Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Day #8 of the #Reflective teacher challenge - What's in my desk drawer? Everything but the kitchen sink!

I'll let you in on a little secret. Over the summer I packed up the contents of my desk, nicely boxed so our fabulous custodial staff could deep clean my classroom. I came back in August and hit the ground running. My secret? I never actually finished unpacking that box. It is currently stashed UNDER my desk. I know what's in it, and occasionally go digging for something.

Don't get me wrong - I did unpack the necessities. Pens, pencils, post-it notes - check. Correction fluid - of course. Advil, bandaids, and cough drops? Absolutely. But the five extra packs of index cards? Still in the box. The collection of toys? In the box. The stack of "important papers I absolutely meant to get to" - you guessed it, in the box. The precious folder of thank you notes from previous students? Still in the box, but I know it's only a matter of days or weeks until those make an appearance. That really bad teaching day is coming, I'm sure.

So what can I infer from my desk drawer and my little secret? Well, the obvious answer is that I'm too lazy to get around to unpack. A kinder interpretation might be that I'm so busy with all the work we educators do that I just haven't found the time. Of course, like many educators I'm also a pack rat. We are so used to thinking on our feet as we design and present lessons, and we just never know when that package of twenty dice just might coming in handy during a group project.

So there you go. Next time you swing by room G-6 I'll give you a peek in the box. Who knows what else is in there!

Reflective Teaching challenge - Day 7

Ok, so clearly I'm just a little bit behind on this challenge. I know the intent is to answer these questions on the designated day, one per day...but sometimes life gets in the way. Or in my case, germs. Our school has been dealing with a nasty virus going around, and it has laid me flat for the last several days. I even took a day off from school - something I almost NEVER do - just to stay home and sleep. Sooo, here I am trying to play catch up.

I'll be honest - another reason I have not followed through with this challenge right away is because I am stuck on the prompt for day 7. I have been thinking about it for days. It fills my thoughts at random times, even between coughing fits. The question? "Who was or is your most inspirational colleague, and why?" I truly have no idea how to answer this question. I have been blessed to be surrounded by amazing educators, filled with passion and inspiring students like never before. How do I choose just one? A wise choice for a happy marriage would be my husband, as his ability to connect with his students is inspiring a new generation of students that love science. His former students routinely talk about the impact he has made in their lives, and isn't that the mark of a successful teacher? He inspires on a daily basis. Another excellent choice would be those veteran teachers that have given so much of themselves, and are finally retiring to focus on their own lives. Special mention goes to Clyde Carpino, Nelletje Bailey, Nancy Moore, Gary Sumner, Pat Carter...and the list goes on and on.

Other outstanding teachers pop into my mind - Gretchen Schwab, Ana Farina, Missy Kalamaras, Jill Bolduc, Jacqui Alldritt, Katja Jackson, Pam Williamson. All of them dynamic, and they all have one thing in common - they truly, genuinely care about their students. They build relationships that allow them to inspire their students. They don't teach subjects - they teach kids. And they do an amazing job of it.

Most of all, I think what inspires me most in my colleagues is the amount of selflessness I see from them every day. Teachers that put lives on hold, and dedicate all their efforts to better their students and their school. Without a doubt, Dr. Will Cushman exemplifies this more than anyone else. He makes it clear that education is a service industry - whatever the students need from us is what we need to do. Serve the kids, at whatever cost. He gives so much of himself to everyone else that I am just in awe. He has the biggest heart, and he generously shares it with all of us. What a world our educational system would be if all educators could give just half as much as he does on a daily basis.

I have been very fortunate in my 16-years at Fairfield High. I've been mentored, inspired, and supported by an entire group of amazing educators. They all inspire me. To pick just one? Not a chance. Thank you, all of you.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Day 6 of the Reflective Teacher Challenge: What does a good mentor "do"?

I think without a doubt the best thing a good mentor does is inspire confidence. Mentorship is about validating strengths while giving suggestions for improvement. We see this all the time for teachers in training and those beginning to embark on their career, but we tend to forget that ALL educators could use mentoring on a regular basis. As I mentioned in an earlier post it is a given that no teacher can ever achieve perfection; translated, all teachers can always find ways to improve their practice. Unfortunately veteran and skilled teachers are often overlooked for this. Administrators spend the bulk of their time mentoring new teachers, which is as it should be. But this means that veterans don't really get much in the way of observation and mentoring. Over the last five years I don't think I've seen admin in my classroom more than a dozen times, and most of that was for evaluation purposes or as part of a campus-wide effort.

What does this mean? It means that veteran teachers need to actively seek out their own improvement. They reflect, a lot. They identify their own areas for growth, and they actively seek out suggestions for improvement. Sometimes from colleagues, sometimes from educational experts, and sometimes from the world of social media, but always looking for new ideas and new things to try. There's a reason effective teachers refer to the "teaching practice", because it is constantly being refined and improved. A good mentor is part of this process - encouraging and suggesting all the way.

Reflective Teaching Day 5, a day late

So Day 5 of the Reflective Teaching challenge rolled around yesterday, where I was reminded of a very important teacher lesson. ALWAYS preview tomorrow's materials ahead of time, or you might be caught unprepared. So, yesterday's prompt asked us to share a photo of our classroom. Of course, I realized this AFTER I had left for the day. On a minimum day, no less. And no, I was not going to go back just to take a photo. I have many, but they either are filled with students (not sure about the propriety of posting those) or they were focused on a very small area of my room. Not exactly what I wanted to blog about.

So my husband, bless his heart, took photos for me. For those that don't know me personally, my beloved teaches at the same school. I was feeling sick, so I headed home with the kiddos. My sweet husband headed back to school for the first home football game of the season. He gracefully swung by my classroom to snap a few pics for me. (And pick up my lunchbox, that I managed to leave at school for the upteenth time.) So, here's a few pictures of my room:

Ok, assuming I can figure this out...
This is the back wall of my classroom. Yes, it is quite a small room. On the left you can see our student and staff promises as well as classroom expectations. Across the back you see a variety of books, all purchased by me over the years, that are available for students to borrow. Across the top you can see college banners - I also teach AVID, and I want my kids to be thinking about college all the time. I really like my door. It has a replica of our high school's diploma, provided by Josten's Renaissance. Next to that is a replica of my college diploma. Then I printed out a sign that tells students "I went to college to become a teacher - what will YOU do?" Surrounded all of that with the phrase "Eyes on the Prize!" Add a little bit of bling, and presto! A magic door. 

Side wall number 1. I teach AP European history to 10th graders, which can be challenging. On the top you can see posters of the annotation system I teach my kids. Artwork from the various time periods fills the bulletin boards. A big screen tv is just hinted at on the left - yay for technology and apple tvs! On the right is a critical bulletin board you can't really see. It reminds students how to construct a historical thesis statement by using evidence first!

Side wall number 2. As a No Excuses University High School (one of only a small handful in the nation) we have adopted colleges for our classroom. I chose Michigan, in honor of my Dad's family. On my college wall is proudly displayed a photo of my grandfather suited up for his ice hockey game as captain of the Michigan Wolverines in the 1930's. A cap and gown, proudly showing of my own college honor cords is next. A vocabulary word wall and theme bulletin board complete the picture. 

So that's the virtual tour of my classroom. Of course, the most important piece is missing - my awesome students!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reflective Teacher: Day 4

When I sat down at my computer to write this blog, dead tired and fighting a nasty cold, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed. It's been a LONG day - 15 hours and counting. A full teaching day, followed by several hours of Back to School Night. Followed by putting on my Mommy hat and attending ANOTHER Back to School Night. That's right, folks...two Back to School Nights in one evening. Suffice it to say I'm ready to throw in the towel for the evening. The last thing I wanted to do was blog about education; won't that keep for another day? And then I looked at the prompt: What do I love the most about teaching?

And just like that I'm invigorated. What do I love about teaching? Just about everything. I teach History and AVID at a low-income, urban high school. My students need me. I feed them, teach them, guide them, love them. I counsel them, scold them, encourage them, and cry with them. Large numbers of my students stay in contact even after they graduate. I make a difference in their lives. Knowing that, and hearing that from them, is what I love most about teaching.

To put it another way, what I do makes these 15 hour days worthwhile. Those days matter, and because I do what I do, students' lives are changed. Talk about impacting the there anything more worthy in this world?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

30 Days of Reflection: Day 3

Prompt: Discuss one "observation" area that you would like to improve on for your teacher evaluation.

There are few things in the educational world that can bring about more contention than observations and evaluations. After all, how does one objectively judge something that is inherently subjective? Cross this difficulty with what may sometimes be an atmosphere of anxiety, doubt, or even fear and it is no wonder that many teachers and administrators think about observations and evaluations with dread.

This is certainly true for new teachers. Teaching is a profession that one can NEVER perfect. It will never be possible to be all things to all people at all times. There is always more work to be done - designing stronger curriculum, developing stronger relationships, providing better feedback. So how do you balance this in the form of an evaluation? The answer must lie somewhere in the same vein as student feedback; validate the positives, and target areas for growth.

Like many veteran teachers, I know exactly what my strengths are in the classroom. I'm also quite familiar with areas that I would like to demonstrate growth. This year my focus is on improving communication with parents. Education is most effective for students when teachers and parents work together.I do an excellent job communicating with students, and I always respond to parents that initiate communication, but I really need to focus a bit more on initiating communication with ALL my parents. Some of this can be done by more effectively using technological tools (Jupitergrades, social media platforms, etc) but the rest requires me to explicitly focus on students with parent communication in mind.    

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

#Reflective Teaching, Day 2:

Technology is everywhere. It runs our lives, and in many cases makes it so that our lives practically run themselves. Our students grew up in the digital age; many of them have virtually no concept of a world without smartphones or wifi. They are used to having their information paired with entertainment. That brings up the interesting dilemma in the classroom - how do we teach our children in this new digital age? We need to teach both content AND skills, but this includes teaching students how to effectively function both with and without technology at their fingertips. 

The reflective prompt for the day involves asking what piece of technology I would most like to include this year, and why. I have been very fortunate to have worked at a site that has made technology available to me, and our new principal is pushing educational technology even further to the forefront. I have been working with an ipad for several years, and recently added an apple tv/big screen tv combo in my classroom. I absolutely love my ipad, but most of my usage has been either personal or professional. This year I really want to figure out how to use it to truly enhance my teaching. I feel like my ipad usage in my classroom tends to center around things that I can do just as easily with my laptop. So, what can I do to embed my ipad usage more dynamically in the classroom? What powers can I unleash? 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Taking the Challenge! Great teachers are reflective teachers - so let's all join in as we reflect on our best teaching practices throughout the month of September. More information about the challenge can be found at

September 1, 2014

Prompt: Write your goals for the school year. Be as abstract or specific as you'd like to be!

Time, time, time...there is never enough. My goals for this year all center around finding better ways to maximize my time. As a teacher, wife, mother, leader, daughter, etc there are lots of demands on my time. I know I'm not unique in this situation.

In the classroom, I want to improve the feedback I provide my students. Many times I am very generic, and it can sometimes fall to the student to seek out more specific feedback. This year I want to try a system of having the kids annotate their own work with feedback I give to the whole class, and then follow up with more individual comments. Timeliness if also critical, and I'd like to improve how quickly I return assignments, tests, and essays.

Another goal involves continuing our implementation of Common Core standards into our curriculum. Our Social Science department had a significant head start on Common Core, thanks to our heavy use of primary sources and our involvement with the UC Davis History project, but we need to continue to push forward with our refinements. Collaboration and teamwork are critical, so no one person assumes too much of a burden on their time. (Needless to say, sharing the work also means letting go of some of the control - something else I need to work on!)

Our school has made some incredible improvements over the last two years. Our staff has been reinvigorated, and our students are determined to succeed. I see one key component of this turnaround based in positive reinforcement. Our students need to be rewarded for a job well done! Our Renaissance program has taken several hits, but I really want to push through and continue. Persevere and grow the program - my mottos for the year.

Many people talk about the need for personal time. This year I want to do a better job of actively scheduling personal time, and making good use of it. At the end of each day I want to be able to articulate what I did that was productive - for my job, for my family, and for me.

Time management and balance - I'm not sure I can ever achieve it, but each year I try to get just a bit closer!

What are your goals for the year?