We can’t do this work alone. And I’ve recognized that if I’m not “the” teacher that connects with a student, I know that there will be one for them along the way. I don’t want to be “the one” anyway — truly. I want all of us to provide each child we teach and in our care to be respected, model self-respect, and supported. And just like children need different supports, so do adults. How one colleague begins their anti-racism work and their place on the journey toward an equitable, just society may look different for each of us. This is Part 1 of some of the educators who’ve influenced, inspired, and become an integral part of my community.
Here are some of the educators doing this work, and they can help you on your journey:
Jess Lifshitz approaches anti-racism work with humility and great love. And don’t be fooled; she is a powerful and amazing educator.
John Spencer has been a friend of mine for years. I trust his voice and his work.
Tom Rademacher is direct, no-nonsense and will help you with direct, honest conversation about anti-racism work. I cannot recommend his book, It Won’t Be Easy, enough.
Any progress I’ve made towards anti-racism has been because of Black, Indigenous, and POC work and scholarship. I do my best to cite and amplify those voices that have been meaningful to me, but could be better.
Mrs. LaQuisha Hall — it would be a challenge to find an educator as generous as she.
He walked up to my desk at the end of class, looked at me and said, Mrs. Hall, you are truly one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.” I was in awe… just out of nowhere. I told him I wished I had captured that. He said, “I’ll say it again because I mean it.” 😢 #mrshallscholarspic.twitter.com/qzkMjuNb7c
And the recurring advice I’ve received over my 13 years is ‘shut the door, teach, get to know your students, and do what’s best for them.’ All that is true. But something else is true: when you do shut the door, take note of what is going on–be your own observer. Walk into your classroom with fresh eyes. Sit in the seats where your students sit. Work next to them. What is it like to be a student in that room? Ask them.
“A lot hinges on the fact that, in most circumstances, people are not allowed to hit you with a mallet. They put up all kinds of visible and invisible signs that say, ‘Do not do this,’ in the hope that it’ll work, but if it doesn’t, then they shrug, because there is, really, no real mallet at all.” —Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals I have always been a teacher who fears the mallet. I worry about “getting in trouble,” a phrase that seems more appropriate for children than adults, which I nevertheless hear from fellow teachers with alarming frequency. Seventeen years since I started teaching, I still get nervous when my principal walks into my room with a clipboard or laptop for an unscheduled observation. Why? I love my principal. I know she’s not out to get me. Yet the anxiety—sweaty palms, a tight throat, a sudden awareness of how incredibly messy my classroom is—has not faded with time.
I, too, get nervous when admin comes in the room. I’m sure she’s not out to get me, either, no more than any teacher, but her first priorities, as they should be, are that all students are learning. And what ‘learning’ might look like to one educator versus another is critical to objective conservations. Admin come from a wide variety of teaching and instructional experiences, and even if they spent years in a classroom will still come to other teachers’ classroom with bias and judgment. Because they are…wait for it…human. As is everyone in that room. The teacher. The student. Everyone. Some things get checked on the clipboard, and some things do not.
Oh–and the self-care thing? The hardest thing about that is to not let another’s mallet beat your spirit. I have witnessed young teachers say “I don’t want to get in trouble.” Heard them break down in anxious tears. And for some of my younger colleagues, I have become a cautionary tale–that when you get older, it won’t matter how much growth on test scores your students have gained: if admin doesn’t “like you,” you’re out. Painfully, heartbreakingly, in a long-protracted battle.
Let’s find out what happens. Will we get fired? Will we get a written reprimand that goes on our permanent record? Will we get the stink-eye from our principal for the rest of the year? Or will we keep our jobs, because the teacher shortage is real, and it’s really real in high-poverty schools? Will it turn out there is no permanent record, and even if there were, nobody “above” us in the hierarchy has the time or inclination to write up that reprimand? Will we find unlikely allies, including administrators who prove their own courage and commitment to the children in our care?
A few weeks ago, I was informed that even if I hit Distinguished in all categories, I could be non-renewed. At that point, what is the point? Do I just give up? Of course not. Being a teacher, to me, is a sacred duty. It’s my Night’s Watch vow. And most days, I love it, and some days I don’t. Both moments require reflection: this is key. Reflect on when things go right as often as when they don’t.
Self-care requires mindfulness:
Keep in mind: everyone has an agenda and mission. Take a moment and clarify, write down, what you think the mission statements are: your admin’s, colleagues, students, parents, and yourself. And then check in with each stakeholder and see how close you are, and adjust.
Seek clarity from admin if you truly do not understand what they are requiring from you. It’s their role to be clear, objective and precise and offer instructional support. That’s their job.
Seek clarity and feedback from your students, and make transparent and public. Middle school kids can be downright mean and if you have a disgruntled student (thinking of one right now) who whispers and derides you (your age, clothing, mistakes, etc.) call it out in a future moment and make general. Use it as a teachable moment.
Seek clarity from your colleagues: if you participate in a functioning, supportive PLC, include 20-second celebrations. Ask them for advice and insight: what are they seeing, or not seeing, where you might have a blindspot? If your PLC is not functioning or safe, seek out a network on social media.
Most importantly: remember your ‘why’–it is a beautiful and inspiring why. Our “why’s” are our heartbeats–not just our teacher selves, but our whole selves. What we do and believe for ourselves, our families, friends, and then our work.
My head hurt all weekend since an odd idea came to me late last week. Did you ever get an off-hand comment that seemed vaguely critical and out of context the only explanation could be it was growing in the background for a long time? Writing is processing, and thinking about how to frame bizarre moments on this rainy Sunday afternoon solved the pain.
The best thing about my PLN is that we all understand that sharing, curating, and responding are part of the culture of being a creative collaborator. There are no egos, no “stay in your lane’s” or titles and job descriptions that prevent us from sharing our ideas and resources freely and kindly. From Notice and Note Facebook page and other groups that share ideas and insights I have made new friends. And–never doubt it that it’s a small educational world after all. A good friend and former colleague who moved back to Florida last year is friends with a teacher who’s become a good professional friend via these channels. You just never know.
But what I do know is good work is good work: the younger teachers I work with, even though I’m not officially in the ELA group/department anymore (insert long trombone sound here) they continue to work with me, and we seek out ideas and resources. Which is why I was perplexed last week. What is expected from a staff in terms of sharing? What if a teacher decides she is not going to share her resources? What if, like I am simply because I’ve been in my building so long, should not be the Keeper of Continuity and Nooks and Crannies Resources? For one thing, that title doesn’t fit on a business card. Quite impractical.
One of the…trends?…I’m hearing and seeing is this idea that more seasoned teachers aren’t supposed to share their expertise. It’s curious and confusing. We, teachers, are constantly asked to wash and rinse a laundry basket full of mixed messages:
Share your resources and time!
Take on a student teacher!
Mentor younger teachers!
It’s not your job anymore, so don’t share!
Keep your advice to yourself!
You’re (fill in the blank: overwhelming, emotional, fractured, walking wounded)
Too many emails
Not enough emails
If you send it, no one will read it
Walk on eggshells
Stand up to bullies
Let her do it
Open your classroom door!
Keep your door shut!
Open your heart!
You’re bleeding on the carpet!
You do it.
Stop doing that.
How do we shut out the static and tune in to what’s essential? How do we enjoy our days at our jobs? Our professional, heavily invested-in, challenging, humanly flawed jobs?
Yes. Shut the door. Temporarily at least. And just listen to students. Whatever the grown-ups are saying or thinking doesn’t matter too much on the periphery. When we work together instead of working outside-in to inside-out, perhaps some authentic professional relationships will grow.
Without going into the long backstory, recently someone told me students in my class were confused and whispering to each other, seeking clarity.
They said this like it was a bad thing.
Oh, silly teacher…!
Well, it’s not.
In fact, it’s an awesome thing. A tremendous thing…dare I say….maybe one of the best things a student can experience!?
Confusion is metacognition as an expression: it means that the student or students are engaged, tracking, and wham! knows they’re lost–and when you know you’re lost you can try to find your way back. The point in question was during a challenging foundational attempt at point of view and perspective. Many of my students have had the creativity and risk-taking so drilled out of them that some couldn’t make a list of things they did in an hour without getting further instructions.
Me: Just write everything you did between 7 and 8 am.
Student: I was sleeping!
Me: Then write that down.
Student: What do I do?
Me: Write down everything you did between 7 and 8 am.
Student: Can I write that I was sleeping?
Me: Were you sleeping between 7 and 8?
Me: Then write it down.
Okay — that was a few. But the lesson added the next step of writing down was either objects or people were doing at the same time. One young man, who has a really difficult time getting anything done, wrote a delightful story about his dog from first-person dog’s point of view/perspective. This role-playing/narrative writing just clicks for some kids.
My friend John Spencer writes about confusion, and it makes a lot of sense.
The person who was questioning my practice, (and saying that students were confused) believes this:
However, schools aren’t built around confusion. We reward students for speed and accuracy (the way we average grades and set rigid deadlines) rather than nuance and confusion. We value teachers who can make learning efficient, clear, and easy-to-understand.
In fact, the word “urgency” was used many times. I know what urgency is, and it’s not “panic” or anxiety attacks — it’s a compelling reason to do something or to learn something. But sometimes that sense of urgency isn’t in every slice of a lesson — it builds, and results in great writing, even from the most reluctant and bashful of students.
Something else to consider: screentime may be doing some deep harm to our cognitive abilities. Or we just might be changing our means of communication. Please– I “urge” you to read John Spencer’s post on confusion, and listen to Parts I and II of the Ted Radio Hour Screen Time recordings.
Does anyone want to become a judge because they know how to write a claim, evidence and reasoning paragraph?
Has anyone played scales on a clarinet and decided music was their life’s calling?
Did you ever fall in love with someone because of their SAT scores?
In fact, I’m sensing legions of dissatisfied English/Language Arts professionals who bought into the dream of teaching the worth and beauty of communication rising up– an undercurrent of questioning and pushback to forces that represent the opposite of love of language. I’m pretty sure no one became an English/Humanities teacher because they wrote cursive well. They became a teller of stories.
In our data-driven world, we are forced to look at tiny points, a sieve of information that never shows the whole sky.
This doesn’t mean all data needs to be destroyed, any more than I am suggesting we sit around the just “feel the stories” — ew, no.
Look at Pernille Ripp’s work: she balances the formula with the big ideas so beautifully. Her project, Planting A Seed: Our Refugee Project should be our model. Look even closer: students are doing the highest level of Project Based Learning with self-assessment (annotating the way that makes sense to them?! REVOLUTIONARY. Sorry – sarcasm crept in. I’ve been showing students authentic annotations for years, and when true scholars use them, and for what purposes.)
I’ve spent going on eleven years trying to keep ahead of the curve, be innovative, and growth-minded. It is a bit galling to have old-fashioned thinking creep in like it’s something new. It’s not. We’ve solved many notions, and yet many ideas still keep being trotted out. We need to bury some ideas once and for all:
Now the thought of Chuck Palahniuk writing the back story for a cartoon intrigues me, and I began to think of multiple mash-ups of writers and stories. This morning I envisioned a complete Nathanial Hawthorne Scarlet Letter version of Rugrats, whereas every time Angelica attempts to bully the babies she must wear her insignia “A” embroidered on her chest, serving multiple purposes. The adults are the villagers, of course, standing firm in judgment. Well, it played out better before I had coffee. Now I’m not so sure.
But what about Stephen King and a treatment of Roadrunner? I think Kurt Vonnegut could do justice to Bugs Bunny. Or as John quoted, ‘create sad backstories to all the Animaniacs.’ Brilliant. This, of course, is the essence of fan fiction, with a hefty side of writer’s craft, style, and voice for good measure.
Allow me to meander a bit:
Ayn Rand takes over an episode of Invader Zim.
Neil Gaiman rewrites a ‘Hey, Arnold’ episode.
J.K. Rowling takes on Powerpuff Girls.
G.R.R. Martin rewrites Dexter’s Laboratory.
Dr. Seuss: Ren and Stimpy, of course.
Suzanne Collins and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.
Okay, I could go on all day. I am seeing a really fun lesson idea here: D&D dice with each number associated with an author and then a second roll for the cartoon episode.
What other ideas come to mind?
Now–parents–think for a second. When I was growing up Bugs Bunny and his ilk alluded to operas, literature, film, etc. I know there are ‘jokes for grownups’ in current children’s media, today, too, but I am a bit out of touch with the ten and under crowd these days. My sons are 18 and 21, and they share gritty, funny binge-worthy media. We are long past the Rugrats days. If you’re a parent of kids under 10-11 and let them watch tv, what do they watch?
Wait–that was a TERRIBLE metaphor. Forgive me. I’ve been doing mom-chores and adulting all day, and I’m cranky. College boy is in town and needed to get him squared away, and the whole tax thing, and now people are arguing, being bossy over one another, and quite frankly, it’s all a little silly. Or in the words of the immortal Mr. Krabs, “What a baby.” The deal is, we really need to be careful when jumping on bandwagons: they have a habit of gaining speed and being much more dangerous during the departing.
Here are a few of my thoughts/questions:
What if a teacher becomes an ‘expert’ in one of these sacred teachings, and then that path is no longer valid or respected? I’m thinking of one educator I know whose expertise is in ‘learning styles,’ and how is she going to feel that others believe that it’s bunk?
What about all the backlash and misinterpretation of “grit,” growth mindset,” or gangum style? Whatever. I still dance to it. Just kidding. You know what I mean.
What’s next? What about the ed-tech movement, our love of Alfie Kohn, or DON’T EVEN THINK IT: UBD?!
STEP. AWAY. FROM. THE. U.B.D. AND NO ONE GETS HURT.
“I feel like the original research on learning styles was flawed (and I’ve never bought into the notion of fixed learning styles). However, almost all of the research “overturning” learning styles relies on flawed metrics. In most cases, the assessments don’t match the instruction. So, a visual style of instruction and an auditory style of instruction both end up with a written test at the end. They do this to boost reliability but in the process, the validity suffers.”
I always liked Howard Gardner, and even he said learning styles was misused. His “multiple intelligences’ are NOT learning styles. That’s always the way, isn’t it? Someone has a good idea, does mountains of research, draws conclusions, and adjusts and flexes thinking, and then some bureaucrat gets a hold of it and takes all the flavor out. While becoming a teacher, of course I applied all the things I was learning about to my own young sons. The older one was the musician/mathematician, and the younger one (I was sure) was destined to be the next Jane Goodall with his love of nature. But again I think we confuse interests with concrete, fixated means of functioning in a classroom. We label, box, and shelve. We forget we are complex, adaptive systems, capable of multiple approaches to something. The concept of content becoming the focus makes sense: I wouldn’t learn about how to throw a ball from seeing a picture of someone doing it as well as just doing it. Moreover, I wouldn’t learn how to write a solid rebuttal from an interpretive dance (however much fun that would be).
There is just some stuff we need to know– like how to throw a ball, or write a great rebuttal. And we have teacher-experts in those areas who are more than capable and desirous of teaching those skills.
And then we come to the big tests that only focus on ‘reading’ and ‘math.’ And the ELA and math teachers seem to be the only ones who get their names tied to those scores.
I am predicting that ‘close reading’ is going to be next on the list of educational movements to at least catch a cold, if not completely buried in the Graveyard of Jargon. Close reading is great, and though everyone’s been cautioned not to overuse it, guess what? It’s being overused. And when something is overused it loses its effectiveness and provides diminishing returns.
Chasing the purple dragon of ‘the perfect app’ is like lassoing a bubble. There’s always something new, shiny, and fleeting. In this post, I shall attempt to currate some old and new favorites. Some of these items are the equivalent to Russian nesting dolls– stacked inside one another.
Stopping the Noise:
Freedom– if you need time to turn off those ‘quick check-ins’ to Facebook, etc. install Freedom. It was recommended to be by a ‘real writer’ – someone who’s published multiple titles.
WriteAbout, Google Cardboard, Versal, Noisli, Formative, and Periscope.
I have used John’s WriteAbout, and have made attempts to get other teachers/district to use it too, but there have been obstacles. We are on overload right now, methinks. Maybe I’ll try again, because last year was crowded with others agendas.
As far as Versal goes, we are piloting Canvas, and have used e-learning. Personally I prefer UX designs like Versal or Edmodo better, but it any online platform seems fine.
Screenshot–app for iphones and ipads — annotate, etc. screen shots
Word Swag- -makes pretty little posters from your photos
Snapseed–easy photo editing tools
Voila–easy screen recordings for lessons/flipped classroom
Dark Sky–well designed interface for the weather
Sky Guide–feel like you’re floating through the universe. I get vertigo when I point it at the ground and realize there’s only the earth between me and the universe.
Who am I kidding? I’m not qualified to curate diddly-squat at the moment. During this time, not only do I have Grammarly spying on me, but the laundry is on repeat wrinkle-guard, I’ve read 5 articles on the supreme court issue and new appointee, hit the like button on a few Facebook posts, changed to jammie pants (it’s mid-winter break), watched Principal Gerry videos, sent one email, and thought about “all the stuff I have to/want to do” over break.
Sigh. Maybe it’s time I take the Infomagical challenge, too. I did go to a good, solid old-fashtion art supply store the other day near the UW campus when we met our older son for lunch. It was like going through a time machine for me. I did end up with a box of goodies to take back to the classroom, but even creative-crafty stuff requires focus:
Before you hunker down and start reading, I want to point out the first tip, and how it stopped me in my tracks. John has great ideas, and has proven himself to be creative and innovative.
But I can’t get past #1: 1. Use prep time for real prep. Don’t use that time to go to the staff lounge. Spend that time filling out rubrics, planning lessons, and getting your class ready for teaching.
What irritates me about this is the assumption that at any point in time I’m making a choice about how I use my 55 minutes of prep time, and I can’t imagine that any of my colleagues are allowed the same luxury. I feel like this is one of those Glamour magazine ‘how to please your spouse’ tips that makes no sense to anyone who lives in reality. But that’s my knee-jerk reaction: after I take a deep breath, count to ten, and allow myself to think –‘What’s really being said here?” Perhaps it’s just a simple tip to use the time that’s intended for the purpose of the intention: if it’s prep time, do prep.
Okay– fair enough.
At my school, often there is class coverage. This year’s been different because we have new administration, and people actually want to come to work. To be fair, in the past many staff members have had serious medical issues, and the guest teacher shortage was at crisis levels. This year, I’m expected to attend a team meeting once a week, and oftentimes during my prep I’m running around to the copy room or trying to make sure my two preps are done in one. This year also my projector sported major issues, and just before break the IT department fixed it. That is three months of spotty technology I was dealing with during my prep time.
And like I said, I have two classes this year, well, three, because Humanities is both English/Language Arts and Social Studies, and Computer Skills I elective, so yes, three preps in one. That allows for about 15 minutes per “prep.” For me, it’s setting up the learning targets, success criteria, making sure the room is clean, free of trash, technology is working, I use the restroom (my last chance of the day, and I have morning prep), and reply to student, parent, or administrative e-mails. I don’t go to the staff lounge, in the morning or at lunch –it’s a toxic place, inhabited by a troll, and I’ve learned not to step hoof over that bridge. (I believe that will change as the culture changes at my school, because the admin staff does not broker any nonsense from mean people. But until the troll(s) find their goats elsewhere, I’m steering clear.
Now: I realize I needed to take a deep breath, stow my umbrage: most of the things that are considered duties for prep time I do ahead of time, when I can focus, without interruptions, and there’s a bathroom nearby, so yes, usually at home. Prep time is not meant for actual prep–it’s meant to get my head in the game, as it were. I can’t think of anything more stressful than trying to use prep time for its original intention, but maybe that’s John’s point: when trying to clear the time clutter of a teacher’s day, be intentional, and do what’s best for you.
In the meantime, here are some other tips he provides, as well as Angela Watson’s post. Let me be clear: in no way am I a martyr or ‘service to others’ kind of personality. That is not my style. But I am very conscious of how I spend my time, and go by the rule if it’s not giving me some kind of satisfaction or joy, then let it go. By following that simple rule I’ve learned I don’t need to clean all the time, and I’m not a perfectionist. Heck, don’t believe me? Ask my husband how many times I’ve gone to the grocery store this year. The other factor to consider is at what stage the teacher is in — now my sons are older, more independent, and that alone is freeing and joyful. Sure, do I miss toddler kisses and big sloppy hugs? The secret is big 18-year-olds still hug their moms, and 21-year-olds still inspire with grand conversations. I don’t come home tired anymore, and I look at the first year teachers who are so exhausted in, and this is a harsh truth, there is a certain amount of dues that must be paid before any educator learns how to do the work/life balance. It sucks, it’s painful, and the best way is to get through it.
Well, there, I just sucked ten minutes out of your life with this post.
Five years ago, I made a crazy New Year’s Resolution. I decided I would do less. I was exhausted as a teacher. I spent hours late into the night grading papers only to arrive the next morning fueled by fatigue and a heavy dose of caffeine. I was running on fumes, inching closer than ever to burnout.
See, I wanted to prove to teachers that I was a great teacher. I heard about “those teachers” who showed up right before contract time and left right when it ended. “Those teachers” were the burnouts. They were the babysitters. They were the ones just phoning it in. See, I believed I had to be a martyr to be an effective teacher.
Then things changed.
I made the New Year’s resolution to stick to a 40 hour a week schedule. I began showing up at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 4:00 p.m. I no longer felt stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed.
And I didn’t feel guilty about it.
See, I knew that I loved being a teacher, but I also loved being a dad and a husband. I loved writing books. I loved blogging. I loved reading. I loved playing catch with my kids in the backyard or building pillow forts in the living room without worrying about the massive pile of papers stacking up.
How It’s Possible
1. Use prep time for real prep. Don’t use that time to go to the staff lounge. Spend that time filling out rubrics, planning lessons, and getting your class ready for teaching.
2. Deal with discipline issues relationally. It’s amazing how much time you save by not writing referrals and detentions. If a student acts up in class, simply talk about it in the moment. It’s a relational, conversational approach that works — but also one that means less time chasing kids down and managing a system. If you need to document the discipline, create a simple Google Form and submit it in the moment.
3. Grade less but assess more. Encourage students to do self-assessments. Choose fewer assignments to grade. Spend less time filling out your grade book. Teaching isn’t supposed to be a data entry position.
4. Assess during class. If you’re walking around seeing how students are doing, you might as well use that time to add comments to student blogs or pull kids aside for one-on-one conferencing.
5. Cut out the fluff. I never decorated my class. I left that to the students. Something as small as that can make a huge difference in terms of time.