1st Day Reflections

As mentioned in my last blog, my goal is to write every day this year to reflect back on my experience.  Perhaps some of what I write tonight should have been written prior to the start of the first day of school, but if I didn’t take time to think about what I did, I couldn’t reflect, right?

This is my second year teaching both 7th and 8th grade language arts. I have to say I am completely amazed at the differences between the two grades.  There is a huge difference in maturity, both socially and academically.

Despite the differences, I felt both groups of students did fairly well today.  I am not sure what other teachers do on their first day of class, but I do not go over any classroom rules with my students.  Part of me believes that is what their expectation is from me and I like to keep my students guessing. Bwaaahaaahaaa! That was my evil, take over the world, laugh.  Instead of the rules, I jumped right in and had both my 7th and 8th grade students take a narrative reading pre-test.  The state of Michigan has required teachers and schools to measure student growth.  Our district has decided on a pre and post test as a way to measure student growth.  I was not about to give my students an eight page reading document and 36 questions for the reading portion.  Instead, I discussed with my principal how I have broken down my units into Narrative, Informational, and Argumentative.  This mirrors the Common Core Standards and three major areas of writing that the CCSS focuses on.  I do not however, teach just tree units, I teach six total units.  So, I have broken down my pre-tests and the students took a short seven question narrative reading pre-test.  This is only one part of the narrative pre-test.  I will be giving them a small grammar pre-test in the coming days over the grammar concepts we will cover during our narrative unit.  As a language arts department, the students will show growth through a writing portfolio throughout the year.  I know, it sounds confusing right?  If you haven’t already checked out Kevin Hodgson’s blog today, I encourage you to do so at Kevin’s Meandering Mind.  I think we all feel the way he has portrayed the teacher in his comic when it comes to juggling the Common Core.

I also addressed the homework policy for my classroom.  Now, as any middle school teacher knows, it is our job to prepare them for high school.  I am always amazed at the 7th graders response when we go over the homework policy.  Usually their mouths are wide open and they are disbelief.  This year I feel I am going hardcore my students.  To put in simply, they lose 50% for being one day late unless it is a major project where they will lose 30%.  If it is more than one day late, they get no credit. If you would like a copy of my homework policy just leave me a comment.  If my students bring it back signed by them and their parents tomorrow, I will give them extra credit.

I also took time with my students today setting up their writing notebooks or journals.  This is important because most days we start the hour by doing “writing into the hour”.  I set my notebook up very similar to how Jeff Anderson discusses journal writing in his book Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage and Style into Writer’s Workshop. My classroom is indeed a writer’s workshop and this book was read by our language arts department prior to the start of last year.  This year we are reading Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher.  “Writing into the hour” is basic.  I give students a topic to write about.  The students can choose to write about the given topic or they can write about what is on their mind that day.  In addition, I allow my students to even go back to a previous days entry and either continue or revise that piece of writing.  With having so many choices, the students have no excuse not to be writing.  I give my students 5-7 minutes to write and ask them to forget about the editor in their head and just write.

With those two activities, there wasn’t a lot of time left in class.  I did hand out reading textbooks to my 8th graders and I tried to become more acquainted with my 7th graders by playing 2 truths and a lie with them.  It isn’t the most thought-provoking activity, but it is fun and the students seem to enjoy it.

Now tomorrow and the rest of the week is going to bring in a whirlwind of technology to the students.  Tomorrow the students will set-up their Schoology account and I will demonstrate and walk them through the reason we will be using this digital tool.  Thursday the students will set-up their Twitter accounts and Friday we will do a recap and then move our way towards getting our Celly accounts ready.  It is a busy week, so I am off to bed and ready to start another adventure tomorrow.  Email or leave a comment with any questions


Another Possible Use for Cell Phones

It is no secret that I am working on a book about cell phones.  I will not go into a lot of details because I don’t want to give anything away.  When one writes informational text, there is a certain amount of research that has to be done. I have been actively engaged in reading Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning by Lisa Nielson and Willyn Webb and Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell hone to Education by Liz Kolb. Both Books are resourceful and cutting edge. While reading these books I stumbled across a website called booksinmyphone.com.  The site is designed for a user to read books in your cell phone, a nice alternative to those students who don’t have a kindle, nook, or other e-reader. In addition, there isn’t any cost to download the books. Also, you can write your own book and upload it to their website.  The website itself is easy to navigate. You can browse through books by title or author and there are is a page that walks you through how to get the books onto your phone.  Now, I have not used this website/tool on my own phone and I have not had any students use it.  I can, however, see how this could be used in my classroom or other classrooms.

First, I can see using this tool during my mythology unit.  There are a few myths my students read in class and this could be a great tool to use along with Celly. The website has Beowulf, Aesop’s fables, Moby Dick, The Iliad, and The Odyssey.  How I envision this for my class is to have my students read one of these tales or myths on their phone after they have downloaded it (the website claims it works on “dumb” phones). After they read the story, I would have students grouped into a “Cell” on Celly and have them collaboratively have a discussion about what they read as homework or each student could write an extension of the story from one of the character’s perspective. Google Docs is another possible tool to us here next to reading the book.

Besides looking at myths, there are a plethora of classics available for download.  With the Common Core Standards (CCSS) pushing for the reading of more classic texts, this could be a tool that could enhance the language arts classroom. A Tale of Two Cities, Around the World in 80 Days, and Common Sense are just a few I came across looking at the website.

The downside here is creating an alternate activity/lesson for those students who don’t have cell phones. Students may have to have paper copies and post to the class Wiki space or call my Google phone number and leave a voice message in response to the reading.  No matter what is chosen, there has to be an alternative to those without cell phones.

There are still critics out there viewing this as just another excuse to use cell phones in the classroom. In my opinion, this is another way to connect with my 21st century learners that I teach every day.  Our students are engaged more with their devices, it is time to take advantage.


Writing Across the Curriculum with the Common Core

I don’t teach writing because I have to, I teach writing because it is a passion. It is a passion that was reignited in me after attending the Chippewa River Writing Project’s summer institute in 2010. Now, I can’t stop writing or talking about writing.  To a language arts teacher and someone who has that passion for writing, the Common Core Standards are great! Okay, so that is my opinion. I know others don’t share the same feeling. To be honest, the few that do like it, are on an island.  Nevertheless, the CCSS calls for there to be more writing across the curriculum.  In all reality, this idea should not come as any sort of surprise, but it in some arenas it is a game changer.  Our principal made sure writing was occurring across the spectrum this year.  Some teachers were already doing this, others had to be nudged on board.  With those that had to be nudged, I now have a clearer picture as to why they were essentially against this idea. Two factors are evident. 

First, the teachers who are against having their students write in their class are not quality writers.  I say this with all the respect in the world, but it is true.  For instance, you can not have confidence implementing more writing into your Science curriculum if you yourself are not comfortable writing or confident in showing students how a piece of writing should be set-up or written. I can comprehend this and it makes sense to me.  If I don’t know how to play golf correctly, I am not going to be comfortable or confident teaching someone how to do it.  As language arts teachers, perhaps it is our responsibility to mentor our colleagues instead of getting frustrated with them. Just a thought.

Although I take confidence into consideration, the second factor I have seen constantly and consistently is poor attitude.  In other words, poor attitudes by teachers.  Teachers who feel that writing belongs in the English classroom. An individual I once came into contact with every day, who was a teacher, told me writing was not their responsibility.  They didn’t take college courses to teach writing.  At the moment, when this conversation took place, I wanted to scream.  I’ll admit, at the time, I was sulking about the paper load I had and with good reason, but I probably shouldn’t have complained about it. However, one educator telling another educator it’s not their fault I chose to become a language arts teacher is rather unprofessional.  This type of attitude is only going to hurt our students when it comes to increasing rigor in their daily school lives, especially when the Common Core Standards call for this type of rigor as I mentioned in my last blog post.

As I head into the month of May I am having more conversations about making connections across the curriculum.  As a matter of fact, the math teacher and myself had a great conversation about the students writing a research report connected to the statistics unit that she will doing in class.  It won’t happen this year, but we will try to continue the conversation and definitely put something in place for next year. In addition, the language arts standards can easily work with the social studies state standards that we have.  The social studies teacher and I are going to be creating some cross curricular units where the students can write about a social studies topic and also read more authentic texts, such as the primary documents. 

Those teacher who do not teach language arts are no longer going to be able to hide in the corner and forget about implementing writing.  They will need to change their attitude, and be willing to accept the idea of writing in their classroom.



Academic Rigor and Common Core Resources

For the past several weeks I have been working on creating a curriculum map for my 7th/8th grade language arts classes.  As a staff, my colleagues and I felt this was important to put into place what and how we are actucally covering each standard and strand in our classroom.  Though this will be a work in progress, I am trying to polish it and make it a document that is ready for next year and the future years to come. Two thoughts have been floating around in my brain for the last several weeks while working on this document.  First, are there educators/professionals out there who have any resources for the The Common Core Standards? Second, I have been really tossing around this term rigor and academic rigor and have some thoughts.

I have encountered plenty of apprehesion and anxiety when talking and teaching other teachers and principals.  I am also well aware of the individuals and groups of individuals who are completely against the CCSS for whatever reason.  Call me crazy, but I am embracing them and with this first year almost under my belt, I am ready for next year and my students will need to be ready too. I admit, I think there are flaws with the CCSS, but overall, they are well thought out. To make the transition easier for myself and for some of the colleagues in my school, there are plenty of resources to consider. Some of them are hardcopy, others are digital. Our language arts department has purchased the flip books and will have them for this summer to look over. The three resources I like the most are:

1.  The Common Core Flip Books by McGraw Hill – The flip book integrates the CCSS with instructional planning strategies. The books include suggested learning targets or “I can” statements for the students.

2. Common Core Curriculum Maps by Common Core – This book has been fantastic at giving me alternative resources to the suggested reading that was povided by the CCSS.  This is not a resource put together by the federal government.  It was written by teachers, for teachers.  They also have a website called Common Core.

3. MasteryConnect has put out an application for those that are Ipad users as well as those Droid users such as myself.  What I like about this resource is it is free. Second, the standards are clear and in plain, every day language.  I often use this as a quick reference when looking at possible activities or lessons for my class.  You can join their website for free as well and choose to have more premium services for a small cost.

Having many resources at my finger-tips has made my transition to the Common Core smooth.  Each resource can be evaluated personally and the user needs to choose which one works better for them.

In addition to looking at all of these resources and having multiple conversations with other professionals, I keep thinking about rigor and academic rigor. Rigor is defined in the dicitionary as strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people. Now, if I take just the term rigor and think about my classroom, I am a very disciplined teacher. My students know their boundries and very few cross them.  This by no means indicates I am a tyrant, but I run a tight ship. On the other hand, academic rigor defined by the Employer’s for Education Excellence website, designed by the Oregon small schools intiative, is:

“When instruction is academically rigorous, students actively explore, research and solve complex problems to develop a deep understanding of core academic concepts that reflect college readiness standards”

The website goes on and discusses other key features such as high expectations for students, cross-curricular activities, etc.  As I read through this site and the others that discuss academic rigor, I am kind of shocked.  It seems there has been this bigger push since the introduction of the CCSS for acadamic rigor (this particular website does not state this).  I hear people talk about how the new standards has more academic rigor and it is going to be more difficult for teachers and students. Why?  As I look at the many components that make up an academic rigourous classroom, I have many of those components in place already.  If you don’t have high expectations for your students, you aren’t doing your job.  My wife is a great example of holding students to high expectations.  She is a band director and is constantly pushing her students to get better every day, every concert, every competition.  Her expectations go up for her students numerous times throughout the year.  We should all be doing this.  Why do we need the Common Core Standards to jump start us into becoming more academically rigorous? Academic rigor should already be in place if we are going to prepare students for college or career. 





Understanding and Implementing the Common Core

Michigan is one of many states who have adopted the Common Core National Standards. More and more I read both negative and positive reviews of the CCSS. I am sure the more educators, professionals, and school districts unpack them, there will continue to be the emergence of these types of reviews. It isn’t a secret schools districts will be tested over the CCSS in 2014-2015. To me, schools will not be successful if they plan on implementing and reviewing the standards the year before they are being assessed. I am utterly shocked at the number of schools who have NOT implemented or even looked at the CCSS when my PD partner and I are delivering our breakdown of the informational writing standard. A word of advice to those schools; you better start.

In addition to districts and teachers themselves, I question what is happening at the university and college level in regard to the Common Core. For the past month I have had a mid-tier student in my classroom from a university/college that I will leave nameless in my blog. Mid-tier students have to complete so many hours of observation as part of the teacher-education program. These hours are completed before they begin their student-teaching. I remember having to do the same thing during my undergrad work. Last week my mid-tier and I were having a conversation about a lesson that needed to be taught in my classroom and after establishing it would be a lesson on grammar, I asked what they knew about the CCSS. The response I received just about knocked me down. Though they knew of them, they were not being discussed in the classes they were taking. According to my mid-tier our states Grade Level Content Expectations(GLCE) and something else called the high school content expectations(HSCE) was supposed to be the focus of the students. Now, how is not discussing the Common Core preparing new teachers for the classroom? I asked my mid-tier to go back and ask their teachers about the CCSS and why they weren’t being baptized into the world of the new National Standards.

The following week I had a follow-up conversation with my mid-tier and it according to them there seems to be a lot of finger pointing going on. Education professors are saying the English professors should be covering the CCSS and English professors claim the Education professors should be covering them. It seems we have a failure to communicate people! It’s obvious to me there is a problem. What is it? It’s not being taught. My mid-tier even brought it up in a class and other students wondered too why it wasn’t be addressed with them and the professor told them they wouldn’t be covering it at all. We aren’t doing young teachers-to-be any services if they aren’t being kept up to speed about curriculum and standards. Now, I am not attending these classes my mid-tier is taking, so I don’t know the whole story. All I know is something isn’t stirring the Kool-Aid. I did have an opportunity to fill out an online survey provided by the college/university and expressed my concern pertaining to the Common Core and I did receive an email back and was told my concerns would be addressed.

If individuals are under the impression the CCSS are going away, they are are wrong. The time is now to start thinking and acting and that does include individuals at the college level.


Why is Collaboration Almost Non-Existent?

Monday I had another wonderful opportunity to conduct professional development at Central Michigan University on Informative writing as suggested by the Common Core Curriculum. I was very impressed how the conference was set-up and the number of people from all over the state of Michigan that attended. There were even administrators present.

As my writing project partner and I were giving our presentation we had several questions surrounding informative writing and the Common Core. We discussed with our audience about the unique opportunity we have as educators when it comes to the Common Core. What we were echoing from our director Troy Hicks is how we, as teachers and school districts, can decide how to assess students based on the Common Core. If teachers don’t look closely at the Common Core and make these type of decisions, they could be made for us from the powers up on high. The biggest idea we preached was collaboration with colleagues about creating units and assessments and implementing 21st century tools such as Google docs, cell phones, Glogster, etc. and making sure those assessments and tools that teachers choose to use tie back into the standards.

One question we had was from a teacher who virtually was on an island by herself in high school. She taught language arts for grades 9-12. She wanted to know how she was going to be able to collaborate with other colleagues when she was the the only high school L.A. teacher. Other teachers talked about how they didn’t gave any collaboration time at her school and she wanted to know how to get that time. We even had a principal say he was going to go back to his school and figure out how to develop time for his teachers to collaborate on the Common Core.

To answer the 9-12 teacher’s question along with the other teachers, we simply encouraged her to collaborate with the middle school staff and the elementary staff within her district. We even told her to email or call other teachers in surrounding districts.

What I have been absolutely amazed by all week is how many districts were not collaborating. And not just on the Common Core either, in general it was appearing teachers weren’t collaborating on much at all? Why is this? After talking with teachers this past Monday, I feel spoiled about how much time is available to me and my staff to meet. Not only do we have common planning time in my middle school, but we also have something called “early release” district wide. This is where once a month we meet as departments and discuss what is going on in our classrooms, textbook selection, teaching strategies, etc. Most of the time it is just building wide, but on occasion we meet district wide K-12. Recently our principal implemented meeting times in different areas such as literacy and transition. These meetings are also conducted once a month. Again, I feel more fortunate then most districts because it appears they aren’t getting the same opportunities.

Even if you aren’t in a district where you should be collaborating, the bottom line is you need to be, especially when it comes to the Common Core. Schools will be required to start assessing students in 2014 and if these conversations are not taking place, it is going to be more difficult to implement the Common Core Standards.

What can you do? If you are a teacher, start by talking to your administrator and your colleagues. Discuss a time you can all discuss the CC. Yes, this may mean you have to sacrifice time after school, particularly if you don’t have a common planning time. Second, attend professional development on the national standards. Educate yourself and become the “expert” your school district may need. Finally, email, call, or Skype with teachers and professionals in other districts to help you get off on the right foot. After all, teachers teaching teachers is powerful and everyone involved can benefit. For the most part, we are all in this together and we need to be willing to work together. It is exciting to think of all of the creative and amazing assessments that can come out of the the new standards laid before us!


Book Project for Christmas Break

Friday was the kick off for my students to begin their Christmas vacation book project. This is the first year I have had any of my students do the project while on a break. To begin, my students have to choose a book that is at least 100 pages long and the book can not be related to a movie in anyway. In addition, I ask the students to not read something they have not already read. At the conclusion of their reading they must choose to do 1 of 2 projects. They need to either make a 6 sided three-demential cube or create a glog on glogster.com. The three-demential cube is related to a math unit they covered in their math class dealing with surface area and three-demential shapes. The choice of the glog comes from the technology standard that comes out of the CCSS. Overall, my main goal of the project is for my students to be engaged with reading on their own and for them to explore some new genres. Furthermore, my requirements the students are meeting for the project are covering some of the reading standards for the Common Core. For example, tying theme or the central idea to the characters, setting and plot. Also, I don’t want my students being bored with a traditional book report. If you are attending the Michigan Reading Association(MRA) conference in March, I will presenting some student examples in my session.

So, to get them ready for this project, I have taken the 7th and 8th graders down to the library and the book fair for the past two weeks and I have had some interesting conversations with my students and I have witnessed some miraculous transformation with my students. As always I received a few grumbles and groans about the project. Little did my students know, most of them would be engaged in a book outside of class. I am orally reading The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins with my students and we are just about finished. My students are begging me more and more each day to keep reading. With the book project, I have several students reading the second book in the series and I am seeing students read in the hallway. These are 7th and 8th graders I am talking about. It has been amazing. The math teacher approached me last week and said she was having great conversations with students about books and what they are reading. She has enjoyed it. I think she has even had to get after kids for reading in her class.

Just the other day I had several boys ask me if they could read Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. I said sure why not. I am in full support of graphic novels. Nevertheless, they were really surprised by my response to their answer. I clarified to them I am pleased they are taking an interest in reading something. Hell, I remember growing up spending hours in my local library reading Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side.

After the boys and I talked, I approached a young man who was struggling with finding a book. I asked him his interests and after discovering he liked the outdoors and hunting, I pointed him to the author Gary Paulson and a book by a different author called Touching Spirit Bear. Great author and great book. After he made his decision, he was asking me about what the big deal was about reading. He was struggling with why people talk about books and form book clubs. I asked him if he felt left out. He responded by saying he could never understand what they were talking about. I worked this conversation to the fullest and told him it isn’t so much fun feeling like you don’t belong or know what people are talking about. He is definitely one of the popular kids and he never did respond, but I think he got the point of what I was saying.

The final thing I noticed was how much my students opened up and responded to me when I actually did take a vested interest in them and asked them about books they have read and what they they like to read. I have been forming more solid relationships with my students all because of reading. Who says reading isn’t powerful? I beg to differ and I can’t wait to see what kind of work my students produce over Christmas break.


Trying to Make Sense of the Common Core

Before I begin today’s blog, I just wanted to say thank you to my followers and all of those who have voted for me. I don’t anticipate on winning, but it is nice to know people are finding value in what I write.

I am not afraid to say that I am struggling somewhat with the Common Core Standards, especially when it comes to the argumentative writing. I am getting help and improving. My school adopted the language arts and mathematics standards starting this school year. Recently I enrolled into some professional development about project based learning and how to integrate it with Common Core. I have heard many professionals comment on the positives of project based learning and I am excited to start the PD after Christmas break. So, for this professional development I need to read a book titled Understanding the Common Core by John Kendall. I started to read the book last night and I can at least say I am starting to get a small clue where this came from, which helps. I wanted to write about some of my thoughts. First, the book I am reading has a small paragraph at the beginning discussing how textbooks used to be the “The Curriculum”. I know this is not the case today, but what is really disturbing is I have witnessed teachers doing this in the past. It hasn’t been teachers I have directly worked with, but I have seen it done. Textbooks are supposed to be an extension of the curriculum and teachers aren’t supposed to go from cover to cover and assume they have done their job with curriculum.

A little further in the book, the author discusses key aspects of the language and literacy standards. When he talks about reading he describes a three part model used to evaluate a text’s level of complexity. Two of these parts are quantitative tools and qualitative criteria. The third is the relationship among the reader, the task and the text. I have always shuttered whenever I have heard the term quantitative when it comes to language arts. Just last year I got into a heated debate with another teacher about how I think quantitative data doesn’t apply to language arts, especially when it came to writing. Now, I know that writing doesn’t apply to what the author was saying, but like I said, I don’t like quantitative associated with language arts period. How can one properly put a number on a student’s piece of writing. I can’t measure a student’s growth as a writer by putting a number on it. I see growth in my students in a way that isn’t measurable by numbers. As a teacher of writing, I am looking more for qualitative measurements. I am sure my fellow language arts teachers know what I am talking about, or at least I hope they do. Even when it comes to reading, I could probably argue against quantitative tools or methods.

If anything, I can say the Common Core and the book I am reading has me thinking every day and I am on my toes. What I plan on doing over Christmas break is to take the Standards and break them down and make charts that show the standard and what I do for each of them in my classroom. It is a huge undertaking, but I feel it is going to be worth it. I am always looking for literature on implementing the Common Core. It could even benefit me as a presenter too.