On the Seventh Day, the Department Didn’t Rest.

Teaching is great, but learning has always been my true passion. What I love even more than my own personal growth is how I also get the opportunity to learn as a group with my peers. There are definitely benefits to teaching at smaller schools, but I’ve also embraced this opportunity to be part of a committed and passionate department. We spent the day together digging through our files, exemplars, terms and apps to find a way to help streamline the information to our students. More importantly though, I think that what we were really doing was trying to find a way to connect to our students in new ways and pushing what English Language Arts can be to them.

Of course, we spent time mapping out the basics and skills they will need to communicate, but what really excited us and pushed us were the conversations we had about how to encourage students to take more ownership in authentic projects and creations. As we dug through some amazing student work from this term, we wanted to make sure that next year we would provide a way to make sure they have the chance to showcase it all.

This really stemmed from a guest speaker we had earlier in the week. Dean Shareski reminded us that we spend a lot of time giving athletes and musicians a stage, but we should also provide opportunities for other students to take the spotlight in different ways too. Every time a student hands something in that’s incredible, I am eager to show others in my department, so why not everyone else too? We can’t just save those exhibitions for our annual open house. Student learning should be celebrated daily not yearly, and I am happy to be part of a department that wants to do just that.

On the Sixth Day…

It is a great feeling when you get reminded how amazing people can be. I’ve been drowning in planning, marking and classroom issues for the past few months, so I’ve forgotten how incredible students can be outside of the classroom. Today, the school was treated to a pep rally to showcase how talented and skilled these students are.

When I started the year, I was determined to get to know the students outside of my classroom. I had volunteered to help out with student council, but as life got busy, I cut that opportunity out of my schedule. It was a lot of fun helping out with Halloween, but I knew I couldn’t handle the extra hours, and I wanted to spend time with my newborn. I regret not rearranging my schedule in different ways because what the students have accomplished this year so far has really impressed me.

Even though I only teach them English or wish them a pleasant evening in the hall, every time one of them bravely took the stage to perform in front of their peers, I couldn’t help but beam with a little pride. As they performed songs, played games, or just cheered each other on, I could see how passion had a lot to do with what they were doing.

I’ve noted indifference before in youth. How students would rather sit around garbage in the lunchroom than pick it up. Or how some will just walk by someone who is struggling to pick up something dropped. However, during the pep rally, I saw students engaged by a choir, solos, and a young man who performed an incredible improvised ditty on the piano. In fact, later in the halls, many students and staff were applauding this student’s effort, and I couldn’t help but be proud that I taught him.

I knew he was creative and took English seriously, but I had no idea that he was a talented pianist. I struggled through piano lessons as a child, and I know how many hours it would take to be that good because I never put in those hours. I found other distractions during my high school days, and didn’t really find my passion until my post-secondary years. Passion is something that should be channeled and utilized in the classroom. I still have a lot to learn about how to do that, but I hope that next year I will get a chance to interact with these amazing students outside the classroom. In fact, I’ve already started making recruiting pitches to a few students to consider helping out with student council in the future. I just hope that the students will have me back, and not think I’ll leave them hanging again.

Not Quite the Five W’s

The Inspiration

A few weeks ago, my principal showed us a list of factors that affected high school achievement. At the top of that list was acceleration–to make sure that students are learning something that pushes them or has them at the edge of their learning. It makes sense for the engagement of eager or over-achieving students, but one of my worries has always been what do I do with the other 25 or 30 who don’t seem to be invested while staying under the speed limit of what we’re doing in class?

The Setup

I decided about a month ago to do random grammar spot checks to see what areas or deficiencies I could help tune up before the final in June. I knew that the results wouldn’t be spectacular for our weekly grammar quiz, but I didn’t expect them to be so average either. Instead of waffling on what I started or going back to fundamental grammar points, I decided to focus a Friday lesson on a specific area targeted to augment their writing styles.

The Execution

For the first style lesson, I chose parallel structure. While creating the lesson, I doubted myself a bit because I have been having a few behaviour issues with the class, and how exactly was a boring old grammar lecture going to curb that? As I put up the first slide to explain what parallelism is, there were a couple of students tuning out already. A few were dutifully jotting down the definition, but nobody was on the edge of their seats. As my slides progressed into examples and fill in the blank responses about noun and adjective forms, more heads popped up, and even more notebooks were opened to scribble notes. When I went on to maintaining the same phrases in a list, students were volunteering more than one example for each of the scenarios for prepositional and gerund phrases. Just before I hit clauses, a few students asked, how will all this help in our essays? A little grin crept on my face because I knew my next slides were going to show exactly how they can use parallel structure in their upcoming Lord of the Flies essay. A few light-bulbs turned up their wattage. Moreover, for those twenty-five minutes of grammar, I had a few students express their frustration why they never knew about this before, and I could tell that a few others were turning over ideas in their head about how to utilize this style in the future.

The Reflection

I never considered grammar to be a topic to engage a class because I had grammar drilled into me while I was a student, but one student made a very valid point towards the end of the lesson that no one cares or has to use grammar anymore because of spell & grammar checks online or in apps. This seems so strange to me because I’ve been trying so hard this term to engage them in different ways and push them to be more responsible and accountable for what we do in class. I’ve spent hours trying to come up with creative and interesting projects, but not much has worked. However, a brief lesson on grammar kept their attention, so I guess sometimes you have to go back to the well to think outside of the box. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next week’s grammar tune up about active & passive voice with a few countable nouns thrown in for good measure.

Four Sure, You Can Keep Reading

Excuse me while I talk to myself for a bit. Breathe. Focus on the good moments of the day. Don’t let the mishaps overshadow a great moment.

Rewind to the beginning of one of my blocks today. The following students will simply be referred to as Blue and Red.

Before the bell rang, a few students were chatting about what we were going to do today. One guy in the back was wondering why we can’t just watch movies. I told him simply that we’re in the middle of novel study, and that it is important to finish what we start in class and in life.

Blue perked up and  declared that he’s been enjoying the book, and that he liked reading.

I replied reading is great, and that I love it too.

Red quickly stated that he hates reading and that he’s never finished a book before.

I told him that he’s about to because we only have a few chapters left in this one.

We read for awhile, discussed the novel’s themes, and made predictions about what the protagonist would do. I chose to hold off reading the rest of the book, so the students would have some time to work on their focus questions. I quit reading to them with only a chapter left in the book. There was a bit of a cliffhanger, so I did mention that if anyone wanted to find out what happened with the horses, they could keep reading, but we wouldn’t discuss it till tomorrow.

The strangest thing happened, so I had to look up and check with my EA, and we were both happily surprised. They were all reading. The room was silent in a good way. They all wanted to finish the last chapter to find out if the protagonist finally grew up and could do something selfless. A few of them said they didn’t like the ending, but Blue said it fit well. Red was oddly silent because he was still reading. The bell rang for lunch, and everyone left, but Red was still at his desk because he said he had one more page to go. As Blue left his friend Red, Blue told me that The Red Pyramid was a good read, and I nodded. After Blue went for lunch, I stepped out of my room to smile to myself, and just let Red have a chance to finish without distraction. He probably won’t realise it, but in that moment, he reminded an English teacher why he puts up with so much.

Sometimes I put up with it all, so I can help a student finish his first book.

Sometimes It Takes Three To Make a Thing Go Right or Make Sense

I think what I love about learning is that sometimes even after you’ve taught something or given advice on something a thousand times, you are still able to see it from a fresh perspective, and that feeling you get is almost indescribable, like some kind of rush of knowledge or insight.

Hobby: Music

Obviously most people like music, but I can still remember the days of dubbing mix-tapes and figuring out the exact order of side a or b, or when the best song on the playlist should appear. I used to be the go-to-guy among my friends when they needed to know the name of a song or a suggestion for what to dance to at their weddings. I took a long break from any new musical ventures, but this year, I’ve relied a lot on my music to help keep me focused. One day, I stumbled on a track called, “Carry On” by fun. Neat song, good message, but one line puzzled me. “May the past be the sound of your feet upon the ground.” As an ELA teacher, I needed to understand why this comparison is being made, and I couldn’t do it just then. Urg.

A Novel Study: Dare

Teaching a novel study can drag on at times, or you can try to find something inside the novel to connect with, and allow it to sort of wash over the class, and if you’re lucky, some amazing discussion could happen. Not to judge or label this current generation of high schoolers, but I’ve noticed a lot of blame being shifted about. I’ve heard time and time again that this or that is someone else’s fault, so when we got a to a scene in our current novel about a young man being told by his grandmother that she didn’t blame him anymore, nor did his mother, and that he should stop blaming himself, something really resonated in me. I decided to spend some time in class discussing what it means to let blame hold you back from choices you can make. How if you always say that some guy did something to you years ago, and it doesn’t let you do something today, you’ve actually wasted all those years between. We talked as a class for a while about making sure that instead of just blaming, we choose to live and move on.

Film: Vanilla Sky

Say what you will about Tom Cruise and confusing movies. I remember one strong piece of advice from this film. The lawyer friend told David to stop living in the shadow of his father. He told him quite simply to “Choose life.” (mind you it could be a bit of rip-off from Trainspotting’s open monologue, but I think the message this time was a bit more wholesome) That line has stuck with me over the years, and augmented a bit to “Choose happiness.” I think many times in life we think life is so complicated, but in the end it is just a simple choice between choosing bitterness, complaint, inadequacy or happiness.

Tying it all together: Choosing

What I’m getting at is that I knew a lot about making positive choices, but it wasn’t until I let all three of those moments converge in my life, and figure out the literary meaning behind that simple pop song by fun. That message of choosing happiness resonated back during  all of my classes on Friday. I taught with a lot more gusto than normal, and we had a few great debates and conversations about happiness and how we achieve it, and how sometimes life is even a bit sweeter when we help choose happiness for others too. I’m not sure how everything will work out over these next five weeks, but one of those choices we made as a class was to investigate a bit into an amazing program called donorschoose.org We aren’t raising funds or anything like that, but we’re taking the time to realise that there are many schools out there who are not as privileged as ours, and hearing students talk about helping other students really makes it easy for me to choose happiness in my own life, and just like the fun. song, I will carry on and the past will be the sound of me walking forward.

Smiles x2

What I’ve enjoyed most about being a new parent are all the amazing smiles I get from my boy. No matter how rough my day has been or how exhausted I am getting up early or late, he just needs to smile, and everything feels a bit better. I’m also learning how to recognize a smile is an amazing reaction from everyone, even some more difficult students.

During this term, I’ve had a few students be a bit more challenging than I’m used to, but there are also moments where these same students remind you how wonderful young minds can be. Just this week, I had one of those great teaching moments when I actually felt like, I’m not too bad at my job. We were discussing a scene from a novel where a character had misjudged a supporting character and realised that she was a hard worker, and she maintained a farmhouse on her own. We paused for a few minutes to discuss how hard work can be a source a pride for many people. I asked the class if there was anything they had built or helped build that they are proud to show off to their friends or neighbours. I gave an example of one of my wife’s colleagues whose husband had built their house with just his father and no other help. Immediately, an unexpected hand shot up.

This student and I have had a few differences of opinion this term, but today he was ready to talk about how proud of how he was. A huge smile crept across his face as he told us about how he was helping out on some major home renovations. How even just yesterday, he had invited some friends out to show off how much work his family had put into the place, and how there were no contractors, just him and his family. I listened closely, and I will remember that smile he had for the rest of the term. I know that not every class will go perfectly before June, but it is good to remind myself that there are still great moments to be had.

Just breathe, choose happiness, and smile.

Year One, um sort of…

I read somewhere once about  a teacher who felt like his teaching became difficult or arduous during times when he wasn’t blogging. When he wasn’t reflecting, things just seemed to spiral out of control.

I really agreed with it at the time. I really thought that it made sense. Then I thought to myself that it can’t really make that much of a difference, can it?

I quit my daily updates about a week before my son was born. I was feeling the pressure of my first official year of teaching, and it hit me hard. I really needed to cut certain things out, so I could try to stay afloat. One of them was the 20 minutes I spent blogging while my puppy was digesting her breakfast and before I had to let her out before heading to work. Instead I was using that little bit of time to say good morning to my boy, change him or just watch him smile at me.

I figured that having a new child in life wouldn’t be so hard. Big mistake. Most ideas of marking or planning at a certain time were pushed aside to help him sleep, eat, roll around and so on. Things were going on the back burner fast, and I was staying up late, sleeping less and neglecting more than just my blogging. Yet, I didn’t push myself to reflect. Who has the time to reflect when you’ve got everything else on the go, and more and more and more and more…

I deluded myself into thinking that I could just keep swimming. Problem was/is, I’ve never been much of a swimmer. I would seek out assistance and ideas about anything and everything occasionally, but the holes of marking and biting off more than I could chew seemed almost too deep, and eventually something had to give.

It did. I lost focus. I lost grace. I lost a lot more than I realised this past week.

I forgot that I do need to think about my practices on paper. I need to air them out to see what it is I’m doing. I also need to let the negativity get out here or somewhere other than the classroom, so I can actually focus on the positives, and that learning really is awesome.

During one of my novel studies this week, a character said, “You need to stop blaming yourself.” One of the questions I posed to the class was, do you think that character understood what he was being told? We talked through it as a class for a bit, and I ended up saying that the more you blame and don’t accept, it clouds your choices in life. I told the students that if we only focus on how something shouldn’t have happened or could have been different, we forget to live and move forward.

All I can say is duh. I should really listen to what we discuss as a group and gain some insight into my own life. I need to remember why I love teaching, why I want to make a difference. The short answer is that I want to teach students to grow and want to make a difference in someone else’s life. These students will all outlive me, and hopefully, they will outgrow me in compassion and care. I forgot that I got into this field not just for the ABC’s, but to teach students how to use them to make this a better world.

My reflection and sanity can’t take a backseat. Something else has to give, so now I get up at 5 instead of 6:15. I take my dog for a walk. I read someone else’s blog, and work on mine. I still see my son at 7:00 to kiss him and remind myself that I will help make this a better world, so he can be a part of it.