Collaboration Review

Today could have been one of those dreaded teaching days – the “curriculum” or “professional development” day. In many districts, this means teachers sit and listen to someone in administration or someone hired by the district to discuss topics often unrelated to or out of date for many teachers. However, thankfully, our district allows us to select our own professional development and provides some real collaboration time for our teams. We are, of course, required to provide evidence of our productivity, but I can honestly say as a department who all sat in the same room, we were productive all day.

I am so thankful for that time and for the opportunity to work with my colleagues. As teachers, it’s easy to become the master of our own domain. It can be a tough dynamic because we spend most of our days being the Supreme Ruler and then infrequently sometimes then sit with other people who are also Supreme Rulers and others who are the “real” Supreme Rulers, and we have to stop being in charge. It can be hard. I’ve seen pride  and ego completely swallow productivity, teachers butting heads because they feel like they know more, are superior, or smarter in some way, and therefore, they feel they cannot possibly have anything more to learn from the others in the room. But I’ve found that most everyone has something to share and a technique about which I can learn. The teacher war stories are inevitable, when teachers get together, but it’s helpful to feel not alone because the same setup that leaves me master of my own domain also leaves me feeling lonely at the top. Hearing from others that I’m not the only one who worries about being good enough or smart enough, who worries about my students being prepared for the next year’s teachers, reminds me how connected we all really are.

Above all though, on days like today, I’m just so proud of the hard work we all do. We spent four hours this morning on preparing summer reading assignments, reviewing pacing guides, discussing novel selections, and another four hours this afternoon preparing assignments and calendars for the end of the year. I always feel better when I’m with other teachers – like I’m the best version of myself as an educator. Every conversation of which I was a part and which I overheard was collegial, purposeful, and above all, productive. We didn’t always agree – we have different philosophies, different focus areas, but every teacher heard the others out, voiced their ideas and concerns, and we just kept coming to compromises that were the best versions of what we discussed. We are better when we’re together. There’s no question in my mind.

I can make individual assignments and plans all day and all night, and I’ll be comfortable and even proud of the work I do. But when I work with others and develop something in collaboration with my colleagues, I feel sure that I’m on the right path. So often, as a teacher, it can be hard to feel supported since so many have opinions about what we do and how we do it, but so often those opinions come from people who aren’t in the classroom or sometimes aren’t even in a school. When we spend days like today together, it’s amazing what we can do when we support each other, challenge each other respectfully, and really push the boundaries of each others’ ideas to come up with the best version of an assignment or unit.

So often, we dread the teacher days of meetings. Even the students sigh in solidarity when they ask what I’m doing while they’re off, at home, and I say that I’m in meetings all day. But once I round out the day, every time, I feel so rejuvenated. Confidence can be hard to come by some days, especially at this point in the year, but I’m thankful for my colleagues who help me feel strong with only eight weeks left in the year! Soldier on, warriors!


Summer Reading Musings

With the warmth returning and shoots pushing back up through the soil, my mind goes to summer, relaxation, all that I hope to accomplish, and reading. What’s on my list that I haven’t touched yet? What goal do I want to set for myself? If I’m honest, I rarely meet the goal I set. I am a grand planner – I make lists of all I want to do, set up timelines of what should be finished by when, and every summer, without fail, August 1st comes as quite a shock.

I know this is the same for my students. Every year I tell them to not wait until August to begin, and every year, the emails start pouring in around two or so weeks before the new school year begins with questions and issues regarding summer reading assignments. We all wait. We all procrastinate. And that reminder brings me back to the same place every year around this time… what do we do about summer reading?

A wonderful teacher I know, Tricia Ebarvia, wrote a piece recently considering just this topic, and she raised an important question: what is it that we want to accomplish with it? In trying to answer this question, I always start with what I know from when I was in high school. I read books that got us started on the school year – things we would begin with, books to grapple with, books we could learn with. What I know was my teacher never gave us something that didn’t teach us about the world and about our place in it. Books and reading were not a skill-based assessment, as so often they are now, but about a life-based assessment. We spent weeks discussing what Crime and Punishment could teach us about forgiveness, guilt, and punishment. Are there crimes for which there is no repentance? How do we go about forgiving those who have wronged use? Is there room for love in those relationships? Healing? How do we forgive ourselves, above all?

Those were powerful conversations. I often find myself thinking back to those conversations and those two classes (European Literature Honors and AP Literature) to find my way as a teacher. I loved reading so much. From childhood. From as far back as I could remember. Even as a child, books were about forging relationships and managing them, about how to deal with loss or the stress of being a child having made a mistake. But in all of these musings, I remember then that not everyone has the relationship I did with reading. Not everyone has the philosophical debates in their heads the way I do – should Jane have ever ended up with Rochester? Was it weakness or was it forgiveness? Was it love or was it nostalgia? Instead, many of my students struggle with just the words on the page, getting through the plot and characters, never even getting to the point of philosophical debate because they’re struggling to understand just what happened in the novel.

So then if that’s the case, how does summer reading change? With my students who are not avid readers, who are even fearful readers, how can I give them reading to get them started on the class when they struggle to know what happened in the text? When reading itself is a battle all its own? When they struggle to appreciate the words on the page for the beauty I want them to see because they are still trying to understand the literal meaning of the sentence? This is a struggle foreign to me – I loved books, still do, and I loved school. I loved English class. I do not even remember learning to read. I just remember reading. All of my favorite teachers were and are English teachers. I would not have survived middle and high school without two of them in particular.

What do I do? Even a choice book list is daunting. For many students, they have not been reintroduced to books they might enjoy, that aren’t literary canon but instead teenage reality. Some don’t even know there are books written for their age group! When they get a “high interest books” list, many of my students shrug them off without even perusing the titles let alone the descriptions. Giving choice this way doesn’t necessarily encourage readers then either. So now what?

I’ve thought for a bit about the idea of starting summer reading early. Of giving book lists weeks before the end of school, giving book talks with the upcoming teachers, letting students search them on their own. Years ago, I went to a session at NCTE with two teachers from a Montessori school where teachers looped with the students. They each had them for two years and in the last month or two of their last year together, the new teacher came up and started with this new group of students with a month or so to go, got them started on what would come next year. It got me thinking of something like this for summer reading…

I imagine in the library, somehow, we bring down each class of students and have them listen to us talk about each book option, read a high-interest passage from each option, and then talk about it a bit more, perhaps offering anticipation guide-type questions to discuss the themes and ideas in the book. Maybe we even have previous students recorded, talking about how much they liked that book and why. Perhaps, after we go through all of the choices, we let students then walk around like we did back in elementary school, when the Scholastic book days came and the lecture hall was just row upon row of books waiting to be purchased and yearning to be read. Then, in the world in my head, the students get in groups and start reading with a teacher. Popcorn style, if the group chooses, or read-alouds from the teacher to start. Then we split out into comfy chairs or on the floor or in bean bags and just read for 30 minutes. What if we did this for a week? Two weeks? Really get the students started at the end of the year with a book they love and ask them to finish it over the summer? What if, from our modeling, that’s what we ask them to do when they come back? Give a book talk to a small group of peers in the class who read the other books and do what we did – summarize, read, and then talk about it.

It’s a rough idea. It’s a perfect representation of my idealism. It’s what I would love to do if I had all of the time, money, and support in the world. I also know it may not fix every reader by any means. Some say it takes 17 times for something to become a habit… who knows how true that is? None the less – after five days of it – maybe it could feel less stressful for our non-reader students. And then maybe, selfishly, I can start the year without, “I hate reading” tattooed across every forehead. Maybe.


It’s been awhile…

Let’s call the title here an understatement. A year and a half later – no update. Clearly, it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking. It doesn’t mean I’m not planning. But it does mean that I’m getting caught in the moment of teaching, of planning, and I’m forgetting to reflect in a larger way. A colleague made a comment to me this week about the way I think – that I take awhile to process how I understand an idea while he spends less time on that part and more in the product creation itself. It was a lovely observation, not the least bit unkind or critical. Just an observation. And as always, I found myself surprised by just how precise his observation was. I’m always a little shocked when people “get” me, if that makes sense. It’s not that I think I’m invisible, but I assume that people aren’t trying to understand me. That while I care a great deal about them as teachers and understanding how they do what they do so well, that they are not in turn doing the same about me. I start with the assumption that everyone else is better at this than me and therefore I have a ton to learn. I assume too that they are not also trying to improve and learn but that they have it all figured out. While I consciously know that we never stop learning and trying, I also seem to think in my behavior that there will be some end point here where I have learned all I need to know and am now set in my ways as a teacher, the best I can be, perfect, and immutable because I don’t need to be. When I type that, I know how ridiculous it is. I don’t really believe that, but I do behave that way in regard to others. I assume they have all of the answers and have figured “it” all out. In reality, those teachers I admire and spend so much time watching, learning from, and listening to are still figuring it all out. They are doing what I’m doing – trying to learn from others but also trying to learn from themselves.

This is the part I think I’m missing. I am still going outside to learn. Each year, when I plan the next unit or next activity, I’m often re-inventing the wheel. I’m making whole new assignments or activities, new directions, but when I actually go back and look at what I did last year, I see that it tends to be rather similar. Some of my ideas are new. Many of them don’t work or don’t feel quite right. But many that feel comfortable and well-suited to the class and the students are ones I did before. I am redoing over and over what I’ve already done. I need to go back to the work I’ve done and work to reflect on it and revise it versus remake it from scratch. I can learn a ton from other people, and based on my personality, that will never stop. However, I also need to learn from myself. It comes from a place of confidence or lack there of, that I don’t seem to believe I know what I’m doing or that I’m something worth learning from, but I know, when I write that, that that’s not true.

I put everything I have and do on Google Docs. It’s all organized. It’s all there waiting for me to look at it again and reflect, revise, and reflect again. I just have to not be afraid to look back it and see what’s really there, the good that’s really already there. It may actually serve me well in terms not only of time management but also of building some confidence in this work I’ve done for eight years now. I have to have done something right by now. I know that. I do. I just have to look at it.