Month of Mindfulness: Part 4

Last week’s practice encouraged mindful thinking, and this week’s post is a continuation of thinking with positive intention.

October 20-27th

In order to be more connected to others at work, school, or even at home, try these exercises:

  1. Consider your emotional wake.  How do others feel during and after interacting with you?  How do you want them to feel?  Just like a boat on a lake, our actions leave ripples that stretch beyond what we see.  Be mindful of the words you choose to use throughout your conversations.
  2. Find a quiet place.  Close or soften your eyes and take a deep breath.
  3. Think about someone you see everyday for whom you care about (friend, family, teacher, student, pet).  See if you can imagine them doing things that bring them joy and make them smile—actually—imagine them doing things that make them grin or laugh out loud.  Keep this image in your mind.
  4. Repeat the following wishes to yourself and “send” the wishes to whoever you’re thinking about:I wish for you to be healthy.

    I wish for you to be happy.

    I wish for you to be peaceful.

    I wish for you to have joy in your life.

  5. Keep your eyes soften or closed, and imagine them receiving these wishes.  Imagine if they just got a text from you with these happy words.  How would that make them feel? Now notice your own heart and how you are feeling.
  6. Think specifically about a colleague or student that could use kind words this week. Challenge yourself to actually send them via email, text, phone call, or a face to face visit.

 

 

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Month of Mindfulness: Part 3

Last week’s practices focused on mindful listening.  This week, the focus shifts to MINDFUL THINKING.  

OCTOBER 15th-21st

In order to be more present at work, school, or even at home or in daily conversations, try these exercises:

  1. When your mind begins to wander–which is totally natural and okay–try to label your thoughts past, present, or future.  A lot of times we allow ourselves to stress over things that are completely out of our control, and more often than not these stressors have either already happened or haven’t even happened yet.  For instance, while sitting in a meeting after work, you might begin thinking about an email you received earlier in the day that just got under your skin.  Maybe it was the subject or the tone, but whatever it is, you feel bothered by it.  Instead of being “present” at the meeting, your mind starts to wander to this email and maybe you begin to recall what you wrote back.  These thoughts would be considered past thoughts.  You can’t do anything to change the fact that you received the email, and there’s not much you can do about the response you sent (if you did send one) because each occurred in the past.  On the same note, if you didn’t send a response yet, thinking about the email you plan to send after you get out of the meeting is considered a future thought.  Again, there is nothing you can do about an email you haven’t even written yet, and letting your mind wander and worry about the future takes you away from the present moment.
  2. When you find yourself focusing on a thought labeled past or present, ask yourself what you can do to draw attention to what needs to be done right now.  What are you able to do in the present moment that actually is in your control?  It may be as simple as taking a couple of deep breaths and drawing attention to how your body is feeling in the current moment.  If you find a past or future thought upsetting, it might cause your body heat to rise or your heart rate to increase.  Instead of allowing yourself to remain upset, focusing on your breath and drawing attention back to the present can actually help decrease your heart rate and lessen your body heat; mindful thinking can help change how our body reacts to negative stimulus.

Obviously, just labeling your thoughts past, present, or future will not magically make you feel less stressed.  However, labeling your thoughts in this way can create the space to allow you to choose how you will respond when you do find yourself reacting to something from the past or the future.  Are you going to get upset and annoyed?  Or will you remember to focus only on your present self?

Month of Mindfulness: Part 2

Last week I posted a few strategies about noticing your body’s reaction to difficult emotions like anger, frustration, guilt, etc.

This week, the mindfulness strategy to practice is MINDFUL LISTENING.

October 8-14th:

Remember that mindfulness helps to create more awareness in the present moment. There are so many different ways to listen mindfully, but I am sharing two specific practices you can attempt throughout your week:

  1.  Take a walk outside or sit in your classroom (or bedroom, office, etc.).  Focus only on what you hear.  It might be the sound of your breath, cars passing by, people talking, or any number of things.  As you focus on sound only, try being mindful of how your body reacts. Do you feel your breath slowing down or speeding up? Do you feel relaxed or anxious?  If your thoughts start to wander, what sound(s) can you focus on instead to be more present?  Sometimes in order to feel present, we need to focus on only one thing at a time.  Mindful listening helps to focus our attention.
  2. When speaking with others throughout your week, practice not interrupting.  Be mindful of allowing the other person to completely finish talking before you respond.  Notice how it feels to focus only on the other person’s voice and what they are saying.  Do you notice any reactions in your own body?  Is what they are telling you easy or difficult to hear?  Do you feel your lungs constrict or your heartbeat start to quicken?  Or maybe your thoughts begin to wander?  Try to focus only on the sound of the other person’s voice and what they are telling you.  Pause before responding and be mindful of what you say.  Be aware that there is a significant difference between giving attention and giving advice.   Mindful listening involves giving attention

**Remember that mindfulness creates the space to allow you to think about how you will respond instead of impulsively reacting so that you can be more present and experience more peace.

**One literature resource to check out:  Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.

October: A Month of Mindfulness

A few months ago I began taking online mindfulness courses offered by Mindful Schools. These courses have positively influenced how I interact with others and how I manage my classroom. I feel noticeably less stressed and am better equipped to handle  challenges that normally would have ruined my day in the past. I feel more peace in my relationships with my partner, my colleagues, and my students. I really wish I knew about these courses years ago when I first began my teaching career!!

I was given the opportunity to lead a professional development session about mindfulness to about half of our teaching staff when school began in August. I received a lot of supportive feedback and have since received a lot of questions from colleagues asking for tips or tricks to better incorporate mindfulness in their classrooms.  So, to honor my own desire to be a more consistent blogger and to honor my colleagues’ requests for assistance, I am going to post one mindfulness strategy per week for the month of October.  October can be an especially difficult month for teachers because it is usually the longest month of the fall semester and not every school gets “Columbus Day” of “Fall Fair Day” off.

I hope these strategies prove to be beneficial, and I welcome any feedback you might have.

OCTOBER 1-7th:

Mindfulness helps to create more awareness to the present moment. In order to be more aware this week, practice the following strategies:

  1. Take a deep breath. Pay attention to where you draw your breath from and where you feel it the most. Is it your stomach? Your chest? Your nose? Your mouth? Wherever it is strongest for you, consider this place the anchor of your breath.
  2. As you go through your week, take time to just notice how your body physiologically reacts to difficult feelings like anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, and so on. Does your face get hot? Does your heart rate increase? Do your shoulders tense? Do your eyes start to water or begin to scowl? Do you have the urge to immediately lash out? Do you immediately begin to raise your voice? Consider writing how your body reacts down on a notepad or in a journal.
  3. As the week continues, when you notice these difficult feelings and reactions taking place, pause and focus on the anchor for your breath. Breathe. Then decide how you will respond to the difficult feeling instead of reacting to it. In your classroom, your response might look like deciding not to yell at a class that still hasn’t followed your instructions. Maybe you calmly talk to them and tell them what you are feeling (anger, frustration, impatience), and ask for them to try again. Outside of class, your response might look like deciding not to honk at every unskilled driver that cuts you off in traffic. Maybe you notice your body starting to tighten so you return to your breath, breathe, and just continue driving.                          **Please know mindfulness does not excuse inappropriate behavior or disrespectful actions. It simply creates the space to allow you to think about how you will respond instead of impulsively reacting (or overreacting) to difficult situations, so that you can be more present and experience more peace.

 

 

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.

 

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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.