Born Again Teacher

blogger-image--2079890276Last Summer was a born again experience for me. My colleagues jokingly say its because I joined The Writing Project “cult.” But I think that any one who loves teaching has a sort of religious experience with it. Think about it–it’s a daily applied philosophy.  For those who love teaching, our educational world view and its applied methodology is something we do in our classes daily, reflect on in our drives home in the afternoon, improve through reading books by the gurus, plan lessons in the evenings at our dining room tables, and evaluate assessments over the weekend after we’ve tucked our kids into bed or spent some quality time with our spouses or loved ones–and for those who love teaching, this job, this life long decision to teach gives us meaning and purpose in our lives. And so when I say that this summer was like a born again experience for me, I mean it, all joking aside.

There are a few reasons why this summer was so impactful–one, because I learned so much through the lessons of my peers and the experts who had graduated from The Writing Project program. The other, because two personal experiences happened that summer, which only magnified all that I had learned. One, my husband started his chemotherapy for stage 3 thymoma, and two–a colleague of mine died unexpectedly, leaving behind hundreds of mourning teens who had been touched by her spirit and teaching over the years here at Chaparral High School, where we work.

So the first–supporting my husband through the trial of cancer and chemotherapy, ignited in me an extra fire for nurture and love. Life is precious. People are precious. And we all will experience trials that will test our character and define our priorities.

Then when my colleague Pamela Varnam died, I watched student after student mourn, so many coming forward at her funeral and memorial to share how she had been there for them during tough times, encouraged them, taught them, and mentored them. I looked back at the last few years of my own teaching and thought, if I died, would I have left the same legacy with my students. Sadly, I came to the decision that I wouldn’t have. Not the last few years. Over the last few years, I had lost that close connection with my kids. I had entered a valley in my love for teaching students. And I wanted so desperately to climb out.

There are numerous reasons why I had entered a valley, but none of that matters for this post. What matters is that this summer, I decided to change everything. This is the gyst of what changed:

1. Read less in quantity, but spend more time on each reading to boost the quality of analysis and understanding, incorporating more vocabulary, reading strategies, analysis of writing style and rhetoric, along with the message, and offering opportunities to mimic that writing style.

2. Keep literary analysis for the classroom and have homework time spent on activities they could do on their own with minimal guidance from me (Articles of the Week Readings and Responses, independent reading, studying root words and notes, and writing their passion blogs).

3. Add in a Passion Blog Project to my curriculum which offers prompts, mentor texts to model, drafting, peer evaluations, revision time, publication onto blogs, and final teacher evaluation. Additionally, best blog articles are voted on for publication as a guest column in the school newspaper (I set that up with our school newspaper ahead of time to make sure). Blog days were reserved for every Friday. The typical English 11 American Literature curriculum would be reserved for the other 4 days of the week.

4. Fun routines established for each day of the week’s bellwork– Monday is memorization preparation day where kids preview the weeks rootwords with peers and brainstorm example words they already know that include the roots.Then they make flash cards for homework and study them the rest of the week. Tuesday would be Tones of Poetry day, where they start the period by listening or reading a poem or viewing a spoken poem on Youtube–no analysis or discussion. Just appreciate. Wednesday would be Word of the Week Wednesdays–6 minutes of writing on the Word of the Week. Thursdays would be Throwback Thursdays–in which they did a warm up activity that reviewed terms, concepts, or skills learned earlier in the week or the week before. And finally, Flashy Friday–in which they “flashed” their partner with flash cards of the root words they made to see if they memorized those definitions over the week and were prepared for the quiz.

My goal this year was to do a few things–First, to foster in my kids a love for writing which I no longer had in my classroom as all writing had been confined to literary analysis or research. Second, to build a supportive and nurturing environment where I could connect with my kids and have them see me as a mentor and coach rather than an unapproachable hard ass as I felt I had become. And third–through the changes in quantity and quality of literary analysis, writing genre expansion, and classroom environment, I wanted to build skills in my students in such a way that they would actually show an increased proficiency of the standards than I had typically seen in previous years using my previous methodology.

Well guess what? It worked! This year has been an amazing year. One of the best in my entire experience teaching. My students passion blogs have lead me to learn so much about my students and connect with them. They see it as well because I actually respond to their blogs with specific and encouraging comments, much more than I have ever written for typical literary analysis and research writing. Their scores on the grade level common assessments are great–my students are scoring at a higher proficiency than previous years. Student grades have gone up. I have more A’s and B’s this year and less F’s than ever before.  The rubrics have not changed either. Same standards and expectations. Just different approach in getting there.

I have two Collab classes this year, which is our terminology for having a cluster of kids with IEP’s in the class, thus requiring a second special Ed teacher with whom to collaborate. Normally, my teaching methodology did not work well enough for those kids to grasp the concepts and skills I was asking of them. They struggled in my classes. This year, I have students in these clusters saying that for the first time in their life, they understand and like English class. And for the first time in their lives they are getting positive remarks about their writing. And its not inauthentic responses I am writing. Their passion blogs are good! It is amazing what happens when you have students apply skills and concepts from mentor texts to writing topics that they actually care about. I’ve got kids writing on bullying, dirt bike riding, travel, make up, fashion, mechanics, soccer, basketball, health and exercise, you name it. They are writing informational texts, persuasive, expressive, even satires. Next semester, our 11th grade common assessments are focused on fiction and poetry, so I will have my students write more narratives and poetry then.

My two collab teaching aides love what we are doing in our class and how they have seen their students blossom. The teachers in the other grade levels and in my own are asking questions about what we are doing in this classroom as the buzz around campus is spreading, especially when great writing is turning out in the guest column of our school newspaper and is labeled as a blog written in my class. What I like as well, is that I find the curriculum to be equally fulfilling for the students who have higher dreams don't workunless you doskills as well. Most of the Gate kids by 11th grade had moved on to AP Language, but I still have some high-skilled kids who are taking other AP classes and just didn’t take it for English. I find them to be engaged and enjoying the class as well.

I already have ideas on how I’m going to tweak and improve what I have started this semester for next year, so it goes even more smoothly and successfully. In the meantime, I want to stand on the mountain top and share with the world how much I love my students and my job, and how excited I am to be making a difference. And I want to help other teachers who may be in a valley in their own love for teaching and show them how to climb up to the top of not just a hill, but a mountain too.

Here are some of the books that have inspired me!


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Those Amazing Teachable Moments

//www.starbeck.com/images/as_131_smile_mask.jpgIf someone had asked me why I wanted to teach high school students or to teach English, they would not hear me speak about my excitement over creating grammar trees or analyzing the conflict in the plot of a story or determining whether or not Hamlet is insane. I wanted and still want to teach high school students through literature and writing because I want to make a difference in their lives.  Literature and writing was the only avenue that allowed me to get in touch with my emotions in high school and college. High school is a terribly confusing time for most teenagers and many of them, I myself was one of them, couldn’t find solace at home. How much I would have loved to hear from someone willing to talk about the struggles of being a teenager and how they got through it. Someone who truly understood what I was going through and willing to admit some of the things they learned. Someone who could be a good example to me.

Of course, I have long stretches of time in my classes where all I do end up teaching them is how to analyze a character and how to determine whether a word is an adjective or an adverb, but every once in a while, I am blessed with an opportunity to teach my teenagers about life. Sometimes it may be through the theme of a story that everyone is into and I can hear their silence…but a different kind. A silence that screams thought and contemplation instead of boredom or apathy. But even better are those moments before, during, or after school, when I can teach them about something that is affecting them right now.

I had that moment today.

We just finished a unit on Poetry. I love poetry and I loved poetry in high school. But one thing I remember from poetry in high school is that I learned more from the poems that connected to my life than the poems that Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson ever wrote about. Browsing through the curriculum that I was to teach this year, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly we would rush through poetry without ever having students learn how to apply it to their own writing or to have them share poems that make them think or feel something. So I made some adjustments. I required each one of my students to either bring in a poem that they wrote or a poem that someone else wrote, but that they liked. Everyday, someone would read their poem and we would talk about it before jumping into the day’s lesson. I even told them that I wanted this poetry unit to be meaningful to them. And as we studied poetry, I often asked them to think about how they could write poetry using some of the figurative language or techniques that the poets of our curriculum used. I saw many amateur poets excitedly practicing their skills on their college-ruled lined paper that they folded and stuffed into pockets or passed on to friends in the halls.

Today one of my students brought in a poem that she wrote. It was a free-verse confessional poem about the masks she wears and her desperation to be liberated from the lies she lies behind. She started to cry while reading it and the entire class was screaming the silence of complete understanding. We all gave her a big group hug and when I heard students whispering to each other about how they felt the sameway  and when I saw tears well up in a few empathetic audience members, I knew I had to set aside my lesson for the moment and use this opportunity to teach them something.

I asked them to raise their hand if they felt the way she did. Every single hand went up. Twenty hands from twenty 14-year-olds of every color and social group and intelligence level. Twenty teenagers who thought that no one understood them, but learned right there that they had more in common then they thought. For half an hour we talked about the masks we wear in high school. About how tough it is when we don’t know who we are. I shared with them how much I had felt the same way when I was a freshman. And then I felt called to take it to a deeper level and bring up how so many teenagers turn to drugs to find comfort in their confusion and how this just fuels the vicious cycle of not being self-actualized. I explained to them that what they are feeling is normal– about the development of their frontal lobe and what areas of our thinking and acting that it influences. Also coincidentally, the very same part of the brain that drugs destroy, slowing its development or preventing it from ever developing at all until they find themselves at the age of 35 and realizing they are at the emotional level of a 14-year-old and wonder if it is too late to ever figure life out. Students asked a lot of questions. Questions about alcohol and marijuana. About where to draw the line.  About what to do about “friends” who are abusing drugs. I had one student ask me what she could do to help herself not feel so lost and confused. She finally realized she was normal, but still wanted hope. I gave them both secular and spiritual advice. I told her and the rest of the class to write, to exercise, to stay active, to do more of the things that help them release emotions and energy. I told them to associate themselves with people who love and respect them no matter who they are, be it family or close, true friends. And I told them, that for me, Jesus has made a difference. I made sure to say “for me” so that I couldn’t be accused of telling them they HAD to develop a personal relationship with their creator even though I wanted to so bad. This is definitely one of the downsides of working in public education and I’m not sure if I will have a job tomorrow. But the atmosphere of the class had gotten so personal at that moment, I think it will stay indoors. If not, I have faith that I will be okay.

It was hard to change the subject to our analytical essays afterward, but we all made the transition. I told them that they could come and talk to me anytime they wanted and that I would listen and not judge them and to do my best to share my wisdom. I told them that our class was a family and I watched their heads nod in agreement. It was a powerful moment.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if these kids walk away from my class knowing the difference between a simile and a metaphor. But if they walk our of my door knowing that they are not alone and there is light at the end of the dark tunnel of adolescence without masks or drugs or suicide, then to me, I have made a difference. I hope they all sleep a little better tonight. And maybe try writing another poem again soon.