That One Student…

Let’s call her “Dotty.”

She looks like a pretty average, stereotypical even, high school sophomore. But she’s not. She’s probably one of the most incredible young women I’ve met yet.

By age 15, this girl has seen more in her life than many can say they’ve seen in a lifetime. Especially looking at where she’s grown up, her life has been quite atypical than those of her peers.

DOTTY

AGE: 15
RACE: white
HAIR COLOR: dark blonde
EYE COLOR: blue
BODY TYPE: average to thin
OTHER FEATURES: braces, pierced nosed, many other piercings in her ears including gauges.

Sounds pretty stereotypical for a suburban school in this area.

What makes Dotty atypical is her background and her personality…in addition to some other quirks and amazing characteristics.

 

Dotty is a remarkable writer. She has room to grow, of course, but who doesn’t? She writes from her soul. The words on the page are beyond her 15/16 years. She writes about things that her peers and colleagues have only seen on television (‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Weeds’, ‘Law & Order: SVU’, and the like). She writes about her life, her past, her parents’ struggles, and her own. The level of self-awareness she achieves through her exceptional work is advanced past the point I think I could ever be.

She is able to articulate things in such a artful way that she says it without flat-out saying it. 
She wrote about her emotional struggles, but never once said she was battling depression. The only reason I know is because she’s told me.
She wrote about her eating disorder, but wrote from the perspective of her friend to convey the fact that she just wanted to be listened to, not lectured. I would have never known if she didn’t preface my reading it with her explanations.
She wrote about growing up with her dad whose residence was described as if right out of a film. ‘Cocaine’ in her words was ‘snow’, ‘entangled in the carpet of the hallway.’ 
She wrote about her insecurities, the reason for wanting to control her weight, of all things, in a life where just about everything else is out of her control. It’s not because she’s fat, it’s because she’s scared. She, like most other teenage girls, is fearful of her own self-loathing. Something she made clear through personification of the fear, itself.

She smiles–everyday.
She laughs and chats with her peers and friends around her while in class.
She is very open to Frenchie and me when she wants us to read something. Usually that something is an extra piece of writing in which she expresses her deepest emotions and worries.
She is incredibly intelligent, incredible with words, and outrageously insightful. 

Everything Dotty does is purposeful. It’s all very logically though-out, even the illogical.
She always has a reason.

 

Dotty is beyond her years.
She knows what she’s doing, and she sees ways out no matter how deep she gets.

 

Why am I writing about Dotty?

Because she’s amazing. And in an odd way, I look up her. I aspire to be as strong as she is–not just for a 15 year old, but as a person–as a young woman in today’s world. 
Dotty’s going places. Despite her upbringing and the trouble her early life has shown her.
Dotty’s gonna make something of herself.
I can see it in her eyes. I see her determination to succeed and be amazing when she smiles.
She’s excitable and it gives me hope for her, for myself, and for the future of the country.
There are so many amazing young men and women out there like Dotty.
It just takes one compliment to spark that light behind their eyes.

…Planning…?

So I’ve discovered something about this profession (and although I thought I knew before, I really know now): there’s a LOT of planning required, and virtually no time to do it in!

….not a surprise to most, I know.

Between my mentor teacher and myself, we have the ability to split the load, thank God. I take the seniors, she takes the sophomores, and we reconvene in school the next day, or that Monday after the weekend.

It’s on the spot.
It’s quick.
It’s flexible and adaptive.
It’s forever improved upon in the following class.
It’s reflected upon.
It’s discussed.
It’s ‘planning’ at its most able.

With everything going on in the school (have to be in the tutoring room for 1st period prep, have to cover another teacher’s class during 1st period; have to plan the rest of the week for the low-tracked sophomores during 5th, figure out the game plan for the rest of the day during 5th period; conference with students after school, go to meetings and trainings…) in addition to everything each of us has going on in our personal lives, the ability to actually sit and thoroughly create a plan with enough time in advance to feel un-rushed is virtually impossible.

However, we make it happen with the time we DO have.

We always know just what we want the students to know–‘okay, they have to know “dialect” for the Keystone, so how are we gonna get them to understand dialect?’ We know our materials that are handy (video clips? word document? let’s make a list?)

The answers to these and similar questions are usually scribbled down in three different places: the sheet of computer paper that is folded up and placed as a bookmark in one of the two novels we’re focusing on, Frenchie’s calender/date book, and my planner. Additionally we usually jot it down onto a sticky note and stick it next to the computer on the desk.

It happens fast.
It happens on the spot.
It happens with confidence.
It happens with the knowledge that we get to think on our feet.

Practice, practice, practice.

Flexibility, adaptability, excitement.

I plan on the notion that the more engaging, the better.
The more active, the better.
The more real-world connections we can help them make, the better.

What do they want to learn about?
What do I want them to know?
What do they already think and know?
What do I expect them to think about after they leave my room in connection to the rest of their lives?

What’s YOUR Center?

It was the end of the first marking period at “Rydell High” and “Frenchie” was scrambling to make the deadline for her students’ grades.

She needed extra time.

It was a Friday–my day to be in the classroom.

So I took my chance to teach my first real lesson.

Something that I learned about the 10th graders from the curriculum planning meeting I sat in was that the 10th graders (and even some of the other grades; French and I were having the seniors do the same assignments) were going to be doing self-reflecting work out of a book called  7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. 

This book has a lot of really great writing prompts and issues that are brought up that we pose as prompts to the students.

So quickly, Frenchie and I threw together an idea for the students to work with this book–a book that they all were expected to have.

There is a chapter in the book that talks about “Centers“. These “centers” are basically categories of priorities: “school centered”, “friend centered”, “parents centered”, “work centered”, etc.

Every day, we give the students a writing warm-up, and since this specific day I was in-charge of…well…everything. So I decided to make their warm-up somewhat relevant:

What is currently your top priority?

Before I revealed the actual prompt (above), I made sure to give them a little more of a chance to have background knowledge on the topic, so I asked

What is a “priority”? What does that word mean?

I took a few suggestions from the class, all of which were related and accurate, and then posed the warm-up question. I asked for a time-keeper and asked him/her to put 5 minutes on the timer, and asked if they could let us know when there was one minute left.

I made sure to write with them (my top priority was to write my thesis on Peter Pan…).

When time was up, I asked for a few to share out what their top priority was and why. Many of them said things like “getting into a good college”, or “getting an ‘A'” in a specific class.

We then made sure that everyone had either their 7 Habits book or a packet of photo copies Frenchie and I made during 1st period Prep.

I read the first section which introduced the concept of “centers”, then turned it to the class and asked for volunteers to read aloud.

After the gist of each section was read, I stopped the reader and asked someone else to summarize briefly the driving point of the portion read (“Pause. Let’s talk real quickly about what he’s saying here…”). With the end of each section, I asked for a new volunteer to read next.

The process moved pretty quickly, and moved quite efficiently. It began a little slowly–as my aunt (a 6th grade math teacher in AZ) says, “I became a dentist with how many teeth I had to pull!” After about the second pause in reading, though, the students seemed to understand the process and became much more responsive. The amount of hands raised to offer-up answers, definitions, explanations, and examples increased tenfold by the end of the class period.

Once we finished the reading, I went up to the board and asked for the class to make a list of all the centers the author addressed in his chapter. I also told them, that they should all take out a piece of paper and pencil or pen and write the list at the top of their own page.

When the list was completed and in front of them, I said

“Okay, with the last five minutes of class you’re going to get a head-start on your homework. For homework, I want you to write 350 words–preferably typed–telling me what your life’s center is right now. You can have multiple centers, one center…For example, if I was to write about my centers I would say that I have a heavy emphasis in my school center, friend center, and work centered.”

By the time I finished explaining the homework, they had two minutes left, so they had already began to pack their bags and put their portfolios on the shelves.

This sounds like a lesson that went swimmingly, perfectly, even. But it wasn’t.

I guess in explaining one of the centers, I used the term “y’all”. I’m from Las Vegas, where we speak like that. But a few of the students, of course, caught my diction. In expecting a relevant comment, I called on–let’s call him Jimmy–Jimmy in the back:
“Ms. S., are you from here??”
“…no…”
And I asked for someone who actually had a relevant response to my question. Instead, I got more guesses as to where I was from:
“Are you from Virginia??”
“North Carolina?”
“Maryland?”
To refocus everyone I made sure that one thing was clear:
“I’m not telling you where I’m from! Now let’s focus, c’mon, guys!”

Luckily, that was the end of that.

In response to their questions, though, I plan to make it into a game. I’m going to try and connect English and writing with geography and U.S. History (since they’re taking that class, too). I’m going to give them hints each time it’s brought up like:

I’ve lived in 6 states. 5 of those states were all a part of the Union in the American Civil War. Guess one state and explain why you think that is a state in which I have lived, or why you think that is the state I am from.

We’ll see how it goes…

A Teacher Responds To Chris Christie’s Finger In Her Face | The New Civil Rights Movement

So I’ve heard some interesting things about Gov. Christie in New Jersey, and I’m not here to say anything political (especially because I’m not a NJ resident), but this teacher should be commended. We should all be writing and speaking up to our representatives, senators, mayors, and governors! Why not just our district superintendents??

 

A Teacher Responds To Chris Christie’s Finger In Her Face | The New Civil Rights Movement.

Cursive’s Out, Technological Fluency’s In.

So I was able to get a glimpse into two separate classrooms at “Rydell High”.: one with Miss Lynch, who teaches 10th grade (Honors and Track 2) and 11th grade (Tracks 2), the other with “Frenchy”

who teaches 10th grade (Track 3, and Honors) and 12th grade (Track 2). On Friday, I spent the day in “Frenchy’s” classroom watching how she facilitates sharing and writing exercises. I was able to watch students’ reactions to each other’s writings as they were shared in front of the class.

It’s always a bit daunting no matter how old you are to share your own writings.

I watched as senior, “Henry”, one of the quieter of the class, reluctantly got in the front of the classroom and read aloud a piece handed out by Miss Frenchy. It wasn’t even his own piece, yet he was still so nervous and anxious to get back into his chair. Miss Frenchy, however, knows what she’s doing, just as the authors of Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing point out: “building confidence is our first job” (70). By getting the most shy students in the class up in front of their peers, leading discussion, she is trying to promote an open classroom environment, one where everyone’s writings can be shared and go judgement-free.

In her 10th grade classes, she had students volunteer to read aloud their assignment due that day. The assignment was: Imagine yourself in twenty years. Who is around you, what are you doing, what is your life like? Write about it.

There were students who got up and shared that they were going to be a lawyer with a family, one girl wrote that she would be hopeful to have Miss Frenchy in her life in twenty years (Frenchy was of course touched to tears by that); another girl wrote about how she’s never seen herself getting married, yet she had a son, was a single working mom, and she did her best to make ends meet (and her creativity–she began the piece in media res and finished it right where she began–was AMAZING). Some students shared about just how they had no idea what their lives would be in twenty years, but they wrote about what they aspired it to be. These students are amazing.

I was able to run a warm-up writing activity, and this is where the important part of this blog post comes. In Chapter 4 of Inside Out, the authors write about different writing activities to do in the classroom to open up the community, and get everyone comfortable. They, of course, touch on fluency, and how important it is to establish a routine and ritual in the classroom, so that students know “I walk in the room, I grab my portfolio from the shelves, and I open the binder up to a blank piece of paper, ready for the warm-up writing.” This exact routine is how Frenchy has her class structured (it’s still early in the year for them, though, so reminders are needed every now and again). As part of another assignment from another education course, I had to interview students. After telling Frenchy about my interview questions, she asked if I wanted to use one for the warm-up in the next period. Of course I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity! My warm-up question was:

Tell me about your dream school. What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like(!)? What are your peers like? What about the teachers?

After the five minute writing was over, I asked for volunteers to share what they wrote about. After a little coaxing from Frenchy, reminding them of class participation grades, a dozen hands rose. As I pointed to each student, they, unprompted, rose out of their desks to “Stand and deliver“. The piece that stood out to me most of all was delivered by a very adamant student who focused on supplies needed in his school. (Let’s call him Jimmy.)

Jimmy’s ideal school was one where no student had to carry around heavy text books, notebooks, and pens and pencils. Jimmy’s ideal school was one where every student was issued a laptop, or better yet,

an iPad/tablet where all of the required books and readings were already downloaded; where instead of having to write by hand which is exhausting and tedious they could type everything out and classes could be a lot shorter. No one would have to worry about their device getting stolen because everyone would have one. And on top of that, everyone would have to check out their device every day so the school could keep track of it.

Though Jimmy’s idea would be quite convenient, to say the least, it’s so sad to me that students no longer wish the write out the things they’re thinking, but need to type them. With the increased rate with which technology is advancing, the internet is expanding, and the digital world is becoming more and more normal, it could be easy to think that writers’ fluency has increased right along with it. I have overheard students whine and moan about taking out a piece of paper to brain-dump for five minutes because they “can’t write as quickly as they think and they lose their thoughts more quickly.” This is a common sentiment with many writers!

Even the authors of our text books acknowledge that apparent “quasi-writing”s that are done daily by teens are actually writings, and therefore they help to increase fluency.

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, then, because I really enjoy writing down on a piece of paper. And what happens if your iPad or laptop breaks one day? You need to know how to write, not matter what you’re writing, with a pen and paper. Either method increases students’ fluency, allows them to share out their thoughts and feelings in a comfortable space, and really allows for creative expression. I know as I was going through middle and high school, the iPhone wasn’t even a thing yet, there was no such thing as unlimited texting, and we passed notes in class

instead of sending a text message under the desk. The best part about writing notes to each other: you got to play with your own handwriting.

I think that’s so much more fun than using WordArt and fonts made up by the software companies. But maybe, again, that’s just me.

 

Also, by the way…the SATs, ACTs, and other standardized tests taken in an academic life requires the test-taker to copy verbatim a paragraph written in script.

Grammar and Writing-based Instruction

So my previous post unintentionally prefaced this one.

The textbook we’re using for the class I have been blogging for is called Inside Out, and talks about the importance of writing in the classroom, and helps to break down just what those important reasons and skills are that students will learn. In Chapter 1, the authors talk about the importance of grammar in students’ writings. Grammar, though important, is most definitely not the most fun to teach, and especially not to learn. The authors mention how easy it would be to just be able to teach writing as one “whole”, meaning everything would just come at once. But if we teach everything all at once, emphasis is lost on important elements of writing: fluency, grammar, structure, vocabulary, etc. By breaking it down one bit at a time, the students can then master one element at a time. Obviously this has been the practice since the beginning of written-language curricula, so I’m not saying anything new. As someone, though, who really respects and appreciates correct grammar (which in my definition includes spelling, too) I still see severe mistakes in students’ writing–not just grade school students, either, but university students who are in my age group–and it makes me worry a bit about what will happen to those students who don’t quite grasp the importance of the precise placement of a semi-colon or a comma; a capital letter or a dash. What about the differences between a dash and a hyphen?? (The latter question is one that I can tell is definitely going amiss in the classroom. I don’t think that it’s being taught, really, at all!)

Having this question in mind over the last couple weeks while sitting in my field placement at a local high school (we’ll call it…Rydell High…y’know, like from Grease),

which is an English classroom of 10th honors and regular American Literature and 11th grade World Literature, I started to pay more attention to their writing. My teacher

(let’s call her…Miss Lynch . Yup, another Grease reference.)

gives her students lots of writing assignments–the school just, in fact, switched to a writing-based instruction–and I was able to look at their writings. Keep in mind, these are Honors students, so their grammar was pretty phenomenal, but of course not perfect (few of ours is, though). However, last week I was able to read through some free writing they did and turned in for an administrator’s research about teacher qualities and I noticed a lot more students struggling with their grammar when the assignment wasn’t laid out for them in steps like their last assignment I had read.

The first assignment I read of theirs was a short piece about what it means to be American. This was a finely tuned, typed-up piece and from it, they were to choose their favorite line to include in a class-collaborative poem about what “American” means. The activity/project was phenomenal and eye-opening to both the students and to myself. I think ‘Miss Lynch’ knew generally what to expect from it. However, in the process of choosing these first lines, I was asked to help students narrow down their decisions. It was at this point I was able to read some of their work, and I noticed some over-excessive comma-usage and a few tense disagreements, but other than some small errors in mechanics, what stood out to me more was misspellings. By 10th grade, there are certain things that students, I would think, are almost masters at. Spelling pluralities of singular words definitely should be expected. (For example: tragedy –> tragedies)

So I saw a few of those from a few students…not a huge deal, but something that as a grammar enthusiast and an English teacher, I catch quickly and hang on to it until it’s fixed. However, when I pointed it out to Miss Lynch, especially after this student attempted to correct his classmate’s use of the wrong form of “there, their, or they’re” (and even though his correction was, in fact, correct), she simply shrugged and told me

“Yeah…that happens…”

This kind of threw me off-guard until the following Tuesday in another of my Education classes when my professor, Jodi, said something that tied it all together for me. She talked about her 9 year-old daughter coming home with misspellings in her work from school. She explained to us (specifically the English majors in the room who cringed at hearing that she spelled words like “grandma” like “Grnma” for a while because she just wasn’t hearing the “a” there) that this was a method of using phonics.  I’ve had a Reading Specialist class before, and knew what learning phonics does for students (in fact, I learned phonics in elementary school), but I still didn’t understand until she said “for some teachers it’s more important for the student to hear the sounds of the word and learn the spelling, than memorize and never know why they sound like that.”

I guess the same goes for grammar. If a student over-uses a comma…well…at least we know he/she knows that there is a short pause where the unnecessary comma is placed. If there are tense disagreements…well…at least the correct word is there, and that gives us, as the teachers, something to point out to them. It took me a LONG time to rid my writing of tense differences. It took a teacher pointing it out to me and working with me to understand what I was doing wrong. That’s where we come in.

As long as the students have the basics down, all we can do is tweak and constructively critique until they understand on their own.

This critiquing and individual attention not only helps students’ understand grammar, mechanics, and spelling, but it improves their fluency a little at a time, and it’s the fluency of writing that I think seems most important.