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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Hashtag Figureitout

It is rare that I write a lesson plan and stick to it. Lesson plans are written days in advance of my actual lessons, and by the time I go to teach my original intentions, the classroom climate is different or the kids have taken me in a different direction or school interruptions have occured or I have learned something new that makes me take an abrupt turn. That last one happened today.

The Birdville Independent School District in North Texas is putting on a professional development event called 12 Days of Innovation Summit (disclaimer: I work in this district). Each day, a video of a guest speaker is made available, and those participating are encouraged to share their learning.

The event began today with a conversation with George Couros, author of The Innovator's Mindset. Although I had many takeaways (my Twitter posts are proof), my big a-ha moment was this: we often do not give kids enough time to figure things out on their own. How often do we give a lecture or an explanation or a modeling, only to have our students turn around and ask us exactly what we just said? And how many of us give in and end up explaining ourselves again? And again. And again.

As I listened to the discussion during my drive to work, I made a last minute decision to change my well thought out lesson plans and make it a "Hashtag Figureitout Day." The second I got to my classroom, I typed up my daily instructions with a little help from my friend Liam Neeson. The first students who entered my classroom for the day immediately took notice of the meme. One even muttered an uh-oh.

Each of my morning classes sat talking for the first few minutes of their class periods, not noticing that I had not spoken. Slowly, I noticed my kids turning their attention to my post. Slowly, I noticed my kids start to get their needed materials for the day and get started on their tasks for the day.

Now, this was not a perfect and immediate transition from socializing to productive work. I stopped my students once they started to catch on to explain what we were doing and why. We discussed problem solving and asking classmates for help prior to coming to me for assistance. Some kids challenged me, checking to see if I was going to give in  - which I did not. Others complained that they still could not figure things out - which they did. When they were truly stuck, we discussed how they could figure out their issues - many of which simply required a dictionary.

By the afternoon (I see my students twice a day), the kids were asking if we were still doing the "figure it out thing." They got to work, and in all honesty, I saw kids being productive who usually beg and plead for help on every little thing while accomplishing nothing. I watched as they assisted and supported one another. It was honestly one of the best days I have had all year, all thanks to a slight shift in thinking.

My students also held me accountable to my own standards. Many of my kids are taking a high-school level engineering class, and they recently built cube puzzles. They needed to have adults and classmates attempt to solve these puzzles. I had already agreed to be a victim - I mean participant - in the challenge. This is a project I have participated in for many years, and not once have I solved any of the puzzles brought to me. That changed today when I had to practice what I was preaching and "Hashtag Figureitout."

Out of the five puzzles presented to me today, I managed to solve four. I struggled with each one. My students laughed a little and prompted me a little, but I encouraged them to let me battle my own brain. It was slightly embarrassing to have kids watch me spend six minutes to try to put a cube together, but as I tell my kids all the time, earning bragging rights feels good.

So now I challenge you. One, I challenge you to sign up for the summit and join along in the learning and sharing. Two, I challenge you to let your students figure it out. And three, I challenge you to let your students see you struggle. The payoff may be the greatest gift of all.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Building seventh grade poets

I need to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: I took the easy way out on an assignment. I needed my students to write poetry, and I was in a time crunch. Some of my students were finished with a previous writing assignment, and I needed to help others without holding my finishers up. I could not see how I was going to teach a poetry writing assignment like I wanted. So I didn't! And I have to admit that sometimes the laziest lesson planning creates the most amazing results.

"Miss, what's a syllable?"
In order to continue addressing the previous writing assignment, I resorted to creating two poetry writing assignments in Google classroom: a nonet and a Japanese lantern poem. Both poems have specific rules for lines and syllables. I assumed these would not require much explanation and/or support from me, allowing me to work with some students who needed more help.

Despite some initial struggles with syllable counting, some of my students produced the best writing I have had from them all year. I was blown away, and my shock at the work they produced led them to ask if I would share their work. I am working on building internal motivation in my students, and we are all about braggin' rights. So please allow me to brag on my kids.

Many students chose to write the nonet. I am providing the structure of the poem as well as some of my favorite examples.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Texas Association for Literacy Educators (TALE) - Literacy Awards

Texas teachers: I am a member of TALE and the advice at committee. We truly wish to recognize literacy leaders on our communities. We work hard, and recognitions like this honor that work. Please consider nominating someone for these awards and sharing this post for others. 🥇
The TALE Advocacy Committee is looking for outstanding literacy leaders for the TALE Leadership in Literacy Awards! The first award recognizes an outstanding PK-12 literacy educator. The other award highlights the literacy leadership of someone who does not work in the PK-12 setting but advocates for literacy within their community. You may self-nominate or nominate someone else.

The deadline to submit all nominations is December 25, 2019!

Winners will be notified as soon as the results are decided and awards will be presented during our annual conference in Odessa in February 2020!

Find out more about our organization at

Monday, September 9, 2019

Growing pains of a middle school teacher

One word I do not often use to describe myself is spontaneous. I am a creature of habit and home. Last May, upon receiving a text asking if anyone was looking for a job in a neighboring school district, I spontaneously responded, "Why not me?" Not only did I shock my friend who sent the inquiry, but I shocked myself, as I never looked back. Within a week and a half, I had applied, interviewed, and resigned from my school home of 16 years.

The decision was definitely a good one, but I did not anticipate some of the issues I would encounter, issues related to my own thinking. Once I made the decision, I never looked back. I spent the summer getting to know new colleagues and learning about my new campus and kids. I was grateful to have an entire summer to cope with the excitement because by the first day of school, I felt ready and part of my new school family.

I forgot something, though. The kids! The kids didn't know me. Prior to this school, I only ever taught at one campus. For sixteen years. Longer than my current students have been alive. I taught siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles...and even a child of a first year student passed through. I have mentored student teaching interns who once sat in my classroom. I have been invited to weddings and baby showers. I have provided job and college references. I have supported and nutured a few thousand students. Aside from two years (we all have a couple, right?), I have maintained a relatively positive reputation.

It never crossed my mind that my new students would see me any differently. I expected them to see me as their social justice and equity champion from day one. Their nuturer. Their supporter. Their educator. Their teaching superhero! It never crossed my mind that in their eyes, I am new.

Last week, my third on the new campus, was one of the most painful I have ever experienced. That pain, however, has mostly been related to my ego. In one situation, I found myself angry with a student for a level of disprespect I haven't encountered in years, after a heart-to-heart had me thinking that the child and I had found some common ground. In another, I found myself feeling disappointed over something a student posted about me on social media, brought to me by two other students who were not willing to stand by and watch it happen. My head kept saying, "Don't you know who I am?" For a relatively brief moment, I experienced regret. Regret for leaving my previous campus, the comfort in the chaos that I was familiar with.

But then something happened that I am not sure I have ever experienced at the level with which it was provided: support. My administration nearly had me in tears with the understanding shown toward me and the discplinary measures taken to back me up. I swear my body was shaking for at least an hour, and I really expected to start bawling before my students came in. I went from feeling completely alone to feeling part of a community from one night to the next morning.

Things aren't perfect. I'm struggling with seeing students twice a day, with implementing new routines and procedures, including implementation of the workshop model. I'm battling lower motivation than I have seen in quite some time. I'm challenged by a new lesson plan format - one that is actually checked on a weekly basis. I'm facing lower success rates than I am used to working with.

Things aren't perfect. I no longer get to set the cruise control to 79 MPH in a 70 MPH speed zone. I am once again a student in my own classroom, learning about and from my students, learning new ways of teaching and meeting student needs. I am grateful for this change and this opportunity, for a chance to try new things and be more creative, and I am prepared to come home battling my own brain somedays. Maybe one day, when most of the days are all good, and I talk about the early days, the kids will say, "I don't even remember that, Miss."

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Reading with Banksy

If you haven't seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary about Banksy's work as a street artist, I highly recommend it. This film was my introduction to his work. Bansky is phenomenal at what he does, how he sees a landscape and transforms it with creativity and insight, commentary and satire. The images he creates speak to me, each telling a story.

As an English teacher, I believe that I have a responsibility to teach kids to read all types of text, and that includes images. My current seventh grade students do not know a world without technology, without an influx of images. My concern is how these images are interpreted, especially when they are still learning the world. What information is being processed? What information is being missed or misunderstood? How does the information affect their thinking? If I do not take the time for my students to learn how to read images, who will?

The following is one of my favorite images from Banksy and one I love to use in class for my first reading lesson:
Banky's "The street is in play"

The lesson itself is simple: Make a list of everything you see in the picture. Then we share out one at a time. The conversation usually starts with observations about the window, the bars on the window, two boys, no shoes. The a-ha moment always seems to come when someone points out that the boy standing on the back of the other is either pointing at or grabbing the spray paint can from the sign.

In all of my classes this year, when this detail has been pointed out, there has been rustling as the students sit a little more upright, leaning forward to get a closer look. The classroom has filled with the sound of oh as the story unfolds before them. That moment of discovery fills my heart every time, and the exclamations shared afterward always make me smile.

In a few minutes, I am able to teach my students about the importance of details in text. It is their first lesson of the year about making inferences. It builds confidence in the ability to interpret and understand. I can now print this picture and hang it in the room as a reference point for the rest of the year, as the original mentor text.

My suggestion to you: Find an image that speaks to you, that will speak to your students. Provide them with time to discover. Then sit back and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

My path to English language teacher

For the #Ellchat_bkclub, we have been reading The 6 principles for exemplary teaching of English learners. Chapter 4 mentions that English language teachers "come to the profession by many different pathways" (67), making me wonder how we all got here, contributing to this book club that has grown exponentially in the past year and a half since I joined. Evelyn is the reason I am here. Evelyn and a district decision back in 2010.

Evelyn was one of my seventh-grade English students. She and I bonded quickly. School was not the biggest priority for her, as it is not for many junior high students. Her Mexican family expectations were stereotypical - find a boy, have his babies. Finish school or don't. No big deal. At least that's how I remember it.

Aside from boys, Evelyn was always mixed up in drama. I once pushed my way through 200 students (I swear I am not exaggerating; I even earned the nickname Ninja Foti for how I worked my way through those kids) to get into the bathroom to break up a fight with her and another student. I ran in just in time to see her slam the other girl's head into a sink.

I wanted more for Evelyn, and I do believe part of her wanted more, too. We worked hard on her classes, more than just mine. Until the day she was removed from my class.

The district made a decision to place all ESL students together with an ESL certified teacher. Despite having a masters with an ESL focus, I really did not know much about how things worked with these students at that time, including any laws or regulations that may affect their class placement. The only thing I knew for sure was that Evelyn was taken from my class and placed with another teacher, one whom we both resented.

Things did not go well for Evelyn in the new class. She and the teacher did not get along. Evelyn's ability to see me, talk to me, and work with me became more and more limited. We would only have a couple of minutes here and there to talk, for me to keep tabs on her. And it was then that I decided that I would never allow a situation like that to happen again.

I became ESL certified within a year, and doors and opportunities opened up for me like crazy after that. Years later and I have earned a local ESL teacher of the year award and been named the best of the best presenters for my region at a state TESOL conference. The ESL kids on my campus, those I teach and those I do now, are my kiddos, whether they like it or not. I am territorial and want the best for them.

Evelyn is a grown woman. She has three kids now. I'm not sure if she finished school. The last I knew, she had not. In the middle of writing this, I stopped to send her a thank you on Facebook for transforming my life. Because she did.

So now I want to know about your story. How did you get here?