Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Importance of Striving for Excellence: Four Lessons I've Learned

Drive. Motivation. Passion. These are some of the terms we think of to describe the necessary qualities of a successful person. Many people assume  these qualities are gifted to someone--like he was just born to do this certain thing. This can be true, but I think for most of us, it goes even deeper.
This post serves as a reflection to myself, and anyone else reading who might gain strength from my experiences, and has a desire for personal excellence. 

Lesson #1:  Life is Fragile:  Home from college, I sat watching a Friends episode eating cinnamon toast and drinking a cup of hot Earl Grey tea, when I heard my mother scream. After a call to 911, I handed the phone off to my sister, and turned to the front stairway. As I bounded up the stairs, with every step, I knew my life would never be the same again. Looking at my brother in a state of peaceful rest, I began CPR. My mother, father, and sister swirled around me, but I stayed calm, kept going--trying desperately to breathe life into my beloved brother. Minutes seemed like hours until the ambulance came--but, I never wavered--I kept trying. I never gave up on my brother. 
Through his death, my brother taught me to always stay the course, to fight to protect my family and loved ones, my dreams, and my life. To never give up, not waste a day, an hour, or a minute of God's most precious gift of life. And more importantly, through it all, remembering to stay calm knowing God's peace surrounds us all if we are willing to openly receive it. 

Lesson #2: We're Not That Special: In 2008, my husband and I were on top of the world! We'd been married for seven years at the time, had two beautiful girls with a son on the way. We purchased a nice family home to settle in, and my husband had a great career, having worked up the ranks to a director position maintaining a high figure salary. Life was easy. Then, boom. After twelve years with the company, new ownership caused massive layoffs. For the next five years, our family struggled to gain a foothold. I learned deep lessons from that experience. First, I learned that education will only get you so far--there are so many talented, educated people out there today. Secondly, no one is irreplaceable. Pride is a dangerous thing, and I learned to always be humble and know--I'm really not that special. It's important in today's market to keep an attitude of growth. I'm always asking myself, "How can I stand out? What can I do differently? What can I bring to the table?" I never let myself think of ways in which I should be served, but how I can serve others. A humble, but hard working attitude of excellence demonstrated consistently is a winning trait in today's marketplace.

Lesson #3: Develop a Personal Mission Statement: As a teacher, my mission is to be a teacher of excellence by adhering to the three P's: passion, planning, and perseverance. This mission is in the core of my heart. As I pick out my clothes to wear--I think about it--as I plan my lessons--I think about it--before leaving home for the day--I think about it.  I'm always asking myself, "Am I demonstrating the three P's today? Am I being a teacher of excellence?" Sometimes, out of tiredness, I want to waver, but I know in my core that wavering is the slippery slope to mediocrity that many people never recover from. I never want to be mediocre. By adhering to my mission to be a teacher of excellence, I always keep myself in check. 

Lesson #4: Don't Set Out to Build a Wall: I love all those Will Smith motivational videos. So many times, I want to build my wall overnight, but it doesn't work like that. In the classroom, I can't walk in on day one and expect perfection. However, I can bring my absolute best to the classroom every single day, and by doing so, I'm laying those perfect bricks that will turn into an awesome wall! This takes patience and perseverance. Greatness does not happen overnight. Never give up! Piece by piece, inch by inch, victories will occur. 

Well, these are four life lessons that I've learned, which help me to maintain a desire for excellence. We all have our stories that give us the courage and motivation to keep going no matter what. I believe the key for me has been to always look at hardships and joys as learning experiences and opportunities for growth whether it be spiritually, mentally, or physically. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Writing: Four Essential Guidelines for Middle Grades

As educators, we read the headlines outlining the rigor of the new PARCC assessments--the reading, writing, and technology literacies that will be demanded of students. It all seems a bit overwhelming, especially for educators who work with lower income students who do not have technology in the home or even books to read. This is maddening in many ways, but we must keep it all in perspective, knowing that this is where the country is headed, and work strategically to make positive change in regards to student performance, especially writing.

The following are a few guidelines for integrating writing across curriculums:

1. Read, Write, and then Write Some More-  The first two strands across the curriculums under the Common Core includes literacy standards- reading and writing. Personally, I've observed classes reading, at least from the textbook, but are they writing? By writing, I mean essays, responses to literature, or reflective journaling. Do their unit tests include short answer and at least one essay question? Often, when these questions are posed, teachers outside of an English department begin to groan and state, "Why? Don't they know I have a life? I can't sit around grading essays all day?" Well, as George Costanza (Seinfeld) would say, "Stuff your sorries in a sack, Mister!" This is the rigor of today, and we've got to meet it. This includes writing across curriculums. We must meet the challenge. Teachers outside the English department don't need to grade for mechanics or spelling, but they can grade on ideas and content. The more students write, the greater chance for improvement.

2. Stop the Presses!- Save the trees, and the ink. Stop handing out so many worksheets. College ready, authentic learning does not include worksheets. Reading, writing, discussion, and technology integration is the foundation for student growth. However, worksheets create the opposite. The use of worksheets opens up an "out" for teachers. For example, a typical worksheet lesson might be to read a few paragraphs out of the textbook, discuss the questions posed in the textbook as a class, and then give the students several more worksheets as follow up to the discussion, which they then must complete as homework. This is an example of "low-level teaching". It requires hardly any planning on the part of the teacher, and allows for no ownership. Teachers should own their work. However, this takes planning, critical thinking, and most importantly time to research, develop ideas, and write lesson plans. This is necessary under the demands and rigor of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

3. Technology is HOT! HOT!HOT!- I've heard it argued that students cannot learn to write with excellence utilizing technology, only pencil and paper will do. This may be true for some of us who grew up without technology, and could not imagine writing without scratching an outline, draft, or even the final copy on a piece of paper first--but, this does not resonate with students today. Their pen is the keyboard and their paper is the computer screen. Students love to write if they can use tools such as Kid Blog, or use Google Docs to read each other's work or reach a wider audience. Teachers should be busting down the doors for use of the computer lab, but not to create Microsoft Power Point presentations. Students need to be writing, collaborating, and creating using new tools that will set them on the road to success to better writing and engagement.

4. Test Evolution-  Bubble sheets. As a student, I loathed them. Why? Because I was a terrible bubble sheet test taker. As a student, the thought that I had only one shot at getting the answer right filled me with so much anxiety, I over thought it most of the time. So, I'd get it wrong. When I got to college everything changed. Most of my classes required answering essay questions, allowing me the opportunity to demonstrate all my knowledge of the content. I flourished, and made A's. So, it is for our students. Now, tests do not need to be all essay questions, but there should be a balance in a test. Multiple choice, short answer, and essay. Yes, it will take more time to grade, but it's what is best for the students. It increases the testing rigor, gives students an opportunity to show their strengths, and prepares them for standardized testing.

The classroom is changing rapidly, and so is teaching. Writing is a big part of that change. As teachers, we can meet that challenge by requiring writing through essays and research papers, staying away from worksheets- incorporating authentic instructional techniques, utilizing technology to write and collaborate, and creating balanced unit tests with multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions that will allow students to show what they know.

It's not easy. But....

~ There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is right.
                                                                                                                                Ronald Reagan

Sunday, April 6, 2014

New to Teacher Blogging? A Few Tips to Keep in Mind

I've always been a writer. I majored in Communications, and worked in the public relations/communications field before becoming an educator. As such, I was trained on the importance of the message. Words matter. Content matters. It sets the tone for who we are as educators, and as professionals.

Although our media culture seems so free and easy, teachers should be aware of a few things before diving head first into teacher blogging.

Here are a few suggestions for setting a positive message as a blogger:

  • Remember: It's Public- A blog can feel like a personal journal. It's a blank page to be written upon. We may want to shout all of our frustrations and woes of the classroom, but be careful on this point. Blogging is out there for everyone to read.
  • Do not use foul language: This is off-putting to the reader, and will cause judgement. You can feel strongly about something without using bad language. Avoid it at all costs.
  • Never use the name of your school or fellow teachers: I consider blogging as a personal brand. A teacher can be a educational professional, and not just an employee of a particular school. However, as an employee, never bring your fellow teachers, principal, students, or school name into the mix. If I need to blog using a student's name to illustrate an example, I always use a pseudonym.
  • Think "I": I usually write in the first or third person. Teacher blogs serve best as personal reflection tools or sharing of information.
    • Writing in the first person puts the writing on me, and my own personal improvement. Who can fault someone for trying to improve themselves?
    • Writing in third person, using the pronouns- he, she, it, offers a wider scope and is more informational. This allows the readers to take it or leave it. It's not personal, just information.
    • As a writer, I avoid the word, "you" at all costs. To the reader, it feels as though the writer is speaking directly to him or her. Second person is usually used in offering directions-telling someone to do something. Although, it may seem more conversational, the word "you" can be alarming to the reader.
  • Keep It Positive, but Realistic: Positive messages are best, but it can be real. For the purposes of my teaching, I always work to end on a positive note. If I am personally struggling with something in the classroom, how can my message improve my instruction? How can I turn it around for myself, and possibly help others who may also be struggling?
  • Would my husband, wife, mom, dad, sister, brother, principal, or fellow teachers want to read my post? :  I may be getting a little over paranoid here, but I can't help but ask the question. I'm always amazed at the messages I get from teachers who enjoyed a blog post that I wrote months ago. I think, "Really, it's still circulating?" The posts are public, so share them with the people closest to you first. What would they say? Would they be proud to share it with others?
  • Use it to Guide Instruction: Blogging has made me a better teacher. I have no doubt about it. Before reflecting, I'd often get depressed, unsure of where to go with my instruction as a new teacher. Reflecting just once a week, has helped me tremendously, and kept me looking up in a positive direction. Keeping my writing uplifting helps me to keep mental clarity and offers a guide to effective instruction.
  • Illustrate Strengths: Writing is an opportunity to illustrate strengths. What is going right in the classroom? Educators want to read about successes, so they can in turn create success. This  creates a positive outlook for the writer, and offers hope to others who may be currently struggling. It's great to write about the triumphs!
I hope that this was helpful to all aspiring teacher bloggers, especially those new to writing. Sharing is powerful, but it also comes with responsibility. It's important to keep these tips in mind. Most importantly, I would advise all new teachers to discuss a personal teaching blog with their principals. Are they open to it? Do they encourage blogging? What is their advice? No amount of blogging is worth the loss of employment.

Just a few tips to chew on....