“Books saved my life” is the quote that stands with me after watching Luis J. Rodriguez read from his new poetry book, Borrowed Bones. My students have always read books from Rodriguez. At first, it was kids from foster homes that gravitated to the Rodriguez biography, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L. A. But now, you could walk in and find any variety of students reading the first biography, or It Calls You Back. As for myself, I’ve only read a couple of his poetry books: The Concrete River and My Nature is Hunger: New and Selected Poems 1989-2004.
Rodriguez is personable and he writes with a realism that can make you laugh, or feel the twist of a blade. Though I’ve had so many students read his books, though his book is so often stolen from libraries by kids who might also be able to say: A book saved my life, there were very few people out in the morning to see the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles share his work. Regardless, he told stories as if he was among friends that he hadn’t seen in a long time.
Peter, a charming, comedic man with a cute dog, begins his story at 43. The first chapter, “Diagnosis Blues,” introduces Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as a psychedelic meteor that disrupts all aspects of life, and needs the intervention of a certain ‘angel.’ Will Peter outlive his suicidal thoughts?
After reading the first 4 chapters, turning off the lights for a later -than-normal bedtime of midnight, I was compelled to flip the switch and complete the final chapters. Dunlap-Shohl is insanely talented at layouts, designs, coloring, storytelling, metaphors, and metacognition. I recommend this book to everyone who enjoys intelligent, comedic, real-life narratives.
“No one should be talking!” Have you ever heard these words come out of your mouth? “Oooh! Ooooh! Pick me! Pick me!” teacher hand waving wildly in the air. I call it: adopting the Teacher Tone and it’s something that tends to happen to me a bit more towards the end of the year. I turn into that crazy-manic teacher who says things that I’d never want said to me. But why, after all of these years, does it still happen? Now seems like a perfect time to review triggers, and ask: How do you know you’re creating a culturally responsive and inclusive environment?
Is it because I’m an SDC teacher that I have sweat-inducing, heart-stopping, nightmare-inspiring thoughts whenever I consider releasing control to the students in the classroom? Or is this a common, yet-named teacher illness that should have its own label as defined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? Regardless of the answers to the above questions, it has always been my experience that when I release control (and dive into the abyss of unknown outcomes), the results are always better than anything I could have planned. As I rewatched a Ted Talk from a few years ago (I’ll post it at the end of the blog), I wondered how I consistently try to create a student-centered classroom.
Have you ever watched enviously while some teachers march to the parking lot shortly after the bell rings, but you have a metaphorical stack of internet paperwork to complete? Do you promise yourself every summer you’re not going to spend your weekends planning awesome lessons–that magically it will happen during the week? Do you promise yourself at the beginning of every school year that you are going to have a consistent fitness plan and healthy social life during the work week? Do you promise yourself every year you are going to read for pleasure EVERY night?
It doesn’t matter how many promises I make, I break them all and eventually I end up frustrated. A couple of weeks ago I came up with a plan to help me maintain some of my committments.
Teacher Blogs: The Next Generation of Collaboration
Establishing and maintaining a professional teacher blog enables teachers to publish, reflect, share, collaborate, and enrich their professional presence. While publishing has long been the standard for university professors, secondary teachers do not have the same expectations placed upon them. Primarily, this is due to time constraints, but the result is that secondary teachers do not always remain current in their field. To this point, a weekly writing practice can enable teachers to stay engaged and relevant in their particular field of study in regards to pedagogy and current research. Arguably, blogging may be a less time-consuming way to publish content and begin a professional conversation that extends beyond the walls of one school. At the same time, blogging enables teachers to understand writing for a purpose and for an audience, which increases credibility when insisting on the same from students. Since reflection is one of the most important aspects of improving one’s teaching practice, the blog seems like an essential tool for every teacher. Finally, in an environment of questionable evaluation procedures for teachers, a teacher blog enables the teacher to highlight successes in the classroom and demonstrate his/her teaching pedagogy instead of being limited to one or two observations a year. I plan to utilize my teacher blog in a number of ways:
Create a dialogue for secondary Special Day Teachers about issues that aren’t addressed anywhere else. For example, when I searched for a community of special education teacher blogs as resources, I found multiple detailed blogs for the primary grades, and moderate to severe classroom teachers. Lacking in representation is the voice of the SDC teachers at the high school level who teach common core standards to students with learning disabilities, or other eligibilities that impede progress in the general education classroom.
Share and reflect on teaching practices. While there are many issues that surround SDC teachers at the secondary level, in the end, what happens in the classroom – the experience and growth of the students – is of primary concern, just like any other teacher.
Read and write about current research in special education. Probably more than any other area of secondary education, the practices and pedagogy are researched and constantly changing. Due to the on-going paperwork involved with being a case-carrier (though I know the importance of being knowledgeable of current practices and research), this is probably the area of most potential growth in my on going development as a special educator. Therefore, my goal is to utilize the blog to create a mini annotated bibliography that is updated once a month with specific peer reviewed articles. While I should be reading more, this is a plan to begin the process.
Maintain a focus on potential interventions for both reading and writing at the secondary level. One of the struggles for English SDC teachers is trying to teach content and skills that lead to a high school diploma to students who read and write significantly below grade-level. For those who are not special education teachers, “significantly below grade level” is realistically defined as students who do not read above the primary grades. While all teachers have students who struggle with reading and writing, there is a spotlight on SDC teachers who have to teach content, but also miraculously and simultaneously increase the Lexile levels of all students.
Increase my professional online presence. The majority of my shifts in teaching practices have occurred through participating in online mediums and engaging with other teachers. This ability and opportunity has benefitted my students and me and allowed the English teacher part of me to flourish. Eventually, I would love for the special education side of me to likewise be inspired and cultivated through a sense of community and support.
While there may not be current research on the importance of blogging for secondary teachers, I will use this blog to argue that writing professionally in your field is essential to maintain relevancy in current teaching methodologies.
This is my husband’s favorite story from last week:
Two students are working on their fairy tale research project.
K. says, “How do you spell your name?”
M spells it out.
K responds, “I thought your name was Student M.”
And M says, “It is. In every other class. In here, my name is M.”
My husband likes this story because he says I’ve created a comfortable space for students to be themselves.
Creating the classroom environment is arguably one of the most important tasks a teacher must do before any students can engage in learning outcomes. As teachers, we spend a large portion of the day in this room and students come to love walking through the door (or hopefully, not the reverse). Over time, one’s ideas shift and this is mirrored in the classroom. Here are my current thoughts on how to create an effective and safe learning environment in the SDC English classroom.
C-Cultivate a Routine
Over the years, I have found that the best classroom management strategy is to have a routine that the students understand. This is comforting. Obviously, I change how things are done, but it is in a structure that the students can then tackle.
L-Look for Moments to Connect
I know, I just said that routine is the most important strategy, but now I’m saying that connecting to students is your number one job in the classroom; otherwise, why teach? Initially, I thought this would be challenging because each year the students seem to get younger, and I light one more candle on that vegan cake. But the secret is: be present and see who is in front of you.
One student comes to mind as the perfect exemplar. A fashion diva, he reminds me of Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote at a New York soiree. When I commented on his Guns ‘N Roses t-shirt one day, he ever-so-patiently explained, “Mrs. Lee, it’s fashion.” Now I’ll tell him stories about Axl Rose and he’ll sigh-in-dramatic-fashion, “I thought he was dead.” This is a very small moment, but in the day of a student, I’ve read that sometimes a teacher, throughout the ENTIRE day, may never say the student’s name.
A-Anticipate Problems with Assignments and Technology
Almost every time I’ve planned to show a video–there has been some technical problem. Either the internet is down at that moment and it won’t stream, or I can’t get the subtitles to work for my students who are deaf and hard of hearing, or the bulb in the Smart board goes out; there’s always something. If students have in their mind that they are watching a video, you can’t simply turn around and say,”Well, it looks like it’s time to write our three-paragraph-in-class-timed-writing-response to August Wilson. If there is a chance that something can go wrong, have a back-up plan that is EQUALLY engaging to the students!
S-Supply Engaging Content that Allows Students Control
I think this is one of those Giant Hairy Scary rules that teachers may not actually do for a couple of years. It takes time to learn HOW to give the students control of their learning, but a prerequisite goes back to Looking for Moments to Connect and knowing your students.
S-Supplement Student Interest by Allowing Choice
At first glance, this may look like a repeat of the above, or that I have become lazy with my acronym. However, not all students understand content in the same manner; therefore, it only makes sense to restate that not all students should produce the same end product.
R-Reward Desired Behavior
As a teacher of students with special needs, I constantly have to remind myself that positive behavior support is the best prescription to keep classroom management as close to the only-in-my-head “dream classroom” that I want for myself and my students.
I think every teacher has that ONE class that makes her challenge everything she knows to be true about teaching in high school. I have one almost every year. This year, the students were piling in just as the bell rang and there was this playful bantering bouncing around the room. I knew if I tried to start the independent reading, it would be unsuccessful and I would only end up frustrated. As I stood in front of the class, I said, “It looks like everyone needs 5 minutes talk-time.” A student responded, “For real? Yes, I kind of do.” So I set a timer for five minutes and the students talked. When the timer went off, we started class and everyone got what they needed that day.
O-Omit Negative Comments!!!
O-Observe Behavior and Make a Plan
I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching, there will always be one or two students who find ways to get to you. I have one of those quick minds that instantly thinks of five things to blurt out when a student engages in whatever the behavior is that I don’t like in the classroom. Instead, I don’t say anything. I talk to friends and other teachers the student has–or maybe a counselor. I make a plan. I stick to the plan. If the plan doesn’t work, I make a new one. Behavior specialists always say that all behaviors serve a purpose and I have found this to be true. The only way to understand why a behavior is happening, is to observe it and understand it.
M-Make Learning Fun
Finally, the end result, if you can create the ideal classroom environment, learning will be fun and it will (look) effortless!
Running a PD? Think of using the CLASSROOM acronym and have teachers pair-up and create their own classroom culture. Sometimes we get so bogged down with testing, grading, and implementing new curriculum, that we forget the most important aspects of the job!
What’s important to you when creating a classroom environment?
As I get lost in Corridor in the Asylum, by Vincent van Gogh, knowing that the artist sent this drawing to his brother, Theo, as a record of his surroundings, I can’t help but connect the image as a personal mind-mirror, as a realistic representation of what it feels like to be a new blogger. I’ve read on various blogs that it can take one-to-two years for you to build an audience. One-to-two years!!! In a world where social media brings instant likes, comments, smiley-faces, and a feeling of-hey, someone-is-paying-attention-to-you, time becomes a labyrinth, an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole of self-doubt that resurrects the five-headed-inner-editor-monster that hibernates in us all.
Despite the expert knowledge of all of those who’ve blogged before me, knowing that people are not ready to consume every hyphenated description I write, some other creature inside of me is excited and aspires to write. Yesterday morning, as I did my Twitter scroll, @KellyGtoGo tweets:
In an argument for teachers to resist prescriptive writing and allow for and encourage personal reflection as part of the classroom experience, Cindy O’Donnell-Allen begins her thoughtful article by writing, “I was a closet writer from an early age. In the second grade I wrote a poem for my classmate Patrick O’Neal, who sat alone everyday on the playground, but I didn’t give it to him” (The Atlantic). Similarly, in my early elementary school years, I was a professional Cat Detective who, with a notebook, tracked the neighborhood cats, and wrote avidly about my adventures. Writing was something fun, something I chose to do, without an assignment.
What does this mean and how does it impact me?
Teachers need a chance to develop a new writing pedagogy. O’Donnell-Allen wrote her article in part to promote the benefits of the National Writing Project as a life-long opportunity of professional development for teachers, by teachers, to create meaningful writing experiences for teachers. I’ve participated in the Cal State Northridge Writing Project with @KathleeRowlands, and since the training I’ve had countless opportunities to write, collaborate, and commune with teachers from a variety of grades, contents, and locations.
Sometimes we have to write for ourselves, first. I had planned to write a more ‘academic’ post, since this blog is my Master’s Project, but I sat for nearly an hour at a coffee shop, neither drinking my soy-white-mocha-burn-my-tongue-off-hot, nor writing. My planned blog title, “Blogging as PD? TBD” might still appear one day, I just couldn’t do it today.
Writing is joyful! I started this blog talking about how long it takes to build an audience, and yet, that is not what motivates me to write consistently. I write because I’ve always written. I write because I love to create. And who knows, it may be time to bring back the Cat Detective!
Remember when you finished your first Master’s program? Did you swear you would never return to school again? I did. And it’s not the first time I’ve lied to myself. I have a Master’s as an Education Specialist, which translates into: I have a deeper understanding of current practices for attending to students with differing needs, I know current legal concerns in the field of special education, and that I’ve performed and written about an action study in my classroom.
Yet, those of us in education know that one is never done. I returned to the late-night classes, overbooked weekends, coffee-binging, anything fried-food-eating, sleep-deprived-lifestyle to obtain a Master’s in English.
While sipping a soy white mocha at Romancing the Bean, the world’s cutest coffee shop which happens to be located in Burbank, I’m torn between two possible intros. One, a personal experience in a department meeting, the other a personal experience with a book. Since this post is about reading, I’m starting with the book.
* A note on reading this blog: This will be a long post and you don’t have to read EACH section ; ) If you’d like to jump ahead to New Semester, New Reading Goals
which will discuss classroom practices for this semester, feel free (without the guilt)!
One book has impacted my teaching pedagogy more than any other: Readicide by Kelly Gallagher @KellyGToGo. After asking students to chart their reading experiences outside of English class, he reports, “. . .freshmen students read an average of seventeen minutes. . .my seniors averaged thirteen minutes” (58). Wow! And administrators, lawmakers and people outside of the classroom wonder why reading levels continue to plummet. While Gallagher’s short book was published in 2009, I’m positive the amount of time high school students spend reading in school has decreased even more with the explosion of smart boards, video integration, and one-to-one tech occurring in 21st century schools. Granted, I love technology for teaching, but being able to sit for an extended period of time and simply read is a skill that needs to be modeled and taught in the classroom.
I’ve had my own Kelly Gallagher experience. A former ninth grade student came to my class after school when she was a senior for assistance on an essay she was writing on Tuesdays with Morrie. After asking a few guiding questions, I asked her if she’d read any part of the book. The student replied, “I haven’t read anything in any English class since yours.” In my class, students do all of the reading in class, in small groups. Since I teach SDC, many of my students struggle with reading and I want to ensure they have support when reading any core literature. This specific exchange taught me how good kiddos are at avoiding reading and still passing classes.
I could give a mountain full of scenarios, add yours on top, and this blog post would stretch the definition of infinity. Instead, I will simply say if you haven’t read Readicide, get it now; and if you have, consider revisiting it.
Starting the year with a new department chair is both frightening and exciting. The first meeting started with an interesting question: What are the three most important things you want to teach your students? We talked in small groups and shared responses. A colleague soon called out that she wants to teach students to love reading, to which the new department chair stopped and addressed this idea specifically. Is this a skill? Can you actually teach this? How do you assess a student’s love of reading?
I think each of us will have gut reactions to those questions in one way or another. Your responses will tell much of how you teach and what you value. Regardless of your feelings, these are important questions to ask and address.