Lessons Learned in 3 Weeks

Ok I want to start by saying that today was a great day. It was the first full teaching day that I felt was a success in each class. I started this year with ridiculously high expectations of both myself and my students. The imposter syndrome set in as I approached the beginning of the year and as kids started coming in and parents started reaching out it only amplified. You would think that hearing how excited kids are, or how happy parents are that kids are in your class, because you are the “reading teacher” that it would excite you. But it really had the opposite effect. I developed a sense of impending doom and really have been battling it a lot until tonight. It was our final day of back to school meet the teacher and the kindness extended to me by parents and the events of the day finally helped me shake this feeling that I am not enough. Today was amazing, my students wrote about events in their lives and absolutely kicked butt as we looked at theme and conflict in a short story. Our classroom discussion was rich and their words were beautiful. After a 145 minute (yes you read that right) Language Arts block with amazing 8th graders ended I had my 9th grade students waiting at the door. This year so far has been a struggle. Grade 9 is hard. Kids deal with too much and the emotions and hormones and silliness and all of those other wonderful things that impact our students seem to all be added into a pot and the results have been Thursday before lunch and mayhem. Mayhem that has until today derailed my room. But today was different. After an initial talking to about hallway etiquette, because WOW, they all sat down with their books. They all started reading. I was checking in on them and asking how books were going and then as time wrapped up and we needed to move on to writing I checked in on a student reading A Very Large Expanse of Sea I could see she was near the end and asked her how it was going and if she liked it, the response was “It is good but could you stop talking to me because I am trying to read” ummm she then realized the rest of the room was staring at her and asked if I had announced it was time to write. We all laughed and I introduced the Scars writing activity to work on narratives from 180 Days by the phenomenal Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. The activity was a hit, students were laughing at my scar stories and quickly working on reflecting on their own. We were engaged, we were writing and we were laughing. It literally felt like a cloud had parted. It was one day but it was a great day. And here are the three things I have learned in 3 weeks

  1. Kids have a lot of stuff going on. It might be at school it might be at home, it might be in their heads and it might be in their heart. But we have to meet them where they are. Show them compassion and grace before anything else because they are still little humans developing into adults. We can’t forget we were there one day.
  2. A caring teacher will never replace a caring parent but we are so important. Kids and parents remember the teachers that are all in. We need to be all in for at the very least the 7 or 8 hours we have them. It is hard and some days we are tired (as I type this it is 8:11 PM and aside from a 1.5 hour break between going home to shower after the gym this morning I have been at the school since 4:45 AM) but when we snap at a kid they remember it like a scar reminds them of an injury. It stays with them. The words we wield are powerful. Today a student wrote that meeting me when he was in Kindergarten was a Watermark moment because now 8 years later we get to talk about cool things and sometimes play Pokemon.
  3. The work we do is important but it needs time to rise. It is like baking a cake or bread or whatever analogy that you are not suppose to open the oven too early. We start with all these awesome ingredients and we mix them all together and we put it in the oven and then we wait. The baking process with my 9s has been 3 years for many. We grow together but I almost opened the oven too early. Too much too soon was day one. Day four was a seating plan threat and day 6 was a meeting with parents to figure out what to do next. More time was what we decided was needed, to figure things out and day 7 was today and it was better than ok.

It is hard to imagine that we are only 19 days into September. I need to pump the brakes a bit in a few areas and let it go in others. Teaching is all about learning and we are doing a lot of that in Room 157 this year.

Notice and Note and the First Full Week

It is no secret to anyone that reads my blog, I am a huge fan of Notice and Note. I am a fan of the conversations and realizations my students have as they are reading with purpose. I have been incredibly blessed as an educator to have many of my student for 3 years now. This week I was so excited to jump right in to Notice and Note. I was reading our read aloud Patron Saints of Nothing and students in class where jumping right in to things, writing in their journals as I asked what they were hearing as I read kids where mentioning the Contrast and Contradictions they were seeing in the family dynamic and writing about it. That is when I noticed another student, new to the class, was pretty confused. In a moment of completed error I had neglected to work through some review/introduction with those less familiar. In the excitement that I had 20+ students from last year and all the awesome we were going to showcase as we looked at texts I jumped the gun.

The next day I decided to review with all my classes. The 7s have generally been following the brilliance of the text book and examples of how to teach the signposts. I am venturing into some new territory using other texts this year with my 8s and 9s. To spice it up a bit but also to stretch my own thinking and learning. We are moving through the signposts faster in my 8th and 9th grade classes as it is more a review. For Contrast and Contradiction I used the first chapter of Nightbooks by J.A White. It is a fantastically creepy chapter that had my students engaged and before I walked back to my desk the book was in a students hand to continue reading. The Contrast and Contradictions were clear and my students were able to use them to predict what was going to happen next. A great example of the signpost and how to follow through with the anchor question.

We covered Aha moments, Tough Questions and Again and Again with different picture books. Mr. Nogginbody Gets a Hammer is hilarious I had a room of 15 year olds reading along and the Aha Moment is so easy to identify and after we paused and reflected on the theme. It was easy, fun and everyone could accomplish the task. I followed up with Each Kindness and this was one of my favourite moments of the week. I told the class I wanted them thinking about Aha moments but also Contrast and Contradiction. As I mentioned earlier the inspiration to return to the start was because of visible frustration with the unknown some had having never experienced Notice and Note (I would like to visit with their past teachers), today as we finished the beautiful story of each kindness my students all wrote. I could see the newest member of Room 157 wanted to share but they were hesitant. The idea that wrong no longer exist and that discussion around reading in Room 157 is about sharing ideas is hard to overcome. But she did and identified what she thought was a contrast and contradiction as Chloe and her classmates are mean to the newly arrived Maya, she expected as a new student herself for the kids to first be kind. We then had a great conversation about how this CC lead to an Aha moment later for the character and how these simple pieces of evidence helped us determine both the theme and conflict and provide support from the text.

In the past I have always saved the story I am Not a Number for Tough Questions but also for Orange Shirt day which honours the survivors and remembers the thousands of First Nations students lost to the abuses and harsh conditions of Residential School. This year I decided to use this haunting story for both Tough Questions and Again and Again. Students listened and wrote respectfully and our class conversation was rich as students discussed the contrast and contradiction in the fact that a church, something they have been raised to see as good, inflicted so much harm and how that CC helped them to discuss the text in a more meaningful way looking at racism and inhumane treatment of the innocent children kidnapped and forced to attend these schools.

I took a break from the picture books and had my students look at the short story Raymonds Run. We are still early in the annotative process and I need to model it more and share my thinking but below are some of our examples.

The first full week of school was filled with reading and reflecting and a little writing. Notice and Note is a tool to increase that reflection and dialogue. I love it for that purpose. I am hoping to help my students dive deep into their books as Kylene says and only coming up for air before diving back in.

This year the goal is not to just Notice and Note but to expand and write on a more purposeful level about the things we find. We are looking at texts that do not reflect our lives to better learn about the world. The signposts will come in handy to help us navigate those new ideas.

Welcome to Room 157

The Year Begins Tomorrow

Standing beside the river catching toadlets with my nieces and nephews I couldn’t help but take a moment and just appreciate the small things. It has been an amazingly relaxing summer. Julie and I have read a ton of books, enjoyed the river, took part in some learning experiences and generally recharged. Tomorrow I start my 10th year teaching and she starts her first as a Principal and I could not be more proud or excited for her. I am excited for what the new year brings and wanted to take a moment to talk to all those who will be joining me in Room 157 this year.

I am excited for great books that push us to explore ourselves and the world around us. I am excited for opportunities to write and grow together. I am excited to meet new students and SO EXCITED for my returning ones. I will miss those who I do not get to teach this year but the door is always open.

I want to create a community. It is why we are Room 157. We will celebrate our successes and lift each other up when we struggle. We will talk about what we are all doing, share our writing and our books. In the past students have shared they do not feel seen in our school. I want Room 157 to be a place about so much more than that. Let’s celebrate our stories. This year in all of our classes the stories will be our focus because in the end that is Language Arts. The reading, writing and sharing of stories. To help us grow and see the world in different ways. Like Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop says, books should be mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. I hope that Room 157 can be the place stories become that for my kids.

I hope the kids are ready because I am.

Here we go

Saturday morning and I find myself in my room trying to get things ready. I have struggled with that term “ready”. I don’t know why this year feels different but it does. Maybe it is wanting to try new things and the fear that comes from that. I am excited to get started but more nervous this year than I have been in the past.

The structure will remain the same. We Read, We Write, We Talk, We Grow. As Pernille Ripp said, Our students don’t need us to be perfect. They just need to know we care and are there to support them. I need to hold on to that as my first run in with imposter syndrome seems to be coming in waves.

Year 10 and on we grow.

Grade 7, 8 and 9 Read Aloud Choices to start the year
Room 157 so far
My favourite bulletin board ever

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.