August 31, 2009

Bucket List

Raise your hand if you've ever written to, assigned, or read a mind-numbing stack of essays with this topic:

"What I did on my summer on my summer vacation..."

In recent years, I've assigned this topic, but students can only write lies. Interesting lies.

"Miss! So we make it up?"

Every bit of it. It's called fiction. Be creative.

It's usually a big hit with students because the sky's the limit.

This year, I took the students on a side street first by asking them to begin a bucket list in their writer's notebooks. It was a lot of fun having everyone share some things from their bucket lists, and since I don't really have a good bucket list myself, I stole some great ideas from my students.

After we spent time on the bucket lists, I asked students to set the list aside while I assigned the writing topic for the week, which was of course all the dreadful summer vacation topic. I deserved the groans I received when I introduced the topic, but when I told students that they were going to tell a fabricated story of their summer vacation--something they wish they would have done--they perked right up. When I told them they might want to use their bucket lists to choose an idea, the majority of my students dug right in and started planning their most excellent adventures.

The rough drafts aren't due until Friday, but I'm already anticipating some interesting, passionate pieces. I'm anticipating a strong start to our year for writing.

August 22, 2009

First Contact

Mister Teacher's school tried a pre-school open house this year. I was thinking it was a cool idea, and that we should do it at our school, too. My children's elementary school always does it--this year for only an hour! We never go, though, because I send them to grandma's the week before school. So, we're one of THOSE families who doesn't not participate.

Meeting students and parents before school starts would be cool!

Wait!

I did meet about 40 students and their parents this week.

At my school, we had two morning sessions where students come in to pick up their schedules, arrange transportations, sign up for free/reduced lunch, and purchase things they need and want: IBMYP Workbook, student planner, PE clothes, school shirts. They also had the opportunity to order THE YEARBOOK for lowest price it will ever be!

So, while most of my colleagues were working in their classrooms and attending "mandatory" department and team meetings, I was camped out in the cafeteria for 8 hours in two days peddling yearbooks.

Knowing that I will be meeting parents, I always try to look especially professional (in casual clothing) and act nice as pie. First impressions, you know.

This year, I had some time to conference with parents, too.

I brought out the tough love on two different boys because each of their parents said they did not do well in English last year. In both cases, it was not because English was their weakest subject either. I invited them to sit down right then, and I said, "Let's have our first conference right now." That's when we established that we weren't dealing with an ability issue but an attitude issue. It's a new year. A fresh start. We don't have time for shenanigans. AND, it's a waste of brain.

Honestly, I can't remember all the students and parents I met, as I chatted up many more than just students and parents, but one particular man stood out to me. The poor guy looked a little worn down by his 3 middle school sons--one in each grade. Apparently he has one more son, and I'm betting he's older, or surely he would have been tagging along. The boys were not at all unruly or disrespectful, but they all had this look. They are rough and tumble, mischievous boys. It's not often one sees a dad worn down his boys. Girls...yes. Moms get worn down by all of them. But dads? Maybe they are hard on their sons, as they are easily disappointed, but rarely are they worn down.

I had a nice conversation with the dad, plus we had an impromptu conference with the 8th grade son. I know already have a strong ally this year. The boy won't be a behavior problem; he's not that kind of kid. I know his kind. He's just a goofball who is bright enough but will try to slide by with as little as possible. But now that his dad and teacher know each other...well, I wish him luck with that.

It took all of five minutes to make that ally, and learn about a parent who probably needs a "kudos" calls from time to time.

How hard would it be to make five-minute allies with all of my parents?


(Well, allies with them all except that one who was smiling sweetly when she said she'd be in constant contact with me. "I'm just a super-involved parent!" Something tells me if we have to talk that often, it won't be to tell me what a great job I'm doing.)

August 18, 2009

A "Why Me?' Situation

For some reason, my professional development session on writing was schedule for 7:30 am. The other sessions hadn't started until 8:00 am, so most of my English peeps were none too happy with me. As if I were the one who made the schedule. Talk to the boss!

I arrived at 7:00 am, knowing that I needed to make sure I had my materials pulled together and the projector set up in the library. The librarian said she would be there, but just in case she forgot that the session was earlier than the others, I needed time to find get someone to let me into the library.

It was not until 7:20 am, when someone from the office staff arrived to open a door. (I guess I was wrong when I thought some staff members started at 7:00 am? Hmmm...) Apparently, there was already someone there, but she had not bothered to unlock the doors. I asked the staff person who let us in--by that time two of my colleagues had arrived--to please call for janitor to unlock the library. The janitors were also on campus, but they were nowhere to be found.

I left some things outside the library so when a janitor showed up, he/she would see that someone was trying to get in, and then I went to my classroom to gather my materials.

Ten minutes later, my English peeps were trickling in, and we were still locked out of the library. So much for helpful office staff. I ran down the stairs to find some help. I ran into the principal, who gave me her keys, but she also had important information for me that she had to share just then. You know, at the exact time where the session she had scheduled me for was suppose to be starting. After I made it upstairs, more English peeps had gathered, and we filed into the library, where I discovered that the LCD projector the librarian said I could use was nowhere to be found. Seriously!

Because we are good at back-up plans, we decided to move the training to one of our classrooms. I was already pretty frazzled, so while I ran the keys back to the principal, someone else hooked up my computer and projector, neither of which I had even turned on yet this year. I ran into the librarian, who wondered why I looked so frazzled. She was apologetic and offered to get the projector out, but I told her we'd already activated Plan B.

When I came back, everyone was seated, ready to start, and I was sweaty and winded, but glad to finally be ready to go--at 7:50 am. I cannot even tell you how irritating it is to not start on time, but they all knew that it was just one of those bad mornings.

My colleagues said it was one of the best professional development sessions they'd been to all week--even after the electricity went out in the middle of a riveting PowerPoint that was raising some interesting conversation. We just kept going.

Even after the disastrous morning, it was a blast sharing ideas and discussing writing with my English peeps. It reminded me of a typical day in the classroom. Things go wrong. I look foolish, but life goes on, and it's all good.

August 12, 2009

Pep Talking to Myself

School starts August 24.
I officially go back August 19.

Is it too early for me to have an anxiety attack?

Too much to do.

Always too much to do.

Gotta get organized.

Gotta decide what I'm doing the same and what I'm doing differently.

Gotta decide with whom I need to collaborate about potential changes.

Gotta get my ducks in a row before those potential collaborate colleagues come searching for me first.

...Gotta just calm down. I AM a trained professional. I CAN do this.

And I WILL NOT regret the any parts of my blissed-out summer.

August 11, 2009

Insomnia: Wrangling with Work & Writing

I don't officially go back for another week, but yesterday began a week's worth of voluntary paid professional development, and today we are allowed to pick up or keys so we can get into our classrooms.

This morning I'm up, two hours before the alarm, thinking about the PD session I'm conducting on writing traits this Thursday.

(I initially woke up because I had a weird dream about hissing cockroaches, which also included a staff meeting where my principal gave us a 20-line to-do list, but that's not scary enough to not fall asleep again.)

Thursday. That's two days away, and I'm just thinking about what I should include. Of course, I've known about this gig for a month, but I was off. The possibilities are endless, with three hours. What does everyone want? What does everyone need? In the back of my mind, I have some colleagues voices wishing they had more on how to score. Specifically, score like the state writing exam scorers do so we are on the same page in our classroom. I tend to score more harshly than the state scorers do, and I think I have colleagues who are better in tune than I am. And no, it doesn't bother me that I am a more critical scorer.

I don't religiously use the state writing exam rubric, which is based on the 6 +1 Traits model, to score my students' writing. It is a great idea to use the state rubric in our own classrooms, and I do use it with my high school classes. I use an IBO Middle Years rubric more often. Sometimes teaching in the IB program is confusing because there is IB stuff, and then there's testing stuff. IB is suppose to support whatever else we do in our schools, and it does, but sometimes I have to make choices when things do not line up well. I like the one where THE TEST isn't at the center of the universe. That's not to say that assessment isn't involved. I take assessment seriously. I even take THE TEST very seriously, it's just that there's more to life and learning.

Don't I sound like a good candidate to talk about the traits? The training is suppose to be about IVOC--related to our points of evaluation: ideas, voice, organization, and conventions. And you can bet your booty that when IVOC is involved, thoughts of THE TEST dance in our heads. Sure, I'll do a training on WRITING. IVOC will be involved. IVOC is actually a good framework for evaluation, but I think it's purposes are narrowly addressed in the shadow of THE TEST. Being good writers will help them pass the test. True. Did you know that writing can do so much more?

I think starting the year off by NOT having a training on how to prepare the students for the writing test sounds a little rebellious. Yummy! Let's have a training on writing. Some hippy-dippy let's-get-passionate-about-writing kind of talk sounds like the perfect way to start the year. I'm serious. My students who take pride in their written ideas are more likely to do well on THE TEST, and time spent in my classroom is a lot more enjoyable.

Writing is a tool of expression. It's more than that thing they need to do to pass a test. It hurts my heart to frame such a wonderful thing around a test. I work hard to find the balance between testing frenzy and feeding hungry minds and souls. (I won't even pretend like I don't get off-balanced, either.) I plan to encourage my colleagues to do the same.

August 3, 2009

Bit by Bit

I met with the other two 8th grade English teachers today. Mostly it was time for us to get our brains in gear and toss out some ideas. We came up with a couple cool things, but mostly we were just cussing and discussing for about 5 hours.

It's going to be a great year collaborating with the two of them!

But how weak am I! I have a headache from thinking about all we have to do. And I need a nap.

That's why I have to ease into this working thing.