Sunday, August 20, 2017

I Wish My Teacher Knew...

Last year, a teacher's blog post went viral. She had her students fill in the answer to the following:

I wish my teacher knew...

Our reading coach at the time, Paul Holimon (@holimon_paul), reminded those of us in the English Department that it would be a good exercise for us to do as well. So at the end of last year, I had my kiddos fill out index cards titled, "I wish my teacher knew..." I was astounded by what they wrote. Many of the kids, who had sub-par years, wanted me to know that they were indeed good students. Many wanted me to know that they were good at sports, had talents that I never knew about, had different ideas about class and school that would have been helpful for me to know, and were going through personal tragedies. They gave me valuable information but I was disappointed that I waited so long to do this activity.

This year, I knew I wanted to know more about my kiddos from the first week of school. On Friday, I passed out index cards titled, "I wish my teacher knew..." I told the kiddos that they had the choice of putting their name on their card or keeping it anonymous. About 40% used their names. I don't think I would have gotten so much information if I insisted on the kids putting their names. The information that I got, however, is amazing.

Some of the things that I found out are:

- About 20% of my kids do NOT like to read. I think much of this feeling is because of how they have had to deal with reading in class before. That will change this year; I promise.
- One student is a cancer survivor...twice.
- One student said, "My dad walked out on me."
- Many of my kids love sports (soccer, boxing, wrestling, basketball, football, hockey).
- A few of my kids hate Jake Paul and Team 10.
- One of my kiddos is from the Philippines and speaks Tagalog.
- Some of the kids have experienced terrible things and therefore read books to help them deal with those experiences.
- Many kids bragged about their talents in art, music, dance, math, sports, and technology.
- Some kids' parents are divorced and it is hard on them.
- Some kiddos have experienced recent deaths in the family or their circle of friends.
- One or two kids' pets have recently died.
- Many kids related the school subject in which they are excellent!

It is important for me to know these things so that I have a sense of what this group of kiddos is dealing with. Often we forget that our students are people who have bad days or need some extra help or attention in order to get through the day. School is so much more than disseminating information. A school is a living, breathing organism. We teachers must have the soft skills to accommodate all kids regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, both academic and emotional. We are their parent figure while at school and we must act accordingly, treating these kids as if they were our own.

My mission is to take all of this information into account and make sure that this group of kids has the best school year they have ever had.  I will revisit this activity periodically throughout the year but I hope that I don't have to. I hope that the kids will become comfortable enough that they will freely share with me all of the time. If we get to that point, I'll know I have been successful.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

It's All About the Team

We spend a lot of time during the first few days on team building activities. It is always important to show the kiddos that they can work well with everyone in the class. Kids have a natural inclination to be collaborative and cooperation in class is essential. During the first few days, in addition to talking about expectations, we play some games that demonstrate how crucial teamwork is. When we develop good teamwork at the beginning of the year, that teamwork and collaboration pays off big during the last few months of the school year. Fostering cooperation and collaboration during the first week of school is an investment in the last few months of school.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

That's a Lot of Reading!

When I first introduced the idea of the 40 Book Challenge to the kiddos, they immediately thought, "No way!" Most of these kids have been middle of the road students their entire lives. To attempt to read 40 books in one school year seemed beyond their capabilities, according to them. When I asked how many books they read last year and the year before, I got answers ranging from "none" to "five" with a few exceptions, readers who read over ten books. Their challenge was also my challenge. How could we create an environment where kids would willingly pick up a book and read it for a decent amount of time? How could we get reading to be "cool" for kids? How could we help kids build the reading stamina that they will need in the future?

Since I had just started at East Naples Middle School, I had to stock my bookshelves. Selecting books that kids would want to read is always a challenge, especially because I didn't really know these kids yet. I bought hundreds of books that I thought would appeal to them and, with a fully stocked library at school, the kids had lots of choices. Now, we had to change the culture. I showed book trailer after book trailer, gave book talk after book talk, highlighted books that I saw kids read, and read WITH the kids so that they could see that it is their most important work, not busy work to do while I do other teacher duties. Some kiddos are readers just waiting to blossom. Those kids took to the program instantly. Others took a while to buy in but they did. Slowly, over the course of the year, kids would begin to ask, "I'm finished with the assignment. Can I read?" Music to my ears. Reading became a preferred option for the kids. Often, when kids came to class, they asked if we could forgo the day's work and just read.

My class schedule is three 90 minute blocks. I make sure that 30 of those minutes are dedicated to independent reading. Kids choose their books. We use some textbook stories as our whole class readings so that we have some common points of reference, but nearly all of the other reading time kids spend is on independent reading. I also ask that they read 30 minutes each night before going to bed. Some did but probably most did not. Still, they read in class. They selected their own books and read. Many times, kids would check out the same book and read together. Some groups took an entire series and rotated through it so that they all could read each book. Kids developed reading stamina. The cries of, "How much longer?" faded over the course of the year.

On our classroom wall, we have divisions for our 40 Book Challenge. Each student gets a card with their name. I put a sticker on the card for each book read. Everyone starts on the "0-5 Books" wall. Next is the "6-10 Books" wall, followed by the "11-20 Books" wall, the "21-30 Books" wall, the "30-40 Books" wall and lastly the "40+ Books" wall. Kids would see their card move throughout the year. It is a tangible visual that kids can look to in order to chart their progress. We also celebrate every five books a kiddo reads with a cupcake. When kids reach 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 books, they get "cupcaked". We celebrate!


These kiddos read. Five students reached 40+ Books but so many others read more than they ever thought they would. Kids are in the process of completing a class survey and some of the questions deal with their reading this year. When I look at the number of books read last year as compared to this year, I am blown away. The majority of our kids read over 15 books this year. That is a book every couple of weeks. To make things interesting, I joined the challenge. I didn't get to 40+ Books either but it was fun to keep track with the kids. They also saw me as a real reader who was reading what they were reading. They could trust that my book recommendations were probably pretty good. After all, we were a reading community. We share. 

So many of the kids were surprised by the number of books that they read this year. For some kids, it was ten times what they had read in years past. The key was book choice. Several students reported that they only read one or two books last year and those were the class novels that they read together. This year, we did no class novels. Kids had to take on the responsibility of being a real reader, looking for books they might like and developing their taste in reading. It is what real readers do. While the kiddos were surprised about how much they read, they also reveled in the accomplishment. This year is something they can always look back on with pride. They accomplished so much more than they thought they could. Many of them developed a love of reading that will last their lifetime. That love of reading is gold. I believe that if kids leave me with a love of reading, then I have done the best thing possible for them. Only time will tell.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Looking Down the Road

Last week, we took a field trip to Florida Gulf Coast University. Every seventh grader in our school participated. It is like a rite of passage. It is one of the two seventh grade field trips every year. I think the district is trying to expose the kids to the idea of college. Many have it in their minds that they are going to college after high school but many others do not. This trip shows our kiddos that the option is there for them if they want it.


I am a big proponent of kids going to college. I know it is not necessary to become the best person one can be, but for the experience of it (moving far from home, being on your own for the first time in your life, meeting a variety of people from around the globe), it can't be beat. I want my kiddos open to the idea that college may be an option for them. Many don't even consider it an option. Whether it is cost, grades, or not thinking that they are "college material", a lot of my students don't even think about college. I have been working all year to change that.


I have begun many sentences this year with "When you get to college", or "After high school, when you get to make your own schedule in college". It is important that we talk about college as if it is a given, that they will have that option to take or leave. I want the expectation that they will go to school after high school, be it college, junior college or tech school. We know that these days a high school diploma is not enough for the average kiddo to get a good-paying job. It takes more.


On our tour of FGCU, we saw a dorm room, Alico Arena (where the FGCU basketball team plays), an engineering classroom, the student commons, the library, and several gathering spots around campus. FGCU is a new school, celebrating its twentieth year of operation this year. The campus has newer buildings and a fresh look. It is an attractive place for kids to consider going to school. It is also relatively inexpensive. During the tour, I overheard several kids saying, "I'm going here!" I smiled at that. Others said, "I'm not. I'm going to Florida (the University of Florida)!" I smiled at that as well. Kids were talking about going to college as if it were in the cards now. Some of those same kiddos didn't see the possibility last week. Now they do. The more our tour guide talked about the opportunities, the more kids began to see things differently. 


I tell kids all of the time, "You want to be in the position where you get to make decisions, not have decisions made for you." That means that kids have to achieve enough that they can choose from a selection of things for which they qualify. They are making the decision. If they only qualify for one thing, the decision is made for them. That is why I push college so hard. I know that if they achieve enough to be accepted by a handful of colleges, they will be the decision-maker. They can decide which school to attend or not to attend at all. Regardless, the decision is theirs. 


As we loaded back onto the bus at the end of the day, kids were reminiscing about what they saw on campus. Some were comparing this campus to others that they have seen. I suggested to my kiddos that anytime they have a chance to see a college campus, they should take the opportunity. I look back with fond memories at all of the times I have spent on the campuses of the colleges I've attended. These kids are excitedly looking forward to the experience they will have. College is not out of reach for them. They know that now.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

Taking Grading Home

Sometimes I overhear teachers talking about the papers they take home to grade. The workload is crushing, I know, and many times teaches will work outside of school hours. It is a big problem for teachers and one of the reasons why so many teachers leave the profession after only a few years. Teachers are being worked to death.

One of the things I've tried to do in the last several years is cut down on the graded assignments. I may give one or two assignments per week that are graded. The rest of the work we do is strictly for learning. Kids often say, "If you don't give us the assignment, then you won't have to grade it." Well, that's logical. We can also work together through the assignment, learn it, and then use a different form of assessment to make sure that we are all on board. We work together discussing, debating, demonstrating, and there is no need for a graded assignment. I know where each kiddo is in terms of what they have learned.

Many times, what we do in class for several days will lead up to a performance event. None of the practice work is graded, only the performance event is. How well the student performs on the event is the only thing that is assessed. Last year, in my school's 80/20 grading system, this was expected. All of the practice work before the performance event comprised 20% of the grade and the performance event was 80% of the grade. One teacher in my building described it as like sports. You practice all week but game day is Sunday. The only assessment that you receive for the practice is how well you perform on game day. That is the only thing assessed.

This year our grading system is a more standard points system but the number of assignments on which kids are graded is low. Still, I aim to make sure everything I want to assess is done at school. I made a promise to myself that the only school work I would do at home is research new resources to use in class and plan the lessons for the week. No grading. I use my planning minutes at school and a little bit of time before and after school to take care of any grading/assessing that I have to do.

I remember when I first started teaching. I would bring home bags of papers to be graded on the weekend. It was no fun walking out of school on Friday afternoon because I knew I had stacks of papers that would occupy almost every moment of my weekend. That was nothing to look forward to. Now, I am a firm believer in balance and quality of life. Teachers can change how we do things in class to cut down drastically on grading so that it is more meaningful for them and the kids. Cutting down on grading also helps restore some balance in our lives during the school year.

There are many teaches who aspire for a gradeless classroom. Wouldn't that be amazing!? I am not there yet but every year I get a little closer. The kids have trouble with it because they are so trained to work for grades. It would take a fundamental shift to do away with grades altogether. In my room, we have tried to reduced the importance of grades while at the same time help kids understand that learning is the most important thing they do at school. It takes a while to get student buy-in. Slowly, it does happen.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Our Civic Duty

When I first arrived at East Naples Middle School, I learned that the school required kids to take Civics classes. I had never been in a school before that required Civics as a class. As the year has gone on, I have seen these kiddos learn about the US government, the Constitution, Federalism and a host of other ideas unique to our country. Our kids were learning how our government works. It seems like such a fundamental idea but so many schools don't even offer a Civics class. Some kids get a basic understanding of the Constitution in social studies or history classes but our Civics classes span the entire year and are required of all students.

I cannot help but to think that these classes will pay off in the long run. Our kids will learn the system and how to access it. While we read in the newspapers each day about problems with our government, so many Americans don't even know how the government works and therefore cannot even understand the problems that we have. We see over and over when a late night comedy star does "man on the street" interviews. The people who are asked basic questions about our government have no idea how the system even works. If they don't know how it works, how do they expect to participate in it? If people don't understand government, they are less likely to vote. That is the ultimate shame.

Our kids are not rich white students. Our kiddos are middle and working class minority kids. It is even more important for them to learn the system, learn their rights, vote, and participate in government. In ten years, when our kids our out of college and maybe thinking about running for local or statewide office, the foundation they learned in our Civics classes will benefit them immensely. Our students are the people who are underrepresented in government. They will need to be more active when they get older. They need to understand the importance of voting. They need to see that change will only come when they are working for change.

The foundation of the kids' political aptitude is being taught right down the hall from me in our Civics classes. For many of our kids, these classes will be the most important classes they take in their school careers. People stay ignorant of how our government works at their own peril. Ignorance leads to inaction. Inaction leads to others making decisions for us. Our kids' voices are important ones that will be heard because our kiddos will be armed with the knowledge to intelligently participate in their own futures.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Author Polly Holyoke Visits ENMS

On Friday, YA Lit author Polly Holyoke (@pollyholyoke) visited our school to talk to the kiddos. It is not every day that kids get a chance to talk to the authors of the books they read so I am glad that we had this opportunity. Polly Holyoke wrote The Neptune Project, a Sunshine State Young Readers Award Book nominee. It is one of fifteen books that will compete for that prize.


Polly talked to the kids about her own life of adventure: climbing mountains, swimming with dolphins, and being bitten by a rattlesnake. To say that the kids were interested would be an understatement. Polly also talked about her writing process, the publishing process, and how she comes up with here ideas. She said, "Most people tell you to write what you know," but in her dystopian underwater novels, she instead wrote what she could imagine. 



Since The Neptune Project and the follow-up, The Neptune Challenge, are underwater adventures, Polly brought in some of her SCUBA gear to show the kiddos. She talked a little bit about snorkeling, diving, and spear fishing. Since we live right on the Gulf of Mexico, the kids could relate. Many had done these activities themselves. Polly told the kids that while her writing process is unique to her, there are some similarities among authors' processes. Almost all authors read a lot, write everyday, unplug from technology to clear their minds, and daydream. She talked about the lost art of daydreaming and how daydreaming is often the time when people are most creative. She encouraged the kids to develop their own storytelling abilities. "There will always be jobs for storytellers," she said. 


The time that Polly Holyoke spent with us was awesome. Kids need to see that they can do what they love for personal fulfillment, learning, and career opportunities. In the audience were many budding writers. Seeing a successful published author and being able to interact with her will only help push these kids in that direction. This was one of those essential learning opportunities that we try to get for our kiddos. It is a meaningful experience that kids won't forget anytime soon.