The importance of new teachers learning from seasoned veterans

I’m currently in the midst of my 7th year of teaching, and as we move into a new year, I’ve been reflecting on my education career thus far. I cannot believe how much I have grown as a teacher since my first year; honestly, I wouldn’t even recognize that guy if I were able to go back in time and sit in on one of my earlier classes. My classroom management skills would have been cringeworthy and hard to stomach (full disclosure: I don’t recall going over my expectations at the start of the year with my first class). I’m positive that the units and lessons that my students experienced were somewhat disjointed, even though they most certainly were put together with the best of intentions. The way I taught writing back then – both argument and narrative – looks absolutely nothing like how I teach it now (thankfully).

Quite simply, I’ve improved. I’ve been a reflective educator for seven years now, and it’s definitely paying off. I’ve taken well-researched and effective pedagogical strategies from countless professional learning opportunities as well as social media and implemented them into my classroom. My students today are getting far better reading and writing instruction and supports today than they were 7 years ago.

I’m also so much better at managing classroom behaviors now it’s not even funny.  During my initial year of teaching middle school, I was blessed to have two veteran colleagues in rooms both next to and across from mine, and I picked their brains daily on how they would have handled scenarios that were surfacing in my class.  We were working in a high-poverty Title I school where being able to manage a classroom was critical to being an effective teacher, and these two women were absolute professionals. For the entire year, I was a sponge soaking up as much as I could from my coworkers, and I am eternally grateful for all they taught me about running an effective lesson. My second year, my classroom was far less chaotic and WAY more learning occurred. By my third year, I was even better.

I know that high-stakes testing can be a nasty word in education, but I do like to look at the growth that my students are making and use it as one piece of data when I’m assessing the job that I am doing.  My first year of middle school was my first year of teaching a grade level that took an end-of-year assessment, and my students experienced a growth percentile of 50, which is smack dab in the middle: 50% of my students outgrew their peers, while 50% did not. These results were pedestrian on my part, and I am by no means proud of them.

However, the next year my growth percentiles were in the 60s. The following year they hovered between 60s and 70s, and then they started to routinely be in the high 60s, 70s and 80s; for multiple years now, the majority of my students have been achieving high-growth on their end-of-year assessments.

I’m not telling you this to toot my own horn; I’m providing this information to prove a point: when I began teaching, I really wasn’t that great, but through a lot of hard work, learning and reflection, I’ve improved a lot as an educator, which makes me more valuable to my students.

Veteran teachers were HUGE contributors to my growth as an educator, and that’s something that not enough new teachers understand. Believe me, I remember going into my first year thinking that I was going to be the one to make learning exciting again. I’d seen the movie “Dangerous Minds”; I was going to be Michelle Pfeiffer. I came into teaching thinking that I knew best how to create a successful learning environment; I saw older teachers as “stuck in their ways” and unable to connect with students.

But now that I’m a veteran teacher, I realize just how wrong I was back then. My absolute favorite part of being a teacher is still unequivocally the relationships that I get to form with all of my various students. Even in year seven, that hasn’t changed one bit. I want all the same things for my students that I did when I was first starting out, but now, I understand how to make those things more accessible to them.

I suppose my reason for writing this reflection is to encourage first-year teachers to find that mentor on the hallway that you can learn from on a daily basis. Notice how teachers in your school interact with students, and find the one that seems to be engaging them positively on a near constant basis, both in the classroom as well as in the hallways. Locate that teacher that has classes that routinely engage in lively, on-topic discussions. Find these people within your school and LEARN from them. Ask them questions as often as you can. I promise it will make you a better educator, which will make you better for your students. The teachers at your school that have been doing this for a while have something that is immeasurable, something that cannot be taught to you in any preservice program, and that is EXPERIENCE.

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Five things I know for sure about most middle school students

In less than a month, I will complete my sixth year of teaching.  The first two of those years were in a 10th grade World Literature classroom, and the last four I have been teaching 7th grade English Language Arts.  When I told my high school colleagues that I would be moving down to middle school, the most common reaction usually involved the phrase “You’re crazy!”  Over the past four years, whenever I tell someone that I teach 7th grade, I’m either told that I’m “brave”, or that they couldn’t imagine being around that many 13-year-olds all day.

I recently listened to Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy podcast titled Eight Things I Know For Sure about (Most) Middle School Kids, and it got me thinking about the little intricacies and idiosyncrasies that I have decoded and come to understand about my students.   I wanted to share these thoughts in an attempt to connect with my fellow middle school teacher brethern, or possibly to provide some insights into this age group for any potential middle school teachers.  Without further adieu, here are some things that I KNOW for sure about middle schoolers:

“I hate your class!”   If you teach in a middle school, then you have invariably heard this phrase either muttered under a student’s breath; or, it’s been hurled right at you with reckless abandon.  As both a teacher and a human, one’s first response is to take offense to such an aggressive statement and jump on the defensive. Let me give you some advice: don’t.  Any kid that has worked up enough moxie to shout out such a brash criticism is clearly dealing with something outside of the class or school that is impacting their emotional stability.  They don’t hate your class; they hate whatever is disrupting their lives at the moment and they don’t know how to confront it, so the easiest way to vent is to target a scapegoat, i.e., your class.  Whenever a student has offered me this review, I typically respond with a quick and semi-genuine “Thank you”, which I have found usually diffuses the situation (diffusing situations is a major part of being a middle school teacher).

“This class is boring.”  If a kid says this to you, then take it as a badge of honor; I know I do.  Any student who tells you that your class is boring is not actually referring to the lessons and content of the class; what they really mean is that in your class they don’t get to talk off topic and joke around with their friends any time they please. Also, they’re not allowed to leave their seat whenever the moment strikes them.  “This class is boring” is code for “You have solid classroom management skills”, and you will usually only hear it from students that historically are more likely to push the boundaries of the classroom expectations.  I have students that are completely wrapped up in the independent reading books that they are reading in my class, so much so that they will take them into the halls with them when we take restroom breaks, and yes, these same students have told me that my class is boring.  Once again, don’t take anything a middle schooler says personally.

They need to move some during class.  My favorite professional learning sessions are always the ones that tend to be more interactive.  I’m not nearly as engaged in an hour long session in which I’m in my seat for the entire 60 minutes, and our students aren’t either.  Middle school students are like overgrown elementary kids with bodies that are growing and surging with hormones.  The boys literally cannot be still for extended periods of time.  Plan for 5 to 8 minutes of  class time that will allow the kids to be free of their chairs so that they can stretch out and move about.  I’ve been known to hold “Rocks, Paper, Scissors” tournaments after our independent reading time as a way to get the kids’ blood pumping again before we move on to our next activity.  These tournaments last for 2 to 3 minutes, and they serve as excellent brain breaks for these kids.  Another strategy I’ve used a lot this year to get my students out of their chairs is at the end of the class, I have everyone stand up with their composition notebooks.  I then play a song on the overhead, and they can walk, dance or slink about the room.  When the music stops, they share one of their responses to something that they read during our work session.  When the music starts again, they move, and when it stops, they share again.  My kids absolutely love closing out class this way, and some of my toughest kids will be dancing their hearts out to Justin Beiber between sharing sessions.

Don’t take anything they say personally.  Remember earlier in this post when I encouraged you not to take things personally?  Yeah, that’s kind of a biggie if you want to survive in a middle school atmosphere.  You see, these students’ brains are not fully formed, so they do not yet have the development that allows them to control some their impulses.  The result: they can say some rather rude things to each other and to you.  I just try to reteach and dialogue with them when they same something offensive.  I’ve had huge success from just asking them to put themselves in my shoes and consider how I felt about whatever they said.  It’s amazing how giving them a little perspective can help them understand the power of their words and actions.  If you’re having a tough day or you don’t have time to explain to a middle schooler why they shouldn’t say how amazed they are by how old YOU ARE, just give them a quick “Thank you” and move on.

Use a lot of self-deprecating humor.  Middle school students are the fragilest of fragile.  They have zero tolerance for commentary on their appearance or intelligence.  This is why they can be so quick to make fun of others at this age.  But you know what will really get them eating out of the palm of your hands?  Make fun of yourself!  I do it all the time.  I routinely act like I’ve never heard of wildly popular rap songs in front of my kids, even though I probably listened to said song 10 minutes earlier on the drive into work.  They love it!  There’s something about being lame while not knowing you’re lame that they find hilarious.  Last year, I pretended in front of a class that I thought when they said something was “lit” that they were commenting on the lighting in the room.  The laughter from my class could be heard from across the hall.  However, my relationships with those kids grew tremendously because they would take any free moment to try to teach me things that they felt I must know regarding slang and pop culture.  I became sort of a project for them, and they entered my class with a positive attitude and ready to learn.

Fellow middle school teachers – what are some things that you know for sure about middle schoolers?

 

All students need to read diverse books

“I’d never read a book on my own before this year. I didn’t really like reading. I just finished my 4th book of the year in Mr. Smith’s class, and I kinda like reading now.”

-one of my second period students speaking to another teacher on my hall

A culture of choice independent reading is ingrained into my classroom, from the extensive library of books on my shelves to the daily book talks that my students and I give to one another.  Students in my class get the first 10 minutes of every class to read from a book of their own choosing, and long story short, they read A TON more over the course of the year than their peers in neighboring classrooms.

I work in a Title I public school in which nearly 90% of the student population is either African-American or Latino, so my classroom library primarily contains books with authors and characters that look like my students.  My kids deserve to see themselves in the texts that they read.  My first period reading support class is currently reading All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a book that deals with the social injustices that exist for African-Americans in their interactions with law enforcement. My Language Arts classes are currently reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers, a novel that examines the prejudices that remain in the justice system and how that system works against people of color. I supplement these books with informational articles about relevant issues and people: Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Stefon Clark, etc.

I have various students that are reading or have read The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  I’ve read these books as well and held small group discussions with my students that have enjoyed them, too.  These books deal with uncomfortable topics like white privilege and police brutality.  We talk about these things. I acknowledge to my students that I understand the number of benefits I enjoy in this country simply because I am a white man.  We lament how unfair that is and we talk about ways that we can make meaningful changes in regards to these shortcomings in our society.

My girlfriend teaches History at the elite private school in our town, and recently she learned that the 9th graders at her school were reading both The Hate U Give and Dear Martin.  Over 80% of her school is comprised of affluent white students, and that’s exactly who needs to be reading THESE books.  When my students read those aforementioned texts, they get angry and frustrated, probably because many of the issues in the books are realities for them and their families.  However, for these private school students, reading a book from the perspective of an African-American female teenager (The Hate U Give) is most likely a point of view that they have never considered.  Trying to understand what it’s like to be discriminated against for no reason other than the color of a person’s skin (Dear Martin) is a situation that your average white private schooler has not encountered before.

The fact that the students at my girlfriend’s school are reading these books is uplifting.  It gives me hope for the future. It makes me want to get these types of books in the hands of white high school students across the country as quickly as possible so that they can see and feel what it’s like to be a marginalized person in this country.  If we want to continuing progressing on Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe towards justice, then we must have discussions about social injustices in every school, and not just in the ones in which the students doing the talking are also members of the oppressed group.

Experimenting with restorative justice

While my students were working in small groups on Thursday, two students in nearby groups got into a verbal altercation that sounded like it was getting heated quickly.  One of the students escalated things by telling the other student that he would “beat his ass”.

The first-year teacher version of myself would most likely not have known how to handle this situation, if for anything other than lack of experience. I might have acted like I didn’t hear what was said and moved closer to the students; or, I may have given both a verbal warning and left it at that.

The second-year teacher version of myself most likely would have removed the student that cursed from class immediately to quell the situation.  I probably wouldn’t have engaged in a dialogue with the punished student other than telling him which room he needed to go to in order to complete his assignment.

I will be done with my sixth year of teaching in a little over a month, and here is how I handled this particular situation:

I had both boys stop working and come into the hall with me.  I began by asking Gabriel, who was on the receiving end of the cursing, to explain to me what he said that got Phillip (the one who made the threat) so riled up.  He told me that he was joking around with another boy at Phillip’s table, and that he didn’t mean any harm by it. I pointed out to Gabriel that Phillip was clearly upset by what he had said.  Gabriel acknowledged the same and apologized to Phillip.

I then turned to Phillip and explained to him that his aggressive tone probably put Gabriel on the defensive.  Phillip agreed and promptly apologized to his classmate.  By the time I sent each of them back into class to finish working, they were both smiling (aside: I did tell Phillip before he re-entered class that the next time he curses like that I will be writing an office referral).  Crisis averted.

As I walked back into the room, I was visibly on cloud nine.  I have been listening to multiple podcasts lately dealing with restorative justice in schools, and I realized that I had just implemented a form of it in the hallway outside my classroom. By simply getting each student to consider the perspective of the other student, I facilitated an interaction between them that resulted in them calming down and squashing whatever beef had sprouted between them. Not only that, but each of them was able to save face in front of their classmates since the conversation occurred outside the room, and my relationship with each student instantly became a tiny bit stronger.

I’ve been trying to incorporate more meaningful socioemotional development into the lives of the students that I teach this year by getting them to consider the point of view of the people around them as well as how their actions might be impacting others.  Last week, it was my turn on the 7th grade hallway to host “silent lunch”, a punishment for students that continue to not meet classroom expectations after multiple warnings.  In the past, when I’ve had silent lunch in my room, I spread the 5 or 6 students out around the room and watched them like a hawk for the full 20 minutes.  If a student talked or made a disturbance, I would add another day of silent lunch.  However, the same students continued to be in silent lunch for the entire year, which means (A) it wasn’t a very effective consequence, and (B) the students weren’t learning anything to help them improve their behavior.

I decided to mix things up a bit last week in silent lunch.  I had all 6 students each day sit at the big table at the front of my room so that we could eat our lunch together, like a family.  I started off by asking each kid their favorite color and then their favorite desert in an attempt to discover what commonalities we shared. Then I moved onto the tougher questions: why are you here? Who was involved in your incident? How do you think they felt during the incident?  What can you do to improve if this incident potentially comes up again?

In short, the kids were confused, mainly because I wasn’t making them be silent. Also, I think they thought that I was looking to use the questions to corner them into a “gotcha” moment.  However, once they realized that we were more or less just analyzing each of their particular situations, they really opened up and responded honestly.  Will all of these kids stay out of silent lunch for the final 6 weeks of school?  Probably not.  However, I’m certain that they are now more conscious of the fact that their actions do impact others after considering the perspectives of the teachers and students involved in their episodes.

A teacher with 29 years of experience told me during my first year of teaching that teachers get 50% better at classroom management every year, and while I cannot prove it quantitatively, I kind of think he’s right.  As a Language Arts teacher, I’m constantly imploring my students to ponder the various perspectives of the characters in the books that we read; I’m just now learning that the same strategy can be used when reteaching expectations to our students as well.

Getting students talking more about what they are reading

I struggle to get all of my classes engaged in discussions that are centered around the novels that we read in class. Some classes are more chatty than others. Within those classes, the same group of kids regularly provide responses to the questions that I ask while we read. Talking about what we read is powerful. It helps us gain a deeper comprehension of the text while also providing us with other perspectives concerning the issues within the book. I need to get all of my students talking about what they read as they read so that they become better readers, even the shy ones.  Plus, it makes reading a lot more fun when it’s a shared experience!

I found this gem on Pinterest this week:

partner read questions

I put it up on the overhead and modeled for students how to use the prompts after we finished a page during our read aloud.  After I read another page, multiple hands shot up.  By the time we completed our third page, more than half of my students had a comment using one of the prompts listed on the chart.  And this was in my 1st period reading class, which is comprised of students who need additional reading support because they are still comprehending below grade level.  I was blown away by how much the level of engagement in our class discussion increased simply by giving the kids these prompts to begin their responses with.

When class ended, I immediately made twenty-something copies of the handout and had the media center specialist laminate them.  This is the teacher equivalent to changing a relationship status on Facebook, except in this case it’s taking something paper and giving it a protective plastic coating that will prolong its lifespan.  Let’s examine the parts of this tool and focus on why it’s so perfect for students when reading:

  • I’m thinking“, “I’m noticing“, “I’m wondering” and “I can’t believe” all give students the chance to quickly reflect on what they have just read.
  • This part reminds me of” allows students to connect what they are reading to something from their own lives or the real world.  These types of connections are essential in helping students better understand a text because it improves their ability to make inferences about what the characters are saying and doing simply by having that related background knowledge.
  • This is confusing because” and “Why” might be my favorites because they encourage students to think critically about what they have just read.  They may question a character’s motives or an author’s decision to reveal certain information at this point in the novel.
  • I like this part because” provides students with the practice of making a claim or statement and supporting it with evidence from the text.
  • I think the character is feeling _____ because” forces the students to make inferences based on a character’s actions or words, and they have to support that inference with evidence from the text.
  • I think _____ will happen next” gives students a chance to make predictions as to what they think will happen based upon what they have read thus far. Making predictions is one of the top indicators of an informed and engaged reader.
  • In all honesty, we haven’t gotten to the last square yet, and I don’t have a “retelling bookmark“, so this might remain untouched by my classes.  I can live with that.

The day after our read aloud, I put all of my students in all of my classes in pairs, and I gave each pair a laminated copy of the “Ways we can partner talk” card.  One student would read a page from our novel, and when he or she finished, each kid said something about what they just read using one of the prompts on the card, then the other student read and the process repeated itself again and again.  Just thinking back on these classes has me giddy! I couldn’t believe all of the incredibly rich and wonderful discussions going on around the classroom between all of the different pairs of students.  My euphoria during the moment when the reading and discussing was going on was quickly met with regret that I hadn’t discovered this tool earlier in the year.  There’s always next year, though, and I will definitely be implementing this card into my classes sometime around the first week of school.

 

Making evaluating arguments fun for middle schoolers

Pedagogical highlight of the week:

Last week, we worked on analyzing and evaluating the effectiveness of written arguments.  We discussed what makes an argument strong (facts and evidence), and what weakens an argument (unsupported opinions).  The kids underlined and annotated multiple written arguments, identifying important elements like the author’s claim, thesis, reasons and evidence.  Eventually, my students will begin crafting written arguments of their own, so it’s critical that they be exposed to exemplars so that they have models to draw from when they begin writing.

While highly important, examining written arguments may not be considered the most engaging classwork to the average 13-year-old.  I’m a realist. I know that my students are not jumping out of bed and rushing to school with the hopes that I will have an essay for them to annotate. Most of my students are really into their independent reading books, and they are enjoying our class novel as well.  Argumentative writing is taking time away from both of those activities, which means it has the potential to be met with some resistance.

In an effort to spice things up a bit, I felt like I had to get away from just identifying the key components of an argumentative essay and having the students answer questions about the essays they were reading.  I wanted them to produce something to show me that they understood the validity of the argument.

So I had them create an advertising campaign for an essay that they read about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving.  Here’s how I mapped it out:

  1. They read the essay on their own and underlined the author’s claim and any supporting evidence.
  2. In groups of three, students compared their findings and decided which evidence was the strongest.
  3. We reconvened as a class and discussed the claim of the essay and any relevant evidence or statistics that the author used to strengthen her position.
  4. I showed my students the following anti-smoking advertisements.  We first identified each ad’s claim and the facts that were included as well.  I also asked the kids to notice how the campaign had cleverly used images that were interwoven into the ad’s perspective and supporting evidence.

Anti-smoking_adhqdefault

5. Students were challenged to create an advertisement against cell phone usage while driving, and they had to use information from the Hang Up and Drive essay to help them design their ad.

Here are a few of the more creative finished products:

IMG_5921IMG_5924

Both of these students made the artful decision to put the text evidence inside the phone screen in their advertisement.  I told each student that I thought that their idea could easily be a real ad a magazine.

If time permits, I generally ask students what they think about lessons, especially when I try something new like this.  Overall, the feedback was pretty positive on this one. Most of the students enjoyed the opportunity to produce something other than a standard written response.  I really value the feedback that I get from these quick conversations, and I would definitely encourage teachers to solicit comments from students regarding instruction whenever possible.

This week, my classes will be co-constructing argumentative essays using evidence from an NPR article on school start times.  This will be the first time that I’ve constructed an essay with the entire class, and I’m very curious to see how it plays out.  I’ll have to report back next Sunday with a full analysis of the pros and cons of co-constructing an argumentative essay with 20-something 7th graders at the same time.  What could possibly go wrong, right?

Heart-warming moment of the week:

I have three boys in my 2nd period that have formed a quasi-book club that kind of organically arose from our independent reading time.  First, they all read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  Then they read Solo by Kwame Alexander.  When I took their class to the library this week, I overheard the three of them deciding upon the next book that they would read.  They wanted another book written in poetic form.  They also needed a title with three available copies in the library.  They settled on Nikki Grimes’s Planet Middle School, the coming-of-age story of self-proclaimed tomboy Joylin Johnson and her journey into adolescence and eventually her first crush.  I cannot wait to hear their in-class discussions on this book, and I LOVE that they are reading a book told from the perspective of a female protagonist, since so much of what they have been reading has been told from a male’s point of view.

 

Graphic novels as a gateway to literacy for struggling readers

My principal has fully-supported the choice reading time that I give my students at the beginning of class each day.  In fact, she’s supported it so much that’s she’s asked the 6th and 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) teachers to begin implementing a similar approach to their classrooms as well.  This week, an 8th grade ELA teacher found me at buses after school after her first day of trying this new strategy; in short, she was frustrated.  She relayed that only half the kids read, and she spent the majority of the 10 minutes fighting the other half to read something.  Apparently, if students weren’t interested in a book in her classroom library, they could read a NewsELA article.  Now, I’m a HUGE NewsELA fan.  I regularly use it in my classroom when I want to level the informational texts that we read.  But I’d never force it upon students during independent reading time. Maybe a few would be interested, but I’m guessing not many.

I then suggested that she could offer graphic novels to the reluctant readers.  She looked surprised and stated that she didn’t want her students reading graphic novels because they “weren’t real books”. Yes, she said this.  I briefly tried to explain to her that they could be a good option for a struggling reader, but she disagreed.  Although I wanted to continue this conversation with her, I had to run to get to a meeting that was a 20-minute drive away, so this blog post will have to suffice.

If I didn’t have the meeting, I would have argued vehemently that graphic novels are most certainly books, as much as any other books are books.  My room is filled with graphic novels like American Born Chinese, Awkward, Drama, Sisters, Smile, Persepolis, March, Cardboard, Roller Girl, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  These books examine a host of universal themes: friendship, family, acceptance, equity, determination and persistence.  They contain complex characters that develop and grow throughout the story.  They offer unique perspectives that encourage students to explore varying viewpoints that promote empathy, kindness and relationships.  Graphic novels expose students to story arcs: rising action, climax, conflicts, resolutions.

In addition, graphic novels give struggling readers the boost they need to begin to see themselves as readers.  I’ve had countless struggling readers complete a graphic novel in my class and beam as they tell me it’s the first time they’ve read a book from cover to cover.  That is HUGE. Reading feels far less daunting to a kid when they gain the confidence that comes from knowing they can read a book in its entirety.  I have an English Learner in one of my classes that seems determined to read all 26 volumes of the Dragon Ball Z box set, and I’m all for it.  Those books contain thousands of words.  Why wouldn’t I want him to devour them?

Teachers are always going to have a handful of students that enter their classrooms at the start of the year with an indifference to reading.  It may not be many kids, but inevitably, there will be a few.  I try to get a graphic novel into the hands of these students as soon as possible. Once they complete a graphic novel something inside them clicks.  It almost never fails. Then they read another graphic novel.  And then another.  Guess what eventually happens?  These same students start choosing chapter books that they never would have dreamed of attempting to read when we first met in August.  This happens EVERY SINGLE YEAR.  The graphic novels are a gateway to literacy for students who haven’t had a positive relationship with reading in the past.  They offer these kids an opportunity to realize that they are in fact capable of engaging with a book on a deeper level on their own.

I’m constantly adding to my classroom library. Like many teachers, I probably spend too much money on books. But also like many teachers, I will continue to buy more engaging texts that I think will captivate my students, and I will most certainly continue purchasing graphic novels.