Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Literacy Cabaret

The scene: Tan Tar A Resorts, in the spacious ballroom, dotted with round tables covered in thick maroon tablecloths.

The carpet: a bad '90s design of interlocking circles and squares sprawled across golf course grass green.

The people: English teachers from across Missouri, armed with their ink pens, blank notebooks, and enough snacks to power a small country.

The event: Barry Lane's impromptu afternoon keynote at the Write to Learn festival. Actually, scratch that. Barry Lane's Literacy Cabaret performance. And yours truly had been selected to be a member of Mr. Lane's infamous entourage of English teachers.

Barry Lane: delightfully quirky, and he is also quite persistent. I wouldn't say he asked me to be in his literacy cabaret, but really, who could say no to him? He's also surprisingly well-prepared for unexpected performances, as the scheduled speaker was unable to attend at the last minute. Despite the short notice, he had all the accoutrements necessary for outfitting me for my spin on the stage: filmy scarves, quirky sunglasses, interesting headpieces, and more.

My role: Gail from Versailles (which, if you're not familiar with Missouri's penchant for butchering French words, is pronounced Ver-sales). Barry described my role as a "long-suffering but genuine teacher," so naturally, for my costume, I selected a gorgeous peacock blue scarf, star-shaped sunglasses and a beaded headpiece worthy of Cleopatra.

Show time: Barry strummed his guitar, gestured to me and my fellow literacy chanteuses, and with a toss of our scarves, we swanned gracefully onto the tiny stage, blinking under the bright lights, trying not to dissolve into giggles.

English teachers: we're all just waiting for our moment on the stage.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Making a Plan for Revising Writing with Autocrat

If you've read some of my earlier blog posts, the topic for this post might confuse you. After all, I've written before about my reluctance towards using long checklists for writing, so you might be wondering if I've changed my tune.

The longer I teach, the more I'm constantly reminded of one truth about writing: there is no one, foolproof method for teaching it. Similarly, there are many different tools writers can use successfully to lift the level of their writing. Taking time for intentional revision is essential to the writing process, and a checklist can be a helpful tool.

However, as with anything, how it's structured and presented to writers matters. In my experience, to be effective, checklists that ask students to reflect on their writing and make a plan for changes must be reflective, accessible and reusable (meaning that students utilize it over multiple writing sessions).

With these criteria in mind, I set out to create a short, purposeful checklist to use with my writers for making a revision plan for their realistic fiction pieces. Since we are a 1:1 school (my students use Chromebooks), I decided to explore whether technology would help increase the effectiveness of the tool. In this case, an electronic version made sense for my students for a few reasons: they could access it at any time, it was impossible to lose, and I could see their plans with just a few clicks.

Google Forms was a natural fit for creating the actual checklist. I used the multiple choice grid to create a quick table with the revision question and different categories that writers could place themselves in (staying away from simple yes or no answers that don't encourage revision). As I was creating the form, I paid attention to how I worded the reflection questions, keeping in mind the mini lessons writers received throughout the unit when selecting what to include. I've found that less is more when targeting revision, so I usually err on the side of fewer questions (5-7 seems to be a good fit for my middle school students).

My next "wish" for the checklist was that writers would have a copy of their answers handy for future revisions. My good friend, Justin Birckbichler, suggested using Autocrat (an Add-on that works with Google Sheets) to generate a Google Doc of each student's response that would be saved automatically in their Drive. Students would receive an email with the attached Doc of their checklist answers, which they could easily pull up during future class periods when they needed ideas for revising their stories.

There's a slight learning curve to Autocrat, but with Justin's help, I was able to get it up and running easily. Here's how I did it:

1. First, I created the Autocrat template for the Doc that I'd like the students to receive in their email. Using the Google Forms revision questions, I made a table with two columns. The left column has the revision question, and the right column will show the student's answer to that question. To make this work with Autocrat, I simply copied the question and surrounded it with the tags << >> so that, when Autocrat is run, it knows to populate that cell with the student's response.
2. Then, I opened the response Sheet for the Google Form I had created and accessed Autocrat (by clicking Add-ons>Autocrat>Open). If you haven't previously added Autocrat, you may need to click the 'Get Add-ons' feature and add it to your computer. 

3. From here, Autocrat prompts you to create a new job and select a template. 
3. Next, check to make sure your tags from your template are mapping to the correct column. This is pretty simple: Autocrat provides a drop-down list for you to use to select the correct tag and will notify you if any of your tags aren't mapped (meaning they won't show up at all on the Doc). 
4. Autocrat will give you the option to send a PDF or a Google Doc. I prefer a Doc, because students can edit it after the fact (and mark off when they've actually made the revisions). I decided to name the Doc with the writer's first and last name (using the tags <<First Name:>> and <<Last Name:>>) to make it easy to find their checklist in my Drive, since Autocrat automatically shares a copy of each student's Doc with you. 

5. The next step asks you to choose a destination folder for all of the Autocrat-generated Docs. I usually make a new folder for each Autocrat job. The next few questions (about dynamic folders and merge conditions) didn't apply, so in this case, I just skipped them.

 6. Autocrat will also send each student an email with their shared Doc attached. Just use the email tag to make sure Autocrat knows where to send it. Make sure your Google Form has a space for students to fill in their email address, or this function won't work. You can also customize the email's subject and body text with information or directions for your students. 

7. The last step is to decide whether you want your Autocrat job to run on a time or form trigger. The former means that it will run every day at a certain time, while the latter means that it will run when someone fills out the Google Form. I always choose the form trigger, because this means that students will be able to receive their Docs shortly after filling out the Form. 

8. Finally, save your job and click the 'play' button to run Autocrat. 

Within a few minutes of filling out the Form (Autocrat does take some time to run, especially when a lot of students are using it at once), students will receive an email that will look similar to the image below. 

This is what students will see in their email.
They can then save the checklist to their Drive and access it any time they need revision ideas. In my classroom, I usually have them fill out the Form one day and make their plan the next day while reviewing their responses on the Autocrat-created Docs. Revisiting the checklist over several class periods shows students revision is way more involved than simply answering questions about their writing; rather, the checklist is a tool to help them plan for the challenging work of making changes to their stories.

The digital revision checklists have been working well for my writers. It's easy to find, impossible to lose and simple to utilize quickly during a one-on-one conference. Feel free to fill out the Form I used with my students to see for yourself how Autocrat works. If you give this a try, please let me know how it works for you and your writers.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: Open House Speed Dating

To me, open house night feels less like a casual meet and greet and more like speed dating.

The similarities are uncanny.

I forego my usual casual blouse in favor of a classy dress that attempts to hide the fact that I'm still under 30 and in charge of a bunch of 12-and-13-year-olds. I check my teeth for stray bits of food. I smooth down my hair to give the illusion that I haven't actually been at this school for thirteen hours already. I choose my words carefully, hoping to convey the right balance of accountability and joy. I smile widely. I gesture wildly. I talk animatedly, hoping to convince parents that my version of seventh grade ELA won't be the soul-sucking experience some of them might have had.

I talk about choice, about passion, about my own personal educational approach. I talk and talk and talk and talk, and even while I'm talking, I know I'm forgetting things, forgetting to mention pieces of our classroom that might complete the picture I'm trying desperately to paint in 10 minutes.

The parents stare back at me. Some nod their heads, some let their eyes glaze over, some furrow their brows. A few questions. And then, they leave. Most will forget me. I will be reduced to an offhand anecdote shared at the dinner table, a persistent weekly email, or a name emblazoned next to a grade on a report card.

But maybe, when their child jumps into the car after school and immediately sticks his nose in a book marked along the top with my last name, or when she shyly proffers up a piece of writing that she's proud of, those same parents might remember that there's more to Ms. K than the slightly crazed teacher in a nice dress who talked way too fast for 10 minutes on a hot August evening. Maybe, just maybe, something that I said will echo through their heads, and they'll smile to themselves, content in the knowledge that seventh grade ELA doesn't suck too badly.

Those moments that I never get to witness, the moments I'll never be able to recount as evidence of my impact on children? The possibility that they exist is enough to make open house speed dating worth it.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: Totality

We don't often think about the sun.

Despite its significance, it still manages to be a wallflower, blending into the fabric of everyday life. It only warrants a passing remark on certain occasions: a particularly beautiful sunset. A planned beach day, thwarted by its absence. A painful sunburn blooming across exposed shoulders.

We revolve around the sun, but most days, we feel like it revolves around us. To us, it only exists because we exist. We know it is remarkable, yet we think it unremarkable because of the simple fact that it is always there.

Until it isn't. Then, the sun demands our attention.

The day of the eclipse, we went about our routines. We went to school. We fiddled with lockers, unwrapped sandwiches, and sharpened pencils, but our attempts at normalcy couldn't hide the fact that the only thing on everyone's mind could only be found outside of our walls.

When the first fragment disappeared, it was as if an invisible current rippled throughout the school, bouncing from classroom to classroom. No one had to tell us. We knew, and we all wanted to look. Patience, normally a foreign concept during the best of times in a middle school, was nowhere to be found, but for once, we understood that we had no control. We had ignored the sun. It had waited for us to pay attention, and now that we were watching, it was our turn to wait.

When the time came, we clutched our flimsy glasses and clambered down the stairs and out the front doors. The humidity clung to us like a damp towel after a swim, familiar yet ultimately useless and annoying. But today, we didn't care. We were too busy watching the world turn upside down. Shadows were wrong, caricatures of their normal selves. The light was beginning to take on a faded quality, as if we had found ourselves inside a picture that had sat in the developing fluid for too long. We giggled nervously and used words like 'weird' and 'freaky' and 'strange' about the burning orb that usually elicited watery emotions like mild annoyance or slight appreciation.

As we spread across the football field and laid back on the manicured grass, we felt the air change, degree by degree. We eyeballed the glasses that looked like something you'd find in the back of a comic book, suspicious that something so frail could protect us from something so strong, but ultimately, curiosity won and we donned them, not caring about our ridiculous appearance once we looked up for the first time.

The sun was going. An unseen artist was painting over it with the deepest black we'd ever seen, stroke by stroke. Clouds stood out in stark relief, their borders sharper and more ominous than before. The sky deepened quickly now, turning from the sort of green you usually see before a tornado to a dusky lavender shot through with streaks of pink. Confused cicadas began their chorus, a melancholy dirge. The sun was going, and there was nothing we could do but watch.

We had been told what to expect, but they were all wrong. It was nothing like they said. No one could have found the words to explain what being surrounded by an endless sunset looks like. What goes through your head when you see a bewildered bird winging across the sky, his frantic chirps as if to say, "How did I miss this?" How you feel in that moment when you look up and see our most powerful light reduced to a slender glowing ring.

In that moment, our thoughts turned to the minutes we have had in our lifetimes. How some flash by you. How others drag, each second slowly tumbling over the next like pebbles caught in a slow motion landslide.

And then, there was this. One minute and fifteen seconds. This moment where time was frozen, yet hurtling forward much too quickly. We were suspended, our necks craned skyward, captivated by what we had taken for granted. We saw now that we were wrong to do so. We held our breath, and we tried our best to burn this fleeting moment into our memories. This feeling of totality. Of being here, yet also everywhere else where people were looking up.

As ephemeral as smoke, the moment dissolved. The first thin threads of golden light spun away from the darkness, and we looked away, finding ourselves wishing we could see it all over again but knowing that we couldn't. The sun had gone, but it had never truly left. Totality was not the extinguishing of light but the hiding of it, reminding us of the thin line between fearful awe and awful fear.

The eclipse had passed, but our minds would not be torn away from the sun. This moment will forever stay on the edges of our consciousness, pushing into our thoughts any time golden rays play beautifully on a dusty wooden floor, or a panel of light streams down between the gaps in the clouds and dapples the grass we are standing in. Now, we will often think about the sun, and we will remember that we revolve around it, not the other way around. When it is quiet, we will find ourselves in that state of totality once more. We will remember how a slight shift in perspective can change everything. And we will be grateful that we were there, looking up on the day the sun disappeared.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Doing Better

The other day, I tweeted out a simple question:
“When’s the last time eduTwitter made you think?”

My motivation was simple: I was feeling dissatisfied by what I was seeing on my Twitter feed. Too much of the same. Not enough that challenged me and my practice. I hoped that my followers might have some thought-provoking posts to share with me.

I got a few responses: some bemoaning the “echo chamber” tendency of eduTwitter (the same ideas being amplified), some sharing posts from ISTE (many of which I had already seen), and some singing Twitter’s praises as a great way to connect with other educators (which I don’t deny is true).

When I wrote that tweet, I hadn’t quite figured out the source of my dissatisfaction. I knew that it irritated me when I saw posts that were solely motivated by gaining retweets or likes. I knew that seeing the same surface-level discussions about inclusion and relationships left me feeling disappointed. I also knew that I needed to do something about this feeling of ennui that surrounded me every time I clicked over to my Twitter feed.

But it wasn’t until Peter Anderson sent me a message recommending that I look at who I’m following on Twitter that I realized what my problem was: it was me.

I had created a Twitter feed that was woefully narrow. It was my fault. My feed was full of big names pushing books, teachers trying to build up a brand, and, frankly, it was really, really white.

It’s not hard to see how this happened. Like many teachers, when I joined Twitter, I saw those educators who had a huge following and felt compelled to add myself to their ranks. After all, lots of followers = the best ideas, right?

Wrong. eduTwitter is just another example of how privilege seeps its way into everything. Those with the biggest amount of privilege have the easiest time getting their ideas and voices amplified.  Smaller voices (often minorities) get buried, and when they do get recognition, it’s often just a carefully curated sidenote to a larger self-promoting message in order to appear “woke” or “inclusive.” It’s easy to tweet about social justice at your convenience when you’re operating under a massive amount of privilege.

Most teachers would say that they care about social justice and creating inclusive classrooms, and I’m no different. But one look at who I follow on Twitter would show you that I am guilty of the same mistake a lot of white educators (on and off Twitter) are making: surrounding myself with people just like me. How boring...and worse, how myopic and prohibitively exclusionary. In fact, this thread confirmed exactly what I was beginning to realize on my own: who I followed sent a pretty strong message about the importance I placed on diversity and social justice. Talk about a wake-up call.

I could have come to this realization, felt bad for awhile, and then carried on with my Twitter grumblings without making a change. After all, it’s easy to ignore things that deal with implicit bias when you’re privileged. I knew I had to do something. It’s one thing to complain about the state of things, but it’s another entirely to actually do something about it. Succinctly put, I needed to do the work.

Peter (God love him) helped me out by offering to make me a list of accounts that would broaden my Twitter horizons. He was kind enough to send me 30-odd names of people who challenge the status quo in education, tweet about social justice in education, and those whose worldview is different from my own.  Already, I’m reaping the benefits and am finding myself clicking the follow button on new accounts as I delve deeper into threads about privilege and the huge amount of work that needs to be done on the part of white teachers as allies for our students and our fellow colleagues of color. And far too often, white educators think we are doing enough. We aren’t.

Changing who I follow may seem like a frivolous step, but I view it as indicative of a larger shift I’m in the process of making. It’s not enough to only do this, but it’s a start. As I’ve had to remind myself over and over again, teaching is a journey that’s fraught with self reflection and having to take a hard look at yourself sometimes (and, in this case, looking closely at things as seemingly innocuous as your Twitter feed). This is one of those times. As Marian Dingle said in her recent blog post, I must do better. Here’s to doing better.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Turtle Hunting Weather #sol17

My memories do not smack me upside the head, dragging me down into a forced sort of reverie that cartoons and movies portray with their watery flashbacks and fuzzy recollection scenes. Instead, my memories trickle like a slowly leaking faucet, filling in bit by bit until my mind is awash with what used to be.

My slow spiral into a memory happened on Sunday.

Bits of sunlight streamed through the low-hanging trees, creating a kaleidoscope of light playing across the path ahead of me. As I walked along the wooded path with my husband, I felt a sense of familiarity overwhelm me. It was in the soft breeze. It was in the saturated greens of the surrounding foliage. It was threaded throughout the loud silence of the surrounding forest, teeming with bird calls.

And just like that, the last drop fell, and I remembered. There was no mistaking it. This was turtle hunting weather.

I remembered a coupon book, presented to me by my dad for my birthdays when I was younger. There was always one that simply read "Turtle Hunting With Dad," redeemable whenever the time was right for a traipse through the woods to search for the box turtles that were on the move during the Missouri springtime.

On hunting days, we'd step over the electric fence that kept our three cows from wandering down the road, my dad easily clearing the wire with his long legs. I was more cautious, having experienced the wrath of accidental contact (it felt exactly like a cow kicking you in the stomach, in case you were wondering).  As we headed towards the tree line, we'd avoid the cow patties that were scattered about like obvious landmines.

Once we were in the forest, I'd kick the decaying leaves as I scanned the ground in front of me, hoping to see a tiny head poking up or hear the scrabble of a turtle's clawed feet against the disintegrating foliage. My dad would do the same, checking near fallen logs and next to trees.

Lucy, our black Labrador, followed along, nose to the ground, intent on sniffing out the stealthy shelled creatures. At times, she would disappear, and my dad would remark, "Looks like she's on to something." She'd show back up a few minutes later, a closed turtle shell held delicately in her mouth. We had to coerce her to give up her prize, but in the end, the lure of finding more turtles was greater than holding on to the one she presently had.

Each time we found a turtle, I held it in my hands. Depending on the turtle, I either stared at a firmly shut shell, or into the tentative but curious eyes of its occupant. Sometimes, a particularly brave turtle would stick his head out and begin to pedal his legs, asking to be released. After all, he was on a mission (turtles travel to mate), and I was a particularly annoying roadblock. We never kept the turtles. Who were we to stand in the way of true love?

Before we released each turtle we found, we marked them. My dad always brought a permanent marker with him, and I would write my initials (KNM) and the date across the shell before setting the turtle down gently and continuing the search.

"If we find the same turtle next year, we'll know," my dad always said.

We never found the same turtles. That's not what mattered.

My memories may begin slowly, but they always end abruptly, truncated by reality. Without preamble, I was back in the present, walking down a forested trail with my husband. No turtles in sight. The days of turtle hunting coupons were long gone. I sighed.

"It would make me so happy if I saw a turtle today." Scott squeezed my hand, wordlessly understanding.

We turned the corner. Up ahead, something was on the trail. Due to the distance, it looked like a brown blob--could be a pile of leaves, a clump of mud-- but I couldn't help it. My heart fluttered. I dropped my husband's hand and ran forward.

Two amber eyes peered from behind a swiftly shuttered shell. A smile spread across my face. I shouldn't have doubted. It was, after all, turtle hunting weather.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

I Think I Want a Kid #sol17

Sunday morning, I found myself face to face with approximately 50 hungry kids, armed with only two tiny bottles barely filled with milk.

This isn't going to be enough, I thought to myself, looking at the melee of hungry toddlers that swarmed around the area, searching for a bottle to latch on to. The kids were needy. Pushy. Whiny. But boy, were they cute. Even when they bumped against my shins with their heads in a not-so-subtle request for some milky goodness. All uncouth behavior aside, the sight of these kids stirred something inside me that I had never felt before: a longing to have one of my own.

I imagined myself, sitting in a sun-dappled room, holding my kid in my arms. I'd rock back and forth gently and hum a maternal tune as he slurped eagerly from a bottle, looking at me adoringly with big brown eyes. Sure, there'd be the whining and the use of brute force to get my attention, but underneath every head butt would be a subtle showing of love. In my mind, I could already hear my kid's first words: "maaa maaa."

Something warm brushed up against my legs, breaking me out of my reverie. I looked down. Two sets of hunger-addled eyes stared up at me. I have a job to do, I reminded myself, brandishing my bottles like a woman ready to head into some sort of milk-centric battle.

I stooped down. Instantly, I was surrounded. One kid clambered into my lap, while another circled around me, searching for an opening. I expertly inserted a bottle into each waiting mouth, tilting them upright for maximum milk flow. Must be my maternal instinct, I thought to myself. My smooth moves were rewarded by smacking lips, rounded bellies and slow blinks of pleasure. I'm a natural, I thought proudly.

As the bottles quickly emptied, I looked up at my husband.

"I think I want a kid."

He rolled his eyes at me, taking in the scene in front of him with a bemused smile on his face.

"Katie, we are not getting a baby goat."