Thursday, March 5, 2015

Words with wings

Day 5 of 31 days of writing!
Emails from colleagues who work in other buildings.
Kind words in the hallway.
Likes, comments, shares, and favorites on social media... from "real-life" friends & colleagues, not just blogging friends.

"I've loved your blog posts this week!"
"So-and-so shared your blog post with me and I loved it!"
"Thank you for writing what I've been feeling about all this testing, but in a way that I never could!"

It's hard to believe that blogging used to be my secret hobby, something I was afraid to share aside from the already-courageous act of pushing that orange "publish" button. Did I really keep my whole first March Challenge a secret from everyone but my husband? Did I really wait nearly two years before starting to share my posts on Facebook, because I wasn't sure what my non-blogging friends would think?

Without living the life of a writer and braving those fears, I wouldn't have remembered how my students feel, and I wouldn't have discovered what I hope they take away from my class:

Real writing takes courage.
Sharing those words takes even more.
But the power in words that are crafted and shared from the heart gives them wings far beyond what you can even dream of.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The heart of what matters

Day 4 of 31 days of writing!
The invisible-but-weighty clouds of testing hang ominously over our heads. Weeks of time consumed with arranging and verifying accommodations, writing sub plans, and watching students either toil resolutely for too many hours or just give up after too few.

How can I be excited to pour out my energy when I don't get to go to class or help my students? I feel like I'm losing myself because I don't get to teach.

How are my students supposed to remember that learning is fun when their days are consumed with overly arduous tests? They're losing the readers and writers they've become.

How will they realize all the progress they've made when they are constantly confronted by overwhelming passages and questions far above their frustration level? They're losing the strength and confidence they've gained.

How can they remember that they are special, unique, valuable people when they are wading through tests that tell them there is one right answer, one acceptable score, one way to become successful? They're losing the sense that they matter.

Those are things that no one should lose. So I printed out Peter Reynolds' wonderful encouragement poster that accompanies his short film, The Testing Camera, shrunk it into small cards, and copied them on colored paper. I got out my PARCC and OGT testing rosters, sat quietly, and thought about each student, one by one. And as I wrote small notes about their kindness, their enthusiasm, their attitudes, and their growth, the testing clouds started to dissipate.

mini-posters on the front, personal notes on the back :-)
I hope my words will bring some reassurance, smiles, and flutters of hope tomorrow morning. I hope they might be held in some hearts the way I still hold the words of some of my teachers.

But no matter what they mean to my students, they've already made a difference. As I wrote, I remembered just how much I love those kids, and that brought me back to the heart of what matters. I am so lucky to have the opportunity to work with these amazing students every day!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Back to life

Day 3 of 31 days of writing!
"Well, you can try again in the summer, in the fall, and next spring, as many times as you need to..." When I walk back into the small room where our intrepid testers are taking a lunch break, they've been asking my colleague what will happen if they fail the tests. Their faces are tired and their bodies are tense. They will spend all day like this for a week... they don't need to spend lunch this way too!

"Aw, but come on, you've been thinking about those tests all day!" From somewhere in the depths of my own fatigue, I muster more enthusiasm than I feel. "This is your chance to relax for a half hour! Get your mind away from those tests! Let's talk about something fun!"

Exhausted half-smiles. Testing all day for days in a row is bad enough. Knowing that these tests, which don't even come close to showing all the progress you've made as you learn English and content at the same time, determine if you'll get to wear a cap and gown like everyone else is a burdensome weight. Being sequestered with your teachers for lunch, unable to speak your language or see your non-testing friends, with the rest of the test still looming over your head, is probably close to most students' definition of pure torture.

"So, what's the best food in the cafeteria?" My worn-out brain is not adept at coming up with encouraging conversation topics, but my sweet students slowly start to talk about their lunches. "Salads! They are healthy and good!" S. declares, and a few other students nod.

"Ooh, good for you!" I grin. "When I was your age, I would have never chosen a salad! I always wanted pop, nachos, candy..." Giggles turn into laughs and eyes begin to sparkle with glints of life again. Suddenly, the little room inside the guidance office is bubbling with conversation.

"How's the baby doing?"
"So how did you decide to be a teacher?"
"What's Idaho like?"
"I was BORN in 1998!"
"I came to Ohio because we had family here."

Finally, my students look like my students again, instead of vacant, downtrodden zombies. Sharing our stories has brought them back to life, and it's done the same for me... until I look over and see D. with his face buried in his hands. "D, are you ok?"

He sighs and lifts his head. "Yeah..." But his face is red and his eyelids are drooping.

"Come on, get up and wiggle around while you can! We have to be awake to go beat that test!" I start to stretch and squirm in silly ways.

A few giggles.

"Tomorrow we should have a lunchtime dance party to get your energy back!" More giggles.
"Yeah, we can do the Chicken Dance!"
"Those guidance counselors and secretaries will look in here and wonder what's happening!" By the time we head out the door to confront the tests again, the whole roomful of students, teachers, and aides is laughing. Together.

When impersonal, challenging mandates drain us, connections bring us back to life.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Day 2 of 31 days of writing!
"Teacher!" one of my new students from Saudi Arabia called me over on the first day of PARCC ELA testing last week. "What does this mean?"

I glanced down at the paragraph-long essay prompt inside the red box. "I'm sorry, I can't help you with any of the questions..."

"But I don't understand what I have to do!!!" His punched-out words and panicked eyes pierced me with an accusatory look, as if I were directly responsible for this torture. Gesturing futilely at the cumbersome, cursory word-to-word dictionary on his table, I forced what I hoped was an encouraging smile. "You can try to use your dictionary... just do your best."

About twenty minutes later, one of my Korean beginners raised her hand. My heart sunk when I saw the closed test booklet sitting in her lap. The regular testing time wasn't even over yet, let alone the extended time that my ELLs can (and should) take. "Are you finished? Remember you can take a very long time..." I halfheartedly pointed at her word-to-word dictionary.

Her wide, serious eyes were filled with defeat as she shook her head. "I don't understand."


It was one thing to have my heart break to see my students exhausting themselves for graduation testing, working frantically for entire days all week. It's an entirely different kind of devastation to see them just give up because they can't even access the test questions, let alone complete the tasks that are supposed to show what they know and can do.

Contrary to the beliefs of the PARCC creators, allowing beginner and low intermediate students to have interpreters and translation for a language arts assessment would not invalidate the test constructs. In fact, my graduate classes in foreign language education and TESOL all taught me that reading should be assessed in ways that determine true comprehension of the passage by taking language dependency out of the assessment items: using pictures, nonverbal tasks, and questions in students' first language. And how could anyone possibly show how well they can write if they can't decipher what the prompt is asking them to write about?

The old tests were arduous enough, but at least they attempted to give my students a chance: interpreters, audio CD translations, the use of electronic dictionaries and more robust paper dictionaries. Sadly, the absurd restrictions of PARCC ELA tests do not preserve their validity; they invalidate my students. With the old tests, my students were resolute warriors. This year's freshmen were defeated as soon as they began.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Braving the cold

Day 1 of 31 of the March Challenge at Two Writing Teachers!
Fluffy, feathery snowflakes drift gently through the murky Ohio sky, settling themselves onto windswept drifts and old heaps of shoveled snow.
Do you see the falling flakes? Why is it so hard to capture them in a picture?
In December, the sight of these downy dancers twirling in the air makes me want to run outside, spread my arms wide, and stick my tongue out. But in March, the same sight just makes me want to hunker down and hide. Especially this March.

This school year, there have been lots of reasons to hunker down and hide. Betrayal of my band family by my once-beloved university, tough classes, more students with unique issues to problem-solve, a vast increase in new students to assess and place... and of course, a bigger-than-ever gauntlet of standardized tests with old and new ways to torture my sweet students.

Oh, and there's also that small human growing inside me, bringing plenty of cuteness and joy but also plenty of worries, challenges, and her own whole to-do list.

So it would be easy to hunker down and hide, easy to make excuses, easy to decide not to write. And often, I have. My Tuesdays have been too empty of writing and too full of hunkering down. When I thought ahead to March this year, I felt too much apprehension and not enough excitement.

But being a writer is not only central to my identity, but essential to my teaching. Lately, I've been feeling lost trying to teach writing without living it. I've known I need to get my writer self back.

And as March got closer, special memories of the past three Marches drifted into my mind:

  • Joy that every day would carry the excitement of Tuesday connections: dipping into digital friends' lives, being inspired by their thoughts, and being encouraged by their comments. 
  • Thinking like a writer: noticing the small moments, carefully crafting ideas into words, trying to stretch and experiment.
  • Finding the courage to share my blog with "real-life" friends and family members, and discovering that they were just as supportive and excited about my writing as my blogging friends.
  • Inviting students, friends, colleagues, and even my mom to join me in a month of reflection, connections, challenge, celebration, community and growth.
It's time to brave the cold and step back into the world. I can't wait to see what this March will bring!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Seeing the sky

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Driving home, after another challenging day in the midst of a particularly arduous couple of weeks, I suddenly saw the sky. Really saw it.

I don't know what I had been seeing for the first half of the drive home -- mostly my mental to-do list tumbling over a blur of barren trees and leftover snow. But then I climbed a gentle hill, swung around a quiet bend, noticed the song change on the radio, or just raised my eyes a little higher... and somehow, I noticed the sky.

A soft, gray blend of light like muted watercolors, melting into brilliant streaks of yellow and orange. Light, not darkness. The days are stretching themselves toward spring just as the trees stretch toward the sky. Beauty and hope.

It was like waking up from a dismal dream, and I realized how easy it is to trudge through days with such a narrow focus, just like I had for the first half of my drive. Testing, paperwork, meetings, and mandates. Lists that grow longer instead of shorter. Tasks like tentacles that drag me away from the joy of planning and teaching. And if I manage to get my mind off of all that, worries that flit through my head with the annoying whine of mosquitoes. How will I possibly do all of this next year, when I can barely do it now?

But just like on my drive home, if I raise my eyes and clear my mind, I can see the sky:

A fun lunch group full of positive colleagues who miss me and ask about me when I have to eat at a different time due to testing. Students whose faces light up when they walk into my classroom. That glorious moment of intense silence that means they really don't want to stop when I ask them to come to a stopping place in their books. Poignant, vulnerable words from growing writers who have learned that their stories matter. Former students who stop by to say hi, borrow books, and tell me that they were talking together about what a good mom they think I'll be. Supportive, caring administrators who go out of their way to help and encourage me. Precious friends who listen closely, understand, and show they care with smiles, texts, and gifts of their time. And at home, an incredibly sweet husband who takes care of me in so many big and little ways.

When I chose my one little word for this year, I was mostly thinking about my own actions. But I see that it's just as important to notice all the LOVE that surrounds me: always there, full of beauty and hope, just like the sky.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

One Little Word 2015: Love

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Except in kindergarten, when I made a New Year's Resolution to stop sucking my thumb, resolutions were never really my thing.

But when the amazing community of teacher-writers at Two Writing Teachers introduced me to the concept of choosing One Little Word for the year, I was immediately intrigued and excited. After all, I love words! And I'm easily overwhelmed. Choosing just one word to guide me through the year seemed manageable and encouraging: one word to center me and help me focus. One beacon, one light, one anchor.

In 2012, I chose to CONNECT more deeply.
In 2013, I filled my year with DELIGHT.
And last year, I strove to be a SPARK.

Those little words took me on incredible journeys. Every year, I'm astonished at just how often my word pops into my daily life.

The word that has found me this year may seem overly simple and obvious, but I believe it's a word we really don't use often enough or in the right ways.

I made this year's visual with the Drawing Desk app. Fun!
This year, I want to fill my life with a focus on LOVE... and I don't mean the sappy romantic kind, but the kind described in 1 Corinthians 16:14 --
"Do everything with love."

So yes, I'll center myself with LOVE for my sweet husband, in little and big ways. I'll savor LOVE for my wonderful parents, who are so much fun. And I'll explore a whole new kind of LOVE for the tiny human being who's miraculously growing inside me!

But I'll also strive to give more LOVE to my precious friends by spending more time with them and showing them how much I appreciate and treasure them.

I'll remind myself to ensure that no matter what else my students take from my classes, they remember that I LOVE them. Their tears, conversations, and writing this fall around our read aloud of One for the Murphys were a wallop right to my heart: kids just want to be loved. Even the big ones. Especially the tough ones. So I'll do my best to make them readers, writers, and thinkers, but I'll also do my best to make sure that in the midst of testing, rigor, grades, and credits, they know, deep down, that they are loved.

And as I wade through the shadows of modern education
that attempt to snatch my attention
from loving those kids,
those friends, and those family members...
and as Husband and I navigate 
the astonishing, breathtaking, 
formidable new path
 that stretches in front of us...

I'll seek to focus on the things I LOVE most:

small moments,
 special connections,
everyday magic.

I can't wait to see where this year of LOVE takes us!