Sunday, June 18, 2017

Dear Student: This Year

Dear Student,

You know, I really was trying to be productive today. It is a toasty 39℃+ (go do those conversions we learned!) this afternoon and I wanted to sit down and read a book. In fact, I started to, but you, and your peers, kept interrupting. I would read a few sentences, and then something else from this year would pop into my mind. Certainly this is not something that you had planned, it just worked out this way. It is funny though, the book that I was trying to start is titled What Makes Your School Something Special, and you all made this school, this year, something special.

I have told you in class that I previously taught elementary school and that this was my first year teaching middle school. If I am honest, it felt like this was my first year teaching all over again - except that I had more confidence, strategies, and overall experience this year.  If you ask teachers, there is always something special about the first class that they taught. And in that sense, you were automatically special. But you went above and beyond.

Every day, especially days that I was frustrated about something - and I know you could tell - you gave me something new to laugh and smile about. Not laughing at you, but laughing with you. There some challenges and tears throughout the year, for sure. But good luck finding a group of pre-teens going through puberty that has everything completely together as far as what they can control, not even including things beyond their control.

I have to say that I truly enjoyed going to work every day. From rainy day dance parties, to solar salt on the walls; Noah's Ark to campus-wide scavenger hunts; daily lessons to sharing about life's joys and challenges. There was a new adventure every day and I'm glad that each one of you was in my class, whether for a block or an elective. As we go farther into the summer, part of me wishes that we had another few weeks together, but you need to go on to learn and experience new things and I have heard that a break before the new year is good.

For those at the school who were not in any of my classes, you helped make the school special, too. I have never seen such a kind and respectful group of students, let alone an entire school of them, as I did this year. So many of you went out of your way to wave and say "hello", or "good morning". That is unheard of. I once went on a science camp trip with a group of students at the end of their 7th grade year, and one of the teachers had to explain why we greet each other and say good morning. Yet so many of you will not leave class each day until you have told your teacher "Thank you."

As you go on to the next level, I hope that you do not lose your enthusiasm for learning or your joy for life. There will be great challenges, but you can persevere through them. Please continue to be great role models for the next round of students; though you may not interact with them, they will see what you do and how you treat others. Above all, continue to be kind, to be compassionate, and to take care of each other, as you did so well this year.

As Mr. Rodgers has said, "You've made this day special just by your being you. There's no one like you, and I like you just the way you are." Thank you for being you and making this year something so special.

Your Teacher

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Dear Student: Looking Back

Dear Student,

How are you? It has been a number of years since I've seen anyone from your class, but I still think of you all often. It's funny; every year that I have new students, one or two of them will have similar features or mannerisms that remind me of other students who have been in my class previously. At the beginning of the school year, while I am learning all of their names, I will occasionally call someone by the name of a former student. I don't do it on purpose; it just seems to happen.

The other day I found a letter that you wrote me. I was surprised because it wasn't where I usually keep letters from my kids; it was in a binder that I used while working with your class. Reading it brought back a flood of great memories from my time with your class: field trips, theme days, blogging, books that we read in class, and all sorts of other daily events.  I don't know if there was a specific reason that you wrote it, maybe Teacher Appreciation Week or the end of the school year, but it is still something special that I'll cherish, like a green apple candle. Reading what you wrote, I couldn't help but smile.

At the time, you wrote that I was the best teacher in the world and that you wished you could be in my class forever. Although you cannot be in my class forever, you will always be one of my kids. I know that may sound funny to people outside of the world of education, but I hope that one day you will realize the extent of "once my student, forever one of my kids". Hopefully you have had many teachers since then that are your favorites and you feel that they are the best teachers in the world. Teachers who are not only a joy to learn from, but who challenge you to think outside the box, to want to learn more. Teachers who inspire you to make the world a better place and encourage you through whatever challenges you face. Most importantly, teachers who care about you, more than as just a student, but as a person existing outside academia.

Remember as you grow older that just because something does not come easily does not mean that you cannot do it, or that you will never be good at it, or that you are not smart. Some things will come easier to others, and that's fine. Your value and abilities are not based on someone else's capabilities. Never give up and always put in your best effort. Occasionally you will become frustrated and discouraged; it happens to all of us. Get help if you need it, but push through and learn everything that you can from the experience.

I hope that you are doing well, that you are learning and growing into the amazing young person that I know that you can be. I hope that you are continuing to make good choices and be a positive role model for your peers. I hope that you are still have a kind and compassionate heart for others, even when it might not be popular. I hope that you realize that something you do, even something that seems so small, can change the world.

Wishing you all the best,
Your Teacher

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dear Student: An Introduction

Dear Student,

Welcome to my class! While you may have heard things about me, you don't know me yet. But, soon, that will change. We will be spending many hours together this year, learning, growing, exploring, and challenging. I hope that you will see beyond what you may have heard about my class and get to know me, and it, from a fresh perspective. I will do the same with you.

This year will bring forth many great adventures and has the potential to be a turning point for your future. That is not to say that you were headed in a terrible direction before, rather that you are older and more mature than you were last year and I would like to trust you with increasing responsibility. You will hear me say many times - the more responsible you are, the more freedom and responsibility you will receive. I know that you can handle it, but am not sure that you realize that yet.

As part of our class, you are part of a family away from home. Here we help each other, care about each other, strive to help each other (including me!) become our very best, and occasionally, annoy each other. (Not on purpose, please.) Above all else, I want you to see this as a safe place, where you can be you, valued and accepted as you are, but challenged to become even more awesome. And that will not look the same for everyone.

You may feel that this is not your strongest subject area. That's fine. It doesn't have to be. But I do ask that you put forth your best effort, never give up, and ask questions when necessary. I commit to you that I will also put forth my best effort, never give up on you, and ask more questions than you would ever like me to ask. (Perhaps most frequently, "Why?")

This might be your favorite class or your least favorite. I may be your favorite teacher or your least favorite. Either way, my commitment to you is the same and I have the same expectations of you.

I am excited for this year to start and to see what we can accomplish together. I hope that you have a wonderful year!

Welcome to our class!

Your Teacher

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Dear Reader: A New Year

Dear Reader,

Welcome to my blog. I had previously written here and then took a break. Then I tried again and I stuck with it a bit longer before stopping again. I enjoy writing, but as I have grown older, I have realized that it takes a much greater effort to make the time and schedule it into my week. Additionally, I need it to be almost silent when I read or write. Tell that to me as a student and I wouldn't believe you, but now I have a different understanding.

One of my favorite things to write, and read, are letters. Not as daily emails, but actual letters. Multiple times throughout the year I ask my students to write me a letter, whether to introduce themselves at the beginning of the term, to check-in throughout the year, or to reflect on the year and give me suggestions so that I can improve my practice for future students. At back to school night, I ask parents to write me a letter, introducing their child and telling me about their family. Many students and parents also choose to write to me on their own. Reading their letters, I am frequently awed by what they have to share. Far beyond anything else, these letters are my favorite gift from my families. Sure, gift cards are nice and I'll never turn down chocolate or homemade cookies (chocolate chip are my favorite, if you feel like baking). But so few people take the time to sit down and write a heartfelt letter that when they do there is nothing like it.

Thinking about that made me realize that in the wonderful field of teaching, we interact with students and parents who may never really know our thoughts and intentions. We are perceived (and sometimes misperceived) by the public.

I decided that I wanted to try sharing through here again and do it in the form of letters - while breaking many formal writing rules. When I Googled the term "Dear Student", a title I was planning to utilize, I discovered quite a few letters already written. The majority of these letters were from higher education and were quite belittling of their students. The letters that I found were not representative of my experiences and perceptions of my students and their families. Although that initially discouraged me from using the same verbiage, I ultimately returned to it in the hopes that I can contribute something positive.

These letters are intended to convey the sentiment I believe many teachers and administrators have regarding their students. They address some of the many situations that we encounter on a daily basis. Some of the situations are from my own experiences as a teacher, or as a student, while others are not. While I am a bit hesitant, as writing like this can easily be misconstrued, my hope is to provide a glimpse into something that so many have experienced, but few outside see.

I'm looking forward to sharing. Thank you for coming along this journey.

The Teacher

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Experiences, New Lessons

I remember walking down the hall to my first classroom as a teacher. Based on some of the research I did on the school, I knew which classroom I would be receiving, but the principal walked past it. There was also another opening that was next to the office. "Please don't give me the room next to the office," I thought to myself. "Oops, we went too far," she said. I was about ready to start celebrating until she unlocked my room. "Here's your new room. Aren't you excited?!"

To be honest, looking at the room, I was far from excited. Desks were piled in a heap in the center of the room. There was stuff on the counters that belonged to multiple teachers that may never be claimed or used. Then there was the shape of the room. I was accustomed to rooms that had four walls and tended to be some sort of quadrilateral. This room, however, had five walls, none of which were the same size. A decent size island in the "kitchen" (sink area) served as a base for a massive CRT television and home to a laser-disc player.

Although I was a bit disappointed by the shape, a small and silly thing to be bothered by, I did have a feeling of excitement. I didn't know how everything would work out, but I knew that there would be adventures to be had, lessons to be learned, and a year full of new experiences.

Throughout those first two weeks, before most teachers had even started setting up their rooms, I rearranged the desks at least two to three times a day. It was impossible to get them to fit correctly, unless I put them in rows, which I was not about to do. So I talked with my principal and received permission to do away with the teacher's desk and television. Now there would be more room for learning.

But things still weren't right. I had trouble walking around and would be challenged to reach every student. Imagine students trying to sit in chairs at their desks; they would be nearly on top of each other and unable to move around without hitting. This wouldn't do. So back to my principal I went.

Talking with her, I was able to express some of my concerns and we arrived at an idea. I would start switching the desks out of my room for round tables. These would allow more people to sit in a smaller area and work in groups, but paradoxically have more space. So as the year started, I began moving desks out and tables in.

Some of the students loved the tables. They quickly saw advantages of them and enjoyed the new adventure. However, some students missed their desks. They wanted a space that was immediately defined as their own, with all of their belongings right there with them, and what they had known in the past. To top this off, I wasn't able to obtain as many tables as I had needed for everyone to sit at, so some students were at desks and others at tables.

This forced me to learn new behavior management strategies as the students were constantly right next to each other, looking at each other. At times, it was a challenge, but I learned a lot because of it. However, because of the lessons I learned last year, starting this year with all tables and no desks went significantly smoother.

There were a few parents last year, and a few this year, who were uneasy about the tables. After some experience with them, they eased in to them and saw many of the benefits.

This past week, I started giving a few students stability balls to replace their chairs. A few students seem apathetic about them, but overall the class, and a number of parents, are excited to have them.

I was talking with one of our custodians the other day and he made the comment that my room kept changing. Thinking about it, I had to respond to him that my room should look different every year.

As teachers, we have very different groups of students coming into our rooms each year, sometimes each period. Additionally, the world around us is constantly changing and traditional paradigms of education may not be as efficient. We need to constantly be trying new things, having new experiences, and learning from those to make our classrooms an effective environment for learning. I am fortunate in that my principal allows, and encourages, me to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. Isn't that the sort of modeling that the students benefit from? When I show them that it is alright to take a chance, fail, and recover from it, they learn that process and can begin to reciprocate it in their own lives.

What have you been wanting to try? What is holding you back?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Drawing Laughter

Walking into the room, I can only assume what she saw, what she heard. Her reaction is easily justified when you think about it. The students laughing, not little giggles, but noisy and disruptive laughter. The substitute teacher standing silently before the class, whiteboard marker in hand.

"Hey! Be quiet!" she bellowed. "What would your normal teacher think?!"

What had started as a normal, boring vocabulary lesson would turn out to be much more.

The students at this school had been taught to sit quietly in their seats, aligned in rows, and absorb the content that the teacher presented. It was very similar to what most of us were taught, if not identical. (Which is apparently the same as Sumerian classrooms c. 2000 BC.)

I had started the vocabulary lesson as I knew how - having experience being a student, but no formal training in pedagogy or behavior management - and I was bored. I can only imagine how the students felt. So I decided I was going to do the lesson a bit differently. There were a number of nautical terms, so what better way to illustrate the concept for them than to actually illustrate it?

The problem with that is that I am a terrible illustrator. (By which I mean that I have not invested the time in lessons or practice to improve my skill and have little interest in doing so.) So I did what any person would do; I made my sketches even worse, intentionally, and made up a story that slowly introduced each vocabulary word.

The students could tell that the illustration and story were intentionally silly, but they were humored. They laughed and wrote what they needed. They were engaged.

Then another adult walked in, not knowing what was going on, just that the class' behavior was very unusual. She wanted to do her part to help with what was seen as an out of control class. After a few minutes, I assume she saw what was going on.

Looking back, I wouldn't change the story. I would rather try something new, look silly, and have my students engaged than fit a traditional mold of education. This can be at conflict with parent or administrative demands, but I think that the results prove it worthwhile. Never be afraid to learn, try new things, and engage your students.

What have you tried in your class that is unorthodox? How did it work? What did you learn?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Like A Lightbulb

Over the summer it was one of my goals to get out of the house. I remember many summers sitting around doing nothing, complaining about being bored, and this was not going to be one of them. When I was given the opportunity to go to a family friend's lake house, I did not pass up the opportunity.

This is a place that I have enjoyed going since I was little. The water is usually a murky green and filled with algae and all sorts of other living things. (I've been told that the algae is great for your hair and skin.) When I am there, we usually embark upon some sort of project to improve the house or maintain it. You see, our family friend is blind, so he has trouble doing some of the work on his own. (He has great stories of his visits to hardware stores asking for help picking chainsaws and other large tools.)

On this trip, we would spend some time working on a project that I had never done before: the community pump house. In order to supply the neighborhood with clean water, they draw water from a pipe from a pipe running into the lake. The water was then run through a state-approved filtration system before being distributed to the homes. We would be installing and wiring some components to help automate the process. Although I had very little wiring experience, I did have some and we were expecting it to take two or three hours to finish the project. Opening the wiring box and removing the covers revealed this adventure.

There is another wiring terminal on the right not in the picture.
I'll admit I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but willing to take on the new challenge. I began determining where the new wires were coming from and was able to label them and connect a few to the correct places before running into trouble. One of the switches would need to be wired to a power source in order to work, but my instructor had never seen the panel before and wouldn't be able to help me, so we had to call the person who designed it...and lives in another state with (apparently) incorrect wiring diagrams. Working through it, I had to decipher engineering jargon and new concepts. After a few hours of playing with wires, testing switches, and being told "It should be just like wiring a light socket for a light bulb." we decided that time would be best spent moving on to another project. (There may have been a loud "POP!" in there, too.)

This experience made me think back to my own classroom. Some of my students enter knowing exactly what to do and can do well from the first instruction. Others, however, lack the necessary foundation and need extra support before they can be set free. These students will be frustrated and challenged and may be ready to give up before achieving their goal. Sometimes we plan great activities that should work out a certain way but do not end up going as we have planned. Are we going to get frustrated and discourage the students or will we take a few steps back and provide them with a stronger foundation to help them learn more effectively? I've learned that, no matter how great the activity, if they are not ready for it, they are not likely to benefit from it. As teachers, we need to know our students' abilities and help them thrive from there. Just because we are ready does not mean that our students are. This does become challenging with such diverse groups of students, but I believe it is possible to find a way for collaborative exploration that fosters learning and challenge for each of the students.

Do you have ideas for differentiation or stories of times that you have learned from? Share them below!

Oh, and for those who are curious, the reason that we were having such great difficulties was because of a blown fuse hidden behind a section of one of the terminals. That may or may not have been my fault...