Saturday, March 29, 2014

Literature in the Classroom: It's Not About Us

"Mrs. Farmer, I want to answer that question. Yeah, Ms. Dodd's wanted to kill Percy cause he was a bad kid. He got in trouble a lot," exclaims Katie enthusiastically.

"Great Katie! Tell me more," I quickly respond.

As she spoke, I stood there--stunned. This young lady struggled, not just academically, but in life. Most of the talks we've had together consisted of her frustrations with her family life. The fact that her mother and father have both served prison terms, along with list of other extended family members.

In class, she is--that student--the one with a dazed expression, almost looking through you. No matter how many times I've called on her this year, I just couldn't get through. So, I began to give up, not wanting to bother. It just seemed too hard. Isn't that sad to admit? But, the truth hurts.

Now, as she sat in front of me, with a smile on her face and a glimmer in her eyes, I stood as the happiest teacher on earth!

"What happened?" I thought to myself.

As a class, we'd just switched novels. I'd planned on reading a historical fiction novel called, Moccasin Trail along with Native American poetry. But, as we began the unit, all I heard were moans and groans. I'd like to blame myself. Was I not teaching with enough passion? Was I failing to "hook" them into the lessons? Well, maybe, but maybe they just weren't into it.

All I know is this--I want a classroom of engaged readers and writers. How can I make that happen?

Katie helped me to realize that it isn't always about our personal passions as teachers. More importantly, it's about our students. What are their passions as readers? What will they connect with?

Also, I've learned that flexibility is key. My students didn't connect with Moccasin Trail. So, instead of fighting an uphill battle--I threw it out.

Does that make me weak? I don't think so. By listening and finding what resonates to their learning I create a climate of success. Right now--I've got a classroom full of happy kids who can't wait to read!

Katie helped me to grow as a teacher this week with the awakening that it's not all about me.

It's all about my students.

Side note: What was the magical novel that connected so well to Katie, and brought a light to her eyes? That would be-- The Lightning Thief  by Rick Riordan. Funny enough Rick was a middle grades History and English teacher for fourteen years!

Websites about the author:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Social Media for Teachers: Breaking it Down

There are so many articles out there right now discussing social media and teacher growth, and I agree with most of them. However, many only focus on the aspects of growing a Professional Learning Network (PLN), obtaining fresh ideas and resources, or promoting individual work such as a published book or blog. Today, I would like to look at social media from a different vantage point, analyzing the pros and cons, and where the growth really lies for me as an educator.

The Cons of Social Media (Twitter. Facebook, Pinterest) as a PLN

First, as a wife and mom of three young children, my time is valuable. Often, the task of sifting through the endless streams of articles, quotes, and video to develop a stronger PLN overwhelms me beyond belief. There is so much out there--great stuff--but also a lot of noise. That noise can be dangerous.

The danger lies in---
  • Losing Our Own Voice: As educators, we all have a voice--a reason why we became teachers. That voice holds strength, character, passion, but all of these can fade, if we spend too much time listening to others' ideas. Why? Because, all those ideas, although well intentioned, must be sifted through and processed in the mind of the reader. This takes up brain power and time, a vital resource for many educators. The result can lead to increased anxiety, loss of focus, and achievement.
  • It Isn't a Popularity Contest: Twitter and Facebook hold great dangers for the ego. It's easy to get caught up in the thought of , "Oh, I must be pretty special if this person is following me, because they have thousands of followers." This is dangerous territory. Of course, it's great if someone appreciates your work, but let's get real, in the end, it's all really meaningless.
  • What Am I Actually Learning?: I think this is a great question to ask for developing any type of PLN. What speaks to you, and how is it truly making you grow as an educator? For me, I still internalize books much more deeply than tweets or blog posts. On a spectrum, where should I be spending most of my time to keep a strong PLN? I created the graph below.

  • Am I separating myself from the team?: If you are having trouble connecting with the teachers around you, Twitter can be a nice escape. It's easy to think, "Yes, there are people who think like I do, and are like minded!" That feels good for a time, but we must also keep it in perspective, and make sure we don't create a deeper divide between the teachers we work with day to day. Real growth lies in talking and working hands on with fellow teachers that are in the trenches right next to us everyday. This is what makes a contributing difference.

The Pros of Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest) as a PLN

There are some excellent ideas out there! In many ways--now--is a great time to be a teacher!
  • It's OK to be a show off!: There is a quote from the book, The One Minute Manager, that states, "If you don't blow your own horn, someone else will use it as a spittoon." Don't let others dictate your own worth. By posting pictures, writing blogs, and tweeting the happenings in the classroom, you create evidence of the awesome things that are happening everyday with your students. This will resonate not only with administrators, but more importantly, with the children and parents we serve everyday in the classroom. 

  • Develops Deeper Accountability: I love sharing what the students and I are creating in the classroom. But, I don't want to share boring stuff like students completing worksheets! I want parents, students, and fellow educators to see passionate students who enjoy learning! My Facebook community page, twitter account, and blogs keep me on my toes, and always asking the question, "How can I make this lesson better than the last? How can I make greatness happen?"

  • It brings the outside world into the classroom.: There are endless opportunities for collaboration around the world. Twitter helps me to see how other teachers are doing this with great success. It also introduced me to Skype in the classroom. The students love meeting and talking with anyone outside of the school. This year, my students visited with a middle grades author, but before the year ends, my goal is to connect with a school in Europe, and co-teach a lesson. There are endless possibilities! How awesome is that!
  • We are all in this together!: Remember the song from High School Musical? My Social Media PLN helps me to remember that as educators across the globe, we are all in this together. Enough said.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Growing Pains": A 6th Grade ELA/SS/Science Themed Unit

As a child of the 80's, I loved the show, Growing Pains. I thought Kirk Cameron was the cutest boy ever, and I was dead set on getting a Cabriolet convertible just like.....oh wait...that was Sam from Who's the Boss? Remember the car episode? If you don' it is....

I loved all those shows, and I related to them as an adolescent myself, so as I brainstormed ideas for my next unit, the theme of "Growing Pains" kept coming to mind.

The Unit entitled, "Growing Pains" will include the following:

Novel Study

The novel for the unit will be, Moccasin Trail by Eloise McGraw.


Jim Keath has lived for six years as a Crow Indian when he learns that his two younger brothers and a sister are journeying west to take up land. Although Jim finds it difficult to fit in with the family he hasn't seen since childhood, and though they are wary and distrustful of him, Jim feels his duty is at their side. But slowly, as they survive the dangerous trek west, the perils of frontier life, and the kidnapping of their younger brother, Jim and his family realize that the only way to survive is to accept each other and truly reunite the family.
This is a great novel for the theme because Jim, the main character, overcomes several of his own growing pains as he defines his own identity.


Students will grow their own flowers from seeds. They will research, read, write, and journal about the life of a plant, and they will relate their findings to their own lives. Students will also connect this project to what they are currently studying in science.

They will be growing perennial flowers, in hopes to plant them on the school campus, so that students and teachers may be enjoy their beauty for years to come.

Supplemental Texts

                     Poems from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Emerson, and others.


This theme incorporates a wide variety of texts. I love that I will be able to study literature, Native American history, and science with my students, while relating it all back to the growing pains of the adolescent years. Integrating content across disciplines cultivates lifelong learning in our students. They can sense how it all fits together and impacts our lives. I can't wait to begin!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Joy of a Student's Victory

This blog is like an old friend to me in some ways. I've used it for a variety of purposes, but my first intention was to use it as a reflection tool. I hold a firm belief that all educators should reflect every week. I helps to maintain a vision, and keep goals in check.

One of my goals is for all of my students to pass the yearly CRCT test. I desire this goal, because I want all my students to feel the glory of victory, and not defeat. I do not focus on this goal due to worry over my annual teacher evaluation, or the school's success. Yes, that is great, but that is not what motivates me. What motivates me is seeing the proud, happy, bright eyed face of a twelve year old, who after weeks of worry, learns that he won his prize-- a passing score.

This victory happened for one of my students this week. The students in my lower "remedial" group were taking a SRI test to assess their Lexile reading level. Sixth grade students should be at an 800 Lexile level or above to be considered on grade level. Well, this young man scored around a 150 in August, and was visibly upset. However, I encouraged him, and he did not give up. As a teacher, he was one of those I just clicked with, which helped. He wanted to work hard, and gave it his all everyday. Each time he took the SRI test, his score increased until finally, now in March, he scored on grade level at 805.

I always tend to make a big fuss when my students do well. So, when he showed me his score, I grabbed his hand, and patted the top of it with my other hand, and exclaimed, "I am so proud of you! I am so proud of you!" He smiled, trying to look cool, but his eyes sparkled, and throughout the day, I noticed he seemed to be walking on air, almost skipping. I told other teachers, and they congratulated him, too. This young man may be changed forever. This one victorious year may push him into an entirely new direction.

My student's victory this week gave me the courage to carry on. It demonstrated the heart, the desire, the will, and the fortitude that all true educators must hold dear to bring out excellence in every student. The power of a positive and effective teacher cannot be underestimated.

In May, I want to see all of my students floating on air as they skip down the 6th grade hall feeling confident and happy that they accomplished great things this year. I want them all to be victorious!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Teachers: Never Miss a Chance to Dance

Whether ministry or teaching, my favorite part of the job has always been developing relationships with the kids. It thrills me to greet my students in the morning, with a big hello! I love the challenge of their sullen, forlorn frowns as they amble down the hallways. As I stand in the hall by my door, I think to myself, "How am I going to turn those frowns upside down?" That becomes my first goal of the day.
As I reflect over this school year, I'll say it's been especially hard to make a breakthrough with some of my students. Partly, because they are just more reserved. One young man is especially shy, and has avoided eye contact with me all year. Now, I know that no one can force a relationship, and I firmly believe in allowing people to be who they are. However, it saddened me that with all the interactive and engaging instruction I've experimented with this year, nothing seemed to connect with him.

That was until a couple of weeks ago.....

My students lost their winter break due to snow days that needed making up. I knew that they would not want to be at school on Monday. So, I thought, maybe I'd incorporate a song. My school Principal had played a music video entitled, "Brave" by Sara Bareilles over morning announcements the week before, and I loved it! So, I thought, "Hmmm...I could build a lesson around that."

So, I created a lesson entitled, "What is Your Brave?" I began the lesson by having my students get in a large circle around the room. Next, I offered a brief mini lesson on what it meant to be brave, and I told them I wanted to see their bravest dance moves, while the song, "Brave" was playing. They all giggled nervously, while I "pumped up the volume" (Ha!- 90's reference). And we boogied around the room for an entire three minutes. The students, for the most part, really got into it, and I did, too. After all, I can't ask them to do something that I wouldn't do. So, I hammed it up big time. I loved it, because it was a breakthrough.

The sullen young man who moped around all year changed that day. The next morning he came in with a smile, and asked what song I was going to play. I was so thrilled that now, we dance every morning--one song--during homeroom. The students love it! What's even better, after the song is over, they get right to work. But, the difference is--they are all smiles.

Blessed am I, Dear Lord, to be a teacher.

My students' favorite song to dance to-- "Happy" by Pharrell Williams


Monday, March 3, 2014

CCSS Middle Grades ELA/SS Lesson on "Freedom!"


I've got so many songs and movie clips that pop into my mind when I think of the word, "freedom." Middle grades students love this word, because what adolescent doesn't want some freedom. They don't want to hear teachers screeching in their ears! They want freedom to learn!

So, as I approach my lesson for tomorrow, I shall keep that in mind...

To get their minds hopping, we are going to have an open dance session to the song, "Freedom" by George Michael, because honestly, the song keeps playing in my head, so why not use it. There aren't any bad words in the song, so it seems fine to use.

Next, we will have a quick 5 minute free write in which the students write on "freedom" means to them, and we will share for a few minutes as a class.

We will quickly revisit how our feelings of freedom compare to the feelings of our founding fathers: George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin from the research we did on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights last week.

This will lead into learning and comparing/contrasting the 13th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution.

The students will read, and annotate two documents found at the following links.

13th Amendment

15th Amendment

They will use a T-Chart, writing textual evidence examples from each article, independently, they will discuss with a partner, and then as a whole class.

Videos to support text:
Abraham Lincoln- The Emancipation Proclamation-
America the Story of Us: Lincoln
Let Freedom Ring Martin Luther King

Finally, the students will return to their free write, and compare their own feelings of wanting freedom to the lives of the slaves, and their desire and struggles for equality. Students will write an argumentative essay answering the question, "What is freedom?" citing textual evidence from the articles.

Common Core Standards Mastered:
RI.6.1 Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. (Read closely)
RI.6.3: Analyze how a key individual, event, or idea is introduced in a text
RI.6.7: Integrate information presented in different media formats to develop coherent understanding of the topic or issue.
W.6.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
SL.6.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing them clearly.