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Opportunities Abound

Consider seven surprises from the start of the year:

  1. A 6th-grade girl dancing and leaping like Isadora Duncan all by herself. Easily 100 yards away from everyone out in the fields by our school–a happy little pink speck twirling and flickering across the grass.
  2. An 8th-grade boy handed me a knitted blue heart on his way out of class and said “there’s a really interesting project going on with these”: The Peyton Heart Project.
  3. I saw $25 dollars in cash outside. I’m “used to” seeing kids’ smartphones left unattended outdoors, but we’re doing cash now?
  4. The student who said: “I. Am. SO. Going. To. Raid. Your. Bookcase.” 
  5. And then there is the email titled “Writing” from a student on Sept. 3rd.
  6. And the boy who wore a full Spiderman costume to Picture Day and the rest of the kids didn’t blink.
  7. And the magic that happens when we provide kids colored chalk, an asphalt surface, and time.

Educator’s curate and plan. Administrators curate and plan. The top-down model of “doing business” is real. Yet, so much of our vocation is steeped in holistic responses–the “intimate and inexplicable connections”–generated within our small communities.

The seven surprises shared above may seem unconnected but that isn’t true. They all have something in common.

Me.

I was there.

And each act of creativity, sincerity, or folly can be impacted by my responsiveness…or silence.

I haven’t shared if or how I may have responded, but I know I can be better. I am reminded that, even after twenty-five years in the classroom, we have so much to learn…and give.

Opportunities to give emerge in unexpected ways every day.

September Snapshot: Begin by Respecting Difference

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I collaborate with students at Penn State Brandywine’s Writing Studio amid a culture clash. I tutor first-year writers one-on-one weekly; for many students, this is the first time they’re receiving sustained, individual educational attention. This year, Penn State’s professors, drawing from generations of institutional and social power, will expect students to compose using standardized citation, annotation, Standard American English grammar, and critical literacy skills. Meanwhile, our students speak and write a plurality of grammars. They grew up among multiple family and community literacies. Faculty and staff may expect students to navigate college as their primary, if not singular, responsibility. Our students hold themselves personally responsible for much more. 

Brandywine’s campus is the second most diverse student community in the Penn State system. My intention this year is to hold space for our differences. When we open intercultural dialogue, my students and I can better acclimate and build a shared community. Previously, I began every semester by reviewing the tutorial’s syllabus: I led with my expectations; I created the terms of a contract for students. I’ve defined students’ success, even delineating their acceptable boundaries for resistance (students are allowed two missed tutorials). My power defined our first communication. This year, I will ask, not tell:

  • What are your expectations for yourself and for me?
  • How do you define success as an individual writer and as writing partners, together?
  • What will we do when we encounter misunderstanding or conflict?
  • How can we hold each other responsible and accountable for our goals and intentions?

Importantly, we both share our answers to these questions. Exploring difference early and developing shared agreements will hopefully reduce students’ isolation when they encounter different values later on. Hopefully, we’ll begin a conversation that makes visible our intercultural exchange and we’ll return to that conversation throughout the semester. I have the privilege of cultivating individual relationships at the Writing Studio. I want to advance that by respecting students’ unique experiences, histories, and strengths as the foundation for their progress.

Creating Balance: Nurturing Your Teacher Self

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As a new school year begins, teachers come armed with new or revised lesson plans and renewed excitement ready to give our students the best of ourselves so that they can be their best selves. Sometimes giving the best of ourselves comes with a price. In our quest to be a great teacher as well as parent, partner, caregiver, or one of the many other titles each of us wear, we often put our own needs last, which is the worst thing we could do to ourselves.  In my quest to redefine my work/life balance and reduce school year stress, I read many self-help articles and had several conversations with my daughter and sister, both of whom work in the mental health field, and found many commonalities. Here are a few strategies that stood out to me.  I hope at least one will work for you.

 

  • Prioritize – Be sure that you differentiate between what “must” and what you would “like” to get accomplished.
    • Be realistic; you cannot do everything.
    • Make a schedule to help you use your time more efficiently.
  • Schedule “Me Time” – If you don’t put yourself on your calendar chances are you will not make or take time for yourself.
    • Get a massage.
    • Take in a movie.
    • Meet up with a friend.
    • Read for pleasure
  • Manage Your Mind – The most important voice in your life is your own.  Listen to your body and practice positive self-talk.  Don’t beat yourself up. When feeling stressed take a mini break.
    • Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
    • Take a walk.
    • Listen to music.
    • Look at cherished pictures – your kids, grandkids, a favorite vacation spot.
  • Keep a Gratitude Journal – At the end of the school day or before you go to bed, take a few minutes to reflect on your day and write down a few things for which you are thankful. Not only will this help you to focus on the positive parts of your day, but on a difficult day you can revisit your entries and assure yourself that “this too shall pass.”

 

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A page from my own gratitude journal

  • Establish Boundaries – While you may not have a “job” that allows you to leave work at work, you do not have to be available 24/7.
    • Decide on a reasonable time to “unplug” each evening to stop checking your work email.
    • Establish a time limit for grading or engaging in social media.
    • Stop saying “Yes,” to every request.  Be selective with how you use your precious free time.

 

These are just a few suggestions and strategies.  Obviously, you may not be able to do this right away but choose one and start small.  If you have others to add to the list, please share them in the comment section below. Teachers do important work.  We can’t make a difference in the lives of our students if we don’t treat ourselves with respect and kindness.  We are all in this together!

cropped-rita-2017 Rita DiCarne is a 2000 PAWLP Writing Fellow.  She teaches 7th grade ELA at Our Lady of Mercy Regional Catholic School in Maple Glen, PA.  Rita married her high school sweetheart 39 years ago and with him she shares two wonderful children, their fabulous spouses, and four fantastic grandchildren!

Inviting Students to Participate in Effective Feedback

Feedback. The daunting and mystical term prompting students to fill their peer’s pages with “good job” and “nice work.” As teachers, we want more­­—so we change the word to effective feedback. The result of which garners students to share “really good job!” and “I love it!” This is when teacher frustration ensues, as we pull our hair and turn red trying to explain what effective feedback actually is.

My first time hearing about the idea of effective feedback was during a PAWLP summer institute course. Our guest speaker, Brian Kelley, discussed the idea of teaching students what effective feedback is and how to use it—a simple concept that changed everything for me. In the past, I had some sort of mini-lesson that included what feedback is, with a few brief sentence starters to generate conversation among students. This was fine, but not great.

This month, the students and I will spend a day discussing and practicing effective feedback. My plan for the day begins with a writing prompt. I will show “Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids” by Lisel Mueller— since it is the beginning of the year and the climate of the room is still forming, it is important to create a prompt that students will readily share with a peer they may not hold a relationship with.

Once students complete their writing, instruction on effective feedback begins. This includes providing a definition of effective feedback and showing examples of comments/feedback from social media posts. Sharing these examples not only attracts student attention, but also provides a platform to discuss what works and does not work in the comments/feedback.

Next, it is time to review the six terms in sharing effective feedback—praise, encourage, resonate, gentle pressure, model, and respectful opposition—along with their sentence starters. This is when the English nerd comes out of me, which happens quite regularly, where the students and I engage in a lively discussion of, “which term is your favorite?” or “how would you use this with partner?” Working with seventh graders, this always turns silly, mimicking a “would you rather…” style conversation.

Finally, we practice. I use a website (http://flippity.net/) to break students up into groups—this site is worth trying in your opening months of school to randomize students into group sizes of your choice as well as generate conversation among those who do not normally engage with one another. In these groups, students will exchange their opening writing passages and begin providing each other with effective feedback. Tip: keep the terms and their meaning projected on the board as well as provide students with an effective feedback handout to complete.

This is the first of many moments in my classroom practicing this skill. Not only will students learn to review each other’s work, but they also learn to accept the feedback and revise. Revision is another lesson for another day.

September Snapshot – This I Believe

I’m sure you’ve seen the quote from Michael Linsin, founder of the Smart Classroom Management blog, floating around on the internet, and I’ve made it my motto for this back to school season: “My number one goal at the end of the first day is not that they know the rules and consequences. It’s that they are excited to be a part of the class. That they run home to their parents and say, ‘Oh my gosh. I have the best teacher. I have this awesome class. It’s going to be a great year.’” I want this sense of excitement to carry through the year, but I set the tone with a day one escape room to get to know the classroom and collaborate within groups and a day two book tasting to get them ready to read every day in class. These two opening activities work like magic, and I have them in the palm of my hands.

Since participating in the PAWLP Summer Institute this past summer, I’ve been thinking about first week ways to get my 9th and 10th graders as excited about writing as we’ve been about reading. How can I provide some low stakes, low risk opportunities to build their self-esteem and their toolboxes as writers without focusing on the rules and consequences?

10th graders love to ponder philosophical questions as they figure out their place in the world, so this year, I am using the anthology This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman as a springboard for writing. You’re probably familiar with the short This I Believe segments on NPR.

On day three, we began with a writing warm up – What do you believe?

We read snippets from the editor’s notes at the beginning of the anthology to give students a little history of the project and some advice to writers of the pieces. I captured their takeaways on an anchor chart.

Then we read, round robin style, several examples of these short pieces. I chose from famous and unknown writers, sad and funny pieces, and each round had a task to complete before passing the papers.

After round 3, students shared their observations about the pieces, and I captured this thinking on a second anchor chart.

By the time they left for the long weekend, ideas were stewing. Already, we have a bunch of ideas and moves to try out in their own writing.

On day five, students began choosing the attributes they wanted to try, which they can adjust throughout the process of writing. In a sense, they create their own rubric. This fosters a sense of control and ownership over the piece and guarantees higher quality writing (I promise). Even though we only choose 3-4 attributes to work with, they still keep the others in mind and end up trying out more as they write!

We will continue to write and workshop our pieces this week: each writer will complete the “reflection” boxes to explain how they applied the attribute or move; peers will provide feedback in the “concerns” and “compliments” boxes; then the writer will explain any intentional revision strategies he/she used.

I love this merging of mentor texts and student discovery. When kids themselves uncover what makes writing for a specific purpose more effective, I’ve built excitement and engagement and they feel empowered to write. They now have great examples to refer to throughout the writing process, can participate in a low stakes, low risk first writing experience in my classroom, and have already begun to fill up their own writing toolboxes for the year ahead.

Abigail Turley

Book Review: A Symphony of Possibilities: A Handbook for Arts Integration in Secondary English Language Arts Edited by Katherine J. Macro and Michelle Zoss

A Symphony of Possibilities is an apt title – this new book from NCTE offers a harmonious mix of ideas, from a variety of contributors, to infuse the arts into the secondary language arts classroom. As co-editors Katherine J. Macro and Michelle Zoss explain in the Introduction: “Our goal with this book was to create a resource specifically for secondary English teachers to support them as they integrate the arts into their curricula. Teachers need meaningful examples of how to do the work of incorporating creative writing, drama, music and visual arts into their classrooms so they can challenge their students, expand the horizon for student growth, and, we hope, express their own passions for the arts while offering potential learning touchstones for students.” (xii). Read more