Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saying Goodbye to the Classroom

I didn’t know it at the time, but I recently taught my last group of learners.

A couple of weeks after we dismissed for the year, I took a new job in my school district. Instead of a classroom teacher, I will be a Digital Learning Coach, supporting teachers in technology integration in their classrooms.

Believe me when I say I did not end the school year with any intention of leaving the classroom. I had not even the slightest inkling that when I told my last group of kids to have a good summer! and come visit me next year! that they wouldn’t be able to. Not in C223, at least. I left the school year looking forward to a summer of intense planning for another incredible group of kids - my tenth group of kids, in fact.

But if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that sometimes you’ve got to roll where the wave takes you. And this year’s wave was a big one.

So as I have been coming to grips with what leaving the classroom means, I think a lot about how I’ve spent my nine years in the classroom, and how those nine years - and nine groups of kids - have shaped me.

I think about my first years of teaching, when I was the definition of sweating the small stuff. I worried about who had the right materials for class every day, who turned in every single assignment at the bell rather than five minutes into class, who was respectful (and who wasn’t). I think about the principal who taught me that every child has a name and a need, and how I was only beginning to learn what that really meant.

I think about my first years in this district, when I started to let go of the little things and focus instead on the bigger picture. When I was challenged to build a learner-centered environment, break down the walls of my classroom, and allow learners to construct meaning for themselves. I think about the teacher who taught me that life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it, so the perfect lesson plan will only take you so far.

I think about my last few years in the classroom, when I really became the teacher I wanted to be. When every day I asked myself: Who are the young people I’m teaching? Besides English, what am I teaching them about life? about who they are? about who they can be?

I think about this last year especially, asking myself over and over if I would have done anything differently. The truth is, of course I would’ve done things differently. But the things I come up with are mostly me sweating the small stuff (and here I thought I’d move past that!).

When I really reflect on last school year, I come up with more things I wouldn’t have changed than things I would.

I wouldn’t have changed the many, many times we paused class so that someone (sometimes me, sometimes not) could share some slightly off-topic but still completely relevant bit of wisdom. I wouldn’t have changed using the city-wide power outage as an opportunity to challenge the perspectives of my learners in third period who were stuck with me for at least 30 extra minutes. I wouldn’t have changed that I let discussions run longer than planned because we were having such great conversation. I wouldn’t have changed a single moment of time that, on paper, was wasted, because, in reality, those were the only moments that mattered.

I think a whole lot about my last day in the classroom. Would I have done anything differently on my last day as a teacher?

Per tradition, on my last day with all my kids, I read a letter to the class. In it, I told my kids that I’m proud of them and who they became over the year. I told them, one more time, that I love them. I cried. A lot. Even the sixth time I read it. This year’s group was particularly hard to say goodbye to. If I had known I was really saying goodbye to those kids and the classroom, I never would have survived it.

I also talked about the importance of finding your purpose. I shared that teaching is my calling and a teacher is who I will always be. Even though I’m not going to be in my own classroom next year, my calling has not changed. I’ll still always be a teacher. It’s just going to look a little different now, and as I sit here and write this, I know I’m ready for a new challenge.

To my spectacular sophomores of 2016-2017, know that I hear you repeating me when I say:

I’m fired up. Ready to go.

And I sure will miss you.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Moving Toward a Modified Block Schedule

In what may have seemed at the time like a wild three days returning from Winter Break, our school did a "Modified Block Pilot" to allow teachers and students the opportunity to experience what a modified block schedule will look and feel like. Next year we will be moving from a 7-period day to something a bit different:

There will be so many benefits - and, to be fair, challenges - to moving to this type of schedule. But that is not the purpose of this post!

I just wanted to reflect on a few of my experiences with the Pilot to give me an opportunity to think about how my instruction and teaching strategies will need to change for next year.

1. The skinny periods and the block periods will not have an equal number of minutes.

I did the math. The skinny periods will meet for 280 minutes per week. The block periods will meet for either 170 minutes or 255 minutes per week, depending on if we are in an A week or a B week, which means that every two weeks, all of the block periods will meet 425 minutes, where the skinny periods will meet 560 minutes. That's not a small difference!

So what does this mean for instruction? 

It means that we will have to reframe our thinking of courses because even if I teach all English II Honors classes - which is my schedule right now - I will have two very different preps. I will not be able to prepare my English II Honors skinny periods the same way I will prepare my English II Honors block periods.

Surprisingly, where I expected my skinny periods to get a lot of extra instruction during the Pilot, they actually missed out on an entire learning experience. The reason for this was that after teaching a full block, my team and I redesigned the next class period based on what we felt our students needed. That's a pretty normal occurrence. The difference was that we didn't get the opportunity to implement this into our skinny periods because of the time it took to turn over a new lesson.

This gives us a lot to think about as we begin to prepare for next year! Which leads me to...

2. Implementing UbD to its fullest extent will be crucial next year.

Our district is a UbD - Understanding by Design - district. Without getting too technical with it, UbD means that we design everything with an end goal in mind, and create learning experiences to help our students create their own understanding toward those ends.

How will this be important in a modified block? 

There are three major components to UbD. In the first, the enduring understandings and essential questions are designed, and the TEKS we will focus on are selected. In the second, performance tasks are created to align with the first element as well as create authentic assessments aligned across teams. The third is the design of the actual learning experiences that will lead to the big understandings of the unit.

This third element in UbD will have a huge weight in the modified block environment. As the skinny and block periods will have to function as different classes, it will be more important than ever to have a strong bank of lesson plans and learning experiences ready for all teachers using each UbD to pull from. As my campus has focused on deeply understanding and strongly implementing the first two elements of UbD, it will be so important for us to continue our work and push ourselves to work on that third element.

3. Sitting for 80 minutes will not be an option.

Kids sit all day. Like really. All day. And if you haven't tried it, it's surprisingly exhausting. As teachers, we will have to remember even more that it is important to get our kids up and moving during class, and to keep "chunks" of instruction to 15-20 minutes. Otherwise, it won't matter that we have more time with them during the day - they won't be paying attention to what's going on in class after the first 15 minutes of sitting.

4. I'll have time to go to the bathroom during the school day!

I know, I know. But seriously, if you're a teacher, you know - this is a big deal. On the modified block, we will have 12 minutes between classes (versus the 6 we have right now). Our students will have more time to socialize, take care of personal business, grab a snack, and talk to their teachers. 

If you haven't been in school in a while, or on a 7-period day like ours - where it feels like a bell rings and moves us around every 10 minutes - you may not appreciate how much of an impact this makes on you. I often feel like my heart beats faster during the school day than it does when I'm at home. During the Pilot, I had so much time in the passing periods that I even had time to make this amusing video (it amuses me at least!).