A Breather before PARCC Testing

This year has been incredibly different. I have been teaching with a new team, learning how to prepare my students for the (possibly only) PARCC exam, taking on co-sponsorship of student council, and getting to know our new department head.

I am much more connected to the school through my teaching team, and although I enjoy the comaraderie of delving into new curriculum, I do miss the freedoms I had last year.

Although I was sometimes frustrated last year, I have been consistently reeling from constant change this year. It’s as though we are on a lake, tubing, and I barely know who is driving the boat, how big the lake is, and how long they will be driving or how long until I fall off. Did I mention it’s storming and I keep waiting for the lightning to hit?

I think the second year is when people think about quitting. I think new curriculum or teacher evaluations or a new format/battery of standardized testing is when people think about quitting. With great change, comes insecurity. I have questioned my abilities and then rallied for another week many times. I have grappled with not trusting people as a result of feeling as though I can’t trust them because they frequently change their minds, do not communicate in a way I am able to understand, and I am constantly failing their standards.

I know I am a good teacher. Or, at least, I know I have the capacity to teach well, but I know I’ve been missing the mark this year. My data isn’t working out. Some of my students are still failing. I don’t make nearly enough parent contact. I have not explicitly instructed in vocab. or kept track of the in-context instruction I do while we read. I have thoughtlessly vented over something work-related with the wrong person present. I have cried and/or gotten angry about life. I am clearly still a work in progress.

However, I persistently see the endless potential of my students to do well. I choose to give the benefit of the doubt when I don’t know something. I try to be helpful in making sure everyone (students and co-workers) has the materials they need to succeed, and I try to be mindful of the struggles and responsibilities they face outside of my room. I am blessed by the people who do care about me.

Most of all, this year comes down to my passion for helping students. Even with the craziness and constant change, I still love my students and my career. I will not be overcome, but will keep trying.

P.S. During spring break, I am going to try and post some materials I’ve used this year, PARCC-related and otherwise.

Literature Circles: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel, Rachel.”

The above maxim was often quoted to me by my student teaching co-op, Mrs. Johnson. I was fortunate enough to have her as my co-op for pre-student teaching classroom observation in addition to a semester of student teaching. As per my workaholic nature, I have a tendency to obsess over documents and creatively re-invent a lot of my content. 

Those of you who are older and wiser teachers than I know exactly why this poses a problem in reality (“ain’t nobody got time for that!”). 

You should all be very proud that after only eight months of contracted teaching, this lesson finally hit home. And thus, in the last full month of school, I decided to do literature circles with my critical reading students without reinventing the wheel. 

Here are some sources I used (after scouring the Internet like I usually do for printables): 

Individual prep. (each student completes for each chunk/assignment of reading): http://www.lauracandler.com/filecabinet/literacy/PDFLC/easyprep.pdf

 
Group roles (each student “specializes” in an area for each meeting and rotates roles): http://www.neisd.net/roan/docs/literacy%20circle%20roles.pdf
 
Daily Journals (have not used these yet, but may still do so): http://www.lauracandler.com/filecabinet/literacy/PDFLC/responseq.pdf
 
Question prompts (I am keeping these on hand if students are still struggling with discussion): http://www.lauracandler.com/filecabinet/literacy/PDFLC/qcards.pdf
 
Student contract options (p31)- I would like to purchase this whole book, but found this selection efficient for reminding me of how important it is to set-up and scaffold student learning in lit. circles: https://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/
 
Reminder to self: upload my student contract and Role Schedule (the latter looks like the one in this link). 
 
Another site I found and enjoyed that uses lit. circles for a whole class book: http://iws.punahou.edu/user/bschauble/sophs/litcirc.html
 
And finally, I consulted reliable RWT, although I did not like the hand-outs as much for my audience (may be more helpful for lower level ELD students):http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/literature-circles-getting-started-19.html
 
Eventually, I’ll get smart and just upload my packet I put together, but I thought I would break down my process in case anyone else is looking around for resources. What I love about literature circles is that they give an opportunity for students to collaborate, practice setting/meeting goals, discover areas of expertise, and even learn how to fail in group work in a safe environment. 
 
Let us make no mistake; many companies are moving toward collaboration in the workplace. Although this is troubling for natural introverts (who usually have the best things to say, even though they are said the least), I want to encourage my students to adapt to the problems of conflicting personalities, flaky group members, and gaining a greater understanding corporately. 
 
Here is how I set them up (feel free to ask for clarifications as necessary): 
  • Spend a week introducing the structure and modeling/guiding practice of the different roles within the group. I made them into mini-lessons and combined them with some writing instruction. Bear in mind that we have already done Socratic seminars, mock interviews, reading in different contexts, and enough participation that everyone is familiar with one another at this point in the year. I was surprised at how many of my students are unfamiliar with this format. I recall literature circles as early as the fourth grade!

 

  • Allow students to choose their book selections by ranking. Play up the student ownership early in the game! I have a lot of leveled books left over from the Edge curriculum that I used for this purpose.
  • For one class period, students roamed around to different tables to preview and rate all of their book options from favorite (1) to least favorite (8). Each class had eight choices which were selected based on the variety of reading levels in each section. I reminded them how we preview books (look at cover, flip through, read a page, finger-check reading level), and let them go with half sheets of notebook paper.
  • I told them I would try to pick one of their top choices, but made no guarantees (which allowed me some judicial power in selecting groups). Everyone ended up getting one of their top three choices, even though some of those students had been careless in making selections and were sometimes dismayed with their group assignment. I was pleasantly surprised at how many students placed themselves with a book that was almost exactly appropriate to their reading level. 

 

  • Day 1: Give out group assignments, books, and have groups create a reading schedule. I made a Google calendar for the month and included start date, school items (days off, finals, etc.), and date everything is due. It was easy to print off and include in packets. My students are doing their semester final as projects based off of the book they are reading in groups (for some added incentive and accountability), so those dates were on the calendar too. I also included an agenda for the first group meeting and subsequent meetings. 

 

  • The rest of the month, I am informally observing, coaching groups as necessary, and awarding individual participation points. Ultimately, I would like students to see how much attendance and reliability in groups matters, but until we’re there, I’m reminding them to use their time wisely by giving points without telling them. They can earn up to 5 points a day, but I am not going to reel them in repeatedly. This is a much longer leash than they have been given the entire year, and while some days are really painful, it’s already starting to work. I am printing out grades on Fridays so they can see their performance from the last week. If they are absent and it is excused, they are excused from participation. Otherwise, an absence means a zero for points. I have group contracts on hand if they are struggling to be cohesive and productive. Most groups have already said that if a group member is unprepared for discussion, they should lose points for the day and have to take notes quietly during discussion. 

We will see how this goes. It could either go well or blow up in my face, but I am willing to risk it for the sake of teaching real life skills. Stay tuned! Two more weeks of lit. circles (one down), and a week and a half of school after that!

 

Poetry from the desk of Rachel Meyer

Sometimes I still manage to write a bit in between things at school. One of these I wrote last fall, and the other I wrote last week. Consider this scrapbooking for me.

I browse my thoughts

like books in a library

Familiar yet aloof

from the cascade of words

neatly constrained behind bindings.

I pause and absentmindedly reach for one

I wonder

if anyone else notices the pattern of 

fluorescent lights on the glossy hallway tile

or the window on the way to my classroom that is daily inspiring,

an over-sized post-modern terrarium, containing only

what I see (squirrels, moths, rain on leaves)

while simultaneously containing nothing

because I am the one inside the glass. 

I slide the musing back onto the shelf and walk away.

If I could only figure out

if the books are all written

or if the words appear as I read.

 

_______________________________________________________________________

 

Teacher Prayer

I am beyond the current deluge of weariness, complaints, and chaos.

I will not be struck down 

without rising again.

My eyes will not see the negativity of today,

but will instead sharpen the hope of tomorrow.

 

I will accept my shortcomings and see them

as rungs leading to an ever-increasing perspective.

I will choose to keep my heart soft

and my hands open to embrace others

to embrace what I am given.

I will remind myself to be thankful.

I will remind myself to be thoughtful.

I will remind myself how precious and painful and wonderful growing up is

and love my students beyond what they choose to show me. 

One Week Before the End of the First Quarter

Things I like about my job:

  • The “Lunch Bunch” of teachers I eat with in my hallway. They are an amazing group of women who are much more experienced in teaching than I. 
  • Coming up with funny(-ish; more like straightforward) metaphors and comparisons for relating reading to my critical reading students.
  • Scan-trons. They make my life easier for PSAT prep.
  • My other math half, Allison. She co-teaches test prep. with me so I do not have to remember the finer points of math or embarrass myself in front of students with my numeral dyslexia. 
  • My first hour students who know how to get things done, yet still enjoy a good time with super-caffeinated me at the beginning of the day. 
  • Zumba with fellow teachers, led by an administrator. I doubt any other school has this!
  • My Taylor; the other newbie English teacher about my age. It is good to know I’m not the only one! She also gives an excellent name to Arkansas education 🙂
  • My room- it may be a bit cramped and lack technology, but it has two windows overlooking the courtyard and is quite lovely. 
  • THAT I GOT JOB BOX SET UP! This means I no longer have to dash down the hall to the copier to pick up something I’ve printed (often while digging it out of the middle of someone’s copying job and apologetically handing them paper to replace what my prints took).
  • All the nice teachers and support staff I’ve met who are completely on board to go the extra mile to help students succeed.

Things I do not like about my job:

  • The difficulties of coordination/organization within a large school. This issue alone pretty much encompasses what can make the day-to-day experiences tough.
  • That I am the only one doing critical reading. I love the class, but I miss team teaching sometimes, or at least the input other teachers in similar classes can provide.
  • How easy it is for children to fall through the cracks in such a large school. There are days I spend my entire plan period hunting down other resources within the school to find help for some of my kids or to gain a fuller perspective on who they are and what we can do together.
  • The limited technology. Admittedly, I was spoiled at my last school. However, I do worry that I’m not incorporating enough technology into my lessons because it just isn’t there. I’m working on it.
  • When students are accustomed to being held to low standards, call themselves stupid, or would rather expend more energy complaining rather than problem solving.
  • The things that are going on in my students’ lives that I can’t guide them through outside of the classroom. 

Things I’d like to change for next year:

  • Better planning (isn’t this always true?). The whole being hired less than two weeks before school thing really limited my options.
  • Booking the computer lab early (see above item).
  • Having more ideas of how to arrange desks in a tiny classroom
  • Better materials for testing reading comprehension
  • A reading endorsement if I am to keep the same position as I have now.
  • More organizational stuff. I clearly need some more direction because I don’t even know what all I need! I mean, yes, I do have my color coding and sorting going, and I have good instructional routines in place, but there’s always just that little bit more worth doing to streamline things or make mundane tasks academically meaningful.

Friday Reflections (3 weeks in)

From when I first began pursuing teaching as a career, it has fascinated me how much I learn as an individual while teaching students. I knew my school was a good fit for my cheerfully stubborn teaching demeanor and patient but firm classroom management style since I attended an initial interview (only about 6 weeks ago!).

What has most profoundly impacted me is my students. It ought to be a no-brainer, but I was unprepared to feel so comfortable even as a minority in all of my classes. Socioeconomically, I grew up very similarly to these students, and I realized that for once in my life, I was comfortable with admitting that I grew up with very little.

No, I do not know what it’s like to experience teenage pregnancy, parents who require one’s presence as a translator in the community, the difficulty of leaving friends and family in another country, or the trials of bilingualism, but at the core of it, I do understand that life is very hard, and that most of my students will have to fight to be successful in life. I’ve had to fight too.

I knew that my universal goal of empowering students would apply to any school I taught at, but I didn’t know how strongly that need would resonate within my classes. I knew that I would care deeply for my students, but I didn’t know how deeply I’d invest my patience and belief in their potential until I met them.

It makes me wonder if it’s anything like I’ve heard motherhood described; pregnant mothers know they already love their babies, but they become unequivocally linked when they meet.

Apart from these feelings, I am overwhelmingly thankful for how well my professors prepared me for things like setting up a classroom, establishing sound routines in English, and learning to reflect on daily performance and interactions.

I love my job 🙂

Go bulldogs! Woof! Woof!

My First Real First Day

Today was the first day of my first contracted teaching job. I have had first days before, but this one was different; I no longer had the reassurance of any co-teachers or the carefree mindset of a long-term sub! It was solely up to me to start the year!

Of course I panicked to some small extent (“What if the copier doesn’t work? What if I forget to print a class roster before school?), but those thoughts were fleeting and minor. This is the job for which I was made. 

Let me paint you a picture of my situation with as much clarity I can give while maintaining security. It is a large high school of about 2100 students (and only grades 10-12!). I am one of about 20 English teachers, and of those teachers, (in addition to one section of 10th English) I am entrusted with two brand new classes this year: critical reading and PSAT/ACT prep. 

I was hired a week and a half before school, the day before new teacher orientation. Please consider the logistical constraints of setting up one’s first classroom, the long hours of teacher in-service, and the flurry of paperwork necessary to complete official employment (I actually don’t have a contract yet, but it’s coming!).

My room was a shared room last year, meaning it lacked a filing cabinet, tables, computer, projector and screen, and functional teacher chair when I arrived. My desk had evidently been traded by another teacher due to the “To 207” label on its surface. It is a glorious metallic pink and green monstrosity, built to withstand nuclear holocaust. Somehow, I managed to befriend the support staff and obtain all the furniture items in a timely manner, so what I did have completed for my room encouraged me in no small measure to be prepared for the first day.

What struck me most about this first day was the disparity between envisioning students and the reality of their presence. Don’t misunderstand me, I already love my students, but I do not think I was fully prepared to be a minority in every one of my classes, or to see more than a few pregnant teenagers going about their days. 

I am used to boisterous classes that require a firm hand and creative redirection. Due to the nature of my critical reading classes consisting of students who needed more work with reading and a high ELL population, the majority of my students were very quiet, calling for more motivation (and a few Starburst candies) to break the ice. Again, it’s okay because I’m actually ESL certified also, but it’s not what I was expecting. 

I was also not expecting to have my computer not show up until today, but that is another story. Actually, not having a projector, ELMO, or computer helped me to see how much I’ve already incorporated those classroom technologies into my teaching. I’m really hoping we can get them up and running soon because I do not know how I can teach ESL students effectively without better visuals. 

All in all, I felt good about what we accomplished today. It was so refreshing to finally be a “real” teacher and to be a part of a school community full of students who need compassion, enthusiasm, and empowerment. I am so excited for this year! 

Tell me about your first days of school this year. How did it go? Did you do any activities you really loved?

P.S. It was also pretty cool getting a teacher account for Aesop instead of a substitute account!

I Am Employed!

I got a job. 8 days ago I was hired, and each day since has been a deluge of experiences for which I have waited so long.

Really, I ought to make a list of all the possible topics that have already come up that I would love to record and discuss, but for now, I will just say that my new district is exactly what I was looking for in my first teaching experience:

  1. It’s a large district with a large department of English teachers (meaning more resources/expertise to draw from).
  2. They are serious about professional development and becoming better educators on a daily basis.
  3. I have a mentor teacher!
  4. There is a diverse student population, meaning my ESL endorsement will be used!
  5. My Sylvan teaching experience was actually relevant to me fitting in this position.
  6. They appreciate ENTHUSIASM! I HAVE FOUND MY PEOPLE! In all seriousness, though, I absolutely want to work where positivity is encouraged.
  7. I had the best interview and learned through this experience the importance of finding a school that is a good fit for my teaching personality.
  8. They believe in me. 

I am ridiculously blessed. Although there have already been a few surprises in what I am teaching this year, my gratefulness for all of the above enables me to be very flexible and ebullient!

School starts on Monday. There will be a plethora of thoughts and posts to come! Wish me luck!

How to Study for the Praxis II English Exams

I am sorry for the dearth of posts this past month; July was quickly consumed by studying for the Praxis II, applying for jobs, and going to interviews. No official news yet on the job situation, but I have a feeling it will all be wrapped up soon! 😉 

I searched the internet a LOT for supplemental guides for taking the Praxis II English, Language, Literature & Comp.: Content & Analysis and English, Language, Literature & Comp.: Pedagogy tests. The following is a list of ways I started studying that I found most helpful, given the lack of available resources. Please note that I registered well in advance before all this.

1) Find the ETS testing overview for your specific, state-required test. There is a handy page on their website to search for your test and get a study sheet. It gives a quick breakdown of the test, as well as study materials.

2) Find your study book of choice. No, you don’t have to buy one of these, but it’s extremely helpful to practice testing within your allotted amount of time with questions that someone else generates. After much debate and review-reading, I chose this Cliffnotes book because it had practice tests and I used the other English related tests included to study for my test as well.

3) If you are starting this process months in advance, READ UP ON THE CLASSICS! Look at an AP English reading list, as well as suggestions within your study book to fill in the gaps of your knowledge of different genres and major works. 

4) Review literary terms. I know not everyone casually throws around “trochaic tetrameter” or “denouement,” but it’s really helpful to review these for a professional test on your content area. I made flashcards, looked up AP English term stacks on Quizlet, and compared various definitions between those and the ones listed in my study book until I was comfortable with understanding exactly what each term meant. 

5) Practice written response portions. As it turns out, according to a list of state-required scores (very helpful), my current state is one of two states that currently requires the pedagogy test. The test is an hour long, and consists of a series of short answer/mini essay questions. I am so glad I took my own ACT prep. class advice (I taught it for a year), and timed myself while practicing the response. It was very difficult to finish in that time frame. Additionally, I discovered another one of my testing quirks: I blank when questions are too broad. For instance:

“Choose a work that you know well enough to identify and cite examples of its central literary features…”

Suddenly, I can’t think of anything I read in that book, and my answer outlining falls to pieces. What I did to combat this was to brainstorm every literary feature/device I could think of off-hand (before reviewing my term cards), practice writing about every work I knew on the list, and then going back and filling in the blanks with details I had forgotten, or ideas I would have changed. This also helped me in the short answer portion of the content test. Basically, just make sure you can do what the test asks. 

5) Find your areas of weakness and practice, practice, practice. I am terrible at remembering titles and authors. Really, I can remember the basic plots and overall messages of books better than I can recall character and author names. I made a lot of flash cards for this, but I also found a fun matching game that helped me and gave me a break from the books. I did this one, this other one where I wrote in authors to match titles, and this last one to review Shakespeare plays

I also photocopied the pages in my study book that listed major literary movements and works, cut them up into strips to separate date headings and major works, and sorted them out. It helped me remember historical markers I had forgotten as well as helped me to be able to more accurately guess where works belonged in the timeline. 

6) Finally, if you saved any college notes or papers, now is the time to read them. I found it was often more helpful than relearning a period of literature otherwise because notes in my own words carried more contextual meaning I remembered from class. 

Other than that, I can only tell you that the following are immensely helpful for any standardized test:

  1. Wear layers so you will be comfortable in any temperature of testing room (I never work well while freezing).
  2. Bring extra pencils and make sure you bring the kind of pencils you sharpen in case you aren’t allowed mechanical pencils (my Praxis exams did not allow them).
  3. Wear a digital watch with a stopwatch feature so you can pace yourself through the test. Sometimes proctors will write how much time you have on the board, but they are not required to do so, and your cell phone is NOT ALLOWED.
  4. Do a test run to the testing center if you are unfamiliar with it. 
  5. Read the test requirements carefully to make sure you bring what you need. In the case of this test, I needed a state-issued ID, my entrance ticket (printed from online registration), extra pencils, and no phone. I usually avoid bringing my bag/purse inside because many test sites will check your bag or make you set it outside the room. I do bring a snack just in case and leave it in my car 🙂

 

I am still waiting on my scores, but I really feel that it is the best test I’ve taken. I actually felt good about it (which is saying a lot for a teacher with test anxiety). Have any of you taken the Praxis II? What was it like for you? How did you study?

 

Using YouTube in the Classroom

I loved movie days in school just as much as the next person. It was interesting and engaging to me to hear someone else speak (which says a lot about the teaching style I grew up with), and the novelty was exciting.

As a teacher to a fast-paced media-based generation, I’ve noticed that many students don’t even like movie days anymore. There’s usually at least one student I have to redirect away from other technology during the film, and if I’m subbing for someone else’s class, I have no idea if that teacher tries to use the video as a teaching point or a time filler (although I’ll assert to the end of class that the teacher had some purpose in showing the film).

I like using YouTube for short clips as part of my motivation/intro. activity at the beginning of class because it helps students focus in on our class topic. However, videos really aren’t very instructive unless, like books, you frame the context and direct your students to what they should be looking for.

For instance, I used this clip for the television show, Glee, and asked students to identify the stereotypes portrayed in this 2 minute video (note: know your audience. The word “sucks” was okay in the district for the age group I was teaching at the time, but would not be acceptable at some other places). This activity segued into a journal on stereotypes and a discussion of the characters’ stereotypes in To Kill a Mockingbird and how they are eliminated as we get to know individuals on a deeper level.

What I would like to do is have students come up songs that go along with the reading they’ve done for a night or week and then (after previewing them), play them for the class to see if others agree or disagree with their interpretation of events or certain characters. I see some distinct possibilities for engaging students who love music and perhaps expanding ideas about experiencing and interpreting literature.

Do you use YouTube in your classroom? If so, how? If not, what other video sources do you like to use?

A Poetic Aside

I measure every Grief I meet (561)

  by Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes – 
I wonder if It weighs like Mine – 
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long – 
Or did it just begin – 
I could not tell the Date of Mine – 
It feels so old a pain – 

I wonder if it hurts to live – 
And if They have to try – 
And whether – could They choose between – 
It would not be – to die – 

I note that Some – gone patient long – 
At length, renew their smile –  
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil – 

I wonder if when Years have piled –  
Some Thousands – on the Harm –  
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –  

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve – 
Enlightened to a larger Pain –  
In Contrast with the Love –  

The Grieved – are many – I am told –  
There is the various Cause –  
Death – is but one – and comes but once –  
And only nails the eyes –  

There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –  
A sort they call "Despair" –  
There's Banishment from native Eyes – 
In sight of Native Air –  

And though I may not guess the kind –  
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –  

To note the fashions – of the Cross –  
And how they're mostly worn –  
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like my own – 

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15394#sthash.7OI6J2YP.dpuf

This was a poem I had to read several times to dwell on different parts of it I liked. The basic idea is that we all have our crosses to bear, and in noticing others’ burdens, we often compare them to our own. 

When I think of this in the context of teaching, I think about how often I find aspects of students I can identify with, and how that strengthens my compassion toward them. Even the most challenging students have some part of them you can notice; feeling alienated, learning boundaries, trying for perfection, being confused or hurt. We have all experienced these things to some degree. 

It would be hubris to say one “totally” understands another, because it is impossible to live another’s life, but it is very possible to recognize hurt, pain, and suffering in many forms. I don’t think I’d readily teach this poem to a class, but I like it as a reminder that everyone carries burdens and that it’s important to see them with compassion rather than focusing on the external effects in behavior that stem from those struggles. 

Everyone acts the way they do for a reason. I think that’s part of the reason why I have grown to have a lot of patience for students and friends. Life is too short to be shallow.