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.