Leading the way for students

Twice in the last few weeks I’ve needed to write about my leadership experiences – I always list Every 15 Minutes as the one I am most proud of. As leaders (and all teachers are leaders) we lead our students by example.

In August of 2013 two high school students, Brooke McPheters and Jordyn Durr, were struck and killed by a drunk driver while walking home on a sidewalk from the mall. I didn’t know either of them, though I knew kids who did and teachers who knew them well in classes at South and Service. Too often as teachers we are used to tragedy but there was something about them, these two girls, that made me want to do something more.

They were killed right by where I used to work when I first moved to Anchorage. They were killed on a sidewalk I biked or walked on several times a day for months as I commuted to my job teaching preschool. I felt at some level like I could relate to them – I found out that many kids I knew well did relate to Brooke and Jordyn, either through friendship or experience.

So, I recruited students to co-lead the program with me and we were able to pull off an event that was effective and true to the origins of the national program while showcasing the talents of South’s new video production class. I am so proud of the work Shelby, Amanda, Jordan, and John did as student leaders and how our student body received that work. I’m thrilled with how we coordinated with police and fire (it’s hard!) and the video class. I’m relieved still that my colleagues and administration supported our efforts and guided us when necessary. But mostly I am proud that we stepped up and actually did some small thing to try to prevent an accident like that from occurring again. 

When I read the comments adults make on the work and efforts of protestors, teenagers who are not too different from the kids I’ve always taught, I feel sick. These teenagers have the ability to change the world, as generations before them have had. I hope that all of us educators who have helped lead small changes recognize that how and why we have taught and led students has made the world a better place and has helped show our students how to do the same.

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Flip the parent teacher conference

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For the last few years our parent teacher conferences have been held during the week of President’s Day. This means there is no school Monday, no school Friday, and two half days. Not surprisingly, a lot of families travel that week and skip conferences all together.  Teachers still have a long week of conferences though.

There are a number of alternatives to parent conferences that schools could try and, after chatting with a friend this afternoon when I swung by my old school, I decided to put together and publish a list of ideas I’ve been accumulating for the last few years – especially since I used to have a lot of time on my hands during the night of conferences.

The other thing I noticed, at least from my teacher perspective, is that the families who attended conferences were usually the ones whose children were successful in school while the struggling students didn’t have anyone attend.

From Alternative Models for Traditional Parent Teacher Conferences, Tammy Jackson’s idea to use the evening as time for student credit recovery is great. “Our attempts to develop non-traditional uses of contractual PTC time were not meant to diminish the importance of communicating with parents. Positive relationships with parents are the single most important aspect of a healthy school culture. Working directly with students is what we do best and should always be our number one priority.”

I love the idea of showcasing some student talent in the auditorium and in the hallways – kind of like a gallery walk or showcase of work from classes. Some of it could be digital or recorded so it will continue to live online.

Invite parents in for a showing of a film like Screenagers or Most Likely to Succeed in order to continue the conversations about school.

But here’s my idea. Last spring I brainstormed a few ways to let parents be more involved in my classroom. I’d already had success flipping back to school night so parents could come in and talk to me instead of just listen to me. In a typical PTC there is very little depth of conversation or of understanding the learning that is taking place. So…

Flip the conference. Parents check grades online with relative frequency and have easy access to teachers through e-mail. Some teachers have websites or learning management systems that parents can check out to view the assignments, or send out regular newsletters with updates on the overall learning that is taking place in classrooms. So why not take it a step further? We may have plenty of rigor and relevance in our classrooms, but we need to develop our relationships with parents and families, not just students.

A week or so before conferences send parents a brief reflective survey on their child’s learning and collect it via a conversation at parent conferences. For parents who can’t attend, or for the purpose of collecting qualitative data, you could collect information electronically via a Google Form. Make sure there is a way to include questions, to make the flipped PTC inquiry-based rather than just an assignment parents complete. If you collect digital work from your students, have them accumulate it into a simple folder in Google Drive or a fancy Google Site as a digital portfolio for parents to check out ahead of time.

You could take it a little further and build in time for students to reflect on their learning (standards, college and career readiness, mindset, etc. would all be great places to start) and then share those reflections with parents so the conversation can center around metacognitive learning.

In my opinion, as both an educator and a parent, this would be more fun and thought-provoking than our traditional high school conferences. Since parents and students are coming off the more dynamic model of student-led conferences at middle school, it could be a great opportunity to build on that collaborative, student centered culture.

 

9/11 – addressing difficult things

Last year South Anchorage High School teachers began the tradition of teaching a common text on the same day. This year they will do it again with texts about 9/11, starting with this old blog post of mine that I shared.

September 11th was a current event and now it’s a moment in history; most high school students weren’t even alive in 2001. This is also a very personal event for most of us. We have a personal connection to what happened because it changed the world around us and changed how we view the world.

I taught the events of 9/11 through my personal story (my dad worked in the South tower and, at the time the building collapsed we still had not heard from him) and through poetry.

And then we went to stories that have been written down. I read “The Names” by Billy Collins and I told them it makes me think of everyone I’ve lost, that echoes of people are everywhere. Next came “Prayer for the Dead,” by Stuart Kestenbaum. His line, “…if you discover some piece of your own writing, or an old photograph, you may remember that it was you and even if it was once you, it’s not you now…”  because that’s the reason I have them write an autobiography over the course of the year, so they can look back and see themselves as freshmen in high school. And the last poem, “Five Years Later,” by Tony Gloegger, addresses survivor’s remorse and the pain all of us go through when forced to tell about or relive something traumatic.

I love how new-to-South teacher Ken Hemenway added to the ideas and discussion.

I was attending graduate school in Boston on September 11 and went to New York to visit a girl I was dating in Hoboken, NJ, Friday through Sunday of that week. I have very vivid memories of the smoke, smell, and utter bewilderment of the whole situation from a personal perspective. Needless to say it was surreal and I’ll never forget the numerous places where people had put up papers, pleading for information regarding their lost, loved ones.

I attended Boston College with a young man by the name of Welles Crowther. He played lacrosse and our paths crossed being I was also playing hockey at the time and the student athlete population was a close knit community.
He lost his life on September 11th and I put a link for a short ESPN video presentation entitled “9/11 The Man in the Red Bandanna.” I’m not sure if anyone would like to use this, but I think it may compliment some of the great material shared above.
I’m eager to see how this looks in classes on Monday and will be visiting a teacher to see it in action.
How do you teach 9/11 as an English/language arts teacher? How do you teach other difficult topics and current events like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Syrian refugees, etc. so your students build empathy and cultural literacy?
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This is my seven year-old’s drawing of September 11th, some sort of pirate airplane attack – that is how he created context. I don’t know what prompted him to draw it for me but I have it hanging in my office as a reminder of the importance of teaching kids about difficult topics.

No Teacher Desk

Okay, I had no idea this #noteacherdesk was a thing. The district is taking away my beloved desktop Mac (all teacher desktops, actually, not just mine) and gave me a MacBook Air instead. This left me feeling angry and resentful because a) my eyes like the bigger screen and b) it was not my idea.
So, since I am working hard to be a marigold instead of a walnut tree I decided to reframe my distress and rethink how I use my computer.

Well, my desk is always messy. I have piles of papers the really just need to be recycled or scanned/filed. But my desk is a holding place for that desktop computer. If I don’t have the desktop, do I need the desk? I have a tendency to use my desk as a private, messy little oasis where I can hide out. I get overwhelmed sometimes by crowds but that means I also get stuck at my desk when really I should be moving more.

I read “Ditching the Desk” on Edutopia and then asked The Nerdy Teacher, Nicholas Provenzano,  for an update on Twitter. He said he still loves it so I began planning for a quick spring break rearrange.

So, on Monday, I moved it. I can’t really get rid of it completely right now because it is heavy. And, there isn’t really anywhere else in the school to put it. It’s cleaned off and pushed up against a window. My desk calendar is still there, and the charging cords for various “teacher” only devices. There had been a table there with two older Macs but kids haven’t been using those much at all so they will be repurposed and the table was moved for student use.

My hope is it will be a good compliment to the alternative seating that is already prevalent in my classroom. Honestly, losing that barrier makes me a little anxious so maybe trying this in just the last quarter of the school year is a good thing. If I hate it I have enough time to troubleshoot and make better plans for next year.

 

 

Digital Interactive Notebooks

I feel ridiculously proud of myself right now because I figured out how to make an interactive notebook that students can keep in Google Drive and edit as they (and I) see fit. There are some outstanding ones on Teachers Pay Teachers so my new goal is to make great ones that are specific to AP Language and AP Seminar. Wish me luck. I’ll need it.

So, here is what I came up with. My friend Amy got some outstanding tips on multiple choice from the AP conference this summer and so we have been incorporating more consistent reflection after full-length multiple choice practice. The issue though is that my students lose their forms from the last go around of reflection so can’t comment insightfully enough to help them grow as I would expect.

I just adapted the form that we use with the school colors (black and gold) as the background and their junior class color (blue) as the editable areas.

DIGITAL notebook AP MC Profile