10 years

A reflection

My first teaching position started in September of 2010. I just realized that this will be my 10th year teaching as I prepare for my students to return. My first position was a half time teacher in a Grade 3 classroom. Those kids are graduating high school this year. I was responsible for their creative writing and Social Studies. My team teacher took care of Reading, Math and Science. I had a class of 16 kids and we did a lot of cool things. I didn’t know how to “teach” beyond what was taught in University. To say I was ill prepared to help my students become writers and critical thinkers was an understatement. I have learned a lot about myself over these last 10 years. I have learned the most from my kids. As I prepare to embark on this 10th year I wanted to reflect a bit on a few points that I have learned that will help guide this year.

One size most certainly does not fit all

I bought a hat once, it said on the label O/S, one size. I pulled it over my head and while it went on it sure was not comfortable. It was not that the hat didn’t fit but it didn’t fit right. I needed a better hat for my head. When I first started teaching I left university and the first teachers I learned from, for the most part, had students doing a lot of workbooks. We had phonics workbooks, we had grammar workbooks, we had vocabulary workbooks and there was a ton of time with the teacher going over these books and doing corrections and then the kids worked through days of testing each term on all these important pieces of Language Arts. What wasn’t happening was a lot of joyful reading. Kids read and had to then complete their AR quizzes for their points and then each term we had to administer the STAR exam and look at their trends. Some students did very well with this model. Others did not. Beyond this not creating a joyful classroom I found it so boring. I wanted more for my class and my students. So I started to explore different practices that I might be able to individualize my instruction for my students a bit more. This brought me to Daily 5 and the Cafe model. It also brought me to work to end things like workbooks and Accelerated Readers as supplementary tools in reading instruction. My approach to literacy instruction has continued to develop each year. As I moved to 6th grade I moved away from Daily 5 and built in more of a workshop model for my class while doing a more individualized and small group in class intervention. I discovered people like Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller and Kylene Beers. I was inspired by their work tom make my students literacy experience something different than what the traditional classes looked like. We borrow from the work of others, we craft our class around our interests, we read and we write and we talk. WE are building a literacy community that addresses our individual needs.

Communities require communication

Over 10 years I have learned that the most important part of the classroom is not relationships…before you lose your minds bear with me. Relationships are important but communication is what leads to that. If we do not figure out a way to open the doors the relationships can’t form. I am not talking about anything fancy. In third grade we had community circle. We had a question of the day and we each took turns sharing and communicating with one another. In 6th grade we had debate time and discussed topics. In junior high I realized that while my kids talked and communicated well with me I was not always guided by their needs. That idea that I have a curriculum I must teach so they just need to learn it was strong in me. I tried to make it fun but leaving Grade 6, a year we have Provincial tests, I was pretty solidly in the camp of “this is our curriculum, so lets just get through it” I heard my kids complaints but I didn’t really listen. That changed in Junior High largely because of one student who was very vocal about not liking how school was, “You are our favourite teacher but seriously man school is boring” That was the daily commentary. So I started to hear their voices and work the curriculum that I had to cover to fit them. We talked about ways to make reading better thanks to inspiration from Pernille Ripp, how our Notebooks could be better, writing instruction was influenced by Kelly Gallagher at first and then by the book 180 Days by he and Penny Kittle. My students voices, their interests and their strengths began to shine through providing options based on that communication that we had. Relationships are important but if we are sacrificing the learning that needs to be done we are not providing the balanced education our students deserve. Listening to what my students needed was transformative to my teaching.

Our students don’t need us to be perfect

I saw a tweet the other day that I really should put a section of as a screen saver.

But I will also tell you this; kids don’t need you to be perfect, they need you to love them and be present. That gets me through when I feel less than a great mom with my four— Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) August 24, 2019

I thought this tweet is actually something all teachers really need to hear. Over the last 10 years I have been so hard on myself in wanting to be perfect. To the best lessons, the best classes the best moments. I want to be the teacher that every student wants to have. That class that they all think is awesome and because of that I push myself to the limit and sometimes past it. I have reread this tweet a few times. We don’t need to be perfect, we need to be present.

10 years

10 years of students and I still remember moments with them all. That didn’t come from the perfect lessons, the perfect room, the perfect day. That came from the conversations around world injustice with 8 year olds in my first year of teaching, that came from sitting in the hall with a distraught student in my second, laughing about using lallygagged incorrectly in a story trying to use WOW words in my third, friendship keepers and the hello project in my 4th. The being sworn at and table cleared off the chairs thrown at me and the moment we got past the anger in my 5th. The mice in the classroom catching in my 6th and the year we read millions of words in my 7th. Understanding the depth of control trauma has on our students lives in my 8th and breaking through in my 9th. Year 10 begins with students in just over a week. I am not sure where this one goes, it sure as heck won’t be perfect but I am hopeful and ready to learn.

Because if we aren’t learning…

In two and a half weeks I will be sitting in my classroom getting ready for my students to come the following week. I love these last few weeks of summer as my brain gradually starts to slide back to work mode. I start to lean into PD texts more, look for new ideas or new ways to build my skill set. I look at the room and ponder what sorts of additions or subtractions might need to be made to produce the best learning environment I can for my team. I look at the books I have used in the past to address the learning we plan to do and weight the options of replacing with a different text. I do look at the year and decide what needs to stay, what needs to change and what needs to go. It is all about reflection. What influences those decisions? Often it is the kids, mostly it is around success. I focus on what works well. What I am mulling over this morning is how readily I am adopting the successful versus looking at ways to stretch and grow.

I have this thinking bouncing around tying my love for the gym and lifting weights to the work I do in my classroom. If I do the same lifts every other day they get easier, I can do more of them and the strength increases for those muscle groups. If I never introduce a different movement, a different lift other areas will weaken. We stretch ourselves to strengthen ourselves. I will not be successful at this new lift the first time, I will be weak, I will need to practice but a more complete workout will develop. I think this is the same with our instruction. We are more well rounded as educators as we introduce, try and practice new things. Stumbles happen but so will successes. To really put a exclamation point on my thinking this morning my friend Laurie McIntosh shared a line that Jimmy Casas used at a recent PD she attended, ‘What would you do differently if you were not afraid?” I thought about that and it really led me to consider the things I only have do because of fear of failure. The things I quit because I would rather succeed at times at doing less than fail at doing more. With that in mind I want to talk about what I want to do this school year. Some new, some old and some that are a little scary.

Try and True but maybe some tweaks

I have written about my reading and writing notebooks/journals in the past. I love them. I love getting to see the thought process from my students, I love looking at their writing craft developing. We are going to be using the journals again without question. For myself I need to be more consistent on feedback and expectations. I have the fear in the back of my mind that a reading journal will contribute to Readicide is I ask students to do anything more than just read. I need to put that aside. Do I think having my students refelct on all their reading is a good idea? NOPE. Do I think that they can and should reflect on some of their reading? ABSOLUTELY. THe balance is the trick and the area I plan to work on more. Book Clubs are another practice that will be returning this year. Last year we only got in one round of book clubs with a larger emphasis being on whole class novels. I figure part of that was fear of turning over control, fear that other teachers may not see the value. This year I will be making a switch from Whole Class to Book Clubs being the majority of our focus. The how to of book clubs for my room will be posted in the coming weeks on Middle Web as I discuss the nuts and bolts of a literacy year for me so tune in for that. Quick Writes and Writing Portfolio will make up the returning practices for writing in my class but I hope to do portfolios justice more this year. Last year we started strong but stumbled along the way as students just wanted to have completed pieces instead of multiple pieces on the go. I hope this year I can really help to convey the idea that writing is more of a journey with the writer returning to a piece as they develop their craft and ideas.

Something New(ish)

I really love the work that the incomparable Paul Hankins does regarding Multigenre work. I dabbled in it last year but this year I plan to jump in head first. I have projects outlined, books to read to build my comfort level with the work and back up plans as things go sideways. I just love the idea of giving students multiple ways to represent their understanding aside from the 5 paragraph essay and a book report. I plan to build on this with smaller assignments throughout the year with a culminating assignment to end each year.

No more fear holding me back

There are two things that I really want to do this year that I have not had the nerve to do and used that fear as a perfect excuse to walk away. First is Presenting. I suffer from pretty intense stage fright. I love teaching kids but being up in front of a room of adults makes me sweat a bit too much. The voice shakes, I almost cry, really it is a mess. Last year I did my first solo presentation and because it was something near and dear to my heart (Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst) It was pretty easy. I was nervous to start but I was armed with awesome topics, great picture books to help and a groups of staff eager to learn. I left feeling like I could do it again and I applied to share on my passion project which is second on my list. I mentioned before the idea of taking my working out knowledge and passion and marrying it to my literacy passion. The result is a book I want to write. Lifting up Literacy a fun idea tying together the things I enjoy most. The fear is real but I think it can be overcome.

As I start every school year I ask myself the question, “What am I doing to grow?” This summer it has been trying to learn more about the work of antiracism. I will be building this work into my lessons and daily actions. Back to the gym I look at how the body feels after we do a new lift for the first time, the day after you are a little sore maybe the muscles don’t want to cooperate as much. I look at learning new things much the same way. We try it and it is tough, we stumble and maybe we can’t do as well the next time but it will come. Learning is growing and with growing comes growing pains. Embrace these opportunities to learn and grow because if we are not trying to grow, if we are not learning, what are we doing?

Seeking Inspiration

This summer has been an interesting one for my learning. I have alternated between reading PD books and YA/MS texts that I will be adding to my classroom. I spend a lot of time on Twitter looking at the conversations educators are having. Trying to look at ways I can improve my practice.

When I Started Twitter Edu

When I started my journey on Twitter I was just looking for ideas. I had just read Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst and was invited to check out a “chat” called #g2great. Until this moment I had received all my teaching inspiration from resource books such as The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller and Notice and Note by Bob Probst and Kylene Beers and Pernille Ripp’s website among other blogs. Twitter was a whole new ballgame. I joined all the chats I was having so much fun participating and becoming a part of the community. I connected with those same authors, bloggers and teachers I had so come to admire. I met some amazing people that I have created real friendships with like Mary Howard and the #G2Great team and my #curiositycrew. I have had the pleasure of meeting my idol and visiting with her. These are all great things that Twitter made possible. In the last few months I have been introduced to different conversations on Twitter. Different conversations that pushed my thinking. And caused me to question what I was doing on Twitter. Were all the conversations I was taking part in improving me as a teacher? Were all the conversations and interactions I was taking part in preparing me to best serve all my students? The answer quite frankly was no. I still had my go to sources but I cut down the rest. I participate in just as many chats but now they are focused on teaching, equity, antiracism and less on the “feel good”. I am not taking away from the feel good for those that need it or want it but it was not inspiring me to be in the classroom to improve my instruction.

Taking it Personally

Teaching is very personal. Before I learned to listen more and react emotionally less to the statements made to me on Twitter I was often offended. If someone questioned an idea I had or practice I believed in I was quick to go on the offensive. Now I want to see from the perspective of others. I listen and learn. I don’t always change everything but there is a renewed clarity and sense of purpose now as I prepare for the year. Purposeful practice comes from listening to many voices and applying those critiques to your work. This has come particularly clear as it applies to how much I was doing/not doing regarding equity work in my classroom. I was proud of myself for having a diverse library, for being a culturally sensitive teacher but as I learned more from leaders in the field of anti-racist education I realized that I was failing my students. Not just my students of colour but also my white students that hold a staggering majority in the school. By just providing resources but not talking about them, by just protecting my students from ridiculous arts are crafts based on culturally meaningful pieces but not explaining why we should not do those crafts I was not doing the best for my kids. Hearing that offended me. I care about my kids and I want to do best for them. So I seek out how to learn to be better. I learn that instead of building a diverse library I need to build one that is inclusive that doesn’t centre the library around white and “diverse” books. That we look at all the titles as pieces of a well represented library that speaks to all of my students experiences. I have learned that I can’t just provide different perspectives in a text book but I must push back against the incomplete narratives and problematic representation that we find within. Through taking this work so personally and yes sometimes feeling offended and questioning what I am doing I have been inspired to do better. I am not stepping away from the challenges but learning from them.

Building a Team

As I continue to search out inspiration I am finding the team matters so much. I am purposeful in who I follow, who I interact with and who I surround myself with as learners. I began twitter a lone wanderer in a vast forest of ideas. Breadcrumbs of shared ideas led me to like minded individuals. As my thinking, experiences and learning needs have changed the team of inspiration has expanded. I am grateful to those who helped me on my journey and can still learn from them, I am grateful for those now who challenge me to be better. Julie and I just watched Shazam. A delightful film where our hero Shazam must face off against a big bad. With all his powers he still requires his team to overcome the adversary. The epic formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy comes from the need to form a team to shoulder the burden and overcome the adversary. We can often accomplish tasks alone, but a team that inspires you to be better, to work hard and helps you find the answers will help you to reach new levels.

Next Steps

As the summer comes to a close I have my PD books ready to inspire, my novels at my side to hopefully inspire my students. I am open to the feedback of others to inspire me to improve my practice without taking offence and checking out of the conversation and I am continually building a team.

Teaching is hard, not all our days are going to be great despite what you might see. Not many people share the pictures of their burned dinners and messy houses. The same is true for teachers. Most hide their misteps thinking their perfection inspires. The mistake they make is that it isn’t the product that inspires but the practice, the knowledge of the journey and the dusting ourselves off and getting back up. Teaching is hard, finding inpiration to be better can be especially hard with all the noise out there. I am excited to get my brain back fully into teaching mode.

Inspired.

Learning can be uncomfortable

I have spent the month of July doing what I love. I have tanned, I have read some amazing books, I have played with my dogs, planned for next year, read more books and generally just relaxed. One of my favourite things to do is to learn new things. I am currently reading this interesting, thought provoking book.

As I prepare to teach 9th grade Language Arts and the looming annoyance that is the Provincial Achievement tests sits on the horizon I pondered a lot about how I can take my teaching to the next step as I move up with my grade 8 students. For some, next year will be our third year together. They are familiar with my style and I am respectful of how they like to learn. This year we stepped it up to allow for as much voice and choice as possible with #ProjectSpeak. So I look at this Joy Sucking Dementor that is closing in on these joyful writers I have had the pleasure of learning with and I need to know how to best arm them. To continue with my Harry Potter analogy my students need to know how to summon a Petronus.

I have plenty of experience with Provincial Tests. In Alberta, for my non-Alberta readers, we have Provincial mandated exams in grade 6-9-12. For language arts this consists of a reading comprehension exam and a written exam. The written exam in grade 6 and 9 are two parts (I have not taught 12th grade so won’t speak to that format), in 6th grade students are require to write a narrative piece and craft a newpaper article style informative piece. I became very good at teaching my students in grade 6 to take these tests. We practice writing off a prompt multiple times a year, we practice writing these article responses multiple times a year. My writing curriculum was entrenched in the test. My students had been conditioned from both prior teachers and parents to think these tests mattered. My admin would claim the results didn’t matter but they certainly loved to share that our students performed higher than most in our division and placed well provincially. I felt pretty good about myself and my amazing team as we improved on results year after year. The tests stressed us out, they stressed the kids out but they were excited to hear how they did and celebrate when we were finished.

The learning really came for me when I left my school and grade and moved up to 7-8 and this year 9 and started talking to my students. Taking a page from Pernille Ripp I asked my students what made writing great and what made writing suck. The amount of responses that trashed narrative writing, the amount of students that talked about how much they hated writing and hated writing based off a picture prompt caught me off guard. I hadn’t asked my previous students because I just knew they had to accomplish the task so we taught to it. I felt terrible because I knew in that moment that my students likely felt similar. That I hadn’t helped them become writers I had only taught them how to take a test.

So as I read “Why They Can’t Write” I am uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable learning that I have contributed to a problem. I am uncomfortable knowing that I was not preparing my students for the future despite being celebrated for doing a “great job” in teaching them. So I have two options as I approach these grade 9 tests. I can go back and teach to the test, roll out the 5 paragraph essay structure and practice, practice, practice or I can teach them to write. Write like real writers. So I am digging into this book and my practice. DO I want good results? Absolutely. Should I sacrifice my students joy of writing to achieve it? NOPE.

This whole topic has made me question my teaching in the past, the years of practices that are now questionable at the very least and in some cases just offensive. The token economies, the gamified classroom, the Ancient Athens citizen simulations complete with slave interactions. All of these practices ended far before I joined Twitter and the conversations around how some may damage students. They left my practice because I listened and learned. I loved my Athens Project that looked at all elements of Ancient Athens civilization. I loved the Agora at the end, I loved reading their journals but when they wrote about slaves I felt it was wrong but outcomes about social interactions were in the curriculum and so we included it. I remember teaching grade 4 and I am horrified that I had students design their own tipi. Again learning to be better, listening to feedback and ending practices that are harmful, insulting or just plain terrible.

I am grateful for the learning that I have been able to participate in. I don’t always love how that learning comes. It can be uncomfortable to be told you are wrong, that your practices are harmful or ill-informed. But the power comes in the conversations that follow. My teaching of writing would never improve if I decided that the best measure was performance on a stupid standardized exam. My reading instruction would never have evolved beyond levels and teacher selected texts if I had not been open to the works of amazing educators like Donalyn Miller, Pernille Ripp and Kylene Beers because my kids were crushing their tests but I was crushing their reading spirits. Knowing that now I do better.

On twitter this morning I talked about learning being all about growing and sometimes we get growing pains. This is natural, being defensive of your practice when questions is natural because it is uncomfortable. Being open to the feedback and questions of others however gives us a chance to stretch and to grow despite the discomfort.

Learning can be uncomfortable but if you want to get stronger you have to work at it.

The “what” still matters

I am loving summer break. The chance to relax, read good books, hang out with friends, play video games, clean the classroom and get some much needed organization and planning done. I also spend a LOT of time on Twitter keeping up with conversations in the education realm. One issue that has been prevalent in a lot of conversations is teachers focusing on the “why” questioning the tasks we are doing and looking for the purpose. This has led to a lot of great discussions. Teachers sharing the why behind their work opens up a whole new world of reflective conversations. I have however noticed that all of this pursuit of the WHY in bringing about less focus on the WHAT it is we are doing. Bear with me while I explain.

Last week ILA (International Literacy Association) had a twitter chat that focused on the importance of explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The panel was led by a few educators who had very clear positions on the topic of phonics and their why to back their decisions was the same as mine our “what” however, is dramatically different. They advocate for whole class instruction, drill like practice and less time for independent practice and exploration of language. I advocate for balanced literacy, I advocate for time with choice text and time for for whole class instruction when needed. I advocate for real books not photocopied nonsense readers. Our whys in the end I think are the same, the teach students to read and comprehend texts. The difference lies in WHAT we are doing to get there.

One conversation I entered into during the chat was with a fellow High School teacher that advocated against a Workshop model. I am a huge advocate for a workshop model with some whole class instruction work to lay a foundation. This teachers argument was students should all have to use the same text because otherwise how can we teach a text. I defer to the brilliance that are the words of Kylene Beers here first

Books aren’t written to be taught. They are written to be loved.

-Kylene Beers

I think in the case of this person I was disagreeing with both her why because I want more than students that just sit and work on a text breaking down every piece until the joy is gone and her what. The last two years I have had more success getting students reading, talking and thinking about books than I have before. I also have students excited to come to class. It isn’t the only important piece but what are doing as educators when we forget that students should enjoy school? What are we doing when we literally say “I don’t care if they like my class, that isn’t my job” ? That isn’t a hypothetical it is a statement I have read. The WHAT we are doing is just as important as the WHY.

Another area that needs more work in this regard is work around increasing understanding around diversity education. I have had a great reflective journey on my practice that was kickstarted by following conversations such as #disrupttexts and #31DAYSIBPOC. I also was blessed with a teacher in University that was doing this type of work with soon to be teachers by challenging us to look deeper at historical thinking, representation and the narratives provided in our text books. The work of teaching our students to see the diversity around us and respect it is so important. So often we see teachers say we need a diverse library. I of course agree. The question raised lately is what exactly are we doing with this library? Just putting Ghost Boys on the shelf and not talking about it does little. Just having The Whispers as a recommended title but not book talking its importance does little. It is great to include the beautifully diverse texts that are out there but WHAT we do with them is so important.

This week there has been a great critical conversation on a piece of literature that is meant to “improve” student engagement. The author in their excitement to share posted an activity that at this point still appears to be extremely problematic as students virtually role play colonization. The WHY the author claims is to help students recognize the stories being told are leaving groups out. A great cause and why. The what, the means to achieve the why is the issue. Many educators pointed out this issue, much like students participating in slavery simulations or having debates around immigration or writing letters home from concentration camps (all actual assignments that have been on twitter in a celebratory way) this activity fails to observe the problematic issues it creates. The othering, the isolation, the failure to see the impact it can do to students who do not fit the colonizer identity. The other problem is this is a published book that many teachers who do not consider the WHAT are going to read, share and celebrate. Students need engaging work, students need to have fun at school. When those are the WHY it is a noble cause. When the WHAT we do to get there is problematic we need to stop and ask why. My social studies students are engaged with discussions around historical thinking and perspectives, what voices are being elevated and who is being erased? That can be done without making it a game.

Teaching is a combination of the WHAT and the WHY. If we are not critically thinking of both things we are not likely addressing the complete needs of our students and classroom.

My other side

Those of you who read the blog know that I am pretty passionate about teaching and literacy. While of course this is true, literacy work has not always been my first teaching love.

When I started teaching I always wanted to be a Social Studies teacher. As a student in High School I loved talking politics, I loved learning about ideologies and leaders of the past. I loved history. In university I was introduced to one of the most brilliant and compassionate educators I have ever met who taught me about the important of Historical Thinking and Historical Significance.

Over the past few years I have moved my focus more to literacy work but that does not diminish my love for Social Studies. I have held on to one Social Studies section since moving to the Junior High. Canadian history. As a student I was least interested in the history of my own country. European arrivals was where we always started, like there was nothing before then, and we just made our way up through British and French Conflict, Confederation and Modern Canada. As a kid it strikes me that most of education was slanted that way… a single story.

The other day I was having a conversation with someone and he asked me what I teach. Upon hearing I taught Social Studies he asked me “Why were we trying to rewrite history?” The question caught me off guard. I asked him what he meant and he began talking about Sir John A Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister. For my American readers he was pivotal in the confederation of Canada and instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway which joined the country from East to West. Recently in large part due to the the work of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada) more attention has been directed at other actions he was in part responsible. Much like the confederate statues debates in the United States Canada has had its own debates around celebrating individuals from our past through memorializing them in building names or with statues. With John A Macdonald, who’s name was on my town rec centre growing up, the discussion around his contributions to and support of the practice of Residential Schools was brought to light. Now for those that do not know about Residential Schools or for some uninformed reason think they have any redeeming qualities please do some research.

So back to the conversation. He was not pleased that our first Prime Minister, a father of confederation (he used the term), was being cast in a racist light (I am pretty sure it wasn’t the light that was racist) . The discussion came back to how (liberals) are trying to rewrite history.

I ponder on this and wonder about my job as a Social Studies instructor. Is my job to continue to tell one narrative? Is my job to teach from a resource that only briefly touches on our First Nations heritage? Is my job to continue to allow the same tired stereotypes to be repeated year in and year out? I struggle to accept that that is the job description of a Social Studies teacher.

This year I read the amazing posts from #31DaysIBPOC and in doing so gained access to a different perspective. The idea that students might not see themselves in our class discussions haunted me. The idea what they did see was not a complete picture haunted me. The fact that people still bristle at the idea that we should, as teachers of history, be teaching history confuses me. So we started questioning the text book this year, we question and push back on the long held beliefs that many of us have held on to.

As we look at the events of the world and how they seem to run on repeat I see the need for Social teachers that teach the whole history not just the parts that make “US” look good. We look at Residential Schools and the damage done that continues to impact our First Nations communities. We look at treaty agreements and their violations and we look to our neighbours to the south and modern day internment camps set up and look at our own troubling history.

I love literacy, I love the power of words. The power that the truth we find in them brings. That is the power of looking at our whole history. It isn’t about rewriting, it is about putting all the pieces together so we get a complete picture.

That is the other piece of me. I need to remember it more.

Is it worth it

This morning I was in a funk. I was hitting up my always inspirational twitter after a great workout out but something was off. My dear friend Susan coined a hashtag in our own little #curiositycrew and we laughed about #brentsinafunk. I pondered on what it was that was really bugging me and I think it all boils down to the fact that when I joined the Edu-Twitter world it was for ideas, inspiration and a supportive community.

Over the last little while I have noticed changes. There seems to be less learning popping up in my feed. Aside from the #G2Great chats my feed is filled with a lot of what I think people consider inspirational quotes or feel good stories but primarily my feed is becoming more and more a sales pitch. If it isn’t 7 million tweets a day about the newest book that is going to change my classroom (as long as I change myself) it is the newest conference that is 500 dollars plus travel and lodging and don’t even get me started on #teachersofinstagram and Teachers Pay Teachers. All of these things just keep popping up in my feed. Now I guess I could stop following people that seem to be amplifying this make money message but I followed them for a reason I just hope we find our way back to the why.

I am specifically bothered today by the trends, the room sponsorships, the staged photographs that don’t focus on joyful learning but do focus on company names being displayed for those fancy chairs and tables because flex seating is more important that authentic environments in this new monetized learning environment. I left twitter in a huff this morning for a lot of reasons but they boil down in the end to this new influencer culture. Is that what we got into this for? Did we get into teaching so we could be Rockstars? I didn’t. As I made my rounds through teacher social media I came across another post on a group that is dedicated to Jennifer Serravallo’s work. The post had nothing to do with her work however. The post was drawing attention to Teacher’s Pay Teachers 4th of July sale. Save money, save on planning, eliminate teaching tailored to your students needs. I know there are a lot of people that love Teachers Pay Teachers, they love a good Chevron border and cute Penguin clip art to fill there 40 binders to cover their 180 days. But again what is driving Teachers Pay Teachers? It isn’t authentic joyful learning. It is money, it is that desire to be pInstagram famous as I saw one person point out today on Twitter. Did we get into teaching to become famous?

I have talked about my next big issue before but can someone please explain to me how having your classroom sponsored by companies is not all kind of unethical? We had this discussion as a staff once when a company reached out to help support a school initiative. What conditions do you have to meet to get sponsored? What percentage of your room needs to be their product? I friend told me that she really wanted to get into flex seating and so was looking for ideas on Pintrest and Instagram and came across this great account that had the most amazing room. Tables that were 4000 dollars. A quick show of hands for who can afford 4000 dollars for one table…I will wait. This teacher was an instagram “influencer” all their cute TPT stuff and Pintrest worthy staged pictures got them a ton of followers and so companies started sending them things to showcase. How does the average teacher accomplish this?

I have been expanding my twitter net recently and reading about all this amazing work, amazing learning being done in classrooms all over schools but I have to dig for it. Those stories are not the ones being shared far and wide. They are being lost in a sea of “look at me”

I am not looking to shame anyone that has bought into this celebrity culture of education. I would say to each their own but we are not only responsible to ourselves. We have classrooms of kids depending on us to bring our A-game. To better our practice to meet their needs. All the followers in the world to “influence” will not make me a better teacher. Actually doing the work? That will. In this world of Social Media we can do so much good but what good is 50k followers when you don’t discuss inequity, injustice and the real challenges facing kids and schools today. Trust me kids get along fine without a ball chair and standing desk, they don’t get along fine with books falling apart and not enough chairs to go around. With great power and all that as Uncle Ben says.

Today Penny Kittle tweeted her dismay about how schools can’t “afford” libraries. In Alberta our government is cutting funding to nutritional programs that were getting students breakfasts and lunches when they needed them. The money issue is real, scary and something must be done. But unless all this “influencer” money is making its way back to students, building librairies, funding nutrition programs is it really worth it?

That’s a wrap

Today marks the first Monday of summer holidays. We wrapped up the year last Thursday with our grad ceremony for the grade 12 students. This year has been filled with learning. I was able to try new things, go to the best PD of my teaching life, became a co-moderator of the #g2great chat and continued my own learning journey all while reading some great books. I wanted to take some time to look at the moments that shaped my learning and the year.

Twitter Adventures

For those who follow the blog or follow me on Twitter you know I am a fan of the platform. Not only for the learning but also the connecting with individuals that I otherwise would not be able to. Prior to NCTE in Houston Texas I put in Twitter how excited I was to be attending and many educators I respect greatly where so kind to say they would love to meet or say “HI”, Twitter has brought me to different professional resources this year and introduced me to amazing projects like the books suggested by #projectlit and the transformative experience of #31DaysIBPOC which I will talk about more in a minute. I recommend Twitter to all educators. When I first started twitter I was excited about all the cheerleading for teaching going on. Gradually I started naturally moving to more pedagogy focused twitter discussions. #g2great is my favourite. I have contributed regularly to the chat and formed some amazing professional connections and dear friendships. This year I was asked to be a co-moderator and accepted excited to bring a slightly different perspective to the group. I am excited for the opportunity. My twitter evolution has continued through discussions like #disrupttexts and the aforementioned #31DaysIBPOC. I have become more critical of the trends that are light on substance. I question the motivation of posts more because of the opportunity to grow I have been given by critically analyzing the information out there. I think Twitter is like a buffet. There is something for everyone and this year I feel I moved more to the main course section. We all love the dessert table but I am not becoming a better teacher eating ice cream all day.

#31DayIBPOC

Ok, so I was sitting on my Twitter at the end of April and noticed a Tweet about a Project that was organized by Dr.Kim Parker (@TchKimPossible) and Tricia Ebarvia (@TriciaEbarvia) titled 31 Days IBPOC which can be found here. A daily post for the month of May by an educator who would identify as Indigenous-Black-Person of Colour. The first post by my Twitter friend Aeriale Johnson (@arcticisleteach) found here had me hooked. As a teacher from a rural area with little diversity I had the opportunity to learn about the experiences of educators from many different backgrounds. I eagerly anticipated the posts dropping each morning. It impacted my workouts because I had to stop and read and learn. These posts made me question my teaching in the best way. They helped me see that I have so much growing to do as I try to best help all my students. As a white teacher I thought I was doing a great job just bringing in books that celebrated or at the least provided diversity. One take away from my reading was that that is not nearly enough. So we started to examine representation more, I learned about the term ant-racism and I feel I left the experience a better teacher for all my students. Through the summer I plan to write a more in-depth series around my reflections and I have a larger post on my #31DaysIBPOC learning journey being published on my new MiddleWeb blog soon (will link here when it is published). I hope you will check out the amazing 31 educators that contributed to this project at #31DaysIBPOC So many amazing posts.

New Things to explore and build on

I am excited about the summer of learning I am about to embark on. I am diving in to Multi-genre work. I am excited to explore Book Clubs more next year. I am going to work on book clubs and integrating not only diverse books but discussions around why they are important and how we can grow as a classroom and community by looking at the world around us through text. I will lean on the experts in the field that help me to grow in the same ways I hope my students will start their learning by leaning on me. The work that needs to be done still is great. I love literacy. I want to continue to build as a teacher on the current practices that amplify my students voices and experiences but also lead them to experience new things, new thinking and build a desire as life long learners. Summer, for me, is about reading at the river and learning new things. So with that I am off to the river for the day, book in hand.

If you need a new book to check out Try The Benefits of Being and Octopus. If you are more looking for some quick thought provoking reads that you can take time to work through check out #31DaysIBPOC. Have a great summer.

Adventures in…

So for the last few weeks (8 give or take) we have been working on various projects in Room 157.

The Grade 7’s have been working on “My Story” a hodgepodge first attempt at a Multi-genre type assignment. They have written narratives, reflective pieces and poetry. They have reflected on the moments in their lives and what have helped to make them them. It has been an interesting journey for them and a great professional one for me. I have spent evenings and weekends reading through drafts, conferencing and doing it all over again. This may come as a shock but the work that is coming out is great. The work isn’t even the best part. The words of my students, the GOLDEN LINES in their poems about lessons learned from their grandparents or just sitting with them at watching the sunset. This project has been fun, to reflect on their books in the Autobiography of a Reader or the music that has influenced their life in the Life Playlists. To laugh with their mostly true memoirs or get those teacher chills as we watch some of the “Where I’m From” poetry pieces. There are people that think we do not have the time in Junior and Senior High to explore in the work of literacy. That we need to be working on essay form and reading classics. I think we should be doing those things as well but not at the expense of joyful literacy. Not at the expense of laughter, not at the expense of applause. We have been watching their poems this week and I thank Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher for the inspiration for these pieces. I have always chickened out when it comes to these big final products. I worry about them not turning out as good as I picture them in my mind, I worry about the kids feeling frustrated with the task. I started to chicken out this time, started to back away from them. Then my kids said, “We can do this Mr.Gilson” and the final products really have been fantastic.

My Grade 8’s wanted to try something a little different. They wanted to explore inquiry a bit. Dip our toes in and at least take the temperature of the unknown waters. We looked at Gravity Goldberg’s words in Teach Like Yourself when she speaks about getting students engaged. Is it by irritation (us pushing them) or agitation ( the desire to solve or address an issue)? My students picked a very diverse group of topics to explore from teen mental health to environmental threats like plastic pollution and world water consumption. One student wrote and recorded a podcast about the importance of proper Heifer feed, another about how teachers can be better for their students, spoiler alert it wasn’t tests and worksheets. We researched, gathered data and picked a method for presentation. The work has been incredible. Today we gathered to watch their TED talk-esque presentations or listen to podcasts while students shared their work. We also had a couple meat trays because you can’t have a meeting without meat trays they told me. The video did not do justice to the kids work and I was disappointed. The sound was bad we struggled to hear the first brave student that was willing to share. Then the best thing happened. “Can I just do my TED talk live?” So she got up and talked. Jello brain to demonstrate areas effected by mental illness and she shared. She talked about why this is important, how much it impacts students and how our education system does not do enough. She finished, the kids clapped and another volunteered. We tried different videos and podcast and some went well and others did not and we just rolled with it.

I think at times teachers are so worried about this perfect moment that they miss the beauty in the evolving ones. Today I watched student rise to meet a challenge. Over these last few weeks I work along side my students as we discovered ourselves as learners. Next year we step it up again. We build on the foundations that this years students set out. There is room for exploration in language arts. It needs to be changing, evolving and growing like the amazing Jason Reynolds says. I am so glad for all of our opportunities to learn and grow together this year. I have 6 more days with these awesome students. Finishing strong.

Here are a few pictures from today and a couple video poems to check out. First kick at it and I love them.

31 Days of Awesome

I have spent the last 31 mornings at the gym patiently waiting between sets for the new post for the #31DaysIBPOC blogging challenge organized by Dr.Kim Parker and Tricia Ebarvia, two wonderful educators who I have followed on Twitter and learned from through hashtags like #Disrupttexts. To check out all the amazing post please be sure to check out the site collecting them. Follow those who have written them and allow yourselves to sit in the discomfort as I have.

I always thought I did a great job making all my students feel welcome. I always felt that I was doing my best to provide students with lessons worthy of them. We didn’t make bead work Wampum belts like I saw on pintrest because that is a sacred tradition and not an arts and craft lesson. I didn’t reenact slave trading or play “run away slave” tag like I had seen on other posts as a “great way” to get students engaged in the Underground Railroad. I was aware those things were disrespectful and racist and before reading through these amazing posts I thought I was doing a great job being an ally to those students of colour, to my coworkers who represented a marginalized group. I tried to correct students language and condemn “jokes” that further marginalized group even when no members of those groups were present. Before reading these posts, these 31 heartfelt reflections from brave educators I thought I was doing a great job because I wasn’t a racist. Imagine that as a measure, “I am great because I am not racist” That sounded ridiculous today as I type it and I don’t know if it would have sounded as ridiculous 31 days ago. What this amazing journey for a white educator in predominately white area has taught me is that not being a racist is not enough. We must actively fight racism or as I am “learning the lingo” to really make a difference we as white folks need to be actively anti-racist. I am still earning what that means. I am still working on how to better help my students but because of #31daysIBPOC I have places to start.

  1. I need to get to know all of my students better, especially my students from marginalized communities. This can be IBPOC students but also our students who might be LGTBQ, another group of students who find themselves marginalized in schools and in need of support.
  2. I need to actively turn time over to the IBPOC educators in meetings when they are present. As a white male educator I don’t tend to need someone to give me time to speak. I take it. I need to take it less. I need to let other voices be heard.
  3. I need to not ask IBPOC individuals or groups to do the work for me. Asking people to explain how I offended them or how something I might be doing is racist or how I should fix it takes the work off me and puts it on them. I need to hear what is being said and then do the work to fix it. Our actions should serve as a judge of our character not our words. Talk is cheap.

So I go from here. Inspired to be better, inspired to act on behalf of all my students. To bridge the gaps that inequity in education creates. To listen to the powerful voices of IBPOC educators like the brilliant minds of #31DaysIBPOC and others. As I plan for next school year I am already questioning the texts that I plan to use. The assignments and the discussions I plan to explore. If you have not read the posts please start. They are all great. Find them all here and be uplifted. I am so grateful to all the posters for this event and am hoping to continue to learn from them all.