Saturday, September 27, 2014

Celebrate: Letting It Go

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Take a moment out of your day and CELEBRATE with us at Ruth Ayers Writes.
It's a great place to share!
Last weekend, instead of heading to the lake, my husband and I headed to small town a few miles from my hometown. For the first time since I was in elementary school (well, at least the first one I could get to since then) my mom's family had a family reunion. All of her living siblings and their kids showed up (well, the ones who live in state. We missed the California cousins.) .  It was amazing. It was fun. It brought me back to who I am and where I'm from.

It was the first, but it won't be the last.

The first two of four generations gathering together

Every semester in Drama, the first assignment is "Don't Be Boring". Kids can do anything they want in class and there is only one requirement...Don't Be Boring.  They are scared, nervous, and swear this is the worst assignment ever.


Something happens.

At some point in the weeks following, someone always asks, "Are we going to do Don't Be Boring again? "

So we do. Usually several times throughout the semester.

Friday was one of those times


We had such fun watching everyone perform that I don't think she realized that she was the only one they applauded. But she was. The only freshmen in a class mostly full of my contest speech kids. She stood in front of us and flat out told us that she doesn't sing well, but she loves this song. And then she pushed play and began to sing "Let it Go" from Frozen. 

And she's right. She doesn't sing well, but what she lacks in pitch, she makes up for in courage, passion and enthusiasm and belief in the song.  She stood in the center of our room and belted out it out.

Not one student laughed
or rolled their eyes
or made snide comments

And when she was finished, they applauded. Not polite claps. Not a smattering throughout the room. But LOUD applause.

I couldn't have been more proud of all of them....


One of my senior speech kids shared a "Where I'm From" poem that she wrote for a college class. She had shared it with me throughout the writing of it. I've taught this student since she was in seventh grade and she's an amazing writer.  She took a simple template and created a heartbreakingly beautiful piece about her mother and her.

The thing about this student is, she NEVER reads her poetry out loud. EVER.  She lets other people read it. She will share the written page. She just has never read it out loud, in her voice.

Ironically, in contest speech, she's does poetry--oral interpretation of poetry. I've convinced her, I think, to use this as her contest piece this year---her senior year. So Friday was the debut of her "Where I'm From". Kids sat there for a minute, shocked that she had written this piece. Her honesty and courage in sharing it will stay with me for awhile.

We took a break and danced with another student.

So I guess this week, I'm celebrating family. The one you are born into and the one you create for yourself.

How was your week?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Blame Game

It seems so easy for some to put the total blame for a student's failure squarely on the shoulders of the student.  And, sometimes, that's exactly where the blame should be.

But most times, there is plenty of blame to go around.

And sometimes, we need to start with the teacher.

Back when I was in seventh grade (and I rode a dinosaur to school), I was required to take Home Economics--one semester of sewing, one semester of cooking (only girls, no boys). I can remember being so excited to take these classes.  Especially sewing. No one in my family sewed and I thought it would be cool to learn. Oh, I could thread a needle, I made lots of embroidered dish towels. But this class would get us at a sewing machine. We were going to sew our own clothes!

I soon hated going to class.

You see, the teacher stood in front of the class, told us what to do and then stepped back. If she helped anyone, it was the girls who already knew a little of what they were doing. Girls who had people who sewed at home. I don't remember her ever coming over to really help me. I don't remember anything about that class except wanting to cry the whole time I worked on the jumper I had picked out to work on.

It never got finished.

I carried it in my arms during the "fashion show" that was held to show off our work.

I do remember her telling me at the end of the semester that she was giving me a D- so I didn't have to take the class again (or so she wouldn't have to have me back in class again. At least that's what her words felt like).

I never tried to sew again (I aced Cooking, though).

This experience colors everything I do in my teaching. I try to never make a student feel like I did as a seventh grader (although I know I probably have). I start questioning myself every time I send out midterms, every time a student gets lower than a C-. What am I doing wrong? What could I be doing to help this student? Sometimes I don't have an answer. Sometimes I sit down and look the kid in the eye and say, "What can I do to help you? Is there something I should be doing differently?"

And sometimes, I have to ask, "What's going on with you?  What's happening in your life? What is keeping you from doing your best?"

As often as I joke about students thinking I live in my room, I have to remember that students don't live at school either. That sometimes, their lives outside of school are traumatic. Scary. Complicated.

I have to give the kid a break who left his computer at his dad's several hours away
the kid who misses morning practice because he brings siblings to school
the kid who needs to bring breakfast to my room because his/her last meal was yesterday's lunch
the kid whose dad left last night.

Yes. Sometimes students  are lazy and unmotivated. Sometimes they screw around in my class. Sometimes they are playing games on their computers or checking Facebook and Twitter or listening to music and watching YouTube videos.

Students will waste time once in awhile. I do too-- when I'm bored.

But it doesn't mean we should write them off.

It means we might need to look at ourselves. We might need to dust off lesson plans that have seen their better days.

We might need to really put students first and teach what they need, not what and how we were taught.

End of Rant.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Celebrating Students

Discover. Play. Build.

118 students. 5 preps.

This has been the smoothest, happiest start to a school year I can remember. I think I've said that before. But I come home every day loving my students more than I did the day before.

It helps I've had most of them in class before. We all know what to expect. They know I expect them to work hard, to think hard, to take charge. I know that they are kids and that won't always happen.

We adjust.

And when you love them, they love you back. And how can your day not be better when you receive all that love?

It's not that there aren't negative things going on. There are. Some personal. Some professional. Some both.

I'm choosing to ignore the negative. Choosing to focus on my kids and the community we are creating.  It's a safe, comfortable place. A place where kids can come and honestly say, "I don't get it." And no one will ridicule them. Or tell them to read it again. Or ignore them.

We are reading Fahrenheit 451 in College Prep Lit. I chose it because I wanted them to think, to question, to have opinions. I wanted them to have a say in their education. My big question for this class, one I have written on our writing graffiti wall is, "Why do we need the things in books?" Yesterday's class discussion was one of the best I've ever had in a classroom with students because they did all of that. And they were honest about things they want and need from a teacher. We talked about making mistakes, about why kids don't want to participate in some classes and why they all have something to say in others. They explained why they hate most lectures, but love the ones from a certain teacher (he connects everything to the world they know).

That conversation affected everyone of my student interactions the rest of the day.

I hope it affects evert interaction the rest of the year.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Celebrate #Hashtags

Here I sit on Saturday morning, doing exactly what I dreamed about all week...

  • drinking more that one cup of coffee
  • watching The Today Show
  • snuggled in a blanket on a chilly Iowa morning
  • writing about celebrating my week

And this was one amazing wonderful week.

I don't really know why the start of this school year has gone so smoothly, why I'm enjoying the start of this year more than years past, but I am. Seems like I am celebrating daily!

My favorite celebrations came in hashtags this week...

I try to come up with hashtags for each class. As I tweet out what we are doing in class, I have a hashtag we can use. It's mostly for our class, but parents catch on and so do other teachers.  #CWFierce is the hashtag we came up with for Creative Writing.

It's been quite active this week as we wrote 6 Word Memoirs and Twitter Memoirs this week in preparation for Expressive/Reflective writing.  Once kids got writing, there were many great words shared. Some kids don't have Twitter or they preferred to remain anonymous, so they wrote their memoirs down for me and I tweeted them.  They loved seeing their stories out in the world.

And then, my blogging community teachers asked if they could also use the hashtag for sharing out student work. Of course, I said yes.

So, please, follow our hashtag. The kids are (and will) sharing some amazing things.

This is going to be a fun project for my 8th graders to participate in this year (I may get my writing kids doing this too). Out My Window is a creative project to help kids become more aware of the world around them. Each month there is a different theme for kids to write about, all while using the five themes of geography.  We've taken our pictures and started our poems. Look for the final products next week!

Ever since I read Grasshopper Jungle and then Winger I have been a HUGE  fan of Andrew Smith. I followed him on Twitter (he followed me back!)  I followed him on Facebook (he followed me back again!). This week on Facebook, he told a story about meeting several adult non-fiction writers. They seemed to believe that boys don't read, especially boys don't read YA. All week, teachers have been writing and sending pictures to him of boys that read. So yesterday, during our ten minute reading time, I snapped a couple of pictures of football players reading in College Prep Lit.  I tweeted them out with our school hashtag (#2020HowardWinn, just in case you want to follow that one) and then, thought What the heck and I added Andrew's name to the tweet.

This picture has taken on a life of it's own. It's been retweeted MANY times and Andrew put it on his Facebook page. How cool is that?  Well, the conversation on his page was pretty fun too. Especially after he said he should consider coming to Iowa and author Geoff Herbach jumped in. He visited my room last year and recognized it!

As I'm writing this, Andrew tweeted a promise to visit Iowa. I'm going to hold him to that :)

Well, that was my amazing wonderful week. How was yours?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Celebrate! A New School Year!

Discover. Play. Build.
Ruth Ayres has created a wonderful spot for sharing moments from your week. She even has  a page to give you all the details you need to know about sharing your own celebrations. So head  on over and see what everyone else is celebrating. 

This was my tweet at the end of the day on Thursday.  It was an amazing day. I had so much fun with kids. Since I am now teaching mostly upper classmen, I know almost everyone who comes to class. I didn't have to spend a lot of time learning names, so we could get right down to the business at hand.

I started off each class with a seating arrangement activity (we'll do this for the first five days of school).  I don't usually have seating charts in my classes, but I want to make sure that kids have a chance to interact with everyone in the class early on in the semester. They tend to get stuck in the same spots all semester!  High schoolers are definitely creatures of habit, so forcing them to sit with others, even for five days, will help create community. As we form discussion groups and conference groups, I want everyone to feel comfortable with each other.

Once seated, in most classes, we solved group mysteries the first day.

Again, a method to my madness.  Each group received an envelope with clues to a mystery--either a murder mystery or a bank robbery.  They were to divide the clues as evenly as possible and then work to solve.  They could not pass around the clues or put them all out in the middle of the table. The only way to share was to read them out loud.  They had to participate, listen, follow directions, and HAVE FUN.  All this will be needed when we start discussion groups and writing conference groups.

We ended our day with our home base advisory groups.  We have had homerooms before, but they were usually used to hand out information and take Iowa Assessments in.  Our CBE team wants all students to have a positive relationship with at least one adult at school. When we visited Pittsfield, New Hampshire's Middle High School last year, we were impressed with their advisory periods and how they ran. They happily shared info with us, so we could create our own.  Both Thursday and Friday we ran an early out schedule and had advisory at the end of the day.

We will stay with our advisory groups for all four years they are in high school (we've done that for awhile). Our fantastic principal sent out detailed plans on what to do during that time, although if we changed things up a bit, it wasn't a huge deal. We were involved in get to know you activities the first day (and the obligatory dress code rules) and on the second day we talked about student led conferences (for second semester) and what they need in teachers, what kind of learners they are, etc. Since I have freshmen this year, it was great for me to get to know them this way.  I knew all their names by the end of the first hour and even remembered them all the second day!

And so here I sit on Saturday  morning, eagerly waiting for Monday morning.  I can't wait to see where this year takes us....

Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Celebrating Summer

Although I haven't been writing much this summer, it doesn't mean I haven't been celebrating! This has been a summer of family and friends and not be quite so connected.  Many Saturdays have found us with a cabin full of grandkids.  Our oldest son and his family moved to the lakes area this summer, so now we are all close together. It's been a blast! And Chloe has become quite spoiled with all the attention and activity.  I'm afraid she will have kid withdrawal this winter.

Another great thing to celebrate...quality time with my hubby. Now that he is semi-retired, he is spending a lot of time at the lake with me. We made an impromptu trip to South Dakota and Mount Rushmore, a place I had never been. We had a great trip and are already thinking of where we could go next year.

This week I spent time with friends...golfing, shopping, lunch and just staring at sunsets, marveling at how lucky we are. I have been told more than once by one friend that I am purring....I laughed, but she is right. I have been quite content this summer.

However, the last couple of days I have been restless because

School starts next week!!!!!!!

I am excited to get started. Excited to see kids. Even excited to be on a schedule. I wrote a post about my classroom yesterday. Click here if you want a little tour.  I feel ready for the new year.  I have a general plan for my new class, a couple of ideas to kickstart the old ones. Also, this year, I'll be teaching advanced English for 8th graders. I'm excited about that.  Can't wait to challenge them.

So, long story short, it was a fantastic summer.  Here's to a wonderful school year!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Come. Take a Little Tour....

So is it wrong that I am impatient for school to start?  Kids don't start 'til Thursday, but I am anxious to have them there. Schools seem so desolate without kids in them.

Last week I put together my room and organized some things, so thought I would share a tour of my room today.
Come on in....

I love this view as I enter my room. I hope the kids find it as welcoming as I do (if not, we'll change it!) I'm so lucky to have a principal who believes in creative learning spaces. The collaborative desks are great for conversation, writing groups and kids who just want a desk!  Dry erase markers work well on them for planning out projects and writing pieces. The couch and comfy chair grouping is positioned in front of a wall strip of plug-ins. It makes a fun seating area and charging station for laptops (we are in our second year of one to one). And, of course, my classroom library takes up a lot of space!

The tops of the book shelves showcase books that are important in my life.  They track key books in my reading life (one of the first things I will talk about in class).

Gone With the Wind was the first "adult" book I ever read. It led to a love of historical fiction, sequels, autobiographies and "behind the scenes of movies" books. And, oh yeah, a love of rereading favorite books. I've read this book 26 times and always find new things when I read it.

The Wizard of Oz and Wicked. Original and spin-off.  My kids all know of my love for both of these books and their movie/play formats.  Also, notice Rebecca.  I have to credit this book with my love of creepy, scary, supernatural genres of books. I fell in love from the first line...."Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Me, who thought I just wasn't a fantasy person.... But I am a fan of great writing and great characters. When I talk about these books, I talk to kids about letting go of preconceived notions of books.

Then we hit the bulletin board (thank heavens I only have one. I am not a "Better Homes and Classrooms" kind of gal....).

Above the board are the three "rules" in my classroom. Be kind. Do Your Best. Be Respectful.
Covers just about anything, don't you think?

I have another seating area back here. I brought the "comfy " pink chairs in from the area outside my room (which I realize I didn't take picture of). That will be what the kids grouse about the most. But, there has been a lot of not working going on in the hallway as they lounge in these chairs, so this year, they are in the room. I also have several stability balls (great for kids who are a little "active") and a couple of beanbags in the room for more comfortable seating. It doesn't show in this picture, but there is also a solo desk sitting in front of the window for those who need a place to stare and think or work alone for awhile.  It looks out into the courtyard full of flowers. A good spot for a little daydreaming.

The left of the board is my book graffiti wall. Only one quote is on it now, and it is from Neil Gaiman's intro to the 60th anniversary issue to Fahrenheit 451. "Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over."  My college prep literature class will read this first this semester....more about that in another blog post.

The right of the bulletin board wasn't done when I took this picture, but I created it from this:

I have always had a "quote" wall in my room. A place to record all those crazy things kids say in my room. This year, though, I decided another graffiti  wall would be fun. So I painted my closet doors with whiteboard paint. I'll let the kids fill it with writing.

And, we end with my favorite poster. One I've had for a very long time, even before I found my community of writers....

So there you are. A short tour of my room. My home away from home. I love the bright colors and comfortable places to sit. I'll bring plants and pillows back in when I start next week.  And starting Thursday, it will be noisy, messy and chaotic. Nothing will be where I put it. Kids will rearrange to make things comfortable for them. And you know what? It's OK. Because it's their home away from home too.