The common theme on social media seems to be reflecting on this last decade. Well, this isn’t one of those posts. Yes, it is a reflection, but as an educator, Winter Break is the perfect time to take a moment, breathe and look back at the first half of the school year. (For the record, though, I had a pretty darn good decade–started it as a stay at home mom and finished it as an administrator. Crazy.)
After a long career as a teacher, I took the plunge in August and went to the dark side. I landed a sweet gig as an assistant principal at an awesome middle school in my district. Don’t get me wrong the “sweet” has nothing to do with it being easy. It’s just a great place to work.
Still, I get asked often about my new adventures. Mostly, these three questions:
So, why did I do it? Teaching is amazing. I loved planning lessons and getting to know my students, among the many great things about the profession. In addition, I’m a systems person. I love programs that benefit all and are efficient for the implementers. Heck, that’s why I’ve always been a fan of Universal Design for Learning. I wanted to affect positive change on a larger level than just my classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I was always that squeaky wheel when I was a teacher, but now I have time to focus on bigger ideas and creating systems to help all. It’s incredible.
Is it what I expected? When I’m asked this question my answer is normally yes and no. I’ve been in education long enough to understand how things work at most levels. What I didn’t expect was how incredibly reactionary the job can be. You might start the day with a good size to-do list, but you may have five different situations that develop in the first hour. As a teacher, I was far more in control of my day. Honestly, though, I’ve grown to love the craziness. The spontaneity is one of the greatest parts of the job. It’s awesome.
Do I like it? Without a doubt, I LOVE it. I spend my days helping people: kids and adults. How many people can say that about their job? My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t get to build solid relationships with kids, like I did in the classroom. That fear was seriously off the mark. I get to have longer, more meaningful conversations with kids that really need those connections. I never had time for that as a teacher! It’s fantastic.
If it isn’t already apparent, I’ve had a pretty good first five months. I can’t wait to see what the next five will bring. Long live the dark side!
“Maybe we should have a weekly ‘what if’ session,” suggests my partner.
“I think we do that every day already.”
When I began my journey into administration, I knew I’d like the challenge. What I didn’t know is that I’d like the job immediately. Usually transitions are met with fears, uncertainties and falling flat on your face. I was expecting all of that. What I didn’t realize was how I would have two team members who not only supported me, but who welcomed new ideas, enjoyed solving problems and truly loved their chosen profession. I could not have gotten any luckier than to work with my principal and partner, my other assistant principal. And you really should be jealous. These two are what I like to refer to as my “what-if people.” I can come to them with anything, and they will not only hear me out, they will add to my ideas, and truly try and create solutions that are good for all students. Because of this incredible optimism, positive changes are happening at my school and even within me.
I have always loved working with people who are visionaries, who don’t scoff at new ideas, but try to make sense of them. This is one of the main reasons I was drawn to the CUE community. Hanging with CUE Lead Learners at events throughout the year fills my soul. I love how much I laugh and how much I learn just being near them. I joined the CapCUE board (my Sacramento affiliate) mostly to be in the same room, discussing, problem solving and laughing with smart and innovative people. This is my tribe. These are my what-if people.
So what exactly are what if people? These are people who don’t complain, but who are willing to hash out problems and look for solutions. Plus they do it with incredible optimism and open minds. These are the ones who are always seeking a better way for everyone, not just what is easier or what has always been done. They question. They ask why and follow that why with “What if..?”
What if we could have a system that engaged all students? What if we did away with detention? What if we gave teachers choices? What if programs worked for all kids? What if we listened to each other before we made decisions? What if…?
What ifs can be scary. It means entertaining change. But it also means each of us is heard and others are willing to facilitate the discussion. It signifies a willingness to improve systems, curriculum, pedagogy, relationships and more. It means each of us is willing to grow.
It is important to find your what-if people. Think about the people in whom you confide. Make sure a few of them are willing to listen and understand, not just quickly shoot down new ideas. Believe me. You will be happier and more fulfilled when you find one, two, or a whole gaggle of what-ifs. When we help each other grow, everyone wins. I am deeply thankful for all my what-ifs. Heck, I even married one.
I was fresh off my extended maternity leave, eight years at home with my kids, and I landed a job at my former stomping ground. The caveat–while I could teach with my former team for just 80% of the day, still being able to take my son to a late start first grade, I would be sharing classrooms. Yes, plural. Four classes, four rooms. I was an itinerant teacher. Homeless. I commandeered a library cart filled it with my classroom supplies and pushed it throughout the day. I even purchased a BBQ cover for the days it rained, to keep my books and papers dry.
Moving to four different classrooms meant teaching in four different teachers’ spaces. Each handled the invasion differently. One sat at her desk and simply ignored me and my class. Another would observe and offer advice to me as she felt necessary. One left me completely alone, disappearing daily even before I got to her room. The last, though, would work at her desk, while paying attention to the students. When she noticed a need, she would stop what she was doing and tend to the child, answering questions and giving feedback. At first I was completely annoyed by this. It threatened my pride. I had never been in any type of co-teaching model. I was supposed to handle MY OWN students.
Lately I’ve been thinking about this teacher and what she taught me. One day, after a particularly difficult class period, where she stepped in and lent a hand, teary eyed from the exhaustion of trying to make a lesson work while managing challenging behaviors, I emphatically thanked her. She simply responded, “All the kids at this school belong to all of us.”
These past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the phrase, “All means all.” I know it applies to so much in the social media world: equality for all people despite orientation or identity, all are welcome, all should be included. In education, all means all can refer to the understanding that our programs and our day to day practices include every student. We must not just educate the ones that fit the traditional student mold, but children with special needs, English learners and more. All.
As a new administrator, this is more evident to me than ever before. Every single student on my campus is entitled to equal access to curriculum and services. But as an assistant principal, who mostly deals with behavior, I am also learning the same lesson again from the teachers on my campus. Just the other day, I had a student who needed extra attention, just as the final bell rang. As I am sitting with the student, our woodshop teacher walks in, asking if he can help. He had heard on the radio that there was an issue. Without thought, he came to lend a hand.
I am so grateful now, as I was back in my homeless teacher days, for educators who understand that schools are a community of all types of learners. I am also thankful for educators who know we are all in this together. Every student belongs to all of us. All means all.
As many know, three years ago I spent a large chunk of my summer commuting to UC Davis, dodging bikes and squirrels and writing. There was lots of writing. I was lucky enough to be trained as a Teacher Consultant for the Area 3 Writing Project. Not only did I write, I also learned very valuable lessons on the pedagogy of writing, getting our students to write well, but also why it was vital that I write, too.
Last week I had a refresher. I took part in the Advanced Institute, where in just three days my head was full with incredible ideas of how to bring writing, REAL writing to our students. Authentic.(Mentor texts, people!) I was reminded of Donald Graves and his understanding of the process of writing, and how we butcher that process in school. Graves understood that writers need to write almost every single day–not just for the essay at the end of the grading period. Writing is not merely just the end. Writing is thinking, formulating thoughts and getting them out on paper or a screen. It is not always polished, and it is definitely not always good. Reading a passage from Graves, again, his work hit me as hard as the first time I read them: “If students are not engaged in writing at least four days out of five, and for a period of thirty-five to forty minutes, beginning in first grade, they will have little opportunity to learn and think through the medium of writing” (A Fresh Look at Writing, 1994). Graves goes as far to say that if you can’t commit to the time, don’t even bother teaching writing. Whew! That’s a tall order for a middle school teacher who only has her students for 45 minutes each day. So how do you fit it in?
One of the best parts of my three days was getting to sit and discuss that exact question with a group of like-minded and like-frustrated middle school teachers. We discussed many viable solutions–starting the period with writing every day no matter what (which is what I have done the past three years), creating a system of centers to try and differentiate needs and meet with students. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle tackle this same issue in their awesome book 180 Days (READ IT!). What resonated with me wasn’t just the solution in the English classroom, it was the suggestion of a systematic approach. Writing should be done across all content areas. The 35 minutes a day should not be just in the English classroom. In that case, how do we get our science, social studies and even math teachers to embrace writing?
I think the answer is low stakes writing. Low stakes means the writing can be on the spot, not even graded, but a way for students to explore ideas, as well as for teachers to check in on their students’ understanding. It can be shared with peers or simply live in a journal. It’s low stress for students and creates fluency in writing. Non English teachers often think that they are not qualified or do not have the time to “teach” writing, but every subject requires writing. What is missing is the constant practice of writing in those classes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a science or social studies teacher complain about student writing. But would we expect an athlete to win a game without hours of practice? Plus, writing is thinking, right? Then let’s get students thinking and writing in all subject areas. Every. Day.
As I move into administration this coming school year, I am hoping the reminders of the importance of writing across the curriculum will stay with me. I know the lessons I have learned from the Writing Project will never leave me. Because of that, I will end this post with my favorite proverb from our writing retreats: If you are reading everything (or grading everything) your students are writing, then your students are not writing enough. I am now amending this to include all content areas.
Now that I am officially recovered from my final trip as a tour leader for the 8th grade East Coast trip (Washington DC, New York and Boston), I wanted to write a letter to my colleague who has chosen to take on this adventure. Cheers to Lauren who will be making lasting memories for many years to come!
I am so elated you chose to take over the rewarding job of heading the East Coast trip for the 8th graders. I wanted to leave you with a few bits of advice from my years of experience.
Logistics: All of the logistics are taken care of by the company with whom you are travelling. Ask questions, make suggestions, but don’t worry. The representatives will do their job. This is a business, and you are the customer. They will do what it takes to make sure every moment is planned out well, laws are followed and every student eats well. (The last alone can be a feat, considering 8th grade boys’ appetites). Believe me, the company wants you, the tour leader, to be happy.
Roommates: Besides fielding emails from parents, your biggest job before the end of the school year is making sure students are placed in roommate groups. This can be a bit tricky. It is best that students choose, but you might need to do some adjustments. Often you will have one who has no idea with whom to room. I often do a lunchtime meeting to try and sort it out.
Pre-Departure Parent Contact: A couple of days before departure day, email all the parents. This gives parents a sense of security and ease, after all they are sending their precious child across the continent with you. Plus it gives you the opportunity to share a few things. I will often have students join a Remind class or simply just give everyone my cell phone number. I also take the opportunity to let them know that I will be collecting about $10-$15 per student (not mandatory) as an extra tip for the driver and tour guide on the trip. I collect this the first night (while the students still have money). The extra money is a nice gesture that the ones leading the trip appreciate. I pick up a card on tour and have students sign towards the end of the trip.
Night Before: Before you go to bed to get just a few hours of sleep, get all the name tags ready. I don’t put last names on the tags, but do write them large enough to see from across the street. This will be a great way to “check in” students at the airport, but it is also vital for the adults on the trip who do not know all of the students’ names.
Airport Necessity: Bring a pair of cheap scissors to the airport with you. The wristbands always have that extra bit that will be incredibly annoying after a few days. Cut it off right away. I usually have time to stick the scissors in my suitcase before I check my bag. If not, I can just toss them.
Relax: My advice for you during the trip is really the most vital for the students’ and your sake. It can be narrowed down to one sentiment: relax. The students are fine. Sure there are moments of students not getting along, a few that are not at the meeting spot on time, and someone inevitably throws up, but for the most part, the kids are fine.
Don’t Worry: The students are given a lot of freedom, that may seem stressful for a new leader. They are told in the middle of a busy Times Square in New York City that they may venture off with a group (no chaperone) and simply return in an hour. It’s okay. They can do it. Don’t worry.
Accounting: Before you move on to a new destination, you will need to make sure all the students have returned. I have found the best way is to have each of them stand in roommate groups. Chaperones can be in charge of certain rooms. This is quick and efficient. Do not spend your time constantly counting bodies. This delays tour time and is often very unnecessary. These kids are 13-14 years old and heading to high school. They do not want to be left behind in a large city. They might forget the time, or think they have enough of it to run back to buy a magnet, but students do not want to lose you.
Just Keep them Safe: Taking a large group definitely has its challenges, but just remember, it’s the students’ vacation. Your job is not to discipline them for every little thing they might do in a classroom. They are going to be goofy. They are going to talk too much. They are going to knock off each other’s hats and step on each other’s toes. They WILL be loud. Just remind them to be respectful and above all, be sure to keep them safe. That is your real job.
Pools Save Lives: Oh and one more thing– if there’s a pool at any of the hotels, give the students at least 20 minutes to act like fools in the pool. This accomplishes two things: they get out some energy, and they get a “pool bath.” It’s almost as good as a shower.
Enjoy every moment! It’s exhausting, rewarding and worth every grey hair sprouting from your scalp.
The Spring CUE conference brings educators from all over California (and beyond) to the desert in Palm Springs every year. Over 5,000 teachers, TOSAs, administrators, and other stakeholders, invested in learning how to improve the education and engagement of students, gather to do just that: learn. Of course, they have another equally important motive: connect. Educators know that we are smarter and more powerful when we work and learn together. But there’s a problem with 5,000 people in the desert. How do you get them to connect with each other?
I’ve heard it said the CUE community is like a family. I consider it MY family. The people I have met have become not only friends, but my brothers and sisters. I can reach out to them anytime with problems work-related, but also with news, good or bad of my personal life. They are my tribe, a group of like-minded, innovative and incredibly fun people, whom I love to simply be around. However, looking around the huge conference hall during the opening keynote of this year’s conference and seeing the sea of hands go up of “first-time” attendees, it really got me thinking about how I ended up finding my CUE family. I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t at Spring CUE.
For me, the answer to finding your tribe is not flying to Palm Springs and renting a cute AirBnB. Don’t get me wrong. It’s incredibly worth the learning and fun, but it’s not the way to find your tribe. In fact the answer is in your backyard. Your local affiliate.
Four years ago, I decided to drop in on a CapCUE (Sacramento affiliate) planning meeting for their annual event: Techfest. I saw an invite on Twitter, and decided to stop by. There, brainstorming at a large table, drinking beer and bouncing off ideas, was my future family.
Sitting at a hotel in Palm Springs late one night this past weekend, I looked around at a similar table. At least five of those CapCUErs from that original meetup were hanging there with me. I didn’t find my family sifting through 5,000 educators in three days at a desert conference. I found my CUE family only five miles from my house. These connections have led to meeting other amazing educators that reach far beyond my home, but the core of my tribe started with CapCUE. Of course, I wouldn’t miss connecting and learning with any of them wherever they may be, especially each spring in the southern California desert.
Last month, sitting in a workshop discussing the power of writer’s workshop, the inevitable question arose: “How can I find time for this when I have a mandated curriculum to follow?”
One seasoned educator responded, “I just do it. What are
they going to do, fire me?”
I chuckled, along with the rest of the room, but it really
got me thinking about this common dilemma so many educators face: trying to
follow along with a boxed curriculum, while still trying to bring in activities
and lessons that help and engage every student. We know our students and so
often the “one size fits all” curriculum doesn’t fit the missing puzzle pieces.
It is in these moments that we need to trust ourselves as professionals and do
what is right for students.
On the social media/message app Voxer, I am a part of an amazing community of middle school English teachers from across the country where we discuss this dilemma often. The pressure to keep pace with our PLCs, complete the required assessments on time, while still having time to reteach, accommodate for those with special needs and engage students with topical, relatable activities that bring fun to the classroom can be overwhelming. It can leave teachers feeling inadequate and as if they are failing. This common scenario is definitely not good for students.
The key is balancing the box with what you think is right for your students. I often think the best thing that ever happened to education was the adoption of Common Core standards without having any approved curriculum. It forced teachers to not only truly understand the standards, but also trust ourselves to create lessons to meet those high benchmarks. Sure, it was brutal, and if you’re like me, most of those units were far from smooth, but personally, I learned so much. About the standards. About curriculum development. About my own teaching gaps. There was no box to protect me.
This is my second year with purchased curriculum, (third if you include piloting). The greatest gift my district gave our teachers was not mandating that we teach every single activity. We do have common unit assessments (three times a year) and common writing pieces (3-4 a year). Don’t get me wrong; I think having these common assessments are incredibly important. District wide we can make decisions on areas of growth for our students and teachers based on results. Even in our PLCs it is important to have shorter-term common assessments, as well. It drives instruction and monitors student growth.
What does not need to be common and identical is the way we teach the standards. I am a huge fan of UDL (Universal Lesson Design) and one of the cardinal rules is that not every student learns the same way, so if we give students options for learning, we can essentially get more bang for our buck, creating a more successful learning environment.
For those of you struggling with being trapped inside the
box, I thought I would share a few things my PLC has done with our box curriculum.
Hopefully you can share some of your ideas with me, as well.
The first time, try it all. You really do not know if an activity is any good, unless you try it. Last year my partner and I taught a chunk of our curriculum to fidelity. This year, we were able to pick what we thought was the best for students and meeting the standards. We have done a lot of taking the “essence” of the lessons and using more topical pieces to hit the same standards.
for whole class novels or other long term projects. The only whole class novel I teach is The Outsiders. I start this right away and use it as a tool to teach independent reading strategies and review writing. I’ve never met an 8th grader who doesn’t like the classic story, so it’s a safe choice. But that’s it. When our box curriculum includes teaching a novel, we give the students choices. As my Voxer friend Joy Kirr put it, if you teach a novel for 4-6 weeks, it’s likely only a certain portion of your students are engaged with it, so you’ve lost the rest of your class for all that time. I hate to tell you, English teachers, not every student enjoys Of Mice and Men. Let it go.
in writing and other assessments. In my class we start the day with daily writing in journals. I give prompts, but students can always write about whatever they want. This is just about building stamina and learning to love writing. We also publish our choice writing in blogs most weeks. As far as our academic writing, the only writing that will ever be the same for every student is short formative pieces, where I need to give quick feedback. Essays? I would shoot myself if I had to read 100+ 8th grade essays on the same topic. Why would I have them write the same argumentative piece? I would much rather have students write about something that matters to them. Fortnight? By all means, write me a well-written, researched essay about the pros and cons of a Battle Royale game.
DON’T FORGET INDEPENDENT CHOICE READING. (I’m yelling that, btw.) I had a high schooler in the back of my car the other day who said, “Ah, I miss choice reading.” Students NEED to read books, but not the ones YOU choose. And not just in English class. This should be a school-wide culture adoption. Independent reading improves student academics in so many aspects, plus the research on how reading creates empathy is worth checking out.
Check out this video from Penny Kittle as a reminder of the importance of choice reading.
Having common language, goals and assessments district-wide,
but especially in your PLCs is incredibly important. Looking at data, at each
level should help drive instruction, but don’t get trapped by the box
curriculum. It is there to help frame your lessons not determine the needs of
your students. So, don’t feel guilty when you veer. You might need to. As long
as you are heading in the right direction and doing what is right for your students,
you are not failing anyone. In fact, celebrate the fact that you are the kind
of educator who does whatever it takes to make sure his or her students
succeed. I celebrate and commend you. You are my people. Cheers!
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of sitting in a workshop led by the legendary Ralph Fletcher. When I first started teaching, his book What a Writer Needs transformed the way I taught writing in my classroom. Giving students choice and time to write about topics for which they are passionate is a lesson I have carried with me since my writer’s workshop inception over 20 years ago. This weekend, sitting with members of my local Writing Project (Area 3 in the house!) Fletcher reminded me of the power writing has on the individual. And I’m not just talking about my students. I’m talking about me. I love writing, but I rarely do it because there are always so many other things to do: Laundry, grading, that new series on Netflix…
Since May, I have embarked on a writing journey, unlike any other. When CUE asked for applications to be a regular contributor to the OnCUE blog, I was so excited, I filled out the questionnaire within minutes. Then the doubt set in. How was this going to fit into my already busy schedule? Was my voice one that people even wanted to read?
Soon, though, I was in a groove. I explored areas of teaching pedagogy and educational technology, where I always wanted to learn more, but never chose to spend the time on follow through. I reached out to friends and acquaintances, asking for expertise and publishing their voices. It wasn’t hard to find the time. I gave myself deadlines, made plans and hit every one of my goals.
Looking back, I know it was a lot of work, but that’s not what stands out. What I remember is how easy it was to sit down at my computer and get my thoughts out. I remember how good it felt when others reacted to the content I chose to publish. Honestly, it was an amazing ride.
My Instant Gratification Monkey shirt always comes out to play! Each year I show my students Tim Urban’s Ted Talk: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator. We discuss how procrastination is a very normal thing and how all of us have our “Instant Gratification Monkey.” It’s a great lesson for us all, but what strikes me every year is how Urban ends his talk. He references times in people’s lives where there are no deadlines. That’s when we can miss out on trying something new. Taking risks. Challenging ourselves to become more than we ever thought possible. He says, “We need to think about what we’re really procrastinating on, because everyone is procrastinating on something in life.”
I took a risk and went on a journey with CUE. It may have been a small trek, but it helped me grow in ways I couldn’t have imagine. How are you procrastinating and not living your best life? Take a little advice from Tim Urban and me. Don’t let your Instant Gratification Monkey take the wheel. Make a plan and do it!
Oh, and if you want to apply to be a part of the Social Media Champs for CUE the deadline is October 31st. Go to http://blog.cue.org/smc/ today. Well, maybe not today.
Here’s an interesting development: Facebook wants to teach your students digital citizenship and literacy. I’m not just talking about how to change your settings on your account. Facebook has actually created lessons meant to be used in classrooms and homes, as Facebook says, “to develop skills needed to navigate the digital world, critically consume information and responsibly produce and share content.” These lessons are designed to be interactive, with the use of games and activities, while also utilizing discussion time with groups of students.
Much like the Common Sense Media lessons, Facebook is giving educators useable and accessible resources to teach very important skills to our 21st Century learners. The need cannot be avoided. We must teach our students how to live responsibly in this digital world. It is no longer about simply trying to block content in the classroom and protect them. These are vital life skills. Add Facebook’s Digital Library of lessons for educators to your tool belt. Make digital citizenship and literacy a priority in your classroom today.
Want to know how to incorporate Artificial Intelligence in your classroom? Why not take a class designed for an educator, while earning professional development hours and even college units. ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, has announced that they will be offering online courses to fit the innovative curious teacher in all of us. ISTE U, ISTE’s new online learning platform, has a menu of options that is not only cutting edge, but constantly changing for the latest in technology.
No more outdated tech classes at your local university. The best part is, you can earn hours (and even credits through Dominican University of California) on your own time, at home, in your pajamas if you choose. Check out the options and find a course that satisfies your learning needs. Finally, technology focused learning from the name you trust.