironically, I don't have a sticker on the back of my car.  My sister gave me one that I displayed proudly, but when I traded my old car in and drove my new car away, I left the magnet behind.  At the time, I called her desperately looking for a new one, but it hasn't made it onto the back of my new car.  This morning, as I stepped back into my car, I closed the door and without warning, tears started streaming down my cheeks.  Maybe it's because I wished for a sticker on the back of my car so that the next car would drive in and see ten cars in the parking lot and nine (not eight) of them showing support to Sandy Hook today.  Or maybe it's because I want to be able to go on with my day today like those retired men in Dunkin Donuts will, just thinking of this day as another day where something bad happened to someone else.  It was probably because each sticker that I see, each green ribbon that I notice reminds me of the twenty six innocent people who went to school one day and never came home.  And then I go there... I go to the place where I think of the parents, and the families, and the friends, and the little, little, little kids.  And I think of the survivors. I always, always think of them, too.  The little kids who saw and heard too much that day.  The teachers who tried to protect them with every ounce of their being by standing or sitting in front of them, reading to them, talking with them, and herding them to safety.  This morning,  I don't know exactly why I cried; I just did. 

And then I pulled it together.  I walked into school, smiled at students, and prepared for the day.  Because while teaching is personal, it also requires us, as teachers and adults, to stay strong.

I want to write a thank you to the Sandy Hook teacher.  I'm a teacher, and if you're reading this, you're probably a teacher, too.  Since we're all teachers, or parents, or friends, or just human beings, we think of December 14th with a lens that is forever changed. We think of our jobs differently; we think of our kids differently.  I'm more fearful than I was a year ago today.  I'm more grateful, too.  I'm less cynical and try to listen more. I'm thankful to the Sandy Hook teacher for staying strong through the hardest year of their lives to show us, the world, how very special and important teaching really is.  They remind us that teaching is about kids.  Teaching is about growing minds, growing stories, and growing up.  Sandy Hook teachers are walking the halls of their school today, yesterday, and tomorrow doing what you and I know must feel completely impossible:  making it through the day, and, not just today, but every day... for the kids.   That's strength.  And it's personal.  When they smile at a student like I nonchalantly did this morning, they are hiding the pain that they feel for the students and staff who can't smile back.  They go into their classrooms and continue to grow minds every day despite how hard it feels. 

And while I'm closely reading things around me, it doesn't fall on blind eyes to me that a snow storm is expected December 14th into December 15th.  It's as the universe is saying, "You've been strong through the storm of your life.  Stay home for this one and take care of yourself." And I hope that's what every Sandy Hook teacher and Newtown family does.  I hope they cuddle up with those that they love and love them and feel... whatever they want to feel.  And if they want to cry, I hope they do that too. A lot of it.   

Teaching is personal.  Reading is personal.  Writing is personal.  And so, today, this blog is personal.  David Coleman, a self-proclaimed architect of the CCSS, may think that no one gives a sh*t about what I have to say or think, but I don't agree. Some of my closest friends have left teaching because they feel we've lost the "personal".  I sure hope not, because schools need personal.  Life is personal.  Sure, we have to consider other perspectives and our audience when we read and write so that our message is clear and insightful for the given purpose, but it is personal.  What those teachers did on that day... every single one of them, not just the ones receiving the 'glamorous' awards...  is personal.  And today, I salute them.  I bet they walk through those front doors today, shut their classroom door and sob.  Maybe they won't know exactly why they're sobbing, or maybe they will.  Then they'll clear their eyes, check their mascara in the mirror, and open their doors with a smile.  They are thinking of their audience and they are thinking of those kids.   That's personal, and that's life.  Thank you, Sandy Hook teachers, for being so strong this past year, and showing all of us that it's okay for teaching to be more than a string of standards and text books.  Thank you for showing how personal teaching really is. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Newsela: A Valuable Teaching Tool

At our middle school, like all others in the nation I'm sure, we are on an endless search for thought provoking, authentic texts to engage students. It is rare to find our search: non-fiction texts that could be used as mentors to teach nonfiction text structures within the relevant content focus. Oh, and we want it to be authentic and engaging, too.   It's even harder to find texts that support differentiated reading levels for all learners in the classroom while maintaining curriculum content standards. Our curriculum (and the CCSS) calls for students to engage with and analyze relevant, rigorous, complex texts that are authentic to students' lives.  It seems impossible.

Photo credit:

Then one of our social studies teachers found this amazing resource called Newsela.  Have you tried it?  The site claims, "Newsela is an innovative way for students to build reading comprehension with nonfiction that's always relevant: daily news. It's easy and amazing. And I actually agree!  It IS an innovative way to build comprehension, and it IS easy and amazing!  Oh, and it's free!  The site contains hundreds of current events in the form of news articles.  Authentic texts from newspapers across the country are adapted to read at a variety of Lexile levels.  Each article has at least four Lexile levels to make the same article more or less difficult based on vocabulary and text structure.  The evidence (quotes, statistics, etc) and bias stay the same, but the sentence patterns and vocabulary adapt to the differing levels.   I've viewed articles with levels ranging from 580 all the way up to 1200.  This allows for teachers to truly use the texts as mentors to teach skills (citations, multiple sources, bias, note taking, text structures, non-fiction text, perspective, etc, etc, etc.) at differentiated reading levels.  Brilliant.

The site contains a student and teacher portal to allow teachers to limit or provide as much or as little access to students as they wish.   Students log onto the site and can be assigned reading(s), or they can search for topics themselves.  The teacher can assign a Lexile or allow students to choose their own.  They can even annotate the text right there in the article.   I don't know about you, but we're always looking for ways to give students experience with a close reading and annotation of online text (instead of scanning) to prepare them for the "screen reading" of the upcoming SBAC assessment.

Of course the articles are one just piece to the complex puzzle.  Though the site bolsters the tagline, "Read closely, think critically, be worldly,"  we all know that the instruction is what matters.  Newsela is just another website claiming to align to the CCSS if teachers don't take advantage of its features in new, exciting ways to engage students.  That said,  Newsela's implementation and the benefits of its articles in a middle school content area classroom are limitless. Aside from the "cool" technology features, the instructional possibilities are endless, too.  Content area teachers can differentiate text levels using the same concept with an essential question, which allows all students to access current event articles.  This is where good, accountable talk can occur, leading to powerful argument writing later.  Teachers can spend their instructional effort enhancing skills and promoting conversations with relevant content.  I even envision genre study lessons where students are asked to level the texts easier or harder by studying different levels on the site to help them identify sentence structure patterns, vocabulary and text structure patterns.  If we add the site and good instruction together, it could lead to powerful, exciting student performance.

If nothing else, the articles are interesting and relevant for students (and adults!). They are fairly short
Photo credit to Cynthia Boris
and can be devoured in a single sitting. Or, they can be revisited for a close read.  In fact, I've found that kids want to read the articles more than once, or they click on the "you might like these articles" samples to continue reading about topics that they enjoy.  More non-fiction reading? Sign us up!

When students have difficulty reading a shared text, they seem much quicker to breakdown, become apathetic, and/or disengage.  Newsela, partnered with good teaching, breaks down those barriers and allows all readers to engage critical thinking with their peers through relevant, authentic sources. When a student struggles to read, it doesn't mean that they struggle to think.  This site provides the opportunity for students to access text that may develop with peers into deep, relevant conversations to prepare students to be educated, independent, critical thinkers.  And at the end of the day, isn't that's what it's all about?  Read closely, think critically, be worldy.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Skip the PowerPoint!

I recently had a content area teacher come to me for help with non-fiction literacy and research projects.  Brilliant, I thought.  I immediately got to work looking for the best strategies around to help kids research and take notes.  When we reviewed some tried-and-true-lessons to experiment in her upcoming unit, (ones that I have pilfered from Chris Lehman's book, Energize Research Reading and Writing) she assured me that she doesn't have the time for that kind of depth.  She just wanted the kids to know one topic well.  Then,  I went into her classroom and saw one full week scheduled to present research through PowerPoint.

Photo courtesy of
Have you ever seen a middle schooler present a PowerPoint?  It's painful.  Really, truly painful.   And trust me, the kids in the audience feel the same way- except for the fact that it's a free week of no- homework and they can just zone out during class and be thinkless for 45 minutes (I might have just made up the word thinkless, but I can't find another word to replace it, and so I'm going with it).  And yet a full week of instruction… valuable time... was being devoted JUST to the presentations.  Two other weeks were given to the research and construction of the group project.

In middle school (well, our middle school), the go-to choice for projects is PowerPoint; students and teachers alike seem to love its prospects.  The perfect culmination to a content area study:  create a project to present to your peers and teacher to show your learning on a topic (which doesn't really interest you, either, but it's part of the topic study).   Teachers like it because it makes them feel like they are integrating technology.  Some even go as far as to say that they are teaching kids life lessons by using/teaching PowerPoint.  As a support teacher, I watch kids gravitate to the PowerPoint choice because it's easy, and frankly, doesn't require a lick of research.  So, kids love it.  I hate it.

Wait, before you get angry… Let me explain.

Picture this:  Student,  "Chris" and his partner, "Billy",  have been "researching" for two weeks, (which was really one day and playing on the animation of their Powerpoint for two weeks) and they stand up in the front of the room to present.  Since this project doesn't include a group grade  (who can get away with that nowadays?), Chris and Billy haven't actually worked together on the project.  Sure, they did some planning early on about who would take responsibility for the different slides based on the requirements listed in the rubric, but they don't REALLY do the research.  So then, based on the slides that are assigned to them, let's say… "what a whale shark looks like", they just research the whale shark's physical appearance.  So when they get to the beautiful graphic in the non-fiction text that describes the whale shark's eating habits, they breeze over it because it doesn't pertain to them…  Chris is doing the "diet" part of the rubric, Billy would argue.  Neither Chris nor Billy dig deep enough to recognize (or realize) that the diet of a whale shark is directly related to its physical appearance. Because, honestly, they're not reading. They're not researching, but rather, they're plugging in requirements to share with the class.  So, they stand up to present their beautifully animated and decorated PowerPoint, but neither of them actually know anything of what they're talking about. In fact, the background on the whale shark's feature slide is bright pink and the letters have a rainbow WordArt pattern.   They stand in front of the pretty SMART board and bore the class by reading bullets from the slide, facing the screen.  Actually, if Billy and Chris used bullets, and not full sentences on their slides, they're far ahead of some other presentations.  Sure, Billy and Chris may not be the exceptional example, but they are the norm.

The teacher is furious.  What have you been doing with class time the last few weeks, she quips?  Though the students have the right amount of slides, and technically they have the information necessary, they don't actually know their content and so their presentation flops.  The teacher is genuinely frustrated, looking for help, because the kids "can't" research.

And so the cycle continues, which brings me to my point.  Finally.

Skip the PowerPoint.  Get rid of it.  Don't allow it.  It's the lowest form of technology possible in today's day in age, anyway.  Kids could do it in their sleep.  It is the anti-research.   Even corporations hate it nowadays.  Look here!  People beyond education are shunning the once cutting-edge technology.  If our goal is to create thinkers that are college and career ready (independent, critical thinkers), we have to teach them how to convey meaning with interest, not read off of a PowerPoint slide.

If you really want to teach PowerPoint, you have to teach the presentation skills within your unit.  You have to teach kids how to present.  You have to teach symbolism:  how do objects in your presentation bring meaning to it?  How do they enhance it? How do the words make your argument stronger?  You'll need mentor texts and shared examples. You'll need to model presentation strategies and name the kinds of methods used in the presentations.  And you can't end there.  You have to show kids that the animation matters.  If the words float in, spin in circles, and jump back to make the audience laugh, then the topic shouldn't be about the veterans of World War II or the horrible effects of the e-Coli bacterium.

But you don't want to do that. That's even more time!  So don't.  Skip it and teach the real stuff. Looking for time?   Skip the three weeks of fluff and spend your time teaching kids what matters.  Teach kids how to find topics that matter.  Teach kids how to take notes on those topics.  Show kids how to talk about the subtopics that are important.  Teach about text patterns and word choices.  Show kids how every single word and picture in a diagram of non-fiction text gives you a new, significant piece of information.

Please don't misinterpret me:  I'm not downplaying presentation skills. We've all sat in enough horrible professional development to know that presentation skills are essential and important in today's fast paced, quick world.  So if that's your goal and your essential question, go for it.  But if the purpose is not the PowerPoint itself, but the content and the research, skip it. Presentation skills are only necessary to present information that has been researched.  Not just researched, or copied into bullets on a slide, but really understood.  That's what its purpose should be.  The research should be the point-- not just the product.  Teach kids how to understand.  Teach kids how to think.  Show kids how to present.

So let's put weight where weight needs to be.  Instead of checking off what needs to be included in the product, let's teach about the important symbols necessary to make an impact on an audience that will convey meaning and get kids excited about learning.   You'll find the time by skipping the PowerPoint. I'd be willing to bet that if we teach kids how to read the text correctly to do the research, they'll blow us away with their use of technology to present their ideas.  I know it can be done. I've seen it.  We need to find the time in the right places.

Do I use PowerPoint?  I sure do.  And sometimes, when I'm delivering PD, I get carried away (like I clearly often do), and the PowerPoint keeps me on track to finish on time.  Every word has been carefully placed to send a message, to convey my purpose.  Each picture relates to the meaning of the presentation.  There is a place for PowerPoint… I argue that its place, however, is not in the middle school classroom.  We just don't have time to be thinkless.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

Committing to Writing… and Running

Button courtesy of Chris Lehman's Blog

After five wonderful, sloppy, lazy months of wearing sweatpants and jeans on maternity leave, I dusted off my dress and boots and (reluctantly) dragged myself back into work today.  Even though I'm always thinking and reading (LOVED a few new, great books that I've devoured that I'll post soon)… I haven't physically stepped foot into the school in many, many weeks, and I'll admit that it felt darn good to actually be away and be fully present with my growing family.

But, I have a lot of catching up to do:  Twitter, blogging, SLO's, CCSS, and overall working.   So when I saw Chris Lehman's post about making a commitment to SOMETHING for fifty days, this blog came right to my mind.  Writing these posts and being engaged in the educational Twitter community makes me feel strong, and so I'm going to give it a try… again.  I'll take some days off, don't get me wrong, but I'm going to give it my best effort to create strong posts in fifty days (though not consecutively, I must admit).

Oh, and as all resolutions go, I'm going to lose 15 pounds in 50 days, too. But that's a different story.

Thanks, Chris, for the motivation!

I've had a severe case of writer's block.  What could I possibly share that others could glean, I wondered?  Every word was stressful.  I'll try to put that aside and just get writing. Maybe I'll get strength for my posts while on the treadmill or eating my healthy fruit.  Either way, I'm going to be here as often as I possibly can.  Hope you'll join me!  #nerdlution

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Where Have You Been?

Photo credits to:
Teaching is damn hard.  The good, reflective kind:  it's really hard.  I don't care what anyone says about summers off, easy hours, tenure, job security, blah, blah, blah.  People who fight that fight have never been in the classroom to fight the fight that we're fighting.  If you are doing it right, it's just plain hard.  That's where I've been.

I've been teaching.  Teaching middle schoolers, teaching teachers, teaching myself.  We've been close reading, writing about reading, answering text-dependent questions, examining non fiction, completing performance tasks, debating, arguing, and writing about those debates and arguments.  We're researching, citing, and reflecting.  Whatever the CCSS buzz word is, we're teaching it. We're doing it.

I've been reflecting.  Each time I don't see a student moving forward, I pore through another book, another strategy, another method to try to find another strategy to reach that student.  When a lesson goes so-so, I run, no sprint, back to the drawing board to find ways to engage, inspire, and guide our learners.  Maybe it's technology that will do the trick?  Was I talking too much?  Did I set the purpose for learning?  Is the lesson, or assignment relevant, authentic, rigorous?  Am I reaching each learner in their zone of proximal development?  Am I fostering independence?  Why am I working harder than them???

So, I've been reading.  Boy, have I been reading.  Donna Santman's new book, Shades of Meaning, was a great, quick inspiration.  I'm navigating my way though the brilliant Randy Bomer's newest masterpiece, Building Adolescent Literacy in Today's English Classrooms.  I finally made it through Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fuller and I also finished Teaching Argument Writing by George Hillocks, Jr.  After hearing Kylene Beers speak at TC's February Content Area Institute, I ran out and devoured Notice and Note, her genius take on close reading.  Some of my favorite bloggers and educators like Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts, the Melanies of Two Reflective Teachers, Grant Wiggins, Choice Literacy and Education Week  keep me on my toes as their writing and teaching inspire me every day.

Oh, and I'm six months pregnant.  So I've been sleeping.  And eating.  I've been doing a lot of eating.

But now I'm blogging.  And I'm back.  Nine inches of snow fell on my lawn yesterday, and today the birds are chirping.   I've been away for too long.  Teaching is damn hard, but teaching, reflecting, reading and then blogging:  well, it's damn energizing, too.