Day ONE-30 Days 30 Poems

Strength 

It is funny how strength fluxuates
Some days I feel like I can move mountains
Other days a step feels
Impossible 
In my gym I have the words of Rudy Francisco on the walls
"Remember, you are still here"
I think about the weights I lift everyday 
adding a bit more each time
The sore shoulder reminds me
 I am still here
Somedays we are limited
Sore 
Tired
Uncertain if we can lift anymore 
Folks add to bar
Plate after Plate
Perhaps today we hit our limit
or

A new record. 

Thanks Pandas and Zeniths

I often start my blog posts with a title in mind. Today I am just going to type and like I say to my students, “perhaps a title will come.”

A few years ago I was a basketball coach, I use that term loosely because really I was just the hype guy because I knew virtually nothing about the sport but I was and will continue to be a Superfan for our student-athletes. Covid kind of put an end to basketball the last few years but this year we finally were back on the court. Both our Pandas and Zeniths had great teams full of talented and awesome kids. The seasons prior to Covid our fan sections started shrinking, kids were not coming out like they once did and I was really worried as restrictions were lifted that we would see the damage done to the fan base but really the opposite happened.

Kids and families from all over the community started coming out to the games, perhaps it was that sense of normalcy returning but I think more likely it was the energy our Zeniths and Pandas brought back to the town. Our fans dressed up to cheer them on, trading cards made and kids lining up for our athletes to sign them. A student cheering section that is the envy of southern Alberta, handling themselves with class (most of the time) and lifting our teams up.

I am grateful to our basketball players because they brought a community back together after a LONG off-season. I am grateful to them because they gave kids and a community something to look forward to and celebrate. I am grateful to them because they carried themselves with so much grace and dignity and represented our community well. They have made us all so proud.

The Zeniths were the number 1 ranked team in the Province. They traveled all over to face much larger teams from much larger schools and they proved they deserved the number 1 ranking by only losing twice in the regular season while bringing home the zone title. Beyond their athletic achievements, these boys were kind and wonderful examples to the elementary kids who looked up to them (literally one of our players is 6’7″). Unfortunately, their season did not end how they had hoped. At the start of this week 4 of the 5 starters and a number of the bench came down with a “non-covid” illness that took their strength. They tried, you could see the pained look of exertion as they tried to keep up with opponents despite just starting to recover from a week-long illness. You could see the heartbreak.

As their final games of the season came to a close I just wanted to tell them how proud of them I am. I still will at school on Monday but I worry it might fall on ears not looking to hear it. We are proud of them. They brought joy to a community desperately in need. They worked their behinds off every game to pump up a crowd. Laughter and conversation returned and often times was born around admiration of this team of talented young men. So I guess I just want to say thank you and I am proud of you. Your parents should be proud of the work you put in. Your coaches should celebrate your sacrifice, the time that it takes to be elite is a lot and you sacrificed so much.

Our Pandas are such a joy to watch. The smiles on their faces even when things are not going their way. The growth they demonstrated as a team moved them up the ranks until they were one of the last two teams standing. Facing the challenge of very impressive player on a good team the Pandas stepped up each time. The number 1 ranked team played our girls 3 or 4 different times and tonight our Pandas almost took home the gold. Two communities on the edge of their seat for 5 minutes in the fourth. I am grateful to our Pandas for many of the same reasons I am grateful to the Zeniths. This team of incredibly talented girls will inspire future generations of Magrath girls looking to become a Panda.

Student-Athletes often get a bad reputation for a lot of reasons. They also have to deal with a fickle fan-based that is often only around for the wins and become armchair experts in the moments of loss. Because I am blessed to teach these kids I know of their brilliance first hand, not just on the court but off of it. I know in moments some adults tend to forget you are only 15/16/17 years of age. I know some adults have said things that hurt. Please know that your community is proud of you. We are grateful for you. Thank you for leading us on the journey back together as a community. The season is over but your impact will go on much longer.

Now to plan the annual Ice Cream Sundae Party.

Give them time

Another great Dr. Gholdy Muhammad quote for the wall

Every day I sit and consider the work I ask my students to complete. WHat tasks we will be exploring. I think about how I am honoring their time. This last week we started a new semester.

We did some quick writing tasks. I made sure to take the time to share. I find we forget about that a lot. I wrote alongside them. We talked about good books. On day 2 we looked at the course outline and talked about the Grade-less approach I use in the classroom. Day 3 we talked about Multimodal work and then listened to the incredible Jason Reynolds perform For Everyone.

As students listened they wrote down the phrases that stood out to them. After watching they had so many lines written down. The next step will be to take those lines and create. Playing around with multimodal representation kids will explore. Last semester kids made movies, musical representations, wrote lyrics to an inspired song, and created works of art.

Ultimately students always ask,

“Mr.G, how much time do we have for this before it is homework?”

“How much time do we need?” is always the response.

I think one of the reasons beyond just the brilliance of her words that I like to put Dr. Muhammad’s words on our walls is because I want my students to know I mean them. I want visitors to room 157 to know that my beliefs cover our walls.

I am always so impressed with this first project with my students because it gives them a chance to sit with their thinking. To dig into new ideas and play around. By laying out the grade-less thinking before we start the biggest roadblock to learning is removed. Students become chance takers.

While the semester is just getting started and we all know there is a lot to do we need to remember to take the time to sit with our thinking. To allow things to take root so we have a stronger understanding. Urgency kills creativity. The idea that we must be ruled by deadlines doesn’t encourage students to create or take chances. I don’t know an assignment that is more important than letting our students find that genius within. There shouldn’t be a timeframe for that.

Here are a few examples of past work from this assignment.

Just give them time and space to grow. They will.

Let them shine

As we entered the school year there was so much talk of “learning loss”. This idea that the interruptions of covid have done mountains of damage to our students has been peddled by many. Have there been interruptions? Absolutely. Have those interruptions led to some wide-scale loss? That has not been my experience. Have kids forgotten how to take tests? Maybe… but I have to ask once you are outside of school when was the last time you had to write a high-stakes test? Is test-taking itself a skill we can’t afford to lose?

The pandemic ironically gave me a chance to stop, breathe, and reflect. I reflected on my practice, how I was assessing my students, how we could possibly keep testing them and assess them in the same ways we had been in the classroom when our students had to shift online. The answer was we could not. So I looked for better. I explored ways that my students could demonstrate their learning and their growth in ways that made it meaningful. It is a work in progress but it is working.

This week, as the semester is coming to a close, students are turning in their inquiry projects in one class and their multigenre projects in another. As I comb through the piles of work I see the brilliance of these amazing essay writers, creators, filmmakers, poets, songwriters, and dreamers. Students talk about how they are grateful that they get to write about what they want, how they want. They are relaxed, grades have become less of a focus (for most) and growth has become our goal.

Today I listened to the first song written and performed by a student. She spent her inquiry time exploring the process of songwriting as well as recording. The final product and a guitar-backed song with multiple layers of voice with some serious Taylor Swift vibes, all about her stress and anxiety. Another student tried his hand at creating a graphic novel, he discovered it was wicked hard but he tried. Today I read about the history of basketball shoes and watched an instructional video on how to do a crossover (it won’t help me but it would help others more basketball inclined). I read about the different theories around Amelia Earhart’s disappearance which took on a true-crime podcast-type feel, I read about the history of ballet told through poems. I learned a little about what it takes to be a veterinarian and also what horseback archery entails. Can someone point out where the learning has been “lost” because it is all I have found.

My senior English class has been working on a project for weeks. An exploration into legacy and the people, place, and things that make a mark on their lives. I have watched short films, read stories, poems, memoirs, and even the concept write up for an EP. Students are creating art work and recording songs. It is some of the most beautiful work I have be blessed to read. We are not writing an analysis of book written in 1960, we are writing our lives and their genius shines through. So much of the work has helped me learn more about my students. It has also helped them see how brilliant they are.

We often lose track of learning when we get lost in numbers. Things completed, things done “correctly”. In these last few years during the pandemic I think we are finding ourselves in room 157 (also the theatre because it is fun to learn in big spaces). We are looking past the numbers.

To close out this post I want to share one of the poems this week. Grateful for the learning I have found when I let them shine.

Where am I going?

Well, that’s easy 

I’m going to sail through the sea of stars. This little unnamed kid from a No Name® town in Alberta is going to be an astronaut. A good one too. I’m going to be the best role model for kids just like me. The representation that I never got. I’m full of untapped potential and I’m going to do great things one day. 

That’s what I would have said a few years ago.

The future doesn’t seem so clear anymore.

There’s not one specific event that I can blame for my change of heart. I don’t know when I decided I would never be good enough. All I know is that I have an awful habit of giving up before I even start. It’s just that you can’t really fail if you never even try.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been given a blueprint for a successful life.

A list full of Do’s and Don’ts 

Ten Easy Steps To Get Rich Quick

but as I sit there with the sheets spread out all around me, I realize the instructions are in another language and I’m left to make do with the pictures.

I don’t doubt that I can make…something,

I can’t guarantee that it’ll be structurally sound.

I can’t guarantee that it won’t collapse under my weight.

how would I know where i’m going?

i don’t even know where i want to go anymore.

I still feel that ache, that burning desire to achieve something great.

When it all gets to be too much, I’ll drive out to an empty spot late at night. Away from all light and humanity. I’ll sit cross-legged on the ground, back hunched and neck straining. 

Early mornings and mosquitoes be damned. 

I’ll greet the Moon with a kiss on the cheek,

and rhapsodize about her beauty,

so she might understand how I adore her so.

I’ll look towards Polaris,

Feel its warmth like an embrace, 

a reassurance that I’m not as lost as I feel

I let Orion fend off the doubt’s that threaten to drown me, 

that want to tear me apart like wild beasts 

I let myself be wrapped up in the Milky Way, 

the same familiarity as a baby blanket

It’s here my heart yearns the most.

If you look close enough, somewhere between Ancha and Albali of the constellation Aquarius, you can see it.

It’s a little rough around the edges but still glowing and bright.

Worthy of its place among the stars

Breathtaking

Exalting

It’s all I could ever hope for

It’s just out of reach.

All I have to do is stand up.

Shake off the dirt, and stretch.

I might need to find a stool, or maybe ask for help, but I can grab it.

I know I can.

All I have to do is just stand up

but i dont

My hands are cold

My legs have since gone numb,

and yet I just can’t seem to pick myself off the ground

So I remain seated

content to watch a little while longer.

Where am I going?

i don’t know

So now that you have read it tell me again about “learning loss”

Lift your chin-call it exercise

From Rudy Francisco’s Complainers

Jess Lifshitz, a phenomenal educator, extended an invitation to bring a poem with us into 2022. In the past, I have had resolutions and then shifted to goals and then dreams and then plans and then and then and then. I loved the idea of a poem guiding my thinking heading into the new year. I have sat with this poem, I have written this section up in my gym. Things are so hard right now, in the world, there is so much weight. I have been guilty, for the last few months, of allowing it to weigh me down. So it is time to stand up straight, lift my chin- and call it exercise.

I still have plans, goals, dreams, and intentions for this 2022 and years going forward. I want to continue working out and getting into better shape, I want to continue to better myself as a teacher, I want to steal time to read and find that part of me again because aside from student work and school reading and researching I have had very little bandwidth for joyful reading. So I will be taking that back.

The last thing this poem really made me consider is that while there is a lot of bad there is also a lot of good. I am blessed. I am wicked strong. I can stand under this weight, I can lift it. I need to recognize that more and complain less.

Life is hard

Life is heavy

My burdens are mine

I am training to lift them

Stand up straight, lift the chin-call in exercise.

Happy New Year

Chase after what brings you joy. We all deserve it.

Taking a dive

I got to spend some time with teachers talking teaching and books last week. I think it is my favorite thing to do outside of working alongside students in the classroom. We talked about ways to help students expand their reflections on texts, and how using these strategies can help students develop into deeper thinkers and writers.
I started the day reviewing Notice and Note with them. I have used Notice and Note since attending PD with Bob and Kylene years ago. I love it so much. I think a common stumbling block teachers face with Notice and Note is helping students move beyond just identifying signposts and surface-level reflections. The anchor questions that are provided serve as a great starting point to dig but the only way dirt is being moved is with the exploration of those questions. With my students last week we modeled this with David Robertson’s The Barren Grounds. Morgan, one of the main characters, is a young girl in the foster care system. She has moved around to many different homes after being removed from her birth mother. A result of this is a general distrust and seeming dislike of most everyone, especially her foster parents. As we read students identified the volatile nature of her personality. At one point early in the story, the students identified a Contrast and Contradiction when Morgan is kind to her new foster brother Eli after attempting to leave him behind. Later in the story, another moment of cruelty directed at her brother had students out of their seats. Talking about what they had decided was her jealousy that he had a connection to his family and culture that she never got to experience. Students didn’t just notice this shift in behavior they wanted to discuss their thoughts on the cause. We had great conversations with many hypotheses shared. Ultimately these discussions and the signposts that mark the start of them helped students to gain a better understanding of characters and their actions as the story progressed.
The second piece that I shared with teachers was another tool from Kylene and Bob’s greatest hits. We discussed ways to expand student thinking when organized in the Book-Head-Heart framework that is introduced in Disrupting Thinking In the past I have used poems and picture books as a means to elicit a response. Books like Love by Matt de la Pena and Loren Long or a short selection like Mama by Jaqueline Woodson. These lessons have always done well to introduce the concept but the thinking largely remained at the surface, especially when we got to the heart category. This time around I considered trying things a little bit differently to see how responses and discussion went. I decided to work through multiple pieces of texts as scaffolds for each other. Building and developing background knowledge that supported the next piece of text. Starting with an image students practiced writing in the BHH framework.

We then discussed potential ideas. The conversation was good and students thinking and impressions of the image were varied. We then moved to another piece of text while I read the first few pages of Nikki Grimes Garvey’s Choice. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. As I read students recorded their thinking. The impact of the apple image followed by the first few pages of the text had students recording a ton of thoughts and feelings and our discussion grew. Students who often didn’t participate jumped in with thoughts, the phrase “going off what X said” was used more times than I have ever encountered before as students built off one another thinking. The best part was that we were not done yet. As a final piece, we watched a Disney/Pixar short entitled Float. This film is hard-hitting. I gave additional instruction for the kids to pay attention to the production elements of the film. As we watched and wrote you could hear the gasps as elements of the film stood out to the students. The conversation could have lasted an hour with so many thoughts pouring out. It was the best BHH generated discussion that I have been able to facilitate. I can’t help but think that the additional scaffolding and background knowledge that our discussions established brought much-needed additional depth to student responses.
Over the course of the PD with teachers, we discussed a lot of things. DIfferent ways students could represent that thinking, how to build more efficient conference into our timetable, but mostly we just talked about helping students increase the depth of their answers.
Too often I think teachers, myself included, forget about the building blocks because our thinking is focused on the tower. As I work with students to go deeper into texts I know that I need to provide the tools for the dig. This past week we looked at ways to ask better questions, read alouds, think alouds, multimodal representation, class discussions. No tests, no worksheets. Thinking, sharing, talking, learning, growing, digging. This is the work we are taking the time to do together, slowly and purposefully because rushing through everything seems to be getting us nowhere fast.

Check out LiftingLiteracy.com 🙂

This I believe

I was originally going to title this post I believe in Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, but it is an assignment for University and I was not certain that my Professor would think it fit the assignment. We were asked to follow the model of the “This I believe” essay from NPR to express a belief statement of our own. This is what I settled on. Grateful for Dr. Gholdy Muhammad and her work and message that inspires my practice.

This I Believe

I believe the children are our future (Houston, 1986) 

I laughed when I thought about starting this assignment with the great Whitney Houston. While it is true, I think ultimately at the core of my beliefs are students and their unique genius. I believe that all students are genius, and it is our job as teachers to nurture and support that genius. My thinking on this shifted the first time I listened to Dr. Gholdy Muhammad speak. As she outlined her incredible framework for learning, she said regarding our students, “We must start their stories and identities with their excellence.” This phrase hit me so hard that I wanted to keep the reminder with me all of the time and it now sits above my head in my classroom. So, we start the year talking about our excellence. 

Too often, our students are viewed for what they can’t do, not what they can. The testing culture of society wants our students to fit into the same box, and when they can’t, we subject them to interventions. We forget about all the things they can do because of the things they can’t. Their story becomes one of deficit and failure.

I believe we must focus on their genius. 

Dr. Asa Hilliard said, “I have never encountered any children in any group who are not geniuses. There is no mystery on how to teach them. The first thing you do is treat them like human beings and the second thing you do is love them.”

How simple and powerful. But we lose sight of that simple truth through all the noise. 

The student who creates brilliant pieces of art in response to simple lines from text, genius. 

The student who teaches his classmates about the intricate workings of a tractor, genius.

The student lost in his drawings, genius.

The student who sings, genius.

The student-athlete, genius 

The poet…genius. 

When I made the shift in my classroom to recognize the genius first and foremost not only did my instruction change but the whole environment did.

 Last year I had the most beautiful class; scheduling made it necessary for me to teach English 10-1, 10-2, 20-2, and 20-4 classes all together at once. At first, I didn’t know how I would deliver instruction to 4 different courses with different curriculums in a way that served all my students. Then I asked them, “what do you want to learn about?”

We explored so much as they discovered their genius. Students blogged, created picture books, wrote chapters of novels, crafted incredibly heart-wrenching poems. We explored multimodal work. Words turned to images. Students took risks. 

Beyond just academic growth, something else started to happen. Students began to see and celebrate the genius of others. Students began asking if they could present poetry or show off their creations. We so often talk as teachers about how we can inspire our students. How do we help them shine? I think I have the answer.

            We stop telling them what shining must look like.

Ultimately, I believe in the individual genius of all students.

I believe in their excellence.

I believe it should be celebrated

Nurtured

In my favourite movie, Stardust, as the climax is reached and it seems like all hope is lost, Claire Danes character Yvaine proclaims, “What do stars do? They shine!” 

I believe that when we trust in our students’ genius. When we see it and give them the space to grow, they too will shine. I have seen this in action. I have witnessed the impact students who see their excellence and genius validated has. In an education system that sees countless students unable to achieve a standard, we need to start asking ourselves about the standards we are setting and how we measure success rather than asking students to fit inside a box. 

Like Gholdy says, 

“We must start with their genius and their joy.”

This I believe.

Book Clubs in Room 157 (updated with NCTE slides)

A few weeks ago I shared that we had started our Book Club rotation for this semester. I would love to do multiple rounds but I make sure we get in at least one round of book clubs. Book Clubs in Room 157 are not a labor-intensive task. Really, when we boil it right down to the basics we read, we share, we create. I am not knocking the practice of Literature circles or students having a number of tasks to complete each day. What works for one classroom might not work for another and I know some are bound but having to record grades every day or every few days. This isn’t my situation but as I lay this out I hope to provide some ideas for folks wanting to try book clubs but see it as too big of an undertaking.

Day 1:Introduction-Book Choice

Some of our selections

For this particular book club we focused on Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s work regarding books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Students read with the lens of looking for those connections for themselves. To start the class I first talk about the analogy, we go over the expectations of book club (will talk about those later), and then students spend the period looking at the different books available. After students have read through the book jackets and maybe the first few pages they rank their choices. I consider their ranking and potential group dynamics and then assign a text-based on those criteria.

Day 2: Discuss requirements

To begin day 2 book club groups are revealed. Students are asked to gather to set a few norms for their groups. Things like discussion schedule, pages to be read each week, what people will agree to bring to meetings, and other things are discussed. My requirement of the kids is to use their notebooks for questions, wonderings, golden lines, visualizations, and any other things that pop up. They also have a multimodal element to include and an essay at the end. They are told about this prior to the start so they can best schedule for themselves.

To help them with the question generation and thinking I provide them with some sample questions and The Lifting Literacy toolkit that contains different reminders of strategies we have used or thought and question stems. Both are available on the site under “Teacher stuff” if they are useful by all means please use them. To practice the question asking and notebooking we tend to use a full class picture book. This year we practice our visual literacy skills using Matt de la Pena and Loren Long’s Love.

We have taken over the theatre lately. Makes for fun read-alouds 🙂

Day 3: Introduce Identity Maps

For this particular book club, I want students to explore identity. Both their own and the characters of their books. We are a relatively rural area and the majority of our students are white and would identify as Christian (largely LDS but not everyone). Over the years I have noticed that students really struggle to make connections when the characters live lives so different from their own. A few years ago I made a shift to have students break things down into character traits and examine those rather than focus on the big differences. This shift really helped students to see similarities in characters and make connections. While the experiences were difficult to connect with the humanity was not. To assist in this we looked at Sara K Ahmed’s “Being The Change” and activity around Identity Maps. Students wrote up rough maps for themselves before getting into the reading.

Day 4 -21: Reading-Discussing-Writing

I am not a believer in teaching books to death and am not a fan of books taking 6 weeks to get through. With that in mind, we set out everything they will need to accomplish. We have mini-lessons on strategies and for the next few weeks, we dedicate all our time to reading, discussing, and writing. Students use their notebooks to track thinking they schedule times to meet or they read together and once they finish the books they work on different types of responses.

Freedom to explore

The biggest success that I have enjoyed from this process is seeing students explore new ways to represent thinking. Their reflections as they experience things unfamiliar to them and reflect on the mirrors they find through identity work and windows that are presented to them are really a joy to learn from. Book Clubs for room 157 are almost a break as groups become engrossed in their books, we try to keep the day-to-day work elements light and the final responses simply a culmination of their notes and thoughts. I am blessed to have the freedom to grade less and enjoy learning more. That said I know not everyone has those experiences. A simple status of the class/notebook check/group check-in could supply teachers with those pesky numbers they are required to report. Heck sitting in on book clubs is part of the fun so if you have to report something every day join in and enjoy the discussions with the kids.

Gatekeeping Greatness

I started this school year promising to do things differently than in the past. I am teaching English 30-1 which is the Alberta equivalent of Senior English, I guess. In the past, this course has been primarily test-focused; students spent most of the time learning to take a high-stakes test at the end of the year. The year consists of Critical Analytical essays, reading comprehension, reading Shakespeare (not that it is a bad thing), and minimal opportunity to explore what interests them. Time is such an issue. This year I decided that I wanted the students of room 157 to have the chance to dream with me, to explore what interests them, to approach learning in new ways. And we are. We have started looking at multimodal representation. Students are taking time to explore different ways to respond to text. We are writing about ourselves and exploring essays outside the traditional examples. Ultimately we are exploring learning.

A hand painted response to Jason Reynold’s For Every One

Students have been creating brilliant pieces of work, and all I have had to do was tell them it was ok. This week, students asked me if they could still submit a multimodal response to a book we are reading even though it is not a “required” assignment. They want to write and perform a song inspired by The Great Gatsby. A few weeks ago, another student made a time-lapse video making bread and attempted to make artisanal designs in it to represent her dreams. The bread didn’t work out; however, the true meaning of the work she responded to came through. Dreams don’t always work out as we intend, but that doesn’t mean we give up on them.

The joy that quietly moved through room 157 while students worked on their self explorations of theme was palpable.

This year’s class is not the first that I have explored multimodal work, choice writing, and inquiry. Last year the class that we all affectionately referred to as “The Patchwork” because it was a mix of students from different grade levels and abilities, created masterpieces in both writing and design. They were my inspiration for this year’s journey. Sadly, it seems that so many kids in their shoes would never have had this opportunity because this kind of work is often reserved for the top achievers. There sadly seems to be some bias established that only the best students should have access to freedom to explore. That students who struggle and need help or “intervention” can’t possibly benefit from work that is not the traditionally accepted form. That “enrichment” is reserved for the top students or whatever label you crown them with.

There is gatekeeping in education where students who struggle to succeed in the traditional setting seem to be locked into it until they either give in to it or give up on themselves. The secret that I have discovered is that allowing all students to explore learning together levels the playing field. Last year the Patchwork kids wrote some of the best poetry I have heard; they pursued areas of interest. They also started writing better and reading more. We probably wrote more than the “high achieving” classes. We trusted each other and embraced our strengths lifting each other along the way.

The dreams I have for education are fluid ones. They move with the bumps along the way. But I will keep jumping and hoping things work out because the alternative means I am not serving all my students.

All students deserve a chance to explore and learn and celebrate who they are. Not just as people but also as students and learners on their journey. Shame on those who lack the belief that all students have greatness just waiting to shine.

There is room in Room 157 if you want to join us, heck we just moved to a Theatre.