Category Archives: Reflective Practice

What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Part II

After we took the leap of faith into the two-week inquiry unit, there were certainly moments of uncertainty (mine and theirs), frustration (same, though I think theirs might have surpassed mine at some moments), and lots of encouragement. There was also one distinctive moment where I turned to my co-teacher and said something along the lines of “Oh my goodness. This is a disaster.” Said moment of perceived disaster came after we had students think of what they thought our current school needed. Their ideas ranged from later school start times, to longer passing times, to daily nap times, to all-school snack machines. Right?! These are the issues that matter to them. I’m here for it.

Then, though, they had to spend some time finding research to help situate their issue within a larger milieu. That was the day I wanted to poke my eyes out because my kids were overwhelmed. And, since I was one step ahead of them, I wasn’t proficient in all the ways to help them, hadn’t trouble shot the issue enough. I kept telling myself: be a model. Grow with them. I told them why they had to do the research, and we guided them through, but it was difficult to help them see the why of the project. Oh, and they had to find out who in the school was an expert and draft a letter with some questions to that person. What I now understand is that hesitation, that annoyance, was really growth mindset in action. That step in the process was hard, and they could either get frustrated and give up, or attempt to work through that frustration to get to the other side.

The next step beyond the research was to design a solution. If I were charting their energy on a graph, this moment would correspond with a trend upward. In the meantime, students also had to interview their peers for insight as they continued to create their solution. We had two design days. During that time, students created a prototype of some aspect of their solution in preparation for presenting their idea to members of the administration.

All it takes is one: one student or group of students to create something that is beyond what his/her peers think is possible, to set them all off, and that’s exactly what happened. For students who wanted to change the schedule, they created an entirely new schedule, basing their decisions off interviews with peers, the principal and their research about adolescent needs. For another group, they went on a scavenger hunt and found cardboard boxes, which they used to create their idea of a classroom snack dispenser. From that moment, the other students took the project much more seriously. Also true to fashion, the kids who won’t work until they’re up against a hard deadline began to pull together their projects, too.

The presentations were definitely works in progress. Some groups didn’t even get around to explaining their solutions, while others had time to spare, while still others were somewhere in between. It was messy, messy, messy, but the panelists who gave their time to watch the presentations asked probing, thoughtful questions. The students responded equally as thoughtfully. They took it seriously, indicating their in-depth knowledge of their ideas. They owned it, demonstrating that the inquiry process is powerful and vital.

Finally, in the next post, I’ll offer some reflections on this process, what I learned, what the kids learned and why students in ELA classes need the opportunity to become makers (while we are also opening the conversation to diversify #makered).

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What Happened That Time We Asked Students to Think: Part I

The greatest reason I’m having an intellectually stimulating year is because of my colleague, Ms. L. We tend to have similar big picture ways of thinking: we like to dwell in the so what, I’d say. What makes this collaboration work, most importantly, is that Ms. L is concerned with the details. I love big ideas but tend to be less interested in the day-to-day, which is why sometimes, for me, planning on the daily can be draining. Ms. L, though, LOVES the details. I mean, loves them so much that when she says she’ll spend some time working on a project, I know that when she’s done, it will include so many aspects of that plan that she’ll have accounted for contingencies B-Z, and they’ll all be amazing.

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How lucky am I? Her desire to work together and her endless ability to step out of the present moment to remember the WHY of what we’re doing has made a year that I was dreading actually into one that excites me to work with kids and with teachers who want to do hard things. I also appreciate her honesty to tell me when I’m way off base, or her willingness to make suggestions. I’ve found that in the best working relationships I have, my collaborators speak honestly and are less concerned with hurting my feelings. I’m tough. I can take it. And oftentimes I’m so caught up in my own ideas that I need someone to give me different ways of thinking and doing something.

We launched two successful projects. The first was from this incredible website, Moving Writers that used a photo book of essays called It’s Complicated: The American Teenager. Daily, we shared what was happening in her Honors classroom and my College Prep one. We modified the Moving Writers’ work and kept everything in a folder on Google Drive. To say that the final portraits exceeded our expectations was an understatement.

Buoyed by that success, we then decided that we’d revise my earlier work I’ve done in years past based on Carol Dweck’s work with growth and fixed mindsets. This is where Ms. L is even more amazing: she suggested we have students experience learning through principles of design theory. Design theory was all new to me. What I realized, though, was what better way was there to learn and model the processes of learning than to do something that might, indeed, not be as successful as I’d hoped? Wasn’t that the beauty of a growth mindset? If it bombed (and it didn’t, but you’ll have to read the next post for the nitty gritty–you should, too; spoiler: it’s amazing!), that would be okay, because I would have learned something about practice during the process. And while I was most concerned that I’d be failing the kids, what I’ve come to realize is that the failure would be in if I just kept teaching the GM unit like I’d done in the past. If I wasn’t willing to challenge myself and to grow, then, seriously, how could I expect my students to do the same?

Coming next: what happened when we asked students to get comfortable with failure…

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The Feel Good File

As the school year creeps to a close, it’s really easy to think that absolutely nothing worked, look at what remains to be graded and fight back feelings of inadequacy, and think that summer really is never, ever going to arrive.

Jimmy Fallon writes thank you notes?! I might have to use this to remind students of this fine art.

When I work with pre-service teachers, I encourage them to keep every scrap of good news, be it a Post-It that has a quotation of what a perceptive student said, notes from parents or students, events that evoked positive emotions. Put all those pieces into a file folder and label it your “Feel Good File (FGF).” Put it in a location that is easily accessible (the location of it is critical; it must be easy to put one’s hands on on days when teaching is particularly brutal) and then, on days when you need a boost (we all have those days: lessons fail, administrators demand what they demand, students are, well, students), open the FGF. Read through it. Reread as much as is required to remember that we do know some things. Repeat as necessary.

I’ve been cleaning up my classroom now that my seniors have departed and I have  been fluffing my own FGF. For the first time in my career, I have an abundance of thank you notes! Seriously, this graduating class was the most grateful group of young people, and someone taught them the importance of penning a thank you note (my heart rejoices for what they’ve proven is not a lost art). Students even returned after graduation to give me notes. Talk about feeling appreciated! I read their kind words (some from parents, too), and tucked them away, because I know there are going to be PLENTY days in the future when I’m not feeling so optimistic. I can just open the folder and remember. I can feel good that yup, on a good day, I’m not doing a bad job.

Curating a FGF is a perfect end-of-the-year activity because it helps to gain perspective. Sure, the papers, late work and final tasks remain, but taking a moment to reread the folder allows me a moment of joy.

Some of the latest entries into my own FGF. Two graduating seniors were asked about their favorite teachers. One said:

Dr Parker: Dr. Parker treated me, and my fellow classmates, like an adult my sophomore year — her class challenged me more than I had ever before experienced, both socially and academically. It was incredibly rewarding. I began to learn from Dr. Parker as much outside the classroom as I did inside — we collaborated with a community organization to facilitate workshops on race/class at CRLS, and we worked together to bring more discussions about these pertinent issues into the classroom (through programs and storytelling). I found myself constantly inspired and challenged. She always said, “I’m always down to start a revolution!” And I guess, after three more years of a personal relationship, I am, too.

and another:

Dr. Parker a.k.a. DParkz. Dr. Parker gave me my first really bad grade, and then taught me that that was okay. Her English 10 class was the hardest class I took at Rindge (besides maybe Calculus) and her Lit class was no joke either. She taught me about the growth mindset instead of the fixed mindset, which was a big deal for me. We had the best conversations in her class, because she allowed her students to argue against her, and draw their own conclusions, which I think is really rare in a teacher. I read the best books I have ever read in her class. But best of all, one day in Lit we all brought in cupcakes and tea and we had a book talk with cupcakes and tea! It was a dream come true.

It’s amazing what kids remember (tea and cupcakes? that was a spur-of-the-moment decision, too!). Indeed, though, their kind words and their gratitude leave me feeling pretty darn good.

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Sophomore Slump

Once you reach a certain age, you really shouldn’t blame other people and circumstances for your personal decisions. I have a pattern of staying in places for two years, then moving on to something else. While it was easy to rack up reasons for those decisions: too suburban, too this, too that, I missed teaching in urban schools, etc., (and I’m mostly talking about teaching here), what has become most clear is this:

I love the first year in a school: it’s full of possibility, you can try new things, the kids are all new, your colleagues offer the potential for new discussions and learning–rose colored glasses fully activated. Near the end of that year, though, you realize that the current place has its own challenges and, while they are challenges in this new space, they really aren’t that different from what you left.

Thus, when I roll into year two, the glasses are off and the papers are stacking up, and the job gets hard and I, usually, get an itch to do something else. I miss the new. It might be some mix of my being a creative and loving the challenge of figuring something out, but, now, I understand that by leaving, I really haven’t given myself a chance to figure it out.

Until now.

So I’ve dragged my heels mightily in objection to teaching AP Lit. I was able to get away with it last year, but my department head dropped the hammer and said I had to do it this year. I have my issues with the AP: primarily that it becomes this test-driven industry that really doesn’t mirror ANY of the freshmen lit classes I took in college or, well, ever. And then, too, I am not the lover of literature I was in college or since I began teaching. I love writing, and teaching kids to write well, but I can take or leave most texts as long as kids read SOMETHING.

I had this interaction with my former department head at NCTE in November, wherein we essentially made peace, but I think about that interaction often because that two-year sabbatical in the suburb taught me more about TEACHING LITERATURE than I was ready to admit.

Herein, I condense those lessons:

  • My colleagues were brilliant about how to get into a text: how to teach it upside down, around and through, to all types of kids. I think if anyone wants to know how to do “close reading” they should start with these folks, because, essentially, close reading is simply what good readers do.
  • They created some amazing materials–that they readily share with me, STILL. Perhaps this is why I am not fearing traveling back in time with Hester Prynne and The Scarlet Letter. Perhaps.
  • Most importantly, they taught me that this stuff takes time to learn: that you can’t just do two years and leave in a fit of annoyance or a desire for the new. You’ll never get it. Thing is, I don’t think I ever would have come to that understanding if I stayed there. I simply wasn’t comfortable and I felt like I needed time to come to that. But I see it in my practice: how strategies and skills that I thought I would never be able to do (and there are many) now seem natural (ish). The way I approach a text, which used to be much more about activities, I am sure, now are about clearly focused objectives that matter to mastering the material. OMG–I am finally becoming THAT teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, though: the struggle is real and daily I ask myself a thousand questions, but, at this moment, I’m content to remain HERE, in this school, and attempt to figure them out.

See: growth can happen. Now, let me get back on this scaffold.

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