Tuesday, August 27, 2013

One Little Spark

"I got your letter!!!"
"I liked your letter!"
"Oh, I got a postcard from you!"
"That place was pretty! Where is it?"
"Recibí tu carta y quería responder, pero no pude encontrar su dirección..."
"Thank you for the letter!"
"My parents were wondering which one you were, and I explained to them..."

Last Wednesday, on the first day of school, my students came bouncing into my classroom with huge smiles and sparkling eyes.  One even pulled his postcard out of his binder, waving it as he found a seat.  Class after class, amidst a sea of hugs, excited chatter, and smiles both familiar and new, postcards (which my students mostly called "letters") came up again and again.

You see, a few weeks earlier on my trip to Hocking Hills, I perplexed the gift shop cashier by buying a huge stack of postcards to send to my students.  When I used to teach elementary school, I knew teachers who sent their new classes postcards or letters over the summer, and I just loved the idea.
Just before mailing!
Last fall, one of my freshmen wrote a few sentences in her first quarter reflection letter that stuck with me all year.  Because of her, I'll always remember how scary first days can be, especially for freshmen, new students, and ELLs.  Moreover, I'll always remember what a difference one teacher can make.
I don't even remember what we did in class, and I bet she doesn't either.
But months later, she remembered how she felt in my classroom.
When I was planning for the beginning of the year, her words kept running through my mind.  If I could make her day better without really trying, what if I tried harder?  What could I do to make that first day more of a DELIGHT for all my students?  How could I take away that nervousness and apprehension for more kids?  What were my students feeling like as they looked ahead towards the school year, and how could I make it a more positive feeling?

As I thought, worried, and wondered about my students' summer experiences, the memory of those elementary teachers who sent notes over the summer came drifting back, and I knew I had to try it.  At the very least, I hoped my students would have something positive in their minds when they thought about me and my class.  I hoped the new students would feel a little less scared, and that my students from last year would feel special that I thought of them over the summer.

Last Wednesday, I was rewarded with so many more smiles, squeals, and hugs than I had dared to dream of.  A few dollars and a few hours of my summer for pure DELIGHT on the first day?  Definitely worth it.

It's going to be a great year!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Looking forward and back

at Two Writing Teachers!
The school year is here!  It's here!  It's here!

Students come tomorrow, and I'm so excited.  Last year at this time, I was a nervous wreck: new school, new subject, new age level.  I barely slept for days beforehand.

This year, I've been sleeping soundly through the night!  I'm comfortable in my school, I'm elated to have my own room, and I'm truly looking forward to seeing my students.  One of the great things about teaching ELLs is that I get to have many of the same students several years in a row.  I keep thinking about stories I can't wait to tell certain students, new books I can't wait to show them, and conversations I can't wait to have with them.  I can't wait to check in with the students I've worried about and get caught up with the others.  And of course, I can't wait to meet my new freshmen.

I'd love to write more, but there are still a few last-minute details to complete tonight.  However, I just have to share something exciting that happened recently.  Last week, I opened up my email to find a surprising message:
(What a surprise!)
We did a phone interview today, and it was so much fun to revisit my cart-traveling days.  It's really neat to realize that my blogging helps other teachers, and now it has led to something even bigger! The article will be up later this fall, so watch your email if you get those NEA Today emails.  :-)

I know I've said it before, but the Internet is so cool!!!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Spinning and Nesting

at Two Writing Teachers!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my constant quest to improve my teaching. Since then, my brain has continued to tumble new ideas around like a washing machine, spinning and turning them over and over until they are ready.  Now, a week before school starts, some are ready, but some need a few extra cycles.

I've spent the past two days flitting around my classroom like a nesting mother bird, weaving the strands that will hold our community together and tucking in special soft fluff to make it comfortable.  After sharing two rooms with my colleague last year, I'm so excited to truly have my own space this year!

There's still so much work to do before the kids come next Wednesday, but I'm feeling encouraged, inspired, and confident that I'll be ready for them.  To make our year together more special, meaningful, and purposeful, I have some big (and little changes) in mind, including:

  • sending a postcard to each student before school starts (almost done with this!)
  • setting up the room with a cozy meeting space for whole-group discussions and open work spaces (no assigned seats) for independent & group work time
  • using random & purposeful group & partner selection methods more often since there won't be assigned seats
  • organizing periodic lunch bunches with students
  • digitizing routines by putting up QR codes near the door for classroom sign-out (a simple Google form with name & destination, since the form will put in a timestamp!) and book sign-out (Booksource Classroom Organizer)
  • not having a classroom management "system" beyond my classroom expectations, but having conversations with individual students and working with them to develop personalized interventions as needed 
  • having an ELL parent night (an idea from last year, but I let it get lost!)
  • being more purposeful with goal-setting early in the year, and incorporating English skills goals as well as academic / life skills goals
  • implementing growth portfolios early in the year and having the students maintain them throughout the year
  • digitizing our reading goal sheets (based on Penny Kittle's from Book Love, but my students each have their own) as Google spreadsheets (thanks for the idea, LeeAnn!)
  • using Goodreads and blogging with my Intermediate students (instead of just my Advanced students, as I did last year)
  • starting the year with a mini-unit about effective learning and being a community of learners, using the awesome lesson ideas in Larry Ferlazzo's new book, Self-Driven Learning
  • doing a "slice of life" unit early in the year, with excerpts from The House on Mango Street and real slices as mentor texts, so students can be more purposeful when slicing independently for the rest of the year 
  • revamping my grading to focus on mastery: 5% independent reading, 5% vocabulary development, 5% academic skills, 85% summative assessments in all areas (I will still post progress on practice work, but it will be weighted 0%!)
  • implementing Genius Time with at least my Advanced class, and maybe Intermediates too
  • using Evernote for my reading & writing conference records (I started this in the spring, and it was wonderful!), while simplifying the student writing conference record into a goal sheet and incorporating a column for skill goals into their reading goal spreadsheets
  • encouraging reading & curiosity while connecting with authors & other classes through our new class Twitter account!
Of course, there are also innumerable tiny changes and adjustments spinning in my head, but those are some of the big ones.  If you have experience with any of those topics, please share your ideas and feedback!  Also, I'd love to hear what new ideas are tumbling through your brain this year!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Nature's Peace

at Two Writing Teachers
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as the sunshine into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off you as autumn leaves." 
– John Muir

I missed you all last week, but I was having an amazing vacation in Hocking Hills, enjoying nature and my sweet husband!  After having such a tough year last year, and spending so much of my summer thinking about school, I really needed that week away.  And it was wonderful!

my March Challenge prize!
Actually, it was so wonderful that I couldn't possibly describe it all for you in one slice.  In fact, it took me 25 pages to capture all the fun we had in my travel journal!

that's right, 25 pages for 5 days!

Since I can't share 25 pages with you, here are the top ten things I learned during our five days away:

10. Raccoons like to have big eating parties!  However, deer like to eat alone.
Our cabin had a wildlife feeding station. On our first night, 12 coons came out to welcome us!
The animals, deer included, didn't mind if we were sitting quietly on the deck!
9. There are still tiny fawns around in early August!
We saw 34 deer, and 6 of them were small fawns!
sweet mom & baby!
8. Saddles are heavy and complicated!
Before horseback riding, we got to brush, saddle, and learn about our horses! 
7. Hummingbirds and wild turkeys both make happy little sounds to themselves as they eat!
Three hummingbird friends visited us constantly on our deck.  When they were together, they bickered with perturbed squawks and chased each other away, but when they were alone, they squeaked happily as they ate!
To our surprise, we could hear the wild turkeys gobble as they ate!
6. No gourmet restaurant can beat grilling hot dogs on the deck of a secluded cabin!
our gorgeous deck!
5. It's possible to see 49 turtles in two hours!
That's right! 49 turtles, some on logs and some on beaches like this guy!
We realized that's an average of two turtles every five minutes, which may be my turtle-loving husband's definition of heaven!
4. Music brings people together, and making music is about having fun. (Ok, so that wasn't new, just a pleasant reminder!)
The bluegrass in this peaceful outdoor amphitheater was excellent, but watching the band members have fun playing together made it even better!
3. How to say "thank you" in Shawnee. (It's pronounced "NEE-oh-way".)
Shawnee storyteller Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah was engaging, educational, and inspiring. One of very few remaining native speakers of Shawnee, he sprinkled Shawnee words throughout his presentation.  Through talking with him before the show and trying my best to thank him in Shawnee afterwards, we made such a personal connection that he gave me one of the wampum bracelets he was wearing! I couldn't STOP saying "NEE-oh-way"!
2. Vacation isn't about the distance. There are many treasures hiding closer than you think, and REAL time spent together (with no distractions!) is the best gift of all.
Ash Cave. See the tiny person at the bottom? That's Husband!
And the number one thing I learned on our vacation was...
1. While I love being connected, being unplugged is good for my soul.
It really felt like home!