Monday, February 19, 2018

The Blurring Roles of Parent, Teacher, and Teacher Educator

We were just wrapping up our Educator Preparation Provider Unit meeting with program coordinators when the director noted the alert on her phone.  On Valentine's Day, with images of hearts on our agenda and cookies to sweeten the afternoon, we fell into anxious silence as we checked the news coming from Florida.  My roles as parent, teacher, and teacher educator blurred in those moments.

Later, my 16-year old looked on while I read accounts of text exchanges between parents and children, choking as I tried to read one aloud to her.  "The longest twenty minutes of my life," one parent said of the time that elapsed between messages.  I cannot begin to imagine.  My college freshman, my high schooler, and my sixth grader pull me into three different spaces mentally and emotionally when I cannot be there physically at a moments notice on a typical school day. 

Then, as a former middle and high school teacher, reading reports about the fallen educators in Florida took me back to those teaching days again.  "In loco parentis" refers to a teacher or other adult responsible for children in place of a parent.  In some cases, schools provide a safe, welcoming, and food-secure environment that students might not find elsewhere.  In other cases, safety means protection from natural disasters and other outside forces.  We huddled in hallways during storms; we grabbed our record books and marched outside for fires or, yes, bomb threats; we locked our doors and hid in darkness during lockdown drills.  To parents of former students I can say I was prepared to put myself in harm's way for your children.

My job now is to prepare future teachers to take on these responsibilities above and beyond the content they teach, the strategies to teach that content, and the planning, behavior, accountability, and administrative demands.  My methods candidates are fortunate to have class in a high school each week after their time observing mentor teachers, and throughout the semester, candidates try to apply pedagogical theory while presenting to peers and teaching mini-lessons in their mentor teachers' classrooms.  We discuss student engagement, classroom management, and--perhaps most important--relationships with students.

On February 15, one of my secondary graduate candidates texted:
I wasn't going to observe today [because] the kids have a half day and this fog was really scary to drive in, but after what happened yesterday in FL, I wanted to see how at least one teacher handles it.  I'm glad I did.  She led a lengthy class discussion and students were very knowledgeable about details of what happened.  She related the shooting to [their] school and the purpose of rules.  Today all math classes were devoted to mental health and making student aware of resources available through the school.  It was sad but fascinating to watch.
As teachers, we must be prepared to have difficult conversations like these. 

This profession offers such fulfillment and personal growth.  But teachers cannot stay for only these two reasons.  During the educator preparation meeting that ended with news alerts, the director had discussed a professional development alliance she attended with superintendents and other educators.  They brainstormed the causes of teacher shortages and came up with seven "Ps":
  • Pay
  • Pension
  • Pressure
  • Parents
  • Passion
  • Perception
  • Politics
Some of these have larger or smaller roles in producing teacher stress.  I had good relationships with parents and my passion for learning helped me grow professionally (though it almost caused me to burn out, too). 

The next day, I sent the director some additional "Ps":
  • Pain (in spite of passion)--it's just so heartbreaking and painful at times to be a teacher. 
  • Protection (or lack thereof)--teachers do not feel protected in this current climate... Protected from top-down policies. Protected by or from legislation. Protected from shooters. Protected from media.
  • Prepared is another--teachers may be prepared in theory and know how to use best practices and build relationships in the classroom, but who is truly prepared for every other aspect of teaching? We are parents of 20-120 students during the school day. How do we prepare candidates for that kind of weight, that kind of responsibility, especially in light of what happened yesterday?
These are areas I don't think we can ignore or speak of lightly.  This tragedy and so many others have brought with them this horrible reality--we will never be able to prepare ourselves or our candidates enough.  I am looking for the words to say in my methods class tomorrow that might convince them to stay.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Flipping Feedback: Revising Peer Review

For several years in middle and secondary, along with the last year or so with freshman composition, I have held onto the belief that someone besides me needed to be the first eyes on a student's paper.  After all, students can read for clarity and expression, saving me the initial roughness that is the rough draft.  I have tried to create a writing environment that organically developed beyond what the peer review worksheets could do. Even though we would discuss feedback protocol and how to respond to each other's writing and what it looked like/sounded like,   

peer review sessions always fell flat.  

I did not realize what needed to change.  But then in the midst of reflecting on the fall semester and its false starts and mediocre ends I read "Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination" by Paul Thomas.  In this post, Thomas discusses student feedback from his composition courses.  Notably, his students wanted instructor comments on essays before working with peers.  Because I was in the beginning stages of planning spring's Composition II, the timing was right for rethinking draft due dates, turnaround times, peer feedback, and final papers.  

And now it was time for the first essay.  Instead of students bringing drafts to class for a peer review workshop, students printed their essays to turn in to me, an adjustment to my usual digital submission requirement.  I had thought about how students would access my comments the following week and discuss them with partners.  With the likelihood that some students would not have their laptops, I decided hand-written margin comments on hard copies would provide a tangible anchor for peer conversations. 

The next class, I began with a writing prompt asking students to tell about their previous experiences with peer feedback.  Predictably, they wrote about its ineffectiveness.  As I walked the room, I could see comments such as "waste of time." One student wrote, "My experiences with peer review is not telling them what the teacher can tell them."  

Students only trusted the person who assigned and graded their essays.

Another student commented, "I'm not a fan of peer review because I'm not good at giving feedback when reading an essay."  

Students did not trust others or themselves to be effective readers and responders.

After this opening activity, we discussed what they hoped to gain from the workshop and developed a peer feedback protocol.  Honesty topped the list.  Students desired honest feedback, which demonstrated they really wanted to improve their writing.  They also listed "praise," "offer ideas," "suggestions for revision/corrections," and "ask questions."  One student suggested the acronym TAG: Tell something good, Ask questions, and Give suggestions, which is similar to the Praise-Question-Polish protocol introduced to me in the Louisville Writing Project (an affiliate site of the National Writing Project).

Students read my comments and then reviewed these comments with peers while using the peer feedback protocol.  I heard conversations.  A few students did not turn in rough drafts the previous week; however, they either helped others with feedback or did as this student who said, "Although I didn't have commentary on my paper due to me not submitting my draft, I sat and listened to the others who did receive feedback and got a lot of help from that."  I learned from feedback at the end of class that, for the most part, students' experiences of peer reviews were both helpful and positive.  For the most part.  Yes, we still have a ways to go, but I feel confident that I made the right move for this first essay.  

Thank you to the many mentors out there who constantly help me re-envision my teaching.  

Monday, January 29, 2018

Missing the Leap: Removing Scaffolding too Quickly

For our first assignment in my freshman composition course, I wanted them to select an article of their interest and choosing to use for their discourse analysis.  After reading and discussing The Declaration of Independence the previous class, last week (our fourth class meeting together) students wrote a response to "What do you think the founding fathers intended the American Creed to be?" After a brief discussion and a too brief introduction to Padlet where we could capture our ideas, I asked my students to search for an article that connects to the themes we had identified in the historic document (e.g. equality, liberty, pursuit of happiness).

And the plan collapsed.

I watched my students attempt their (figurative) leap from incomplete scaffolding to grasp a crumbling ledge.  Students' hands popped up with questions in some parts of the room while elsewhere they sat gazing into their computers for answers.  The supplemental instructor and I visited students one on one, working our way around the room to coax students in the directions we had begun to travel the previous class period: topics such as free trade and the collapse of agreements, equality and the current questions about equal pay or discrimination, and freedom and the discussion of immigration and DACA. 

After bailing water the second half of class, I asked students to complete an exit slip with their topic of interest and the questions they had at that point. 

It was obvious to me that I needed to repair the scaffolding for this new group of students, but I was so stuck in what went wrong that I had difficulty focusing beyond the stack of slips with students' topics and questions.  Fortunately, chapter 7 of The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros (@gcouros) gave substance to my work.  His description of the eight things to look for in today's classroom gave me pause as I considered how I was creating opportunities for voice, choice, time for reflection, opportunities for innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, self-assessment, and connected learning. 

I wanted these characteristics in my classroom, but having already planned the end of the semester, I was missing the incremental steps of establishing the classroom culture that warmly invited students into these conversations and periods of reflection.  My intentions steamed ahead of community.  I attempted choice and critical thinking without building solid foundations that would make students' voices and connected learning meaningful.  Though it was mid-year for K-12 students and teachers, and a second semester continuation for my pre-service candidates, it was a new course and a fresh start for me and these freshman composition students.  I needed to know where they were so I could meet them there, something at this point in the year in my previous teaching positions I have not had to do.

The exit slips indicated that students needed much more assistance with finding articles.  I located ten articles that I hoped would honor students' interests while providing for rich analysis.  Categorized into general themes of liberty, equality, and pursuit of happiness with topics ranging from discrimination of people with disabilities to wage gaps to DACA to opportunities for happiness, articles would provide choice but in a way that kept this first assignment manageable.

This teaching mis-experience sank my spirits and no amount of positive interactions that day changed this feeling until I worked on a solution.  The bigger lesson from that day was this:  In the deepest part of me I want to be a good teacher, but more importantly I need to really see and know my students in order to do so.  Only then can we build a classroom in which we can solve these problems together.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Welcoming the Spring Semester

Welcome 2018!  

This new year and new semester prompted me to consider what I want to be and do in 2018.  Determined to be more and better in this year than I was in 2017, I began January 1 with reading, reflecting, and enjoying family time.  Each day is an opportunity to shape who I am and want to be.  My new and improved routine did not begin on January 2.  Some weeks into 2018 and the first week of spring classes, I'm still figuring out how to get up in time to stretch or have coffee, wake up children, read a news blog, make lunch, get ready for the day, and leave the house to drop off the high schooler before work.  After a few days of saying, "I think I need to start my day earlier," I reset my alarm.  Baby steps.

Many things stay the same when you work within an academic calendar.  I have ongoing projects with accreditation, research, and writing that stretch along the August-July continuum rather than the calendar year.  Yet, new classes in the spring semester revitalize me with opportunities for curricular revision.  And this semester, two pathways to enhance my understanding of students and partnerships have presented themselves in very different settings.  One is within my freshman composition course; the other is in my secondary English methods course.

The second semester Writing Studies delves into discourse communities, and in my particular learning community cohort the focus is civic engagement.  I began planning for this course in November while attending the National Writing Project Annual Meeting.  At that time, I was introduced to the PBS documentary American Creed and worked with instructors who had previewed the film and developed resources.  It was with even more good fortune that I learned the director of freshman composition at my university had received a grant for including service learning in the Writing Studies courses.  My course will analyze historical discourse, which will unfold as an exploration of today's discourse and the needs in our local communities.

My affiliation with the Illinois Writing Project and my participation with the National Writing Project College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) placed tools in my hands that will deepen this exploration of discourses in the composition class.  These argument-writing resources provide a framework for putting texts in conversation with one another and a foothold for students to engage in these conversations with each other.  Being present, being open, and being responsive allowed me to make the connections necessary to plan this semester.  I hope that what the freshmen experience within the class is as meaningful as planning for them has been.

In my secondary English methods course, five teacher candidates are continuing their program that began last fall.  We weathered some obstacles in the fall course, including my attempt to add writing and research layers to an already packed schedule.  We tried writing personal pieces with little time to develop them.  We recorded teaching episodes but did not fully take advantage of the feedback feature that was available in the technology platform.  After experimentation that resulted in marginal (if any) success, I should have been hesitant to try anything new this spring.  However, I want to enrich the candidates' experiences in the program, and have prepared myself for the setbacks that might occur. 

It has been a dream of mine to recreate my graduate research assistant experience of assisting a middle grades methods course taught in a middle school, often utilizing technology for backchannel discussions about classroom observations.  At the least, I hoped for my candidates to observe in a school together at the same time so that we could unpack the observations in our weekly class sessions.  Though possibly more than I should have hoped for, I also wanted a classroom space within a high school.  I am thrilled that our new partnership with a local high school opens doors for that dream to become a reality.  We meet in our high school classroom next week.  As we discuss candidates' observations and unpack the assigned readings, it will feel different from our university campus space.  I want it to feel different.  High school is where they have chosen to be, and it is my responsibility to prepare them.  Surrounding ourselves with the high school culture is only the first step.

Baby steps.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Getting It Right

As a secondary English methods professor, I wish I could get it right every time.  The truth is, I wish I could claim just one perfect year as a middle or high school teacher instead of a few near-perfect class periods or too many near-perfect disasters.  As many educators of any level might agree, it is the striving for perfection that keeps us moving forward: researching best practices, finding better resources, attending professional conferences, and meeting new colleagues as we continually shape and reshape our philosophical stance on teaching and learning.

Every week, my English methods students pose tough questions about numerous topics in education that experienced teachers struggle with daily.  Last week they asked, "How do we get students to actually read (or care about reading) during silent reading?  What does accountability for independent reading look like?  How do I manage student choice and grading?"  Channeling some of my best professors' strategies, I asked them to discuss their own classroom observations and what they have learned from their mentor teachers.  Most recently, however, during our discussion of Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development and Deborah Appleman's Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents, one student stumped me with questions about grading: How do we assess scaffolding if one student needs more resources and assistance than another student?  How does the scaffolding enter into grading?  

Time limited our discussion that evening, which made it immediately clear that we needed more resources to help us grapple with these issues around grading practices.  Having experienced the depth of the Twitter professional network, I turned to #sbgchat and discovered #sblchat (Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST).  In just moments, I found a video by Rick Wormeliproficiency grading guides, a website on all things standards based by Matt Townsley, and conversations archived by Garnet Hillman around grading theory and practice.  

Yes, my students' questions give me pause, more now that I realize how much there is to learn.  But knowing how to navigate these education resources moves me closer to being the professor my secondary teacher candidates need me to be.  I have an advantage over my first-year teacher self of twelve years ago: supportive professional networks that constantly teach me (how else would I have discovered teachers on Twitter?).  These networks include the National Council of Teachers of English (@NCTE), National Writing Project (@writingproject) beginning with the Louisville Writing Project (@LouisvilleWP) and continuing with the Illinois Writing Project (@IllinoisWP), the International Literacy Association (@ILAtoday), the Illinois Reading Council (@ILReadCouncil, and the Literacy Research Association.  Through these professional networks, I have learned the value of mentors, lifelong research, and constant investigation.  I have also learned the importance of wobbling on the edge of new challenges.  Without these experiences and the support of these associations--of mentors and friends--I wouldn't be able to show my future teachers how to get it right, even if it's only some of the time.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Longing for Writing Space as an Early Career Researcher Professor

I woke this morning with the longing to write, the need to carve time for creativity, to voice the thoughts swirling around in the ether.  Simultaneously, university course work tugged at the coattails of a writing desire that has become more and more elusive over the past several weeks.  I wobbled against its weight.  The pull of grading, of announcements to students clarifying their questions, and of emails to colleagues scheduling meetings worked to stifle what I know to be true: if I do not write, I cannot teach writing, nor can I teach future teachers how to teach writing.

Attending the Illinois Reading Council (#IRC2016) reminded me of the passion I need to reignite: writing to discover new ideas and to nourish the ideas that have had little time to take root.  A small group of professors with the College Instructors of Reading Professionals answered questions, and more importantly offered much-needed encouragement in my pursuit of what fills me as a professional.  Anne Gregory with NIU said it best when describing how early she rises each morning to workout: "I deserve this . . . and you deserve the time for your passion." Deserve.  I deserve the time to write.  That one word shifted my thinking profoundly.

But it did not shift my ability.

In a late afternoon session yesterday, Ralph Fletcher showed us poetry and encouraged us to draft a few lines ourselves.  I stumbled.  My phrases were lackluster.  The poem ended awkwardly with no connection to Fletcher proposed be our final two lines.  And how I needed that punch to generate an image, an idea about a memory long past.  I could then, and now, feel the rusty spigot creaking little by little with each word.  No pressure except for the words pressing themselves against the narrow faucet opening.

When Kelly Gallagher spoke in his session about voluminous writing in the classroom, I nodded agreement.  How can students improve their writing and enhance idea generation, organization, and detail development without constant opportunities to experiment with craft and improve writing stamina?  His strategies for engaging students in low-pressure writing without increasing the grading workload should be easy to implement in any grade level.  In fact, I am eager to add his Reading Reasons to my collection of professional resources to become as well-referenced as so many other reading and writing experts.

But then, let's flip the voluminous writing concept back to us.

Are we creating the space--time and place--for low-pressure writing in our own professional and personal settings?  In a sense, everything I have written in the past several weeks has been for a "grade."  Grading students' essays and communicating with colleagues or partner schools via email are higher-pressure writings that become evaluated by the people who read them.  Likewise, reports, course syllabi, and students' degree study plans cannot receive failing grades.  I like having a job.

Blogging is that release for me.  Writing in this space solidifies the ethereal thoughts, giving them legs to stand on . . . and hands to shake loose whatever weight might be hanging onto the tails of this new coat I am trying on.

So tell me, how do you create the space for writing?  What do you recommend for early-career researchers and professors?  What helps you reignite writing when other weighty obligations begin to take over?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Operating on the Dissertation Behemoth for Academic Publishing

When I first entered the doctoral program in summer of 2011, I viewed academia as a place where someone else shared knowledge with me.  In that fall's doctoral seminar class, however, the professor shared bewildering information.  We needed to eventually publish.  Whether we co-authored with mentor faculty or were the sixth author on a research article, we would be in better academic and professional standings if we published in journals (although Raul Pacheco-Vega questions this logic in his recent blog post).  So, as a full-time middle school language arts teacher and part-time graduate student, I ignored this advice and focused on providing endless feedback on 8th grader drafts and writing my own projects, articles, reflections, or unit plans for graduate coursework.

Fortunately, a popular writing course at the university cycled the program every few years and fit my schedule.  Writing for Publication brought together students from across disciplines in a joint effort to resurrect old drafts for journal submission.  We dug deeply into Wendy Belcher's Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.  I wish I had purchased the actual book rather than the digital version, but her website provides the consumable resources so books can stay "clean."  The intense yet practical approach pushed me to write, revise, share drafts, and revise again while also researching possible journals and attending to specific audience needs.  I finished the course successfully and submitted my manuscript, which I described in a previous blog post.  My waiting resulted in disappointment when it was rejected several months later.  With the bustle of other projects and without the pressure of a grade, I let the manuscript and feedback collect dust.

Over two years later, several pieces of writing lurk within my computer, notebooks, and coursework folders.  I have written drafts of literature reviews and reflections in preparation for my dissertation and some did, in fact, make their way into that behemoth of data and analysis.  I proudly and successfully defended my dissertation (Understanding through Narrative Inquiry: Storying a National Writing Project Initiative) on March 28, 2016.  Imagine my excitement when my committee members said they could see possibilities for six journal articles I could develop from this work.  Six!

Six! Imagine my anxiety knowing I should dissect my beautiful behemoth into smaller beasts for academic journal writing.  I wrote a semi-traditional five-chapter dissertation and pushed its boundaries only slightly with creative mini-narratives to describe findings in chapter four.  How do I distill the essential learning found in my research problem, literature review, methodology, findings and closing discussion chapters?  How do I engage in meaningful academic writing that highlights my insights about professional learning communities, teacher-leadership, planning professional development, trust, and invitation?  These are real questions for which I have not yet found answers, even though I feel it is my responsibility to already know.

I do not step lightly into this task.  For many months I raised and cared for each of these 213 pages.  Now, like Dr. Frankenstein, I have to operate on a monster for these insights to live on.  Thank you in advance, Wendy Belcher, for being my assistant.  And thank you, readers, for your own experiences about how you managed this task.