Book Club: Summer Reads 2015

Summer Reads 2015Teacher Talk:

Last summer I anxiously read Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12: Supporting Claims with Relevant Evidence and Clear Reasoning.  While the selection appeared to be a golden nugget, it actually fell flat for me.  Or, maybe I just need to read it again, and scrap the 88 sticky notes I plastered from page to page.  It wasn’t until I was linking the book in this post that I realized why the book may have been a disappointment.  If you focus on the subtitle, Supporting Claims with Relevant Evidence and Clear Reasoning, you will not be disappointed.  But, if you are looking for an argument writing cure all, this is not what you’re looking for.  They offer a few intensive activities that get kids thinking about warrants and reasoning, but the reality is, I applied zero of the suggested material.  I prefer text organized by strategy with practical application methods.  I’m hoping Graff and Birkenstein’s, They Say, I Say will transform my students’ writing.

Grading is my nemesis, has always been my nemesis, and I’m 95% certain will always be my nemesis.  I hate numbers, I still have to calculate 18/25 to determine the percent conversion, and I hesitate when I need students to count off by sevens to create groups of three.  (Or, should they count off by threes?)  I’m thoroughly convinced that my students’ grades are not an accurate depiction of their progress, but more along the lines of an arbitrary string of numbers that are easily rounded and make sense to the English teacher in me.  I’m turning to guru-Marzano for a grading fix.  His research-based strategies sit at the cornerstone of my decision-making process, his action steps to become a high-performing school were pretty much memorized in order to earn my diploma, and his vocabulary steps may as well be etched into the walls of my classroom, so I hope to extract a thing or two from his grading report.  I’m optimistic the book is only statistic heavy in the first few chapters.  (Does anyone else skip that part?)

Keeping up with the Kids:
For the last two years, my kids have been equally shocked and inspired by Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  While we require parent permission for those wishing to read the selection, the all-knowing middle schoolers still underestimate the maturity of the content and writing.  Even my most exposed teenagers (which isn’t saying much) admit, “I didn’t realize it was going to be that bad.”  They also say it’s some of the best prose they’ve ever read.  I’ll take it!

Counting by 7s has appeared on several book lists since it’s publication in 2014.  Along the lines of Wonder and Out of my Mind, it follows a middle school  “outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family.”  While I’m in this genre, let me recommend, See you at Harry’s.

Proof of Forever.  Because the author, Lexa Hillyer, is that good.  Check out her writer series, Paper Lantern Lit, on YouTube.

For me:
The Royal We is everything I look for in a novel:  someone else’s interpretation of what must be.   Every girl did it.  We all filled in the blanks of the little that we didn’t know about Kate and William’s courtship.  Here, the Go Fug Yourself ladies tell their strikingly similar, but just-enough-different version.

The House We Grew Up In is centered on all things small community, notable family, secrets, and an unwavering desire to return things to the way they were, with a (seemingly heavy) dose of hoarding on the side.

Savvy Strategy: End of Year Student Awards {Generated and Presented by Students}

awardsWhile the Pinterest Princesses are glittering and gluing the final touches on student awards for their little herd, I simply lack the creativity, moreover the desire to spend time in that area.  Not because my crafting skills have remained stagnant since kindergarten, but because quite frankly, the awards mean nothing to our students.  Why not center it on your students?  After all, flipping your class is the must-do of the year.  When I was in college, a guest lecturer presented a workshop centered on connecting with kids.  In it, she focused on her experience with advisories.  Maybe it was just her delivery, she was one of those individuals who carried that, “I may be old, but damn was I good?” respect without coming off as arrogant or self-promoting.  Anyways, she spoke about a very meaningful activity that she conducted year after year.  She had students draw a name out of a hat and create an award for their selected student.  It took me several years to implement this strategy, and after using it several times, I have to say the process is more than worthwhile.

For starters, I modified the activity for slighter older students by asking them to write down the names of 3-5 students they would like to create an award.  Luckily, it has always worked out that every student gets matched using this technique.  Though, you may need to make adjustments based on your class.  Next, I look at the results and sit back and reflect on whether or not my judgments were correct regarding who is most-liked, most-feared, etc. I pair students and remind them to keep their selection a secret.

We spend a day brainstorming potential awards.  “Best shoe collection” does not count.  “Funniest” does not count.  We discuss the qualities that make for a good award.  I ask them to write down a list of things they would want to be recognized for.  This usually generates a deeper list, with recognition lines that stretch beyond, “best belt collection.”  We create a list of criteria for awards and then students get rolling.

Students submit their award writings to me and I revise or approve them.  Next, students begin the creative process of determining the best way to visually represent the award.  I’ve had students create popsicle stick structures, origami animals (to represent a quality in a student), and even dreamcatchers.  Students include the award blurb somewhere on the final product.

During the last week of school, students present the awards to one another.  They leave with a memory of the school year and without a doubt, feel accomplished because they received a nod from their peer.

On a smaller, more manageable scale, I’ve seen wordle used to complete this task (I would challenge students to complete this, rather than the teacher).

Teaching Trenches: Teacher Interview – Questions to Ask the Interviewer or Panel

interview2When I was on the job hunt, I searched the corporate world to identify key points that I could bridge to the education sect.  CEO of TheLadders.Com recommends, “What can I do to help you (my future boss) get a gold star on your review next year?”.  While this question doesn’t directly translate to the K-12 education world, the equivalent is:  “What do you expect out of your teachers?”.  Take it a step further by asking, “What do students expect (after all, they are our client)?”, and of course, “What do parents expect?”.

Safe questions:

I noticed that your school’s mission/goal is ________ (this will demonstrate your research).  What areas is your staff working to improve in order to achieve this mission?

How would you describe the average student at your school? How would you like to see the general student body grow?

Describe the breakdown of team time and department time.

What kinds of staff development activities did the entire faculty participate in this past year?

If you are a new teacher, you could ask, “What types of supports are in place for first year teachers?”

Questions to avoid:

Anything that can be researched on their website or the district website.

Logistical questions about how much prep time you get or how many classes you teacher. This will fall into place and could be misconstrued.

Book Club: Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop

GrammarMany educators denounce isolated grammar instruction, placing it somewhere on par with corporal punishment.  Truth be told, the only grammar I remember was drill and kill of diagramming sentences.  Secret:  It was isolated.  After teaching ELA for a few years, I made the commitment to weaving grammar instruction into the curriculum.  Unsure of where to start, I did my research and settled on Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined.  Instead of reading the book cover to cover, I took the “build the plane while flying it” approach.

My first realization:  Students’ grammar knowledge was SO beyond bare minimum that it was actually a sense of a relief.  If I wasn’t teaching grammar up until this point, my room wasn’t the only four walls depriving students of their right to understand the structure of compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.

In walks Jeff Anderson.  The structure of the book allows teachers to pick and choose skills or move  in a progressive manner as instructed by the layout of the resource.  I follow his suggestion of “inviting” students to notice the correctness of sentences.  Gone are the days of “correct the mistakes” worksheet.  My class adopted a routine in a rather organic manner.  It goes a little something like this:

On Tuesdays, we do grammar.  Not Mondays or Wednesdays, Thursdays or Fridays.  I know it’s a bit Type A, but it worked for me in my first year introducing grammar instruction.

Week 1:  Students are invited to read the sentence projected on the board and jot down everything that is correct, while also trying to identify or guess the rule of the week.  Next, we discuss the rule; students copy the rule and create a memo in their writer’s notebook.  I give students about five minutes to create the memo and allow them to “decorate” the text in their notebook, stressing the importance of making it easily noticeable in their notebook.

Week 2 (On Tuesday, of course!):  This next step takes place IN class during the first half of the year and OUT of class as homework (between week 1 and week 2) the second half of the year.  Students are tasked with searching their independent reading book to find a sample sentence following the rule.  Students share their mentor text at their table (or search for one if they are unprepared).  Students label the sentence according the rule.  Example:  Underline and label the independent clause, circle and label the dependent clause.

Week 3:  Students generate a sentence of their own exercising the focus rule.  They jot down the sentence and again label the sentence parts.  They have at least one person check their sentence.  Up on the wall they go.  The following week we begin a new rule.

Next year I plan to inject an assessment into the mix.

Reasons I like this:
-Students focus on ONE rule for two-three consecutive weeks.
-The instruction is authentic and assists with close reading of text because students are hunting for sentence types (simultaneously, they are evaluating writer’s craft).
-They ask questions.  When they find something that breaks a rule or varies from the exact rule, they want to know why.
-I can easily select grammar rules or types of sentences to include in their next writing assignment.
-I use their writing to inform my decisions about future focus skills.
-When asked, students are pretty okay with this approach.

Teaching Trenches: Preparing for Teacher Interview Questions

After combing through the Internet for every imaginable interview tip, I realized there is very little that encapsulates the gist of the teacher interview.  While I came across many sites (here, here, and here are a start) touting they had the most comprehensive list, I found it best to approach the interview questions with a more holistic approach.   Armed with a pool of responses that catered to categories rather than isolated questions, I had a much easier time responding to questions worded in an unconventional manner.  Additionally, this approach protected me from hitting a block when faced with curveball questions.  Instead of hesitating freaking because the assessment question was posed slightly different from the typical assessment question, I carefully crafted a response to meet the unexpected wording.

This approach also allowed me to compartmentalize my responses and keep track of the information I knew I wanted to convey at some point in the interview — better known as, “things I wanted the interview committee to hear.”

Below are the categories I prepared.  Something to note:  I last interviewed several years ago.  When applicable, I provided possible responses if I was currently going through the interview process.

My strengths, my weaknesses:
Strengths: Ability to connect with all kids (my professor instilled in our entire cohort that relationships sit at the cornerstone of teacher effectiveness).  You know yourself best – let it ring, while also highlighting that there is ALWAYS something new to learn in the education world.

Weaknesses:  This is a tough one — you want to avoid sounding overly confident, but also don’t want to highlight any flaws (ex:  you’re never on time).  I am a procrastinator to the end.  No matter what strategies I try, I will always be a last minute type of girl.  While I didn’t I worked this into my response my stating that I often spend countless amounts of time looking at resources for the BEST possible strategy or delivery model for a particular piece of content, which can be very time-consuming.  Rather than accepting the fact that there may be more than one BEST way of delivering the content, I keep searching until I am 100% satisfied with my selection.

Lessons/Units to discuss:
Google Earth:  This served as an engagement, technology, and/or cross-discipline response.

Document Based Questions:  This served as a research, writing, and/or inquiry response.  I Also touched on my use of screencast to provide tutorials for students (emphasizes technology skill)

Civil War Debate:  This served as an engagement and/or rigor response.

Feedback:  If this was today, I would discuss my use of Google Classroom and Google Docs to provide feedback and facilitate the revision process.

Collaboration: I discussed my experience with Professional Learning Communities, specifically how we utilized flexible grouping across the grade level to differentiate curriculum and specific lessons.

Assessment:  I discussed the use of Flubaroo for data collection on assessments to identify questions (and skills) that students struggled with to inform future instruction.

Differentiation: I cross-referenced my work with PLCs (mentioned above) and shared how I varied an essay with three minor adjustments to create three drastically different assignments.  The end result was a unique product for all students because they pulled their evidence from self-selected and teacher selected books, while also responding to an essay question that meet their individual needs.

Classroom management:  I took the interview panel through my classroom as if they were student.  I discussed the protocol beginning with how I stand outside my door to greet students before every class, followed by a task projected on the board at the start of every class.  I discussed norms in my classroom and fair discipline.

Parent involvement:  I discussed a particular situation when I partnered with a parent to gain better results for a particular student.  I also discussed my protocol for contacting parents at the start of the year to welcome them to class so that their first communication is positive.  I also discussed my standards for contacting home when a student is in need, but also when a student deserves praise.  I also discussed the accessibility and resourcefulness of my class (primarily homework) blog.

Questions I was asked that were not necessarily expected:  

What was your best day of teaching and your worst day of teaching (I will admit, I was NOT prepared to answer the second question), but I relied on my philosophy about taking a lesson that didn’t go well period 1, to improve it for later on in the day.  I was stumped on this question because I was uncertain about whether they wanted me to detail something like, the worst day was when the Virginia Tech shooting happened because it was an emotional day, and my students were scared, or something related to instruction.

Describe a research project you have conducted with your students.  This was difficult for me to answer because I came from a place that did not place enough of an emphasis on research because they were consumed by state standards.  I was honest in my response, but found the closest thing that related to the question.

Know what you want them to know about you.  I wanted to share my approach with backwards design.  I knew that it may not come up with a question, so I weaved it into my response when asked about something else (most likely about a lesson).

Have specific stories, experiences to fall back on, but also mesh in your philosophy.  You will not have an opportunity to share everything, so use an experience question to weave in your philosophy – it’s ok to veer off for a thought or two as long as you quickly get back on track to answering the question.  Or, when asked about your philosophy, cite a specific lesson you used to incorporate it.

Books you have read:  Have a kid title (I choose something is relevant to the position I am interviewing for, not the previous position I held – I used Sherman Alexie’s, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian), adult title (I had just finished reading Little Bee — you want it to be something that is slightly under the radar, not entirely popular, yet not completely obscure either.  Most likely, the interview panel is looking for future reads for their own reading pleasure) and education title (I used Teach Like A Champion because I had just finished reading it for a graduate class.  If I were interviewing today, I would use Beers and Probst’s Notice & Noteready on the tip of your tongue.  This is not a question to fumble or fake.

Finally, regardless of your response, pick something that you do well and have experience with, rather than a buzzword you think the panel wants to hear.  While it’s important to cover certain topics, do it in an authentic manner.  The interview panel has to believe you do said strategy, rather than just hear that you do said strategy.  If your PLC experience wasn’t up to par, don’t say that it was.

Be yourself, take a minute to collect your thoughts when responding, and most importantly, keep a list of a few you want to highlight over the course of your interview.  It’s okay to glance at your notes, as long as they aren’t recorded in a notebook that looks something like this ;-).

Teacher Dress Up: Spring 2015

I came across a red just-beyond-the-knee skirt at a few months back.  It’s nothing special in terms of quality, but the texture-print embossed on the fabric takes it from basic to statement piece.  I paired it with a slouchy, loose chambray shirt.  I held back on wearing it because I was looking for the perfect wedge to pair with the outfit.  I settled on a pair of pumps that I already owned and am more than happy with (more so after wearing them and breaking them in).  In fact, I just purchased a second backup pair.
As for accessories, the belt pulled the entire look together and paired well with the shoes, while the necklace added a bit of weight to the otherwise feminine look.