Why I Am Showing the Inauguration.

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump won the election for the highest office in our country.

On November 9, 2016, my students had a lot of questions about the outcome of this election.  I allowed them to express their feelings, questions, fears, and hopes on a blank map of the United States.

Below are some examples of what my students felt that day.






Today, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn into office.  I debated whether or not to show the ceremony in class, wanting to follow in the footsteps of a great leader like Representative John Lewis, who is protesting the election and inauguration by not attending today.

But after thinking about it and reading various commentaries about those refusing to attend, I do think there is a noticeable difference between witnessing an event and condoning an event.

I need my students to know it is important to witness history, but it does not mean that I or they condone what we are witnessing.  Many of my kids remember where they were for President Obama’s second inauguration, and I think it’s important that they at least receive the chance to watch this event today.

For my students that voiced concerns following the election, I need them to know that their voice matters.  I need them to know that in four years, in 2020, that they will be able to use their voice to help decide who the next president will be.

So yes, I witnessed the inauguration and swearing in of Donald Trump with my students today.  But I do not condone what I witnessed, and have provided them the choice to decide if they do or not.


Flexible Classroom: Updated, Courtesy of #DonorsChoose

For this fall semester project, we asked for additional portable tables, heavy duty folding chairs, video game chairs and a standing desk. Just like last year’s flexible seating project, these donated materials have significantly increased student engagement and our sense of community.

The durable folding chairs allow students to easily move from table to table, group to group. Because of the number of tables I now have in my room, I was able to get rid of the bulkier, heavier traditional student desks. The portable folding tables allow us to quickly rearrange the room as needed. Sometimes we clear the floor space for whole class circle discussions, sometimes we move it to make room for smaller groups, and of course, we can push them together for projects that require more table space.

From my experience last year and the past few months, I am convinced that having a flexible classroom is greatly beneficial to my students. They truly enjoy walking in the door knowing that they have a choice of where to sit and that at any given time they will either be working independently or collaboratively with their classmates.

Having a standing desk in class has been nice because I can see my students easier when I have to use my computer, I am not constantly getting up and down from a chair, and I have even noticed less neck and back pain. A couple of students have even used the area to draft papers and they really like the option of standing as well.

My largest class has 31 students, and having flexible space allows everyone to find their own space without being crammed into rows or sections of desks.  We are even able to have “gallery walks” where students walk around to view projects, and Socratic Seminars, which involves moving everyone into large circles.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to have a traditional classroom again.  I do know that my students and I are incredibly grateful for the donations we have received!

This I Believe: Hold On To Your Heart Song

The first time I assigned a “This I Believe” essay was two years ago.  I assigned it during the second week of school once I had my students set up in Google Classroom.  I planned for the essay to be a year long endeavor; something that we could work on as a distraction from writing other essays required to prepare for state testing.

This past school year, I did not assign the This I Believe essay until late April and planned for it to be my students’ last major writing assignment.  I wanted to give everyone plenty of time to write but held them to a firm deadline of having four weeks to work . This time, I crafted my writing guidelines according to those posted on the NPR site that hosts hundreds of This I Believe essays from around the world.  I made it a point to tell my students our end goal was to share this essay with their classmates by way of a gallery walk. Also, I made it very clear that they had a lot of choice regarding both content and format. The biggest restriction I gave them came directly from the This I Believe site, which was a 500-600 word limit. I know a lot of writing teachers are divided when it comes to word count, but I figured it was still better than giving a specific number of required paragraphs and sentences.  My department requires that we provide rubrics for major writing assignments so I adjusted mine to fit the new guidelines; it focused more on student voice than structure.  

Because the rubric was less specific than my original, I encouraged my students to visit the featured essays site and not only read, but listen to real examples of This I Believe essays. I wanted them to see that this wasn’t just another run of the mill writing assignment.  I wanted them to know that what they believe is important and writing is just one way to share their beliefs. 

My classes shared their essays the second to last week of school by a simple gallery walk.  I printed the essays (some with no names for my shy students) and allowed students to use post-it notes to give feedback.  In 12 years, I think it’s my favorite writing activity I’ve ever had students attempt.  Many students told me they plan to keep their essays for their college applications and show their families.

This past summer, I attended the Heart of Texas Writing Institute hosted by the University of Texas.  We were given the opportunity to work on our own piece of writing and after thinking about it, I realized I wanted to write my own “This I Believe Essay”.  I began collecting ideas in my writer’s notebook and bouncing ideas off of classmates.  And I realized that writing about what you believe is HARD WORK.  It made me cherish the essays my students wrote even more.

So, in honor of my parent’s 46th wedding anniversary, I’m sharing my essay entitled:  HOLD ON TO YOUR HEART SONG: 

I live in a 600 square foot condo with my boyfriend and our 80 pound pit bull. Ironically, space is very important when you don’t have very much of it. Over the past year, I’ve worked on downsizing my life by throwing away, donating, or repurposing just about anything I own. When I went through my closet, I discovered I had clothes I hadn’t worn in about five years and stumbled upon shoes still in their boxes, never worn. I don’t know why I kept things I knew I was not using; I guess I tricked myself into thinking I needed it all. Purging my closet was challenging but didn’t compare to when I forced myself to sit down with my cherished tub of compact discs that had traveled with me for about 15 years. I found mixed CDs with original art from friends I’ve lost touch with, rough recordings of me singing for a former boyfriend’s band, and autographed discs from shows I forgot I’d even attended. I started dancing down memory lane and wanted to listen to each track like I’d never heard them before, but the only CD player I have is in my car. Hauling the heap downstairs plus taking the time to listen to hundreds of CDs previously packed away for years didn’t seem practical. Ultimately, I wound up taking a deep breath and tossing 99% of my collection into an 18 gallon garbage bag, and gifting it to our art teacher who’s always on the hunt for objects her classes can use in their next creations.  

Giving away sentimental items was easier than I thought, but after recycling the empty tub I realized that there’s no way to really get rid of the thousands of songs I’ve accumulated over the years. I know all too well that songs tied to heartbreak and hurting can cause just as much clutter as a box full of old CDs; they can be heavy and swallow space, depleting your oxygen and suffocating you with sadness.  But songs also have the potential to provide a much needed sense of freedom or a fresh start, especially when played with the windows down and the volume turned all the way up.  Understanding the power a song retains is the reason I believe keeping a heart song (or two) is more valuable than holding on to material belongings.

I believe a heart song is different than a love song. Love songs are usually shared by two people and are for cheesy hashtags like #oursong or for first dances at weddings. I believe a heart song is a song that others may have created or that others may appreciate, but it absolutely remains in your heart for reasons only you understand.  I found my heart song when I was around 8 years old, and I have my mom and dad to thank for showing me “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King.  (click on the song title, play & listen!)     

Growing up we took a lot of road trips as a family, especially to see my relatives in Houston. Our visits almost always ended with a late night drive home after my dad finished playing chess or dominoes with my uncles.  We would leave Houston as late as 1AM and I enjoyed staying awake trying to find reflective deer eyes in the woods.  But mostly I enjoyed listening to my dad sing along to the radio, sometimes singing “Stand By Me” to my mom. On those drives, the land would be dark, and the moon was the only light we saw. I was scared of getting lost because it seemed like we were the only car around and sometimes we’d run into thick fog. But hearing my dad sing “No I won’t be afraid” was like being wrapped up in a warm blanket.  I felt safe because I had this peace of mind that my parents were always going to stand by and protect me and our family no matter what.  I clung to the words “No I won’t be afraid” even though I had no real experience of knowing how confusing and hurtful life could be since I was still pretty young.  As an adult, I continue to cling to these words and I cling to my parents as much as I can.  I know they’re only a text, phone call, or 3 hour drive away, but they seem to be right by my side when I think about my heart song, and I plan to hold on to it forever.  

When the night has come

And the land is dark

And the moon is the only light we’ll see

No I won’t be afraid

Oh, I won’t be afraid

Just as long as you stand, stand by me

So darling, darling

Stand by me, oh stand by me

Oh stand, stand by me

Stand by me

If the sky that we look upon

Should tumble and fall

Or the mountain should crumble to the sea

I won’t cry, I won’t cry

No, I won’t shed a tear

Just as long as you stand, stand by me

And darling, darling

Stand by me, oh stand by me

Oh stand now, stand by me

Stand by me

So darling, darling

Stand by me, oh stand by me

Oh stand now, stand by me, stand by me

Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me

Oh stand by me, won’t you stand now, oh, stand

Stand by me

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.




The Misuse of Assessment Must Stop.

I have seen an increase of articles discussing teacher resignations, and regardless of location, each teacher mentions not being able to handle the extreme amount of testing plaguing public schools.  I have also noticed an increase of  teachers that are still in the classroom speaking out against testing as well.

In the past four years, I have already done my fair share of speaking out and even testifying for improvements to testing policies during legislative sessions, but I know there is still so much more to be said and even more to be changed.  I am tired of educational stakeholders convincing people that assessments and standardized testing are one in the same.

I take great pride in the fact that I assess my students every day, often two or three times within a given period, because it lets me know what is happening in my classroom.  I am aware of what my students needs are because I use daily formative assessments to gauge their understanding and progress.  But now, thanks to STAAR and our low scores that are typical across the state, I have incredibly less freedom on how I assess my students.

A case in point:  This past semester, I taught a unit over Lord of the Flies.  I have not actually taught this book since my second year of teaching in 2004.  I looked back through my files and remembered having my kids go outside and actually try to use magnifying glasses to burn grass to show how hard it is to start a fire with nothing but Piggy’s specs.  They wrote journal entries about what survival skills mean to them and what they would do if they were stranded on an island.  We had a whole class debate about whether it is more important to build shelters or to hunt for food, mimicking a conversation between Ralph and Jack.  I had my students do various other projects that involved symbolism and writing persuasive arguments and using the text to back up their positions.

Fast forward to 2015 and my unit for Lord of the Flies does not come close to the project based activities I did ten years ago.  Instead, this year I’ve been doing “close reading” exercises and practicing short answer responses, which require students to write a formulaic response in a ten-lined box, hardly room to express opinions thoroughly.  I was also required to give multiple common assessments starting in September and mix Lord of the Flies into one of the assessments by including a passage from the novel and having students complete yet another short answer response.  Below is how many practice tests my kids have had to take within one semester.  Each test varied in the number of questions, but all contained multiple choice questions similar to those found on the STAAR test.

“Unit 1 Pretest”/common assessment: 9/4                                                                                               “Unit 2″/common assessment: 10/5                                                                                                          “Unit 3″/common assessment:  11/5                                                                                                       District assessment: 11/20                                                                                                                  MOCK STAAR test Part ONE (to be given as the midterm): 12/16 & 12/18.

Now that we are back from winter break, my students must now complete the MOCK STAAR Part TWO, which has taken yet another TWO CLASS PERIODS (3 hours).  In total, my students have already “tested” for almost 720 minutes, or 12 hours, or in teacher time: THREE WEEKS of class since we are on a block schedule.  I’m aware not every student takes the full class period to test, but that just means they have to quietly wait and/or work on another assignment while their classmates finish.  How is almost a month of time spent preparing for a test not count as teaching to the test?  And keep in mind this does not include any other common assessments our district decides we must give before our testing date in April.  It also does not include students who are required to attend “intervention” periods for up to 30 minutes, 4 days a week, working on “English skills”.

What’s more frustrating about these “unit” assessments is that because  Texas has rules against how much instructional time can be used for preparing students for the STAAR test, I am not supposed to count them as major grades in the gradebook.  The district assessment was not even counted as a grade, minor or major.  That means I have to convince my students that it is for their benefit to take yet another practice test, even though it won’t impact their grade.  Now, I’m actually all for not taking grades, but that is not to be confused with lying to my students, which is what I feel like I’m doing.  I am lying when I tell them that trying their best is important.  It’s actually not important because I don’t believe the STAAR test is important.  Thankfully, no colleges or trade schools–or employers for that matter–look at STAAR scores for admission criteria.

A lot of people know I feel about the STAAR test or overtesting in general, and many people have argued that we need something in order to measure student performance.  I very much agree, and believe there are THOUSANDS of ways to do this.  Typically in my classroom, end of unit assessments are a piece of critical writing or a project that a student has chosen to create to show their understanding of a text.  I try to provide a lot of choice so students are more open to actually doing the project, and so that they can take ownership for what they have done.  After projects are turned in, I can tell who understood the subject and who did not.  I know who just didn’t do it because they were lazy versus having a real issue with comprehension.  I know I know these things because I see my kids every other day and see what they do in class.  I also generally know what’s going on outside of school, and how that may or may not be impacting their performance.

For instance, one of my students this year was required to retake the English 1 STAAR exam in December for a third time (he failed the original spring test and summer retest).  The week before the retest, his nephew died in a tragic accident.  He came to me after the test and told me how difficult it was to stay focused, and that he didn’t think he did very well.  This is a kid actually has a physical disability, comes to class every day wanting to work, asks for help when needed, is one of the most creative writers I’ve had in a while, and now he feels bad because he thinks he did poorly on a test.  As his teacher, I could care less if he fails it.  I can measure his progress in so many other ways, and that test SHOULD NOT BE the only way that lets me know if he’s learning.

Unfortunately, the STAAR test will remain the determining factor for all Texas students until change is made.  That change will not happen until more people start to realize that when the news reports start quoting statistics and numerical data to show what schools are “exemplary or failing”, that they’re actually talking about individual students from a wide variety of backgrounds that each have specific educational needs, and that standardized testing is not the answer if we want to assess our students, teachers, and schools fairly.



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.

How Might We…#MakeSchoolDifferent ?

A few days ago I was challenged by a fellow Tweacher (@mrsvannasdall) to share my thoughts on how to #MakeSchoolDifferent.  If you check out my previous posts, you’ll learn very quickly that I am a high school teacher in Texas.  And for the past four years in Texas, public school teachers, students, and administrators have been punched in the face with STAAR testing.  During this turbulent time I have been teaching at a Title 1 school, and have ended each year vowing to quit the profession unless major changes are made to our system.  Each year small but positive changes have been made so I’ve been holding on.  When I first started speaking out against the testing system we use, some people would ask me, “Okay.  So get rid of testing. Then what?  How do we make sure students are learning?”  And I used to cop out and say, “I don’t know.  But I know what we’re doing isn’t working.”  Well, after being asked the question enough times I started to look for the answer.  And I think there are at least 5 ways to #MakeSchoolDifferent and get away from the emphasis on standardized testing.

1.  Let’s stop pretending that a typical school day makes sense in comparison to “the real world”.  There’s a big push for “college and career readiness”.  Colleges allow students to choose their schedules and decide what days to attend class, so why can’t public schools do the same?  Research study after research study shows brain function in young people hits its peak between the late morning and early afternoon hours.  So why do we force kids to get to school ready to “learn” between 7AM-9AM (much less teachers)?  I guarantee there would be enough teachers willing to work a “swing shift”(think 10-6/11-7) if given the option, while others would still prefer the traditional early hours.  Why not have both?  I know of private schools that have morning schedules and afternoon schedules.  I would bet there are at least 50 qualified applicants for every teaching position that becomes available.  Maybe if public education was funded properly, districts would have more money to pay more teachers and have the ability to adopt a more flexible schedule.

2.  Let’s stop pretending that athletics needs to happen before, during, and after school.  Considering I live in Texas, this will definitely rub some people the wrong way.  In a recent meeting, I heard someone say, “If it wasn’t for football and no pass/no play, I wouldn’t be here.  I wouldn’t have gone to school.”  While some people agreed and said, “Oh yes, many of our students are the same way,” it made me cringe.  Where did that “football mindset” come from?  Perhaps from growing up watching older siblings or father play, but more than likely from watching Saturday college games and Sunday NFL games as a kid, and wanting to be the successful player.  In no way am I saying that it’s not okay to have goals, but what goals should we be emphasizing?  Why can’t athletics be an after school or weekend activity to allow students more time to work on academics and fine arts during the school day (going back to our school schedule)?  Coaches could be allowed to be just that:  coaches.  And we all know THAT coach that should not be teaching (notice I said THAT and not ALL).  So many people want to compare our students’ national scores or our education system to Finland.  What professional football (not soccer!) teams do they have in Finland?

Talking about THAT coach makes for an easy transition to my next point:

3.  Let’s stop pretending that when students say someone is a bad teacher that they just don’t like them.  In our end-of-the-year survey distributed by administrators last year, we were asked for suggestions on how to improve the current evaluation process.  I suggested adding student input to teacher evaluations.  I truly believe students are being honest when they say a teacher is bad because I have seen bad teachers in action.  On the flip-side, I would also say it’s worth investigating if kids are saying a teacher is “so cool” because “they don’t care about anything”.  I’ve peeked in classrooms of the names I repeatedly hear in both situations, and have seen the disorganization, heard the yelling, watched the cellphone being pulled out, and stacks of redundant worksheets being used.  Now is that to say that a bad teacher is hopeless?  Absolutely not.  It means they need help.  And they need help because ultimately it will help the students.  Students want strong teachers.  The students will be the ones in the classroom day in and day out, and we should listen when they speak up.  It’s important to show that we value their opinion.

4.  Let’s stop pretending like we all haven’t made up grades because we had to have a certain number in by a certain time.  (I watched a teacher last year give students a grade for having a BINDER, and he didn’t teach AVID).  There is a large conversation starting about the purpose of grades, and I’m with the growing group that believe it’s time to rethink grades.  I recently read Salman Khan’s One World School House and agree that how we measure student growth and achievement needs to change.  However, it’s extremely difficult to have the “growth mindset” Khan mentions when our kids are so heavily driven by competition.  I would write more about this but instead I’ll just use links to show I’m not completely crazy.

5.  Let’s stop pretending that the teacher has all the answers and should have complete control at all times.  Thanks to SXSWEdu, one of the hashtags I like to follow on Twitter is #dtk12chat.  It focuses on design thinking and new ways to approach teaching and learning.  There are even some suggestions for “disruptive education”, some of which I’ve tried in my classroom, and my students LOVED the ideas.  I’m at the point now where I want a completely flexible classroom space, and want to do away with the desks that are permanently attached to chairs.  I want my students to have options from everything to how they use the space to create, to which assignments they work on, to what topics they study.  I’ve started with the latter and in just 4 weeks saw an improvement in attitude, inquiry, and product from some of my most challenging students.  One of my kids could not believe I was letting him write about any current event, even if it was about the NBA playoffs.  I set some guidelines but just giving him the option to choose his topic was huge.  It was some of the best writing he has done all year.  I’ve asked my students if we could get rid of the desks, what they would want in my classroom instead.  Overwhelmingly each class said that I still needed chairs or something soft to sit on, and moveable desks or clipboards to write on.  They said having freedom to stand up or sit/lay down would be helpful, too.  Just having this discussion, even though it was hypothetical, was so insightful and a lot of students kept the conversation going by talking about how they would “do school”.

Ultimately, students want to learn, and I think we should #MakeSchoolDifferent.  (Sorry for the lackluster ending this took way longer than I thought it would).


Why I Didn’t Blog for One Month (even after signing up for a daily blog challenge) #AprilBlogaDay

I hope anyone that actually reads my blog doesn’t think I just gave up a month ago.  I signed up for the #AprilBlogaDay challenge and was pretty excited to be connected with like-minded educators.

However, I bit off more than I could chew, as some teachers are known for doing.  I feel like it’s part of our make-up and why we sign on to do what we do in the first place.  We know we can’t save every kid, but we’re going to try regardless.

So, the past month I decided to give myself time to reflect inwardly because I realized writing and tweeting was actually adding more stress to my already pretty stressful semester.  Keep in mind that on top of teaching full-time, I am also taking two writing-intensive graduate classes at Texas State University.  I’ve been working on an article for publication as well as my first official grant proposal.  Simultaneously, I’ve still been tracking multiple bills that are being discussed at the Capitol, some of which are extremely beneficial to Texas students and teachers, some of which could be potentially detrimental.

Being so aware of possible changes, both positive and negative, made me even more aware of just how much I care about teaching and even more about my students.  I decided to focus what energy I had left to making the final nine weeks of school as productive and rewarding to my students as possible.  I completely threw out my traditional lesson plans for Lord of the Flies and Julius Caesar and decided to make my classroom more student-centered.  Luckily, I have access to a cart full of laptops, so implementing change wasn’t too difficult.  Instead of reading a novel together, watching the corresponding movie clips, and ending with a final project, I resolved to let my students have more freedom in their assignments.

Because this is the first time I’m doing this in my classroom, I set up some expectations and provided assignment choices.  I didn’t just tell my students to “Go learn something! Yay!”  Every student was expected to participate in self-selected reading (SSR), practice grammar, write current event article reflections, and analyze poetry.  I gave them a “menu of assignments” and gave them a due date three weeks away.  Each day we met I tried to allow for at least 45 minutes (if not 1 hour) to be used to work on their choice of assignment.

The only portion that still had uniformity was poetry because it involved watching “Dead Poets Society” and completing reflection questions and analysis of the poems discussed in the movie.  We watched 15-20 minute clips over two weeks at the beginning of every class, and then students were given the rest of the time to work on the daily reflection/analysis activities along with their other assignments.  Meaning once the film clip ended, I did not say, “Okay, now everyone work on your Dead Poets assignment for today and turn them in before the bell”.  Instead, I gave them a full three weeks to complete the questions so they could come back to it at any time.  I had a few students take the papers home and ask their parents what they thought of the movie and the questions, but the majority of the kids did the work in class.

For SSR, if we were not watching a movie clip, I still projected a large 15 minute timer at the beginning of class and read my own book in front of the class.  However, instead of saying “everyone must read now”, I simply said: “If you want to use this time for SSR because you know you won’t do it otherwise, or you’re just ready to read, then please do.  If you’re ready to work on something else productively, you may do that but you are not allowed to distract those of us who are reading.”  Thankfully, the majority of my students used the time to read, and a lot of them kept reading after the 15 minute timer since they are allowed to use the remaining time however they want.  They just had to be sure to finish the required number of reading log entries by the due date.

Last year I started using NoRedInk.com but I was creating assignments and quizzes for my students.  This year I realized there is a “practice option” that allows students to work on actually mastering a grammar concept without a grade.  I typed up a list of grammar items that the practice section covers and told my students they had to practice every section at least 3 times before May 29th (end of our grading period).  Now this part is tricky because just because a student practices does not mean they master a section.  I can tell this by the red, blue, yellow, and green dots used on the site.  However, my goal is to expose students to as much grammar as possible without making it feel like a punishment, so I am actually grading on effort instead of the “scores” they get.  I have a few ESL students that I know have attempted sections multiple times, but still get a blue or red dot.  That to me means more than a green dot showing mastery.  Since getting good grades is so engrained in our students, many of them keep practicing even after they meet the requirement, and many of them have reported they are now more aware of errors in their own writing.  I haven’t had students tell me that when I used to do practice sentences and grammar quizzes, either online or by worksheets.  This site also covers MLA citations, and it has really helped my students understand I’m not being crazy when I talk about correct punctuation for quotations.

The most challenging part of this approach has been getting my students to write substantial article reflections without plagiarizing the entire thing.  I gave my students a list of websites to choose from and also said they could use any other source as long as it was appropriate and reputable.  Within three weeks, students had to choose two articles and compose two 250-word reflections using either Google Docs, Kidblog.org, or by simply handwriting it.  In the future, I am going to assign the reflections on Google Classroom to help streamline the grading process.  I got my inspiration for this assignment from Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week”.  However, since I’m experimenting with choice, I did not provide the articles, only resources to find articles.  My students have become more aware of the world around them, and we have had meaningful conversations from topics ranging from the riots in Baltimore, to the earthquake in Nepal, and to why a NASA spacecraft recently crashed into Mercury.  I have learned that prior to my class, my students don’t have much exposure to MLA writing, something that is crucial during upperclassmen classes and, of course, in college.  As of today, if they’re keeping up with their work, students have written four article reflections.  I have watched the majority of them improve from copying and pasting portions of an article and calling it their “summary paragraph”, to picking two relevant quotes and discussing their perspective of the topic.

This shift in choice has definitely changed my role as the “teacher” in the classroom.  I’m now more just a facilitator, making sure my students are somewhat on task (some of them take a long time to explore sites for THE article they want) and answering questions as they come up.  However, if you look at my gradebook, most of my class averages are now around 70%.  But I don’t think this means they aren’t learning, and I’ve tried to communicate that to my students.  I know I can’t just get rid of grades, but I do want to instill the idea of a “growth mindset”, and hope my students realize failing isn’t always a bad thing.

I would love to write more on this, but I’m also working on my FINAL final for the semester, and still have a mountain of assignments to check since everything was due this past Friday.  I decided to update my blog as a “break” from the other work I need to do.  Time to make time for myself again…