Why Do I Teach?

I was asked a variation of that question today. Those might not have been the exact words, but that was the gist of the question. “Why do you teach?”

I thought about it for a minute. It’s such a simple, yet complex question. It’s only four words. It’s so much more than four words.

My answer went something like this… I teach because this the most important profession in the world. That’s not to slight any other profession. We have seen during this pandemic how important doctors, nurses, and first responders are. But those professions and the men and women who fill those positions needed to be educated in their field. Everything is built on education. If you want to become a professional poker player, you have to learn how to play poker. If you want to be the CEO of a company, you have to learn about business and the market you’re serving.

Every year approximately 25 students walk into my fourth grade classroom. I have 180 precious days to impact their lives and give them a quality education. That’s a very daunting and humbling task. It is, however, what gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me up at night. How can I reach the “unreachable” student? What is the best way to teach this lesson? How can I differentiate this concept so it is accessible to all students? What other materials do I need? Which parents do I need to connect with on a certain day? Which student do I need to connect with today?

There are days that are exciting. There are days that are terrifying. There are days that make you want to cry tears of sadness. There are days that make you want to cry tears of joy.

Why do I teach?

Because there are 25 students who need me next year.

There are students who need you next year.

Where Do Boys Fit in ELA? (50 Books in 2020… #5)

Thankfully I’ve been doing a much better job of reading my 50 books in 2020, than I have blogging about those texts. I actually finished Book #5 in May but didn’t get around to capture my thoughts in a blog post. It was such a fascinating book, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on it now.

The book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture by Thomas Newkirk, was recommended to me by Mike Anderson. The book explores how boys interact with, consume, and produce literature.

There were many thought-provoking ideas in this book, but for the purposes of time, I wanted to discuss three in particular here.

1 – The gender gap in reading and literacy shows that boys do not perform as well in reading and do not have the same enjoyment of the subject as their female peers. The pride boys take in their academic work drops from elementary school (53%) to high school (16%). This is coupled with the fact that boys feel that showing enthusiasm in school is seen not being a “real boy.” When boys show they are excited about school and learning they receive negative feedback – at least that is their perception. There’s a boy code which dictates how boys should act and interact, and this code does not value reading as manly endeavor. Some of this might be reinforced by their surroundings. In one survey more students reported their mother reading more often (56%) than students who said their father reads more frequently (5.6%).

How do we encourage boys to enjoy reading more? How can we get to a place where boys show enthusiasm for reading and writing in school? These are very important questions and should be discussed as educations systems look to improve literacy programs.

2 – There are hierarchies of literacy in education and schools. Books chosen in schools are typically longer, traditional selections of literature. I once had a conversation with a coworker who taught high school English. I asked why we still teach mostly the same books in our high school classes which were used when I was a student almost 25 years ago. She explained the importance of the canon of literature. She spoke of how much there is to learn from Beowulf, Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte, and other classics. She spoke of these works in a romantic way. It was a feeling we did not share. Boy vs. girl.

As Newkirk points out, however, boys tend to enjoy books that “emphasize action over personal relationships, excitement over the unfolding of character, and humor most of all.” Boys are not as interested in the personal relationships of Wuthering Heights. I teach 4th grade, and I can tell you Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are wildly popular with boys. Humor most of all. Rarely do educators choose other forms of media like movies, television programs, cartoons, etc. With this in mind, it is important to choose a variety of text and media which can be tools for teaching literacy. This will help engage some of more reluctant readers, especially boys.

3 – One of the big themes in this book is that our system of teaching literacy does not mesh with the way most boys’ brains operate. One topic he discusses is how conflict is now addressed in a post-Columbine school climate. The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 forever changed how schools operate from a security standpoint. The safety changes that were made have help created safer learning environments for everybody in the school community.

Along with these changes there was an attempt to eliminate violence in student writing. This has had a detrimental impact on boys because they like action over personal relationships. Newkirk argues that not all violence in writing is the same. There is writing which involves action, and sometimes violence, as a critical component of the plot development. It is not necessarily meant to shock or psychological harm the reader. This form of violence can be characterized as high modality violence. Newkirk believes that the more common form of writing by boys is low modality violence which is not meant to cause any form of harm to the reader and not an attempt to insight a violent reaction or response. The dilemma is when schools say all violence is off limits in writing. This leaves no room action and low modality violence to be used as a tool for plot development.

There’s not easy answer to some of the topics addressed in this book. They are, however, topics which educators should consider as they institute policies and implement plans moving forward.

Is This the Time to Move to Year-Round School?

I’ve been fascinated with the idea of year-round schooling for some time now. We talk about the summer slide, and moving to a year-round school calendar seems to be a pretty easy solution to at least help address the problem. Some believe that it would also create a more equitable education system for students from poverty and those with learning disabilities.

While COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on education systems across the country, I believe this is a golden opportunity to make some positive, long term changes. One of those changes could be a move to year-round school. An article in the Seattle Times looked at this very issue, at this very time.

One popular approach to a 12-month school calendar operates on quarters and utilizes a nine weeks on and there weeks off format. This seems particularly useful during a COVID-19 conscience time. If you’ve every worked in a school, you know there are peak times when it seems like everybody in the building is sick. (Think late February and early March.) If these three weeks off lined up with some of these typical hot spots for sickness, it seems that this could be beneficial from a health standpoint. Full disclosure: I have absolutely no professional health training. I do, however, see students get sick in waves at particular times each year. It seems that being away from school and groups of students in close quarters would help reduce the spread of germs during these times.

As the Seattle Times article outlines, moving to a year-round calendar could help close equity gaps, improve student achievement, help special educations students with more consistency, and add precious instructional time for all students. Those all sounds like great ideas. No brainers actual. So what could possibly be the hang-up?

Unfortunately, one of the big obstacles in the way of a year-round school calendar is money. Some models would add days to the academic calendar. That would mean extra costs for teacher salaries, transportation, meals, heating cooling costs, and more. This would be a major obstacle during typical times, but the economic toll this pandemic has taken on the country has hit school budgets especially hard. Most school boards and administrators would be hard pressed to find money in their budgets right now to make such a drastic change.

However, if moving to a year-round school model would benefit teachers, I would encourage policy makers from Washington D.C. to state capitol buildings to local school districts to work to overcome the monetary hurdles that will create a better educational setting for our students. The greatest investment we can make as a society is in our students and young people.

Grace

I was participating in an NCTE Twitter chat (#NCTEchat) tonight and saw a tweet which really made me stop and think. The author was Megan Dincher – @mdincherteach. She said, “I also recognize that I’m finding writing to be more difficult than usual on some days right now, so I’m trying to give my students that grace, too.”

I keep thinking about this tweet since I saw it almost three hours ago and the idea of extending grace to students during this time.

This is a really difficult time for adults.

This is a really difficult time for teachers.

This is a really difficult time for students.

This is a really difficult time for everybody.

It’s important right now to remember that nobody has the perfect playbook for how people should feel and respond during this pandemic. There is no book, journal article, or tweet which can give us the perfect answer for how to deal with this pandemic as educators and humans. Ms. Dincher’s tweet and the importance of grace during these trying times, however, might help everybody get through this stronger than when it started.

The world would be a better place with a little more grace extended to everybody. Thanks for remind me of that, Ms. Dincher!

I’m Back

My goal at the beginning of the year was to blog every day for the entire year. Of course, when I decided to take that challenge, I could not have predicted what the year 2020 had in store for the world and the education system. I was able to blog the first three months of the year. Then, as COVID-19 started to really affect our daily lives at the end of March, I decided I needed to step away to focus on shifting to online learning.

After regrouping for a month and a half, I’ve decided to get back to blogging. I’m not sure if I will be back to blogging daily. We’ll see what the next few weeks and months look like. I do, however, want to get back to blogging.

Thanks to everybody who read the blog for the first few months of the year. I hope the next few months will help us reconnect with the upcoming posts.

Just for Fun… and a Laugh

Sometimes you just need to have a little fun and a good laugh. That was exactly where I was today after 48 hours of online learning with my students and my own daughter. Just when I was almost out of steam today, something hit me. It was the last day of the month. Did we have a fire drill or not this month? If we didn’t have one yet, we would have to have one today – state law and all. Then I remembered we weren’t at school, so that didn’t matter. But why not keep up the routine just for fun… and a laugh?

A Valuable Lesson

Before becoming a teacher, I worked in television production for almost a decade. One of the first lessons I learned during my career taught me a valuable lesson, not just about television, but about life.

My first job in television station was a videotape operator for the 10:00 newscast. This was before everything was digital. You had numerous videotapes for each broadcast and only four tape decks to play the tapes. After each story aired, you would have to play the next tape, rewind the previously played tape for the next newscast, and switch tapes.

A colleague showed me what to do for two nights, then handed the job over to me. The first few stories went smoothly. Then the stories started to go at an increasingly fast pace. After the ninth or tenth story, my mind was going faster than my hands, and I rewound a tape while it was still on the air. Tens of thousands of people saw my blunder on live television.

I thought that was the end of my career in television. I looked over at my colleague for some encouraging words and he said, “Bet you won’t make that mistake again.” Despite his lack of empathy, he was absolutely right. I learned from that mistake and never repeated it.

I thought about this technology blunder as many educators, myself included, prepare to make a shift towards online learning.

When new technology is used, mistakes are not only possible, they are probable. That’s why it is important to embrace situations like this with the right mindset. These are a three ideas I’m going to try and keep in mind during this journey.

Things will go wrong

Things will go wrong, and that’s okay. Teachers, students, and parents are using technology which may be new to them. It is important to be honest with all stakeholders (students, parents, and colleagues) and acknowledge that things might not go according to plan, but we’ll all work together to get through this.

Learn from mistakes

Mistakes will happen. Try to learn from these opportunities and grow as an educator. The legendary football coach Bear Bryant said, “When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it.” That’s a pretty good approach to take.

Fear should not paralyze progress

While I think it is important to move slowly into this unchartered water, the fear of failure should not prevent us from trying something new. I’m trying a few things with my fourth graders, and I’m not completely sure they will work. That’s okay. They are good lessons, and I don’t want my reluctance to prevent my students from experiencing valuable learning opportunities. It is a delicate balance between trying too many new ideas and finding new strategies which will benefit my students during this unprecedented time.

Everybody has their own comfort level with technology. Regardless of where you are on that continuum, I know you’re going to be just the teacher your students need during this difficult time. It might not be perfect, but your willingness to try a new approach will create a wonderful learning environment.

Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are a great way to learn more about students, build better relationships through the insights into a student’s life they provide, and give students practice with one of the most important life skills to have – the ability to communicate through writing.

Here is a list of 50 writing prompts for students in elementary, middle, and high school. It is a great resource to have in your teacher toolkit.

Trauma-Informed Teaching

During this unprecedented time, it is important to remember our more vulnerable students. This is a traumatic time for many adults and students. That is why continuing to teach with trauma-informed practices is just as important as ever.

Here’s an article which looks at ways to better support vulnerable students with trauma-informed practices during coronavirus school closures. Some of the students to keep an eye on during this challenging time:

  • students who have had anxiety; 
  • students who have depression or suicidal ideation;
  • students who have learning and attention disorders;
  • students whose families may have lost jobs or income; 
  • students who have loved ones particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus;
  • students who have a caregiver who is a healthcare worker or in another occupation where they are exposed to the virus or are being asked to respond in an intense way;
  • students who may be less supervised because of caregivers’ work.