My goodness this semester passed by in a blink of an eye!  I have so many notes that say MUST BLOG ABOUT THIS, but a lack of posts to show for it.

In an effort to catch up on what’s been going on in my teacher world, I decided to begin with my journey into creating a more mindful classroom for both my students and for myself.  I first experienced mindful practices at #SXSWEdu in March and I could not wait to get back to school to try out what I had learned.

Before we took our big state test in April, I tried an activity called 5-4-3-2-1.  I started this practice by inviting students to sit quietly in their chairs, with their feet planted on the ground and their hands on their knees.  I asked them if they were not going to participate to honor those that were by sitting quietly and to not distract others.  I asked everyone to be mindful of the silence we were creating together, and that their voices were not needed for this activity but their minds were.  First, I asked them to look for 5 colors within their field of vision.  Then, they tried to notice 4 different sensations, whether it’s the coolness in the air from the AC, their body temperature, or maybe their hands tingling.  For the third step, students listened for 3 different sounds.  Then I asked them to take 2 deep breaths, and finally think of 1 positive thought that makes them feel good.  At the end of this activity, I had students in every class tell me how calming yet energizing it was for them.  One student said it was “the most relaxed he had felt in days.”  I knew I was on to something.

After some research, I easily found a ton of online resources like CASEL and Mindful Schools.  These sites provide not only different strategies teachers can use, but they also provide the brain research associated with practicing mindfulness.  I’ve been teaching  high school for a while now, but the unpredictability of teenagers never ceases to amaze me.  I know reading more of the brain research will help me to better understand my students.  Likewise, just from the few mindfulness activities we have tried, I believe students will better understand themselves.  So far, my favorite practice is called a “body scan” that I took from this site.

After our daily reading time, I invited students to make the decision of whether or not they wanted to participate in another mindfulness activity.  If they did not want to participate, I asked them to return to their seat and sit quietly.  If they did want to join, I told them to find a space on the floor and sit down in a comfortable seated position, but to make sure there was enough room around them to lay down.  I followed the steps suggested on the site but added my own words as well.  I dimmed the lights and told students to slowly lay back in the space they chose.  The body scan begins by focusing on your head and then moving your focus to your feet, so I instructed them to squeeze their eyes shut, scrunch their nose, make fists, and finally, to tighten their legs and toes.  As they did this, I had students think of anything that was stressing them out:  major grades due this week for my class or others.  Upcoming AP tests.  Babysitting.  Having to work after school.  I said to keep holding everything that bothered them in this tension, and then to take a deep breath and let it all go.  I told them to actually let it go by relaxing their face and spreading their fingers as wide as possible.  Then I invited them to either place their hands by their side or to place one hand on their heart and one on their stomach.  I asked them to pay attention to their heartbeat and their breath, and to try to slow down each as we remained in silence.  I used an ocean-sounds playlist I found on Spotify to allow them about a minute and a half to concentrate on what they were feeling.  After a couple of minutes, I told them to wiggle their fingers and turn on their side in order to add energy back to their bodies.  Then I asked them to sit up slowly and take one more final breath, while thinking of something positive to focus on.


Above: Taken at the end of the “body scan”.  Some students are still focusing on their breath.

After the activity, I asked students to give me feedback in order to show my administrators since I plan to incorporate more  mindful strategies next year.  But honestly, I didn’t need written feedback.  They were very vocal about how much they enjoyed it and I could feel the difference in the room.  Everything felt much more relaxed and my students told each other how much more ready they felt to do the work we had to do.


Student feedback 

This summer I plan to take a course in Social-Emotional Learning and Character Development offered by the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools.  I am so excited to know more about how to help my students navigate the daily stress and anxiety they experience on top of the assignments I give them.  In order to better serve my students, I must understand how to help them understand what it is they’re feeling so they can find ways to manage the stress of being a teenager.   I’m currently reading a young adult novel called He Forgot to Say Goodbye by Benjamin Alire Saenz and a line by one of the main characters validated having a mindful classroom:

“You are the adults.  I’m the kid.  And yet it’s my job to understand you. But it’s not your job to understand me.”





How Should We “Meet the Teacher”?

13 Open House nights at 6 different schools, and it’s basically the same routine: 2 hours in the middle of the week on a school night, to come “meet the teacher” which actually means being rushed through a student’s schedule, complete with bells and passing periods (to understand what a student experiences—even though at some point most parents have been students with a schedule), and around 10 minutes to “visit” with a teacher who may or may not have other parents/guardians in the room.

Being completely honest: I’m not a fan of Open House/Meet the Teacher Night. It doesn’t actually allow for very meaningful conversations to truly happen, and I think it’s perfectly understandable why attendance is low when Open House is held on a school night. As teachers, we are usually just coming off a long day of teaching a set of still-new-to-us students. On the same note, most parents/guardians are either just getting off work, taking time off work, or dealing with finding a babysitter. Is this kind of meeting really convenient for teachers or parents?

Something I realized after tonight’s Open House is how happy I was to see my former students and their parents, and be able to (quickly) tell them how proud I am of them and how much they’ve grown since they’ve been in my class. Isn’t THAT what building a stronger school community is about? Building and MAINTAINING relationships? Not just when a kid is in your class but for the years after as well? But of course I only got to see a couple of former students because they were too busy following their new schedule that no longer includes my class.

A couple of weeks ago, I emailed my administrators about doing Open House differently next year and hope that changes are considered, because I knew it was too late to change things for this year. Still, I at least tried to do things differently in my own classroom:

Instead of trying to greet every parent/guardian at the door, I asked everyone to step in the room and sign in, grab an index card and explore the room if they’d like. Then I introduced myself and my student teacher, and brought their attention to our “Things We Read” and “Things We Write” table, and asked each student to find their writing to share with their parents.


This opened student-led conversations. My student teacher took this a step further by encouraging students to get their SSR book from the classroom library and talk about it as well.

Finally, I explained how reading and writing are essential components of our class, and I asked each parent/guardian to use their index card to write a note to their student. I asked them to remember what it was like to be a teenager in high school, and to write about what they struggled with the most as a sophomore. Then I asked them to close the note with words of encouragement. The students were NOT allowed to see the cards; we are taping them to the inside of their class folders and they have to wait to see them until tomorrow or Friday. I told them we’re doing this as a reminder to our students that even though they may feel overwhelmed this school year, they do have support. I was moved by some of the notes and can’t wait for the students to see them throughout the year:


I did ask some of the parents and students for suggestions on how “to do Open House”, and here are my favorites:

1) Have a dinner/snacks gathering of some sort either before, during, after. Make it causal.

2) Have it on a weekend and make it an open picnic or pot luck gathering. Teachers can wear specific school shirts and mingle with anyone and everyone.


4) Have a pep rally for the parents; let them compete against teachers in a friendly game/competition.

5) Have it during PD week but ask that students/parents show up to help any and all teachers with room set up and prep.

Again, those were just some of my favorite ideas. I think Meeting the Teacher is critical but we’ve got to figure out a way to make it more meaningful for both parents and teachers. I’d be happy to hear anything that’s worked for your school!

Found Poetry = Growing Confidence

I’ve seen different ways to do “Found Poetry” but today I decided to use it as part of my “launch” for our Writer’s Notebook and Workshop that we’ll officially begin next week.

I want my students to understand that yes, writing is HARD, but that there are a ton of strategies to use to help them begin writing.

Today we read Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family”. I chose this poem specifically because of its recent use in an iPhone commercial. I had a feeling some students would recognize it and was happy that some of them did after we read and watched it.

We looked at Angelou’s use of language; my kids pointed out her repetition and that she uses the word “WE” for a reason.

After discussing the poem, I told my students how sometimes writers use the words of other writers to help them figure out what they want to write about. We talked about how sometimes other people’s words, like significant quotes or song lyrics, might encourage us think of something we want to explore in our Writer’s Notebooks.

Then I had them look at the poem again for words that stood out to them or just phrases they liked, and asked them to try to create their own poem using Angelou’s words. I asked them to put a square or circle around their chosen words and then use a marker to mark out the rest. Here is the example I gave them:


After they picked their words, I then gave them a blank page and told them to write what was left in any way they wanted, because poetry doesn’t have to look a certain way.

Here are a couple of my favorites:



The student who created the poem below said, “I don’t know if this means anything”, and I told him those five words hold more meaning than we could discuss in a class period:


And finally, the product from my most reluctant participant, who told me he hates reading AND writing:



When he handed me his paper he expected me to tell him it was wrong or to do it over; he said “here, I did it” and rolled his eyes. And I read it and looked him right in the eyes and said: “I LOVE THIS; I can’t wait to read this one for the class!” And it’s because I knew they would love it too; his choice of words are HILARIOUS and spunky and while they’re not “right” by Standard English, they definitely make sense.

When the class–which is 7 girls and 17 boys, heard it, laugher erupted. One of my girls said, “That’s what’s up! Spanish is sexy!” Some might think it inappropriate but the entire class said this new poem was a cool way to use the words from such a serious poem. Who knows, maybe I’ve got the next King of Comedy sitting in my classroom!

What I forgot to say is that at the end of class I read each of these anonymously, but I knew what poem belonged to which student. Watching each student silently beam with pride as they heard their classmates positively react to their chosen words was all the evidence I needed to know their confidence grew a little today, and I can’t wait to watch it flourish this year!

Teacher Heartbreak, Student Healing.

I’ve mentioned before I’ve been teaching for over ten years, and I’ve told many people that unless you’re a teacher, there are some things you just won’t understand.  You won’t know what it’s like to spend hours planning for a sub, just to take a day or two off, only to have the sub do nothing of what you planned; you won’t know what it’s like to have a student be a complete sweetheart one day and a complete jerk the next; you won’t know what it’s like to watch a kid finally GET IT and blush from being proud.  I could go on, but I think you know what I mean.  I have come to realize that from all of my teacher experiences, I have developed a “teacher heart”, dedicated to all the feelings associated with my students, classroom, and school.  I consider myself lucky in that for the first 12 years of my career, I never had my teacher heart break.  However, during that time I witnessed the heart break of several colleagues due to losing a current or former student, usually to car accidents and terminal illnesses.  I remember waking up to a friend’s panicked phone call after she got the news that one of her students was killed while skateboarding near a busy street in town.  I remember feeling completely helpless on the phone, wanting nothing but to wrap my arms around her and to let her know she wasn’t alone.  But I was separated from her not only by physical distance, but also by the lack of actually knowing what it meant to have my teacher heart break.

Unfortunately, after this school year, I now know very well what it feels like to lose a student, because I have lost two.  To lose two kids in one year has not only been shocking, but it has been a challenging learning experience as well.  I have been reminded how fragile life is, and it has encouraged me to be even more open and available to my current students.  The students I lost, “OC” and David, were no longer in my classes; one had graduated and one had moved schools, and I don’t know if that makes the circumstances easier or more difficult.  I do know that students don’t really understand what it means to be a teacher’s “kid”.  I’m not a mother but I consider all of my students “my kids” and that to some degree, they will always be my kid.  As a teacher, I spend more time with them during the school year than they do with some of their friends or family, and actually get to know them.   I worry about how they’re doing in other classes and whether or not they know they’re capable of so much more than what high school will ever show them.  I give them silly stickers and smile at them in the halls.  I try to go to their games (at least one per sport!), concerts, and club events.  I know if they’re having a bad day or good day, what they like or don’t like, and more often than not, what they want to do in the future.  When it comes down to it, I guess you could say my students are my teacher heart.

This past October was the first time a piece of that heart broke.  I got the sad news that Collins “OC” Chima, had passed away in his sleep.  OC was only 18 and had just graduated a few months before in June.  He was studying to be a doctor and all signs pointed toward his success.  My memories of OC involve his rowdy, end-of-the-day class, and the laughter he often caused.  He was always in a good mood and always respectful to me.  The day of his funeral did not match his spirit; it was rainy and cold.  But a speech by one of his best friends, Derek, brightened the mood.  The eulogy he wrote was beautiful and filled with both love and humor.  Derek was another former student of mine and I had never been more proud of him than in that moment.  He did one of the hardest things in life; he said goodbye to a friend and promised to keep moving on with his own life.  He reminded me what it is to be strong even when you feel weak, and what it means to have hope even when you hurt.  I left the reception knowing that while OC is gone, his family and friends will carry his memory and love for years to come.

When I got back to school that following Monday, without being too emotional, I was very honest with my kids about what I was feeling.  I told them how much it meant to me for them to know that life is short and unpredictable, and that for whatever reason, we’re in each other’s lives and that we have to use our time to work together in a positive way.  They seemed to agree.  My teacher heart began to heal.

A few months later in February of this year, exactly one month ago today, my other former student, David “Pronto” Joseph, died.  David once told me that he called himself “Pronto” because of how fast he was on the football field.  I went to a couple of his games and he definitely had talent.  In class, David was a bit of a class clown but knew when it was time to work.

The circumstances surrounding David’s death are much different than OC’s. When David died, I actually tried to start this blog post about a hundred different times because I couldn’t wrap my mind around what happened, and I find writing therapeutic.  You see, when OC died, I had a general understanding of what happened and felt like his death was an unfortunate part of his life.  I honestly didn’t feel the need to write about it because I talked about it at length with other teachers and friends, and felt some sense of closure at his funeral and at the memorial service we held over the holidays.  What’s glaringly different is that David didn’t die in his sleep or even in a tragic car accident; David Joseph was shot and killed by an Austin police officer.

I wrote my first draft of this post on February 12th, 4 days after David was killed, and I understand now that the 12th was still too soon for me; I was only beginning to process what happened and how my students–specifically David’s friends-would be impacted. I found out David died the way so many others were informed: through social media posts and through the official police conference that was held on Tuesday, February 9th, a full day after the fact.  When the conference ended, I realized that I actually had heard about the shooting late Monday evening, and the headline “Police Shoot Naked Man” flashed through my head.  I remember listening to the story and thinking it was yet another questionable police shooting, and wondering why anyone would shoot a naked person since they’re obviously unarmed.  I did not think twice that I could possibly know the “man” that was killed.  I did not think twice that it would be one of my former students since the news kept saying “man”.  David Joseph was a 17 year old boy; he was a naked, unarmed, 17 year old boy that was shot and killed by an adult with a weapon.  

I watched the police conference at school during lunch and I immediately had so many unanswerable questions.  More than anything, though, I was angry and my teacher heart started to break, not just for David and his family, but for my other kids; the ones I knew were still close with David even though he had transferred schools the previous year.  I wanted to know if they were okay and even had other teachers track them down for me since most of them are seniors and not in my class anymore.  One by one, those kids showed up and one by one they all had the same look of sadness: they knew their friend was gone and they knew how he had been killed.  My teacher heart slowly shattered.

After school that evening, I attended an emergency community meeting that was called in response to the shooting. I had no idea what to expect but felt like I had to go find out what they planned to do for David and to see if anyone could make sense of what was happening.  I was told about the meeting about an hour after it started but decided to go anyway.  When I arrived, everyone was working in small groups, but I didn’t know what the groups were for.  I could tell the meeting was coming to a close and listened as one of the leaders solemnly recited several names.  The names were all victims of police shootings, and they were all black:  Mike.  Trayvon.  Tamir.  It was difficult to hear David’s name added to that list.  I was familiar with the stories in Ferguson and Baltimore and other national headlines, and could not believe the same issue was happening to someone I knew.  I knew that if I was having a hard time understanding what was happening, my students were probably confused, too.

I didn’t come home from the meeting until after 9PM that night, and it was the first time I had been home all day since hearing the news.  I sat on the couch and finally cried for the first time.  I cried for David.  For his family.  For his older brother, Mark, that I also had as a student.  For his friends.  For his current teachers.  Crying felt good, but it still didn’t answer any questions.  My boyfriend decided to play devil’s advocate and began to throw what if questions at me:  What if David WAS on drugs?  What if he had killed someone before the cop found him and that’s why he was running?  What if he had been at school and not on the street?  For each question, I had the same response:  it doesn’t matter; he did not deserve to be killed.  Drugs, murder, truancy or any other crime-related activity does not equate to an automatic death sentence.

At school the following day, counselors were made available for both students and teachers.  A touching moment of silence was observed during our daily announcement period, and once again, I had an open conversation with my students about what was happening.  Our school did not provide a space to have open dialogue regarding the shooting; all conversations were confined to the counselor’s office.  So, like other teachers, I allowed my students to consider issues such as police body cameras, gun laws, and even mental health to help talk their way around what happened to David.  It was both frustrating and liberating to respond with “I don’t know” to a majority of their questions.  I just kept telling them the only thing I did know was that David was loved, and that he will continue to be loved regardless of what any report or news story says.

Love for David was never more apparent than what was shown at his funeral.  Attending David’s funeral was one of the hardest things I’ve done recently and I can only imagine how hard it must have been for his family and close friends.  I hated seeing one of my kids listed as a pall bearer; they should be attending prom together instead.  It was especially difficult to hear his oldest brother, Fally, talk about how unfair it is that he has to bury his baby brother.  And it was just as hard to hear Fally’s mentor speak about David’s outgoing characteristics, and the future he could and should have had.

I saw many students at David’s funeral and told them I am available at school if they ever need me.  In the coming days, weeks, and months, more details will be revealed since the investigation has concluded, and that may or may not provide more answers.  I think there will always be unknowns and it’s something I’m helping my students to understand.  I also want them to move past the “all cops are bad” mentality and to eventually acknowledge that ultimately the officer who shot David is a human being, and human beings are flawed.

More than anything, I want my students to have hope.  I want them to have hope that people can work together to impact change, whether it’s in local police policy or national gun laws.  I want them to have hope that shooting incidents like this will stop.  I want them to have hope that other people want these things, too.  I need them to have hope.  My students’ hope is what will help heal my teacher heart, because having hope is the only certain way to move forward during a time of such uncertainty.  It’s the only way to know I haven’t lost them yet.




New Year: New Class Culture Approach

I’ve always believed building healthy relationships with my students is vital to their success in my classroom.  I take time to get to know their names, usually on the first day of classes, and work on getting to know their interests and passions throughout the year.  However, over the past few years I’ve realized that I usually end the year feeling like most of my students know me pretty well and vice versa, but I’ve realized they sometimes hardly know each other.  Sure there will be a handful of kids that have close friendships in class, but there have been numerous times I’ve told a class, “Oh yeah, so and so is not here today”, and multiple students will respond with, “who?”  Considering we spend almost an hour and a half together two to three days per week, I think students not knowing each other is unacceptable.  This semester I have challenged myself (and therefore my students) to increase class culture with the goal of having students leave my class feeling more connected to one another.

To start this process, I turned to an old technique used by teachers from early childhood education to college level courses.  I downloaded a clock template and made plans to devote at least 20 minutes for our first day back for students to find their new “clock buddies”.  In each class, I asked my students to be completely honest with me and raise their hands if they’ve ever ended a school year without talking to everyone in class at least once.  Every hand went up.  Then I asked if they’ve ever ended the year without knowing everyone’s name in class.  They all raised their hands again.  I told them I wasn’t okay with them ending our year together like this so we would use our clocks to make some changes.  I was happy that no one seemed to complain.

I will be honest and say that when I tried this with my first class, chaos ensued, mostly from lack of proper planning on my part.  I had seen this activity done in professional development sessions before and assumed I could handle it.  After my brief introduction and discussion, I passed out the clocks.  Luckily my first class only has 14 students, so it was easy to manage them even after confusion erupted.  For the first few minutes, everything went fine.  Kids were walking around and asking each other to be their partner for a specific time.  But then I started hearing the same thing, “Wait, I already have you on here.  But I need a 2 o’clock!”  “I need a 7 but already have them on here and not her but she has her 7 o’clock filled!”  Before I knew it, the whole class had two to three open time slots and we couldn’t figure out who didn’t already have each other or who did.  I started laughing and said, “Hold on, let me do some research real quick”.  After Googling “clock buddies instructions”, I realized my mistake and that they needed much more direction instead of just “fill up all your time slots!”

I thanked my students for participating so well and for being my guinea pigs since they were the first class to do this activity.  I even had a couple of sweethearts try to figure it out and give suggestions of how to fill the missing time slots.  Instead of trying to use the clocks we had, I told them we were going to recycle our first set and use the instructions I found after they returned from lunch.  They  didn’t seem to mind, mostly because my error worked in their favor to do something fun twice in one class period.

When they returned from lunch, I passed out new clocks and told them we would only fill out numbers 1-6.  I explained the expectation was that they listen to and follow instructions, and to not write anything until I said to do so.

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Following the instructions I found made the process much easier, but I still added my own steps as I saw necessary.  To begin, I had everyone stand up.  Then I said they had to partner up with someone from the OPPOSITE side of the room.  I stood on a chair so I could easily see the whole class.  I made sure everyone was partnered up and then announced, “Okay.  This is your 12 o’clock partner.  Exchange names.  Make sure you have the correct spelling and know how to SAY each other’s names.  Then ask your 12 o’clock what their favorite color is and why.”

I repeated this process for each time slot, making sure the kids picked someone from opposite sides each time since they tend to still flock to their friends.  I also ADDED to the questions they had to ask each other.  12 o’clock partners had to discuss favorite colors, 1 o’clock partners had to discuss favorite colors and music, 2 o’clock discussed animals, and by the time we made it to 6 o’clock partners they were discussing favorite and least favorite classes.  I disliked the fact that I had to cut off discussions for the sake of finding new partners; it meant students were actually talking and getting to know each other a little better (even if it was orchestrated).

When we got to the 4, 5, and 6 o’clock time slots, we did start to have a few issues of people not having a new partner, but I simply started asking who has been with the partner-less person and who has not.  I split up partners to make new ones, which is why it is important to keep reminding students NOT to write anything until given that instruction.

After establishing 1-6 clock buddies, I told students to take a picture of their clocks just in case it falls out of their folder.  I made the clocks on purple paper to make sure it’s easy to find in their folders that stay in my classroom, but if you know students well, you know students always find a way to lose what you want them to keep.  I explained to my kids we wouldn’t use the clocks every day, but that we would be using them often for different reasons.

The next class day, I planned for students to use their clocks to find new seats.  As they came into class, I greeted the first few students by telling them to get their folder, get their clocks and sit by their 5 o’clock partner, and to pass it on.  By the time the bell rang for class to start, only a couple of students were still pairing up and finding a new seat.Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 12.52.38 PM.png

Immediately I noticed a change in my room.  The students that always sat next to each other were no longer sitting next to each other.  And if they were, they still had at least one different person sitting next to them.  Before I started class, I told them to ask their 5 o’clock how their day is going and let them talk freely for 2-3 minutes.  I noticed my shyest kids sharing, even if it was quickly and quietly!

We continued on to our silent reading portion of class, and after reading, I again had students specifically share with their 5 o’clock partner:

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Again, even though this is orchestrated, students who don’t normally talk to each other were talking to each other, and this time about books!  And, again, if you know teenagers, you know they don’t always stay on topic.  I didn’t mind that their conversations veered off topic so long as it was after they met my expectation.  Their veering off topic actually meant they were talking about things that were interesting to them, and therefore getting to know each other.

We are moving into our second week of classes and I plan to use the clocks to find new seats again this week, but using a different number.  Pretty soon my kids will figure out this will be a normal thing, and I hope to have to provide less instructions.  I am excited to see how this impacts class culture in each class period since they are all so different, and I will post and update at the end of the semester.

Picking Sides

I try to avoid inundating my kids with STAAR test prep nonsense, but next week they are required to take a mock exam that requires them to write a persuasive essay.  In my opinion, the topic is pretty lame:  “Is it better to dream big or be realistic?”  So today I had my students practice persuasion techniques by having an “open carry” debate.  We do live in Texas, and this new law just went into effect last Friday, and it’s something a lot of them have very real and very strong opinions about.

I started the lesson by clearly defining what open carry means for our debate (not necessarily what the law specifically states).  I allowed students to ask any clarifying questions to make sure they understood what we were talking about when we mention open carry.

Then I used a resource from ReadWriteThink and just used white-out to remove “kairos” since we focus more on logos and pathos in STAAR writing.  Remember STAAR only allows 26 lines for an essay, so it’s hard to incorporate all persuasive strategies (but not impossible). For this review I wanted to reinforce the two strategies I feel like my students use and understand the most.

We reviewed the definitions and then I made 3 large columns on the whiteboard labeled:  KEEP, ?, and STOP.  I emphasized that I was using the verbs “keep/stop” instead of just “agree/disagree” because I wanted to students to work on convincing others of their position and persuade them to take action.  I then had my kids write their names in the column that best fit their current position regarding open carry.


In each class, I had at least 2 undecided and almost an even number of students on the opposing sides. I had a feeling this would happen so it made my lesson work even easier: I told the “keep” and “stop” sides it was now their job to convince the undecided students to join their side by creating sound arguments that had either logical and/or emotional appeals.

I allowed each side just 5 minutes to create their argument since time was running out. While the two sides deliberated, I talked with the students in the middle. I asked why they were undecided and what kind of argument might change their mind. From the three classes that participated, I had at least one undecided student from each period tell me that they would have to hear a solid example of why open carry is safe or unsafe.

Again, because of the limited amount of time remaining, I only gave each side 3 minutes to present their positions. My “success criteria” on the board simply said: be respectful, be patient, and speak loud enough to be heard. My students did a great job of trying to incorporate both logical and emotional appeals. One of the strongest opposing arguments I heard was that open carry could possibly cause a young child to think it’s always okay to carry a gun and make them more inclined to go touch one if they see it in public. They mentioned that a kid might accidentally make someone else’s gun shoot in public because they think it’s a toy. I saw a few people react to that with faces of “I hadn’t thought about that”.

After both sides presented their cases, I allowed the students in the middle to either pick a side or ask questions if they still weren’t convinced. This is where the debate started to get even more lively, but my students did an excellent job of letting both sides speak without interruption. In each class, only one kid from the middle wound up choosing a new side.

I began to wrap up the lesson by asking the students in the middle to explain why they did or did not change their mind about joining either side. Each time I was told that they just wanted stronger and more believable examples.

I closed the lesson by reminding students how important elaboration is in writing, and that the examples that they provide in their persuasive essay must be well-supported and should appeal to logic and emotion.

How and Why I Redesigned My Classroom

Last school year, I started playing around with student choice regarding classroom assignments.  I teach 10th grade English in Texas, and that means A LOT of STAAR testing prep for my kids.  After the test last spring, I decided to give as much freedom as possible the last few weeks of school.  I noticed a significant increase in engagement and productivity from even my most reluctant students.  Toward the end of the year, I began to ask my kids about my classroom space and what changes I could make to it for it to be more student-friendly.  A lot of them told me they would get rid of the desks, bring in comfortable seats, allow people to stand or spread out on the floor, and have space to move things around.  I took a lot of notes and did more research on #flexiblespaces over the summer.

I traveled a lot during the summer and before I knew it the school year was banging on my door, ready to begin when I was not.  I was disappointed I hadn’t followed through on the research I had done but decided I could work with what I had in my room. I began to rearrange my classroom by stacking all the extra desks around the walls of my room, because I was afraid admin would say no to my new approach.  I wanted to make sure I had desks readily available for testing days, so I stacked them and covered them up with sheets (not aesthetically appealing but it got the job done).  I made 5 groups of 6 seats; one traditional desk with chair attached, one comfy chair (discarded rolling desk chairs, stools, camping chairs purchased from Goodwill for $5, etc.), and 4 portable stacking chairs that almost every school keeps in closets for assemblies and classrooms.  Then in a corner by my bookshelves, I brought in extra pillows from home and body pillows purchased from Target ($10).  I brought in rugs purchased from Ikea and some from home.  My room for the first week of school looked something like this (before and after)

(I also purchased about 15 clipboards from Goodwill ranging from 50 cents to $2 each so kids could have a solid writing surface.)

I was ready for the first day of school and loved my new students’ reactions to my classroom!  Many admitted they were surprised I had no desks but all of them said it was a good thing.  My kids from last year that stopped by to visit were mad that I went through with my idea AFTER they’d left my class.  They asked if I would teach English 3 so they could have me again and enjoy the new arrangement.

On the first day of school, my classes sat in groups for the first part of class and had small discussions about their summers and our new principal and school rules.  Then we easily moved into a large circle to have a whole class discussion about the school year.  My students responded to an exit ticket about first impressions/reactions to my classroom and this is what a few wrote:

“I’ve never had a teacher that did something like this to their room.  I’m excited to come back to class.”

“I really like the different options of where to sit.  I feel cramped in desks all day.”

“This was the first class all day where I actually felt relaxed and didn’t mind talking about school stuff.”

“Please don’t change your room!”

I knew that I was on to something good and decided to keep the arrangement, but not before getting more feedback from my current students.  After our first week together, I asked them to tell me how they like the set up of my room or what changes needed to be made.  Again, I got multiple responses that said they felt more relaxed and ready to work.  But I had a few that said they actually prefer to have a desk because they feel more productive and enjoy “normalcy” as one kid called it.  I also realized a lot of students in my co-teach classes that are high-needs require a more structured environment with traditional desks.  Because I teach both advanced and special education classes, I compromised; I kept one pod of traditional desks for one group and then had tables available for all the other groups.  In order to cut down on my own spending, I created my very first DonorsChoose project.  I asked for portable tables, durable camping chairs, giant bean bags, and large throw pillows.  As of today, my kids at all levels still enjoy coming to my classroom, know my expectations, and do their work.


My most recent update to my classroom was for myself.  I want a standing desk but know they are pretty expensive, and wanted to make sure I could adjust to not having a traditional desk.  Again, I used what I had in my classroom and made my own:  standingdesk

We almost NEVER use the textbooks in my classroom and they added the perfect height to my computer and keyboard.  I have been using this set up for two weeks now and can attest to the decrease of shoulder and neck pain and the increase of productivity and alertness.

I haven’t enjoyed being in my classroom this much since my first year of teaching.  It’s been a nice way to rethink how I teach and what works best for both my students and myself.

A Champion is Never Alone #AprilBlogaDay

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines champion as “someone (such as a team or an animal) that has won a contest or competition especially in sports”, but also as “someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief, cause, etc”.

The second definition really stands out to me since later today I am trying to do just that:  speak publicly in support of a belief-at yet another House of Representatives Public Education Committee Hearing.  My belief is that SB 149 should be passed in time to help our current seniors in danger of not graduating because they have not passed all of their STAAR tests.  You can scroll through my archive starting this past January in case you are unfamiliar with how Texas places more emphasis on testing than it does on its students, and why this bill was created in the first place.

My personal champions throughout this process have been the folks from the grassroots groups Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests.  Both of these groups have provided an incredible amount of essential information for anyone impacted by the STAAR tests and have each sent people to testify on behalf of our state’s students and teachers.  Without their continued support, showing up to the Capitol would be way more difficult and lonely.  Three out of the four times I’ve recently testified, I have been the ONLY high school English teacher to do so.  I know representatives from both groups will be at the Capitol later today and that always helps calm my nerves.

I believe testifying publicly is the best way to be a champion not only to my students past and present, but to my colleagues as well.  What I’d like to make clear is that I am only ONE person, and that the fight for better, quality assessments is far from over.  The STAAR Wars started more than 3 years ago, and fighting for SB 149 is just one battle among many.  I am aware that many parents and teachers have made the effort to contact their State Representatives, but I would still love to see 200 of them at the Capitol today.  I know from past experience that’s probably not going to happen (still hopeful it will) but it’s okay; I will be there regardless because I told my kids I won’t give up until a decision is made, and I know they’ll be with me every step of the way.

In Response to “Education News”: “Texas Schools and the Slippery Slope of Sen. Seliger’s SB 149” by Donna Garner 2.19.15

After seeing a question posted on KXAN’s Facebook earlier today asking what readers think about SB149, and after reading Donna Howard’s blog post decrying SB 149 about a month ago,  I’ve decided to respond, addressing the issues mentioned in Howard’s post  (and the comments on KXAN’s Facebook feed).  I know, I know, “you’re not supposed to ‘feed the trolls'”, but because I actually testified FOR this bill, I don’t mind writing about it.

SB 149 would allow seniors to graduate from our Texas public schools after taking and failing the STAAR tests multiple times in the past three years.  Some students have taken one STAAR test as many as 7 times, which adds up to about 30-35 hours of testing.  Furthermore, the majority of seniors have actually passed almost all of the STAAR tests, and only lack one or two tests to meet the 5 test requirement for graduation.  The number of students have not passed a single STAAR test is extremely minimal, and most likely those students have other issues (attendance, credits, etc.) that would prevent them from graduating even by committee decision.

As a CURRENT, experienced high school English teacher, I know the majority of seniors only need to pass the English 1 or English 2 STAAR test.  I can tell you that the implementation of these tests was severely flawed.  Teachers who were actually in the classroom during the ’11-12 and ’12-13 school years know that the preparation for the test was inadequate. We were only given field test questions that Pearson had already considered “bad questions” as a basis for our instruction.  Furthermore, when test results were released in ’12-’13 when current seniors were sophomores, we did not receive valid feedback.  This was extremely detrimental to students because we had no way of knowing what specific areas to focus on for remediation.  Students retested that summer and failed, and the cycle continued during every following administration of the STAAR test.  It was not until the Summer of 2014 that schools received any kind of adequate feedback and teachers, like myself, were able to finally TEACH TO THE TEST, and our passing rate for the retest increased substantially in December.

Believe me, classroom teachers care about what we teach and even more about WHO we teach.  Research study upon research study will show that standardized testing should not be the only way student ability/achievement is measured.

Anyone that says the English 1 & 2 STAAR is an OBJECTIVE measurement of student academic progress has obviously not been an English teacher in the past 3 years.  The writing required on the test is SUBJECTIVE, and is supposed to be graded on a rubric that takes into account a variety of measures from mechanics to voice.  However, the process for grading English 1 & 2 tests, to say the least, is a joke.  It is a well-known fact that Pearson hires people from Craigslist to grade the exams.  These people do not have to have a background in English (although SOME do), they just need a Bachelor’s Degree.  How is it okay for someone off of Craigslist to determine a student’s graduation status but not the people that have been working directly with the student for hours upon hours?

Also, former Pearson employees have said that TEA sets deadlines for the essays to be graded, and graders have quotas to meet.  Graders can score up to 100 essays in an hour.  It takes me, a highly qualified teacher with a Master’s Degree plus almost 18 hours of graduate English, about 5-6 HOURS to grade 130 essays accurately when we give mock STAAR exams.  If I have to take the time to grade PRACTICE essays, shouldn’t the test scorers be held to the same standard?  I seriously doubt the rubric is used effectively and would bet my salary that students’ scores are flawed.

If SB 149 passes, the graduation committee would look at overall grades in all courses.  Saying that graduates would be allowed “to walk without proving their mastery of important academic skills” is basically saying that no other classwork or projects are capable of teaching students such skills.  It is also a slap in the face to educators.  As a classroom teacher that spends roughly 90-100 hours with a student per year, please believe me when I say I can tell you what a student can or cannot do.  I don’t know when we stopped trusting teachers but it’s time for things to change.  I would challenge Donna Garner to step back in the classroom for one week, particularly in a Title 1 school, within the next two weeks before the test, but I don’t particularly want her near any students.

Looking forward, Texans should be PROUD that their voices have been heard, and that SB 149 was created as a direct result of public input.  There are still so many changes that need to be made regarding STAAR and how students are measured in school. HB 5 was just one small step in the right direction, and SB 149 follows in that regard.   

Thankfully, and again because of public input, SB 149 has passed the Senate and now only needs approval from the House and Governor Abbott.  However, if SB 149 does not pass, Texas schools will definitely be pushed further down the education hill because the STAAR test does not adequately measure “how well students have mastered academic knowledge and skills”, and ultimately, students will be the ones to bear the burden of retesting AGAIN and be labeled a “failure” as long as the test is allowed to be used as a “measuring stick”.



#ReshapeSTAAR: My Quest to Change Standardized Testing in Texas

In 2011, I made one of the hardest decisions I have ever made:  I resigned from my full time teaching position at the beginning of the spring semester.  I had made it through a very difficult fall semester with a very unsupportive administration (I had never known what people meant when they said that until I experienced it firsthand), and I had every intention of making it through the end of the school year.  However, on the first day of classes, an assistant principal came in for a walk-through observation during my morning class.  I convinced myself that our follow-up meeting would be positive, and that I would receive constructive criticism and that the spring semester would be different from the fall.  But when he asked why I “basically wasted the first seven minutes of instruction” by passing out stickers to my students, I knew I was done and my decision to resign was solidified.

I had established a tradition of passing out stickers at the beginning of every month to celebrate a fresh beginning.  It’s inexpensive but highly effective.  By December, students who sometimes refuse to do their work are often the first to ask if I have a new sticker for them.  I love when former students stop by just to say “Happy March!” or ask for a sticker.  I will always believe that building teacher-student relationships should be emphasized before focusing on learning or language objectives, state standards, TEKS, or whatever your state calls them.  And I certainly have never believed nor will ever believe that focus should be placed on standardized testing.

After my resignation, I did not accept another full time teaching position until the fall of 2012.  I was extremely excited to start over after having just completed my Master’s in Teaching.  I knew what kind of classroom culture I wanted to create and knew the Title 1 school I was hired at would provide a daily challenge.  Unfortunately, I was still not adequately prepared for the beast that was (is) the STAAR test that year.  I had 187 10th grade students on my roster, and the two other teachers on my team had about 150 each.  We were charged with preparing our students for a test that we had only field test questions and data to rely on for study materials.  This was also the year that the “15 Tests to Graduate Rule” was being enforced.  I could not understand how the State Legislature had allowed something like that to pass as law.  I, along with thousands of angry parents, teachers, and students, marched at the Texas Capitol during Spring Break and demanded change.  The “STAAR Wars” had started.  I called and emailed State Representatives.  My students wrote letters to both Dan Patrick and Kirk Watson, and explained what standardized testing was doing to their educational experience.  Our scores were dismal to the say the least, but I assured my students it did not reflect what they were capable of doing or learning.

That summer, we experienced a small victory.  By an overwhelming vote, both the House and Senate agreed to decrease the number of tests to graduate from 15 to 5.  Not a perfect solution by any means, but still, progress had been made and it was inspiring to know that more change could happen if teachers, students, and parents kept fighting.

In the spring of 2014, the Senate Education Committee convened to discuss the STAAR test.  I took an entire day off of school and sat through almost 6 hours of testimony from the TEA, ATPE, TAMSA and other education stake holders.  I remember reeling in my seat when Dr. Cloudt of TEA insinuated that teachers needed to “change their instruction for the STAAR test”.  Sound educational research has always proven that teaching to a test will only result in students being able to pass the test, but will not result in real learning.  I stayed to testify and let them know that thousands of students in Texas were being required to test and retest for hours without success, and that the test was an unfair graduation requirement.  I was hoping for changes to be implemented for the upcoming school year but nothing happened.

This past fall, in October of 2014, I took another afternoon off from school and testified before the House Education Committee. I only testified because of what I have witnessed for almost the past three years; the class of 2015 has taken the brunt of the STAAR test madness and the madness must stop.  I did not ask for the STAAR test to be eliminated; I only asked that changes be made specifically to the English 2 STAAR test, and that this particular test not be counted as a graduation requirement. In my testimony, I mentioned watching seniors attend weekly interventions and have their senior year pretty much ruined by the STAAR test.  I also mentioned having multiple conversations with students about how they would drop out if they did not pass the retest in December.

Well, it is now January and we have received the official retest results.  Of the 99 seniors that took the English 1 & 2 STAAR tests in December, only 12 of them did not pass one or more of those tests.  While that is incredibly happy news for our campus, it still made me extremely frustrated.  Of those 12, I know at least 2 that passed the English 2 test but NOT the English 1 test.  So now they have to retake the English 1 test again (some of them for the 8th or 9th time!!!) in the spring and hope that they get the results in time for graduation.  And for what??  To show that they can pass a test that is actually very, very similar to the other test that they took 3-5 times and FINALLY passed in December??  Imagine being one of the students that failed when so many of your friends that were in your intervention group passed, and are now making plans for cap and gown purchases and graduation announcements.  It’s pretty sad that we had to have counselors on hand to deliver the news to the students that did not pass.  It gives just a small glimpse of the emotional damage this test has created for the past three years.

On a side note, if we’re being completely honest, can we truly say that having so many students pass a RETEST (most for a 3rd or 4th time) is a success? These particular students were required to enroll in a class whose sole intention was to prepare them for the STAAR retest.  Daily, I felt sorry for the teacher because the kids HATED the class even though they knew it was for their benefit.  They also had to attend weekly intervention meetings for a total of an hour every week.  Yes, they finally received the direct instruction they needed to help them pass the test, but what did they really, really learn?

I am hoping that when the Texas Legislature reconvenes next week that changes to the STAAR test is one of its primary focuses.  I also hope to see more teachers standing up for their students and testifying either in person or by letter.  I have testified by way of letter or personal appearance 3 times and have never received any negative repercussions.  If anything, I have received support and encouragement.  If a teacher works in a district that discourages their support of what is best for students, I would encourage that teacher to find another district.  As I said in my testimony, changing graduation requirements is not about lowering standards, it’s about doing what’s right for our students, and the STAAR test(s) is NOT right for students.

Video links to my testimony on 10/8/14:

Google Doc of my testimony on 10/8/14: