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Monday, March 31, 2014


Prior to any drill in our building, we receive a group email letting us know what type and when so that we may prepare our students and ourselves. We have had a few real situations in the past, and in those times, we usually know what is going on. Our Friday lockdown, however, was quite unexpected.

"Teachers and students," came the announcement from one of our Vice-Principals, "please move into lockdown position. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill."

I have worked with this VP for years, and I have never heard such urgency in his voice. I started pulling desks aside and rushed my students into the safe zone of the classroom. I was feeling quite a bit of anxiety and felt like the kids were moving in slow motion. 

As they finished getting situated, I locked the door and sat on my feet by the door, ready to pounce at any moment. I was concerned about freaking out in front of my students from not knowing what was going on. I wanted to keep them calm, but I was truly nervous. 

Within minutes, we heard two sets of heavy feet sprinting down the hallway, yelling with voices that were unfamiliar to me. Then my door handle was shaken aggressively, and I honestly thought I was going to pee my pants for a second. My head was filled with all sorts of ideas about what was going on (the joy of being an English teacher who reads too much, I suppose), and I did not like any of the simulations running through my mind. 

I have, half-jokingly, always told my students that in a real-life situation, I would leave them on their own and take care of myself. Fire? See ya. I will be that cloud of at the other end of the hall. Tornado? I am burying myself underneath all of them. Intruder? I'm grabbing the first kid I see. 

The moment that door handle jiggled was a bit eye-opening. I realized right then that I would do anything to protect my students. I was fully prepared to take a bullet for them if necessary. And that scares me. But so many of my kids have no one else who would do that for them. I feel this innate drive to take care of all of them, even though it is an impossible feat. 

Fortunately, the situation was actually occurring in the neighborhood next to the school, and we were in lockdown as a safety precaution. At no point in time were we actually in danger. I am hoping that any future situations are also outside of the building because I care about these kids too darn much. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

I really hope this takes a week: A poetry lesson

We are just about two weeks away from our eighth grade state reading test. As much as I hate standardized testing, it is currently part of the job, and it is still my responsibility to prepare my students for the exam. Before spring break, my department met to analyze data, and we discovered that the only real need to have for the test is more poetry. So, the next two weeks will be poetry. 

But I have an issue. One, I am writing lessons for a long-term sub in another class. Two, I am out of my classroom for three days next week for the ESL state reading exam. So I am essentially writing a test-prep lesson for two (very reliable and hardworking) subs to teach over the course of a week. 

I know my own pacing. I know how I would teach this in the classroom. I know the conversations I would have. How do I write all of that into lesson plans for other people? Why, a PowerPoint presentation, of course!

I have been studying for the high school certification exam and have been doing a lot of reading. Fortunately, there is a great deal of information in these texts regarding poetry, particularly regarding reader response,  and I am trying to incorporate as much of it as possible into the lesson. There is even more I would like to add, but I am trying to balance what the subs can handle without completely overdoing it. 

So here is the breakdown:

  • For the lesson, I am using the poem "Midnight" by Sara Holbrook. This poem was on last year's state exam. By using the poem and state questions, I am hoping to give my students a bit of familiarity with the exam format (our district assessments are honestly much harder). 
  • I am starting with a Quick Write simply to get the kids thinking prior to the reading, especially since this lesson is coming directly after spring break. 
  • The kids will be reading the poem on their own first. I do not expect them to understand
    everything about the poem, but they need the independent practice. During this reading, they will identify any words for which they need clarification. 
  • I (or the subs) will read the poem out loud. The kids need to hear fluent reading, particularly when it comes to poetry. In eleven years of teaching middle school, this has always been an issue. 
  • We will then break into a Think-Pair-Share activity. Based on the above readings, I am going to have the students write their thoughts about what they have read, whether it be questions, personal connections, or understanding. I want them to get the thoughts on their papers before we discuss. Not all students will speak up in a large group setting, and they all need a chance to express themselves. This also helps to meet the needs of my ESL students by giving them an opportunity to write and to speak. Hopefully, the subs can guide this discussion for a few minutes without too much pressure. 
  • The next step is to take Cornell notes over terms associated with the poem - speaker, stanza, simile, metaphor, personification. Based on previous test results, my students do not have too many issues with figurative language. I am more concerned with making sure that they understand that the speaker is not the poet. 
  • Although this is not necessarily what I would do if I was in class with the kids, I have added a section on paraphrasing. My own observations tell me that my students often get distracted by the format of a poem and lose focus of the meaning. I have written in a section with guiding questions to help them interpret the poem, then they will work collaboratively on the rest. 
  • As part of the reader response focus of this lesson, I am going to have them do a short writing assignment from the Teaching Reading book above. They will identify what they deem to be the most important word, phrase, and element, explaining why. This is an opportunity for them to reflect upon the meaning in a personal manner. 
  • At this point, the students will be answering the questions from last year's state test (blah). I rarely test in this manner in my classroom. Most of my assessments are much more holistic in nature and usually involve writing. But, this is the first exposure that they are going to have to questions from the state itself. 
  • The last part of the lesson involves test-taking strategies - breaking down the answer choices to determine why three answers are wrong and one is correct. The students tend to look for the right answer and do not take the time to effectively eliminate the wrong answers. I have done this since I started teaching, and it seems to help. I have added everything to the PPT that I think I would discuss in class. It's like me in clip art format!

If I was in the classroom, and it was not testing time, I would be doing this much differently. Sometimes, however, my hand is forced. Here's to hoping that this actually takes a week. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

The greatest gifts my father ever gave me

There is going to be family strife over my posting this, but I do not care. Aside from one phone call shortly after moving to Texas and a "this is not the time or the place" conversation at my sister's wedding a few years later, I have not spoken to my father in over eighteen years. The specifics of why do not matter. After eighteen years, it is what it is. 

Nine days ago, the man I knew as Dad suffered a near-stroke and almost died. This information was conveyed to my sister and me days later, but nothing about it surprised me. I have been dreaming about something happening to him for the past few months. Now, the impression I received was that I should be reaching out to this man. Not happening. I prefer my life without him. But I will acknowledge that there are some gifts he unknowingly gave me for which I am grateful. 

Without my troubled childhood, I may not have become the passionate reader I am today. I do not remember not reading. My parents were both readers. At some point, reading became my escape from the environment I was in. I wished for Pa Ingalls to hug me the way he hugged Laura after traveling to towns far, far away. I wanted the freedom that the Sweet Valley High twins were given every day of their lives. Reading was an opportunity to stop paying attention to what was happening around me and live very different lives than my own. 

Without my troubled childhood, I may not have become a writer. I journaled. I wrote poetry and short stories. Most of my writing reflected the chaos I was living in, and the few adults I shared it with pushed and mentored my skill. Without the chaos of my teen years, I do not write the same today, but I can still string some pretty good sentences together. 

Without my troubled childhood, I may not have developed the ability to speak my mind. I had no self-confidence as a teen, and I did not know that I had a voice with which to speak against the wrongs I encountered. I did not know that I had a voice with which to express thoughts and opinions. It was not until I got away that I found my voice. By pushing me to cut him from my life, the man called Dad gave me something that he kept from me. I will never give it up again. 

Without my troubled childhood, I may not have developed a strong work ethic. My mother worked hard, and my father ran his own business. My mother excelled at what she did; my father did not. I refuse to be like him in this regard. I push myself beyond my own limitations because I need my own personal successes. I need to know that there is value in what I do. I need for my own children to grow into responsible, contributing citizens. 

Why are these the greatest gifts he gave me? I am an English teacher because of them all, and I love what I do with all my heart. I have students who sit in my classroom whose lives are far worse than my own childhood was, and I give them everything I have got. I want them to develop passions. I want them to find their self-esteem and their voices. I want them to be strong, independent, and hard-working. And I want them to discover that now, while they are young. 

I know by writing this I open myself up to more grief from extended family, but this whole situation has given me time to reflect on the decision I made, and I want my younger sister to know that we can continue living the lives we have built. They are good lives for us and our children. There is positive in the negative, and that's where our focus needs to be. 

So to the man I once called Dad, thanks for giving me these things without knowing you did. I will forever be a better person because of them. 

My first vocabulary collection assignment

It is very frustrating to get excited about a lesson that does not turn out as planned. I spent two days explicitly teaching the vocabulary collection assignment. We went over step-by-step instructions. I provided examples of my own, and we went through a gradual release of responsibility set of examples together. 

For starters, only about half of my students turned the first student assignment in. I understand that this is because I gave it as homework, and homework is a disaster in today's classroom. Secondly, out of those who did turn the work in, most did not follow the instructions. Labels were missing. Similes were analogies. Haiku had too many syllables. Rhyming poems did not. Thirdly, some work was so sloppy (meaning it was done the class period before) I could not even read it. And this is with two days, tutoring time, and instant messenger access to me. 

I do have some gems like the following, but these are few and far between:

So what to do? I am not ready to give up on this assignment, but there are clearly issues with understanding. And using it for homework is not going to work.

We are missing today due to weather, and Tuesday and Wednesday, we are in district testing shutdowns. That means I will not even see my students for class until Thursday and Friday, and then we go on spring break. Doing the assignment this week will not work. 

After spring break, I am out of my class for three days for state ESL testing. I will only be in the classroom on Monday and Friday, leaving me with these thoughts: Every Friday, we have enrichment day. That means shortened classes to add an extra period to the day. After spring break, I am going to try this assignment on Fridays in class where I can monitor the work and students can ask questions. We are very close to testing season, and once exams start passing by, kids think school is over. I want to continue focusing on academic vocabulary to help them understand we are still doing academic work. 

Right now, I need to grade what is left without feeling beat down (sigh).