Saturday, December 14, 2013

Productive PD

Making sub plans? Awful.

PD with my fellow seventh grade ELA teachers? Awesome.

Hearing stories about the “mean” sub? Awful.

Hearing my kids say “We missed you. Don’t ever leave us again!” Awesome.


Last week, I was lucky to have an in-school PD day with the three other seventh grade ELA teachers. I wondered what the heck we would do for 6.5 hours, but it flew by.

We began by calibrating rubrics for a common assessment. We’d done it once before at the beginning of the year, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been scared for it. I don’t put as much stock in grades as I used to when I was a student (see my existential crisis here) , but still, what if I’m too easy? What if I’m too hard? What’s the difference between approaching and meeting? Meeting and exceeding? Am I ruining kids by the grades and feedback I am giving them?


Of course, it was a powerful experience. The grades themselves were not as important as the conversation that they started. As a 7th grade team, we were able to see strengths and areas for improvement across the grade level. We talked about what should be expected developmentally and shared best practices for preparing students for the next progression of skills. We realized that with the very structured Evidence Sandwich that is a key component of our writing program, we are in a much better place than most for breaking down the important process of analysis, but we definitely have a lot of work to get the kids there.

And through these discussions I breathed a heavy sigh of relief as I realized how closely aligned my thinking and practice are compared to the other ELA teachers. It’s nice to be a new teacher and work with people who believe the same things I do about reading and writing. With more theory than practice on my side, it would be a lot harder to defend my beliefs to people who have been teaching for nearly as many years as I have been alive.

Next, we reflected on our first trimester unit. We discussed which activities the kids loved, which texts are required for this non-fiction unit, and drafted a curriculum document with essential questions, learning targets, and common assessments for next year’s seventh grade teachers to use.

Then, finally, we were able to look forward to our second trimester narrative unit and beyond. Last year’s seventh grade teachers recommended that we use “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (a teleplay from the original Twilight Zone) since it connects with the themes of fear, scapegoating, and the dangers of group behavior that we explored with Salem. I had never heard of “Monsters” before the meeting, but the other teachers had and agreed that we should go for it.

Since the Common Core calls for compare/contrast of historical and fictional texts and our school is  working on developing common assessments, the students will be writing an Evidence Sandwich comparing two scapegoat characters - Bridget Bishop from Salem and Les Goodman from “Monsters.” Then, since the unit also calls for narrative writing, we designed a RAFT with characters from Salem and “Monsters” with a variety of audiences, formats, and topics (my idea!).

You might have noticed that most of the content of our texts has been and will continue to be a bit heavy. We’ve talked about the death of innocent people in Salem, Pete Van Horn is fatally shot in “Monsters,” and we will be reading a historical fiction novel about genocides around the world after this. Even our essential question while reading “Monsters” is going to be somewhat grim: “What turns a crowd into a mob?”

As we sat there, I was saddened by this because I think crowds can also be powerful and lead to positive good. I couldn’t help but think of the TED Talk “How to Start a Movement.” I mentioned this, and, as if I was student teaching again, Mrs. Ballard finished my thought...

“What turns a crowd into a movement?”

So we are working toward some sort of service learning/social action project at the end of the year. I am pumped for the way all of this is going to come together. My goal as an ELA teacher is for my students to become better readers, writers, speakers, and listeners, but more importantly, to be compassionate, generous, grateful human beings. I’m lucky to have a department (especially an AMAZING curriculum coordinator) that’s with me on this.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


From calling with good news, to sending notifications about potential failing grades, to talking with them at conferences, sending  positive postcards, and following up about whether their student did what they needed to do (academically and/or behaviorally), parent communication has occupied a lot of my time recently.

Sure, I met with some parents on Meet and Greet night way back in August and talked a little about my class at Open House in September, but those were pleasantries. My goal was to convey excitement for the new school year so that parents would feel confident sending their child to school each day.

As the months wear on, though, from my interactions with certain colleagues, I am getting the sense that I am supposed to tread lightly with parents.

“Don't promise too much.”  “Get everything in writing.” “Good luck with that one.”

They have good intentions for sharing this advice, wanting to ensure that I guard against any trouble. Obviously they have much more experience than me, and maybe remembrances of sour situations color their memories. Or they feel weighed down by the hijacked notion of “accountability.” So I nod my head and say thanks.

But, these (not so) subtle hints made me nervous for parent teacher conferences. I set low expectations for how the afternoon would go. I worried about a disgruntled parent attacking my rookie performance, afraid that they would complain of confusing assignments, unfair policies, or that I was unsupportive of their child’s academic needs. I rehearsed what I might say in defense of myself.

Well, parent teacher conferences came and went without a hitch. I was able to brag about how well some students were performing in my classroom and share concerns about how a student’s behavior was limiting his academic success. Generally, parents were in agreement with our comments about their child, and sometimes even pleasantly surprised. I was impressed with some parents’ clear understanding of the biological, social, and  emotional factors that affect children at the precious ages of twelve and thirteen.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. One of my beliefs in life is that people do the best they can with what is available to them. (SIde note: I think this is one of the reasons people say I am “too nice” and why I have a hard time delegating tasks or giving consequences.) Despite the “warnings” from colleagues, my deep seated belief that parents and teachers are on the same side guided my conversations that afternoon. We all want what is best for Connor or Amelia. We are all  giving our best effort at whatever it is we need to do to help the student be successful.

This is a tall order. It’s not easy to be so optimistic. I am sure  that I am going to encounter disagreement, disapproval, and anger during my teaching career. But if I harbor a negative attitude toward parents, I will be more quick to place blame instead of reflecting on my own practice. Being a critically reflective teacher does not include pointing fingers, but requires a willingness to ask why, and a readiness to take action to affect positive change.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Vulnerability and Gratitude at the Amusement Park

"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon."

I have written about it on this blog before. It's part of my Twitter intro. A charm on one of my bracelets says it.

But still, that's not enough.

It takes a human being to say it to remind me of its truth and importance in my life.

The last few weeks, maybe even month, have been more challenging and emotional than anything I've ever experienced before. Generally, I am a very happy person. I start and end my days with smiles and excitement for the cool things that happened and are to come. I don't wish to stay in bed all day or shout TGIF from the rafters, but, man, this teaching thing got real.

See, with student teaching, I was lucky to be with two awesome cooperating teachers - supportive and encouraging, who already did the hard work of establishing safe communities for productive learning. And each placement was only seven weeks long. So the first week or two was spent observing and getting my feet wet with a few classes. Then, I picked up speed and got comfortable. Things were a little more difficult around week five with assessments, and grading, and students who figured out which buttons to press, but I knew I only had two weeks left, so I made the best of it. I could see the tape at the finish line. And I realized how much I was going to miss the comfortability of the classroom that had nearly become my own.

Now that I'm flying solo, I don't have a seasoned vet sitting across from me every day curiously asking how I am going to help the students craft engaging intro paragraphs or sharing nerdy stories that only English teachers would appreciate. Yes, I have my team and we share concerns about students and administrative duties (SLOs, STAR data, RTI groups, and parent/teacher conferences seem to dominate the agenda lately) - which is one reason why I prefer middle school to high school. But it's not the same.

If being a teacher is like riding a roller coaster, I have had to remember to sit with the people that will make sure I buckle tight, that will scream with me, will hold my hair when I get off and want to puke, and encourage me to get back in line again. And I can't forget all those who made sure I saved enough money to get into the amusement park in the first place.

I'm grateful to have a lot of those people in my world.

It's so easy to get caught up in all of the plans that didn't go as planned. The students I'm not supporting enough and the students I'm not challenging enough. The positive feedback I didn't give and the data I haven't analyzed. It's overwhelming and makes me second guess if I'm doing anything right at all.

I think it is safe to say that all pre-service teachers fantasize about all of the long lasting impacts on students. The reality is, though, that there is much day-to-day frustration and feelings of inadequacy. A payoff like that is far away. So it is important to find your people that will remind you that the trip to the amusement park is worth it. Maybe have a friend who you share a reflection sandwich with at the end of each day (something that was awesome, something that could be better, and something that was awesome). Find someone who will give you new ideas to try. Find someone to make a pact with, agreeing that you will both call at least one parent a week with good news about their child.

After watching this TED talk as part of a PD day, I am realizing more and more that being a successful teacher requires vulnerability - with your students, their parents, your colleagues, and especially with yourself. As Brene Brown says, you must "lean into the discomfort" and be willing to embrace relationships that might not work out. She ends by saying that we are all imperfect, we are set to struggle, but, more than anything, we all deserve love. Practicing gratitude is key to living a whole-hearted life.

So, to all of "my people," thank you.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Web of Learning

This week I had my first formal evaluation by my principal. Of course, I was evaluated six times during student teaching, but this is just a bit different. The stakes are higher. I’m not just trying to show my cooperating teacher and supervisor (whose opinions I valued A LOT) that I am ready to be a real teacher, but convince my principal - who took a risk hiring a fresh newbie over some seasoned veterans  - that I’m good enough to keep around a while longer.

In order to show some of the range of my teaching (and, to be honest, hit as many points on the rubric as I could), I borrowed and adjusted a Salem Tea Party lesson from some of the other 7th grade teachers. The lesson was student-centered and exploratory, giving kids the opportunity to become a character from the Salem Witch Trials through individual, pair, and whole class interactions. I didn’t get in as much whole-class accountable talk as I would have liked (which, seriously, the kids use all of the time without much prompting from me), but hopefully my evaluator heard the good conversations going on in the pairs as he walked around the room.

After the students had the opportunity to mingle around and gather notes about all of the characters, my Day 2 objective was for students to be able to analyze the relationships between characters by creating a concept map. One of my classes is ahead of the others, so I tried this with them first.

It flopped.

Before they began, I told them that the lesson was going to be an experiment. They played with the idea of a character map for a while and some kids were able to make sense of it, but my spotty instruction made it hard for them to understand what they were supposed to create. As I saw the lesson devolve into confusion and frustration, I invited the pairs who felt successful to come up to share their creation and their thinking. I think the sharing helped clarify some of the relationships for the class, but I knew that not all of the students were at that point yet. So I thanked everyone for trying their best and promised I would think of a new way to accomplish our objective.

As I stewed in my thoughts, I realized we could use a ball of string, passed from character-to-character, to represent the complexity of relationships between the characters involved in the trials. And the students could then write about what we created.

The making of the web in class yesterday was really powerful and some students had loud “a-ha” moments once they realized what was happening. This pumped me up for reading their writing about the activity.

As I continue to sift through their responses, however, I am noticing their inability to explain, in writing, how the web represents the connections between the characters. They say that it does, but struggle to break down the metaphor...

So I guess all of this is to say, first, that I am thankful to have multiple opportunities to experiment and try a lesson until I get it right. I am not stuck in a scripted curriculum and I am able to plan whatever I think will be best for the students. On top of that, even though concept mapping didn’t work out so well with the first class, I was able to revise and try again. This is comforting for a first year teacher still trying to know what I don’t know.

Second, metaphors (and kinesthetic, visual activities) are powerful learning tools, but the students had difficulty elaborating on this learning. Now I know that I have to more explicitly teach the processes and possibilities of metaphor. In 7th grade, thinking about thinking is hard work, but I’m excited to help my kids get better at it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Student Misconceptions

As I’ve mentioned in some of my recent posts, we are currently working on an informational text unit with the Salem Witch Trials. Though my main focus is teaching the process of understanding informational texts, the students are definitely more interested in the content of what happened in 1692. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Their curiosity keeps them engaged in the text. However, with a topic like the witch trials - a subject already fraught with myths and theories - the students’ imaginations run wild. Showing the movie Hocus Pocus as a post-NECAP team reward last Friday didn’t really help the situation. Though I hadn’t watched the movie myself, one team teacher suggested it and the rest thought it would be fine, so I figured it would be fine too . . .

Let’s just say I wasn’t the biggest fan of Sarah Jessica Parker’s “out-there” performance and the premise that the black candle had to be lit by a virgin. Really? I shuddered each time she appeared or a character spoke that word.

As I was watching it, I knew that the movie might unravel the knowledge of the trials that was building in my class. I wanted to get ahead of the impending questions about flying on vacuums, eternal life potions, and talking cats. I decided to use the ridiculousness of the movie as a teachable moment. On Monday, my warm-up was for the students to make a list of at least five myths about witches that were used in the movie and explain their purpose.

It worked like a charm. The conversation in each class varied, but we talked about stereotypes and how often the truth is skewed or exploited for entertainment. It’s definitely an idea we will revisit.

So although some students are beginning to become more aware of the subversive aspects of the world, some others still lack this perspective.

“But Ms. Richer, I don’t get it. Why didn’t they just use DNA tests to see if they were witches?”

Yup. Welcome to 7th grade in the year 2013. I can’t talk too much since these shows are my guilty pleasure, but in a world where brutal crimes are solved neatly in an hour tv program, how much does this question reflect today’s society?

I can’t be sure, but again, I took it as a teachable moment. I turned the question back to the class and had the student call on other classmates to clarify her misconception.

At the end of class, I thanked the student for sharing her question. As ridiculous as the question might seem, 1. she probably isn’t the only student wondering it and 2. I wouldn’t have ever imagined that to be something the students would be confused about.

As I plan my lessons, I do my best to anticipate the things that might go wrong and the things they might struggle with. However, unlike experienced teachers with historical data about different groups of students, I have very little understanding of 7th graders developmentally, academically, socially, etc. This can often be a disadvantage because I am faced with so many new situations to make decisions about every day. But I think there is another side to it as well.

I am a learner alongside my students. I know how difficult it is to ask a question that seems silly. I know how it feels to try something even though you don’t feel totally comfortable with it. I know how it feels to want someone else to just tell you what to do rather than to figure it out yourself. Being at a loss for answers totally stinks.

Not having questions is worse.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Power of Positive Relationships

*It's been a few weeks, so this is a long one...*

“The problem lies in thinking that friendship is a luxury, when instead  it is essential for optimal health and happiness in all areas of life.” -Kristen Armstrong

For my birthday a few years ago, a favorite person of mine gifted me Kristen Armstrong’s book Mile Markers: The 26.2 Most Important Reasons Why Women Run. It’s a collection of entries from her blog of the same name. Reading the book is like reading a diary or a journal because what she presents is so relatable, especially as I am a young woman who shares her passion for running, writing, and personal fulfillment.

As the title suggests, each chapter is devoted to reasons why women run. The quote above comes from Chapter 3, titled “Friendship.” In one entry, she discusses a study that shows women’s responses to stress as different from men, concluding that women with strong friendships have fewer health risks than those who do not. I certainly agree.

I am reminded of this quote as I reflect on the last few weeks of teaching. As I think about what’s working and what’s not, I keep coming back to those students that I find most challenging. Not challenging academically - I feel relatively confident that with enough time and the right resources, I can help kids become better readers and writers - but behaviorally. While I have logged lots of hours tutoring struggling students at the Writing Center, I have a lot less experience working with kids who push (my) buttons.

At first, I thought maybe it was a purely academic issue. I wasn’t providing enough support, so their way of dealing with that was to disrupt the class. Then, I received their STAR Reading Test data. One of my three most challenging students, who I'll call Chris, turns out to have scored the 5th highest on the whole team. The other two scored just about as I had expected. But still, I had a new perspective. Maybe I wasn’t challenging Chris enough. I tried to hold him more accountable in class by cold calling on him more often. His body language was interesting to watch because his eyes would indicate that he knew the answer, but as soon as the attention was on him, he would goofily make a noise and wiggle around in his seat and say, “I don’t know.” My thinking right now is that he has a case of “I’m-smart-but-I-don’t-want-anyone-to-know-it.”

The second student, Drew, who scored in the average range, spent many of the first weeks of school shouting out and singing lines to songs that weren’t school-friendly, all with the intention of making others laugh. When confronted, he would be very defensive about his right to say what he wants to, admitting that all he wants is to be the class clown.

Then, Joel, who scored on the lower end, bombards me with questions before I even get into the classroom. Everyday, the students know they are supposed to come in, sit down, take out their notebook, and do their warm up . So his recurrent, impatient waiting in the doorway with shouts of “Ms. Richer. Ms. Richer! What are we supposed to do? I need help.  I don’t get it. Can’t you help me? What are we doing today?” drive me a bit nuts. I remind him of the procedure and encourage him to ask a friend for help, but he says that he can’t and doesn’t want to.  

I know, I know...these kids are screaming examples of the importance of differentiated instruction. I'm working on it. However, I think Kristen Armstrong’s quote provides some insight as well.

What do Chris, Drew, and Joel all have in common?

All three lack positive peer relationships. I haven’t really seen any of them with friends. Though the social interactions of women running together is obviously very different from the culture of teenage boys, I think Armstrong’s idea that friendships provide health and happiness can still apply.  

Some mornings I overhear lingering angst about Chris kicking the back of Drew’s seat on the bus, Drew giving Chris a dirty look, and Chris touching Drew’s stuff while he wasn’t looking. In my mind, this is not a healthy way to start a day. This example illuminates some of their biggest challenges:  they have a hard time letting things go, they don’t seem to appreciate others’ quirks, they struggle to say things in a calm tone. These interactions outside of class are certainly related to what I see as disruptive behavior in class.

Determining where to go from here has been challenging for me because I strongly believe in a “working with” rather than “doing to” philosophy (thanks Alfie Kohn). However, this is easier said than done, so I’ve sought examples and guidance. Before I’ve even shared my concerns, though, several teachers have made it very clear that I just need to show these kids who is boss and all of my problems will disappear - a.k.a. threaten and punish them into compliance and submission.

But I’m not okay with that. I don’t want that type of relationship with my students. I don’t want that type of relationship with people.

Thanks to the example and wisdom of the adults in my life who have taught me what it means to be a good person, I am resolved to having conversations. Asking questions. Finding out what makes those students feel happy, or successful, or safe. Using their strengths. Coming up with a plan together. I feel that if the student and I can get on the same page first, then we will be better able to work on those peer relationships.

Recently, Drew and I have made some progress. Building on his desire to be the class clown, we agreed that if he can control his shoutouts in class, the last two minutes of the period are his. He can crack a joke, share a video, tell a story. By providing him a space to be in the spotlight, he sees that I am respecting what is important to him - and he is more respectful of the norms in the class.

A few days after implementing our plan, he made a rude comment about a school staff member. I told him that there would be a consequence, but I wasn’t sure what it would be yet. He was upset and walked away with a chip on his shoulder, but came up to me a few minutes later with an idea of his own: his “two minutes” were revoked for a whole week. I was impressed with the way he took responsibility for his actions, so I thanked him and we shook on it.

I’d be lying if I said it’s been smooth sailing since then, but things have been much improved with Drew. As for Chris and Joel, I am still working on having those productive conversations. Maybe they aren’t ready to trust me. Maybe they aren’t ready to trust themselves. Maybe they aren’t ready to trust the class. And I can’t blame them for that. I have to remember that they are doing what makes sense to them, even if it doesn’t always make sense to me.

It's a hilly and sweaty journey, but I'm miles and miles away from giving up.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Being an Adult is Weird

Not so long ago I was hanging out with my friends in my high school locker room after cross country practice. I was deciding where I would learn to become a teacher. I was moving into Suite G in Thorp Hall. I was planning ice cream parties for the 1200 students who live at RIC.

Now I chaperone school dances with colleagues who could practically be my parents. I am deciding how to best use what I learned about being a teacher. I am hanging inspirational posters to decorate Room 111. I am planning a field trip to Salem for the 100+ students on my team.

Being an adult is weird.

In this role of teacher, of course, there’s a lot to manage. SLOs, reading logs, emergency cards, copy codes, induction meetings, seating charts, NECAP schedules, and jammed lockers. So. Many. Jammed. Lockers.  

But of all this, one of my favorite things (besides homeroom joke of the day) is just watching my students and their interactions with one another. This week, I had to opportunity to see some of my students outside of my classroom and their usual front hallway stomping ground. I spent some time at dusty Foster Field for the girls soccer game and the b.o. stenched gymnasium for the first dance of the school year.

As I observed, I couldn't help but imagine who I was at age 13 - a much quieter, less social, still nerdy version of my current self. It’s fun to try to figure out which of my students I was most like, and who my friends would have been. It’s a way to reflect on my own practice as a teacher. What would 13-year-old student-me think about 23-year-old teacher-me? Am I creating a learning environment that would have been conducive to my needs? Am I falling into habits of that teacher who I vowed I would never become?

My observations have also led me to be curious about the people that my students will be. They all have some pretty distinct personality traits and I am wondering what role I will play - intentional or not - in influencing them to become kind, productive people in the world. What can I/will I do to help them become better versions of themselves?  

Because the other thing about being an adult is how my conception of time has dramatically shifted.

Gone is the age when I waited light years and eons for Christmas to come again. As I get older, time goes by faster and faster and faster.

We are already starting week five?

Wait, what? I have never taught students for more than seven weeks at a time! Well, I guess that’s a topic for another blog...

In any case, it’s unbelievable.

There have been so many amazing moments in just the first few weeks of school - academic or otherwise. I have seen students light up at a correct answer, help open a classmate’s locker, present in front of the whole class after explaining they were too shy to do the same at their old school . . . But I know this is only the beginning.

I want to capture all of these things and keep them tucked away to return to at some point in the future. In the back of my head, I recall the end of my student teaching when so many of Mrs. Ballard’s conversations with students would start with, “Remember how hard it was for you to write just one sentence at the beginning of last year? Look, now you wrote paragraphs and paragraphs all on your own.” I just think there is so much power in looping with students for two years.

However, since I’m in a one year position, there is no guarantee that I will be teaching at the same school next year, never mind even being on the same team. This means that the time I have with my students now is all the more precious. I want to spend as much of it as I can getting to know who they are academically and socially.

This means some more afternoons at the soccer field and Friday nights in the gym.   
Being a teacher is weird . . .

I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Reading and Writing and Pancakes

At Coventry, every teacher, regardless of content area, teaches a literacy class. Last year, literacy classes included a vocabulary development program centered on instruction about prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Since this year’s Literacy curriculum hasn’t been established or implemented yet, I have freedom to do what I want.


Before our first class met on Tuesday, I knew that my goal for the next week was to read a whole class novel. However, since I didn’t have a book yet and wasn’t ready to start that, I decided to do a carousel activity with a variety of quotes about reading and writing. I put each quote on a piece of poster paper, hung the quotes around the room, gave each student a marker, and let them walk from poster-to-poster to respond to each of the quotations. After the students made their journey around, I asked for volunteers to share which quote stuck out  to them the most and why.

Immediately, a student’s face lit up and hand shot up. I really thought he was going to fall out of his desk from the excess enthusiasm. Attempting to avoid this disaster, I invited him to share. He read out a quote on the back wall from Frank Serafini: “There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.” He eagerly asked if he could share his response and I, of course, couldn’t  refuse his smile.

“Anyone can make pancakes but they have to find the right batter.”

Seriously? Pancakes? I thought to myself. Well, I know who the funny man is now.

“Okay…” I said slowly. “And how does that connect to the quote?”

I expected something off-topic and was trying to quickly figure out how  I would bring the class back together . . . even if it was last period.

But the student impressed me. He wasn’t just being a funny man. He very eloquently explained how his metaphor was just an example to help explain the concept: just like anyone can be a reader or make pancakes, both either need to find the right book or the right batter to be successful.

On that same poster, another student wrote, “I love books.” And other confessed, “I hated books til I found Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”  I’m  not so sure I would have seen or heard these same responses if this were an individual or purely discussion-based activity.

I’m not claiming to make any earth-shattering conclusions here, but, overall, the responses I received reminded me why activities like this are so important. Having large pieces of poster paper for students to write on literally gives them the space to think and share their ideas. Students who might not want to speak in class regain power with a marker of their own.

Plus, now I get to decorate my class with their smart scribbles :)