Friday, June 30, 2017

Twitter for Education: How Tweeting and My PLN Have Inspired Me

In 2011, I caved to millennial pressure and signed up for a Twitter account. During the first two years that I had my very own handle, I only occasionally scrolled through the feed but remained tentative to post anything. I followed a few close friends and was unsure of how to access content that applied to my purposes for using and creating a Twitter account in the first place. Initially, I did not know how to search hashtags for key information or filter through the chaos. Overwhelmed and inefficient at utilizing this social media platform, I rarely gave it a glance.

Approximately two years after my inaugural tweet, a friend from work began sharing her experiences with #sschat and the personal learning network that she formed not only locally but around the country. The ideas she gained, and in turn, shared out were motivating and inspiring her to take on some neat challenges in her classroom. From technology tools to teaching strategies, discipline-specific content to interdisciplinary studies, the information she acquired from the other passionate and innovative teachers she connected with on this platform was incredibly valuable to my friend and the students at our school. After several conversations about how much she was learning and gaining from this experience, I decided that I relinquish an hour into exploring Twitter's potential. Even though I am an English teacher, I was invited to meet my friend and another social studies teacher for a coffee and Twitter chat date.

Upon arrival, I found myself slightly intimidated by the onslaught of devices that filled the table. From computers to tablets to cell phones, it seemed that my two colleagues were able to navigate multiple screens to quickly engage in the fast-paced frenzy that is a Twitter chat on a Monday evening. Abbreviations, hashtags, and edu-lingo allowed them to express meaningful ideas and contribute significantly to a conversation to which I could barely keep pace. Rules such as "Include an A1, A2, Or A3 before responding" and "Don't forget to use the hashtag" were being directed at me. Certainly, my novice nature was showing.

After my first chat, I was in awe at how open and encouraging people were. Teachers were sharing links to favorite resources, their curriculum, blogs, and teaching strategies that they found helpful and spent a great deal of their time curating. The openness of the teachers participating in this PLN was impressive and encouraging. The willingness that this PLN embraced to take risks and attempt lesson plans that may or may not yield favorable results brought me back to the Twitter-verse several times over. Because of Twitter and the members of my PLN, I read more and been exposed to incredible and innovative ideas that encourage me to continue to hone my craft.  I have been inspired by people who care deeply about their students and are constantly challenging themselves to learn more. By reading tweets from educators from all over the country, I view curriculum, read articles, and access resources that I would never have seen without this platform. Most importantly, I am continually encouraged after the both the best and toughest of teaching days.

I am grateful to so many educators that I have never met face-to-face because they have supported and renewed my passion for teaching countless times. Their passion, generosity, and endless curiosity have no doubt made me a better teacher, a more versed individual in current trends and techniques, and taught me how to utilize technology effectively and meaningfully in my classroom. 

What's neat is that it's never too late to jump on the Twitter bandwagon. What advice would I give to a person who, like me, initially had no clue as to how to tap into the amazing resources and individuals connected through Twitter? Here are a few tips:

1. Find a Personal Learning Network (PLN) 

Start searching through the hashtags! Explore a few hashtags that most relate to your content and interests. Signup for Tweetdeck, which allows you to view multiple hashtags at the same time in separate, easy to navigate columns. Jump into conversations and ask questions using the hashtags to help people filter through the noise and find you. Look also for the scheduled chats that occur weekly or monthly.

2. Log in with Some Consistency

Resources, articles, and ideas are being shared at a rapid rate. While not every person can consistently log in and engage in a chat each week, make sure you're opening the app on your phone in a free moment. Browse and scroll a few times a week, even for a short time period. You're guaranteed to find at least one tweet with an interesting article linked, a TED talk to inspire, or a quote to invoke reflection.

3. Don't Just Lurk - Post!

Many people will search familiar hashtags or communities, which is fantastic. Challenge yourself by putting your best ideas and resources forward. Share what's inspiring you! You never know who might view it, respond to you, or share it out to be seen by someone who needs to hear what you have to say. Never doubt your talents, creativity, and the ideas you have to share. I was so scared to engage in my earlier teaching career and doubted my thoughts and perspectives. While I am still always learning and growing, I have come to realize that challenging myself to share my ideas has given me more confidence and encouraged more growth than if I stayed silent.

4. Favorite and Find Meaningful Content

Twitter feeds and Twitter chats move at a rapid pace. When you're on the move or locked into a chat, it can be difficult to process every great resource or idea sent your way. Save great ideas for a time when you can quietly reflect and devote time to exploring further. The best tweets are great to share and retweet later, too!

5. Form Relationships

Especially for people who participate in a Twitter chat consistently, do not be afraid to build relationships. Share your ideas and compliment those ideas that inspire you. Do not hesitate to reach out to people and attribute credit where it is due! When you attend conferences or regional events, do not hesitate to meet up with people face-to-face. We're all equally nerdy and passionate about education. Besides, you do not want to be that person eating alone at an EdCamp anyway!

Reflecting on my Twitter experience is certainly long overdue. I truly am so grateful to the people in my PLN for inspiring me and challenging me to be a better educator on a daily basis. I cannot think of a better professional development experience than Twitter. Tweeting and using Twitter for educational purposes has been a tailored experience that allows me to forge meaningful connections on my own time. I cannot recommend using it enough! If you're interested in reading up on the Twitter chat I help organize, #engsschat, please check out the archives here: 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

New Courses Lead To New Opportunities

This fall, my husband and I are expecting our third (and final) child. In October/November, our children will be turning three, two, and newborn. The closeness in age between my two daughters has been such a blessing to our family, and we are beyond excited to be adding the"epic conclusion" to our trilogy. Organized chaos is the only term that seems appropriate to describe both our personal and professional lives which have melded into one, and we sincerely embrace the pandemonium that we have created. Teaching during the day while co-coaching and co-parenting after school with two small children in our arms have only made my family stronger - physically (holding children for prolonged periods of time has a way of toning the triceps) and emotionally. Of course the pace our lives move at is brisk, but as a teacher, I had already become accustomed to fatigue long before babies entered my world. Chomping on Cheerios with the little ones in between critiquing the elocutionary shenanigans of my "big kids" fill my afternoons seven months of the year.

To assist me in finding some work-life balance, my course load has taken on a routine over the past few school years. Teaching familiar courses and collaborating with teams that have seen little alteration, has allowed me to continue functioning. This coming school year, however, I will take on a course I have yet to teach in my instructional career and will be teaming up with new faces. Change is often regarded as a challenge, and it certainly is, but aside from the time required to make any small deviation from the norm successful, I am eager to open a fresh page and tackle uncharted territory.

What I find rejuvenating about the opportunity to pursue courses I have yet to teach is the opportunity to explore texts that I have not visited since my high school days, engage in conversations about literary devices and character development with adults and students alike, and the task of crafting lessons that focus on students current needs and perspectives. Situations, resources, and events alter so quickly in our world that the prospect of developing curriculum at this moment to reflect the present time is exciting. The taxing part, however, is beginning. Like a young person who sits at a blank Google Doc contemplating how to start a literary analysis, I found myself at the end of this past school year, overwhelmed with where to begin. Pacing a course is always a concern of mine. Wanting to stimulate and stretch students' abilities in a manner that is rigorous but also promotes a strong sense of academic curiosity is no easy feat. Cognitive dissonance is valuable but can also deter a desire to learn. So where to begin?

1. Start with the Skills

Initially, I sat down at my keyboard and brainstormed a list of skills students need to master before moving forward. Promoting literacy skills - the ability to read, write, speak, and listen - is essential. Students need to be utilizing and applying these skills each day and need to be taught to value how interconnected they are. Not only do literacy skills matter in an English classroom, but they also matter in all academic areas not to mention their daily lives. Finding ways to hone these skills is essential no matter the curriculum or content being presented. Examining the curriculum map and required skills that have been crafted by divisional leaders and course curriculum designers is also essential. The more coherent and collaborative level-based teachers are, the more continuity can be created for our students. Learning is a staircase and helping students take the appropriate steps and relying on the knowledge they have been previously taught only enhances their ability to succeed and grow.

2. Establish a Theme and Vision for the Course

After exploring the curriculum map, talking with colleagues, and reflecting on the essential learning targets, I wanted to find a way to create cohesion in the content that I will be included. While some predetermined texts have already been selected for me, I do have some freedom to select shorter works, nonfiction articles, and a second novel to incorporate into my new course. Determining a theme and reflecting on my own experiences with students, I began scouring the Internet to find pieces to pair with Catcher in the Rye that will pique students' interest and allow them to discover nuances and make richer connections between their reading and their lives. As I began to reflect on the cynicism of Holden Caufield which is used as a device to mask his sensitivity and attempts to cope with life challenges, I began to realize that our experiences significantly impact our perceptions. While Holden can be labeled as jaded or spoiled, he's lost and struggling to cope with the situations that life has presented to him, much like many teens who are searching for a better understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. In addition to critical academic skills that will help a student succeed in a classroom setting, I want to cultivate empathy in my students. This coming semester, I will teach to the American Dream while also encouraging students to examine their communities, to reflect upon how their actions and choices impact others, and to seek out ways in which they can make a positive mark on the people they encounter every day. To instill these ideas, I crafted a list of "life challenges" that I will present my students with each week. Each week, students will be asked to give three arbitrarily selected compliments to people they would not normally speak with or give a gift (even a homemade token or item from a vending machine) to someone who appears to need a bit of encouragement, or some small task like this. Each Friday, I intended to have students blog about their experience and what they have learned. Hopefully, these modest but intentional tasks will allow them to think deeply about their roles in the lives of others and reflect on what that means for us as readers of literature, writers, and communicators.

3. Dive into the Curriculum

Strong teachers are perpetual learners. This summer, I am tackling a reading list that not only contains the texts I will be teaching in the fall but also reading a selection of texts that will help me live out the themes I hope to teach my students. Personally, I love nonfiction and motivational books. I love reading books on personal growth and perspectives on how to view the world. One of my favorite reads from last summer was Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't by James C. Collins. This summer, my favorite nonfiction read has been 59 Seconds: Persuasion: Think A Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wisemen, highlight different methods that people can apply during communicative experiences to win over audiences, and make a substantial impact on those we meet. Many of these strategies are discussed in speech courses and could be considered common sense, but so often we learn these lessons through communication mishaps and failures. While I read this book, I slowed my reading pace down to take notes and consider how the persuasive techniques and strategies that I was being presented to me could be incorporated into my course. I attempted to make connections to how Holden and many teens simply do not understand how to present themselves, how to express their ideas, and engage in self-disclosure as a means of positively fostering relationships. I am excited to utilize some of the anecdotes and examples from this text to my students and even suggest it as a free reading choice during the I-Search project my students will complete at the end of the year.

4. Create a Tentative Plan and Leave Room for Deviation

During the middle of this semester, I am anticipating a maternity leave. While I am not due until the very end of October and could be gone for the last six weeks of the semester (which I am sure would make my sub's job easier), my last daughter decided to arrive early - a whole month early. With a history of expeditious punctuality and a few warnings from my doctor, I have a feeling that this child will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Considering my life situation and the fact that I am a planner (to a slightly neurotic degree), I have begun to map out a detailed daily schedule. This level of preparation is not necessary, but it provides me with peace of mind. Having some semblance of a schedule, with an estimation of unit lengths, is essential and also bolsters both synergy and cohesion of skills throughout the semester. Themes and connections are also easier for teachers and students alike when a general calendar is laid out ahead of time. Developing this type of schedule also allows for backward mapping, which is helpful when attempting to develop authentic assessments that measure student growth and progress accurately. One token that I have learned from my impulse to over-prepare is to always build in additional time. Whether a project needs to be extended or simply a discussion warrants the need for further exploration, having extra time allows a teacher to differentiate instruction and gear curriculum to the individual students enrolled in any given course. Being flexible enough to take the time to thoroughly revisit a skill or delve into an activity is so critical for student learning and development.

5. Don't Forget the Fun

Learning requires work! Honing skills, writing, and reading a text might not always be students' favorite experience. That is okay. But when we allow them to demonstrate knowledge in different ways, utilize various tools (that involve technology and more traditional approaches), and vary our class period structure keep learning fun. When we carefully relate content to the present day, incorporate multimedia, and find ways to make learning more student-centered, the careful thought that is required pays off. By instilling our passion and personality into lesson planning, we can only enhance our students' experiences and their overall perception of the course. In a learning environment that leans into fun, students are far more likely to be successful and grow not only as students but also individuals.

I can't wait to see what this fall brings. New experiences both in the classroom and beyond can only lead to wonderful discoveries.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Teaching Reading: Opening the Cover to a World Full of Possibilities

Reading is an activity that many people enjoy later in life. Even my husband as a child would never have considered reading for any reason beyond being forced to for school until he graduated college and started taking a train to work. This sentiment is a common caveat among adults. When speaking with current high school students about whether they choose to read, the response I receive is either a chuckle or an exasperated reply, "With what time?" In the ever increasing treadmill-paced trot that too many of us, adults and youth alike, find ourselves trapped within either because of the current societal expectations or our natural intuition to overcommit, numerous young people (and adults too) often find themselves unable to sit still long enough to engage in this sustained and solitary activity.

Every summer for the past five years, I have had the opportunity to dive into reading with a group of my district's incoming freshmen students. Bright eyed and eager to start school, they often reluctantly come to this particular class because of the preconceived notion that they are enrolled in this class because they did poorly on a placement test, or they simply are not skilled enough to read on their own without support. Their self-efficacy is lower than their peers, and the level of discouragement in their eyes is apparent as they enter the uncharted territories of high school. While the curriculum does require direct instruction with fundamental reading strategies such as summarizing, evaluating, predicting, and inferring, the conversations and connections that can be made during this time to a wide variety of nonfiction and fiction texts provides students with keys that can unlock not only their academic success in their freshman year but also a new perspective on who they are as readers and consumers of diverse literary genres.

This summer, my focus has been placed on the question, "Why do we read?" and "How can we make reading more fun?" The conversations and reflections that my students have generated this year have impressed me immensely. Candidly and honestly, these students have truthful discussed why they do not read and have come to discover that reading is so much more than skimming the pages of the novel they have been assigned in their language arts classes. Reading is a skill, a habit, and a way to communicate with the world. The act of evaluating and deconstructing a text allows us to gain more information that can be used in conversation, to make decisions, and to understand more about ourselves.

Students read much more than they initially recognize. They are constantly latched to their devices like leeches - attempting to devour whatever social media post or notification comes their way. They read online. Even if the articles lack credibility or what many might deem quality content, students (and countless adults) find themselves caught by a catchy title and topics that pique their interest. As our conversations have divulged this summer session into the reasons and motivations for reading, I have attempted to steer our conversation toward nonfiction - toward articles that continue to rouse their curiosity and the types of literature they are far more likely to consume on a regular basis. From sources such as the New York Times Learning Network, Center for Urban Education resource bank from DePaul University, Kelly Gallagher's Article of the Week, Newsela, and Jamestown Reader articles, I have sought to encourage students to recognize what they can learn when they have the patience to search for a text that truly interests, engages, and relates to them. In addition to exposing students to texts, they may naturally encounter online, developing a familiarity with nonfiction reading skills will benefit them in school and on standardized tests. This type of nonfiction reading will also allow them to develop a richer understanding of the world in which they live. While I do love the Abraham Lincoln Books, which are often filled with young adult novels that students often love, I want to encourage my students to access all types of texts. I want them to understand and recognize how much they are consuming online and have resources to which they can turn for credible, high caliber articles if they so choose to explore a particular topic that sparks their curiosity. 

Regardless of age or educational experience, reading has the power to unite us. The more versed in literary content and familiar a person is with the skills required to access knowledge from texts, the more he or she can make informed, educated choices. Reading does not have to necessarily be a top priority or a favorite hobby (a fact I am trying to instill in my students), but it can be viewed as an enjoyable and empowering tool from which a person can gain vast amounts of information from and even an activity a person chooses to do in whatever free time he or she can muster out of life. Will they enjoy everything they read? Absolutely not. Can they gain the confidence and skills to make reading a meaningful part of their daily lives for a variety of purposes? Of course.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bare Walls and Empty Classrooms; Fresh Starts and New Beginnings

Note: This post was written in the final days of school. It's taken me a little time to fully reflect on the year and catch my breath from the whirlwind that was the end of this year and the onset of summer.

Summer has finally crept its way into the halls of my high school. Graduation whipped past me like the cardboard caps flying high into the air while the remaining students are completing day two of final exams. The reality of a summer break has officially hit me. This year, my classroom is completely packed in boxes as I will be making my way to the hallway over into a new classroom. Next year brings different preps than I have taught in the past and will also mark my tenth year teaching. While familiar faces will file through the halls again, the feelings that a new era is about to begin has struck me more significantly than prior years.

This newness and sense of excitement mean the potential for meaningful experiences and memories to be made. Fresh paint will be plastered to the cinder block walls and metallic rafters. I have a larger space to be filled with furniture I do not yet possess and actual bullet boards to decorate. Aside from the physical change of location, I am excited to spend time this summer reading a stack of books that have long been piled up on my shelf, spend time with my family, and regather my thoughts as countless educators do during the weeks of summer.

Looking at the walls that were once lined with posters, I realize that a classroom is more than a space for students to learn - more than just a location in which information is presented, and projects are completed. A classroom is a home - a place where young people learn more than just how to write a claim statement or solve a mathematical formula. The best moments of my first decade of teaching are not the moments in which I finally learned how to teach writing introductions effectively or crafted an annotating lesson that reached even the most struggling sophomore readers. No, the moments that I will hold onto for the next chapter in my career are the ones in which I saw a fearful freshman overcome his speech anxiety and work on perfecting a performance to the best of his ability at painstaking costs; the time I witnessed students realize that what was of the greatest importance was not the grade or accolades that come from producing quality work but the memories and lessons that were learned to achieve those rewards; and the countless times where I saw young people being kind souls to one another, great friends, and supportive shoulders for their peers. These moments all happened in this tiny classroom that I've called my home away from home for the last decade.

We will never fully realize the impact we have - the words that are internalized, the takeaways that students will carry with them past their formative years. We will never fully understand how difficult lessons, both academic and life-based, can teach resilience, foster creativity, and inspire young people to become content, productive, and successful adults. While every once in awhile, we are fortunate enough to get a Facebook message, stumble across a social media post of a former student, or even run into a parent at the grocery store and hear about the great accomplishments that our students have earned, too often we do not witness the next phase, but the possibilities that they have before them continue to inspire me to make my classroom and their high school experiences as much as a safe and homelike space as possible.

And while Thomas Wolfe states in the novel Look Homeward, Angel, that "you can never go home again..." I believe that a person always takes just a little bit of home with them wherever they choose to travel. So as I close my door to C19 for the summer and come back to a new classroom to call my own - a fresh place to forge new memories and inspire young people - I am grateful for the lessons my students have taught me during the formative years of my teaching experience. Here's to new possibilities, new paint, and the next set of adventures to be had.

Tweets by @Steph_SMac