The student that got to me…a ramble

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Reminded of a former student today. He used to check in via e-mail after he graduated when I was at NHS (but, with the move to OK about 4 years ago I’ve lost contact). See, Greg didn’t have much of a support system at home: mom left when he was a tot, Dad was in & out of trouble, & Grandpa (who basically raised him) had passed away after a battle with cancer a year before Greg ended up in my 1st hour class. He was living with an uncle to finish HS & it was not a loving arrangement, more of a grudging responsibility from what I gathered. Uncle provided the roof, but Greg cared for himself.

Greg was fairly bright, but worked a lot. As in full-time hours outside of school in order to keep his POS car going, buy groceries & such. So he was late to class…a lot. 

He NEEDED the credit, he wanted the credit, but he was exhausted quite often – cue thoughts of my husband’s senior year & how he almost wasn’t allowed to graduate due to being late to his English class one too many times.

I was determined that this kid would NOT fall victim to an attendance rule – so I called him from my desk phone just about every morning 30 minutes before school with “get moving or you’re going to be late!” – someone had to demonstrate to this kid that HE mattered; that success, while difficult, was possible.  That he had someone on the sidelines for him this time.

Greg was my choice for the yearly “Personal Choice Award” that year. If you aren’t familiar with the program, each teacher chooses one student that stood out for them. Could be academics, grit, overcoming personal obstacles, etc. Pretty open, but the thing that makes it cool is that each kid gets the reason read aloud as they receive their award. 

It’s probably my favorite awards ceremony because the recipients are all so very different.

Greg told me his dad was coming & I watched as his hopeful eyes became a bit troubled as his seat was empty when things started. But his dad came in just after the lights dimmed (whew!). I can’t express how much I wanted to growl at the man for being late, but he DID make it & he DID beam in pride over his boy as the emcee read aloud my blurb about Greg’s grit and impressive determination. It mattered to Greg that his dad be proud & I’m glad he got to see that look from him that day. 

Greg did graduate & we parted ways with a promise from him to e-mail if he ever needed an ear. For two years, nothing. Then out of the blue, I get an e-mail telling me he had moved several hundred miles south & was slowly working his way through community college in his new town.

I was so proud of him! Most who graduated from that school take community college for granted & I knew he had to make choices to make this work. 

A few months later, while in town for a family event, he came by the school. From there, it was an e-mail every few months or so updating how school was going, the new girl he met, how that POS car he kept running due to his knowledge of mechanics and just sheer luck finally gave up the ghost & he was able to get a much more reliable one. 

Then I moved rather unexpectedly mid-year.  My spouse went on a lark interview just to stay fresh in the process & was offered an amazing opportunity. It was a whirlwind six weeks of packing up our home & moving our family out of state.

I never got to tell Greg. It breaks my heart a bit to have disappeared on him. I guarantee he found out when an e-mail came back “undeliverable”.  So I became just one more person who left him behind. And I really hate that. 

I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to say I’m sorry. Or hear if that girl became his wife. Or if he ever got that degree he was working toward. 

Still, on mornings like this one, I look out my back window at the wild mustangs that roam behind us & think about those kids I worried about most…and Greg always tops the list. 

I hope you are doing well my young friend.

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An Honest Request for Guidance…

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Last night, I had the opportunity to join a chat my current schedule hasn’t allowed much of these past few months.   It’s a chat that I genuinely enjoy due to the passion, positivity, and genuine caring of the group.  #SSTLAP (Social Studies Talk Like a Pirate – based on the book by Dave Burgess) is my group – they “get” me, my wants for my classroom, and my philosophy for education.  I was very excited to have the opportunity to talk rapport with this group last night.

I have never really thought a whole lot about the demographics of the group – it’s an open chat, so anyone who finds the hashtag at the right time can comment.  Folks come and go as they can or have interest for in the topic.  We get our share of folks from other content areas some weeks.  Other weeks, a few regulars may pass because they don’t feel a connection to the topic. 

Upon thinking on it, it is a group of predominantly white, American, secondary social studies teachers. Okay… why?  Is this intentional?  Certainly the Social Studies and American portions are logical as the book is by an American author many of the group met via another chat or through Social Studies conferences.  White?  I can’t clearly say I have an idea of this being even unintentionally designed – no one gives the regular from Canada negative feedback about not being in the US (in fact, I know that she has brought some really rich dimension to the discussions).  We certainly have had folks from Australia, Jereusalem, & South Korea occasionally join in – but I think their lack of regularity has more th do with time zones than topics or company (at least that is the reasoning offered).

So why not more People of Color? … I’m not sure and I recognize that this lack of knowledge probably ties into my own priveledge.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the chat has very few POC that join.

In light of events over the past few years – moving out of state, adapting the the culture of a new town, societal events that affect the nation, etc. I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to look into my own bias/priveledges/ advantages. I know I’m not where I’d like to be, but I keep plugging away.

I’m reading books like Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities”, investigating the Red Lining practices of the 1950’s and housing systems like the Pruitt Igor project, watching documentaries that I know will get me thinking about the horrible inequities in the city I grew up in – I’m actively trying to be aware and I’m trying to make my children more aware too. 

So when someone I’ve never interacted with, ever, joined the conversation and turned the discussion into one of race it kinda threw me. I know I choose to follow others on Twitter because I get the impression that they will help me develop as an educator – I’m not looking at their picture, I’m reading their bio.  Are they an educator or is this some group just looking to market through me?  Do we share a similar passion (particularly a philosophical connection for education)?  I’m well aware than the vast majority of accounts I follow are white folks and I know that the majority of Edu chats are populated by white folks…but how do I change this without race being the reason?

I know if I were targeted for an invite due to my sex, skin,economic position…I’d be offended.  I expect to be asked to join a group because we share values, a philosophy, etc. I seek accounts to follow for this reason. Thus, there’s no way in Hades that I’m comfortable doing the same to someone else – especially someone I carry respect for.

So an honest request for guidance – how do I get better at this and how does a public chat get better?

Taking the EdCamp Idea & Merging it for Professional Development to Create Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) Professional Development for Staff

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Whew!  That’s a really high brow-ish (and super long) name for what really means “we try to use EdCamp for PD in house”.  Before I get into the specifics of how we’ve built this, let me fill you in on some background info.

Background info

First, Broken Arrow’s CYOA was not my first venture into this model – the district I came from just outside St. Louis, MO began this concept a few years before I left.  So I was able to help with some ofthe trouble-shooting during the early stages of Broken Arrow developing this.

Second, this wasn’t my “baby” in either district.  I was a teacher who had some experience & was brought into a few of the meetings as more of a consultant/trouble-shooter. So, while I had an active role, I was not the face, nor the force behind the movement.  More along the lines of tossing out the suggestion & then having VIP clearance and a back stage pass ;).

Third, Broken Arrow is a large district.  We’re currently serving roughly 22,000 students. We have a single high school at the moment, so we have a large site on hand (our high school) to use for those roughly 1,000 staff members to gather.

And finally, this is not full-on EdCamp.  It’s a required Professional Development Day where attendance is mandatory.  Some folks have required sessions to attend & everyone is expected to participate the entire day.  So some of the EdCamp freedoms aren’t in play.  However, the goal was to allow for choice & movement along with an organic shift to what teachers and staff wanted to learn about instead of just the traditional top-down implementation. 
How did things get started?

Staff were grumbling about getting all of this required PD that they clearly had either had before, or felt didn’t apply to them.  There was a real call for more differentiated opportunities & staff getting say in what they were learning about.

For me, I had moved to the area near the end of the previous term and had had a few conversations with my supervising Administrator about EdCamps, my previous district’s ventures with Professional Development, and how we might try that model in-house.  I understand he continued those conversations with folks on up the latter of authority until a green light was given to try it.

Over the summer break, there were several meetings of various authorities to hash out a survey to send out to staff that would include areas to suggest/request PD needs & desires, to mine for inhouse talent to lead sessions, & try to trouble-shoot things like what to do if sessions were filling up too quickly (we purposely left an empty room nearby for spill over), how to/if we will take attendance that day (year one we did, after that I don’t think we did), etc. 
Typical s\Set-Up

There were spreadsheets created of requested sessions generated by a survey that was cross-referenced with possible teachers to guide those sessions.  Some teachers were specifically approached to guide a session as they were known to be knowledgeable on the topic.  Others volunteered in the survey to lead sessions.

The High School campus was mapped out with sessions placed at best-guess places – example: it was pretty well predicted that the student-led Q&A sessions would be popular, so they were placed in larger rooms.  Also, certain rooms were intentionally left empty so that spill-over or pop-up sessions might have a place to be (I personally was pretty adamant on allowing for legitimate pop-up sessions being allowed.  MOstly because these are where some of my best EdCamp learning happened).

Note: getting staff responses to that early questionnaire was KEY.  When only a small portion of staff responds with suggestions or requests, it is hard to offer the variety that the large group wants.  In that same vein, often it worked out that suggestions that were similar would be put together under a broader name (this was more practical, but later feedback suggested that some folks were really wanting to see the more specified groups).

The CYOA Experience

Staff arrived around 8:00am and gathered in the main Gym.  The district winners of some various competitions were announced so all could cheer.  Admin explained how the day would progress, QR codes and Bit.ly links were offered so staff could pull up the Google Sheet with the day’s offerings (this is where we deviated from the typical EdCamp experience – sessions were largely decided a week ahead of time based on that survey sent out so that a schedule could be ready that morning before everyone arrived).  Specific groups – like new teachers to the district – were informed of any required sessions they were expected to attend.

Cheer and Student Council led some “get everyone excited” quick activities & then staff were cut loose to their first session choices. 

There was a 1 1/2 hour lunch break at a specified time (NOTE: feedback from after the CYOA day has led to a discussion of bringing in food trucks so that folks have the option of staying on campus to reduce the traffic of everyone leaving & returning at once). 

Feedback

Gathering feedback after the experience is always key to the perceived success of that event & to better the experience of the next one.  In looking at the responses to the 2017 CYOA, all but 58 of the 379 responses stated they preferred the CYOA format & the three most common suggestions were some form of request for larger venues for the more popular sessions, a request that the CYOA PD days be moved later in the school year (we hold it during the early required PD days about two weeks into the school term), or more options by differentiating skill levels with some of the combined sessions. 

Overall Thoughts 

Overall, I hope to see more of the CYOA and I hope to see it grow.  However, I know that just like EdCamps, the crux of CYOA succeeding falls into the hands of the participants.  Getting under 400 responses to both the pre and post-event surveys limits what info the organizers have to work with for session availability and improvements for future events.  This is probably where my Midwesterner upbringing gets into my own way – my first response to a complainer is to ask if they answered either survey.  If they answer “no”, then I dismiss their complaint as I take the “it’s as good as YOU make it & you didn’t engage” stance. I know, not always the best, but I’m trying to be honest 🙂

Advice for those considering CYOA PD

Start planning early!   The spreadsheets and organization is huge here!  It can be a real time sucker to plan this thing out…but it’s worth it!

Getting sponsors for prizes takes time – give yourselves plenty of this & know that it’s optional (and hey, raffeling off a sub would be a HUGE prize for my crew).

Send out a short intro video to your staff a few days prior that explains the EdCamp concept and how you are using this for PD.  Many of your staff have heard of it, but have never experienced it…and the format will confuse them and create anxiety. Many will be uncomfortable with the “rule of two feet” and the idea that the guide is just a guide & not the “sage on the stage”.  An early explanation and some time to let it marinate will be helpful.

Let your staff tell you what it is they need/want!!!!!  This is the whole point of CYOA! You may not realize that some of your staff wants that gradebook tutorial again, but let ’em have it if they want it.  

Thoughts?  Suggestions? Further questions?  Feel free to comment here or send me a tweet @STLinOK

Chicken Little Out

“Teaching is a calling”…& other Smarmy Excuses

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Yesterday, I was at my local discount grocery store (because yeah, teacher). Before I had completed my perusal of the first isle, I spotted a familiar face – one of my building’s regular substitute teachers was there with a friend.

We chatted for a bit & before long, the topic of teachers leaving Oklahoma came up. The friend (whom I had never met prior to that encounter) asks, “Why do you think that is?”

Now, Dear Reader…you know me well. And in case you’ve forgotten, my Midwestern upbringing and Scots-Irish heritage tends to make me rather up front. Not rude, just not one to waste time. So, my answer was rather short. I replied, “Pay is a huge factor. A single teacher with two kids qualifies for food stamps here. Not a whole lot of incentive to stay if the neighboring states are paying $10-20,000 more. If it weren’t for my spouse, I wouldn’t have ever come here to start with. Not for this pay.” 

I honestly expected a thoughtful nod, a friendly “see you around” to the substitute teacher, & to continue shopping with little memory of the encounter after some time goes by…Dear Reader, I was wrong.

This complete stranger looks at me and states, “But teaching is a calling. People teach because they want to make a difference. Getting paid more doesn’t make them a better teacher.”

I kinda expected some shirtless, bear-chested, Redneck to pop through the off-brand cereals instructing a passer-by to, “Hold my beer.”

*Side note: At this point in my retelling of this story, my spouse was starting to give my “the eye” having many a personal experience with my decidedly Irish temper. However, being as this was a total stranger…I bit my tongue.

Eyebrow raised, I simply stated, “Other things certainly factor in, but you must agree that a hungry child is going to be distracted by that hungry belly instead of learning at their full potential.”

He nodded in genial agreement.

“So, wouldn’t a teacher who is rested after a single 50-hour work week be a better teacher than one who has to put in an extra 30 hours on top of the original 50 at a second job?” I continued (my perplexed tone and “are-you-an-idiot-or-just-that-selfish” look starting to send the stranger’s internal warning system on alert). “With a Master’s Degree and more than a decade of experience under my belt, surely I should be able to afford to send my kids to college…right?”

I think I scared him a bit…because at the moment I turned to reach for the shark shaped cheese crackers my youngest asked for, he walked off. 

Dear Reader, I was dumbfounded. How in all that is good in this world can we continue to allow folks to hide behind the excuse of education being a “calling” when society continues to add more and more requirements before allowing someone the title of “teacher”. A century ago, maybe; but not in 2017. 2017 requires 4 years of collegiate coursework (minimum), months of internship, hours and hours of continual professional development one in the position (without pay for your time involved), and no overtime pay. That sounds more like a pharmacist or a lawyer, not a nun.

Education is NOT a calling any longer. It is a profession & as such deserves professional compensation reflecting the requirements associated with the position. 

I was too polite to tell that stranger at the store my unvarnished feelings (& I’m still being polite here), but Educators, the world needs to see what your true value is.

…but it won’t until you deny it those smarmy crutch comments like “calling” and “service”.

Chicken Little Out

I thought I knew what I was doing

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I’m a teacher with an undergraduate degree from a respected midwestern university & a master’s degree from another.  I’ve spent the majority of my career devouring professional development – particularly stuff involving brain research. I was named a local university’s “Mentor Teacher of the Year” for 2015 & my teacher evaluations have always been impressive.  I work my tail off to be good at what I do. So when my oldest child started having trouble at school, I thought I knew what I was doing.

I had all this training, right?  Surely I could figure out how to “fix” things to help her be successful.  Don’t get me wrong, I want my child to learn how to LEARN, not just get good scores.  I have this love of reading that I want her to share with me – I have always had these dreams of sharing books together & seeing my kids excel. 

So, we got her glasses when her kindergarten teacher noted that she was squinting.  We took advantage of every after school reading help option we were given.  We dealt with the nightly battles to get the homework done and the 20 minutes of reading every night.  We tried bribery to get that reading done – “read the book & I’ll take you to see the movie in the theaters”, “you aren’t allowed to see the rest of the Harry Potter movies until you read the books”, “read all the Harry Potter books and we’ll take a family vacation (we’ve never done a big trip) to Harry Potter World!”.  Anything, ANYTHING to get this child to read!!!   …and nothing worked for long.  Graphic novels helped, but getting her to go through an extended plot line? No go.

We spent year after year hearing the same things from each of her teachers:

     “She needs to read more” (my God did we try everything under the sun to get her to do this)

     “She struggles to pay attention” (we tried fidget toys, alternate seating, reward/punishment, etc)

     “She has trouble with math too” (drill & practice, drill & practice)
And yet, while she could occasionally score at or above grade level in both math and reading…she was occasionally scoring a year behind.   STAR360 & state exams were always contradictory.  Add in our state’s 3rd grade mandatory retention based on a single reading test & this Momma about broke out in hives waiting to hear how it went. But because she could demonstrate mastery, no help for any possible learning disability & suggestions that she just needed to try more. We pulled every string & favor we knew to try and figure out the magic identifier to what was holding her back.
So, now fast forward to this year. It was August & she’s staring at 5th grade – the end of elementary school & my spouse and I were getting that panicky feeling: if we don’t get this nailed down NOW, she’s going to be that kid that falls through the cracks.  Not because her teachers won’t care, but because she’ll be that kid who does just well enough to not fall into the triage group.  Insert mom pulling the “don’t mess with me” card (not my most proud moment as an educator, but you’d throw that card too for your own kiddo in a heartbeat).  When it became obvious that the district was not going to help her, we started the 504 route…and got lucky.

See, we thought that maybe we might get an Other Health Impairment for some mild variety of Attention Deficit Disorder, but our new general physician noticed a subtle thing with her eyes during a basic checkup: her eyes didn’t converge quite evenly.  We’re talking seriously subtle.  So subtle that not one of the three optometrists who had diagnosed her vision issues over her childhood didn’t note it…not even once. Doc suggested we call around to see if we can get her in with someone who specializes in pediatric optometry – specifically with vision therapy.  Turns out there is one office (ONE) in our large metro area and we got her in to see someone over winter break. BINGO!

My kids had “Convergence Insufficiency” (yeah, it’s a real thing).  Seems that she has a brain communication issue involving her eyes. A totally fixable thing with some therapy, but something that gets missed a lot. It has only recently become a recognized condition & the majority of general optometrists don’t know to check for it.  

Insert teacher-mom guilt here. I checked out the symptoms on the website http://www.convergenceinsufficiency.org& watched a TEDx video (’cause, yeah) & my mind about exploded. Not only is this my kid…this was/is…ME.  %$*#*&&@#!!!!!!!

So, we’re getting the big therapy evaluation & then starting a therapy regime with (hopefully) some pretty valuable results by the end of the current school year. But I know there are more parents & educators out there who have a kiddo just like mine: one who loves to learn, but gets headaches. Loves science & math, but struggles with reading.  Has test scores all over the map and you just can’t get the puzzle pieces to fit on how to help this kiddo.

There is someone out there with answers – keep looking. 

Chicken Little Out

P.S.  Notice how we both have one eye that doesn’t quite seem to focus center?  Big indicator of CI.

1 Wish…#OKLAED

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A few weeks back, a story came across my newsfeed about Parkway School Disrict’s way of greeting students who came to collect their schedules for the current school year.  Using an old-fashioned chalk board and some sidewalk chalk, they had students and staff finish the statement “My Hope…” As they entered campus (see the video here – seriously, it’s super cool!). 

It moved me.  I think it was the combination of something so simply done with such a powerful step towards building rapport right from the get go.  A quiet, yet glaring, “we CARE” type of thing.  And I wanted to duplicate that for my own students.

Fast-forward to Day 1 with my students.  I did my usual #TLAP Playdough-and-PIRATE intro, but this time I added a Post-It and marker to every desk next to the container of Playdough.  Kids were certainly intrigued by the strange arrangement and my added, “No syllabus today” probably helped perk that interest a bit more.

After giving my introductions and warming them up with a goofy Question of the Day about an outrageous scenario involving money, the toilet, and lunch ladies; I asked them to write on their Post-It 1 Wish for 2017.  My only parameter was that it be honest and pertaining to the timeframe between that day and the end of May.  No names on the Post-Its, just their wish – here’s a pic of our finished board:


As you can see, many of them wrote academic goals, which are good…but those become a better person/friend/family member ones?  Chills, right?!?

Turned out to be a great activity & for days, the kids would spend that last minute or two of passing before classes start reading each other’s responses.  Even cooler, right?  But it still didn’t feel complete.  I wanted the kids to feel like they were WELCOMED – you know, wanted as individual students with all their quirks and stuff.  

So, I tossed the idea out there to do a version of this with the staff & my boss approved.

Tomorrow, my school district is having “Choose Your Own Adventure”. The idea is kinds of a pseudo-EdCamp where staff members can choose professional development sessions from a variety of choices offered/requested by fellow staff members.  We’ll be kicking off with the entire district’s collection of certified staff members filling the stands of my campus’ Field House – a perfect opportunity!

Guess what I was doing before I left campus today?  Yep, I coerced a coworker to help me slap up a place, right at the entrance, for staff to write a wish for our students this year.


Not the most fancy of products, but I’m pretty excited to see what staff members write (and a bit anxious that they don’t just walk right by it).

Now, the #OKLAED challenge (thanks @MrJoshFlores for the idea):  click here to add your “1 Wish” for your students of 2017. My hope is to cull a great list of things for us to look back at when we need a reminder of what really matters – the KIDS!

Oh the Feels!!!!

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The following was posted on social media by my best friend & fellow teacher @lkevke. It was her gift to her son’s kindergarten teacher.

Dear Mrs. *****,

          We told you at conferences that we have been saving the rocks that come home daily in B****’s shoes, and that we would be sending them back at the end of the year. Somewhere between the second or third fundraising packet and the fourth or fifth rock sucked up into my poor vaccuum, it became a running joke in our house that if everyone saved the rocks they wouldn’t need to hold fundraisers (I know school’s need money – no judgement!). Weeks later, as the rocks filled the smaller container and we had to move them to a larger one, they began to take on new meaning.


          Each day as the rocks were emptied from the shoes and added to the jar it became clear that these weren’t just rocks anymore, they represented bits of knowledge that he brought home with him each day. Some days they were handwriting skills or learning to write his last name and other days they represented sight words and counting by tens. It’s now the end of the year and his jar is full of these little pieces of knowledge that you and other teachers at *******  have enriched him with over the past 9 months. For that we are very thankful.


          What you do with the jar of rocks is up to you. One option is to keep it in your classroom as a reminder that you are making a difference each day in the lives of your students’ one rock at a time. You are also more than welcome to throw them back out on the playground for your new students to take home in their shoes next year (the playground is bound to be running low). Whatever you choose please know that we are forever thankful for the “rocks” that he came home with each day!


Enjoy your summer,

 B***** & Lori K***** (and little B*****)

     Now, I know I’m biased. I have loved this woman as the Sister-of-My-Heart for more than twenty years. But this…is just beautiful.

     I could bore you with their family story, but let me just say that this family knows perseverence in the face of difficulty & Lori’s creative (and heart felt) way of showing her appreciation to the teacher who has had the responsibility of her son is what a few of my local law  and policy makers could use a dose of remembering: we are not a business, we are caretakers. 

   This past Monday I had the true pleasure of reading names at graduation. I teach at my state’s largest high school & having 1,068 names on that list was a bit daunting for my fellow name readers and I. Toss in a crowd of close to 20,000 & my stomach was certainly in knots as the show got started. Yet as the evening progressed, I realized I had the COOLEST job of the night: I was in a position to get to personally congratulate half of the seniors as they walked past.

   From high-fives, cheeky grins, & a few quick hugs between names… It Was Awesome. The kids were so proud! And nervous. And just adorable.

   So bless you parents who get that we grow to love your kids too. And thanks for  the notes like Lori’s that we mushy types keep to remind us of that love when things get tough.