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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?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Making time for Makerspace

I was recently out of the classroom for two back-to-back conferences. My reading students had to survive without me for four days of school. Certainly not an easy feat for my seventh-grade students. So prior to leaving, we made a deal: if they could behave and complete the work I left with no more than one off day, we would take a break from class to visit the library and explore the new makerspace activities.

I teach struggling readers, and I truly believe students who struggle in any way need rewards to build motivation. Makerspace time may not have anything to do with reading in and of itself, but makerspace time allows for my students and I to engage in a number of other ways.

Students collaborated in small groups to problem solve. In doing so, they had an opportunity to talk to one another, building relationships in a way that does not always occur in the general classroom setting. I observed students who never talk to one another in class working together and discussing what they were creating.

As students were working, I asked what professions they thought might use some of the same skills they were applying to their creations. The student below was building with blocks, when another student said an engineer would use those skills. The student actually doing the building said he felt that the process he was using might benefit an artist. Gotta love the kids who think differently!

One student exhibited some creativity that I had not seen in the classroom before then. When I asked what he was creating, he told he a portal - to take him home. I did ask if that same portal could take me to a tropical island, but I was denied.

In each class, I also played. I want my students to understand that "play" is not just for kids, no matter how much they criticize me for not acting my own age. They watched as I built a flower, only to have it collapse at the last second. Did they see me cry and yell and pout? Absolutely not. It was an excellent opportunity to model how to react when things do not always go our way.

I do believe that makerspace is underutilized on my campus. It is seen as play rather than being a tool for critical thinking and problem solving and so much more. And when did play become such a bad word? Are we so lost in a world of deadlines and testing that we have forgotten to give kids time to explore?

I am not simply doing my best to create better readers. I want to create writers and dancers and singers and artists, in addition to scientists and engineers and doctors and lawyers. And I hope our makerspace time ignites a spark that may not have been present before.

How are you using makerspace time with your students?

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Independent Reading Files - Student Choice

This year, I am teaching seventh grade reading intervention classes. Not every student in my class is a developing reader (a.k.a., struggling). Some are developing test takers. Others are developing stay-awakers. Some knew they would be promoted regardless of the test outcome. Others experienced morning events that affected their performance. Regardless of the situation, we have a year to spend together, and my goal is to help these students find enjoyment in reading via independent reading.

Cullinan (2000) writes that independent reading comes in a variety of categories: voluntary, pleasure, leisure, recreational, spare time, and outside of school, for example. Within the four walls of my classroom, however, I cannot say that independent reading falls into any of these categories. These descriptors indicate a willingness and desire to read. In my classroom, silent reading time is mandated by me, thereby contradicting the very nature of voluntary reading. My hope, however, is that by participating in daily independent reading, my students will begin to want to read as a means of pleasure and leisure.

Independent reading also includes personal choice, writes Cullinan, and I am making that available to my students. Every day when my students come in to class, they are welcomed by hundreds of books.  I am fortunate to have received two grants in the past that allowed me to build a classroom library, and already this school year (we are three weeks in), I received a Scholastic library that another teacher decided she did not want. Her trash is my treasure because that library helps me provide my students with more reading options. 

It is my job to get the books into their hands by providing them with as much choice as possible. According to Skeeters et al. (2016), student choice empowers and values, leads to deep and meaningful conversations, deepens relationships, and leads to independence. I keep trade books that I have checked out from the public library in my classroom, refreshing them as they hit their due dates. I have novels of every genre. And I have informational texts and drawing books and brain teasers and graphic novels and comic books.

To date we completed fourteen days of daily independent reading, and although not all of the kids are completely on board yet, each day gets a little better. They are looking at and reading books. They are asking to keep reading once my timer goes off. They are starting to ask to borrow novels. They are starting to discover what they do and do not like about the books they are reading. This past week, a student called me over and said, "Miss, I don't find a lot of books I like, but I like this one" (in reference to Ghost by Jason Reynolds).

In addition, my English language arts teammates are starting to catch the bug. One seventh grade and one eighth grade teacher have now added a silent reading day to their weekly lessons. It may only be one day, but that provides more time that students may not read otherwise. And since my students are also in those classes, their reading time is expanding even more. The rest is yet to come.


Cullinan, B. (2000). Independent reading and school achievement. School Library Media Research,3, 1-24. Retrieved September 1, 2018, from

Skeeters, K., Campbell, B., Dubitsky, A., Faron, E., Geiselmann, K., George, D., . . . Wagner, E. (2016, February). The top five reasons we love giving students choice in reading. English Leadership Quarterly, 6-7. Retrieved September 1, 2018, from

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Nine Box Grid - Modified and Magnified

This week, I have returned to school to assist with our third annual incoming seventh-grade student orientation camp. I volunteer my services for this camp every year for numerous reasons: it gives me a chance to start building relationships with students I may or may not teach later on; the sample of students who participate usually reveal what we can expect from our new student population (so far, so great), and I get the opportunity to try out lessons on a smaller scale before the school year begins. 

As part of the Twitter ELL book club, I  read The ELL Teacher's Toolbox by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski. I love being part of this book club, as I have been exposed to strategies for working with ELLs - and ALL students - that I might not run across otherwise. The unfortunate part about this particular book was that we started reading it at the end of the school year, and I did not have time to implement all of these ideas that had my brain swimming in excitement. 

One activity I have been anxious to use in my classroom since last spring is Katie Toppel's Nine Box Grid. The authors acknowledge that they have modified this strategy, and I have to acknowledge that I, in turn, modified and magnified the strategy for my own needs based on the time constraints of the camp.

The Nine Box Grid involves creating a nine numbered boxes. A word is entered into each box, and they are used one at a time in a writing activity. During the school year, I am likely to use related words that we are learning in class, but due to limited time with my camp students, I chose to use a random word generator to come up with the nine words. These are readily available online. Some allow you to choose the words you want; others provide a set list. I used different types of generators for different groups of students to test out how I could make this activity work. My higher level classes received a specific set of words; my still-working-on-it groups were able to choose words from those provided to build our own list. 

I also turned the activity into a writing challenge by adding in rounds, For each round, the students received a topic (I also used an online generator for this). We started by writing about a topic with one word from the nine box grid. After completing a round, I changed the topic and increased the number of words. Most of the classes completed four rounds. 


  • Round 1
    • Run topic generator 
    • Pick a number on a card (the book says to use dice, but I don't even know where anything is in my classroom right now)
    • Write a sentence with the word in the box matching that number that connects to the topic
    • Share out 
  • Round two
    • Run topic generator
    • Pick two number cards
    • Write a sentence with both of the chosen words, connecting to the topic
    • Share out


    My camp classes consist of English language learners (I have one student who has been here for two years, and she speaks eight languages), 504, special education, Pre-AP, and academic students. Within all of these groups, there was a great deal of groaning when I said we were going to write. I am happy to report that this was not the case by the end of the activity. The kids truly rose to the challenge. If we do not find ways to make writing fun for our kids, regardless of which student groups they fall into, those groans will never go away. We have a responsibility to light a fire within our students. 

    In addition, I have a special education co-teacher with me during one of my class sessions. She loved this activity, and her final class of the day joined mine in order to participate. She took lots of notes and said she is excited to use this with her kids once we return to school. When we model these activities for others, and they get to see how the kids respond, we spread the wealth. 

    Do not be afraid to take risks and try new things. Be contagious. Our kids deserve it.