The Importance of Being a Reflective Teacher

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Let’s just get to the point.  One of the biggest indicators it’s time to get out of the teaching profession is if you never ask yourself why you’re actually doing what you’re doing in the classroom or you do ask yourself that question and the answer is incredibly lame.  What constitutes a lame answer: “It fills the time!”  Which is why bad educators frequently choose to show lengthy videos.  My advice if you’ve ever done this and really want to turn it around in 2014?  DON’T SHOW THE VIDEO.  Even if it’s the best video ever made in the history of mankind, but you plan on not incorporating an intellectual discussion, a journaling opportunity or the like, and you personally don’t feel like you are going to take the time to help your students see the film’s art to life connection in a way that will contribute in making them better people for having watched the video, then simply DON’T SHOW THE VIDEO.

This brings me to the main practice every educator should do in the lesson development process (and photocopying a worksheet out of a book or off the internet, is not an indicator that you’re developing anything besides busy work), which is REFLECTION.  Reflection shouldn’t only come after the lesson.  When creating the lesson plan, activities, etc. you need to ask yourself, “Why am I even doing this?”  If the main motivator is: It’s the next page/chapter in the book, it’s going to be on a test, it will keep the kids busy, or …I don’t know….I have to do something….right? Then your “lesson” is now a giant waste of everyone’s time. Of course not a waste of your time, because you took all of five minutes to come up with the “lesson”.  

Yes, there are times where you are teaching a skill. because someone higher up is ordering you to do it, but you should still possess the capacity to twist the required, but not always desired, elements into a lesson that you have a personal connection to.  

Why? Why? Why?  Never stop asking yourself, “Why?”  I want my students to be successful.  Honestly, you can be successful without a perfect ACT score.  At the end of the day if I can teach a lesson that motivates my students to decide if they’re going to strive to be better people–contribute to society in a positive way and treat those in their lives with kindness and respect, knowing it takes hard work, then I’ve done my job, because I treated my students with kindness and respect, through hard work as well.  I put the time in, that needs to be put in, to create a lesson with merit and content, not fluff and self-convenience.

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Testing, Testing, Testing

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My six-year old son brought home his report card on Tuesday, and as a parent, I love the elementary report cards. They have both academic and behavior grades, but not in the form of a percentage or A,B,C,D, and F letter grade.  It focuses on benchmarks, areas that are needing improvement, progressing, and proficient.  It’s quite detailed and very informative.  The piece of paper in the envelope that was sent home that bothered me the most, was a graph explaining how he did on a recent standardized test (MAPs Reading Assessment).

According to the graph my child is not earning the RIT score he needs to in the winter season of first grade to be considered proficient….but on his report card he’s reading slightly above grade level.  I have no ill feelings towards Eli’s teachers.  They’re amazing.  What I don’t understand is why the state and federal level are requiring us to have little children test on computers…frankly why they have to take these tests at all.  I don’t think the maturity is there to be able to call this assessment environment a true measure of what a little child knows and doesn’t know.  Now, you might be thinking, “Oh Laura, you’re only on the defense, because your son didn’t score well.”  Look, I’ve seen the passages on these standardized tests.  They’re pretty dry.  The test-makers claim they try to find passages at students’ interest levels, but I find they usually miss the mark.  For example, when I taught 7th grade English, our state NeSA Reading Assessment had a passage about Tom Osborne, one of the legendary coaches of our Nebraska football team (if you’re not from Nebraska, we don’t have pro-football, so the Husker College football team is our state obsession).  I’m sure the test creators thought, “This is perfect!  Kids love the Huskers!” The problem is Osborne retired before any of my 7th graders were alive/watching football on TV.  To them, he’s not a household name.

The reason why I’m frustrated with my son’s dipping graph that was sent home, is because it doesn’t match how he’s performing in the classroom and it doesn’t match what my husband and I are seeing at home.  Our child reads and thinks about higher-level topics all the time.  A couple weeks ago he asked us, “What is a split atom?”.  His verbal vocabulary has always blown me away.  He will use a word like “element” instead of settling for “thing.”.  What many people, who don’t my son, will see when looking at this testing data is a number; a student who’s “not performing at grade level”, when in fact he is, and in his mind is probably mentally giving these computerized/standardized tests the middle finger.

A Little Sparkle Never Hurt Anyone

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I teach in a 4 by 1 block schedule, which means come Monday I will have a brand new roster of students since an 88 period day equates to teaching a whole year’s curriculum in one semester.  I teach Reading to mostly freshmen and a handful of upperclassmen that need extra help in the area of fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension taken in addition to their required English class.  The first week of fall semester was the first time I’d ever taught a “Reading” class.  Prior I had taught English 7, Composition 8, English 9, English 10, Communications 10, English 11, English 12, and Creative Writing/Newspaper during my first 10 years as a Language Arts teacher.  

What I learned within the first 10 minutes of class was that these kids were going to keep staring at me with their glazed over/dazed expressions if I didn’t pull out my version of the Disney World Castle Fireworks Extravaganza.  A.K.A. I was reminded of the importance of front-loading. I normally do it before a lesson, but the first week I take a portion of each class to simply give the students ideas of what their independent reading books/titles could be.  I book-talked, I held up the concrete evidence that the book existed in my room, etc., etc., but I found what convinces any student to actually even consider reading the text is an artistic or creative audio-visual.  This generation of students love to watch movies, YouTube clips, video games, Vine’s, etc.  There are some great book trailers out there, posted on YouTube or on publishing companies’ websites and I am grateful, whether it’s a pre-recorded book review, a mini-movie or movie preview vibe, or an Edmodo/slideshow-like explanation of the book to music with written words, it’s much more intriguing to my teen audience then listening to their aging teacher’s advice (no matter how with-it I am in terms of pop culture).

Every teacher in every subject matter needs to enthusiastically front-load if they are truly invested in encouraging their students to be excited about the topic being covered in class.  Just because you really love Math, History, Science, etc. doesn’t many there’s a single student in your classroom that feels the same way.  Most of my students find the act of reading to be frustrating so rather than to continue to read/practice the skill, they’ve simply decided it’s the last thing they want to engage in, in their spare time.  Not only do you have to possess life and energy in your voice, but ask yourself, non-verbally do you seem excited about what you’re covering in class?  Are you standing up and walking around the room or sitting in one chair for the whole duration of class?  The visual you provide just from your stage presence alone is huge when initially grabbing their attention.

The line I have to draw though is making sure the technology you use does not replace the instruction/human-to-human contact/relationships.  Front loading shouldn’t just be pushing play.  Most of the “Sparkle” needs to come from you and the content coming out of your mouth.  You’re the foundation/castle, and the audio/visual is the extra little pizzazz even light show (let’s just go with this analogy, shall we?).  Yes, the fireworks spice it up at night when the castle can’t be seen as well in the dark, but during the daytime, when there’s no pyro-mechanics taking place, you’re still respected and acknowledged.  In a phrase, make it as memorable as possible, but keep it real. 

If book trailers don’t work for you, consider using music.  There are a plethora of raps, jingles, and parodies used to explain Math and Science concepts (for example).  There is also plenty of artwork, along with music, that artists have created to illustrate moments in History.  It’s not enough to simply say, “You need to do this to get ready for college.”. “You need to do this to prepare you for next year.”, or “You need to do this to survive in the real-world.”  Don’t get me wrong, those are all valid reasons as to why a student should “do” something, but why will they enjoy it in this moment? Show them. Light the way.

Looking for a New Year’s Resolution? Try Common Courtesy.

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There’s been a lot of wonderful events to celebrate and appreciate when I look back on 2013, but now it’s 2014 and as everyone has decided THIS is the year they’re going to lose weight, and hey, an awesome goal, but I think we all can tack another goal onto our list of resolutions/life reformations: Common Courtesy/Tact.  I feel the reason why this topic can’t leave my brain when I decided what my next blog post would be (I’m trying to write more in 2014), is because while out and about when shopping for my son’s Christmas presents last month, I saw an abundance of common courtesy offenders.  There were days where I felt surrounded by annoying juvenile behavior…but yet I was surrounded by adults.  Here are some obvious (yet it doesn’t feel like they’re practiced enough) offenses we should all try to avoid:

Category #1 = Volume Issues

* Don’t make your children’s problems everyone else’s problems when in public.  I’ve seen moms and dads verbally rip their toddlers/kids apart and I don’t question their parenting pre-scream, because every child goes through the Terrible 2’s and Horrible 3’s or teen angst/attitude.  It’s when I see parents screaming at their child to “Stop screaming!” that I think, “You’re hypocritically adding to the noise pollution, and you’re the adult in this scenario.”  Get at the child’s level, tone it down, and try to make your public situation as private as possible.  Trust me, no one around you will be put-out if you can deescalate the issue yourself.  They’ll quietly/silently thank you for it.

* On the flip side, there are also times when friendly shouting is unnecessary.  Like if someone can’t hear you even when you’re shouting….continuing to shout isn’t a means to an end, so again walk up to the person and start using that lovely indoor voice.  Most of the time your volume isn’t registering in their ears, because there isn’t mutual eye contact.  Get close to those lovely side holes and talk at a normal register, or if you’re argument is, “But they REALLY CAN’T hear me—they’re old, those darn ineffective hearing aids, etc.” Then good grief, just write it down.

*In my old neighborhood I had great neighbors and I had neighbors that were loud!  The latter never exited their cars to knock on a door; it was instead a constant of honking, loud swearing, hyperactive dogs barking, stereo’s blasting, etc. You can get just as much accomplished in your life without trashing up the atmosphere with noise rather than worthy words/audio. Same goes for the classroom. For example: If your neighboring teacher is giving a test (because it’s FINAL EXAM DAY) then probably not a good time to show a movie with surround sound.

Category #2 – Space

*Respect other people’s space, whether if you’re in their home, classroom, or out in public and standing next to them.  Even if you’re at someone’s house and they’re not the tidiest, that still doesn’t give you permission to be messy or to add to the mess.  If you plan on not taking it with you, and it’s not a gift, it better find it’s way into a trash bin, courtesy of your doing, before you leave that location.  Don’t spill something and then walk away, it is your job not to add to the stain museum that may or may not already exist.  I’m amazed at how people see something fall from their plate, and walk away as if the invisible dog (that’s obviously not there) licked it up for you, WHEN IT CLEARLY DIDN’T!   I will take this time to acknowledge that my CAPS might be a contradiction of the whole “not shouting thing”, but there’s no audible noise attached to it, so, yeah, there’s my retort:).

*Don’t complain about the temperature in the room.  Start wearing layers.  I have had students complain about the oven I teach in the second they walk into the room.  I remind them that I can’t control it; I’m in here for 7 hours instead of 90 minutes at a time, and that no one hears me complaining about it, I just turn on a fan.  I also have students that are self-sufficient.  For every warm room in my school building, there’s cold rooms too.  How do they solve the problem?  They don’t whine.  They bring a blanket for those specific classes and move on with life.  Genius.  And never, NEVER change the thermostat if you’re not paying the utility bill yourself or it’s part of your rental plan.

*Double-parking.  Yeah, yeah, there are some lines/establish spaces that were painted/measured before mammoth trucks and SUV’s were built, but if you can’t maneuver your beast, then get a jelly bean on wheels and park your automobile between the lines.  And for those of you that back into reverse so you can peel out of that children’s piano recital as quickly as humanly possible, only do it if there aren’t cars behind you or if you can miraculously back it in, in one attempt (and those of you that can, I’m envious).  Holding up the line for that high-maintenance move is kind of lame.

Category #3 – Table Manners

Let’s get to it: 1). Don’t talk with food in your mouth; 2) Use a napkin (cloth/paper, not tongue); 3) Don’t touch food that you’re not going to eat; 4). If the food is meant to be eaten with a fork or spoon, then use the utensils; 5) When in doubt, if you can cut it with a knife and a knife is provided then don’t eat it with your hands; 6) Don’t take thirds of something until people have had an opportunity to have seconds;  and 7). Don’t critique children’s table manners (they’re still learning) if you’re a slob at the table yourself.

Category #4 – Contribute

*Basically, stop being lazy/make excuses.  Don’t expect other people to do something for you.  Don’t volunteer others to do something you’re fully capable of doing yourself.  One of my classroom rules has always been, “If you volunteer someone else against their will, you have just volunteered yourself.” Ask them first.  I’ve always told my son, you can ask them, but they can say, “No” and that’s okay.  That’s why you, “Have to have a Plan B (and C, and D)” another one of my classroom mottoes as well.

*If you sense there’s a problem, then fix it.  Some of you might be thinking, “Well, Laura, you’re voicing the problem, and not being a part of the solution.”  And to that I argue that posting on a blog, not anonymously, blurting out everything that’s been bothering me over the years about lack of common courtesy is doing something about it. Trust me, I’ve bit my tongue and rolled my eyes without saying anything for a LONG TIME (whether professionally, personally, or publicly) Let’s just get this out in the open shall we? I realize I’m taking a risk by burning bridges and/or making a lot of people in my life paranoid, wondering “Is she talking about ME?”, but I can guarantee you if you possess the ability to self-reflect prior to reading this post, and you consider yourself an ambitious person, then you’re probably not a frequent offender. I try to lead by example as best I can and I hope we can all be more respectful, kind and courteous to our friends, family, and strangers.

The worst thing about censorship is…..

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Overall, I’m not a fan of censorship. You’ll rarely find me supporting the conservative parent who’s questioning the contents of a book.  Four years ago an author’s free verse young adult series was questioned in the school’s library where I taught, but no one who had concerns about the book had actually read the book cover to cover.  Nonetheless, teachers who had this same author’s work on their classroom library shelves were asked to remove them from our classrooms and I obliged only because I like having a salary that allows me to afford food, clothing, and shelter for my family.  It was my first year in a new school district; I just did it and didn’t argue.

Unless the book is pornographic, I say keep it.  Swearing – fine.  You should listen to the students in my hallway.  They are familiar with cuss words, I’m not teaching them anything new or taking them down with me to “the dark side”.  Drugs?  Well, they do exist.  I have never read a story (with drugs, violence, etc, embedded in the plot line) that actually promoted the illegal activity.  It simply proved that controversial topics exist, these situations are happening RIGHT NOW and many of my students come from complicated life experiences.  If you want them to read, they need characters and situations they can relate to.  More and more young adults are turning to realistic-fiction nationally (I’ve seen this in my classroom as well) and this does not surprise me at all.  If they’re going to read, they don’t want to waste their time with fairy-tale endings, and imaginary worlds. They want to keep it real and find solutions and/or be able to cope with text-to-self or text-to-world connections while they read.

What prompted this blog post?  On my Twitter account, I follow Laurie Halse Anderson, a young adult author who wrote the historical-fiction novel Fever 1793 that I read with my 7th grade students the four years I was a middle school English teacher.  Anderson had posted a tweet about how a school board in Muhlenberg, Pennsylvania wants to remove any books on any shelf in the school that possess, “violence, sexual content, or language.”  My first reaction was: They’ll have nothing left on the shelves. I think the parents’ and school board’s motivation is they feel they’re protecting their children, but educating them on the possible negative scenarios their child could encounter in his/her future and using a piece of literature as an example of how best to handle those scenarios is far better than the shield/avoidance strategy.

I do a censorship lesson with my students when we practice being critical and analyzing literature and we use children’s books as examples.  If you really want to pick a book apart, you could find “something wrong” with every book ever written.  Another pet peeve of mine?  People telling me how to think/feel.  Fahrenheit 451 should remain a book of fiction.  There’s no need for us to bring it to life.

The irony of censorship is that when a book is given a lot of negative attention, it typically draws more readers to that work.  The free verse series I mentioned earlier?  After the student body got wind that they no longer had access to the literature at school, they (many were students who weren’t readers or did not have previous intentions of reading poetry for pleasure) marched on over to the public library and the waiting list to check out these titles was 10-20 names deep.

At my first teaching job, a particular “classic” novel was deemed only appropriate for upperclassman (even though age is really a number, maturity is not consistent merely by grade level) and the book was put on a shelf behind the school’s library circulation desk via administration request.  Again, students’ interest in the book was peeked once it was deemed “forbidden”.  More students had checked out and read the novel than all the others years the school had owned the novel combined.

When deeming a novel “acceptable” let’s focus on the quality of the writing and not just on one cuss word or one scene.  From cover to cover, is the story worth it?  Right now I’m reviewing an early edition reader’s copy of an upcoming novel and I don’t like it.  I’d have no desire to put it on my shelves.  Why?  It’s poorly written and I have yet to detect a worthy theme from the story line.  I also find the protagonist almost impossible to relate to by most teenagers today.

If the book in question is not required reading, but a choice for students to pick from, then the student can simply choose a different book if his/her parents do not approve.  The last thing I’d want as a parent and English teacher is for another parent to have the power to decided what MY child has access to.  Frankly, leave that up to me.

Why I Got Into Teaching

I wasn’t sure what my first post on my first blog was going to be about.  We’re getting close to Christmas so flying out of the gates with a full-on vent didn’t seem fitting.  Why not talk about why I love my job?  I’m sure I’ll slide in a couple sarcastic/quick comments here and there, because that’s how I roll, but overall I’ll try to keep this as positive as I can.

Education wasn’t my first major.  For 16 weeks I was a Broadcast Journalism major.  Spring semester, while sitting in my first journalism class of my college career, “Introduction to Broadcasting” (and the content of the history of television and radio was actually quite interesting) I realized this wasn’t going to be the career for me.  Why?  I’m not petite and I’m female (big guys-not a problem–and yes, I already inserted a negative comment).  No one was going to put me in front of a camera.  Radio?  It would be fantastic to be on air while secretly wearing pajamas, no make-up if I didn’t feel like it, and jamming to music, but at the age of 18, I had zero confidence that I was funny enough to get a morning radio spot.  On top of all that, my professor explained how technology would affect the broadcasting industry and that the need for full-time employed humans was going to be few and far between in the near future, so clearly the odds were stacked against me.  I walked out of that lecture, and immediately withdrew from the College of Journalism and walked my papers across campus to the Teacher’s College.

I remember wanting to be a teacher when I was in elementary school.  Why I changed my mind once I became a legal adult?  I think there was a part of me in my 18 year old brain that didn’t think choosing the same career path as one of my parents was “cool” so becoming a teacher or an accountant (I stink at Math anyway) was not on my radar.  In the end though, the reality was that the only subjects I liked in high school were those that fell into the category of Language Arts.  Now, I sincerely feel this is where I’m supposed to be.  Here’s another negative comment: There are plenty of teachers out there, who have chosen this profession for odd reasons.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of awesome educators out there too, but unfortunately it’s the train wrecks that make the news or grab my attention in the work place.  But, back to the positive.  I want to focus on the teachers in my life that definitely got into the profession for the right reasons and have influenced the way that I teach.  If you’re my former teacher, and I didn’t mention you, it’s not because I don’t think you’re great at your job, I just thought I’d narrow it down to my Top 5 (the order in which I had them-earliest to latest).

*Mrs. Hansel – Fourth grade Language Arts teacher:

She had me at,  “I picked this book out just for you.”  I remember her telling me this as she called each one of us to her book cabinet one by one and explained what our first independent-read book was going to be, a little synopsis of the plot and why she sincerely thought we would like it.  I do that now with my students whether it be book trailers, book recommendations, or coming back  from the weekend with a bag of books and handing different titles to kids to try.  When you show them how special AND powerful AND important AND personal reading can be, your students will read.  Sometimes it really is that easy.

*Mr. Carlson – 8th grade English Teacher

Here was a smart male teaching English, which, for whatever reason, was an anomaly in my world.  Most of my teachers had been female up to this point.  I read The Outsiders the first day he sent us all home with a school copy of the book.  I loved “A Lantern in Her Hand” as well, but what I enjoyed the most from Mr. Carlson is the feedback he gave me on my writing.  He was great with teacher-student conferencing at a time when it wasn’t the “rage” and there hadn’t been a billion professional books written about it.  Right away, at the beginning of the year, he had us writing a persuasive position paper on whatever we wanted.  I took this window of opportunity to let the feelings fly, and I remember writing a paper on name favoritism in our community and how people should be rewarded for hard work not because of what their parents or grandparents have accomplished, but for what they’ve accomplished (yep, I was an opinionated beast back in 8th grade too).  Mr. Carlson had such a kind heart, our whole conference was him worrying that I felt he had been prejudiced towards me, a middle-class kid.  I had to reassure him, that he’d always treated me with fairness, and that I certainly wasn’t using the assignment as a passive-aggressive attempt to tell my English teacher to, “Go Fly a Kite.”  Mr. Carlson was the opposite of picking favorites.  He was fair.  He read every word of our writing and wanted us to like English.  I respect him for his intelligence and the fairness he brought to the room.  I try to be as consistent as possible with my students when it comes to class expectations and even though it’s time consuming, constructive feedback is so worth it.

*J.P., D., – (Jr. High & High School Band) and Mr. Bob (H.S. Drama):

These three guys are getting grouped together, because they were my Fine Arts teachers, but they also collaborated with each other as well, and made a powerhouse team.  What they all share in common, even though  they all had VERY different personalities (and yes, none of us actually called them Mr. Roebke, Mr. Duensing, and Mr. Henrichs), was they never gave up on me.  You see, when it came to playing my french horn with somewhat impressive skill/talent or acting on stage at a level that was praise-worthy, I was a super late bloomer.  Mainly because of self-confidence, anxiety, and always fearing I was going to choke at the big moments, which I did anyway.  I’m so happy they hung in there for my junior/senior years when I finally found a stride and was much more consistent with my performance level.  Not every student clicks at the same time, but encouragement, suggestions, and helpful/constructive criticism can really help a student meet their goals/improve on their skills.

*Madame Lamski – High School French II-IV Teacher

Hands down the most energetic and optimistic teacher I ever had.  She never appeared agitated with our class, even though we were an eclectic group of crazy adolescents.  That 45 minute class period was JAM PACKED with activities.  Never once did she stand up in front of the room for 5 minutes, give a little blurb and then do a, “And now you will work on these pages out of your textbook for the next 40 minutes”.  She incorporated so much audio, visual, body-movement activities, whatever she had to do to help us grasp a concept, new vocabulary, you name it!  We still write Christmas letters to each other and I even got to spend three weeks with Madame in France the summer after I graduated high school.  She is the most worldly teacher (she worked in the Peace Corp prior to teaching French in the states) I ever had and she taught me so much about life, tolerance, and diversity.  She has been a wonderful role-model about the importance of positive relationship building with students.  Her classroom was exciting and energetic from the tardy to dismissal bell, and everything in between, and because that mutual respect was established, we were more than willing to go along for the ride!

*Loretta Tebbe – Honors Communication Arts 9, Novice & Varsity Debate Teacher 9-12

I left my mom for the end, because she was (now retired) an amazing teacher and like all of my great English teachers taught me with my writing, I’m trying to bring my first blog post full-circle.  When I was 18 I didn’t want to be my mom, but in the end she is the person who’s classroom I spent the most time in and who has influenced me the most when it comes to lesson plans, unit development, and classroom delivery.  I had my mother as a teacher all four years in high school, because I chose to compete in Debate all four years of high school.

Another reason I didn’t jump into the teaching saddle right away is I first-hand witnessed the B.S. that many teachers have to go through.    The 6 1/2 day weeks she worked (even though there were no classes or school related activities on Sunday, after church was the only time she had to grade) is  hard for me to wrap my brain around since she also was a mother of three kids and active in her church and community.  How did she maintain her sanity and still be a very dynamic teacher (I loved her Communication Arts class)?

What I learned from those four years of living with one of my high school teachers is that if you’re going to do the job right, it takes HARD WORK.  My mom doesn’t accept sucking at anything, which means there was never half-effort on her part, which also means, she was stretched pretty thin with all the hats in her life she wore.  I don’t consider myself Teacher of the Year, and I’m not the smartest person in my building, but I am proud to tell people that I’m a hard-worker.

Teaching is no small task (when done right—yep another zinger) and I’m so proud to call teaching my profession.