Friday, December 18, 2009

End of Semester

There's this feeling that teachers get when they finish a semester or finish the year. So much of teaching is go, go, go that when you finally get an opportunity to stop, you're not quite how to handle it. Free time? What's that? I remember having it once, but it feels like it was so long ago, I can't quite fathom it. And that nagging guilt that you should be grading papers or writing lesson plans rather than taking 42 minutes to watch the one TV show you allow yourself time to watch? Gone. The freedom that comes with the end of the semester is unlike anything I've ever encountered. It's a combination of relief and terror. After all, when you've been running around forever scrambling to get things done, it can be hard to put on the brakes.

That's where I find myself right now. I finally finished my semester as a student, not a teacher, and I'm overwhelmed by the prospect of NOT having anything to do. I've been working so hard lately trying to write papers for these classes (final tally: 10 days of writing, 35,114 words, 139 pages), that it's an entirely foreign feeling to wake up and know that the day is mine to do whatever I want. Granted, there's lots to, baking, wrapping, cleaning, etc., but it's such a weird feeling. Refreshing. Exciting. So many possibilities.

I suspect the transition will continue to feel a bit weird. I can't just go cold turkey from school stuff. I'm devising an organizational scheme for all of the reading I did this semester, and I've got two issues of The Reading Teacher waiting to be read. But it's exciting nonetheless.

So to all those teachers out there that may be facing their first day of winter break, enjoy your time off. You've earned it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Professional Learning

I can't remember if I've mentioned it already, but I'm taking this year off from teaching to pursue a master's degree full-time in curriculum and instruction. This is the time of the semester when all of my major projects are starting to be due. Here's what I'm working on:

1. An article on working with gifted readers that I'm going to try to get published. It seems as though gifted students are quite neglected in the education system these days between NCLB, a shortage of funding, and inadequate teacher training. Recent reports from the Fordham Foundation and NAGC reveal that the needs of our nation's brightest students aren't being met. I'm researching specific considerations to take into account when teaching reading to these students in the regular classroom. It's shocking how little has been written about the topic relative to other issues in reading.

2. An action plan for building teacher-driven study groups for professional learning in schools. It's the major project for my course on shared leadership between teachers and administrators.

3. A case study of two readers that I worked with for a few days last month. The emphasis is on reading comprehension generally and identifying the main idea specifically.

4. A paper on the role of expectations in "good teaching." I'm also updating my website as a companion piece to show my ideas in practice.

5. A self-evaluation and action plan for becoming a better reading teacher.

6. A plan for my "Instructional Dream" for integrating technology in my classroom. I'm going to write about the potential for using Google Wave in writer's workshop. I got my invitation last week, and while I'm still trying to get the hang of it, I'm blown away by its potential as a collaborative learning tool in the classroom.

So that's what I've been up to lately. As I finish these projects, I'll be happy to share any useful resources and findings.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

New Teacher Tip #10

Continued from "Things I wish someone had told me before I started teaching (or maybe they did and I just didn't listen)"

10. Understand the political climate and decide how to deal with it. Without question, the hardest thing for me to deal with starting out was the realities of No Child Left Behind and the ever-looming presence of standardized testing and Adequate Yearly Progress. In some ways, I think of my experiences as a college undergraduate as being stuck in this grand ivory tower where I learned about how education should be, not how it often is. It was incredibly daunting to have so much of my success as a teacher measured by an annual multiple choice test, and I grew to resent the constant school mandates for more testing in preparation for standardized testing. Some schools spend so much time testing kids that it makes you wonder when they actually find the time to teach. What I eventually realized is that my idealized teacher education classes prepared me incredibly well for this climate. The best way to prepare students for standardized tests is to teach the material well in the first place. When you create and implement inquiry-based science units that really develop the students' understanding of the material, the stripped down standardized test questions will seem easy by comparison. I think too many teachers give up and cope with the demands of testing by trying to teach to the test. It's neither necessary nor effective, and to be honest, it's just not fun for you or the students. Stick with what you know, remember what your courses and instructors have taught you, and don't give up the idealism that I know you're starting your career with. The current political climate toward education is not sustainable, and over time, best practices like those you've been taught will prevail. Standardized tests are important and they have a role to play, but they're just one tool in a much larger assessment toolbox. The more you remember that and teach with rigor for conceptual understanding, the better off you and your students will be.

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Teacher Tip #9

Continued from "Things I wish someone had told me before I started teaching (or maybe they did and I just didn't listen)"

9. It never hurts to ask. I could easily spend at least half of my paycheck on classroom materials each month. In fact, looking back on my first year teaching, I probably did. There were so many books and supplies that I just had to have, and I felt like my classroom would be inadequate without them. As my credit card balances grew, however, I was quickly forced to reevaluate my spending habits and get creative about how I acquired things for my classroom.

First, talk to your principal if ever there's something in particular that you need. For example, during my internship I'd used a Calendar Math program that I really liked, and I wanted to use it with my students at my new school. The kit cost almost $300, so it was too expensive for me to get on my own, but my principal was able to find the money in her Title I budget to cover it. She couldn't accommodate every request, and maybe I just lucked out, but if you have a compelling need for something that could benefit your students, it never hurts to ask your principal.

Second, befriend your school librarian. Most school librarians have a healthy budget and a lot of discretion on how to spend it. I started every year with a list of books that I wanted to use in my classroom for some unit, and I could always count on her to add at least a few of those to our school's collection. Librarians want to get books that will be used and not sit on the shelf collecting dust. Your input can be powerful in facilitating those decisions.

Third, ask parents. I made a wish list at the beginning of the school year of assorted items that I wanted for the classroom. I was sure to include items in a wide range of price ranges – anything from a box of Ziploc bags to a magazine subscription or a gift card to an office supply store. Then, I wrote each item on a separate hand cut-out and created a display for the classroom open house at the beginning of the year of ways parents could "lend a hand." Parents could pick what they felt able to give and take the hand with them as a reminder. Items would trickle in over the first few weeks, and I often got a good supply of items that I would otherwise buy out of my own pocket. Other times, I would request an item through my class newsletter. For example, Scholastic book orders often have a book each month that costs $1, and it's usually one of their better titles. I would sometimes plan to use that book for a novel study and ask all of the parents to contribute $1 to buy the book for their child. Even in low-income communities (which is where I was teaching), it's unlikely that they won't be able to come up with $1. Instead of paying $30 for a class set of books, I usually only had to cover a couple students. The savings add up quickly.

Finally, take advantage of websites like Donor's Choose and Adopt-a-Classroom and write grants for classroom materials you want. Even in a bad economy, there's a surprising amount of money available to help teachers who are proactive about finding it. I wrote three different grants for children's literature that supported my social studies curriculum and got about $1200 worth of books for my classroom library as a result. It doesn't take much effort to ask, and the worst case scenario is that no one steps up to help. Usually, though, someone will answer your call, and that's far better than spending what little money you make starting out.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

New Teacher Tip #8

Continued from "Things I wish someone had told me before I started teaching (or maybe they did and I just didn't listen)"

8. Sleep and balance are your friends. There's a period during your first year of teaching when you're in denial of the fact that you can't do everything. You'll be spending hours every day just trying to keep your head above water, and you won't even be able to think about getting ahead. Eventually, your work week will creep into your weekend as you bring work home with you. You will live, eat, and breathe work, and your friends and family will start to forget who you are when all of a sudden POW! Some supervirus from one of your germy students will knock your sleep-deprived, weakened immune system to its knees. You'll probably resist and suffer through the illness, teaching in your compromised state because it's an awful lot of work to prepare sub plans and you probably wouldn't trust a stranger to manage your classroom of darlings for a day while you recover anyway. Meanwhile, you'll just be getting more exhausted and sicker.

Don't do it. Trust me, it's not worth it.

Force yourself to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and occasionally give in to those urges to go to bed at 8:30pm (which you will sometimes have – every teacher I've ever met does). Allow yourself at least one day of your weekend to be free of all things school related – no planning, grading, or even thinking about school. It will be hard, especially when you're getting started, but there's no quicker path to getting burnt out or sick than letting school consume your whole life. You can't be as effective as you want to be if you're not taking care of yourself. Maintain a social life, get a hobby, and for goodness sake, take a sick day when you need it. You'll be far more productive during the times you are working if you give yourself those opportunities to recover.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New Teacher Tip #7

Continued from "Things I wish someone had told me before I started teaching (or maybe they did and I just didn't listen)"

7. Get involved in professional organizations. There are two things that I've found to be categorically true throughout my first three years of teaching: 1) school staff development is never quite as good as you want it to be, and 2) at least a few weeks of burn-out are inevitable every year. The best cure for both of these ills comes from professional organizations. Getting involved in an organization that specializes in a topic that's interesting to you gives you access to all sorts of resources, ideas, and opportunities that you wouldn't otherwise have. Some of the best professional development experiences that I've had have come from attending conferences for the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics and the International Reading Association. Even when I only attended for a day, I left the conference completely recharged and motivated to get back in the classroom and try all sorts of new ideas. You can't always rely on your school to provide professional development that meets your needs or interests, but you can always craft those opportunities for yourself. The more involved you are, the more resources you'll have available to you. It looks great on your résumé as well.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New Teacher Tip #6

Continued from "Things I wish someone had told me before I started teaching (or maybe they did and I just didn't listen)"

6. Build a network of colleagues you can trust. Teaching can be a pretty lonely job. You spend hours every day in your classroom working with kids or planning, and no one ever really gets a sense of what's happening inside your room except for you. Find some colleagues that you can commiserate with. You'll need people to lean on when you have a challenging day or a boring staff meeting. You'll want a network of people to trade ideas or victories with, and at some level, you'll eventually crave adult conversation. Don't let your classroom become a cave from which you rarely emerge. Teaching is much more fun when you can share with people who know what you're going through, especially in those first years.

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