I started the new year off strong. Podcasts, Blog posts, book plans… and well like all things life gets busy. I have barely had a chance to sit down and plan let alone write for pleasure. I set a few goals for myself this year and one was to put the TV away on weeknights by 9 so I can read. Aside from the nights that I am basketball past 9, this has been going pretty smoothly. I think it is a great idea to set a writing plan and so here it goes.
I think writing plans for me have always been focused on setting a schedule, “I will write a post a day for (insert year)” but somedays I have nothing to write. This morning I tried multiple drafts at a blog post but nothing felt right. Luckily I have a lot of options when it comes to writing.
I realized that blog posts might not come every day. That I might not feel inspired to write my book or draft a few paragraphs as mentor texts or even send out a tweet but I will likely be inspired to do one of these things and I need to just act on it.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the connections to teaching here. The fact that we so often require our students to write, often in some contrived way and then we are shocked when inspiration fails them. I want to provide them with more options, more opportunities to discover their own writing styles and voices as I too continue trying to find mine.
So my plan? To write when I am inspired, to take time for my book and experiment more with writing styles. #letswrite2019
Tomorrow is back to school from Christmas break and I am nervous just like every back to school. Not nervous because I am worried it will go bad or that kids won’t be excited, more because I am. I love the return to school after a break, I love getting to see my students, ask them how their break was, listen to their stories and share my own.
It was disheartening to see all the posts, all the memes joking about how sad teachers are that they are returning to work, even sadder that they were coming from teachers. In the past I have done the same and never really thought about how it came across until I saw it so much tonight be it on Twitter or on Facebook.
I think we have a right to be excited for a break, for time to relax because heaven knows we need it. Teaching is not a 9-5 job it requires time outside the classroom in so many different areas. All of these extras build up and we need a break at times and we deserve it. That said our students deserve teachers that are not posting memes about how sad they are they have to great them in the morning. Their parents deserve teachers they know are just as excited to see their kids in the morning as their kids are excited to go because trust me, even if they don’t say it the kids are excited. We play a big role in their life and they have missed us.
Have fun tomorrow, and the day after and the day after. We have the best job. Share that as a meme if you have to.
My friend Mary Howard delivers beautifully written passion rants when topics cause her distress or worry or anger on behalf of students and teachers who might not always be able to speak for themselves. I love her rants and the fire in the words she puts on the screen.
I started blogging years ago with different iterations of this blog. But I too tend to focus on rant worthy topics when I write. I would suggest it is cathartic to get the thoughts out and then I started the podcast on occasion, another way to put my voice out there.
Last week Julie surprised me with a trip to San Diego and one evening while the air was crisp and we were out in the awesome courtyard hot tub we were talking about teaching and she mentioned the hot-button topic of Accelerated Reader. To give some context our division has had schools, including my past school, using Accelerated Reader for years. As a new teacher, I was commanded to use it and didn’t know better. As I travelled to other schools in my own teaching journey I found much of the same and because of what I saw, kids reading and answering test questions, I even suggested my new school dive in. After all Julies school had what appeared to be a very successful program that seemed to have the school enthusiastically involved in reading. But appearances can be deceiving.
A one time mentor in my early literacy journey pointed out an article that spoke to the negative effects of AR and programs like it and asked me to read it and provide my thoughts. At the same time, I started to notice the defeat in some of my students as “point award days” approached. At the time I was a 6th-grade teacher and I asked one of my students one day why he was so frustrated and he broke down. He did not think he could ever make it to the prizes that are “cool” because the books he was allowed to read were boring and never worth enough points. This small eye-opening moment made me pay closer attention to the culture that AR and its point-based incentive system was doing to our reading culture.
I immediately stopped pushing AR at all in my classroom. We had fun self-set challenges. Things like the 40 book challenge from Donalyn Miller adapted to fit different students needs. We did draws for books as students finished books. We talked about books and we read more than ever. Students actually reflected on what they were reading and realized that reading is the reward. No more were they taking idiotic knowledge and recall tests. They were sharing their books with book commercials and writing about the characters or the conflict or the theme.
It was more work for me, without question, but it was worth it.
Back to the conversation around AR. Julie mentioned that while our division no longer supports AR (YAY!) there are still teachers that like it and use it, I was so confused. After countless discussions and posts from Colby Sharp, Pernille Ripp, Donalyn MIller. Books written about creating a culture of lifelong readers by the same as well as Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Todd Nesloney, Travis Crowder and the incomparable Kylene Beers all speaking about the harm Accelerated Reader and other computer-based online reading “programs” do to developing readers. And yet people still defend it and even celebrate it.
I raged for a moment and then sent out a Tweet.
I didn’t think it would do much but in the days since I have had plenty of responses and as I retweet them with the #nomoreAR hashtag there is a pattern. Teachers that are speaking out are not doing it on behalf of themselves they are doing it on behalf of their students and more specifically their students who struggle to read already and are then forced to operate within a system that limits their choice and opportunity to grow as readers.
You don’t have to believe me or take my word for it. Ask the kids. AR (run “correctly” or not) destroys reading culture. No author has ever written a book with the dream that it will one day be stripped of its soul and reduced to a handful of multiple choice questions. No teachers ever entered the profession hoping to have their students mindlessly clicking answers on a computer screen after finishing Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds a hauntingly complex story which AR has reduced to a 4.3 Book Level and a 2 point score for getting all the right answers. No student sneaks away to a quiet space to fall into a book with the aspirations of taking a test after. Reading is not meant to be a competition, books should not be the subjects of points, labels and levels in our student’s eyes. They should be adventures, tales of triumph and sacrifice, fun, light, or whatever the reader needs them to be.
I understand the appeal of AR and programs like it. The neat data, the spreadsheet print outs. What I don’t however understand is the boastful ignorance of doing harm when the information is out there.
I have decided instead of just fighting about AR I will actively work to reverse the damage it does, I will speak up and I will share the voice of my students past, present and future. It can be my penance for putting students through this program before I knew better.
Today to wash this terrible AR induced feeling off me I went to the University bookstore and bought picture books. Beautiful, touching, funny, heart-wrenching, lesson teaching picture books and I came home and read them all. I will bring them to school and share them with my students, work on concepts and just appreciate the beauty of the stories inside. One story, The Remember Balloons, is all about a boy and his Grandpa and the balloons we all have that hold our cherished memories. As the Grandpa and boy share their memories slowly throughout the story the grandpa starts to lose his balloons, they float away, they get mixed up with other balloons and one day they are all gone. This analogy for Alzheimer’s hit me pretty hard. My Grandpa Gilson, the greatest storyteller I ever knew passed away after being lost to the disease. The lesson that this story taught, that his stories are not lost, that I heard them enough that I can tell them myself that they are now my balloons is not something AR and its tests can ever replace. The conversations in a classroom about theme are not something a racecar board in the hallway celebrating the strongest readers while the weakest are left in the dust can ever reproduce.
The myth that AR helps readers is just that a myth. I hope that people continue to work to build up literacy without depending on the crutch of glorified multiple choice test. Trust yourselves teacher friends but more importantly trust the books. They contain the lessons.
Today as we walked along the ocean watching a little seal follow us bobbing up and down we probably changed our plans for the day 3 or 4 times. We have been driving around so much we just wanted a chill day. We went to the mall and while I checked out the greatest comics and collectibles store ever Julie looked up things to do in Carlsbad. We ran to a Walmart and then changed plans and went for lunch. The. We were off to check out an old mission. The church was like some kind of art exhibit, very different from my church experience but beautiful. We walked the grounds and then decided to run to the pier in Oceanside. We saw little kids catching mackerel and other people trying to. A huge pelican landed right beside us on the ledge of the pier. Dolphins were swimming out a ways popping up and down. We then hit up the tide pools in Carlsbad before hitting up the farmers market and some great BBQ that we ate watching the sun go down. A full day full of adventure that was completely different from the day we planned at the start. Small changes throughout the day that cumulatively created a wonderfully relaxing day. A day we would have missed out on if we stuck to a predefined plan.
I think about the school day and the number of tweets I have read about New Years resolutions around school plans and “sticking to them” better. I can’t help but wonder why? Why would we allow ourselves and our students to be stuck to a plan informed only by a curriculum when there is so much more to a day than that? I think it is important to be planned, I love to have a good basic skeleton for the day. I love more to be moved, pushed or directed by my students.
I am planning this term to look more into inquiry. Letting my students build their learning based on what they wonder about. Providing a question or a framework but allowing them to see where it takes us. I have tried it before to mixed results. But now I have examples and friends from the twitter world to support me, to help me be valiant as my #oneword2019 proclaims. Living a purposefully flexible life can be scary but the possibilities that could be are really exciting.
My friend Leigh Anne put forward a challenge on twitter to help build our writing life. I tend to be a pretty faithful blogger. I pluck away at an idea for a book when I have spare time and I spend some time “dogfooding” bigger assignments with my students but the purposeful approach isn’t always there and I look forward to something to keep me writing daily.
Lessons learned at the Zoo
Today we went to the San Diego Zoo. It was a beautiful blue sky day and basically tropical for this Canadian Boy. I wandered the zoo grounds in my shorts and T-shirt and marvelled at all the winter coat scarf wearing folks that joined us at the Zoo and again later while we walked the beach and laughed as people were all bundled up. I couldn’t understand why people thought it was so cold. I am use to below zero, freezing winds and snow. My experience is so different from those from San Diego.
I can’t help but make the connections to our students and differentiation. Our experiences mould us in ways that we don’t always see but because of them we need different things to be comfortable as learners. If I think all my students should react the same way to a situation I am not respecting their differences. It doesn’t always have to be a huge hurdle to overcome. Simple differences that are ignored can impact the learning environment.
Loose connection for sure but as a reflective teacher I can and should ask “What has influenced these choices/behaviours/thoughts of my students?” And adjust to fit those needs rather than question why the heck they are wearing a winter coat and scarf at plus 16.
Last year I was introduced to the idea of #oneword. Something to frame my “mission” around, my professional learning choices and classroom practice. I went with CURIOSITY and followed the learning path of trying to discover new ways to teach, new paths to engagement for my students and trying to learn what is best. Looking back on the year I feel like I met my goal, that my students left looking for more, they learned about new books, they wrote in different ways, they pursued what interested them. Not only was my learning driven by curiosity but my students started to see that theirs too could be.
I decided again this year to pick a word to help me grow but hopefully also engage my students in new learning. So without further delay
I have decided that my #oneword2019 is going to be VALIANT. I wanted to fancy up BRAVE a bit haha and I love when looking at the definition seeing the term boldly brave. To be willing to stand up and stand out at the same time.
I have over the last few years been a loud voice either in discussions within my division or online against computerized reading programs. The kind of garbage that is pushed on kids as “fun” but really is just a lazy way for teachers to convince themselves they have data, never mind the quality of the data you get from these programs is questionable at best. I have put myself out there but feel there are areas as a teacher that I could do more, that I could stand up more clearly against. That I could be Valiant, boldly brave.
I want to start with the topics we discuss as a class. I often shy away from topics that could become spots where students are offended. In a community that is, by appearance, very much one demographic I avoid topics that could make the marginalized even more so. In reading A Very Large Expanse of Sea there is a moment that a teacher tries to use the main character, Shirin to be a spokesperson for “her people” she expresses the additional isolation that the teacher made her feel and as part of being boldly brave I want to have conversations on how to expand the view of my whole classroom without further marginalizing the students who need my bravery the most.
I went to NCTE this year and it changed the way I see a lot in education. Mostly I realized that there are little things that I did or still do that marginalize students because I was not aware enough of those small things. I was and still am to a degree ignorant to the things I am doing or not doing and how they might impact my students. I look at the books in my classroom library, as Donalyn Miller suggests I take an inventory and as I type this I know I have maybe 10-15 books that have POC as the main character and maybe 3-4 that have characters or themes of LGTBQ nature. I have never been opposed to having them but my students don’t tend to read them and so I don’t tend to buy them. After NCTE I saw this tweet from the amazing Kate Roberts,
After reading it I decided that I was doing a disservice to my students by making the choice for them to not have these books, it was partly out of fear, in a community that does not always display tolerance for the LGTBQ community and a lot of education needed I do worry about complaints from the kids and the parents. I do worry that someone will ask books to be removed from my classroom and I do worry that my reaction to that request will not be what I hope but instead a decision based on fear. This is where I need to be boldly brave. I need to put books that have all types of characters in them. I need my students to be able to read these characters and see them as people just like them. To break down those stereotypes and assumptions and help my students see through a different lens. Mostly though I need to be brave for the students that might not be seen. That might be searching for themselves but finding nothing in the books on my shelf. I need to read books that are as diverse as the world around us and share them with my students because we live in a diverse world even if the neighbourhoods we live in now are not as diverse.
Lastly, I reflect on how I can be Valiant with my colleagues. So many say you attract more bees with honey than vinegar. I have always had a lot of vinegar but I realize more as I reflect that perhaps vinegar is not being boldly brave. To sit back, to hear what others are saying and to respond, to give the opportunity for other voices to be heard, that shows bravery. I need to learn to temper my response to be brave enough to allow opposing voices to be heard and to learn from each other. I do think this might be the hardest part of my #oneword this year.
As teachers we don’t only owe it to ourselves to be our best, we have communities depending on us. Reflecting on how we can be better is brave, saying it out loud and acting on it? Maybe that goes far enough to be Valiant, I am certainly going to try.
The other day I saw a video posted on facebook where there was an assembly to celebrate the students that hit their goal in something called iReady. Another computer based intervention program with a lot of promises to make teachers lives easier and also increase student engagement (reminds me of AR so get ready). Students in the video are marched up in front of their peers to pour slime on their administrators as the reward for reaching their goal. Like AR, this iReady program sets benchmarks for kids to reach based on their ability levels. Those that do better cruise through the system, those stuck, well…don’t.
See AR and programs like it are made to make things easier on teachers, reduce how much marking we have to do, how much testing we have to do, how much one on one work we have to do. See when these programs make promises too many teachers believe it and go with it. The idea that kids “like” AR is one of those things those who use it choose to believe to feel less guilty about disrespecting their students with such horrible practice. The prizes at the end and the final party for reaching your goal make the painfully dull tests and dated books selections “worth it” but really what damage is being done to the kids that are not successful in these programs? The ones who never get the stupid pencil top eraser or bouncy ball? The ones who miss the pizza party or the slime pouring on admin (also watching the video each kid pours what looks like less than 1/4 inch of slime on their principal. If you are going to commit to something and incentivize the reaching of goals at least go all in, let the kids really slime you)?
I will tell you what happens to them. They develop a self image that they are not worthy of success. They see past the prizes and the parties because in the end those are only symbols. They see that they are left out while others are lifted up. They see that kids who comply with crappy practices are rewarded and those that are not as fortunate to succeed are left to watch what they could maybe be if they just “tried harder” or put in the time the slime pours put in.
I am not a believer in “everyone get a participation ribbon at track” thinking. I think in sports where competition is part of the game we should reward those who put in the time to become the best because the trophy and success is the goal. Learning should not be a competition and it is definitely not a game. Reading and developing as a reader should not be a points-based process. It should be supportive, uplifting and individualized. Holding kids to some hot garbage reading program as a sign of dedication, or academic success that is worthy of anything is not only malpractice (it is) but it is also a poor excuse for a literacy program. I had a student once tell me there was no point to reading because he would never meet the goals that were set, he didn’t in 4th or 5th so why would he in 6th? Bad teachers and AR did that. The language used, the rewards promised, all program kids to think either they are better than others because they made the party or dumber than others because they didn’t.
AR and reading programs are not the only issue that comes up looking at the public celebration of academic success. Many schools do an honour roll. Students who do well academically are posted up for all to see. In some schools, kids with “high honours” (90 and above) are not required to write a year-end final that is worth a large percentage of the final mark. Can anyone explain that nonsense to me? A student who has struggled throughout the year has to also prove that they “got it” by writing a cumulative year-end exam worth 20% of their mark but one who excelled gets to skip the summative exam? How is that equitable? How is it even remotely sound educational practice and yet it continues.
A conversation around High Honours last year with a few students really helped me solidify my position on this. One student was asking what he had to do to secure a 90 or above in my LA class. At the time he voiced how embarrassing his 84% was. Another student turned to say how impressed he would be to even have an 80%. This student recognized he would be missing from the academic celebrations. A great kid, creative, imaginative and kind still felt the shame of not making “the list”
If I had a school themed Christmas wish it would be that we stop making education a competition. We have enough of it as it is. Let’s help our students see what is most important, their strengths and successes. Let’s celebrate all students as they work to reach their goals. I don’t want participation ribbons for education, or trophies or plaques. I want students who see their individual worth and celebrate it. I want authentic practices of teachers conferencing with students to replace the robotic hum of computers and kids clicking a mouse.
Our students deserve better and really what does it say if you can be so easily replaced by the click of a button? No computer questions got my students questioning the words of Rudy Francisco or discussing the powerful moments in Refugee. Teaching should not be reduced to computer quizzes and pizza party rewards. Our students deserve better.