A Letter from a Teacher

(This post was originally shared on blog.cue.org)

Dear CAASPP,

I get it. I really do. But…

As I sit in my classroom, watching my students struggle to concentrate, scrolling through page after page of reading, responding to multiple choice questions, highlighting parts of the text, (zoning out) and typing, typing, typing, my heart just aches. I see the turmoil in their faces. The exhaustion. They HATE this. HATE. And so do I.

But I get why we do it.

As an educational system, we must see how our students are mastering the skills they will need. Data needs to be gathered. Strengths and weaknesses of our pedagogy have to be measured. I get it. One of my students even convinced me of it in her recent essay. She wrote, “For me personally, I had scored not so high on a certain part of my CAASPP test in my 6th grade year. The next year I focused on that certain area of my test. When my results came back it gave me a great deal of happiness to see that my hard work had paid back.”

Yeah. I get it.

Yet…

Glancing around the room, I see

  • the child with furrowed brow
  • the child staring back at me
  • the child staring at the clock
  • the child picking at his fingernails
  • the child who is grasping his forehead
  • the child with his head down on the desk
  • the child who is thinking faster than she can type
  • the child who keeps getting up to
    • blow her nose
    • get a drink of water

They all look so tired. So deflated.

I know. It’s valuable information.

Just maybe, though, there can be a better way. Just maybe these children will want to come to school everyday. To learn. To create. Just maybe there is a way to measure progress without torture.

Just maybe.

Sincerely emotionally exhausted,

Mrs. Allison

P.S. Don’t worry, CAASPP police. I didn’t draft this on my unauthorized electronic device while I spent hours observing student testing. I wrote it in my composition book with a number two pencil, OG style.

P.P.S. During testing, a student fell asleep in my colleague’s classroom: “Yo. Ms. V. I just fell asleep and had a dream I farted. Did I really fart?” Yeah, we work with children. Even testing is an adventure.

Why Snapchat?

A friend and colleague of mine asked the question on Facebook: Should I use Snapchat?

My response: “I love Snapchat. It’s just fun.”

This got me thinking. Why do I really use Snapchat? I know I use it because I can take a silly picture of myself, with antlers and a deer nose. I can wear no make-up and still look glamorous with the adorable filters. I can add cool geofilters to my posts .(I even created one for my school). Yes, it’s true. Snapchat is really fun.

But it’s more than that. My students follow me and ask me questions via the app. Sometimes it’s about  assignments they are working on, school events coming up, or even a picture I posted. “What book is that?”

I use Snapchat because my students do.

But it’s even more than that. Each day my daughter sends me a message on Snapchat. I have to respond because we have a “Snapstreak,” something Snapchat encourages. To keep this going, two of you have to send each other a Snap within 24 hours. It may seem like a good way to waste time, but I like that my 15 year old sends me a message every morning.  She also sends me snaps throughout the day: a picture of her shoes and an over laid message, “100% on my spanish quiz!” I don’t even cringe at the lowercase S.

I use Snapchat because my daughter does.

I asked her last night, “Why do you like Snapchat better than Instagram? Is it because the Snaps on your story disappear in 24 hours?” She responded, “No. It’s because it’s more personal. Sending snaps back and forth make it like a conversation.”

So there you have it.  I like getting glimpses of the world in which my kids (the ones I own and the ones I borrow) live. So, you can find me on yet another social media platform. Hit me up!

 

PS I Love You

As I sit in the lobby bar of the Renaissance hotel in Palm Springs, eating a cheeseburger and sucking down a soda, I’m reflecting on the last three days. This year was my first time making the journey, or pilgrimage, to the national CUE conference, or Spring CUE as it is called now. It is an enormous conference with around 7,000 attendees. Being that I live so far and it is during school days, it has always been too difficult to make the trek. This year I made it happen and let me just emphasize, I am so glad I did.

First and foremost, I enjoyed going to sessions on topics that not only stretched my brain, but filled my bucket. I loved listening to the interactions around me of attendees and other presenters. Over the few years I have been involved with CUE, I have made many friends and acquaintances of people who are not only smart, but passionate innovators. Listening and learning in the hallway, at the bar in the evening, and even at Karaoke, I am humbled to be a part of such at incredible network of educators. The conversations and the connections are worth any price I had to pay to get here.

 

I also had the opportunity to share my love of teaching students authentic writing in a session I call Blogging and Podcasting: Painlessly Prodding Students into Authentic Writing. It was a bit intimidating speaking to a packed room, but the attendees were so excited and receptive of the content, even when the wifi went down. As an added bonus, I had my college friend and two former students seated in the front row, cheering me on. I was blown away when several times during the days after, I had educators approach me, complimenting me on my session. Some even asked for selfies! It was surreal.

I am exhausted, but I’m also invigorated. I can’t wait to get back to the classroom on Monday. Of course, spending  Sunday with my family sounds perfect, too.

For the Goal of Learning

Today I ran 13.1 miles, the most I have run in over three years. The reasons I haven’t been running long distances are mostly due to life getting in the way of time to commit. This winter break, though, I decided I needed a goal again. This found me committed to a half marathon. I needed a focus, an aim, something tangible that would get me up at 4:30am and commit to hours of training on the weekend. Today, while I was sweating toward my goal, I thought about something. Why was it I got out of my warm bed and pushed myself through the discomfort of all that training? Why is it that I don’t just run for the love of running?

When you run as slow as I do, you have time to think. My thoughts drifted to my own students. Most of all, I want my students to take control of their own learning and LOVE learning new concepts. I get so frustrated when the only reason they complete assignments is for a grade. “How much is this worth?” Ugh.

Lately, though I’ve been trying to get them to focus on what they will need to DO at the end of the unit. Of course, I’m still frustrated with this because I know this isn’t necessarily promoting the love of learning.

Running today towards my goal and knowing I would not have been there without that focus, I realized there was nothing wrong with learning for an end goal. The real shift needs to be getting students to set their own learning goals.

I guess I have a new goal to strive towards.

I Have a Confession to Make

I am an English teacher. I love words. Reading them. Writing them. I would love nothing more than to sit and read the day away. Of course, I’m also a mother, which means free time is a luxury. For many years I’ve had to apologize to my students for not picking up the book they insisted I read. “But Mrs. Allison you HAVE to read it.” I would feel so guilty as the books lay comatose next to my bed, gathering dust.

But no more. Reluctantly, I entered the world of audiobooks. At first, I felt that I was cheating. I have always recommended audiobooks to my reluctant readers. In fact, my son read the first Harry Potter while listening along to Jim Dale’s narration. As an English teacher I felt a bit guilty initially. I thought that not reading books was somehow not giving the words the respect they were meant to have. Hogwash!

Now, I devour books. I listen while I’m running, brushing my teeth, driving. I always have the corresponding book on hand, too, and read intermittently, when I get a moment of quiet. I still enjoy seeing the words, but I get so enveloped in each story, I can’t wait to drive somewhere alone.

I can now read all those recommendations from students. I can recommend the latest books to eager readers. I can be a part of the book conversation and celebrate reading in my classroom.

Plus, I can still do all my mom duties.

Today this English teacher loves words: reading them, writing them and listening to them.  I’m really hoping I don’t kicked out of the club for this.

Feedback: No Time Turner Needed

I have been teaching English for a long time. A very long time. I have spent hours writing feedback, inking up student drafts with corrections as a service and gift to my students. I kid, but really, I just want them to succeed. I want them to think about where they can grow as writers and spend time considering suggestions. Most of the time, though, my students just shove their papers into the abyss of their backpacks, feeding the zippered monster of never to be be seen again assignments. Why? Because I handed those papers back with a grade.

This year was going to be different. I was going to get better at giving students feedback. I have read many articles and blog posts that referenced Butler’s study that showed  students who received comments alone demonstrated the greatest improvement (Butler, 1988), and Hattie’s study that showed student self-assessment/self-grading has the greatest impact on student learning  (Hattie, 2012). Only how was I going to get students to actually READ and DO something with the feedback? Then last June, I read Cult of Pedagogy’s post on Delaying the Grade: How to Get Students to Read Feedback by Kristy Louden. Suddenly, I had a “No, DUH,” moment. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

Collecting the Best Draft

This trimester my students were tasked with writing an original Hero’s Journey story. They wrote (and wrote and wrote) until some had over 40 pages (double spaced). They really got into it. We went through all of my “normal” ways of teaching: brainstorming, mini lessons, sharing and revising in writing groups, and when they were finally ready to collect,instead of calling it a “Final” draft,  I simply called it their best draft. “Best draft due on Friday.”

Streamlining Feedback

Being  an 8th grade teacher, unless I had one of Hermione Granger’s Time Turners, it is impossible to find the time to give extensive feedback to every student. Instead, I created a Doc with all the comments I could possibly make to an 8th grade student on a narrative. I started with looking at the rubric, then added as I was reading stories. Under each comment, I added a link to a video, website or blog post that could reteach the concept. This way, as I came across an issue in a student essay, I would simply add a comment on the document and paste the already prepared comment with the reteaching tool.

 

Feedback without Grades

As I was reading each narrative, I wrote down a rubric score for my purposes, only. No grade was shared with the student. I simply returned the writing and asked each to revise before resubmitting. When I looked at the stories a second time, I simply looked at the grade I had given the narrative in my notes and clicked “See Changes” in Google Docs.  No need to read the whole thing again! This made the process so much faster and efficient.

As Expected 

It happened just as I hoped. Students paid attention to my feedback! Not knowing their grades made all the difference. Not all did as good of a job as I had hoped. Some only fixed the areas I made specific suggestions and not where I made general statements. That is definitely something to work on next time.

Growth Opportunities

I did find that my grade book was sparse. I had a parent ask me why I hadn’t entered any grades in such a long time. I really have no idea how to solve this issue, or even if it really is an issue. My students were learning during the process, and I didn’t want to stop them to assess, simply for a grade in the grade book.

I would also like to develop a more extensive Doc of curated resources so I could create individual playlists for each student based on what each needs to revise. I am hoping to work on that list going forward, with some help from my network of colleagues across the nation.

In a perfect world, I would be able to sit down with each student and conference on each piece of writing many times during the process. The reality is, that takes time, the most valuable and scarce resource of my classroom. For now, I’ll work on improving this process. I am sold.

Showing not Telling: Writing is a Process

I am a huge fan of teachers writing. Not just emails and the mundane reports we need to fill out, but real writing. Of course, being an English teacher, I am a bit of a writing pusher. I know how powerful journaling or even blogging can be for personal growth through reflection, but also to share ideas. I mean, it’s why I blog. It helps me focus my thoughts and share my crazy ideas with the world. It doesn’t even matter if no one reads my posts. It’s about the process.

Of course, I also know what kind of writer I am. I need a quiet comfortable place, wine in reach, with the ideas already worked out in my head. I also never show anyone my writing unless I think I’ve done my best. With that being said, my teaching partner inadvertently challenged me to break all my writing comfort zone rules.

Our eighth graders are drafting “Hero’s Journey” stories. When I walked into my partner’s room the other day, she shared how she was writing with her students. Now, I have always tried to draft a version of the assignments I give my students for a few reasons: mainly to give the assignment a trial run and to have an example to show students. Usually, I have done this in my quiet bedroom, revising over and over before even considering presenting an example in class. But in her classroom, my partner was writing at the same time as her students, and not just that. She had granted them access to comment!

This blew my mind. We talked about it later, and she shared how powerful letting her kids see her process was. She was so right. I knew I needed to try it.

So yesterday, I shared my unfinished, first draft (dribble) with all my classes. I asked them for advice and put my heart on my sleeve. I sucked up my pride and posted my story in our Google Classroom. I must say it was not easy. I am supposed to be the expert, right? Aren’t my students supposed to see me as a mentor?

As hard as some of the comments were to take, it was a powerful experience. They loved it. My students could see how I was trying to navigate the assignment, the same as them. They could see that writing is messy, even for the ones who are supposed to be “experts.” Writing is a process, and it isn’t easy, but getting feedback from others is how we grow. I will expect them to share their drafts with their peers and with me. I needed to show my students that sharing and allowing others to give feedback is valuable. Growth mindset, right?

                 

And they also had a little fun with commenting.


 

 

That One Time I Held My Tongue

I am a teacher. I began teaching when I was 23 years old, but my mom would tell you it started much earlier than that, teaching my stuffed animals about classroom procedures, math and how to properly read a book. (I was a bit uptight and strict seven year old.) I also consider myself an advocate for students in education, researching, reading, learning and encouraging others to implement good first instruction, quality curriculum, but mostly literacy with authentic applications. Over the last few years, I have been given opportunities to present and teach educators at conferences with CUE, the Writing Project and other local organizations, passing along my passion for doing what is right for children.

But I’m also a parent. I have a 14 and 12 year old in the public school system. My 14 year old does school well. She knows how to play the game, even when she thinks the rules are ridiculous. She can learn from anyone, even a teacher who left a packet of worksheets on her desk with a bold face due date and no instructions. She can figure it out. I’ve always believed she could learn in a room full of just books. She loves learning. I’ve never worried about her.

My 12 year old learns constantly on his own, as well, but he would forget the packet of worksheets the moment he got home. He would be too busy experimenting with dry ice or making masking tape sculptures from videos he saw on Youtube. School isn’t hard for him, but organization and the “rules” of school often elude him. With him, I have to pay close attention: check the planner, check the online grade book.

My conundrum: what do I do when I see the assignments my son brings home as nothing but busy work? What do I do when a grade for participation is labeled “assessment” in the gradebook? What do I do when my son scores 100% on every quiz, then fails the test? What do I do when his teachers’ policy is no retakes of tests, nor can he review tests to check what he did wrong? What do I do when I see my own kids’ teachers practicing instruction and assessment that seem ineffective and lacks rigor or engagement?

I do nothing. Nothing. Because I know my son needs to learn the game to be successful.  I know my son respects and adores his teachers. I know that his relationship with his teachers is far more important than his grade. I know I have done some crazy things teaching, too. I know that he still loves school, so I can’t mess that up for him.

Sometimes you need to forget you’re a teacher and be a parent, sitting on your hands and holding your tongue.

Falling Flat on My Growth Mindset

As in any profession, education is full of trends. When I started teaching, it was all about multiple intelligences and Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning. Risking showing my age, I still find a lot of validity in both. In the same way, the last few years have been all about growth mindset. As Carol Dweck states, “In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence….they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” Part of this is trying new things, failing and being open to learning from those shortcomings. I preach this almost daily in my classes. “You’re not there YET, but you’ll get there if you keep working.” I mean I am ALL in. Well, at least I thought I was. When it comes to having a growth mindset with my own failures, I suck.

Last week, CapCUE hosted our annual Techfest. I say “our” because I am an active member and a director on the board. Besides helping to plan, arriving at 6am to set up, as well as working throughout the day, I thought it would be a great place to try out a new session I’ve been working on: “Creating Book Clubs that are Figuratively Lit and Literally Awesome.” I am very passionate about implementing choice reading groups in my class, and this summer I decided to put together a presentation to share that passion. Apparently passion doesn’t always make a good session.

Some things were out of my control: the projector went out just before I begun, so the great staff at Rocklin High School found me a different room. However, most issues were my own doing. Being flustered, I left my wireless clicker behind, along with a box full of books I planned to use for my opening activity: Book Speed Dating. Consequently, I ran out of the room and returned panting, holding a heavy box of books. Instead of just moving on, I decided to go down with my self inflicted sinking ship and still try the activity. Of course, with so much time lost, I had to rush through the activity and subsequent slides. Continuing, information spewed out of my mouth choppy and disorganized like a teenage boy on a first date.

They say the smartest person in the room IS the room and that was certainly the case for me. If it weren’t for my attendees asking questions and sharing their experiences, I’m afraid the whole session would have been a complete disaster.

Now for MY growth mindset. In the room was one of my friends, someone I consider a mentor and have learned so much from, both as a leader and a person, Josh Harris. When I saw him later at lunch, I was embarrassed, but knew he’d give it to me straight. I had to ask. I knew I couldn’t just ignore what had happened. Growth Mindset, I whispered to myself. Learn something from this. Don’t pretend it wasn’t a crime scene.

“Josh, tell me how I can improve…”

Learning Out Loud

In early June I received an email asking if I would like to be a Lead Learner for CUE. I had no idea what that actually meant, only that I needed to fill out a W9. That had to be a good thing, right? Turns out, it made my summer rock, like really loud!

It started in early July with the CUE Hootenanny at the California Railroad Museum, which really was just a way to get as many Lead Learners in one spot as possible (and eat Barbe-CUE). A few weeks later I was at the CUE Leadership Development Institute near Monterey with my CapCUE board members. Only a few days after I found myself presenting in Truckee at CUERockstar. Now that was a lot of CUE! But it was so worth it.

Catching @kmartintahoe at CueRockstar Tahoe/Truckee

Being in the presence of such out of the box thinkers tends to challenge your views on so many things. Of course, being in the presence of so many organized and goal-oriented people also brings balance to those innovative ideas. At all these events, great ideas tend to rub off on you. I think I began the summer with a list of books to read, and now I’m ending with twice the amount of professional books on my list. The same is true for the amount of innovative strategies I plan to incorporate in my classroom this year. Someone should have warned me: when you spend your vacation with other Lead Learners, your brain swells.

Goofing off with @John_Eick at LDI

The best part is that your heart swells, too. Call it filling your bucket, sharpening your saw or whatever. For me, hanging out with people that inspire me, make me laugh and care about me is a great way to spend a month in the summer.

I go back to work next week and I’m excited and anxious about introducing and implementing all that I’ve learn. The best part is, my CUE family is only a Tweet or a Voxer message away!