Leaving and Taking

As part of this morning’s improv activity, we were invited to think about what we would take away from the UNCC National Writing Project Summer Institute and what we would leave. I decided to use those categories for my reflection on SI.

What I’ll Leave

The feeling that if I don’t do it it won’t get done and that won’t be ok
The whole group video portfolio project feels like it’s consumed a big chunk of my thoughts over the past several days. It’s reminded me what an incredibly complex kind of text a video can be. Even a six minute video has required hours of work spread across a number of people. At some point, I started to feel responsible for the video and simultaneously frustrated that I didn’t feel like I had the right tech (in this case a Mac) to make it happen the way I’d hoped. In the past, I might have pushed through anyway, volunteering to finish the project anyway. Instead, I talked with other people who were working on the project and we figured out a way to share the load some. (Many props to Laura, who ended up pulling the final cut together.)

The feeling that I’ve somehow escaped “having” to teach writing because I teach history
Last year when I was teaching all history classes for the first time, I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that I was no longer going to be a “writing teacher.” In some ways this was really freeing, but it also meant that I didn’t work as hard to find creative ways for my students to connect to the material through writing. Many of the demos over the course of SI have given me ideas for writing in different ways as a part of history class. Next year I get to teach writing as part of history class.

A sour taste in my mouth for tech
Over the past year, I’d been really wrestling with my use of digital tech in the classroom, or lack thereof. Tech had started to feel like just a shiny toy, rather than a useful tool. Being able to incorporate tech in useful ways in my demo at SI and seeing the use of tech in others’ demos reminded me of the joy that I used to find in using technology with students.

The sense that all writing has to be directed toward an end product
I’m a goal-orientated person who doesn’t like to feel like I’m wasting effort. I want my writing to be directed toward something- a blog post, an article, even a tweet. I sometimes feel that if writing doesn’t end up in some publishable or shareable form, it’s not worth doing. The sheer amount of writing that we’ve done over the course of the Institute means that there’s no way that it could all make it into a form that makes sense to share. It’s been freeing, though, to let those scraps be.

What I’ll Take Away

A reminder that good teaching requires careful planning to look effortless and create space for messiness
Prepping for my demo reminded me that really good lessons create space for the surprising to happen, but that space requires careful thought to ensure that things don’t get chaotic or seem haphazard. This will be the first year in my teaching career that I’ll be teaching the same classes as I taught the year before. (Yay!) I’m hoping that not having to be in “just one step ahead of the students” mood will allow me to spend some more time thinking about how I craft space for student learning and inquiry.

A reminder of how much I love learning
I’ve heard it said that some people become teachers because they don’t ever want to leave school. Guilty as charged. I don’t see this as a bad thing though. My love of school isn’t about being a sage on the stage or a power trip. It’s about getting to have the opportunity to learn alongside students, to curate sources to pique their curiosity, and to help them ask good questions. It was fun to get to be get to be a student in the formal sense again.

Gratitude for thoughtful, passionate teachers
Throughout the SI, I’ve been impressed by the skill and dedication, both of the Teacher Consultants facilitating the Institute and the other participants. In a country where the media and politicians sometimes portray teachers as lazy and ignorant, it’s been a privilege to work and learn with people who are the diametric opposite of that portrayal. It’s also been fun to have the opportunity to “talk shop” with people who care as deeply about issues of teaching and learning as I do. I’m deeply grateful for the experience and for those who encouraged me to pursue it.

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words

I’ve done less work, or perhaps better to say, different work, this year. Less writing and presenting. More being with friends and sharing meals. (Fast Company suggests that in-person socializing should be a mandatory item on your to-do list.) Less “techy” projects with students, more research alongside them. ¬†More productive messes in the kitchen with students. Less blogging, more hiking. These are every day sorts of choices, and it’s difficult to evaluate them until looking back over a period of time. I was surprised at how apparent they were as I was assembling this year’s Year in Pictures. It’s a different way to reflect on the year and getting a printed copy of the book eases my anxiety about all my pictures residing on tiny chips inside my phone and computer ūüôā

It was a year of taking different sorts of risks, and I’m ok with that.

Click on the image to view the book. I used Lulu to put it together and Issuu for the online display.

Reflecting on the Fly

It’s been almost a month since I’ve blogged. One of the frustrations of this year is that I’ve felt that I’ve had so little time to reflect. Reflection is one of those activities whose absence one doesn’t necessarily feel immediately. It’s like sliding by on too little sleep; you can do it for a bit, but soon you start to feel it’s absence. Here are a few ways I’ve found time for reflection even in the midst of the chaos.

Turn your planner into a reflection journal 
I’ve never been one to write detailed lesson plans (and I’m grateful I’m not required to), but I do tend to sketch them out in my planner. In the 5 minutes before the beginning of a faculty meeting or while waiting for an oil change, I’ll pull out my planner and jot quick notes to myself-¬†This worked well overall, but didn’t engage quieter students or Need more time for brainstorming or Totally¬†befuddled¬†students. Scaffold better. These notes are invaluable in planning the next time around. Don’t feel guilty about making your reflections short; some reflection is better than none.

Don’t let being stuck without your preferred medium be an excuse
If you generally keep your notes electronically and you find yourself without your computer or tablet, scribble reflection on a napkin or a receipt. Later you can snap a pic of it with your phone and insert it into a document. If you’re without a pen or pencil, there are mobile apps like Evernote or the Notes app on your phone that are perfect for these kinds of quick notes.

Let your students reflect for you
They can’t do all the work, of course, but I’ve found that asking students to reflect on an assignment or project is useful in jogging my mind later. I often use a Google form for this purpose. It’s great for gathering quick feedback. Here is an example of a feedback form for a 7th grade medieval travelers documentary.

Put reflection on your to-do list
When you can schedule time for reflection, literally block it off on your calendar or put it on your to-do list. Making reflection a need-to, rather than a “gee, wouldn’t it be nice if I had time to,” makes it much more likely to happen. That’s the only way this post got written ūüôā

Are there other ways that you’ve found to carve out space and time for reflection?

It’s June

As I was scrolling back through blog posts today looking for something to trigger some end of the year reflections, I stumbled upon a post I had forgotten that I’d written. It’s a list of three things I had hoped to accomplish by June.

I wrote about the new blended learning class I would be teaching and hoped that I‚Äôd have a sense of accomplishment of taking on lots of good work and doing it well. At the year’s end, I do have that feeling, especially with regard to the blended learning class. One of the highlights of the year for me was a presentation by members of the class at the NCAIS Innovate conference.

That sense of accomplishment didn’t come easily though. Teaching high schoolers was a challenge that I found didn’t result in the kind of emotional payout I’ve come to expect as a teacher, at least up front. I’m not sure whether it’s a developmental thing with middle v. high schoolers, but I felt like I often had to bring the energy to the room, rather than feeding off the students’ energy. There were also times when I was convinced that the class was a total train wreck and felt overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of all the new (no textbook, blended learning, fist time teaching high schoolers, no quizzes or tests, thematic approach to history) I’d taken on. In some of those darker moments, I was grateful for the¬†encouragement¬†of Sam Morris and the memory of a conversation I’d had with one of my favorite college professors. Several years after I graduated, we were¬†reminiscing about a Health Care Policy class I had taken my senior year. He talked about how inadequate he felt teaching the course and all the changes he would have made if he could do it over again. I was stunned because, while it was true that he worked us a bit hard, it was one of my favorite classes. His total love for the subject and us covered a multitude of perceived faults mostly unnoticed by us.

Secondly, I wrote that I’d find some of that kind of work that would contribute to the community while also being energy-giving for me. This year I served on the Faculty Evaluation and Review Committee. The work of the committee was to look at redesigning the way we do faculty evaluation. It was a fascinating look at the inner workings of administration and the thought processes behind some of the systems at our school. These conversations were sometimes frustrating, but I felt like, as the year progressed, I had valuable contributions to add.

I also was able to develop and run a local foods cooking club. It was a chance to get to reconnect with some students that I’d taught as sixth graders who were now in seventh and eighth grade. I wished that the growing season had lined up a little better with the timeline of the club, but I loved creating experiences for and with the students.

The last hope was more personal. I wanted to¬†strengthen ties with friends of those who were still in the area and find ways to connect with new people. This became even more challenging than I’d expected when yet another set of friends moved away in March with another two sets due to move away soon. On a hopeful note, there’s a nascent supper club that I think will take hold and a few people who’ve recently moved back to the area. I’m also looking forward to traveling this summer and getting to spend time with several of the folks who’ve moved away.

Some things I hadn’t anticipated…

I wrote a lot this year. Often prompted by folks on twitter or things that happened in my classroom I wrote blog posts, articles, a book chapter, and a poem or two. In all that writing, my classroom blog did get a bit neglected, but I tried to at least update it with pictures, even if I didn’t have time to write long posts. While writing hasn’t gotten any easier, I’m incredibly grateful to those who exhort me to write and offer feedback when I do.

I traveled a lot this year. I presented at conferences in Charlotte, Orlando, DC, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In some ways that amount of travel during a school year was taxing, but it was also exciting and rejuvenating.

Mentors moved on or became unavailable in ways I hadn’t expected. However, one of those unexpected changes gave me pause to think more deeply about where I was professionally and in some way influenced my decision to move to a new position next year.

I’ve already got my planner ready for 2011-2012 ūüôā but, first, summer… 8)

Student Reflections on Teaching

The student-taught lessons are coming to an end in our US History class. After teaching, I asked students to reflect on the following questions. Below each question I’ve posted some of the student responses.

Did your lesson go according to your plan? If not, how did it vary? Was this a good or bad thing?

My lesson went pretty accurately to plan. There were a few times I needed to ad-lib due to the fact that some things took longer than I had anticipated. I did not get to send out the game I wanted everyone to play, and I did not get to show my video, but since the debate was going well, I asked another question for them to talk about because they seemed interested. It wasn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing, I just observed it as an obstacle that everyone is eventually going to need to overcome because not everything is always going to go according to plan.

My planned lesson ended up about 5 minutes early but I quickly thought up the idea of quizzing the students on “what food came first” based on the food timeline they had all looked at for their hw. Definitely ended up being a good thing, because it brought the class back to a more standard learning style (after the making of strawberry shortcakes), while still keeping the class fun and interactive.

The picture taking from the magazine took a lot longer than I had anticipated, so I didn’t get a chance to do the last couple of things I had planned. I don’t think this was good because the beginning was mostly reflection and I wanted to get into the video and scenarios.

Do you felt you engaged the students? How could you tell?

Sometimes engaging the students as difficult in the conversations because it wasn’t a very controversial topic. But I feel like I did a good job working with that, asked each person so say the major thing that hit them from the reading. Also, I think that giving every few people an event and putting it on the board in a timeline forced everyone to think and participate. I thought the game was a good way to participate as well.

Yes, I did. I felt like bringing candy was critical, primarily because when you announce people will be rewarded for their participation, it instantly spiked interest. Most of the people were talking during the debate that I started, which made me think that the people were interested in the topic I asked them to debate on. Also, people were talking and raising their hands whenever I asked questions, even though through the homework I learned that everyone did not particularly have an interest in baseball.


What would you do differently if you were to teach the lesson again?

First of all, I would have picked a topic that was more interesting to the class. Baseball was interesting to me, so it made the class very easy to teach, and made it possible for me to change the plans on the fly when something unexpected happened. I would have picked a topic that more of the class was interested in because it would have potentially led to more questions back to me, rather than just a couple of questions from the students, and a lot of questions from myself.

I would leave more time for discussion. I feel like that’s what everyone gets the most out of because it opens up different ideas and perspectives. This was also a topic that people are interested in talking about, so everyone was generally engaged during the discussion.

I would probably ask people to close their computers, because I realized they weren’t necessary, and was the source of some distractions. Also, I would try to figure out a way to bring more debate into the class.

What did you learn from teaching? How might you be able to apply this learning in other contexts?

I learned that teaching is a lot like putting on a play or a performance. Even though you are up there presenting to your friends and classmates, they mostly just stare blankly at their computers if you are not asking them direct questions. Teaching has to be difficult to constantly keep 16 and 17 year olds entertained for a block of time. I think i can apply this to other contexts when I am working with younger students for tutoring or volunteering and also in public speaking, be sure to keep the information straight forward and the important things at the beginning.

I learned that it is harder than expected to willingly engage everyone in a topic you find interesting. I also think that I learned that I need to directly ask questions to an individual and not the whole class. I think it gave me more respect to the difficulty that teachers have keeping a class engaged, especially when they are forced to teach on something that is particularly boring.

I learned that it is frustrating when people don’t listen or participate. From now on, I will definitely try more to minimize side conversations.

I learned that people are active when the topics are things that they are interested in, I could try to get people to relate to topics in various ways so that everyone can be engaged.

It’s pretty hard to keep everyone engaged unless the topic is really interesting. Also it’s necessary to keep debate going for the length of the whole period so that was a little challenging. I think being able to keep discussions going is important especially for job interviews and college interviews. They look for a person who is friendly and can keep a conversation, not someone who answers with one word.

Scaffolding Tech

Earlier today I read Scaffolding Your Lesson Plans on Scott Meech’s blog. The following began as a comment in response and turned into a full post…

Last year was my first year teaching at a 1:1 laptop school. I embraced the technology with open arms and threw myself (and my students) into it. While there were days of absolute wonderment, there were a number of days where I wanted to slam my head against a wall and never use technology in the classroom again. Several times during the year I went to our instructional technology director‘s office and said, “Give me the speech again.” He would tell me what wonderful things my students were doing, empathize with my frustrations, and make suggestions about how to do things differently the next time.

To be fair to myself and my students a fair amount of our frustration was the result of limited bandwidth which made streaming videos and using Glogster painfully slow at times. (The school has since dramatically increased the bandwidth. Yay!) In hindsight, I’ve realized that a good deal of that frustration was also expecting my students to master too many new technological skills at once.

This year I hope I am doing better, although this is likely more the result of reflecting on last year than any sort of serious, considered technical skills schema. Over the next two days in my 6th grade World Cultures class, students are completing a chart in Word using the BBC website for information and then creating a timeline using Capzles. After the timelines are created, students will embed them in their blogs.

In the space of the previous two sentences, a number of skills are represented. Some we’ve been tackling since the early days of 6th grade- editing documents in Word, gleaning information from websites, and creating and tagging blog posts. Some are intermediate skills- embedding objects in their blogs and snipping and saving pictures for the timeline. Using the Capzles website was brand-new for all the students.

I’ll be honest and say that this design wasn’t very intentional on my part.¬†I was just trying to come up with a way not to have to teach the whole class at once.¬†Orienting¬†an entire class of students to a particular app or website is a total pain, one that I’m trying to avoid this year as much as possible. I’ve found it works so much better in a group of three or four.¬†At the beginning of class today, I showed students Capzles, where we were headed. Instead of trying to explain all of its features at the outset, I told students, “Your first task is information-gathering. When you’ve completed the chart, come to me and I’ll show you the next step.” Students were working independently or with a partner, and as I had hoped, they didn’t finish all at once.

The most critical part of the process was finding the information and completing the chart, so even if some students don’t complete their capzle or do a bare-bones version, they’ll be just fine. We’ll go back and use a timeline-creation app again at some point, and when we do, I’ll have some students who will be experts further reducing the demands for my time.

Ideally the scaffolding can also happen horizontally across the disciplines. It’s been really great to see other subject areas begin to use students’ blogs. I love that I don’t have to orient students to¬†Wikispaces every year because students do a research project in Science that uses it before we get there in World Cultures or Language Arts.¬†I’ll be honest that I don’t want to regiment this scaffolding process too much because I want to leave open the possibility of playing with the next new tool that comes along ūüôā

The Danger of a Single Story

In World Cultures class, we are grappling with the complicated history of the Middle East. We’ve been looking at the history from as many lens as possible- creating drawings, spinning analogies, organizing information. Students are thinking hard AND synthesizing difficult information. Occasionally, a student will pop up, “So, it’s all about oil, right?” or “The Europeans are the bad guys, right?” I can tell they’re hungry for my assent. “Yes, that it is,” they want me to say. Much as I would like to offer them some certainty, some neatness of narrative, I cannot. I find myself continuing to say, “That’s part of the reason” or “That’s one way to tell the story.”

This afternoon I came across an incredible TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author. She speaks eloquently about our tendency to flatten human experience and our impressions of a people into a single story. She shares experiences in which she either was surprised when people did not conform to the single story in which she imagined them or when she herself was expected to be a character in a single story.

The thing that I appreciated the most about the talk is that Adichie refuses to fall into the trap of saying we all have the same story. The problem with stereotypes, she argues, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” We should not try to cover over the difficult stories of history or literature, but we should tell them alongside of other stories.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Earlier today Carol Jago asked on the English Companion Ning, “Why do you teach literature?” I immediately thought of Jeff Wilhelm’s characterization of literature in his NCTE presentation as “imaginative rehearsal for living.” He quoted Wayne Booth who argued that by tracing characters’ efforts to make moral choices, “readers stretch our own capacities for thinking about how life should be lived.” By living stories through the lives of the characters we read, we broaden and contextualize our range of stories, reducing the chances that we will pigeonhole the people we encounter into single stories.

Towards the end of her talk Adichie says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter…. Stories can break the dignity¬†of a people, but they can also restore the dignity of a people.” That’s why I teach literature (and history). I believe in the power of stories, and I want my students to know as many of them as they can.